On May 18, the music world commemorated of the death of Ian Curtis, the emotional songwriter and lyricist for Joy Division. This year marked the the 30th anniversary of his suicide, the culminating, final event that had its roots in Ian’s collapsed relationship with his wife, Deborah, his affair with journalist Annik Honoré, the eve of the band’s first tour to America and the pending release of the band’s second album, Closer. There’s been plenty written, filmed and recorded about Ian’s personal and creative life in Joy Division that I couldn’t even hold a candle to; but, all the same, the passing of this musical genius is something I still feel. I don’t think that there’s been another band to have touched me as deeply or as consistently as Joy Division has. Without them, most of my musical library disappears.
My first introduction to Joy Division as a band was in 1988, when Substance was released and I heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” for the first time. I had just graduated from junior high (minor league) and was looking forward to entering high school (major league). As such, I hijacked my older brothers music collection as often as I could. Although I was already a huge fan of New Order, I was not aware that Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris had a previous life together in Joy Division. I was all of 12 years old, and dealing with songs about death, depression, alienation and urban blight weren’t really high on the list of topics I wanted to hear in my favorite songs. I was a piano and keyboard player. I was far more interested in a synth-inspired beat that I could figure out how to play on 88 keys in my living room. But something about “Love Will Tear Us Apart” hooked me deeply, even though I wouldn’t completely understand the song for years to come.
The impression this band has left on the world is sometimes hard to comprehend. The big names associated with Joy Division is staggering: Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville and Anton Corbijn. Extrapolate the influence this band has had on pop culture and you’re now connected to every band that came out of Manchester post-1979 (most notably, The Smiths, The Verve, The Stone Roses, James, Oasis, Elbow and The Doves), U2, The Cure, Interpol and The Editors (just to name a few). And then there’s the now mythical Factory Records, The Haçienda and the newly opened FAC 251. The voice behind all of this might be silent, but the echoes of it reverberate and continue to grow.
I’ve been listening to Unknown Pleasures, Closer, Substance, Still and every live track I have quite a bit this week, and I’m still incredibly moved by the music and lyrics now over 30 years old. Even though I know the songs by heart, have a greater understanding of the events that inspired the music, and can listen with an adult ear, I still have moments when the music still manages to surprise me. A lyric really cuts to the core of me, or I hear a specific pattern on Morris’s drumming, or there’s a hook in Hooky’s (no pun intended there) bass that opens up the rhythm to the song. It doesn’t matter so much to me that Ian isn’t with us anymore, or if he had stayed around, what he would have accomplished; what matters more to me is the legacy of what he’s left behind and how that music continues to emotionally connect with me. I’d much rather have that than music that faded into the distance. I think Ian would agree with me.
I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling
Rest in Peace, Ian.
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