The legacy of Ian Curtis: Love tore him apart

When Joy Division singer Ian Curtis killed himself, Len Brown's brother was so devastated he ended his own life. Now the cult of Curtis is back with a new film about the tortured star. So should it carry a health warning?

Tuesday 02 October 2007 10:00 BST

These days, it's impossible to escape the cult of Ian Curtis. A brooding image of actor Sam Riley heralds the release of Control, Anton Corbijn's film of the Joy Division singer's life and suicide, while phrases like "extraordinary" and "outstanding" scream at us from magazines.

For those of us with painfully deep and personal feelings about the negative legacy of Curtis, its beginning to look less like a healthily coordinated promotional machine and more like a bandwagon towing a hearse. Instead of "the coolest film of 2007" how about "the most chilling"?

You see, as Ian Curtis memorably sang so movingly on "Insight", I remember when we were young. Sitting with my brother Don in our front room in Newcastle upon Tyne, September 1978, being awe-struck as Curtis chanted those profound lines "in the shadowplay acting out your own death knowing no more" on early-evening television. When Unknown Pleasures was released in 1979 it became clear that here was a dark poet, a grim realist, a very different voice in popular music, although the bare lyrics alone would have been too bleak to listen to. What made it accessible, beautiful even, was Joy Division's music.

Even before the truly shocking news broke that Ian Curtis had killed himself, it had been difficult to watch this desperate young man on stage, writhing, twisting, battling yet dancing with his own demons. At the time we thought it was performance art. Within days, the singer's desperate end was transformed by certain factions of the music press into a glamorous rock'*'roll suicide; his lyrics elevated into some sort of philosophical victory over life through death. Many of the valedictory tributes painted Curtis as a lost prophet; as if he had been more sensitive, braver, and perhaps closer to God or godlessness than the rest of us; as if he'd held up his cracked mirror to show us how hopeless, meaningless and inhuman our world had become.

In May 1980 my brother Don sent me a postcard from London after Curtis' suicide. It read: "Hiya Lenny, long time no see hear speak. This is the letter where it all began, the start of it all, where will it end, where will it end. I start on a low point. Ian Curtis is dead. Ian Curtis is no more. No more the hollow tones of Joy Division..."

Back then I was only 22 and, I guess, I hoped Don's grief – for someone he didn't know – would soon pass. But later in the summer of 1980, Don wrote to the NME in angry response to a reader's letter describing Ian Curtis as a failure. "Such a statement would have been fair if it said that he was a failure like the rest of us. Ian struggled with emotions that the vast majority of people spend most of their time suppressing. As a person of what could be described as a melancholy obsession I regard Ian Curtis' lyrics as being totally consistent with a realistic outlook on life."

I remember going with Don to see New Order at Walthamstow in September 1981. But without Ian Curtis, it proved to be a static, difficult spectacle. Don couldn't understand how they could contemplate carrying on; but he was transfixed by the space left by the dead singer.

I still find it difficult to explain to myself the passage of events in the months that followed; maybe I was just otherwise engaged, chasing girls, drinking beer, learning to be a local newspaper journalist, playing football, caught up in the selfish art of being young. Blindly, stupidly, I hoped everything would be OK.

And it was, most of the time. Mentally, Don was as bright as anyone. Physically, he was blond and tall and looked like an apprentice rock star. So here's the suicidal cliché – he had everything going for him. He thrived at school, studied Classics at University College London, had a loving family, good friends and girlfriends, and was passionate about film and music. But... he was altered by Curtis' suicide.

Near the bitter end, Don also saw New Order at North London Polytechnic and, finally, he watched them again on 25 May 1982 at Kilburn's National Ballroom. Two nights later (just over two years after Ian Curtis hanged himself) on 27 May 1982, my brother took his own life in a Rothko-style red-and-black painted bedroom, with Closer on the turntable. He was 21. His suicide letter quotes from Joy Division's "Twenty Four Hours": "I never realised the lengths I'd have to go/ All the darkest corners of a sense I didn't know/ Just for one moment, I heard somebody call/ Looking beyond the day in hand, there's nothing there at all." At the end of his copy of Samuel Beckett's Trilogy, after the final words "I can't go on. I go on", he'd scrawled "unreasonable".

After Don died, I hated everything about Joy Division. Ian Curtis wasn't solely to blame but – as with the suicide of the Blasted playwright Sarah Kane in 1999 and other Joy Division fans – his death was an influential factor. For years I couldn't stomach hearing "Atmosphere" or "Love Will Tear us Apart" because it was the sound of our family life being shredded. And still, if I look at the cover of Closer, instead of the image of a mourning Genovese family, I see my sister Kath and me, together in a hospital room, broken with grief beside our brother's body.

