This memoir by the Joy Division bassist is steeped in guilt
This anecdote is typical of bass guitarist Peter Hook's conflicted account of his first band's cruelly abbreviated existence. The Joy Division story often appears misleadingly neat in the telling: two near-perfect albums of unusual grace and gravity, a handful of other songs, some memorable, occasionally violent gigs, then a human catastrophe which forced the surviving members into a new life as New Order. Touching From a Distance, the 1995 memoir by Curtis's widow Deborah, complicated the narrative by describing a troubled epileptic who struggled to reconcile the demands and temptations of life in a fast-rising band with his responsibilities as a husband and father, but that acquired its own romantic sheen in Anton Corbijn's biopic Control. Hook's mission is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.
The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner, and only develops his distinctively high, melodic bass-playing style to counteract the shortcomings of a cheap amp. Even as he lays bare Curtis's juvenile side, Hook seems somewhat in awe of the singer: the charismatic highbrow with the arty Belgian girlfriend and the love of Ballard and Burroughs.
There's a lovely image of Curtis in the studio, assembling his brutal, beautiful lyrics by rummaging through a carrier bag full of scraps of paper. Hook and Sumner are cast as comic relief, constantly overruled by belligerent producer Martin Hannett ("a lunatic wizard") and forbidden from speaking in interviews by manager Rob Gretton. "He didn't do it to create a mystique around the band but because he thought we were a couple of cretins."
Despite the stream of earthy anecdotes, which includes Coronation Street's Pat Phoenix, some frozen chickens and a "shit sandwich" (though not all at the same time), there's a terrible sadness at the heart of the book. One reason is Hook's enduring guilt about his friend's suicide. He painfully accuses himself, Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris of "selfishness, stupidity, wilful ignorance". You might call it negligent optimism: an eagerness to accept Curtis's upbeat denials of his suffering at face value. Hook ponders calling the book He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On.
And so the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs. Unable to save their friend, Joy Division's survivors proved equally incapable of confronting their loss. Invited to view Curtis's body lying in state, they opted instead for the pub. The sympathetic reader might wonder how many young men would have better handled such horror, but Hook is gripped by guilt, regret and unresolved confusion. "Sometimes you can see just why he did it, and it makes a kind of sense. Other times, it just makes no fucking sense at all."
There's another layer of loss, because New Order reunited last year without their bitterly estranged bass player. Several asides hint at a sequel about that band: in the most 1980s sentence you will read all year, Hook claims that he was introduced to cocaine by OMD at the premiere of Pretty in Pink. He admits that his friendship with Sumner, whom he axe-grindingly portrays as remote and ruthless, had cooled even during Joy Division's lifetime, and that Insight, his favourite Joy Division song, "reminds me of a time when writing music was easy but most of all fun", implying that, for him, New Order records were neither.
Hook believes Curtis's death robbed his bandmates of the "glue that held us together" and Rob Gretton's death in 1999 "left nobody" in that role. "Joy Division and then New Order were ships that needed captains, but our captains kept on dying on us," Hook writes. Now New Order sail on without him, leaving him alone to trawl through the wreckage of the past, searching for clues as to what went wrong.