Searching for Clues — and Closure — in Ian Curtis’ and Kurt Cobain’s Handwritten Archives

Ian Curtis wrote in all caps, often with a Sharpie. When he wanted to change a word in his lyrics or notes, he’d scratch out his former word choice utterly completely — as if he wanted to erase it from existence. In a lot of ways, the Joy Division leader’s handwriting seems to reflect his personality: “Ian was a very definite person,” says Jon Savage, the co-editor of So This Is Permanence, a collection of Curtis’ notebooks released last month by Chronicle Books. “If he didn’t like something, he would eventually make his displeasure shown. He was a Cancer.”

“When Ian found his direction, the notebooks, the scraps of paper, and the plastic carrier bag became an extension of his body,” his widow, Deborah Curtis, writes in the introduction to So This Is Permanence, which she co-edited. “All he was unable to express on a personal level was poured into his writing, and so his lyrics tell much more than a conversation with him ever could. A manuscript with crossings-out and corrections conjures an image of him in the blue room [Ian’s writing room in their house], pacing and smoking, barely noticing when I handed a cup of coffee into the room.”

In the months following Curtis’ depression-and-epilepsy-fueled suicide in May of 1980, Joy Division would be thrust into the spotlight throughout England and beyond, via their best-known song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” It stayed on the charts for two months, peaking at No. 13. Just as Curtis’ surviving bandmates were forging ahead as New Order, Joy Division’s second album, Closer, introduced many new fans to Ian’s lyrical voice and now-infamous baritone. The manner in which Curtis chose to die would aid in elevating him to the status of legendary cult figure. What little he left behind is still being pillaged for clues. What mystery those clues are supposed to solve, exactly, is debatable.

Ian Curtis' handwritten lyrics to Joy Division's "Disorder." (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)
Ian Curtis’ handwritten lyrics to Joy Division’s “Disorder.” (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)

One telling thing about Curtis’ archives, which include lyrics to 37 of Joy Division’s 45 songs, is what’s not there. It wasn’t until Curtis’ bandmates approached Deborah about the lyrics to Joy Division songs they’d practiced but not recorded that she realized he’d taken deliberate action to dispose of them. “Ian was very efficient,” she told The Guardian. “He didn’t like loose ends. I’m guessing he didn’t want the lyrics there because he hadn’t recorded them yet. I gather that when someone is thinking about dying, they do start giving things away. Knowing him, he must have thought about what was going to happen to his work.”

When someone like Curtis dies young — and particularly when he takes his own life — the world looks for answers in what he left behind. This is more than mere archival work. We’re seeking to understand whether the suicide was a long time coming and what exactly led up to it, even if Joy Division’s songs and Curtis’ biography already provide plenty of information on those counts. In Curtis’ case, our search was delayed, taking place over a long period of time as his work spread and his myth grew. Following his death, Deborah Curtis stored his handwritten lyrics and notes in two large envelopes, and kept the black ring binder that held loose-leaf sheets.

Do Curtis obsessives find any relief in the alternate takes and early versions of his songs that appear in So This Is Permanence? What about his scattered notes on political systems and corruption? Do they find something in his handwriting itself? Is it simply the act of feeling closer to a charismatic rock figure, dead for over three decades but still alive in lore? (Hell, even Jim Morrison’s late, druggy journals sold at auction for nearly $320,000 last year.)

“It’s a human reaction to see handwritten things, as opposed to typewritten things, as being quite intimate,” Savage tells me. “Rock music is burdened with this kind of authenticity. And it’s also burdened with generational expectation and identification. So, a lot of people buying Ian’s notebooks, and Kurt [Cobain]’s notebooks, are probably going to be people who were very affected by them when they were young.”

Kurt Cobain's "-isms" from his journals. (Courtesy of Riverhead)
Kurt Cobain’s “-isms” from his journals. (Courtesy of Riverhead)

Amazingly, it took eight years for Kurt Cobain’s Journals to be published by Riverhead following his 1994 suicide. Even more than the tidy and historical So This Is Permanence, the well-curated collection that compiles Cobain’s spiral-ring Mead notebooks is truly revealing about who he was at his core, before and after fame. Thoughtful and humorous drafts and unsent versions of his letters — to friends like Mark Lanegan, ex-lovers like Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, and drummers Nirvana needed to fire — populate Journals, all written in Kurt’s slanted, small, and slightly curly style. (His distinct handwriting is one way some were able to tell that a note disparaging his wife, Courtney Love, was in fact written by Love, when it surfaced earlier this year.)

Kurt_Cobain_seahorse_drawingSome dispatches from Cobain’s notebooks have gone viral on Tumblr and beyond: his mother’s no-bake cookie recipe, a list of his favorite albums, sketches for feminist seahorse T-shirts Nirvana should have printed, fake band bios, his thoughts on punk-rock culture and Sub Pop Records, juvenile drawings, confessions of drug abuse, drafts of lyrics. It’s a fragment of what’s in Journals. There are plenty of clues and answers — a number that should be enough to satisfy fans still searching for closure after Kurt’s suicide. One story about how he tried to kill himself as a teenager following a traumatic sexual experience, by laying down on the train tracks and placing heavy pieces of cement on his legs and chest, will stay with me forever. You start to see why Riverhead reportedly paid upwards of $4 million to Cobain’s estate for the notebooks, which were kept safe in the possession of Hole guitarist (and close Cobain-Love family friend) Eric Erlandson following the suicide.

“When people speak of the publication of Cobain’s journals, the most common reaction I’ve heard is, ‘I would never read them — it would be an invasion of privacy,'” begins one section from a Seattle Weekly article printed in the years following Journals‘ release. It’s difficult to imagine how Cobain could have had any more of a public life, but he was also a terribly complicated man. The first page of Journals alludes to this: “Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” he writes, cryptically. Then, a little more humorously: “OK, I’m going to work now. when you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.”

I asked Savage what Ian would make of the publication of his drafts and unedited thoughts, knowing full well what So This Is Permanence makes certain: Ian Curtis was an intense, precise individual. “I think he’d be very pleased because it’s getting him recognition as a writer, which he was very serious about,” Savage says. “It’s getting his story told in a pretty direct way — something that didn’t happen in his lifetime.”