Sunday, May 24, 2020

"He never got to be shit"

I don't suppose many people would have had Ian Curtis down as a prankster fond of "really puerile, childish" practical jokes like "putting jam on the car door handles". But, talking to Mark Beaumont for an Independent feature marking the 40th anniversary of Curtis' death, Stephen Morris is determined to dispel some myths and paint a truer portrait of the singer: "The one thing that really upsets me about the general perception of Joy Division and Ian in particular is that he always comes across as a morose, depressed individual, a tortured artist, where he was anything but. We joined a band to have fun and that was what we were doing. He was always having a laugh, he told terrible jokes."

Their former bandmate, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, talks of the real Ian Curtis in equally surprising terms - as a "wonderful kitten of a man" who was "very, very likeable". Morris and Hook agree that their frontman was a passionate and driven individual, though, and that he became a completely different person when he stepped onto a stage. Morris refers to him as "this force of nature", while Jon Savage - author of recent Joy Division oral history This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else - describes the dramatic transformation from a punter's perspective: "He puts himself into this state and it's completely riveting to watch because you don't know where it's going to go, it's quite dangerous and it was in fact dangerous to him. Every gig was different and Ian was, in a way, burning himself up."

Such was the intensity of their music that Curtis' bandmates often had no idea what he was singing about. On the odd occasion when the words were decipherable through the din, though, they recognised Curtis was a special lyricist - even if they didn't realise he was giving vent to his own feelings rather than voicing those of characters he'd created. This was, Morris and Hook agree, symptomatic of their tight-lipped northern masculinity, and the cause of some sadness and regret, for Morris at least: "Towards the end, afterwards, and particularly nowadays, I sometimes wonder if I ever knew him at all, because he went through writing all those lyrics and I honestly thought they were about somebody else, and afterwards, sitting down and listening to Closer, you think, 'Fucking hell, how did I miss this?'"

While Hook seems to have been selfishly aggrieved by Curtis' suicide ("Playing [Joy Division's] music is fantastic because it gave me back something that I had so cruelly taken off me, which was Closer"), Morris sees it as a strange kind of blessing: "For me the great thing about Ian is that he never got to be shit."

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