Live, Joy Division were terrifying — an immense, Kraftwerk-meets-the-Stooges pulse. Hook’s bass forged out ahead in trebley belligerence, hacking out lines of melody; Sumner, along with PiL’s Keith Levene, Killing Joke’s Geordie, and the Edge, was one of the druids of post-punk guitar — now ambient, now brutally concrete, heavy as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi; Stephen Morris drummed in relentless circular riffs; and Curtis — elevator-shaft stare, chasing himself down the corridors of his own voice — was something else. His dancing would begin, a strange stiff-jointed strut, and then with a drum-fill from Morris it would detonate into a kind of riveting, spastic karate. More than anything, he looked lost. There was no eye to this storm.
In the studio, maverick producer Martin “Zero” Hannett gave the band another sound: deadened, splayed, technologized. A near-lunatic himself, he later told journalist Jon Savage that he regarded Curtis as “possessed. . . . One of those channels for the Gestalt; the only one I bumped into in that period. A lightning conductor.”
Ian Curtis’s favorite subjects at school were history and divinity. Jesus was of interest to him, and in his later messiah-hood he had a couple of things in common with the original model: his end fulfilled prophecies, and all the demons knew his name. There were, of course, some salient differences, too. The only person to foretell Curtis’s death had been himself (though its omens are engraved across Joy Division’s music). And over the demons, unfortunately, he had no power at all. “There’s a taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold” (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”). With his wife threatening divorce and his epilepsy out of control, on May 18, 1980, the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, he hanged himself with a laundry line in his own kitchen. Iggy’s The Idiot was on the turntable — an album made in Berlin and named after a Dostoyevsky novel about a saintly epileptic. Within two months, Hook, Sumner, and Morris had formed New Order.
Canaries in coal mines
He was, literally, a visionary. William Blake saw angels in a tree; Ian Curtis saw nameless cities, empty rooms, torture, and marching men. “I traveled far and wide through many different times/What did you see there?/I saw the saints with their toys/ What did you see there?/I saw knowledge destroyed” (“Wilderness”). Depressions, even suicidal depressions, have their flavors, and Ian Curtis’s tasted of fascism. It wasn’t the ideology that attracted him. Politically, he was a Thatcherite, a petty conservative. And it wasn’t, as it surely was for some of his punk-rockin’ peers, the shock value: nobody could have been less interested in the cheap scandal of a swastika armband. Rather, it was as if the inhuman scale of the fascist project — its cold pride, its resistance to time, and the horrors sealed into history in its name — corresponded with the loneliest chamber of his own brain. In the aura of fascism, Curtis had located the “abyss that laughs at creation” (as he put it in “Heart and Soul”), the mind-state that made him a ghost in his life. “Someone take these dreams away,” he sang in 1979’s “Dead Souls,” “that point me to another day. . . . Where figures from the past stand tall/And mocking voices ring the halls/Imperialistic house of prayer/Conquistadors who took their share/They keep calling me.” Lyrics like these were not a coded signal for supremacist skinheads to storm the Houses of Parliament. Curtis was saying, God help him, that somewhere inside him he had Egypt, Rome, and the Third Reich.