How Curtis' death highlights changed times
Growing older gets a bit of a bad press, but it's actually really interesting, in lots of ways. One of them is watching the gradual recession of some of the passions of your youth into anachronism, and another is watching others among them slowly advancing into grand significance.
You'd imagine, I think, as a young person today, that Ian Curtis had been really famous at the time of his suicide in 1980, even though his group Joy Division were barely in the mainstream.
Anton Corbijn's critically acclaimed film about his life doesn't even mention his name, billing Control as 'the story of an icon'.
But most of the iconography came later, building up over the years along with the people in his group, who went on to become New Order, and in his record company, Factory, founded by the recently deceased Tony Wilson. Their cultural impact became all the greater as time went on, and their early colleague's significance grew with them. What followed Curtis's death, over many years, has bolstered his significance in a way that could not have been predicted at the time.
Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People has already identified the death of Curtis as central to the development of Manchester's pop-cultural ascendancy, and that is correct. But I can't even remember the moment at which I learned that Curtis had died, let alone how I found out, except that it was by word of mouth rather than by media frenzy. I can remember, though, going to an early New Order gig, not long after, and it being only about a quarter full. People, early on, were not that interested in the hole Curtis's death had made, or how it might be filled. In 1980, it was the death of John Lennon that jolted the nation.
By all accounts Corbijn's film does justice to Curtis's memory, more than the partial account written by his widow, Deborah Curtis, in the mid-1990s and more than the other former members of New Order - who sometimes seemed straightforwardly cheesed off with being asked about him - have so far got across.
What Corbijn has managed to emphasise is that the death of this young man had not got so very much to do with his milieu or with his status as an artist, but with inadequate responses to the illnesses he suffered from, epilepsy and depression.
This is, of course, a positive thing, even if it has taken 27 years for it to happen. Yet while the belief may be that in the intervening time our understanding of mental health problems has massively increased, I can't help feeling that for young people facing similar pressures to Curtis now, the situation is worse rather than better.
Kurt Cobain, for example, committed suicide much more recently, again without much emphasis and a much larger media response being given to the contribution made by his ongoing mental health difficulties. Had Curtis been starting out now, the media pressure on him would have been no doubt much greater than it was in the late 1970s, just as it was on Pete Doherty before his fledgling career went down the swanee.
Any success, however fleeting, is nowadays viewed as some sort of act of collusion with the papers, who believe that if they have reviewed your concert, then an indefinite seat outside your home is the least that can be offered in return.
It is now, seemingly, seen as perfectly acceptable for the media actually to target people who are clearly suffering from mental illnesses, cataloguing and dissecting their every move. Self-harm, anorexia, drug use, alcoholism, depression, whatever. We'll have your dad on the radio. Hair shaved off? Kids taken away? Weeping in the street? It all makes a good story.
The noise around Curtis has grown tumultuous over decades, and the noise has been in the main respectful and truly engaged. The noise around many young stars today is tumultuous too, and enough to drive them mad, even if they start out as sound as bells. Watching it all unfold, over the years, in its prurience and its destructiveness, is sobering and sad.