When people equate pop lyrics with poetry, they expect pop to feel flattered and sometimes it is. So This Is Permanence reminds us that lyrics can reward close attention without being recast. The book collects the words of Ian Curtis, the singer in Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. Joy Division belonged to the scene that emerged into the space left behind by punk. They are now part of the global adolescent ether as well as a staple of middle age. Last Christmas you could buy Joy Division oven gloves.
Ian Curtis wrote mostly in small ruled notebooks, almost always in capital letters. His drafts are reproduced here in facsimile opposite the finished lyrics of each song. Some of the pages look more like angry shopping lists than manuscripts. These were words corralled for later use, not poems. Curtis explained his method in an early interview: ‘I have got this little book here. Full of lyrics, it is. I just pull it out and see if I can fit something in … I’ll use them when the right tune comes along. Sometimes it’s a line from one song mixed with a line from another. Sometimes the original lyric gets completely changed.’
We already had the words to his songs, which tend to be read as details in the narrative of his suicide. This book gives us deletions, revisions and variants that make clear the extent to which he felt unsecured. Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy two years before he died but seems to have experienced seizures or absences from an early age. His lyrics read like the single continuous expression of someone struggling to be present, and prone to shock.
The most troubling aspect of Curtis’s writing is the failure of his agony. He couldn’t confront or escape himself: ‘It was me, waiting for me/Hoping for something more/Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else.’ This is unusually coherent. In general his lines lose the will to connect. Image and intention falter. I haven’t noticed this when listening to the songs, which have always seemed so complete in their emotional imperatives. Phrases pool and dissolve, imagery gives way and small words surface: ‘I tried to get to you’; ‘Don’t walk away.’
In Curtis’s speech too, each thought is bounced off the walls and then slips out of the door. ‘I don’t write about anything in particular. It’s all subconscious stuff. Scribble … sometimes feelings or things that pop into your head. Does that sound pretentious?’ Giving four answers and a qualification may have been characteristic: ‘We haven’t got a message really; the lyrics are open to interpretation. They’re multi-dimensional. You can read into them whatever you like. Obviously they’re important to the band.’ These sentences aren’t the usual series of false starts. Each sets off in a different direction but, like his lyrics, they make a disordered kind of sense.
He was struggling to manage his illness, his career, his marriage and a new romance. The anti-epilepsy medication he was prescribed was known to have drastic side-effects, including depression. Those close to him have expressed regret that they didn’t pay more attention to his words. Seen here, in their raw form, they blare anhedonia and desperation, but their tone was not unusual for the time. It seems too that being part of Joy Division entailed a level of containment beyond blokish reticence. ‘We almost weren’t like a band,’ the guitarist, Bernard Sumner, writes in Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me. ‘We were more like four individuals doing our own thing.’
This beautifully produced book unframes Curtis’s words and places them beside the books he read and the fan mail he kept. His wife, Deborah Curtis, whose memoir, Touching from a Distance, has just been reissued, contributes a foreword which has the clarity that comes with having made sense of something at last. It is such a sad thing to read. Jon Savage offers an equally clear distillation of what has become a clash of narratives as books about Joy Division, Manchester and post-punk proliferate.
The word fans settled on to describe the band’s sound was ‘industrial’, not least because they came from Manchester, everywhere described as the world’s first industrial city. By the late 1970s, its mills, canals, factories and institutes were at a loss. I had never been anywhere that felt so solid and so empty. The band’s producer, Martin Hannett, drew on Joy Division’s centrifugal tendency and pushed the band’s music into arrangements that were broken down, unproductive and full of disused space. It was the sound of their city but it could have been describing the entire country.
The band made their breakthrough in 1979, a year of strikes, bombs, serial killers, high inflation and the election of Margaret Thatcher. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan felt like the beginning of the end of the world. As Savage says, ‘there was a sense – reinforced by the vacant, derelict inner cities – that the bomb had already dropped.’ We were nostalgic for the future. Not the future of jetpacks, tinfoil and spandex promised by comics and television, but the one we’d been offered by books. The groovy dystopias of Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and Naked Lunch were twenty years or more out of date but they were all we had. Curtis read Burroughs (whom he met) and Ballard as well as Dostoevsky and Kafka.
This new seriousness appealed to bookish and style-conscious teenagers. It drew on punk’s inverted idealism and made the most of its own naivety. There was a desire for scale and depth and glamour. We read authors we didn’t understand, whose names we couldn’t pronounce. A lot (too much) depended on a book’s cover. The point was to get hold of one solid insight, which usually meant one solid phrase. Everyone talked in capital letters.
The names of bands were often allusions arrived at secondhand. ‘Joy Division’ was found in a ‘true story’ paperback, House of Dolls, about the brothels in concentration camps. Sumner was given the book in a job lot of 1970s titillation: ‘Some bloke where I worked at the time gave me five books and that was one of them. One of the others was called The Knights of Bushido, which was about Japanese atrocities. Another was Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.’
Ian was a scholarship boy who won prizes for divinity and history, wore nail polish and borrowed his sister’s fun-fur jacket. He took Deborah to hear David Bowie and Lou Reed, and read her Oscar Wilde, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn. He showed her a ring binder containing sections labelled ‘Lyrics’ and ‘Novel’. ‘I felt privileged that he had trusted me enough to let me see the extent of his ambitions,’ she writes in her introduction. Curtis had no doubt about his promise. When the pop producer Jonathan King staged a talent search, he went down to London and presented himself – no songs, no band, just himself.
