Ian Curtis (1956 to 1980)
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A short biography of Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis the civil servant
Ian Curtis's suicide
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Photograph (C) of Philippe Carly (www.newwavephotos.com)
More photos from this session can be found here
A short biography of Ian Curtis
Ian Kevin Curtis was born in Manchester on the 15th July 1956, the son of Kevin and Doreen Curtis. The Curtis family then lived at Hurdsfield, just outside Macclesfield, where Ian attended the local primary school. Later the family moved to a flat at Victoria Park, near Macclesfield town centre, which was Ian's home until 1973.
At the age of 11 Ian won a scholarship to the King's School in Macclesfield. Although he was reasonably successful at school, Ian had little interest in academic advancement, and his ambition was to get a job in the music industry. His love of music had developed from an early age, his teenage heroes including David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground. The first step on his musical career was a job at Rare Records, a shop in Manchester city centre. This helped to expand his musical interests.
Ian Curtis had met Deborah Woodruffe while they were both still at school in Macclesfield. They were married on 23rd August 1975, at St Thomas's church in Henbury, a few miles west of Macclesfield. Ian and Deborah lived first in Hulme and then in Chadderton, and in May 1977 moved into 77 Barton Street in Macclesfield. Their life together is described in detail in Deborah's book Touching From A Distance. Their only child, daughter Natalie, was born on 16th April 1979.
Seeing the Sex Pistols perform in Manchester in 1976 had convinced Ian that he too could make it on stage. Ian had made abortive attempts to form a band with his friends in Macclesfield. His break came when he got to know Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who were trying to do the same in Salford but lacked a singer. When Ian contacted them to enquire about the vacancy, they were happy to join forces with him. The band history page tells the story of how things developed from there.
As well as being Joy Division's vocalist, Ian Curtis also wrote the song lyrics. Lyrically he was inspired by, among others, W S Burroughs, J G Ballard and David Bowie. Many of Joy Division's songs were written in the house in Barton Street, and Ian had a stock of notebooks into which he jotted ideas as they came to him. Many people assume that his lyrics must reflect his own feelings and problems, but perhaps they just reflect his talent for writing a meaningful song.
Ian's first (and last) "proper" job was as a civil servant for the Manpower Services Commission, initially in Manchester and later in Macclesfield. His job required him to work closely with disabled people (see below for more details). He tried to juggle a full-time job with his life in the band until his musical commitments became too great for him to manage both.
While working in Manchester, Ian was a frequent visitor to the nearby office of the RCA record company. It was mainly Ian's persistency which led to Joy Division being given a contract to record their first album, although this was never officially released. Ian is also famous for haranguing Granada TV's Tony Wilson in order to get Joy Division an appearance on his TV show.
Ian had a volatile personality, and could show different sides at different times and with different people. He could sometimes be angry and spiteful, but more often was easy-going and generous. Although his health, his career and his personal life all brought many pressures, Ian is usually recalled by those who knew him as a fun-loving person, albeit a slightly eccentric one, with a good sense of humour.
In January 1979 Ian was diagnosed as epileptic. Although his fits varied in frequency and intensity, epilepsy was an ever-present concern from then on. Not only did Ian have to take regular medication, which seemed to make his mood swings more extreme, but fits could be brought on by strobe lighting in some of the clubs. His frenetic stage style mirrored the epileptic fits he suffered. Ian's experience of epilepsy in himself and others inspired him to write She's Lost Control. Ian was also a heavy smoker, possibly another sign of the stress he was under.
The pressures of working in a touring band played havoc with Ian's health and his marriage. A number of Joy Division concerts were curtailed or cancelled when Ian was taken ill. Once he was hopitalised for a few days following an epileptic fit. His involvement with a Belgian girl named Annik Honoré further undermined his already fragile relationship with his wife Deborah. After Ian gave up his full-time job, he and Deborah had little money, so Deborah was forced to work herself despite having a baby to look after.
On May 18th 1980 Ian Curtis killed himself at his home in Macclesfield (see below for more details). His suicide came as a great shock to those who knew him. With the benefit of hindsight, many apparent clues to his frame of mind can be found, but no-one really knows what drove Ian to take his own life.
While Ian Curtis was clearly unusual in many respects, the popular "doom and gloom" image left by his suicide and by some of his songs is not recognised by most of the people who knew him. Although some people now remember only his suicide, we remember Ian's key contribution to a talented band and to a musical era.
Ian's work as a civil servant
Most of the details in this section were kindly provided by Ian's former colleagues Bert Bretherton and Patrick Ell
Ian Curtis worked as a civil servant for the government department which was responsible for the payment of unemployment benefits and for helping unemployed people to find work. We are not sure exactly when this job started and finished, but Ian was certainly a full-time civil servant when Joy Division's early successes gave him hopes of become a full-time musician. We don't know of any other leading light in the music business who successfully held down another responsible full-time job.
Ian worked first for the Manpower Services Commission, as it was then called, at the Sunley Building in Manchester city centre and then at Washington House on the border of Manchester and Salford. He was a Clerical Officer working in one of the accounts sections of the Training Services Division, which at the time administered Training Opportunities Schemes (TOPS) on behalf of the government. Unemployed people were paid a training fee to re-train on a wide range of skills such as bricklaying, plastering or engineering. The accounts sections paid both the trainees and the colleges and employers who trained them.
His work colleagues in Manchester found him a very quiet, lovely person. They kept in touch on work-related matters even after Ian transferred to Macclesfield. Ian would talk about his band but did not boast about it. A colleague recalls a conversation in a corridor by the lifts about the name change from Warsaw to Joy Division. Ian did on occasions bring in his latest release and a number of people who worked closely with Ian got him to sign them on the basis that one day he could be famous!
