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'Get Lost': Burroughs on Curtis

Author: • Jun 12th, 2008 •

Category: Ballardosphere, Ian Curtis, music, William Burroughs

Ballardian: William Burroughs

Every now and then I get sent links to articles about Ian Curtis that mention Ballard. While I find Curtis interesting I try to refrain from posting about him as I don’t really think there’s much to be said about the Ballard connection that hasn’t been said before. Curtis nicked the title to the Joy Division song ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ from Ballard but wrote the lyrics before he’d read the book. An early New Order song called ‘The Him’ takes its title from a passage in The Atrocity Exhibition (the book, not the Curtis lyric) but is supposedly a tribute to Curtis, not Ballard. Crash is on Curtis’s bookshelf in Anton Corbijn’s recent biopic. I accept that for Curtis, Ballard was more of a portal than a direct influence so really what else is there left to say?

But Curtis and Burroughs seems a different story, perhaps more substantial, certainly less well worn. Over at Reality Studio a fat dossier has been compiled to flesh this out, drawing on previously published documents as well as new research and email questionnaires with the likes of David Britton of Savoy Books and Richard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire.

The dossier pays special attention to the infamous moment when Joy Division and Burroughs found themselves on the same bill at a gig in Belgium. Curtis approached Burroughs, who, so the story goes, told him to ‘get lost’. As RealityStudio notes (and subsequently interrogates):

To anyone familiar with Burroughs, the thought of him telling a fan to get lost is perplexing. Burroughs tended to be unfailingly courteous, even a touch “old world” in his manners. Typically he was generous with fans and admirers, particularly with young men as handsome as Ian Curtis. What could have prompted such an exchange? Was Curtis insulting? Burroughs in a bad mood? Were there mitigating circumstances?

Take note, too, of Britton’s snarky dismissal of the Curtis legend:

I’m afraid Joy Division never meant anything to me… My cronies and I thought it was “crying shit in your underpants” music. Student angst. A glib dismissal, I knew at the time, but it was a comfort to think like that. Despite what [Jon] Savage says I’m pretty sure that Ian wasn’t much of a reader. A skimmer at best, but with the ability to read the right stuff and quote from it. For a Macclesfield lad, quite an achievement, I suppose… [But] JD have stood the test of time and have proved to be something far more substantial than I at first perceived. But can one be wrong, and also be right? Is it “Transmission” or “Papa Oom Mow Mow“? But at least it’s better to have JD representing Manchester music than Freddie and the Dreamers.

Also on offer at RS are the interviews Burroughs and Joy Division gave just before the gig to En Attendant magazine, available in both French (JD; WSB) and English (WSB; JD) versions.

All of this, as usual, is well worth checking out. The RealityStudio empire has really been cranking up the volume of late.

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7 Responses »

  1. I’ve heard the Burroughs vs Curtis tale before … Burroughs dismissing Curtis with an even less courteous “fuck off” for trying to scam a free book in this version. Yes, even more out of character. He was a gentleman, Burroughs.
    But Curtis’ literacy being quite an achievement for a Macclesfield lad? Ouch! Could Britton sound more condescending?

  2. Having just read Deborah Curtis’s sorry book about her suicide husband – a dim Tory-voting racist narcissist who read little, by her own accounts – and having met Burroughs (an absolute sweetie), I can imagine that it was Ian Curtis who was rude to Burroughs (“Uncle Bill”, as Genesis P Orridge called him) and not the other way around.
    And have you tried to listen to ‘Closer’ recently? It’s as painful as late Led Zeppelin!
    JGB fans should be exploring the work of Australia’s Severed Heads instead…

  3. I doubt the ‘fuck off’ part. I can certainly see Curtis being cocky and WSB not being in the mood for it.

  4. chuck’s imagined account rings true for me. i can see some bloke saying, ‘did ya hear, he told curtis to piss off’ which got changed to fuck off by someone else. burroughs probably said something like, ‘not now’

  5. Jack, Severed Heads — well done, sir! They are long overdue for some critical rehabilitation. You got any contacts in the music press?

    Re: JD. To be honest I never found Curtis the most interesting part. I love Hannett’s production and Barney’s guitar, and this carries straight over to the first New Order album. Thus I cannot quite agree with the ‘late Led Zep’ comparison, even though Zep’s Presence is a glorious album.

  6. The Curtis/Burroughs myth rides again. The recent (2007) Grant Gee documentary Joy Division offers perhaps the final word on the subject. According to Hook and Sumner Curtis approached Burroughs in a less than sober state, and may well have been quite obnoxious, possibly going so far as to demand a free book. That Burroughs dismissed the young man is hardly surprising. From other evidence in the documentary, and various other interviews it would appear that Curtis could be a remarkably annoying young man.

    That said, I would still argue that much of Joy Division suggests an engagement with the literature of both Burroughs and Ballard. An example I would cite is the song Candidate from Unknown Pleasures. Musically the song is almost skeletal, completely dominated by the ponderous bass line, over which Curtis intones an elliptical monologue, the description of an unstated personal crisis. Parallels can be drawn between this structure and some of the literary forms Ballard has explored, notably in The Atrocity Exhibition (Book) and ‘The Voices of Time’.

    Well, thats enough of my ranting, Ballard, Burroughs AND Joy Division are all subjects that fascinate me.

  7. Just read this. Fascinating. Dead Eyes Opened by Severed Heads is in my top 5. Loved them.

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