Smoker in a Trenchcoat – Ian Curtis (December 2007)


This was originally written for the site which no longer exists. So it’s archived here instead.

Carol Morley – Paul Morley’s sister – once told me about the moment the NME phoned up the Morley household to invite Paul down to their London offices to talk about him writing for them. He was working in a bookshop in Stockport at the time, I think, and had started a fanzine called ‘Out There’. Paul’s first response, Carol recalled, was to get his trousers narrowed. It was 1977, rock was surfing a new wave and Paul was concerned his trousers were too wide for him to be taken seriously.

I’ve no idea if it really happened exactly like that, and maybe we can never be 100% sure about stuff that happened thirty years ago, and, to be fair, Paul Morley, himself, in his subsequent writings about music, has never obsessed too much about precision or forensics or provable theories. But the story has the ring of truth about it; Morley would have been aware that London traditionally is a bit more particular about style than Manchester, often to the capital’s detriment. In the post-punk era, the London scenesters expected narrow trousers and the correct haircut but sartorially and musically, post-punk Manchester was less conformist in its nonconformity; Mark E Smith with his v-neck pullovers, and Hooky and Bernard with their moustaches.

Paul Morley’s first feature for the NME was printed in July 1977, a two page round-up of Manchester bands, which included lots of stuff about Buzzcocks and Magazine, mentions of other bands no-one remembers much now, and a couple of sympathetic but hardly startling sentences about Warsaw (as Joy Division, in those early days, were called). It was the beginning of a great career at NME and beyond for Morley, and the first of many thousands of Morley sentences about Joy Division. His collected writings about the band appear in Joy Division: Piece by Piece, published in December 2007.

Some of the photos in that two page spread were by Kevin Cummins. Cummins – when he wasn’t on the terraces at Manchester City’s ground at Maine Rd – had pursued a huge interest in music through the 1970s and had always harboured a desire to photograph for the music press. His profile at NME rose, as did Morley’s, and they were both firmly established at the paper by January 1979 when Morley was given an opportunity to update his survey of what was hot in Manchester. This time he chose to focus on just three local bands; Spherical Objects, Joy Division, and the Passage.

On this particular occasion, Morley met Joy Division at the Brunswick pub on Piccadilly on a Saturday morning. 1979 was going to be a year that Joy Division accelerated towards greatness, but in interviews Morley found them then, and always, wary, diffident, and different. The reprinted writings in Piece by Piece come with some prefatory remarks by Morley, looking back; “Of the three groups I selected, they were the ones who couldn’t really talk about themselves and their ideas,” he recalls.

In January 1979, tramping the Manchester streets, Cummins photographed the band in snow down by the Cathedral, and on a bridge in Hulme, Manchester’s grotesque 1960s housing estate. The band didn’t do much smiling; they look slightly uncomfortable, in big coats almost like they’re lost. Ian Curtis liked his Marlboros, and Cummins shot a few frames of the singer, solo, drawing deeply on a cigarette.

Morley talked with the NME’s editor about trailing the Manchester feature on the front cover. When they fanned out the photographs of the three bands, the editor immediately picked out one of the photographs of Ian with his cigarette. Thus, says Morley, “the pure, indelible stare of Ian Curtis slipped onto the cover of the NME.”

Coincidentally, just as Morley’s Joy Division writings were published last month, so December was also marked by a Kevin Cummins collection of Joy Division photographs; the limited edition Juvenes; the Joy Division Photographs of Kevin Cummins. There are some mini-essays included, among them one by Natalie Curtis, Ian’s daughter – she was a one year-old baby when her father died. She recalls how, when she was younger, photographs were a way of ‘catching sight’ of her father; “the smoker in a trenchcoat is the shot I recall seeing most often”.

This particular memory of how the band’s first NME front cover came together is instructive; whatever the quality or uniqueness of the work, there’s never anything inevitable, or indeed, planned about a band’s career and the status they achieve. They need a look maybe, luck definitely, and, to be honest, they need journalists to champion them. And the right photos. Morley appreciates Kevin’s “smoker in a trenchcoat” photograph of Ian Curtis; it “said everything that he never said in the interviews.”

The Morley and Cummins books capped an extraordinary year for Joy Division. You could sense their influence in the sound of so much music in 2007, and the look of so many bands. And then there was Control, the film about Ian Curtis based on Touching from a Distance; Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s wife. In Touching from a Distance Deborah confesses that through much of the marriage she suspects he’s in a dark place, but she isn’t able to reach him. The film charts the unravelling of her marriage to Ian, and the unravelling, and the end, of his life.

Morley has always made a generous emotional investment in his writings about Joy Division; his life and their music are inextricable, and given intensity by the fact that Paul Morley’s father committed suicide in the late 1970s (this suicide – both suicides – are the subject of Paul Morley’s book Nothing, published in 2000). His writings about Joy Division have seriousness and the depth, but he’s playful too; he quotes from the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Camus; his words spill out, and phrases, and lists of words you never thought you’d read in a book about music.

Morley remembers not being given Joy Division’s first album to review in 1979, and suspects this may have been because the NME reviews editor feared that Morley might drool incomprehensively poetically. Years later, he’s still fretting about where his particular, personal, brand of writing – “investigations of inner worlds” and the pursuit of “farfetched” ideas – fits in with the demands of magazine editors. For him, exploring the life and work of Joy Division is a process of self-exploration too. I enjoy this about Morley’s work; I think he understands that self-knowledge is the most powerful but the most elusive knowledge of all.

By the beginning of 1980, Morley says that Ian Curtis was “frightened, and his music was frightening.” During the recording of the band’s Closer album, there were decisions to be made, and problems to be solved, but, disorientated by his epilepsy, and isolated in depression, Ian was numb. During the final month of his life, estranged from the family home, he spent a couple of weeks with Bernard Sumner. Bernard says that Ian Curtis described his state like this; “I feel like there’s a big whirlpool and I’m being sucked down into it and there’s nothing I can do.”

Ian’s suicide was a heartbreaking, but powerful act giving dramatic weight and depth to the Joy Division story. Since then, especially recently, Morley has composed more features, more thoughts, sleeve notes for compilations, and through last year, some honest and intelligent words in the wake of Tony Wilson’s death, and extensive description and analysis of Control.

So the words continue to spill out, words about music, words about words. Maybe they’re some of the words Ian never said when he met Morley at the Brunswick, or maybe not; we’ll never have those words (perhaps we don’t need them). And we’ll never know the words that could have bridged that distance between Ian and Debbie, and Ian and the world (perhaps they never existed). But after all Morley’s words – and after all these words – we have the work; Joy Division’s astonishing music.