“Reality is only a term, based on values and well worn principles, whereas the dream goes on forever.” – Ian Curtis (1958-1980).
When Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures in 1979 Ian Curtis was only 22. The record defined post-punk. Curtis was shooting to stardom. A year later he was dead. His art remains iconic and has proved so influential that it will now live on in the welter of musical influence forevermore. Joy Division tipped over the first domino in a run that is still tumbling as fervently as ever.
A status like that has resulted in undoubted mystique and a rather regrettable side-effect of fetishizing the tragic end of the band. With that, there has been much myth and discussion. As John Peel once opined: “Obviously, the death of Ian Curtis sort of mythologised [Joy Division] to a degree to which I think the surviving members of the band must have found very difficult to cope with,” Peel reflected.
“A very melancholy thing to have to live with. I still get demo tapes from America and from Europe by bands which are quite clearly influenced by nothing as much as they’re influenced by Joy Division. You get a bit fed up with it, really,” he explained. Part of the reason you could become fed up is that the jittery darkness in Curtis’ work was actually a sincere documentation of his struggles with epilepsy and a lifestyle that exacerbated its pains and alleviated the woes in equal measure.
In truth, the mystique that surrounds Joy Division amid the (post) punk scene is a retrospective falsehood. They were one of the most working-class acts in music, full of the joie de vivre of creativity and an exuberance that shines through their songs even at its shrouded darkest.
After all, you can’t conjure such ethereal hymns as ‘Atmosphere’ from a place of apathy or downcast misery. Even if the exultation is unmistakably cloaked and cast in late-Seventies urban decay, it is that sort of duality that makes these sessions, and indeed all of their output soar. There was a great deal of complexity to Curtis’ unfortunate position and that shouldn’t be merely redacted to a romanticised view.
With this in mind, we’re looking at the truth to the tragic end of Ian Curtis and charting his final days according to the accounts of those who were around him at the time in the timeline below.
The final days of Ian Curtis:
A reconciling phone call
After a period of living estranged from his wife Deborah and infant daughter Natalie following his supposed affair with Annik Honore and worsening medical condition, Curtis contacts his wife and asks her to drop her impending divorce proceedings. However, his mood swings are frequent, and she is doubtful that he really means it.
A sudden change of heart
Later that day Deborah visits Ian at their former marital home at 77 Barton Street in Macclesfield as per her suggestion to him on the phone that she would spend the night with him. However, when she arrives his demeanour has changed, and he now says he wants to spend the night alone.
A foreboding film
That evening Curtis reportedly watched the Werner Herzog film Stroszek. The movie documents the tale of an aspiring German musician hoping for a better life in Wisconsin.
The musician eventually moves to America, only to end up committing suicide after he is betrayed by his girlfriend. With Curtis fearing his own impending tour to America, there is a dark symmetry to this tale.
A looming tour
Ian Curtis and his Joy Division bandmates go shopping for new stage clothes ahead of their American tour which they are set to embark upon on May 20th. Little has been made of the fact that a few months earlier Curtis attempted to commit suicide by pills.
As Bernard Sumner recalls walking through a graveyard and telling his friend that he doesn’t want to end up just a headstone, and Curtis replying, “’Right, yeah, right’. No connection in his response.”
An intoxicating lifestyle
Thereafter Curtis begins drinking coffee and spirits. High levels of caffeine and whisky would be found in his body when ab autopsy was later conducted.
Both substances were not great for his condition and medication. It is a tragic contrast that the manic life of rock ‘n’ roll that ran contrary to the medical advice that he had received.
The last record
Curtis proceeds to listen to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. On that record is the song ‘Tiny Girl’, a track that starts with the line, ‘Well the day begins, you don’t want to live, cause you can’t believe in the one you’re with.’”
The album is also inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book of the same name about an epileptic Prince whose goodhearted nature leads to mockery in a cruel and unforgiving world which eventually drives him mad.
The tragic end
Curtis removes his wedding photos and pictures of his daughter from the walls and lays them out before him as he constructs a note.
The note apparently speaks of his love for Deborah despite his recent behaviours. She later finds this note and Curtis hanging from the kitchen washing line.
The story of Ian Curtis is a tragic tale that illuminates the need for greater transparency when it comes to our approach to mental health. Much like Herzog the darkness of Joy Division’s work speaks of the battle to see the lightness in things. Although Curtis’ life met with a saddening fate, his art has helped plenty of others to overcome darker times and in songs like ‘Atmosphere’, he managed to transfigure his pain into something hymnally beautiful.
As his bandmates have subsequently stated, we must be more mindful of others, be considerate of the pressures they are facing and alleviate them where possible. This is as prescient as ever, and fortunately, charities like CALM are there to help those in need.
You can find out more about their work by clicking here.