on 1 June 2010
With the thirtieth anniversary of Ian Curtis's suicide (he killed himself on May 18th 1980) just gone, enough time had passed for me to want to read an account of the exceptionally talented Joy Division frontsman's life. Like many who were involved in the music business in 1980, I had not played Unknown Pleasures since Curtis's death as it was just too harrowing. Not that I ever knew or even met Curtis. I saw them live in London's Lyceum in February 1980, and was a big fan of their music, but for me, Curtis remained a shadowy figure - an enigmatic performer whose crazed trapped moth dance mesmerised; a haunting poet whose lyrics and songs could raise goosebumps; and a man with many personal problems including severe epilepsy and a complicated home life.
Still, even not having met him, listening to the music of Joy Division after his death was upsetting. With the wisdom that hindsight brings, his lyrics were traumatically prescient, telling of a despair that would see him take the only way out when he was still in his early twenties. Plus anyone who wrote for the music press in that era knew of at least one rock 'n' roll suicide of a close friend or relative, and Joy Division's powerful music and searingly tortured vocals just brought back too many memories.
Before I start the review of this book, which was first published in 2006 and reprinted in 2009, I should add that I don't know either author, and have only met the Omnibus publisher, Chris Charlesworth once, for five minutes or so, when delivering an Ian McEwan t shirt he'd won on this blog to his office. I pointed at this book on his shelf and asked him about it; he generously told me I could have it (not knowing that I'd go on to review it), and that was it. I was hooked.
As for the authors, although Mick Middles wrote for the music press around the same time as I did, I've never met him. Likewise Lindsay Reade - she was married to Tony Wilson during the Joy Division era, but she was Manchester based and I was in London, so I'd never heard of her before reading this book. When I finished the book last night, I was so moved that I made my first contact with either of them by sending both a facebook friend request, but in an era where you can be 'friends' with George Clooney, this doesn't mean I know them.
Anyhow. Unlike the book about Curtis by his wife, Deborah, or his daughter Natalie, this book has the advantage of being written by people uninvolved in his personal life, and therefore has an objectivity and impartiality that their books didn't have. This is not in any way intended to cast aspersions on the books of his wife and daughter - as life and literature have shown (see Coetzee's Summertime for an example), there are sometimes several versions of the truth, and one person's honest, heart-felt subjective experience may be as valid as another's memory of events. But sometimes, in order to pick up all facets of a story, it's good to step back from those whose grief and personal involvement colour their versions of events.
Torn Apart starts with a very detailed account of Ian Curtis's family background and childhood. The book is stuffed with quotes from those who knew him most intimately - family and close friends. This brings an authenticity to the story - we are hearing not only the authors' interpretation of Curtis's life but that of many people closest to him. The many statements from his mother, Doreen Curtis (his father Kevin sadly died before this book was written), and his younger sister Carole, and from his early schoolfriends help to paint a rounded picture of the person Ian as well as the poet and musician. And of course there are many accounts from the other Joy Division band members, from crew and from Tony Wilson and others involved in Factory records including members of other Factory bands such as Section 25 , A Certain Ratio and Crispy Ambulance, as well as from members of other bands such as the Buzzcocks, who Joy Division supported on the A Different Kind of Tension tour. (And there was a different kind of tension on that tour, largely because Joy Division were procuring the rave reviews. Being a lover of both bands, I can't comment, but it would be difficult to find two more polar opposites than the plaintive popsters and the intense shadowplayers.)
Among these voices, that of Vini Reilly of Durutti Column and Annik Honore', the Belgian woman Curtis was in love with, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, especially the letters Ian wrote to Annik.
Many of the voices help depict Ian as he was in daily life - a man who was sensitive to others, who would always extend a hand to the outsider or try and help those with problems. Several people recall situations where they hovered on the edge of proceedings, too shy or uncertain to join in. It was almost always Ian who would make a gesture of warmth and inclusivity, whether by handing them a can of beer or drawing them into conversation. It takes an outsider to know the discomfort of not belonging.
Before Joy Division really took off, Curtis worked as a disablement officer. His job involved helping those with severe disabilities. With a cruel irony, part of his work involved visiting individuals with such severe epilepsy that they had to wear protective hard hats. This was before his own epilepsy started. One can only shudder at his despair when he realised he too had this debilitating illness. And of course, his work involved seeing only those most severely disabled with the condition, so his desolation and anxiety would have been profound. 'She's Lost Control' is about a girl suffering a grand mal (generalised) seizure. An indicator of how kind and empathic Curtis was is found in one letter to Annik where he tells her he bumped into a lad he'd known from his disablement officer days and had taken him out for a drink. In fact, towards the end of Joy Division, Curtis even expressed a desire to return to that kind of work. He was not a man who relished fame or celebrity, and was most comfortable helping others.
