Ian Curtis: ‘His lyrics were so dark’

A never-before-seen cache of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’s writing is being released by his widow, Deborah. She tells Jenny Stevens why he wanted to be an author – as well as a rock star

“Words meant such a lot to Ian,” says Deborah Curtis. “If he put a record on, we’d have to listen to absolutely everything. He used to talk about what the lyrics meant and the story behind them. He didn’t like songs that didn’t mean anything.”

Deborah is talking about So This Is Permanence, a book out next week that gathers together writings by her husband Ian, the Joy Division frontman who took his life in May 1980. Featuring handwritten lyrics and prose drawn from his notebooks and scraps of paper he kept in ringbinders, the selection was put together with the help of journalist Jon Savage. It is an attempt, says Deborah, to showcase Ian’s writing in a way he would have wanted.

Ian was 23 when he died, on the eve of Joy Division’s first US tour. He left behind a wife, a baby daughter, and a music career that had barely begun. In the decades since, his brief but incendiary career has achieved cult status. He is the iconic frontman, whose band’s pioneering post-punk documented late 1970s Manchester in all its grit and grime. His life story – epilepsy, depression, extramarital affair – aches through songs such as Love Will Tear Us Apart and She’s Lost Control. It has also been dissected on page and on screen, following Deborah’s memoir, which Anton Corbijn turned into the 2007 biopic Control. Unlike her own memoir, she says, this book is for Ian. “It can’t be subjective,” she says. “Because he did it. It’s all Ian’s work.”

Lyrics for Joy Division’s 1979 single Transmission
The lyrics for Joy Division’s 1979 single Transmission, in Curtis’s distinctive capitalised handwriting Photograph: PR

Deborah met Ian when she was a teenager in Macclesfield. He was an awkward, lanky figure who wore skinny jeans and eyeliner. By then, he was already a cult figure locally: a poet and a writer who carried his work around in a plastic bag, even after his band found success.

After his death, Deborah stored the work in two large envelopes. She didn’t read it until his bandmates, who went on to form New Order, told her they were looking for the exact lyrics to tracks the band had rehearsed but never properly recorded. But the lyrics weren’t there. “Ian was very efficient,” she says. “He didn’t like loose ends. I’m guessing he didn’t want the lyrics there because he hadn’t recorded them yet. I gather that when someone is thinking about dying, they do start giving things away. Knowing him, he must have thought about what was going to happen to his work.”

Ian rarely talked about his lyrics; certainly not in the few interviews he did, and never with Deborah at home. Yet they were deeply personal, even more so on Joy Division’s second and final album Closer, released two months after Ian’s death. Hearing the album for the first time, says Deborah, was “shocking. Because the lyrics were so dark. So very dark. You just think, ‘How come he couldn’t talk to somebody about it?’”

An early version of Love Will Tear Us Apart
An early version of Love Will Tear Us Apart. Curtis played with variations of ‘your’, ‘this ’, and ‘the bedroom’ in earlier drafts Photograph: PR

She first heard Love Will Tear Us Apart after his death, too. The track has since been dissected by fans and critics as his final outpouring of turmoil after facing an impossible choice between his wife and his mistress. “Why is the bedroom so cold?” he sings. “You’ve turned away on your side. Is my timing that flawed? Our respect runs so dry.” But earlier drafts of the lyrics, featured in the book, show him playing with variations: your bedroom, this bedroom, the bedroom. Was he trying to displace what was going on in his own life? “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is reality,” says Deborah.

Partly, that’s because Ian would lose himself in literature, and much of the dystopian fiction he immersed himself in filtered into his work. There are obvious references to writers in his track titles: Atrocity Exhibition (JG Ballard), Colony (Franz Kafka) and Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol). The covers of books he loved form the final part of Permanence, alongside his own work. “Ian didn’t have an unhappy childhood,” says Deborah. “Nothing horrible happened. He didn’t have a lot to draw on. I think that’s why he read so much.”

Draft lyrics written on scrap paper
Draft lyrics written on scrap paper his wife Deborah brought home from her job at the local council Photograph: PR

For Deborah, releasing his handwritten prose is a way of fulfilling a legacy she believes Ian wanted: that of writer rather than rock star. “We grew up watching pop programmes on television. That was part of the era – the rock-star aspect. At the time, poetry was considered old-fashioned. It seemed like a logical progression to put it to music. I don’t think the fame and life on the road suited him very well. I think he would have continued to write even if he didn’t want to perform. When he got to 40 or 50, he probably could have written a terrific book.”

She says she does, occasionally, take out the lyrics and read through them. “Having the whole thing together as a body of work, the music and now the lyrics, is wonderful,” she says. “I wish he was here. He’d be so proud.”

Does she still play Joy Division’s music? “I don’t,” she says softly. “I can hear it if I want to. It’s there in my head.”

• So This Is Permanence is published on Thursday by Faber.


Jenny Stevens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Alexis Petridis on Joy Division merchandise

Certain artists always seem immune to the possibility of the corporate tie-in, maintains Alexis Petridis, not least the legendarily gloomy post-punk band Joy Division. That has changed.

Alexis Petridis

16, Apr, 2007 @1:08 AM

Article image
How we made: Ben Kelly and Peter Hook on the Haçienda club
‘We even had an inflatable pool in there one night – and it burst’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

02, Jul, 2012 @11:51 PM

Article image
Clive James: My life in lyrics

Clive James loves writing songs more than anything in the world. He just wishes the world would love his songs, too

01, Apr, 2008 @1:01 AM

Article image
Songs for swinging authors: can novelists write good lyrics?
Forget moon in June. Today’s pop lyrics are written by Pulitzer-winning novelists. Dorian Lynskey talks to the writers muscling into pop – and the musicians flirting with fiction

Dorian Lynskey

21, Jan, 2015 @6:33 PM

Article image
Photographer Kevin Cummins's best shot

'It almost doesn't need the band. It would still be a Joy Division photograph without them'

Interview by Sarah Phillips

02, Oct, 2011 @9:24 PM

Article image
Headie One review – a feelgood celebration despite the bleak lyrics
A young multicultural crowd experience the music behind the tabloid-outrage headlines as the London drill MC delivers his darkly compelling sounds

Dave Simpson

05, Nov, 2018 @2:02 PM

Unknown Pleasures: The life and work of Ian Curtis

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. To celebrate his life, Peter Hook and Chris Hewitt have curated an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia, which is open until Wednesday 19 May on the top floor of the Factory Records building. Peter Hook will also perform songs from Unknown Pleasures at the venue tonight (photographs by Michael Eastwood)


18, Jun, 2010 @1:24 PM

Article image
Dave review – dark, deep and emotionally driven
With a No 1 debut album under his belt, the rapper puts his audience through the wringer in a mass catharsis

Dave Simpson

19, Apr, 2019 @9:35 AM

Article image
Juliette Gréco: 'We were very naughty'
She was Miles Davis’s lover, Orson Welles’s drinking partner and Jean-Paul Sartre’s muse. But Juliette Gréco is still going strong at 86 – and still singing chanson. Agnès Poirier meets the French icon

Agnès Poirier

17, Feb, 2014 @6:23 PM

Article image
George Ezra review – gauche but charming lyrics to take you away from it all
The slightly long-winded storyteller performs his infectious hits to teens and their mums but he is at his best when shining a light on darker matters

Dave Simpson

09, Nov, 2018 @12:01 PM