Written by: Paul Gleason
When you see him twirling in his frenzied epileptic dance on September 15, 1979, you don’t think that he could have possibly had a day job, let alone epilepsy. He’s already too much of the frontman, the avatar, the shamanistic guide who’s made himself into an entry point, an avenue toward the unknown.
But he did have a day job . . . and a saintly one at that.
It wasn’t the kind of job that showed up directly in his art, in the way that Sartre found sainthood in Genet’s beautiful penal masturbatory masterpieces, written years after he’d been buggered for money on the quaysides of French ports and in the midst of his falling in love with the erotically heroic thieves that populated his corner of the prison. You can imagine Genet lying on his prison cot and touching himself as he wrote of the unmentioned brushes against the skin of some brutal thief who had been caught for taking what the system had denied him because of the accident of his birth. The thief’s blood and being had entered Genet and came out in the fluid of the pen, which filled the page just as his semen shot high above his stomach, splattering the walls of his cell.
Having myself no understanding of French penal regulations in the 1940s, I can only be surprised that the greatest French writer of the twentieth century had been given paper, much less a pen. Perhaps the French prison masters didn’t realize that multiple, unknown pleasures can be derived from a simple, seminal pen.
Saint Ian, however, was never incarcerated in a building. The lyrics to “Atrocity Exhibition” state that the incarceration occurred inside of his skull – and inside of the public persona that bloomed into life every time he opened his mouth, whether on stage or on record. “This is the way,” he invites you, “step inside.”
He found the way inside for you, so you didn’t have to go yourself.
Dostoevsky – one of his forebears – found the way after he’d been imprisoned in Siberia. Dostoevsky had been a part of a plot to kill the Tsar, was caught, and put before a firing squad that didn’t fire but scared the reprieved criminals into thinking that a sentence in Siberia was a miraculous occurrence, a favor of the Tsar. Dostoevsky saw the poorest men he’d ever seen in his life – the same thieves, really, who were the subject of Genet’s erotic scribbling – reading the Gospel in the fading, freezing light, their grubby fingers sticking through the mittens that turned the pages. They were enraptured, their faces aglow with the same light that preceded Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures, the same peace that preceded the frenzied thrashing and gnashing that threw him to the floor, where he writhed out Crime and Punishment (which included Raskalnikov’s own trip to Siberia), The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Saint Ian loved Dostoevsky (listen to Joy Division’s song, “The Kill”), but his epilepsy entered him in a way that would eventually make the dividing line between artist and human cease to exist. Ian’s day job in the Assistant Disablement Resettlement Office in Macclesfield allowed him to help people who suffered from chronic illnesses and other disabilities to find work. One day – I don’t know exactly when, but it had to have been after Ian’s transfer to the Office in 1978 – a mother and her epileptic daughter came to visit Ian. He looked on in frozen horror and disbelief as she began to make growling noises and then crashed to the floor, her chair crashing and her mother kneeling by her side as she thrashed, a mouth guard of sorts protecting her naked tongue from her top and bottom teeth, which insisted on grinding together in an attempt to deprive her of whatever form of speech was left to her. She died of a fit a couple months later.
But Ian – temporarily – had speech on his side, before he decided to walk away in silence. As a singer, he would soon have to sing the words to “She’s Lost Control,” which he had written about the deceased epileptic girl, after which his bandmates had concocted the musical accompaniment. He’d also have to stand in front of a club-sized audience and perform the song.
The words “perform the song” are inadequate for what happened when Ian and the rest of Joy Division lit up England’s TV sets on September 15, 1979. The girl’s pain, suffering, and eventual death poured out of him as he sang and danced in a way that didn’t reenact the seizure but relived it for the audience. Ian made everything that led to the girl’s demise accessible to the audience, so that the events that he’d witnessed while working his day job were a direct and holy incarnation of the death into which we all must travel. “This is the way, step inside.”
