“Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division” by Peter Hook (It Books, 416 pgs., $27.99)
In the three decades since he committed suicide, singer Ian Curtis has become both a symbol and a caricature. Curtis’ seemingly tortured life as a member of the English post-punk band Joy Division and early death in 1980 have been transformed into myth and Curtis into a modern-day Thomas Chatterton or Sylvia Plath. His life offers a perfect narrative for disaffected, sun-averse souls the world over: a young genius too pure to live.
As described in former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook’s honest, punchy and rough-hewn document of that period, “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” Curtis was as tragic and magnetic a figure as the legend suggests, though at the time, Hook saw him mostly as a beer-drinking, prank-playing pal.
Struggling with depression, a failing marriage and debilitating bouts of epilepsy, Curtis killed himself on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, just as the band’s penultimate single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” was released. The musical legacy of Curtis, Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris still resonates.
“Unknown Pleasures” is a portal into a vivid moment in rock history as well as the life and times of a working band. The book is filled with car breakdowns, fistfights, girls and, in the middle of it all, the transformative power of music.
Hook, a self-described working-class yobbo who cofounded Joy Division with Sumner in Manchester, England, shortly after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976, is the perfect guide.
“You shouldn’t trust a word I say,” he writes at one point, elsewhere admitting that during Joy Division’s rise among a competitive Manchester music scene, “we reveled in backbiting and treachery.” His tone suggests a bloke telling the wild story of his youth over the course of half a dozen pints.
He provides a raw, detailed chronological account of those days with an admirable directness, even as he addresses hard truths about the way he and his mates handled their lead singer’s condition. At one point, speaking of the physical toll that touring was taking on the quietly suffering Curtis, Hook writes that an alternate title for his book might be “He Said He Was Alright So We Carried On.”
Hook describes those late performances unflinchingly as Curtis regularly experiences seizures during shows. He’d freeze, staring blankly into space. The band urged lighting technicians to avoid strobes, but they’d forget and Curtis would end up on the floor.
The band’s response, writes Hook: “We’d stop him from swallowing his tongue and he’d get up, tell us he was fine, and, well, you know the rest.”
Thanks to this sometimes heartbreaking, always engrossing memoir, we do indeed.