Unreasonably I also hated New Order, Factory Records, the Hacienda club (which opened the week Don died), Manchester, and specifically people closely associated with Joy Division who, I felt, were slow to reveal the singer's complex personal and medical problems immediately after Curtis' death. A dignified silence, some argued, but I believed, emotionally, that it contributed to the media portrayal of Ian Curtis as some sort of dark Messiah.

As a music journalist and later a television producer I found myself interviewing Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton, Ian Curtis' wife Deborah and Tony Wilson, head of Factory Records. Wilson had once been quoted as saying that "death sells", and often talked of being cavalier with the truth in art: "My instinct was to go with the myth every time." Both Rob and Tony were sensitive to my questioning of the Curtis myth, and Deborah, better than anyone, understood my search for truth and reconciliation.

Gradually it became clear that Curtis's death wasn't solely the rational statement suicide we'd been led to believe. This didn't make it less tragic but, unlike the debilitating effects of epilepsy, which he increasingly struggled and failed to control, many of Ian Curtis' troubles were personal rather than philosophical. Control is the one thing Curtis didn't have. He couldn't control his physical health, and he couldn't control his personal life; he was having an affair, his marriage had broken down and he was facing separation from his year-old baby daughter. "All the failures of the modern man", he once sang.

Yet there's something alluring, intoxicating, about Curtis' desperate end. It seems that young people – looking for something, anything, to believe in – will always be drawn to artists who take their own lives, like Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain. Maybe it's to do with the myth "who the Gods love die young"; maybe they're attractive because they've gone before us, perhaps on their own terms; maybe they've conquered death; they're waiting beyond the grave. Listen again to the musical suicide note that is Closer, released just after his death in May 1980, and it sounds like Curtis is singing from the other side.

April isn't the cruelest month. Statistically it's got to be May. A recent survey revealed that more people take their lives in May than in any other month. Apparently, "the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear". In the UK 19,000 young people aged 15 to 24 attempt suicide every year; of these, 700 die. It's estimated that 90 per cent of them are "likely to have mental health problems".

I wonder if the 10 per cent who don't have mental health problems fall into the category of "saner suicides"? Perhaps there's also special sub-section within this called "disciples of dead rock stars"? It would have been easier for our family if there was one direct, simple reason for my brother's action. But lacking clear pointers, "depression" becomes the verdict. "He killed himself," it says on Don's death certificate which, small mercy, sounds better than: "He committed suicide."

I know it was decriminalised in 1961, but people still talk about "committing" suicide, as if the act remains as brutal as a murder. When Don died, I struggled to find a Church of England vicar to conduct his funeral and although, afterwards, I was told his ashes would be scattered at Newcastle cathedral, for some reason this never happened. Eleven years later, just before my mum's death, we learnt that his ashes were still at the undertakers'. That morning, in the winter of 1993, I collected the casket and pushed my mum, in her wheelchair, out into the centre of the Town Moor. We scattered Don's ashes there, in the wind and the rain.

I'd never condone suicide, but I can't see the point in eternal bitterness towards someone who has died this way. My parents felt shame after Don's death and, as a result, he, our brother, their son, was rarely spoken of again outside our closed circle. Everything must be done to encourage individuals not to commit suicide, but perhaps we should acknowledge that some people might not want to be part of this world anymore.

After years pretending I didn't have a brother – worried I'd say too much and depress social gatherings, I'd moodily say nothing at all – I think I've managed to accept what happened. It's only taken 25 years. We've done OK, my sister and I, to come to terms with Don's suicide. We've both got children and, naturally, now have to look forward, not back. But a photo of Don stands proudly in my study at home and, if asked about my family, I say: "I've got a sister... we had a brother but we lost him."

I haven't seen Control yet. I will go and see it, but I'm determined to control exactly where and when. When it's on general release next week I'll trudge along and brace myself for a barrel of laughs. The beauty of the music, plus Corbijn's photography, should guide me through.

I sincerely hope it lives up to the hype. Above all else, it needs to be genuinely, honestly critical of the legend of Ian Curtis. While it should reveal Curtis's uniqueness as a live performer, lead singer and a lyricist, it must also help defuse the death cult and crush this marketed myth of the glamorous suicide, the good-looking corpse, by conveying the full tragic impact of his tormented life, on his family, his friends and some of his fans.

Calm, The Campaign Against Living Miserably,

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