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Curtis performing live with Joy Division at the Mayflower in Manchester in 1979
|Birth name||Ian Kevin Curtis|
|Born||15 July 1956|
Stretford, Lancashire, England
|Died||18 May 1980 (aged 23)|
Macclesfield, Cheshire, England
|Associated acts||Joy Division|
Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was an English singer-songwriter and musician. He was the lead singer and lyricist of the post-punk band Joy Division. Joy Division released their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979 and recorded their follow-up, Closer, in 1980.
Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, took his own life on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour and shortly before the release of their second album. His suicide resulted in the band's dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order. Curtis was known for his bass-baritone voice, dance style, and songwriting typically filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness, and alienation.
Curtis was born on 15 July 1956, at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire, and grew up in a working-class household in Macclesfield, Cheshire. He was the first of two children born to Kevin and Doreen Curtis. From an early age, Curtis was a bookish and intelligent child, displaying a particular flair for poetry. He was awarded a scholarship at the age of 11 at Macclesfield's independent King's School. Here, he developed his interests in philosophy, literature, and eminent poets such as Thom Gunn. While at King's School, he was awarded several scholastic awards in recognition of his abilities—particularly at the ages of 15 and 16. The year after Ian had graduated from King's School, the Curtis family purchased a house from a relative, and moved to New Moston.
As a teenager, Curtis chose to perform social service by visiting the elderly as part of a school programme. While visiting, he and his friends would steal any prescription drugs that they found and later take them together as a group. On one occasion when he was 16, after consuming a large dosage of Largactil he and his friends had stolen, Curtis was discovered unconscious in his bedroom by his father and was taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped. Curtis had held a keen interest in music since the age of 12, and this interest developed greatly in his teenage years, with artists such as Jim Morrison and David Bowie being particular favourites of his, and thus influencing his poetry and art. Curtis could seldom afford to purchase records, leading him to frequently steal them from local shops.[n 1] By his mid-teens, Curtis had also developed a reputation among his peers as a strong-willed individual, with a keen interest in fashion.
Despite gaining nine O-levels at King's School, and briefly studying A-Levels in History and Divinity at St. John's College, Curtis soon became disenchanted with academic life, and abandoned his studies to commit himself to finding employment. Despite abandoning his studies at St. John's College, Curtis continued to focus on the pursuit of art, literature and music, and would gradually draw lyrical and conceptual inspiration from ever more insidious subjects.
Curtis obtained a job at a record shop in Manchester City Centre, before obtaining more stable employment within the civil service. His employment as a civil servant saw Curtis initially deployed to Cheadle Hulme, where he worked for several months with the Ministry of Defence, before he was offered alternate employment within the Manpower Services Commission in a building at Piccadilly Gardens. He later worked as a civil servant in Woodford, Greater Manchester, although at his request, approximately one year later, Curtis was posted to Macclesfield's Employment Exchange, where he worked as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer.
On 23 August 1975, Curtis married Deborah Woodruff, to whom he was introduced by a friend, Tony Nuttall. Ian and Deborah initially became friends then began dating in December 1972, when both were 16 years old.[n 2] Their wedding service was conducted at St Thomas' Church in Henbury, Cheshire. Curtis was 19 and Woodruff 18. They had one child, a daughter named Natalie, born on 16 April 1979. Initially, the couple lived with Ian's grandparents, although shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to a working-class neighbourhood in Chadderton, where they paid a mortgage while working in jobs neither enjoyed. Before long, the couple became disillusioned with life in Oldham, and remortgaged their house before briefly returning to live with Ian's grandparents. Shortly thereafter, in May 1977, the couple moved into their own house in Barton Street, Macclesfield, with one of the rooms of the property becoming colloquially known between the couple as Curtis's "song-writing room".
At a July 1976 Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, Curtis encountered three childhood school friends named Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Terry Mason. The trio informed Curtis—whom they had seen at earlier punk gigs at The Electric Circus—of their intentions to form a band, and Curtis informed them of his then-recent efforts to do likewise, before proposing himself as both their singer and lyricist. Initially, Mason became the band's drummer, but his rehearsal sessions were largely unproductive, and he briefly became the band's manager. The group then unsuccessfully attempted to recruit several drummers before selecting Stephen Morris in August 1977. The band was later managed by Rob Gretton, who—having already seen Joy Division perform live at local venues such as Rafters—offered to become their manager in 1978.