When he was 16 he gave Deborah a valentine which begins: ‘I wish I were a Warhol silk screen … ’ Why a silk screen? Why not Warhol himself? It’s an odd valentine, full of solitary desire and disconnects, about wanting to be absorbed into – and reproduced within – another world. His sweetheart gets a hasty mention in the last couple of lines: ‘I’d put you on a movie reel/And that would be just fine.’ She too is absorbed and reproduced. ‘I enjoyed the attention I thought he was giving me,’ she wrote, long after his death.
Despite the fun-fur and nail polish, he voted Conservative and married Deborah at 19. She recalls that he and his schoolfriends talked of ‘going to London’ and most of them did, but not Ian. He got a job at a local employment exchange. On stage he wore smart shirts and proper trousers, properly ironed. He was often photographed in a raincoat. He was so charismatic, so overtly on edge, that his look became the look. For about a year I wore a raincoat more indoors than out.
Savage prefaces his introduction with Curtis’s self-directive: ‘Need to ignore + tear up previous influences (unimportant) – look ahead. Taste is habit. The repetition of something already accepted.’ When he bought new records, old ones were removed from his collection. He had a blue room with blue curtains and furniture. For someone who planned himself so carefully, it must have been all the more traumatic to lose control. Perhaps an awareness that he could lose control led to the planning.
In December 1978 Curtis suffered a grand mal fit on the way home from the band’s first London performance. He was given a formal diagnosis of epilepsy and warned against everything that constitutes the life of a band on the road. It became routine for him to have seizures on stage. Joy Division’s bassist, Peter Hook, thinks that ‘the problem with Ian’s illness was that we were all young enough to ignore it.’ His fans, also young, also ignored it. He started to dance on stage like someone who didn’t want to but had to. I remember his slack face and the way his eyes emptied as he travelled inwards and tremors passed through his body. Instead of wondering whether he was simulating a fit or about to have one, I should have called an ambulance. Sumner and Hook would get him off stage and hold him down while the fit passed; he’d tell them to leave him alone and would cry, Sumner writes in his memoir, ‘in a strange room in a strange town, just breaking his heart’.
In 1979, he wrote a song called ‘Disorder’:
I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasure of a normal man? …
Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow.
He is waiting to feel something, or to find someone who can show him how to, but what arrives is total, without the shape or direction feeling requires. His revisions to his lyrics scoured away hope: ‘born out of love’ becomes ‘out of good intentions’ and then ‘out of your frustrations’. ‘Your shadow that danced by the side of the road,/Nothing can keep me from you’ is eroded to ‘The shadow that stood by the side of the road/Always reminds me of you.’ In the lines from ‘Warsaw’ that end up as ‘All this talk made no contact/No matter how hard I tried,’ he first tries out ‘your talk’, ‘my talk’ and ‘you tried’. As Deborah observes of the band’s most famous song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, ‘Your bedroom, this bedroom, the bedroom: he played with these variations. Was he trying to depersonalise the lyrics or did he genuinely not know which bedroom he was referring to?’
When he got home, he put his notebooks away before he took off his coat. Deborah once pressed him to explain a song and he left the house. He didn’t show her the lyrics to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ but went to great lengths to explain how the cover image on the record had been achieved. The words were etched on metal which was treated with acid and then left out in the rain.
Capital letters are monotonous and exhausting. Perhaps Curtis felt this way much of the time. He used them even when writing to Annik Honoré, with whom he fell in love during the last year of his life. ‘i now have the gift of sound and vision, and what i see of myself – i hate and the things i hear about me – i also hate.’ Momentum fails him: ‘dear annik, i love you. i feel very tired at the moment.’ He told her of going to see Apocalypse Now and then coming home to listen to the Doors and read T.S. Eliot. ‘He found the materials that he needed for his escape,’ Savage writes, ‘only to discover – as advised in much of his reading – that escape was impossible.’ Impossible because, as much of that reading matter also concludes, what he needed to escape from was himself.
In a song whose heavy-handed title comes from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Curtis condemns those who ‘watch his body twist’ but more so his own failure to act to full effect: ‘Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair.’ Curtis, who found the music he was looking for, the band he needed and the success on which he was intent, sounds susceptible and depleted: ‘I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.’
So This Is Permanence concludes with a selection of fan mail. ‘Dear Ian, its Rex thanks for getting me in on Friday … I’ll ring you soon or you ring me … please can you send me some more Unknown Pleasures badges cos Ive only 1 left.’ From Belgium: ‘Dear Joy Division, I write you stupidly but it’s a need … People are vulgar. I feel dispirit.’ And there’s a request from a girl in Leeds, written on jolly yellow notepaper, asking for details of where to get a badge and enclosing an s.a.e. The letters map the range of responses fans had to the band. They were lads you could approach in the pub, angels of bleakness, a cool accessory. That these letters were written and answered and kept is evidence of the direct connections that could be made in those rudimentary times.
The totemic book covers reproduced here include Dawn Ades’s Dada and Surrealism, which features Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced, the back view of a man staring at his back view in a mirror. Curtis needed a way to see himself, to feel observed and recorded, just as he feared those things. He needed to step outside but he didn’t want to leave: ‘My view stretches out from the fence to the wall/No words could explain, no actions determine/Just watching the trees and the leaves as they fall.’