Ian Curtis was aged just 23 when he committed suicide on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, causing the band to dissolve and reform as New Order.
Yet his cultural legacy has proved far from short-lived: the tragic narrative of his brief life has since inspired films and books, and his songs have become a permanent fixture in the story of British music, while his enigmatic persona has encouraged endless poring over his life and career in search of answers. You might wonder, therefore: is there any new light to shed on him?
A new book does just that. Co-edited by his widow, Deborah Curtis, and Joy Division aficionado Jon Savage, So This Is Permanence collects together various Curtis writings including previously unseen musings from his notebooks and facsimiled, handwritten lyric sheets for unreleased and celebrated songs alike. With an appendix including fan letters, fanzines and other memorabilia, it conveys what Deborah describes as Curtis’s “complex theatrical personality” from a prismatic range of perspectives, as well as his varied interests, from politics to poetry.
The project was initiated by Lee Brackstone, a commissioning editor at Faber, who called Deborah in early 2013 suggesting a book and wondering if, in fact, there might be any fragments of Ian’s original lyric drafts; in fact, there was even more extant material than he had hoped for. It is drawn from several sources, including an A4 ring binder, three notebooks and a large sheaf of A4 paper, as well as miscellaneous scraps. Curtis used to carry his writings around in a plastic bag. “When Ian found his direction, the notebooks, the scraps of paper and the carrier bag became an extension of his body. All he was able to express on a personal level was poured into his writing, and so his lyrics tell much more than a conversation with him ever could,” explains Deborah in her foreword to the book. The bag went everywhere with him, and he kept it in “the blue room”, the room in the Macclesfield home that he and Deborah bought in 1977 where he wrote and which he had carpeted and painted light blue.
Compiling Curtis’s writings was a challenging task, says Savage. “There was one night driving back from Deborah’s [in Cheshire to my home in North Wales] when I got totally lost and I never get lost. I have a really good sense of direction. And that was a direct result of dealing with all that.” For, despite Curtis’s sky-coloured hideaway, the emotional palette of his lyrics was dark. He was diagnosed with epilepsy a year before his death while Deborah was pregnant and she writes of how “feelings of isolation, loss and spectacle” seeped into his work: “His writing didn’t so much develop as ripen, so much so that you can hear the bruising in his voice.”