Joy Division leader Ian Curtis had “two characters”. Band members mourn failure to prevent singer’s suicide
After battling epilepsy and depression, Curtis died on May 18, 1980. He was just 23 years old.
In the years since his death, Curtis bandmates Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris have sought to pay homage to his life, both through the music of New Order – the subsequent reincarnation of their band – and now in raising awareness about suicide prevention.
The pair spoke to CNN to discuss their friend’s legacy and to reflect on the signs they missed regarding his struggles.
Curtis’s words partly reflected his real torment — torment that wasn’t always visible, according to Sumner.
“The thing is there were two characters, there was Ian who was hanging out with us and who was laughing a lot and having a lot of fun. And then there was the character who was expressing himself through his lyrics and they were, you know, poles apart, really, the two didn’t match, and it was confusing,” Sumner said.
Morris said he regretted not being able to grasp the significance of what Curtis wrote until after his death.
“Ian’s lyrics were great, you were very lucky to have someone write such fantastic lyrics, but we thought, ‘That’s really smart, he’s writing about someone else, it’s great how he can get into another person’s mind.’ And after he dies, you look at him and you’re like, ‘Oh, it was all about him,'” he said.
Towards the end of his life, Morris and Sumner said they tried to use music to help Curtis as they began to record him struggling.
“We wrote two songs, I think, two weeks before Ian died to try to heal him through music,” Sumner said.
One song was “Ceremony”, Sumner said, describing it as their attempt to engage Curtis “in the band and in the music and remind him of what a…great future he had”.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out,” Sumner added.
New Order still performs the song in honor of Curtis.
On Wednesday, Morris and Sumner took part in an event at the UK Parliament, London, to remember Curtis and promote mental health in conjunction with charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
The group wants to raise awareness and help increase funding for mental health, especially for young people, Sumner said.
In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, causing 18 deaths a day, according to CALM.
“Anything you can do to stop people from killing themselves has got to be a good thing,” Morris said, describing the mental health issues facing young people as a “crisis”.
Despite the numbers, Morris said there is greater awareness of mental health issues today, compared to Curtis’ death.
“In the 70s there was a kind of stigma that you didn’t want to admit there was something wrong with you. You would be really macho…it was a sign of weakness from say there was something wrong with you.”
“Especially with young men, you should be able to talk about issues like this, which is one of the big mental health issues these days, with young people becoming more and more aware of it,” Morris said.
While Sumner and Morris mourn their friend’s untimely death, they say Curtis achieved the kind of lasting impact he aspired to in his lifetime.
“He was like an arrow flying to the target and the target was to make a mark musically, which he did,” Sumner said.
Morris said the ultimate legacy of Ian Curtis is that the band’s music has helped people all over the world.
“When people come up to you and say, ‘I just want to thank Joy Division for the music because it really got me through some tough times,’ that means there’s got to be something in the music. and lyrics that people could relate to,” he said.