Initially, the band named themselves "Warsaw", from the title of a song on David Bowie's then-recent album Low, but as this name somewhat conflicted with that of a London-based group named "Warsaw Pakt", they renamed themselves "Joy Division". This moniker was derived from the 1955 novel The House of Dolls, which featured a Nazi concentration camp with a sexual slavery wing called the "Joy Division". The cover of the band's first EP depicted a drawing of a Hitler Youth beating a drum and the A-side contained a song, "Warsaw", which was a musical retelling of the life of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.
After founding Factory Records with Alan Erasmus, Tony Wilson signed the band to his label following the band's first appearance on the TV music show he hosted, So It Goes, in September 1978. This appearance had been largely prompted by an abusive letter sent to Wilson by Curtis, and saw the band play the song "Shadowplay".[n 3]
While performing with Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, and a unique dancing style often reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he began experiencing in late 1978. Although predominantly a singer, Curtis also played guitar on a handful of tracks (usually when Sumner was playing synthesizer; "Incubation" and a Peel session version of "Transmission" were rare instances when both Sumner and Curtis played guitar). Initially, Curtis played Sumner's Shergold Masquerader, but in September 1979 he acquired his own guitar, a Vox Phantom VI Special (often described incorrectly as a Teardrop or ordinary Phantom model) which had many built-in effects used both live and in studio.
Curtis's widow has claimed that, in October 1979, Curtis began conducting an affair with the Belgian journalist and music promoter Annik Honoré, whom he had first met at a gig held in Brussels that month. Reportedly, despite the fact he had for many years exhibited a somewhat controlling attitude within their relationship (which had included minimising any opportunity for his wife to come into contact with other men), Curtis was consumed with guilt over this affair due to being married, and the father to their baby daughter, but at the same time still yearning to be with Honoré. On one occasion in 1980, Curtis asked Bernard Sumner to make a decision on his behalf as to whether he should remain with his wife or form a deeper relationship with Honoré; Sumner refused. Honoré claimed in a 2010 interview that although she and Curtis had spent extensive periods of time in each other's company, their relationship had been a platonic one.
Curtis' bandmates later recollected that Curtis began to become slightly "lofty" and distant from them after he had become acquainted with Honoré, who was demanding of his time and attention. These facts would occasionally invoke pranks directed at himself and Honoré from them. He is also known to have become a vegetarian—likely at Honoré's behest—although he was known to have eaten meat when not in her presence.
Curtis began suffering epileptic fits in late 1978; he was officially diagnosed with the condition on 23 January the following year,[n 4] with his particular case being described by doctors as so severe, his "life would [be] ruled to obsolescence by his severe epilepsy" without the various strong dosages of medications he was prescribed. Having joined the British Epilepsy Association, Curtis was initially open to discuss his condition with anyone who inquired, although he soon became withdrawn, and reluctant to discuss any issue regarding his condition beyond the most mundane and necessary aspects. On each occasion it became apparent a particular prescribed medication failed to control Curtis's seizures, his doctor would prescribe a different anticonvulsant, and his wife noted his being "full of renewed enthusiasm" that this particular formulation would help him bring his seizures under control.
Throughout 1979 and 1980, Curtis's condition gradually worsened amid the pressure of performances and touring, with his seizures becoming more frequent and more intense. Following his diagnosis, Curtis continued to drink, smoke, and maintain an irregular sleeping pattern—against the advice given to those suffering from the condition. The medications Curtis was prescribed for his condition produced numerous side effects, including extreme mood swings. This change in personality was also observed by Curtis's wife, family and in-laws, who noted how taciturn he had become in his wife's company. Following the birth of his daughter in April 1979, because of the severity of his medical condition, Ian was seldom able to hold his baby daughter in case he compromised the child's safety.
At the time of the recording of the band's second album, Curtis's condition was particularly severe, with him enduring a weekly average of two tonic-clonic seizures. On one occasion during these recordings, Curtis's bandmates became concerned when they noted he had been absent from the recording studio for two hours. The band's bassist, Peter Hook, discovered Curtis unconscious on the floor of the studio's toilets, having hurt his head on a sink following a seizure. Despite instances such as this, Hook stated that, largely through ignorance of the condition, he, Sumner and Morris did not know how to help. Nonetheless, Hook was adamant that Curtis never wanted to upset or concern his bandmates, and would "tell [us] what [we] wanted to hear" if they expressed any concern as to his condition. In one incident at a concert held before almost 3,000 people at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park in April 1980 when Joy Division appeared alongside the Stranglers, the lighting technicians at this venue—contrary to instructions given to them by Rob Gretton prior to the gig—switched on strobe lights midway through Joy Division's performance, causing Ian Curtis to almost immediately stagger backwards and collapse against Stephen Morris's drum kit in the throes of an evident seizure. He had to be carried offstage to the band's dressing room to recuperate.
