Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ian Curtis

Having only two studio albums under your belt is hardly enough to justify a band as being one of the greatest ever, but not every band is as powerful as Manchester, England's Joy Division. May 18 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of it's lead singer, Ian Curtis, who hung himself on the eve of the band's first ever tour of the United States. Where musical success would seem like a dream for most, to Curtis it quickly descended into a nightmare.

Married at 19 and working as a civil servant to help the disabled secure employment, Curtis would form Joy Division at the age of 21 with fellow members: Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris. A year later, in January of 1979, as Curtis graced the cover of New Musical Express magazine, he was simultaneously diagnosed with epilepsy. Five months later would see the release of their debut album - Unknown Pleasures - which was declared an "opaque manifesto" and "one of the best debut LPs of the year" by Melody Maker.

As the buzz on Joy Division reached a fever, so did Curtis' grand mal epileptic seizures while performing on stage. The medication given to treat his epilepsy created wild mood swings. The timing couldn't have been crueler. It is even rumored that some people went to Joy Division concerts to see the "freak show" which seems, to me, to be the subject of his song "Atrocity Exhibition":

Asylums with doors open wide
Where people had paid to see inside
For entertainment they watch his body twist
Behind his eyes he says, I still exist

This is the way, step inside
This is the way, step inside
This is the way, step inside
This is the way, step inside

In arenas he kills for a prize
Wins a minute to add to his life
But the sickness is drowned by cries for more
Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall

The seizures during performances would leave him in tears. At one particular show, Joy Division used a stand-in for Curtis as his deteriorating health made it impossible for him to perform. It ended in a riot. Along with a crumbling marriage, the fear of his health overshadowing his music must have been more than he could handle. It's hard to imagine that someone who wrote as though he had lived a hundred lifetimes was actually only 23-years-old when he committed suicide.

Two months after his death saw the release of Joy Division's final album - Closer - which New Musical Express hailed as 1980's album of the year. Besides the brilliant music that Ian Curtis left behind lies the fact that all of this madness and creativity existed in such an incredibly short time span and yet its impact is, undoubtedly, eternal.

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