Touching from a Distance; Ian Curtis

It would be a bit dramatic to state that Joy Division made the soundtrack to my adolescence or to call them heroes. But fact is that no other music made such an impact on me, at an age when music still has that ability. Because I also like to read about music, a few Joy Division books have been on my reading menu.

One of them was ‘An Ideal for Living’ by Mark Johnson, a detailed account about recordings, releases and concerts. But it was quite some years ago that I read it, and since I am having a renewed interest in Joy Division and the musical era around 1980, I was pleasantly surprised to find ‘Touching from a distance’ in a second-hand shop. It is written by his widow Deborah Curtis, and naturally the book is written from a different angle than the one by Johnson.

Deborah has of course her own experiences with Ian to tell about, and she has spoken with a lot of people that were close to Ian, to be able to fill some gaps. It is a very personal story, about a teenage boy who is different from the rest, who has a dream to become famous and wants to do everything to live up to that dream. Another red line throughout the book is Ian’s obsession with death, already from a very young age. Already from the first chapter an image is created that his premature death would not come completely unexpected, and he would follow the example of some of his heroes, like Jim Morrison, James Dean or Janis Joplin. But people did not take that too seriously: ‘The fact that most of Ian’s heroes were dead, close to dead or obsessed to death was not unusual and is a common teenage fad’.

The book is told chronologically, but the main lines are alternated with detailed anecdotes. The first chapter, ‘An urban soundtrack’, tells how Ian grows up in the industrial surroundings of Macclesfield and Manchester. Various hobbys came and went (‘Ian never did anything by halves; any interest became a vocation’), but music was from the start his favourite obsession, listening in his parental flat to MC5, Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground and satarting his first band. At a young age he and his friends are experimenting with all kinds of drugs and medicines, and at the age of 15 he has a overdose and had to have his stomach pumped. One year later Deborah enters Ian’s world, and she is attracted to his unconventional behaviour and his vivid lifestyle (‘suddenly life seemed one long round of parties, pop concerts and pub crawls”).

Things get more serious between Ian and Deborah and they decide to get married. Both of them, especially Ian, are not that interested in school anymore, and they quit school. Then follows a period of short jobs, removals, money problems, engagement and finally their marriage in August 1975. But not everything was sunshine in Deborah’s story. Ian could be rather demanding and selfish, he was so jealous that Deborah was not to allowed any contact with other men whatsoever. He also prescribed her how to look, which friends to have etc. Ian also was known for extreme mood swings. But, as Deborah calls it, he could also be very soft-hearted. Around this time he is also having his first ‘attacks’, which are only quite some time later diagnosed as epilectic fits. Marriage life soon turned out to be not so comfortable as they expected, with lack of money, friends who each went their own way and a house in a boring environment. This also had a negative influence on their relationship, with Ian not being very communicative anymore.

In 1976 Ian’s musical plans get more serious. This chapter is appropriately called ‘Where fantasy ends’. ‘Seeing the Sex Pistols was confirmation that there was something out there for him other than a career in the Civil Service’. He joins the band of Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Terry Mason, who knew each other since childhood. But Ian is rapidly accepted as a bandmember. The band was called Warsaw after a David Bowie track and played their first gig in 1977. With a lof of effort enough money is assembled to recorded “An ideal for living”, the first EP of the band who shortly afterwards changes its name to Joy Division. The rest is musical history… Other people get involved, like manager Rob Gretton, influential tv presenter and Factory boss Tony Wilson, supporter and rockjournalist Paul Morley and producer Martin Hannett. Thanks to Joy Division and various other bands like Section 25, Durutti Column, Buzzocks and the Drones, the fame of the Manchester scene is rapidly spreading.

The next chapters tell about the increasing fame of Joy Division. They play more and more gigs, get more media attention and record more songs, including the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ album. But there are various things to overcome besides musical hinderances. Ian has troubles to combine his musical activities with his full-time job (which he can finally quit a bit later) and family life, especially when their daughter Nathalie is born. Deborah does not get much help from Ian: ‘I had to look after the both of them single-handedly’. Besides that Ian’s health is deteriorating. He gets various heavy epileptic attacks and is even rushed to the hospital in an unconscious state. He is put on a diet of medicines to oppress the attacks, quite heavy drugs which probably influence his behaviour a lot, including violent mood swings. On stage his act is getting very manic, resembling the epileptic fits. In later times he even has fits while performing.

Meanwhile the relation between Ian and Deborah is getting worse. He hardly talks to her anymore, and he doesn’t want her to come to concerts. The band- and crewmembers get an image that she is standing in his way, and that she is an obstruction to his career. Things get out of hand when he gets a serious affair with the Belgian girl Annik, who he meets at a European tour. Everyone seems to know about the affair, except Deborah. During the recordings of ‘Closer’ in London, Ian and Annik are staying in an appartment at the expenses of the record company, while Deborah thinks that she can’t come because it’s too expensive… When Deborah finds out and confronts Ian with it, their marriage is definitely over. She asks for a divorce. Ian won’t live long enough anymore to let this happen though…

At Easter 1980 he returns home and deliberately takes an overdose. Deborah calls an ambulance and he is rescued. The Joy Divison gig the day after is not cancelled, the show must go on, though Ian can only sing two songs. In the next months Ian is apparently very depressive and is staying at various friends’ places. The final gig of Joy Division is on 2 May in Birmingham, after which they have to prepare for their upcoming American tour. On Monday 20 May they would leave for their first visit to the USA. Two days before Ian comes home again, to talk with Deborah. It does not go very well and she leaves to go to work. Ian would spend the night in their house, while Deborah stays at her parents. When she comes back the following day she expects Ian to have left. When she enters the house she discovers that he has hung himself…

Of course I knew that this climax was coming, but I still found it very painful to read, especially because it was written from the perspective from the person who found him. ‘I recall the events of that final weekend and it’s as if I’m watching a video that someone else produced in my absence. I have run it through so many times, looking for a point to break and insert some other sequence of events’. Deborah does not give a clear explanation for his suicide. But she stresses that he has always been obsessed with an early death. His epileptic fits and medication will have played a role. His breach with Deborah and also the relation with Annik, which was not working out well anymore too, are factors. And apparently he was not looking forward to the American tour. But whatever was the cause, it certainly made the story of Joy Division into a legend and gave Ian Curtis the same mythic status as some of his idols…

The book was certainly captivating to read. If you’re looking for detailed reports about the musical career of Joy Division, then you can better search for another book, like the aforementioned one by Mark Johnson. But ‘Touching from a distance’ tells us something about the person Ian Curtis, and what is was like living with him. People who see him as a hero might not like to read that he had quite some negative aspects. But idols are humans too. In any case Ian Curtis is portrayed as a remarkable character, with a strong drive for succes. He found it for a very short time: ‘After showing us what it looked like, he offered us a mere sip before he abandoned us on the precipice’.

In the middle of the book is a photo section with 17 photos, mostly in colour. We see Ian as a small boy, at his wedding, as a singer and also the last photo ever made of him, with his little daughter. At the back of the book are a discography and a gig list, as well as a full set of lyrics. About 20 of them appear in this book for the first time. Perhaps you can try to imagine what the songs that they would feature in would have sounded likeā€¦