Hall of Records

Joy Division: The Best of Joy Division

by Michael Tatum

Released: April 28, 2008 (Rhino)

The late Ian Curtis was a people pleaser -- at least, that's how Joy Division bassist Peter Hook sees it. He compartmentalized the various aspects of his life and personality so rigidly that Hook didn't even know Curtis' wife Debbie had given birth to their daughter during the recording of the band's 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. To Hook and the other two members of Joy Division -- drummer Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner -- Ian was one of the "lads," chortling when their roadie pointed out a shockingly massive turd left floating in a portable toilet, and who teamed up with the rest of the band in a massive prank on their tour headliners the Buzzcocks, beginning with dumping ten pounds of live maggots into the backstage area in which their crew was monitoring their performance. To Annik Honoré, the startlingly attractive journalist and tour promoter with whom Curtis conducted an emotionally intense but strangely chaste affair -- his epilepsy medication made physically consummating their relationship impossible -- he was the "cultured" reader and movie-goer that he couldn't be with anyone in his Mancunian orbit (in fact, Hook claims Curtis became more distant with the other band members once she came into the picture). To Curtis' long-suffering wife Deborah neé Woodruff he was, I suspect, the person that his parents wanted him to be: a respectable family man with a solid nine-to-five job, which in Ian's case was a low-paying gig with the civil service. Unfortunately, Curtis was miserable, and he took the brunt of his unhappiness out on Deborah, who describes Ian in her remarkable memoir Touching From a Distance as controlling, paranoid, and insecure as often as he could be kind, thoughtful, and generous: in one of many disquieting anecdotes, he threw a Bloody Mary into her face because he was overcome with jealousy when she danced with one of her younger uncles -- at their engagement party. On another occasion, he forced her into public sex as retribution for dancing in a low-cut dress at her cousin's wedding, but he ignored her on the night of their own nuptials. When I'm feeling contrary about Curtis and Joy Division, I sometimes think that their greatest tragedy is that he/they shoehorned Deborah into a life into which she was forbidden to express herself creatively -- Touching From a Distance is as compelling a piece of writing as anything her husband put his name on. She abandoned her education in the summer of 1973 -- at the age of 17 -- because Curtis told her he didn't want anyone thinking he was dating a "schoolgirl."

Yet as I read Hook and Deborah Curtis' separate accounts of those shockingly brief but remarkably productive two years -- from Morris entering the fold in August of 1977, thus cementing their sound, to Curtis' suicide in May of 1980, thus finishing the band's first phase for good -- I began to have sympathy for this troubled man, whose death at twenty-three puts him four years younger than Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin, and his hero Jim Morrison. To begin with, his disturbing obsession with control -- though not serious enough for the National Front, his Nazi fixation was not purely an art pose, and politically, he voted Conservative -- should be put in context of his frequent self-harming. Cutting doesn't figure into most generalized accounts of Curtis' life -- these two memoirs were the first I'd read of it -- but according to Deborah Curtis, while experimenting as a teenager with various prescription drugs, Ian would burn cigarettes into his skin or hit his leg with a spiked running shoe, just to see how much pain he could bear in his anaesthetized state. As with Ian's macabre fixation with death, which began at an early age and reflected itself in his love of such songs as Jacques Brel's "My Death" and David Bowie's "Rock and Roll Suicide," these behaviors do not appear spontaneously. According to the 2000 text revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, self-harm is often associated with those who have a history of trauma and abuse -- emotional, physical, or sexual -- and can be symptomatic of borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as well as several other disorders. Deborah Curtis, who knew him as well as anybody, doesn't mention or even entertain the possibility of trauma or abuse in Touching From a Distance, and to the best of my knowledge, his parents have never been interviewed on this subject -- or in any capacity whatsoever. Which is tragic as it is a thorny prospect for potential exploration -- it would provide a great deal of insight into what drove his self-destructive urges if a little bit more of that curtain were to be lifted.

Ian's epileptic seizures on the other hand, have been well documented, and those in of themselves, combined with the difficulty managing the separate lives he shared with Deborah and Annik, would be overwhelming for any young man, especially for one with an unusual drive for control -- he could keep his record collection in perfect order, but doing the same for the women in his life proved impossible, not to mention cruel to them both. But another thing that you don't hear very much in accounts of the group is the side effects his epilepsy medication had on him -- aside from keeping him from consummating his relationship with Annik, which certainly would have happened if things had been different, they made him even moodier than usual, which to hear Deborah tell it is saying something. According to her, before his medication regimen, Ian would "fluctuate between ultra-politeness and blind rage," but his behavior afterward resembled what psychiatrists call "rapid cycling," a form of bipolar disorder in which one shifts from one extreme to the next, euphoria and tearful melancholy, quickly and sometimes with great intensity. Ian was prescribed Phenobarbitol, an anti-convulsant also utilized for bipolar disorder, which in Ian's case was not closely regulated by his doctor, who should have been closely monitoring his mood for such tell-tale swings. Meanwhile, Ian's copious alcohol intake -- it's a depressant, after all -- could only have been making his condition worse. Bernard Sumner notes, "I think there was something a little bit special about Ian. I know people say that, but I really do mean it. I can't stop saying this...I really do think it was the tablets that killed him. I really do. I know it."