When Curtis had recovered from this first seizure, he was adamant the band travel to West Hampstead to honour their commitment to perform their second gig of the evening at this location, although some 25 minutes into this second gig, Curtis's "dancing started to lose its rhythmic sense and change into something else entirely" before he collapsed to the floor and experienced the most violent seizure he had endured to date.
Curtis's onstage dancing was often reminiscent of the seizures he experienced, and has been termed by some to be his "epilepsy dance". Throughout Joy Division's live performances in 1979 and 1980, Curtis collapsed several times while performing and had to be carried off stage. To minimise any possibility of Curtis having epileptic seizures, flashing lights were prohibited at Joy Division gigs; despite these measures, Bernard Sumner later stated that certain percussion effects would cause Curtis to suffer a seizure. In April 1980, Terry Mason was appointed as a minder to ensure Curtis took his prescribed medications, avoided alcohol consumption, and got sufficient sleep.
Regarding the choreography of Curtis's stage performances, Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs quotes Jon Savage from Melody Maker: "Ian's mesmeric style mirrored the ever more frequent epileptic spasms that Deborah Curtis had to cope with at home." Marcus remarked that Curtis's performance "might also have been a matter of intentionally replicating fits, re-enacting them, using them as a form of energy and a form of music."
Curtis's final live performance with Joy Division was on 2 May 1980. This performance was at the High Hall of Birmingham University, and included Joy Division's first and only performance of "Ceremony", later recorded by New Order and released as their debut single. The final song Curtis performed on stage with Joy Division prior to his death was "Digital".[n 5]
Following Curtis's first definite suicide attempt on 6 April 1980, Tony Wilson and his partner, Lindsay—expressing deep concerns as to Joy Division's intense touring schedule being detrimental to Curtis's physical and mental well-being—invited him to recuperate at their cottage in Charlesworth. At this address, he is known to have written several letters to Honoré, proclaiming his love for her as he recuperated from this initial suicide attempt.[n 6]
By early 1980, Curtis's marriage to Deborah was floundering, as she had commenced divorce proceedings due to his having failed to cease all contact with Honoré.[n 7] Curtis had enjoyed solitude, but had never been mentally equipped for living alone. He was having difficulty balancing his family obligations with his musical ambitions, and his health was gradually worsening as a result of his epilepsy, thus increasing his dependency upon others. On the evening before his death, Curtis informed Bernard Sumner of his insistence upon seeing his wife that evening. He had also made firm plans to rendezvous with his bandmates at Manchester Airport the following day, before their departure for America.
On the evening of 17 May 1980, Curtis asked Deborah to drop her impending divorce proceedings; she replied that he would likely have changed his mind by the following morning, and then—mindful of his previous suicide attempt and also concerned his state of anxiety and frustration may drive Curtis into an epileptic fit—offered to spend the night in his company. Deborah then drove to her parents' home to inform them of her intentions. When she returned to his house at 77 Barton Street in Macclesfield, Cheshire, his demeanour had changed, and he informed his wife of his intentions to spend the night alone, first making her promise not to return to the house before he had taken his scheduled 10 a.m. train to Manchester to rendezvous with his bandmates.
In the early hours of the next morning, Curtis killed himself by hanging himself in his kitchen. He was 23 years old. Deborah found his body soon after; he had used the kitchen's washing line to hang himself, having written a note to Deborah in which he declared his love for her despite his recent affair with Honoré.[n 8] In her biography, Touching from a Distance, Deborah recalls finding her husband's body and initially thinking that he was still alive before noting the washing line around his neck. According to Tony Wilson, Curtis spent the few hours before his suicide watching Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop's 1977 album The Idiot. His wife recollected that he had taken photographs of their wedding and their baby daughter off the walls, apparently to view them as he composed his suicide note.
At the time of his suicide, Joy Division were on the eve of their debut North American tour, and Deborah has stated Curtis had viewed this upcoming tour with extreme trepidation, not only because of his extreme fear of flying (he had wanted to travel by ship), but because he had also expressed deep concerns as to how American audiences would react to his epilepsy. Deborah has also claimed that Curtis had confided in her on several occasions that he held no desire to live past his early twenties. He had furthermore expressed to both Deborah and Honoré his deep concerns as to his medical condition being likely to kill him, in addition to receiving mockery from the band's audiences, and that this mockery would only increase from the band's impending American audiences on their upcoming tour.[n 9]
According to Lindsay Reade, the wife of the manager of Factory Records, Curtis had informed her shortly before his death of his belief that, with his epilepsy, he could no longer perform live with the band. In addition, he had claimed that with the impending release of Closer, he believed the band had hit an artistic pinnacle. Wilson later said that Curtis likely saw his act of suicide as somewhat altruistic.