It’s no wonder that Ian himself, by this September night, had been diagnosed with epilepsy. In witnessing the girl’s fit, Ian and – most of all, his body – enveloped her pain, taking it on as a stigmata of sorts, an eternal mark that wasn’t always visible because it appeared as fits, sometimes on stage, brought on by the band’s metallic drones and dance beats and the flashing strobe lights. It appeared in touring vans and cars and, most frighteningly, when Ian was alone, trying to know the meaning of the solitude that he felt when he opened his pill bottles and tried to comprehend a future that didn’t exist for him and, if truth be told, for us all.
Ian read Dostoevsky for answers. Here was human suffering’s poet, an epileptic, whose fits – or maybe the angelic moments of peace and beauty that preceded them – allowed him insight into the plight of the stricken and poor. But his bandmates and his wife, Debbie, weren’t interested in what Ian thought of as his mission. His epilepsy was a curse, but it was also a gift because it allowed him to experience the universality of Dostoevsky. It meant that he wasn’t alone but a member of a tribe of humans – or, as he wrote having read Gogol’s novel of the same name, “Dead Souls,” who kept calling him.
And with the constant calling of the souls, which Gogol’s Chichikov buys up while they’re still living serfs and, as such, very much commodities, Ian couldn’t help but notice that he himself, like Gogol’s anti-hero, was affecting a metamorphosis when he tried to help the ill when he worked his day job. The epileptic, the visionary, and Dostoevsky merged in the form of the little thrashing and gnashing girl, a failed commodity in the eyes of the Assistant Disablement Resettlement Office and a corpse whose seer’s lights dimmed when her final fit ceased.
And Ian stared at his pills, thought about all the dead souls surrounding him at all times, and felt alone in a crowd – because how could someone so young sing words so sad? He blamed himself. He blamed himself because he couldn’t face the prospect of his own light dimming – his case, his doctors said, was very severe – one night after a particularly glorious show, in which his body manifested all the suffering that most of the people whom he struck dumb in the club with his intensity weren’t aware was waiting for them. One morning, they, like Saint Ian and Kafka’s dung beetle, Gregor, would wake up utterly and endlessly transformed into the Other, the sick, the maimed, or, most typically, the old. And, Ian knew, that, like Gregor again, they’d be lucky to receive even the temporary care of a close family member, who would inevitably lose interest, become angry at the sufferer for his condition, and leave. Love – whatever that word meant to Ian – would tear him apart from love, which was, when you come right down to it, a temporary, fading illusion.
The pills were always there, always behind the mirror in which Ian could see what he’d metamorphosed into. Behind the mirror, the pills didn’t offer the promise into the escape of artistic freedom: the ability to leave the day job. They didn’t offer a transmission that the epileptic could follow into the Wonderland of America, where Joy Division were headed next in their seemingly stratospheric rise to the top of the pops, but the repetition, the circular return of waiting for the knock upon the door. The dead souls had already found him, and his youth was dead – the knock was inevitable.
Everything was circular and already dead. Joy Division had already gone on without him – and he could see Barney, Hooky, Steve, and Gillian playing to arenas and stadiums, without him. He was dead to them, and his vision, his gift, would be a detriment to them. They didn’t need him and his selfishness; they didn’t even bother to listen to the guilt and pain, which poured from his pen, into his body, and through his mouth in “Twenty Four Hours” and “Passover.” But why would they listen? The songs were all about him – indeed, they were him, his dying body and thriving guilt. He was a failure. He couldn’t get anywhere near the universality of Dostoevsky and Kafka.
But, Ian promised himself, his listeners, and the band (if they were listening – the songs were his body and blood, after all) that he wouldn’t walk away in silence. Unless “Atmosphere” was really about Debbie – Saint Ian didn’t know what the songs meant; they just arrived, sometimes even in the peaceful seconds before a fit. What if Debbie walked away in silence? What if Annik and the band followed suit? What if Debbie took away Natalie and he never saw his daughter again? What if he couldn’t do his job? The doctors all told him that he had to avoid excessive stimulation . . .
