Torn Apart by Mick Middles & Lindsay Reade

Blame the eager Belgian birds

In 1979, Joy Division made their first appearance on national television, playing live on Something Else, an early, excruciating attempt at "youth" programming (and possibly the template for Nosin' Around, the show-within-a-show on The Young Ones). A friend of mine swears that as he watched their singer Ian Curtis launch into his patented "dervish having a seizure" dance (he had recently been diagnosed with late onset epilepsy) his father, a social worker experienced in recognising mental illness, wandered into the room and offhandedly asked: "Who's that schizophrenic?"

Within a year, Curtis was dead at 23. About to tour the USA for the first time, instead he hanged himself after a Saturday night in pondering his possible divorce and watching a Werner Herzog movie about an immigrant who does not live the American dream. He left behind a widow, a baby daughter, a bemused girlfriend and a hit single and album on the release schedule.

The music industry has seen hundreds of early deaths, but a suicide of a musician about to touch stardom remains unique. Nothing quite compares. Bored junkie Kurt Cobain shot himself because he didn't like his fans, never realising how much more interesting it would have been to shoot them instead, but it was success that jaded him, not the struggle.

Curtis certainly hurried past life's markers. Married in his teens, he had already settled down when punk's cultural explosion gave him the confidence to make his own music. Joy Division consisted of four lads who had learnt very little at grammar school. Their own limitations led them to create a genuinely original sound, enhanced by the wildly imaginative production techniques of local crazy man Martin Hannett. Despite being the first band described as "gothic rock", it referred to the bleak grandeur of their sound rather than their appearance - to a man they dressed like bank clerks.

Burgeoning success offered new opportunities, from behaving badly on the road (recounted in astonishingly tedious detail by the band's tour manager) to consorting with eager Belgian birds. His unremarkable-looking girlfriend Annik Honoré talks about their relationship for the first time here. The diagnosis of epilepsy, probably related to stress and a tiring lifestyle, added to the strain. Tormented by an uncontrollable medical condition, stuck between a cold wife and an arty girlfriend who wouldn't put out, and with an infant to provide for - it's no wonder he was depressed. Manager Rob Gretton slipped him a few extra quid though, for ironing his bandmates' togs. That must have boosted his self-esteem.

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but Curtis's death now appears inevitable. He had attempted an overdose a month before he successfully hanged himself. Tony Wilson, boss of Factory records, kindly but perhaps ill-advisedly invited his label's leading asset to recuperate in the country cottage he shared with his partner Lindsay Reade (co-author of this book). While sequestered, Curtis told his musician friend Vinnie Reilly, "I actually meant it, you know." (Reilly was understandably unsettled.) Tony Connolly, the partner of Wilson's gay dad, read him straight away, telling Reade that Curtis would "commit suicide for sure".

Yet this tale is often bleakly comic, at least until the ship sinks. How could it be otherwise when Curtis recorded for the man who directly inspired Alan Partridge? His bandmates were as oafish as Oasis, their antics as mundanely laddish as their music was unique. (They bring to mind the similarly atmospheric Black Sabbath and their admission that "the nearest we got to Black Magic was a box of chocolates".) The hapless Gretton saw his most talented client top himself, then when the remaining members regrouped as New Order they, and he, lost a fortune in an ill-advised nightclub investment. Gretton even sat in on press interviews, to the amusement of the London media. Several Joy Division shows took place at youth clubs. Tellingly, the next big Mancunian act moved to the Smoke faster than you could say Steven Patrick Morrissey.

Manchester in 1980 was a different world. Some of Curtis's attitudes were straight out of time-travel cop show Life on Mars, or maybe the office of the deputy Prime Minister. In her own solemn memoir, Touching From a Distance, his widow Deborah revealed a character who expected his spouse to follow his orders, even if they meant voting Tory. He was, after all, the son of a copper. No wonder he was so fascinated with Nazism.

That, though hardly a secret, is the elephant in the corner. Every voice here is so desperate to paint a picture of a polite, considerate young man they might be talking about an unsuspected serial killer next door. But, in Cold War Britain, nothing was more exotic than battered Berlin, home of David Bowie and the ghosts of Adolf Hitler and Sally Bowles. Hilariously, the authors, too incompetent to joke, suggest the choice of a wedding hymn to the tune of the Deutsches Lied "reflected a fondness for Germanic culture and history that was shared by Ian and Debbie". Ja, recht.

These days, those wobbly pasts are brushed under the carpet. The appearance of a stylised Hitler Youth on a single sleeve is explained away as inspired by the movie of The Tin Drum (which actually appeared a year later). Lemmy's insistence that he isn't a Nazi, but he does like the uniforms, looks refreshingly honest in comparison. Still, pseudo-intellectualism is a rock tradition, and next to a wired Bowie sieg-heiling a crowd of sober hacks it's small beer.

Curtis wasn't around to live down his youthful indiscretions, but he deserved better than this clumsy tome. It's appallingly written, even for a rock biography: long, incoherent sentences are held together with needless qualifiers. Rambling interviews with family and friends turn up unedited while tedious digressions about the local music scene pad it out. Interesting new material from Reade and Honoré is given no context while the structure is so lacking its subject disappears for chapters at a time. He remains forever out of reach, even as plans move ahead for a biopic of his short life.

Those Joy Division records are still bloody great though; genuinely original and still ominous, Curtis sounding like God telling a noisy believer to shut up. But the mystery of how a bunch of provincial clods devised something so emphatic remains unexplained here.