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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How Do You Explain the Suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis to a Kid?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 8:12 AM

Ian Curtis
  • Ian Curtis
Dad Rock is a new column in which Ryan Foley will attempt to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

My 11-year-old son, beginning to understand that pop music is much like his first love, professional sports, and that part of its enjoyment arrives from tracing an artist's career arc, once asked me: "So what is Joy Division doing now?"

"They broke up," I told him, "and became a different band."

"How come?"

"Their lead singer died."


"He killed himself."

I didn't explain to him that Ian Curtis is probably more alive now than when he was actually alive. That Curtis was dramatized in two films: 2002's 24 Hour Party People, and 2007's Control. That his uncompromising, despondent lyrics have influenced artists who will never stand before a microphone: James O'Barr drew on Curtis' work when writing his popular graphic novel The Crow -- a series weighted with profound loss and isolation (and as self-aggrandizing and stylized as anything ever issued by Factory Records). Or that his willingness to explore the shadows of the human psyche made it possible for bands with names like I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness to be laughed at only slightly.

I didn't explain to my son that one day he will likely spot Curtis' visage on a classmates' t-shirt. That is he also found on posters, guitar picks, dresses, and coffee mugs, inevitably striking one of two poses: wide-eyed and staring off pensively; or, head bowed solemnly. Or that on eBay right now there is a seller hawking an "Ian Curtis Love will tear us apart choker" and they are doing so without a trace of irony.

Curtis' dark appeal has become infinite, but not just for how he seamlessly transitioned deep, personal struggle to a grand stage. For many, Curtis lives on because his final act upon this earth legitimized his art. "He killed himself" sounds more fitting than "he committed suicide" because the former emphasizes the murderous act involved, while slyly suggesting that dying meant Curtis' lyrics were rubber-stamped with the word "authentic."

But how do you explain all that to an 11-year-old? Maybe I should have told him to stick with the Dropkick Murphys.

* * * 

 My son's casual interest in Joy Division -- a quick scan of his iPod revealed "Digital" and "No Love Lost," by no means the atmospheric dirges the band is known for, as his favorite tracks -- sparked me to delve ever deeper into their catalogue. Over a decade older than Curtis when he died, I was overcome by how the Joy Division listening experience now felt like attending a wake. No matter how much you joke and giggle, shit on the local sports team, or gossip about the apparel of others, you never lose sense of time and place, and forget you're at a wake. The body is always right over there.

I suppose mortality makes for engrossing viewing when you're not waking up to it every morning (damn balky back) or confronting it in the mirror every night (oh look, another gray in the beard). Idealistic tragedy is easy to swallow when you're 20; in the cold light of parenthood and middle age, it makes you clear your throat and change the subject. You blink and a year has passed, and you see the world from the slightest difference of perspective. Bat your eyes again and suddenly you've crossed that wide distance between taking things incredibly seriously and ... just attempting to walk steadily through life.

Now I'd prefer try to understand the absurdity, fragility, and damage of everyday existence through the unseen Ian Curtis. The one who scrawled HATE across the back of his jacket in orange acrylic paint (brilliantly recreated in Control) and when it took longer to dry than expected, humorously left the word smeared across the passenger seat of a friend's car. The one who joined his wife in hitchhiking to a punk festival in Mont-de-Marsan, France, where his allergy to the sun acted up, swelling and reddening his hands, giving him the appearance of a cooked, rubbery lobster. Or the one who owned a puppy regrettably named Candy, a hyperactive beast that dragged him through the streets of Macclesfield on long walks. Acknowledging this Ian Curtis is like wiping your sleeve across a foggy window; the emotions expressed in his lyrics become clearer, sharper, more focused--more human.

I once showed my 11-year-old son a pre-Joy Division picture of Curtis. He was dressed in white platform shoes and a dark sweater. His hands were on his knees and he was leaning against a rock. It looked like a photo clipped from an American Eagle catalog. "Brooding goes with everything" should have read the caption.

"He looked like a real dork, didn't he?"

My son laughed.

Ian Curtis lives on. But in my tiny corner of the world, I guess he's bathed in a little more light.

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