Vini Reilly's perception of Curtis matches the acuity of Reilly's beautiful, sensitive music with Durutti Column. He talks with intelligence and insight about his friendship with Ian Curtis. Something of a fragile outsider himself (his music straddles the boundary between catchy pop and gorgeous classical), he saw the other side of Ian, the lost boy flailing and trying to find a way out of his problems. Shortly before Curtis killed himself, he (Curtis) took an overdose. Afterwards, Tony Wilson and Lindsay Reade persuaded Curtis to go and recuperate at their house, so he could be extricated from the emotional intensity of contact with his wife and daughter, Deborah and Natalie, on one side and Annik on the other. Reilly phoned him at Wilson's house and talked to him for two hours about non-emotive topics such as what Joy Division were doing next. Towards the end of this conversation, Curtis himself brought up the subject of his suicide attempt, telling Reilly that it had not been a 'cry for help' as others had assumed, but that he had meant it; he wanted 'out.' One can almost sense the chill wind that would have blown across Reilly's heart. Reilly says that when Curtis did actually kill himself a while later, he was not surprised; in a way he had been waiting for the phone call. To this day, Reilly sings a song he wrote about Curtis whenever he performs live.
But there were other sides to Curtis too. The book is full of accounts by his fellow Joy Division band members about the laddy japes they got up to on tour. These include an occasion where they paid someone to drink a pint of piss, and of games where forfeits included pooing out of the window or onto another band member's hand or spitting into the loser's face. Curtis was not in any way wrapped up in his own inner despair, he enjoyed a practical joke as much as anyone else. Episodes where the tour vans of others were smeared with shaving foam and the door handles coated in sticky goo, members of other bands pelted with eggs, or fruit juice thrown onto the windscreen of Joy Division band and crew vehicles stand out. Ian Curtis was largely a contented man before he became engulfed in personal problems - problems that would have caused anyone to sink into despair.
But beyond the down-to-earth exterior, friendliness and good sense of humour, Curtis was also extremely intelligent and sensitive. It wounded him to cause pain to anyone else, which is why he was so cut up when unremitting epileptic seizures prevented him performing at one gig and chaos ensued, with band members and crew being involved in a fracas that saw injuries on both sides. It agonised him to let anyone down, fans or band, wife and daughter or lover. He felt everything deeply, most of all the pain of others. He almost had too much empathy - he even felt sad for Adrian Thrills, an NME journalist who was denied an interview at one of the later Joy Division gigs. He loved animals and was devoted to his dog Candy (named after the Velvets' track Candy Says), and was extremely depressed when Candy was given away by his wife to a household too far away for him to visit. (Whether this was the revenge of a wife spurned or a genuine attempt at a practical solution is arguable.)
Curtis was in a desperate personal situation. He married Deborah when they were both just teenagers. There is no doubt that he continued to feel affection for her, but he was tortured by conflict, because in 1979, he met and fell in love with Belgian Annik Honore', who interviewed Joy Division and travelled to their gigs. Annik comes across with real integrity. She has never sold out or cashed in on her relationship with Curtis. She was, and still is, an intelligent and cultured woman, and the connection she felt with Curtis was mutual and deep. Attempts to paint her as a groupie are scandalously wide of the mark: she and Curtis never even consummated their relationship; what they had was love in the purest sense. Yet Deborah also obviously loved Ian deeply, and she was not willing to let go, especially since they had a baby daughter.
Curtis was so conflicted as to be in mental torture. It was not all Deborah chasing him, although she did show a dogged tenacity, turning up at a psychiatric hospital when Curtis was driven there after their separation, and furiously phoning Annik to tell her what she thought of her. Curtis too seemed to find it hard to make a break - he returned to their shared home when he left Wilson's house where he was recuperating after an overdose shortly before he killed himself; and when he killed himself on the eve of Joy Division's American tour, he allegedly left a note for Deborah saying that when he returned, he wanted to live as a family again, with her and Natalie. In 1980, honourable working class men just didn't up and leave their families. Plus who knows whether he was terrified that if he divorced Deborah, he would never see Natalie again. Many women use their children as weapons, and the devastation wrought by this can eat a person up. Yet even the lyrics of Love Will Tear Us Apart suggest he still felt affection for Deborah - ' But there's still this appeal/That we've kept through our lives.' Although there's also an acceptance that the relationship is over: ' Just that something so good/Just can't function no more.'
Nevertheless, his love and need for Annik was unarguable. He continued in his letters to tell her that he loved her and wanted to be with her. It's not difficult to see how he saw no way out of his dilemma.
