BOOKS: Joy, a funny word for Ian?

Click to follow
SOMETIME in May 1980 a friend of mine was playing pin-ball in a Leeds pub when the door flew open with a crash, and a tragic voice announced: 'Ian Curtis is dead!' Cries of disbelief and anguish echoed round the room - it was a student pub, after all - and in the midst of the ensuing horrified silence, my friend, distracted for the moment from his game, remarked innocently: "Oh... isn't he the lead singer with Secret Affair?"

Well, it was a long time ago. Let's just say that confusing the Young Werther of New Wave with the mouthy singer of a naff mod band was a solecism roughly on a par with thinking Kurt Cobain a member of Wet Wet Wet. I guess you had to be there to understand why a lanky nerd with a cracked baritone became a hero for a generation of mac-wearing teenage boys. "That man lived for you! That man died for you!" screamed the NME. For years after Joy Division's vocalist hung himself, northern indie bands were still mumbling: "This one's for Ian, right." Now Curtis, responsible for more hysterical bad prose than any other rock idol before Cobain (check out Jon Savage's fan-boy foreword), gets this sad, cool and compelling biography, written by his widow.

When describing events in which she played no part, Deborah Curtis comes across as scrupulous and fair. Whenever she tackles their life together, a darker, self-justifying note bleeds in. The interplay of these two biographical voices is fascinating. The yin to Jon Savage's yang, Deborah Curtis's account describes how the band abandoned the feminine principle for the death principle, how they forged, in effect, a cult of masculinity antithetical to women, babies, and family life. At their time of greatest fame, they barred wives and girlfriends from attending gigs: "If Ian was going to play the tortured soul on stage, it would be easier without the watchful eye of the woman who washed his underpants." But if Touching From a Distance is an act of revenge, its cold, sweet taste doesn't in the end seem to bring Deborah Curtis much satisfaction.

On one level this is a hilarious debunking of the Curtis myth. Not only was he a Tory voter, he moaned that his wife, who wasn't, would cancel his vote. When he left to go on tour, his parting words would be: "Watch yourself" - not so much a loving injunction to take care as a warning to shrink when other men were around. Deborah spent her wedding ruffed up to the chin like an Elizabethan in case anyone looked at her cleavage. Curtis, meanwhile had a Belgian mistress, groupie Annik Honor. While Deborah was being told there was no money for her to go on tour, Annik was swanning round Europe with Ian.

It's so much easier to say what a bastard someone was, than what one loved about them. A stray act of kindness turning, characteristically, on yet another Curtis phobia (he hated foam rubber, yet picked up every scrap when the dog shredded the sofa) is summed up: "This was typical behaviour from the Ian I married." The dutiful tag jars because she simply hasn't shown us the Ian she married. Sometimes Deborah is almost ludicrously out of touch with her material: "One night, I was in a giggly mood. I waited until Ian went to the bathroom... I leapt out and gave a loud cry. I was stunned when he scurried on all fours to a corner of the landing and cowered there, whimpering... he descended the rest of the stairs as if nothing had happened and resumed his television viewing." On the other hand it is this very lack of reflection that makes this account so endearing.

A sod of this magnitude, you find yourself thinking, would have to be a genius to get away with it; yet down the reversed telescope of the years, Ian Curtis is becoming a smaller and smaller figure. A true, if tiny talent; a young man who never gave himself, or anyone around him, a chance.