Forty years ago, on May 18, 1980, Ian Curtis, the charismatic and deeply troubled frontman of the legendary Mancunian post-punk outfit Joy Division, took his life at age 23. Struggling with the dissolution of his young marriage, new fatherhood, an extramarital emotional affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, and, most of all, his increasingly uncontrollable epilepsy, he hanged himself on the eve of what was supposed to be Joy Division’s first North American tour. His suicide note read, “At this very moment, I wish I were dead. I just can't cope anymore.”
Curtis left behind a legacy as a tragic cult figure that influenced countless alternative-rock acts. He also left his guilt-ridden bandmates behind to pick up the pieces. They carried on as the arguably equally influential and much more commercially successful New Order — but forever wondered what might have been, and what they could have done.
“With the making of [Joy Division’s sophomore album] Closer, Ian’s illness was degenerative, and it was getting worse,” the band’s bassist, Peter Hook, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The big problem with Ian was … he was very empathic to other people. He would go out of his way to make sure you felt all right about what he was suffering. … Ian worked very, very hard and was still suffering grand mals right the way through [the recording sessions for Closer]. He managed to hide it from his parents, from the doctors that he was being treated by. The guy wanted success. He wanted to achieve what he felt we deserved. And he hid [his epilepsy]. That was the problem. He would never let you know how poorly he was, so you were in ignorance. Even when you were picking him up off the floor when he smashed his head open on the sink or the toilet, he’d just get up. He’d never stop.
“Suicide of a very close friend or family member always leaves you with the guilt,” Hook continues solemnly. “And that’s the beauty of suicide, isn’t it? It’s not them worrying afterwards. It’s everybody else saying who, when, or why, or ‘Did I do enough?’ I’ve had enough of that in my life to realize that people who are left behind are the ones that suffer. But it was a great LP, and I think one of my greatest regrets when we finished with Joy Division and moved on to New Order was that we never got to play Closer. … It was heartbreaking to put it all away and never promote Closer, never promote [the single] ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ put it in a box, put it in the back of the cupboard. And we went off to New Order.”
Incredibly, the surviving members of Joy Division immediately decided to reform as a different band. Reconvening in their Manchester rehearsal space the very Monday after Curtis’s inquest, they went right to work on a prophetically titled new song Hook had written the previous weekend in tribute to Curtis, “Dreams Never End.” Hook now realizes that, in an era when suicide was rarely discussed and barely understood, he and his bandmates were in shock and denial.
“I think the great thing about being young is you can carry on, regardless. The great thing about being a musician is people will coddle you and pamper you, and pander to you, so we didn’t have to do much grieving. We just buried our heads and stuck together and ignored it, basically,” Hook admits. “Which is something I wouldn’t do now. I think you’re honor-bound to grieve for people that are important in your life.”
At first, however, Joy Division fans were still grieving, so they weren’t quick to accept this new phase in the surviving band members’ career. “We got a lot of letters written in blood, things like that. People phoning you up. Being a ‘man of the people,’ I put my number in the phone book, and then I had every Joy Division loony phoning me up and being weird on the phone. That taught me a lesson,” Hook says wryly. Then, when New Order went to America to play the tour that had been originally booked for Joy Division, “fans weren’t supportive. They used to spend the whole gig shouting for Joy Division titles. I didn’t expect them to be supportive, to be honest. … We actually lost a lot of our confidence. … The audiences were openly hostile. They wanted Joy Division.”
New Order eventually had great success with perennial alternative radio staples like “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith,” “Shellshock” (which was included on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack), and especially their signature song, “Blue Monday.” But over the years, friction between Hook and New Order frontman Bernard Sumner grew, and in 2007, Hook left New Order for good. Some fans still hold out hope for a “real” New Order reunion (the band continues to tour and record sans Hook), but according to the grizzled bassist, who has battled his ex-bandmates in court over years, those fans probably shouldn’t hold their breath.
“Literally, [we’re] at that point in the relationship where you hate each other’s stinking guts,” he reveals. “It’s a tragic end to a wonderful, wonderful group. You know, I long for Tony Wilson [who passed away in 2007] to appear and bang our heads together. For [late band manager] Rob Gretton to appear and bang our heads together. For Ian Curtis to appear and bang our heads together! I really do wish with all my heart that we could stop and just respect each other. I think that’s what we should be working on.”
This Monday, Joy Division’s survivors are planning separate live-streamed tributes to observe the anniversary of Curtis’s passing. Sumner and Joy Division/New Order multi-instrumentalist Stephen Morris will stage “Moving Through the Silence: Celebrating the Life & Legacy of Ian Curtis,” featuring the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, Elbow, Kodaline, and other artists, to benefit various Manchester-based mental health charities. Meanwhile, Hook’s #SoThisIs Permanent tribute will broadcast a 2015 gig that took place at Christ Church in Curtis’s hometown of Macclesfield, at which Hook played every single Joy Division song with his current band the Light, to raise funds for the Epilepsy Society.
While a Hook-less New Order has carried on, Hook is still out there on his own, honoring Curtis in other ways. He has penned the memoirs Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, and he regularly revisits the Joy Division discography when on tour with the Light. “The great bit for me is that in 2011, I got to play Closer [in its entirety for the first time], and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” he says. “To sit there and have my son, who was exactly the same age I was when I did Closer [22 years old], playing the basslines, and me doing my best to do Ian justice … the chills down your spine from hearing Closer live was a wonderful, wonderful moment. I do think really Barney [Sumner] and Steve [Morris] missed out on that.”
However, Hook confesses that he still sometimes wonders what might have happened if Curtis hadn’t died. “Do I think we’d still be together if Ian had lived? I would hope so,” he muses. “You know, one of the things about a song like ‘Blue Monday’ being as popular as it is, even now throughout the world, is that you’d have loved to hear Ian Curtis sing on it.”
That being said, Hook says that while he was “really annoyed with Ian when he died,” he understands now that his anger was “for the wrong reasons. ... The important thing you realize, as you get older, is that the fact that [Joy Division] didn’t carry on wasn’t the most important thing for Ian. The most important thing was a daughter lost her father. Parents lost a son. A wife lost a husband. A lover lost a lover. That is really the important thing — because let’s face it, there’s loads of groups. There’ll be another along in a minute.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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