In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, Stephen Morris expressed regret that nobody had realised during Curtis' life the distress he was in, even though it was evident in his lyrics.[n 10] In a 2013 Guardian interview, Genesis P-Orridge spoke about being the last person Curtis spoke to before his death. Bassist Peter Hook reflected on the tragedy of the timing of Curtis' death, just before what might have been a breakthrough to fame. Hook also claimed that, prior to the release of the 2007 documentary Joy Division, a specialist in epilepsy had viewed the combination of drugs Curtis had been prescribed for his condition and expressed concerns about its safety.
Shortly after Curtis's cremation, Sumner, Hook, and Morris—strongly aided by Rob Gretton— formed a new band. Initially calling themselves "The No Names" and playing largely instrumental tracks, they soon became "New Order". Shortly after Curtis's death, Bernard Sumner inherited the Vox Phantom VI Special guitar Ian Curtis had acquired in September 1979; he used this instrument in several early New Order songs, including the single "Everything's Gone Green".
In 1985, New Order released the instrumental song "Elegia", written in memory of Ian Curtis. Label sharing band the Durutti Column released in 1981 their album LC, including the Ian Curtis tribute song "The Missing Boy". In 1990, Psychic TV released "I.C. Water", a song dedicated to Curtis.
Deborah Curtis has written a biographical account of their marriage, Touching from a Distance, which was first published in 1995. This biography details in part his relationship with Annik Honoré. In 1999, the post-hardcore band Thursday released a song titled "Ian Curtis" on their debut album, Waiting.
The 2002 New Order song "Here to Stay" was dedicated to Ian Curtis, Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett. Authors Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade released the book Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis in 2006. This biography takes a more intimate look at Curtis and includes photographs from personal family albums and excerpts from his letters to Honoré during their relationship. Music journalist Paul Morley wrote Joy Division, Piece by Piece, writing about Joy Division 1977–2007; it was published in late 2007. The book documents all of his writings and reviews about Joy Division, from their formation until Tony Wilson's death.
The words "Ian Curtis Lives" are written on a wall in Wallace Street, Wellington, New Zealand. The message, which appeared shortly after the singer's death in 1980, is repainted whenever it is painted over. A nearby wall on the same street on 4 January 2005 was originally emblazoned "Ian Curtis RIP", later modified to read "Ian Curtis RIP Walk in Silence" along with the incorrect dates "1960–1980". Both are referred to as "The Ian Curtis Wall".
On 10 September 2009, the wall was painted over by Wellington City Council's anti-graffiti team. The wall was chalked back up on 16 September 2009. The wall was repainted on 17 September 2009, and has been removed and repainted on and off. A new and improved design, with correct dates and the original "Walk in Silence", was painted on the wall on 27 February 2013.
Curtis was portrayed by Sean Harris in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, which dramatised the rise and fall of Factory Records from the 1970s to the 1990s. In 2007, a British Ian Curtis biographical film entitled Control was released. This film was largely based upon Deborah Curtis's book Touching from a Distance. The film was directed by the Dutch rock photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who had previously photographed the band and directed the video for their single "Atmosphere". Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson were executive producers, while Todd Eckert of Clara Flora was the producer. Sam Riley, the lead singer of the band 10,000 Things, portrays Curtis, while Samantha Morton plays his wife, Deborah.
Control was debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 2007, and took three awards at the Directors' Fortnight. Control portrays Curtis's secondary school romance with Deborah, their marriage, his problems balancing his domestic life with his rise to fame, his struggles with both his major depressive issues and his poorly medicated epilepsy, and his later relationship with Annik Honoré.
In 2014, the house in which Curtis committed suicide went on sale. Upon hearing this news, a fan initiated a campaign via Indiegogo to raise funds to purchase the house with intentions to preserve the property as a museum to Ian Curtis and Joy Division. The campaign only raised £2,000 out of the intended final goal £150,000. The money raised was later donated to the Epilepsy Society and MIND charities.
Upon hearing of the failure of this project, an entrepreneur and musician named Hadar Goldman purchased the property; offering to pay a £75,000 compensation fee on top of the requested house price of £125,000 in order to secure the purchase of 77 Barton Street and thus reverse the transacted sale from a private purchaser, which at the time was already in progress. Justifying his decision, Goldman stated he intended the property to act as a Joy Division museum, and as a digital hub to support musicians and other artists worldwide.
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