Ian Curtis and Epilepsy

In 1977, Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” tells the story of a woman suffering from epilepsy. A common interpretation of this song is that it is a veiled autobiography, Curtis trying to express his disability without it being fully publicized (Mick). Yet this interpretation doesn’t make sense chronologically, Unknown Pleasures, the album the song was released on, came out in 1977 yet Curtis didn’t have his first documented seizure until 1978 (Church). Curtis was not one to hide his inner demons, a first-person verse was later added to “She’s Lost Control” in 1979 that addressed his own epileptic experiences (Mick). 1980’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” contains lyrics referencing the taste one experiences before an epileptic seizure. Curtis’ heroes were romanticized rock stars, Jim Morrison and his ilk, those that had experienced “rock death,” “a rock star’s quite foreseeable death, like a logical, “fitting” conclusion to their lifestyle or art (Church).” Post-mortem narratives of artists such as Morrison and Joplin have been driven by their untimely deaths and their struggle with addiction. Often their disease is framed as a boon to their artistry. Joplin even once said that “Maybe they can enjoy my music more if they think I’m destroying myself.” Curtis was aware of the interaction between disability and narrative, so he used this knowledge to write his own. The reason “She’s Lost Control” is seen as reflective of Curtis’ experiences is that Curtis retroactively gave the song such a meaning through adding the first-person verse. Curtis also retroactively changed the meaning of “She’s Lost Control” through his live performances (Joy Division – She’s Lost Control (Live at Something Else Show)). A contemporary review of a live performance says  “(Curtis) broke off into a wild manic dance routine unlike any I’d witnessed previously. The song finished leaving the crowd in a goldfish-like trance (Middles, Mick).” The interesting aspect of this review is the awe that the writer experiences. This reaction feels like a vestige of its age. In the eyes of the more modern viewer (at least in mine) the performance is terrifying.  With the way that musicians were viewed at the time, “freak” behavior had connections to authenticity, especially with Joy Division because of their connection to the punk scene. There are many examples of Curtis calling out for help which were largely ignored by his bandmates and fans as “freak” behavior was encouraged by the music scene at the time. Most likely due to how he was being perceived as a pained artist, Curtis latched onto this image, incorporating this more serious persona into everyday life. Curtis intentionally commodified himself, in the process solidifying his own narrative (Waltz, Mitzi, and Martin James).

With this performance, Curtis has not only linked the song’s original meaning to his experiences in the abstract but given those experiences physical form through dance. His mouth claustrophobically close to the microphone, enhancing the overbearing nature of Curtis’ voice and drawing parallels to the metallic taste one gets before suffering from epileptic seizure. The importance of the danceability of this once austere song is shown through the new prominence of Stephen Morris’ drumming, his style is

reminiscent of disco. This connection would only go on to be bolstered by Curtis’ actual seizures onstage, destroying the separation between performance and reality. This change of heart is also represented in the choices of instrumental that the band would use going forward. Midway through the recording sessions for Joy Division’s second album Closer, the once guitar-heavy brand of post-punk would be swapped out for the synthesizer (Mick). This decision would also align chronologically with Curtis’ attempts to change his narrative.

Note on Depression:

This is much harder to prove due to lack of diagnosis, but discussion about Curtis after his death has been plagued by vague discussions of depression. There is a bit of credence to these claims but I’d like to qualify that by airing on the side of carefulness. This information is necessary for a background on Curtis’s mental health though, which is why it is here. There are a couple of observations that could be made. His epilepsy medicine did have side effects that caused depression (Asadi-Pooya, Sperling)(Ballenger). Many close to him believed that the medication for his epilepsy is what drove him towards depression (Asadi-Pooya, Sperling)(Ballenger). Mood-inhibiting drugs were also not commonplace at the time. Deborah Curtis, Curtis’ wife, detailed his “manic” mood swings (Church)(Ballenger).