Having said that, I'm not sure how much this would have brought into focus Joy Division's still-unsettling music, which I'd long admired but never fully appreciated, if Rhino's exceptional 2008 best-of hadn't done the trick first. Of course, this band, along with their Mark II manifestation New Order, has been compiled to death, but unlike the 1988 grab bag Substance or 1995's poorly selected Permanent, this one keeps it short, and to essentials: fourteen tracks, with the instrumental "Incubation" the only questionable inclusion. It doesn't bother with their juvenilia, namely the tentative An Ideal for Living EP, nor does it front load the strongest material, choosing to sequence things more or less chronologically, in order of recording date, which honors their aesthetic progression a lot more sensibly than release date, and the newly remastered mix is stately, sharp, and spacious. Cultists of course will sniff that the only way to go are the two proper studio albums, but though the last few weeks have given me a greater appreciation for both 1979's Unknown Pleasures and 1980's Closer, neither matches this compilation's focus, perhaps because most of Joy Division's greatest songs appeared on singles and odd one-off compilations. The intense "Transmission," with its rallying cry to "dance, dance, dance to the radio," and the sorrowful cri de coeur "Love Will Tear Us Apart," so stirring and powerful Deborah made the title his epitaph even though the lyric concerns the dissolution of their relationship, are both well-established classics. But what about the gorgeous funeral march "Atmosphere" or the gripping "Dead Souls," the A and B sides, respectively, of a French-only single and released under a German title (Licht und Blindheit -- "Light and Blindness")? Or the mechanical, more "controlled" single version of the landmark "She's Lost Control," not so much about epilepsy, though obviously that's there, as it is about the fear of being at the mercy of your body, of circumstance, of the inevitable turn of the Earth: "Well I had to phone her friend to state my case/And say she's lost control again/And she showed up all the errors and mistakes/And said I've lost control again/But she expressed herself in many different ways/Until she lost control again/And walked upon the edge of no escape/And laughed I've lost control." It's no wonder that Anton Corbijn titled Curtis' bio-pic, adapted from Deborah's memoir, Control -- the word gets to the man's very essence.

The remainder of the compilation is remarkably astute, and wise in its restraint -- personal favorites like the opening of Closer, the grueling "Atrocity Exhibition," would have completely upset the record's flow, and after two admirably clunky openers, it's one classic after another, honoring rockers more often than dirges, including the Doors-y "Shadowplay" (compare Curtis' "To the center of the city in the night, waiting for you" to Morrison's sleazier "Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light/Or another lost angel in the city of night") and the anguished "Isolation," which ends the record on choppy squelches that presage the familiar sound of skipping CDs years before digital technology (and for that matter, recalls the end of New Order's playful "Every Little Counts," recorded in 1986). My favorite Joy Division track however, is one no one ever talks about, the haunting, desperate "Twenty Four Hours," which might have been one of the songs Annik Honoré was referring to when she told Factory Records prexy Tony Wilson she hated Closer because she was worried Ian's suffering wasn't a fictional construct, and that she feared for his well-being -- worries that fell on deaf ears, as with the exception of Deborah, almost no one else in Ian's orbit scrutinized his lyrics, let alone take them as anything other than Rock God posturing. I myself am not much for "authenticity" in these matters -- suicide is many things but it's not a character builder, and I put balance above most other things -- but my God, "Twenty Four Hours" is an overwhelmingly powerful piece of music. Essentially a one chord rave-up linked to a quieter but unbearably tense bridge, it's one of the most desolate songs I've ever heard, completely convincing in its passion and dolor: "Now that I realize how everything's gone wrong/Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long/Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway/Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late." After which the music shifts to the chord that begins the bridge, and abruptly ends, without resolve, leaving the sentiment adrift in mid-air. Which is how I prefer to end the narrative -- open to possibility -- rather than the one Curtis chose in real life. It may be too late for his destiny, but the song is his final offering, allotting a little bit more time -- and hope -- to you and me.

August 22, 2014, Odyshape