Closer, Still: Reflections on Joy Division

Between February 2005 and January 2006, four of my friends took their lives. During that time I was both devastated and grief-shocked. As I traveled through a vast range of emotions, I began to turn to music as one way to cope. I found myself listening to a lot of Joy Division.

Before, I’d had a hard time understanding why any person would make such sorrowful music, but I began to recognize similarities between what Ian Curtis, the band’s singer, was expressing and what I was feeling as I struggled in the wake of my friends’ deaths. I discovered deeper emotions in Joy Division’s songs, feelings you can’t articulate until the beginnings of emotional maturity sets in. That may sound heavy. That’s because it is.

I fought it at first. I wanted to keep to my idea of what Joy Division was, hold fast to the descriptive music-writer classifications, which while often helpful, still unfortunately have the power to keep music from becoming dangerous or challenging. But I wasn’t happy with my ignorance, and something was telling me that there was more to the band than just the same old descriptions — dark, angry, post-punk, estranged, gothic. There was more to what I was hearing and feeling. I want to tell how Joy Division has taken me down somewhere I normally don’t go, somewhere I don’t usually read about in music magazines.

Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s lead singer, hung himself on May 18, 1980, two days before the group was to begin a US tour. His widow, Deborah, notes in her biography of Curtis, Touching from a Distance, that his close friends said he couldn’t handle the guilt of having entered into an extramarital affair or cope with the fear of what American audiences might think of his epilepsy. She recalls that during one of the band’s key performances, “I stood in the audience admiring my husband with everyone else. I considered myself to be well organized in my new role. I felt satisfied and happy in my ignorance — I believed the depressive image and emotive lyrics merely to be a part of the act. Joy Division were on the brink of success and despite other people’s misgivings, I was holding onto my husband and my baby. Even before Natalie’s birth, Mr. Pape, my old boss at the County Court in Macclesfield, had warned me that I may not be able to have both.”

Connecting Curtis’s death with the suicides of my four friends was taking me to a place where I hadn’t really gone before with a band. I was angry, guilty, and confused. I realized I wasn’t entirely comfortable looking at the emotions I had toward my friends’ choices. But one reoccurring and crucial element that helps one heal in the confusing wake of suicide is the opportunity to have a discussion and talk things out, and what better medium to begin with than music?

In her book, Curtis’s widow describes her husband as unwilling at times to be honest with himself and his emotions, suggesting that it was only in lyrics that he could freely express how he felt. With that perspective, I burrowed my way through all the albums Joy Division made during their brief existence. The music was no longer just an eerie melody moving through the air, evoked mainly by the anguished lyrics and sorrowful baritone delivery of Curtis.

I continued to go back to the music, again and again, not so much in search of anything but mainly because there was something in the voice of Ian Curtis that I was connecting with, something that both scared and comforted me. Resounding ripples of eerie, semiconscious fright washed over me every time I heard the metallic screeching intro to “Exercise One”, from the album Still. It would bring up the sadness I had tried to avoid; Joy Division refused me refuge from the ambush of emotions.

I began to ask questions. Why was I connecting so strongly with music as dark and bleak as Joy Division? Why was I seeking emotional refuge in songs like “Dead Souls”? I thought I had a firm understanding of what type of music I turn to in times of deep sadness, but the way this song resonated with me obliterated all my previous perceptions.

“Dead Souls” is one the best examples of how Curtis’s lyrics and the group’s music coalesce to create a sense of being inside the mind of someone who is battling depression and thoughts of suicide. Just hearing the tortured tone in which Curtis pushes his pain through these lyrics is enough for most fans, but reading the lyrics brought me to a whole other level:

Someone take these dreams away

That point me to another day

A duel of personalities

That stretch all true realities

That keep calling me

They keep calling me

Keep on calling me

Where figures from the past stand tall,

And mocking voices ring the halls.

Imperalistic house of prayer,

Conquistadors who took there share.

That keep calling me,

They keep calling me.

With a certain amount of apprehension, I approach the pain and isolation of depression through these words. As with so many suicides, most times friends don’t even know the person is suffering or what it is like inside their mind. But a song like “Dead Souls” offers a glimpse into what my friends were dealing with.

Too often we fixate on the topic of whether depressive music can cause fans to commit suicide. But there’s also the possibility for an artistic and therapeutic response between the fan and the artist. As I coped with the emotions surrounding the suicides of my friends, I wondered, “Could music like Joy Division’s be a source of healing?”

Yet as I understand it, most fans don’t seem to want to go where the music has taken me. The hard, uncomfortable journey destroys the magnificence and allure of the rock ‘n’ roll myth. It is much easier to remain casual with a song. Typically, music helps us avoid uncomfortable emotions, but my attempts to deal with the feelings surrounding the suicides of my friends brought me not escape, but a confrontation with my emotions that ultimately proved life-enhancing.

So in the same emotional revelatory vein, I force myself to face it. I think longer and then force myself to write about what I encounter. I listen to the songs again and dive into books about other artists who struggled with suicide, and I continue to ask questions. I force myself, because I know there is a part of me that needs to remain in control and understand the emotions I have when I listen to music like Joy Division. At first this practice seems far too academic for true musical enjoyment, but as this process evolves it becomes more gratifying, the music more meaningful, even sanctifying.