One of the problems I have with the lionisation of Ian Curtis since his death is that too many music journalists and writers have extolled the rock star myth while neglecting one of the fundamental reasons he had a troubled life: his epilepsy.
He died at the age of 23 and I’m not going to explore the reasons why or go into why Joy Division were a great band because many people have done that already. But I am going to give you an insight into how a young man growing up in the north-west; a man who was creative while suffering seizures, would have faced unbearable pressures to face up to the world – even without the fame, adulation and hero worship that Curtis experienced – because I was that person.
I had terrible, brutal seizures from the age of 12. I was put on monster doses of Epilim, now proven to increase the chance of birth defects in children, and spent most of my teenage years in a daze, falling over, waking up in class with my chin bleeding, lying on the pavement. I felt I was seeing things, visions, hallucinations. Was this the medication or the epilepsy? I don’t know but these experiences should be factored in when thinking about Curtis being worshipped by legions of fans eager to hear his next lyrical prophecy. There was nowhere for him to hide. But with epilepsy that’s the first thing you want to do. You are powerless and diminished – and the shame when you wake up from another seizure is real and inescapable.
Curtis’s influences have also intrigued me over the years, particularly the likes of Dosteovsky and William Burroughs. The Russian novelist also had epilepsy while Burrough’s mind-bending books may have provided solace for Curtis. Yet Burroughs, in particular, is very difficult for me to read – and not because his books or adaptations are bad but that they are too scary for an epilepsy sufferer to experience. The Cronenberg adaptation of Naked Lunch was almost unwatchable for me because I saw similar, terrible visions just before I was about to have a seizure. The sense of dread is so pervasive you feel there’s not chance you’ll come out the other side. Perhaps Curtis felt the same way.
None of this is to speculate on the reasons for his suicide. There were multiple issues and they’ve been well documented – but I simply want to add texture to the legacy of a great artist. He did have epilepsy and only those who have gone through its life-changing vortex can appreciate what that means for their soul, their brain, their loved ones and, perhaps most important to them, their art.
Which brings me neatly to the three-pronged assault on the senses that is creativity, depression and epilepsy. Why did I continually say ‘life is hell’ constantly when I was a teenager? You may not believe this but I actually enjoyed my childhood. I wasn’t depressed but kept saying I was. The reason? I was having a couple of seizures a month while being tanked up on medication. My body and mind were starting to betray me. I wasn’t suicidal but I can understand how a sufferer can lost in the dark haze of epilepsy’s clutches. It is inconceivable that Curtis wasn’t having similar thoughts.
Yet how then, you say, with all this talk of doom and darkness did Curtis come up with music of howling, intoxicating brilliance which still seeps into the souls of so many people in this country? Because his creative genius and deep lyricism was a way out, a chance for him to sway on the precipice of the next melody before another seizure grabbed him and told him in no uncertain terms: ‘We’re in control, not you’.
Sorry, to be a bit treble six about this but you do hear voices just before you have a seizure, an aura if you like. The feeling is like being pushed off the top of the Everest with a noose round your neck but not hitting the ground. Just as you are about to do so the nice person with the rope keeps pulling you back. This is repeated so you never hit the ground but suffer pain, paralysis and near-hysteria. I don’t need to explore some of Joy Division’s lyrics to stress the particular point.
All this is to illustrate that Curtis shouldn’t be merely romanticised as an early-death rock star like, say, Presley, Lennon or Jim Morrison, but should be treated with more understanding and nuance because he suffered from a terrible illness, which if you’re unlucky can leave you questioning existence itself.
On the other hand, the illness can also, in creative people, help them create the kind of art that lasts long in the memory; a canvas of aching beauty unmatched and unrivalled by other people. Ian Curtis did this and so did Joy Division. The clean, crisp and soulful sound of New Order was to come; but so many of us still relate to that dark tunnel that preceded it.