I know, I know get to the point already. And here it is… Today is the 29th anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis, enigmatic vocalist of the band Joy Division who amidst a flurry of hard earned hype, a crumbling marriage, mental fragility and just before he was poised to maybe possibly really be somebody who was something…hanged himself in the kitchen of the home he shared with his estranged wife.
grave marker was stolen) in the near three decades since his death that really has surpassed the person and performer he actually was, which is so often the case, or ever likely could have been. But I’m sure to thousands of fans around the world (and not too many years ago I’d have been one of them), today has been spent in reflection, listening to Unknown Pleasures, Closer, Substance, possibly Still and the various posthumous and more recently released live recordings, missing a man they only know through the bleak visions he conjured through his increasingly morose words.
I spent a good part of today listening to Frankie Laine, so obviously times have changed.
When I was a lad of 20 the story of Ian Curtis affected me very deeply because I felt akin to him in so many ways. His lyrics, the romantic tragedy of young death at his own hand, the yearning to be respected musically and as a poet, the need for fame and fortune and glory and everything that was promised in the rock n roll contract. I wonder had he lived if he’d have attainted the cult hero status he and Joy Division maintain today, or was his death at such a time in such a fashion really the only way he could achieve his much sought after infamy? Would Joy Division have reached the same heights as New Order? Or would they have become simply another footnote in the history of British independent music, another Stiff Little Fingers or Adverts or Saints, showing up on various punk and post punk compilations here and there, their records still in print on various knock off or European specialty labels, but never receiving the re-package, re-master, re-issue overhaul only designated to bands of mentionable merit? When I listen to New Order I sometimes try and place Ian’s voice over Bernard’s and with the exception of the Movement album and a handful of early singles, it would have never worked. As some cat in an interview for the New Order Story documentary said (and I’ll paraphrase as it’s been awhile); if you’d been a part of something that dark and something like his death had happened, you’d naturally want to turn to something lighter. So no, I don’t think Joy Division would have been the dance pioneers that New Order have become…but maybe they’d have been pioneers of industrial…whoops, they sorta already are.
Presumably just before he died he did two things… Listened to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watched Werner Herzog’s Stroszek.
In the height of my Joy Division mania I purchased The Idiot and listened to it a lot but never really got it…so I stopped listening to it. A few years later, post college, I pulled it out and tried the album again and I completely loved it. All the songs were familiar from so many repeat listens and yet were entirely fresh because I felt like I could finally appreciate the music under my own perceptions and not filtered through the eyes of some daft British singer over a decade before. The Idiot oozes sleaze and spook and danger. It’s the soundtrack to a night out on the town with the wrong crowd. If anything, it’s an anti-rock star album, which may be why Ian chose it as the requiem for his own death. It’s a complete about face from the wild and ramshackle howl of the Stooges and easily about ten times as intense simply because it seethes with an inner venom and a willful self-destruction. In the wrong frame of mind it’s easy to see how anyone would take a willing slip on a rope straight to hell.
Naturally this purchase led to picking up the Stooges catalog as well as Pop’s second solo album Lust for Life, the latter of which (so vastly different from The Idiot it’s almost like a different artist) has served me well on many a long road trip gliding along the lonely highways of any state USA.
But again, this is more than about music. In an interview, Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, in talking about Ian’s death, mentioned the Herzog film and quoted the final line, “There’s a dead man in the cable car and the chicken’s still dancing.” He said it in such a way as to make it seem relevant to Ian’s suicide. I dunno, I’ve still not seen Stroszek. But I’ve seen several other Herzog films and overall this opened me up more to the absolute goldmine that is independent and foreign film. In more recent years this search has guided me to my now all time favorite director, the Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman and an overall infatuation with Sweden that I know has more than one person wondering what my deal is. So it goes.
So while I may no longer receive the inspirational sweet-ache in the pit of my stomach I once did when listening to Joy Division or reading about Ian Curtis, etc, I can still appreciate the few things he opened up for me; namely the rush I still get when listening to Iggy’s The Passenger or Tonight at full volume, or the eerie chill down my spine from Baby or the menace I could become with Nightclubbing creeping through my head. Likewise, I’m haunted by the vivid, image-heavy dreams I sometimes enjoy after one of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which have in turn inspired me to dabble a bit in screenplay writing. So it now appears to me that rock n roll isn’t always about the music itself or the people who make it, but the inspirations that helped them along the way. Often those inspirations prove much more important, influential and enduring, you just have to peel back the layers. I’m sure some kid listening to Interpol will then stumble upon Joy Division (or the dozen other bands they lifted from) and from there find Iggy, the Velvet Underground, Krafterwerk, etc, etc. And if they’re as silly and obsessive as I was, maybe even Herzog and Japanese cinema and master Bergman as well. It’s the beauty of art, everything a sum of the parts.