It's only rock'n'roll but are you prepared to die for it?
As Ian Curtis is remembered 30 years after his death, Fiona Sturges looks at the myth of the tortured artist and asks why fans reserve their reverence for the stars who suffer
Friday 28 May 2010
Last week brought the 30th anniversary of the suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Essays were penned, exhibitions mounted and films screened to mark the occasion. In July, Curtis fans will further wallow in his memory at the Unknown Pleasures festival in Macclesfield, the town where he grew up. There, they can gape at old photos, rake through band memorabilia and prostrate themselves next to the kerb-stone plaque at the crematorium bearing the words "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
Like Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, Johnny Thunders and Jimi Hendrix before him, Ian Curtis's tumultuous life and early death enshrined an image of him as an icon of alienation, unblemished by age or decline. Three decades after his death, and the legend is greater than ever.
Sounds clichéd? Of course it does. The notion of the tortured artist is by far the most romantic, compelling and ubiquitous of all rock'n'roll stereotypes. It's a myth that has permeated modern music, bewitched countless teenagers in their bedrooms and sustained many a pointless career. The thinking goes that when a musician suffers for their art, the art that they produce becomes authentic, imbued with deeper meaning. According to lore, such figures are invariably unconcerned by convention, immune to financial concerns and solely motivated by the need to bare their deeply complicated souls. Their work, often boldly confessional, is hailed for its rawness and purity of vision. Should the artist in question go one further and kill themselves then, more often than not, they are instantly re-cast in the collective memory as a tragic figure whose genius is apparently measured by the drama of their passing.
There are, naturally, occasions when the beatification of the rock outsider is justified. There's no denying Curtis's cultural legacy, not only in producing successive generations of pale-faced, psychologically burdened goths, but in casting a portentous shadow over contemporary pop: ahead of his time, he is now revered by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. Janis Joplin's death – from an overdose of heroin combined with a large amount of alcohol – secured her place in the pantheon of self-destructive rock stars, though there is more to her story than that. Joplin will also be remembered as a wild, uninhibited pioneer in the male-dominated rock scene of the Sixties, a woman who opened the door for every female artist who came after her.
Even Kurt Cobain, the late Nirvana singer who struggled with illness, drug addiction and depression throughout his life, and around whom there now exists a massive industry taking in books, albums and feature films, has managed to maintain posthumous credibility due to his song-writing talents and a visceral singing style that, even in the current climate of self-flagellating emo bands, has yet to be equalled.
It was the Sixties that heralded the birth of the self-destructive, mentally unstable rock star, a factor that was exacerbated, if not wholly caused, by their intake of LSD. Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, the architect of the band's early masterpiece The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a case in point, a man who struggled to cope with the rigours of fame and left the group in 1968 amid speculations of mental illness allegedly aggravated by his drug intake. Despite making two solo albums, Barrett remained a reclusive figure over the next 40 years, during which he lived in the basement of his mother's semi-detached house, where he boarded up the windows to protect himself from the prying eyes of press and fans.
The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is another artist who struggled with depression since childhood and who buckled under the weight of his own brilliance, famously having a breakdown during the recording of Smile, locking away the master tapes and eventually retiring to his bed for almost a decade, getting up only to collect the consignments of cocaine delivered to his mail box.
Barrett and Wilson's stories are arresting, their complex personalities being considerably more interesting than those of today's manufactured stars. The best romantic stories are tragic ones, after all.
If that sounds heartless, it is because we music fans frequently are. Heritage rock magazines such as Uncut and Mojo often dredge up stories of hapless rock stars spiralling out of control for the salacious consumption of their readers. The tales told in their pages often rival contemporary and much- criticised real-life magazines with their details of serial infidelity, drugs and booze benders, clashes with the law and near-death experiences. If our willingness to revel in the old rock'n'roll stories is anything to go by, then it's clear that we like our musical icons to be intense, dangerous and ever so slightly unstable. Where possible we want them to bleed for our benefit. If that means them making the ultimate sacrifice and dying for their art, well, so be it.
If you need convincing, witness the combination of mawkishness and voyeuristic delight that greeted the death of Elliott Smith, the singer-songwriter whose lifelong fight with depression ended when he stabbed himself in the heart in 2003. Music publications that had only briefly acknowledged him throughout the Nineties were suddenly fulsome in their praise of this undiscovered genius that had altered the course of popular music.
But instability doesn't always go hand in hand with creativity even if fans are frequently conned into thinking otherwise. Take Courtney Love: she may have all the attributes of a tragic heroine – the dead rock-star husband, the public feuds, the drug problems and the battered Barbie Doll aesthetic – but look beyond the car crash of her life and, in musical terms, there's not much there. The same could be said of Pete Doherty, the Libertine who has traded on his boho, drug-dependent, roguish outsider status but who has yet to prove himself as the musical genius that some believe him to be.
And you have to wonder where the Manic Street Preachers would be today were it not for the enduring enigma that was Richey Edwards, their anorexic, self-harming, drug-addled songwriter and guitarist who disappeared 15 years ago and who is now, despite the Lord Lucan-esque conspiracy theories, presumed dead. Certainly – and perhaps recognising their own lack of wit or charisma – the remaining members of the band aren't above exploiting his mystery, having last year recorded an album using Edwards's long-lost lyrics.
Such behaviour would suggest that suffering is somehow a prerequisite for great art, even though the albums of countless contented, well-adjusted and drug-free artists have over the years proved otherwise. Today, in the era of 24-hour entertainment news, stories of rock stars in peril have become ever more alluring. The troubled, soap-opera existence of Amy Winehouse has been one of the more dramatic of recent times though at least there is, in artistic terms, a degree of substance behind the substance abuse.
There's no doubt that the music industry, and of course the press, is complicit in serving up artists who bring just the right amount of drama and vulnerability to reel in consumers. Our continued fascination with Winehouse, Doherty and the countless troubled rock stars of the past would suggest that, where fans are concerned, music just isn't enough anymore.
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