Inside Joy Division
It Books: 416 pp., $27.99
In the three decades since he committed suicide, singer Ian Curtis has become both a symbol and a caricature. Curtis' seemingly tortured life as a member of the English post-punk band Joy Division and early death in 1980 have been transformed into myth and Curtis into a modern-day Thomas Chatterton or Sylvia Plath. His life offers a perfect narrative for disaffected, sun-averse souls the world over: a young genius too pure to live.
As described in former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook's honest, punchy and rough-hewn document of that period, "Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division," Curtis was as tragic and magnetic a figure as the legend suggests, though at the time Hook saw him mostly as a beer-drinking, prank-playing pal.
Struggling with depression, a failing marriage and debilitating bouts of epilepsy, Curtis killed himself on the eve of Joy Division's first American tour, just as the band's penultimate single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," was released. The musical legacy that Curtis, Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris created still resonates.
"Unknown Pleasures" is a portal into a vivid moment in rock history as well as the life and times of a working band. The book is filled with car breakdowns, fistfights, festering grudges, sniping, drugs, girls and, in the middle of it all, the transformative power of music.
Hook, a self-described working-class yobbo who cofounded Joy Division with Sumner in Manchester, England, shortly after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976, is the perfect guide.
"You shouldn't trust a word I say," he writes at one point, elsewhere admitting that during Joy Division's rise among a competitive Manchester music scene, "we reveled in backbiting and treachery." His tone suggests a bloke telling the wild story of his youth over the course of half a dozen pints.
He provides a raw, detailed chronological account of those days with an admirable directness, even as he addresses hard truths about the way he and his mates handled their lead singer's condition. At one point, speaking of the physical toll that touring was taking on the quietly suffering Curtis, Hook writes that an alternate title for his book might be "He Said He Was Alright So We Carried On."
They did carry on, and the result was a singular sound, one honed by practice but perfected in the studio by mastermind producer Martin Hannett. Hook captures the band's artistic arrival when describing a pre-show sound check when they were working out their classic song "Transmission." Playing for an empty house, the bassist describes a "stop-the-presses moment" when the sound guys, the opening band, the PA staff stopped cold and started watching. "Looking at one another, we were thinking that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to make a go of this."
Hook tells his story without any preciousness — in fact, he seems to revel in his abrasiveness throughout. He badmouths the Cure, writing, "I think they thought, 'I wish we were Joy Division.'" He describes Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley as a "Little Lord Fauntleroy" for ordering lobster at a restaurant. Hook says early on that former bandmate Sumner hates being called Barney — then proceeds to call him that for the rest of the book. (The two have had a rocky relationship: New Order, formed by the surviving members of Joy Division after Curtis' suicide, reunited without Hook in 2011; Hook, in turn, upset the other former members of Joy Division by touring to perform the band's debut album, "Unknown Pleasures," against their wishes.)
Hook stews about his role in the band as the workhorse; while Curtis is doing things like hanging out with Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, the bassist is fixing the engine of the band's touring van — and, much to his dismay, paying for the necessary parts.
Interspersing chapters with timelines, Hook also offers track-by-track rundowns of the making of Joy Division's two classic studio albums, "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer." The method provides a solid scaffold around which he hangs his tale, which as it progresses toward a fateful Saturday in May 1980, becomes the sad, inevitable countdown of Curtis' final days. By 1980, the singer is drinking bottles of Pernod and slashing himself with a kitchen knife, even as his electrifying and spastic onstage movements are becoming more mesmerizing.
Hook describes those late performances unflinchingly as Curtis regularly experiences seizures during shows. He'd freeze, midstrum, staring blankly into space. The band urged lighting technicians to avoid strobes, but they'd forget and Curtis would end up on the floor writhing in a fit. He fell back into Morris' drum kit, lost.
The band's response, writes Hook: "We'd stop him from swallowing his tongue and he'd get up, tell us he was fine, and, well, you know the rest."
Thanks to this sometimes heartbreaking, always engrossing memoir, we do indeed.
Hook will discuss and sign copies of "Unknown Pleasures" at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1. For more information: http://www.skylightbooks.com/event.