“Don’t walk away, in silence,” came out of his body, “Your confusion, my illusion.” He sang “Atmosphere” to himself, Debbie, Annik, and the band. It got to the point where his eyes bore not just his own suffering but the suffering of everyone he knew, the people to whom he addressed his endless writing in an attempt to bring himself closer to them.
But it didn’t work. All of them, with the possible exception of Annik, didn’t understand or, most frighteningly, didn’t care to understand. They were all so young – even his own parents – that they didn’t know what to do when they saw his best youth taken away from him. Blind to the redness that circled his eyes, blind to the red rivers that flowed into and around his pupils, they denied him – the him into which he’d transformed – in the dead garden, where he, Saint Ian, watched the trees and the leaves as they fell. Watching this denial from outside his body, he saw them in a procession, all the dead souls in a grotesque parody of the end of a Fellini film.
So Ian was alone in the dead garden, walled in and off before what the others believed was his time. Bereft, he had to find some form of therapy, so he kept reading his Kafka and Dostoevsky, his bible and Gogol, but Burroughs and Ballard began to take on new meaning. His body was machine-like now. As the home to the host of epilepsy, it had to be fed to be maintained – fed pills that were experimental, didn’t always work, and needed the soft touch of human hands, which softly placed them in his mouth in a bizarre and unholy communion. The inorganic pills – the stuff of science – made him into a specimen, a machine, and, as Ballard would have it, an atrocity exhibition for the viewing and experimental pleasure of the doctors and the other wealthy overseers of the penal colony of his body. And Burroughs laughed when he – the bearer of the word virus of epilepsy, the walking machine-like embodiment of Burroughs’ own prose – asked him for a free book.
And so the pills. Saint Ian took an overdose of the pills that his doctors had prescribed in copious numbers to destroy the machine that was inevitably taking him over. Machines can’t write lyrics, perform in clubs, raise children, have a family, read, listen to records . . . Well, they can, but in a hardened way that resembled the phallic and impotent weapons and science diagrams that filled Ballard’s texts. So wasn’t Ian – the real Ian – who’d gotten married, had a daughter, gotten inspired by the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks to play punk music, drank and performed at the Manchester clubs, and written all those lyrics that lunged from his body, already dead?
He was – and so the pills. But they found him in time, pumped his stomach, and released him from the hospital. He ended up staying with Barney because he and Debbie were having a bit of a mix up, and the guitarist suggested that his singer try hypnosis. Ian, it turned out, was a reader of law books in his past life as a leisured citizen in ancient Rome. The law? Kafka’s penal colony? His own colony? The controlled chaos of the atrocity exhibition of his own body? Saint Ian was a scholar, a philosopher who never arrived at any conclusion but the inescapable destiny of his own death. Why prolong the process? What was the point of witnessing all the dead souls as they floated around him, the inevitability of their deaths nonexistent to them? The procession was moving on without him, the shouting could be over, and maybe he could walk away in silence. No one was listening to him anyway.
And so the laundry line in the family kitchen. Saint Ian would be the hanged man who would walk away in silence. Another fight with Debbie, another Werner Herzog film, another Iggy Pop record, another drink to numb the pain, another look behind the mirror that hid no Wonderland, another fit, and then, the next morning, the walk to the penal colony, the firing squad, the train to Siberia, the doctor’s office, the gladiatorial arena, the practice space, the recording studio, the stage, and the airplane to America.
No one was there to hear his neck break, just as he’d predicted. He’d walked away in silence, doing what he most didn’t want to do. He’d died suspended in the air, Joy Division’s lyricist, his soul now eternally among the other dead souls, who kept calling him.
If Saint Ian is with the dead souls now, abiding in some faded Hades, he needs more than the visit that this word adventure could possibly achieve. He needs to feel the light of the morning touching his face and have it transform its paleness into the ruddy face of a boy who, before he knew of David Bowie’s Low LP and Kafka’s stories, must’ve looked on the world with wonder and a little naïveté and decided that he too could create and bring about new worlds overseen by his own imagination and feeling, feeling, feeling.