Torn Apart is a tremendously moving account of the life of one of rock music's lost geniuses. I have almost no criticisms other than a few proof reading typos that need correcting (for example, on page 11 Ian is referred to as Carole's younger brother when he was older.) Perhaps I could have done without Reade's assertions that Ian was clairvoyant - being a scientist and a sceptic I have no patience with talk of psychic powers. Curtis was unusually intuitive, sensitive and empathic as well as being exceptionally intelligent and gifted, and as far as I'm concerned, these attributes explain his perception and ability to look to the future without need for recourse to suggestions of supernatural powers. In any case, Reade read Curtis's palm twice, stating the first time he would live to 80 years, and the second time that he would not commit suicide, discrediting proof (if it were needed) of psychic phenomena. Still, these are insignificant details and 99.999% of the time Reade is, like Middles, a highly intelligent and rational raconteur. And as a reader, I really felt for Reade when she reveals the guilt she still experiences at having an outburst at Wilson within Curtis's earshot when Curtis was staying at their home after his initial suicide attempt. She was railing against Wilson for leaving her alone with the depressed Curtis the whole time; the responsibility was too much for her to cope with alone. Reade blames herself for Curtis's sudden departure after this. It is this kind of emotional honesty and willingness to give an uncensored version of events that makes Torn Apart such a compelling read.
For the most part it's not possible to tell which of them has written which parts, since quotes from either of them are given formally, as 'Mick Middles recalls...' rather than the authorial voice popping up with 'I said...'. This is an excellent move and gives the book distance from the subjective views of its authors.
Torn Apart is a book that tells the story of this most gifted writer and musician in a way that involves the testimony of those who were closest to him, and is an invaluable read for anyone who loves the music of Joy Division.
on 30 September 2010
An excellent read, frankly, and as one close to the action for the earlier part of Ian's life, a faithful representation of an all too brief, but ultimately in retrospect stellar career. Ian and I went to primary school together - walking home was great fun, as we made up fantastical tales of spacemen, alien invaders, long-lost Amazon tribes and all manner of nonsense, illuminating immeasurably the stroll to our homes - Ian in Balmoral Crescent and then me at Delamere Drive, in Hurdsfield. It was with my family that Ian came on holiday to Anglesey - I have photos of us playing football on Benllech beach, and posing self-consciously outside a caravan - and I note that later in his short life he was to revisit that lovely part of Wales. Then it was off to senior school - King's in Macclesfield - where we stayed close until perhaps we were 14 or so, wherupon I had my soccer and rugby dominated life, and he developed his esoteric side so productively. I reckon he'd have given it all up to be able to play footie like Franny Lee (only jesting), but that was never to be. He was all elbows and knobbly knees in a footballing sense, I recall, but what a fine pal he was. I so wish he was around now, a grand and reverred figure, so I could have a catch-up with my old mate. Natter about the dreaded 'Impetigo' (not just a skin complaint in our primary school imagination - no, a race of invaders from outer space no less); and of course reflect how some of the biggest names around credit him fondly with influencing their careers. Ian's Mum Doreen evidently kindly recalled me, because I feature in the book a couple of times. If any of the family are reading this - sister Carole perhaps ('Cag,' as Ian called you)- then I cordially send very best wishes from an old friend, who misses his friend. Very much.
on 15 November 2013
Purchase: 20 Oct. 2013
Obsessions ebb and flow. I am a little bit obsessed with Joy Division and the rather enigmatic Ian Curtis this past month, so I've been getting my hands on anything I can. This book being one of those items, and Deborah Curtis' book being another. I wanted to read them back-to-back, make comparisons, get two perspectives. Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis is the combined effort of Mick Middles (first journalist to interview JD) and Lindsay Reade (first wife to Tony Wilson, thus meaning she was around while history was being written). They were able to interview an array of people and gather a reasonable sum of information. It's a good book, quite solid, well compiled and presented, featuring three sections of photo illustrations. Indeed there were a few grammatical errors scattered throughout, enough to keep you grammar nazis on the edge of your seats. I don't have any criticism to give, though I should note that it focused slightly more on the band than Ian, leaving him still very much in the dark, shrouded in mystery. But this does balance in the later chapters. In my opinion, both this and Touching From A Distance are necessary to create a clearer picture. You'll want to weigh both sides of the story, be fair, and make up your own mind. Torn Apart paints an image of a thoughtful, quiet, determined individual - 'one of the lads' - with the obvious problems that he had to face. Whereas Debbie's book shows him in a jarringly different light. This is to be expected. It's personal, it's real, plagued with emotions, buried and on the surface. Debbie was exposed to him on a level that no one else could be. Both perspectives are naturally biased, the truth is somewhere in between.