In remembrance: Ian Curtis (July 15, 1956 – May 18, 1980)

Ian Curtis hanged himself 30 years ago today. I don’t know what it is about rounded numbers-as-anniversaries and the condition compelling us to address them, but I’ve bought into the phenemenon from time-to-time, whether it was the 20th anniversary of John Lennon‘s murder a decade ago or the 10th anniversary of Curtis Mayfield‘s death last December, and I find myself at it again, struck dumb at the thought of Curtis’ tragic, final act, found hanging in his kitchen by his estranged wife on the eve of Joy Division‘s first American tour.

Mostly it has to do with the ghostly beauty of Joy Division’s remarkable music. Starkly amateurish, positively visionary, unremittingly honest, crushingly lovely, implausibly galvanizing: it is all these things. The first Joy Division LP, Unknown Pleasures, was an astounding collection of sounds from the edge of the abyss, strong songs carried by Martin Hannett‘s brilliant production touches, which incorporated decay, echo and delay as instruments alongside the standard drum-bass-guitar attack, creating a cavernous soundworld of jagged black obsidian and sore feelings. At the heart of every song stood Curtis, a weary, jaded observer tossing off one unsettlingly personal couplet after another, managing his emotions as expertly as Sinatra and as melodically as Morrissey in their respective primes. The cognoscenti pricked up their ears: an important new band was in its midst, maybe a great one, maybe a band to lead the charge into the 1980s in the wake of the failed punk dream.

Joy Division found synthesizers, and amazingly, the music grew more beautiful and more brilliant as they prepared Closer, one of the greatest records ever made, by anyone at any time. Sacrificing some of the space and clarity of the first record, the new Joy Division sound was both more fragile and more assertive. “Isolation” captured the updated model in three minutes: Peter Hook‘s rolling bassline locked in with Steve Morris‘ machine-assisted drum pattern, while Bernard Sumner‘s frilly, faux string section danced in the clouds above. Curtis occupied the middle ground: “Mother I tried, please believe me/I’m doing the best that I can/I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.” “Isolation” could have been any ramshackle new wave pop experiment at this point, but all bets were off once Morris’ full drum kit entered the fray mid-song. Suddenly this was muscular, controlled fury: the keyboards shifting to dramatic held notes, Curtis insistently shouting the song title over and over. Hook’s bassline never changed, but in those remarkable minutes, everything else had. Closer repeatedly showed Joy Division to be masters of the form, from the strident march of “A Means To An End” to the ethereal, gliding “Heart And Soul,” from the pummeling delivered by “Twenty Four Hours” to the hypnotic reverie suggested in the playout to “Decades.”

And in the manner of all great British bands, there were singles and B-sides apart from the albums, and they were essential listening. What would the Joy Division legacy be without “Transmission” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” And there was “Atmosphere,” the most beautiful song in the Joy Division canon, initially consigned to throwaway status as a France-only release, rescued and brought to prominence in the wake of Curtis’ suicide.

Sumner, Hook and Morris brought Gillian Gilbert on board and soldiered on as New Order, surely the most important British band of the past 30 years. And that band’s astonishing range of achievement has effectively blunted the impact of losing Curtis so early in his career. No matter how great his talent, he was only one member in a pack of immensely gifted artists who thankfully kept tomorrow in their gunsights while they kept breaking creative ground.

But what might have been?

That’s the $64,000 question, as the game show used to say.

Ultimately, it’s not constructive to sit back and wonder what was going through his mind this morning, 30 years ago. I wasn’t there, for one thing. For another, Curtis’ death and his mates’ subsequent re-emergence as a band of consequence meant little to me until I started listening to the records in 1986. But those records soundtracked my early adolescence and have stayed with me since. Some days you just feel like sitting back and letting some stunning piece of music like “Isolation,” “New Dawn Fades,” “Insight,” “Decades” or “Atmosphere” wash over you. Gone, but not forgotten, Ian Curtis’ gift lives on.

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