Today is one of the saddest days in the history of rock music, the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. In the early Sunday morning hours of May 18th, 1980, he hanged himself in his kitchen, Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot still spinning on his record player, a note left for his estranged wife. Factory Records co-founder and friend Tony Wilson, a Catholic always ready with symbolism, recalled in his book 24 Hour Party People that he was “discovered on the Sabbath”, the holy day of rest. Soon after his death, one reviewer, whose name I can’t recall, wrote “Ian Curtis died for your sins.” Is Curtis a rock god? A martyr? A saint? Should he be?
The hagiography, the construction of sainthood, surrounding this tortured young man is fierce. He is the subject of devout adoration and analysis. Having read so many memoirs and biographies about Curtis, I know that he was no saint in the traditional sense. Yet all our saints are dead. We need them dead because we can then press upon them what we need. We can cast them in the image of how we want them. They cannot refuse us. We put ourselves into our saints.
“Pray for us,” we beseech our patron saint. “Just listen. Please.” Someone, please listen. Perhaps we light a candle, a small flame flickering over melting wax encased in glass. If that’s our tradition, or perhaps if that’s our desperation, having never lit such a candle before. When we know nothing, believing a saint has special knowledge, special proximity and knowledge beyond what we have, what we know, that is reassuring. Curtis’s lyrics and urgent voice are so profound and jarring, so worldweary and insightful about isolation, pain, anxiety, and frustration, how can he not know something?
Pilgrimages are made to his Macclesfield. We remember May 18 as a solemn day. It has a hallowedness to it. It is a day set aside to listen to a particular meaningful song of Joy Divisions’ catalog, to dwell on the tenuousness of mental health, to remember a particular moment of crisis we knew had to come, when Joy Division provided, perhaps, both the spirit and the feeling to endure, to push through some terrible moment. Bassist Peter Hook tours the world playing his own band’s songs – even in former churches. Even in the very church Curtis attended as a boy, Christ Church Macclesfield. He played Joy Division’s full catalog there on May 18th, 2018.
The Anglican Calendar of Saints is empty on May 18th. There are no saints, today. So perhaps it is fitting for Curtis to be canonized by those who need him. Ian Curtis, who grew up going to Christ Church Macclesfield with his mother, who went on work trips with his organ repairman uncle, who excelled in his Anglican studies at school, quarreled with his Anglican teachers over theology and the Bible, became disenchanted or disillusioned (or both) with God. Saints can’t refuse their sainthood. Would he? I think he’d chuckle about the whole thing.
Curtis knew about saints. He sings about them at the beginning of Unknown Pleasures‘ “Wilderness”. When asked what he’d seen in his travels, he cries, “I saw the saints and their toys!” These holy paragons and their emblems are cast as children clutching useless playthings in their hands. Saints are the first thing he sees and he sees them worthless. What good are saints? They are stories in stained glass and carved stone. Models of righteous living. Something to shoot for. Something to pray to. Saint Ian Curtis, staring, dancing, flailing before his microphone on the verge of an epileptic seizure, what Hippocrates called “the sacred disease”?
Writing about saints is a tricky endeavor. The closer you look at them, the more you squint, their sainthood becomes both muddied and distilled. Their actual lives and the stories about their lives are not the same. Writing this book on Joy Division has been a very arduous task. Listening to singular songs over and over and over, discerning their meaning, allowing myself to feel the weight saturating into me. All for insight, something possibly theological and useful. A theology of Joy Division exists. That’s the upsetting, problematic thing. It’s in the lyrics. “Day of the Lords”. “Wilderness”. “Passover”. “Colony”. It’s on the cover of Closer. It’s impossible to separate the lyrics from the man. It’s impossible to separate the man from the band, from the sound of Joy Division.
And then the whole story now iconified in sound and image and text and film and even theatre. The stories keep getting told over and over and over. This is how saints are created. At what point do Joy Division’s songs become hymns? When “Atmosphere” is played at funerals? When “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is played at memorial concerts? At what point do the songs become psalms of lamentation? Did a saint write them? No. He was just a young man trying to get his thoughts out in front of him, recording them in the dead of night with the lights down low. Trying to find a clue, trying to find a way to get out.
Today, May 18th, we remember a young man who was a brilliant, tortured artist. But we must remember that as we hold him up as a brilliant, tortured artist that he was just a person like the rest of us, with fears and dreams and complex relationships, who loved to joke and play pranks and married too young. Ian’s mother wanted everyone to know that he was a happy child. When we create saints, we don’t focus on the parts that don’t fit into the sainthood we want to create.
There is an empty space on the Anglican calendar of saints today. Shall we light a candle for our anti-saint? This psalmist and icon? This singer we ascribe something darkly hallowed for the salve and catharsis of thousands? Shall we say, “St. Ian, pray for us” or shall we simply beg, like he did, “Don’t walk away… in silence. Don’t walk away.”