Ian probably worked here until well into 1978 before moving to a new job as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer based at the JobCentre in Macclesfield. The aim of his new job was to help people with special needs, due to some type of physical or mental disability, to find and retain employment. One of the factors that motivated him to apply for the job in Macclesfield was that it would take him about five minutes to walk from home to work instead of the awkward journey he had by public transport to central Manchester.
In Macclesfield Ian sought job vacancies and training opportunities that matched the abilities of those JobCentre clients he dealt with professionally. He also sought to influence employers to overcome any prejudices they might have towards considering people with disabilities. One can only imagine how Ian coped with the responsibility he must have felt towards these people, who in the main would be unemployed and coming to terms with their own problems, in less enlightened times when equality of opportunity was a myth.
A senior training team member with the Employment Service based in Aytoun Street in Manchester tutored Ian (in a group of ten) to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to carry out these interviewing and marketing activities successfully. He remembers Ian as a serious-minded member of the group who only spoke when he had something worth saying. Ian had something about him that made him stand out. It would be pretentious to say it was an "aura" - more it was an attitude, a stance, an individuality.
Ian's line manager was the Disablement Resettlement Officer (DRO) at Macclesfield Employment Exchange/JobCentre and he was a good friend to Ian. At that time there were layers of different generations of staff within the Department. To cope with the introduction of the national JobCentre programme, a fresh group of bright young things were recruited to breathe enthusiasm into the new age of helping people find jobs and employers find people. These included Ian.
The DRO was more than a boss to Ian and looked after him as a mentor and "father figure". Ian would have confided in him, much as young men do in their favourite uncle. He would have known that Ian suspected he suffered from epilepsy long before he started work with him and before he did his Assistant DRO training. DRO and ADRO teams were a two-person bonded force. There was a closeness that other staff did not experience - there were no other teams like these. The DRO would have helped Ian with his decision to formally register as a disabled person himself and seek help from a national support group.
Ian's boss was concerned about Ian's medical condition and the difficulties of him trying to juggle an "in your face" public service job with the growing demands of his music career and his developing domestic difficulties. At that time, at his age, and with his intelligence, it would have been expected that Ian would have the opportunity for fairly rapid promotion in the civil service.
Part of Ian's training concentrated on specific types of physical and mental disabilities and certainly covered epilepsy in some depth, looking at symptoms, possible causes, grand mal and petit mal, the stigma (born out of ignorance) attached to it, activity limitations, and treatments. The effects of his own epilepsy and depression he would have seen in others and he would have been able to offer positive and constructive advice.
Generally speaking, a person who is susceptible to epileptic attacks, suffers more the greater their tiredness - especially their mental fatigue. Ian will have been completely aware that as his commitments to the band lifestyle grew and his work load did not decrease the chance of him having more frequent and violent attacks was a likely consequence.
And so it proved. From the end of 1978 until he left his job about nine months later his attendance became erratic and his behaviour less predictable. With all of his tensions something was going to give way. Although his fits became less frequent and Ian became more alert to when they were going to happen, he also recognised he was losing control of his social skills and was alienating those who were close to him. His line manager may well have seen the development of this trait and, because of their relationship, would have been distressed himself. Within another nine months, of course, Ian took his own life.
Ian's suicide: in a lonely place
In the early hours of May 18th 1980, two months before his 24th birthday, Ian Curtis committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield.
Shortly before the end of Ian's life, his wife Deborah had started divorce proceedings and Ian was no longer living at the family home. In April 1980 Ian was admitted to hospital after taking an overdose of his epilepsy medication. As in many such cases, it is not clear whether this was a genuine suicide attempt or simply a plea for help. What is clear is that by the last month of his life Ian found that the pressures on him were greater than ever, not least because of the need to prepare for the band's first American tour.
On Saturday May 17th, Ian cancelled arrangements to meet friends and returned to his home in Barton Street. Deborah was working behind the bar at a local disco, and had left Natalie with her parents while she was at work. While she was out Ian watched Stroszek, a film by Werner Herzog. When Deborah returned, she and Ian talked for a while, then Ian persuaded her to stay the night at her parents' house.
Alone again in the house, Ian listened to Iggy Pop and wrote a long letter to his estranged wife. In the early hours of Sunday morning he hanged himself in the kitchen using the rope from a clothes airer. His body was found by Deborah when she returned later the same day.
Many theories have been advanced to explain Ian's suicide, but none of these can be proved. It has been claimed that Ian had a morbid desire to emulate those of his heroes who had died young. The most likely reason was depression, but no-one can agree about whether he was depressed by his epilepsy, by the effects of the drugs he was taking to control it, by the break-up of his marriage, or by worries about the forthcoming American tour.
People who were with him shortly before his death give conflicting accounts of his state of mind. Some were left with the impression that he was dreading the American tour and the travelling involved. Others say that he was looking forward to the tour with excitement. A third view, advanced by Deborah Curtis, is that the prospect of touring did not worry him because he knew that he would not be going! Although no-one can agree on whether Ian's suicide was long planned or an impulsive decision, most people do agree that his illness and drug regime affected his judgement.
A few days after his death, Ian's body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium. Deborah Curtis had the words Love Will Tear Us Apart inscribed on Ian's memorial stone.
With the benefit of hindsight, some warnings of the eventual outcome can be found in Ian's behaviour and in some of his writing. Unfortunately Ian had a secretive nature, and was good at concealing his feelings from others. He even managed to conceal his epilepsy until he actually had a fit. He certainly managed to conceal any suicidal tendencies from those around him, so the true reason for his death will remain obscure. Perhaps it is better not to speculate and to let Ian Curtis rest in peace.