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Ian Curtis. 18 - 5 - 80. Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Some time early this month, an unknown thief stole this bleakly worded headstone from the former Joy Division singer/songwriter's grave in a Cheshire cemetery.

Both Curtis's widow, Deborah, and former drummer Stephen Morris have expressed dismay at what the latter refers to as the taking of "a sick souvenir."

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Yet this does not feel like a random act of revenant crime: Since the release last year of both Control and Joy Division (respectively, a biopic about Curtis and a documentary), popular interest in the short-lived, darkly brilliant band appears to have been growing.

This month's Mojo magazine, for example, featured the Sex Pistols on the cover, and the ravaged band inside, telling the same stories they've been telling for 30 years. They are nowhere present, however, on the Mojo Playlist, a compendium of "the best songs on the box, at the movies, on album and on-line right now." Yet, No. 3 on Mojo Readers' Top 10 is Joy Division's Digital, recorded in 1979. While the editors snipe that the song's upbeat tempo is more appealing than the band's "funereal" sound, they're getting it wrong.

Yes, you can dance to Transmission: You can do Curtis's patented Dead Fly Dance, a whirling simulation of the grand mal seizures that tormented him; and you can listen, closely, to the profound parody and anguish in the singer's voice as he exhorts listeners, in a terrible scream: "You can dance - dance, dance, dance to the radio."

Joy Division, which released only two albums, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979, and Closer, after Curtis's death in 1980, were working on the very edge of punk, or of its demise. Influenced by Bowie, the Doors and the Pistols, Joy Division created music that has been wildly imitated and is believed to be the cause or blame of Goth music, yet had never been treated to the serious analysis it merits.

In the decisive Faber Book of Pop, for example, edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, the band rates one tiny mention, and that is a derisive nod to their "angst." Deborah Curtis's memoir, Touching From a Distance, on which Control is based, is informative, yet reads for what it is: the quietly furious account of the housewife who was left behind to boil diapers and make tea while her young husband carried on with a lover and scribbled unintelligible songs in a notebook.

Oh yes, and created music too sublime to comprehend - something Deborah Curtis still cannot bring herself to discuss in detail, so riveting is her story of her husband's bizarre life as a cosmically misplaced Macclesfield husband.

It has been almost 30 years since Curtis inexplicably and poetically strung himself to the family washboard and died, and it took approximately the same amount of time for musicologist Peter Guralnick to publish the two-volume biography The Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, the first and only sober, respectful and acute examination of Elvis Presley's art, after years of torrid mythologies and disinformation.

One hopes that with interest rising in both the band that would become New Order, and in Curtis - who is best compared to My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields or to Scott Walker (or to Jacques Brel, for that matter) - someone will compose a book or film that sticks to the artistry of Joy Division and that leaves the sad, retrospectively small details of Curtis's life in the background.

Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, attempts to explain some of Curtis's and the band's genius. We see fleeting scenes of the development of certain lyrics and songs. In one scene, we learn that an aerosol can became a vital instrument during recording.

But what of the sounds of Atmosphere, the only song that understands the word "swoon" as well as James Joyce did in The Dead? How are the angelic noises made in this song? They are part tambourine, part rushing wings and part "the danger/ Always danger" of awful violence.

As the Pistols rave on, now and always, about their political purpose in 1977, one is moved to consider that one of Joy Division's greatest accomplishments was to recreate the static chaos of punk (although their sound was their own, and mystical) while altering punk's essential impulse.

Curtis achieved this through a pronoun shift. Where the Pistols' John Lydon used the word "we" often - as a means of isolating the group as a distinctive menace and as a way of including everyone else who wanted to be "the future" - Curtis relied on "you."

His you was not the English establishment, or hippies or Pink Floyd. His was the you of lyrical, confessional poetry: an intimate listener who was always, in agony or ardour, his love. ("You cry out in your sleep/ All my failings exposed") and his consolation ("How I wish we were here with you now.") An admirer of Wordsworth, Curtis was a capital-R Romantic, who understood, as much as the author of the Lyrical Ballads, what "strange fits of passion" one may know.

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And what of our grave robber? Is he or she the kind of fool who spray-paints Père Lachaise cemetery stones with neon exclamations of love for Jim Morrison? Or is this robber, like so many of us - and as Love Will Tear Us Apart declaims - desperate and wild because "something so good just can't function no more."

Ian Curtis is long gone, yet his music, long dismissed as the mere scales of depression, continues to tell us so much; most of all, about trying to combat the inevitability of life closing in on us, often, like a vise, "day in, day out, day in, day out."

I hope the robber returns the grave marker, so we may all see it. On the other hand, I hope its continued absence serves to remind us all what we have truly lost, and can recover only in fragments; in cold, cryptic stones.

***

7 Days, 5 things

1. But Then The 'Mediocre Talent' Stopped Giving Me Money!

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"Because I was her brother and because I was honest, no matter how famous she was, no matter how much money I was offered for my story; I never did interviews about her, never talked to people about her." - Christopher Ciccone, defending and quoting himself in his boring, moralizing new tell-all, Life With My Sister Madonna.

2. Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot that hag bea arthur

Estelle Getty died at the age of 84 last week of advanced dementia, and despite her long, laborious tenure on The Golden Girls, not one of them came to her funeral, leaving her son to speak wistfully of her "frugality." Sic Transit, golden girl.

3. To Live the Dream, You Have To Work for It

We have all dreamed of being Diddy's umbrella handler, phone caller or e-mail sender. We are ready to work for it, and now we can, with the new reality show I Want to Work for Diddy. Will I saw down his overbite with a sharpened bottle of Rémy Martin? Yes. And when he reminds me that he used to be a rapper of some kind, I will say, "Sir, yes sir!"

4. Even More Cool-a-Mundo

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Years ago, we romanticized the 1950s (and very early 1960s) as a time of convulsive innocence. With the rise of Mad Men, the second season of which made its debut Sunday, we look back, also starry-eyed, at a world in which heavy drinking and smoking were not reviled but the sine qua non of life in the fast lane.

5. Already Equipped with an Ugly Suit

Meg Ryan slipped into a comical fat suit recently for her fatty-to-hottie role in My Mom's New Boyfriend. L.C.

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