Touch from a Distance: The Bleak Exhilaration of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

Touch from a Distance: The Bleak Exhilaration of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

Anton Corbijn’s recent bio-documentary, Control, tells the story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the revered Manchester post-punk band Joy Division.  The band made only two albums before Curtis killed himself in 1980, two days before the band was scheduled to leave for its first concert tour in the United States.  Prior to Curtis’ death, Joy Division was virtually unknown in the United States, even though their following in the U.K. had been growing steadily.

By the time most people in the United States had started taking note of Joy Division, Ian Curtis was gone.  However, both his life-story and the band’s music, characterized by darkly glittering songs that resonated with resplendent tones rather than decandantly world-weary sounds, were powerful enough to earn Joy Division a passionate audience.   The fact that the band’s surviving members regrouped as a very different band, New Order, has made the story even more magnetic.

Ian Curtis grew up in Manchester, England, which in the 1970s was a modest town with streets filled with working-class flats and houses.  As a teenager, it’s said that he got involved in many of the things that other kids of his social class and generation were doing.  He and his friends took whatever drugs they could get their hands on; he met, fell in love with and later married one of the local girls, a quiet but slyly intelligent young woman named Deborah.  And after being inspired by attending a Sex Pistols show, he started a band with some of his friends.

Not long after the band started up in 1976, Ian was diagnosed with epilepsy, and the cocktail of drugs used to treat the disorder was only marginally effective.  His new on-stage life as a most unlikely sort of jittery and charismatic rock star, soon began to conflict with his life at home as a husband in a rather dreary working class setting. In 1979, he met a worldly but sweet young journalist named Annik, and the two soon became involved in a romantic affair that shook everything that he’d come to accept as safe and secure about his life.

A year later, Ian’s health was deteriorating and his marriage had collapsed after his wife, Deborah, discovered his infidelity with Annik.  Alone in his Manchester home, during the early hours of Sunday, May 18, 1980, after having watched Werner Herzog’s film Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen.

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