But Cobain existed at a time when the steps of a star were followed by the millimeter – we knew the sneakers he wore, the brand of jeans, the type of knitted jacket he liked, the books he read, the bands he admired, his drug of choice – even your diaries we read.
With Curtis, the mystery remains: exactly who the man was and why the hell he killed himself at 23, almost 24 years old, on the eve of a US tour that could have turned the Joy Division into stars – we still don't know any of this, even after Deborah Curtis, his wife, wrote Touching From a Distance, even after “Control”, the great film by Anton Corbijn, who had been a close friend of the vocalist and poet.
(the trailer for “Control”, Anton Corbijn's movie 🙂
To understand Ian Curtis we have to go back to that time, remember that Curtis was born in 1956, at the time when rock'n'roll was born, that as a teenager there was only one television program that aired alternative music (as they said then), called “So It Goes” – was broadcast on the Granada television network and was presented by Tony Wilson, who would later create Factory Records, which edited Joy Division records. A detail recovered from “24 Hour Party People” (Michael Winterbottom's film about the Manchester music scene, from Joy Division to Happy Mondays and New Order) speaks volumes about the environment: the contract between Joy Division and Factory it was written and signed in blood and had no legal validity.
There was no internet and there was more to facts than myths. Ian fed on alternative pop myths, perhaps more than his colleagues – he was a little more sensitive, a little more romantic (in the suicidal sense of the term), more possessed by a strange guilt, this despite years later Bernard Sumner, the number two of Joy Division and later number one of New Order (the band that was born out of the ashes of Ian Curtis's suicide), claiming that Curtis had an immense sense of humor, despite the blackness of his lyrics.
It wasn't just the lyrics – in the beginning, before any record, Joy Division was just another punk band; this is notorious in “Warsaw”, a Substance track, which is a collection of themes that did not enter Unknown Pleasures (from 1979) and Closer (1980), the two official records of the band.
There was a certain fascination with the Nazi imagination – Joy Divisions was the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jewish women in the concentration camps that were maintained in order to serve as sexual servants of Hitler's supporters; before they were called Joy Division, the Joy Division had been called Warsaw.
And there was a clear fascination with death, the morbid, anger and other extreme emotions or its opposite, the emotional void. There was, it should be noted, not a drop of humor in the lyrics – there is even a sense of suffocation (“I feel it clossing in / day in day out”, sang Curtis in “Digital”), of existential and physical malaise , despair and alienation, which only got worse with time and records.
With time and records, Ian Curtis' voice changes, ceasing to sound like a boy and acquiring an increasingly solemn, almost prophetic tone. Joy Division could have a lot of sense of humor in their private lives – and the hedonism of New Order songs (and the band itself) even suggests that it is – but it's hard to imagine Ian Curtis not taking himself completely seriously with each second of your life.
Ian Curtis was born in 1956, in a suburb of Manchester, in the middle of a middle class family – but being born in the middle class does not mean you are average, and since childhood Curtis has shown a rare capacity for academic life, getting several scholarships . He had an inconsolable appetite for literature and eventually defined a universe of readings: Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Burroughs; he also felt the appeal of poetry, particularly of the damned: Rimbaud and Baudelaire.
The human contradictions are endless: the middle-class boy who was a master in class and read hellishly also volunteered to volunteer with the elderly – but this was just an excuse to wait for them to fall asleep and steal their legal drugs. One of these diatribes earned him the first visit to the hospital for a stomach wash.
A straightforward, well-behaved boy with a good student was struggling with a boy who liked drugs, had weird readings and fell in love with the Sex Pistols, Velvet Undergorund and Iggy Pop Stooges. Who ever?