On Joy Devotion – Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

Today is an important date in Joy Division history, as Unknown Pleasures was released on this day in 1979. But one month from today is an even more significant date. July 15th 2016 would have been Ian Curtis’s 60th birthday, and that date is being marked with the release of a new book, Joy Devotion : The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture. I was lucky enough to contribute a chapter to the book, but its’ existence is due to the hard work and devotion of its’ compiler and editor, Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike. To mark the book’s release, Jennifer has contributed to On a Good Day the following, very moving, piece on how Joy Division helped her to cope with the loss of her grandfather. 

I don’t know if you have ever watched anyone you love dying. It is horrible. It is slow, slow slow, and yet there is not enough time left for anything.  All the things you hoped you would have time to do with them, all of the things you wanted to say- it’s now or never. That is how it was with my Grandfather. He was the man who had taught me some of the most important and treasured skills- how to swim, how to surf- and most importantly, how to have confidence in myself and not let fear overwhelm me, even in the face of the seeming ridiculous.  The things that are most important to me- the ocean, the beach, the Central California Coast- those are all directly presents he shared with me and have been the most precious places to me for over 40 years. And yet there he was- the tower of a man, always throwing me over his shoulder, or helping me repel down the side of his three story house- yes, true story- withering away into nothingness under the scratchy hospital sheet. I will never forget the most profound thing ever said to me.  It was one of those days when I had brought him a bunch of random gifts to the hospital, anything to make things in the sterile environment at least a bit more homey- a boom box with Dave Brubeck CDs (the entire catalog- nothing was too much to show my love), some home cooked muffins, some pine cones from the Douglas Firs outside.  He looked into my eyes and he said, ‘Jenny, there are so many things I will never get to do.’ I wanted to say, ‘No! There is plenty of time,’ but my grandfather had taught me not to lie, even if it would make the immediate situation a bit more palatable.  We both knew it was true, and there was nothing neither of us could do about it.


So they let him leave the hospital to die at home. He was still totally copasetic- it was like his body was literally failing him, giving him two huge fingers up, while his mind remained completely untouched. He never said he was scared, he never complained.  He spent a lot of time giving me messages to give my Grandma after he had passed. ‘But why don’t you just tell her yourself?,’ I would ask him. It was clear that men from that generation just did not share those feelings with others.  Until her death over a decade later, my grandma would thank me every time I talked to her- which was often- for giving her my grandfather’s platitudes post mortem.

I don’t remember how we knew it was nearing the end. I just remember we were all at my grandparent’s house. Grandpa had finally lapsed into unconsciousness, but it was clear he was in a lot of pain. My dad was trying to give him some morphine on a little soaked sponge, anything to assuage the suffering. Then we heard it- what is called the ‘death rattle.’ It is horrible. It is like a mad snake in the back of a graveling throat. It seemed ages between each breath in and out of my grandfather’s labored lungs. Part of me just wanted him to die, so the entire horrendous ordeal would finally be over. The other part of me just could not believe it- that I was sitting here, by the side of the man who had contributed so much goodness to my life- that momentarily he would be no more.

My grandparent’s house was set on the cliffs in Carmel, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was usually foggy at night, as the clouds would shroud the sea and the sky.  But this particular evening, it was clear. My mom whispered softly into my grandfather’s ear, ‘It’s a beautiful night for a trip.’

Then he was gone. I don’t know if it was my mom’s urging to join the crystalline horizon, or it was just his body finally giving in to the inevitable consumption of cancer. If you have ever see an immediate before and after of someone you love, before and after they die, I don’t think there is any way you can NOT believe that something has changed. Everything that had made him was gone. The coroner came and zipped his body up into an anonymous black bag.  But it was just the shell.

Ian logo

That was when I really relied on Joy Division. I remember driving back home that night, after the ambulance had pulled away.  I got about two miles from my grandparent’s house, when I just lost it. I sobbed, and sobbed, huge, snotty, mournful, screaming cries. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road. All around me were strawberry fields with the winter moon illuminating the fragile leaves. Everything was still and quiet. Except my entire world had been destroyed. The man who could make everything alright was gone. I just sat there in the car, probably for over an hour, pounding the steering wheel and wailing, rewinding ‘Novelty’ and ‘Disorder’ over and over and over.

It didn’t end there. For a period of about 6 months after my grandfather passed away, I would etch ‘Joy Division’ on my arm with sharpie before going out. I was thirty years old, and totally ill equipped to deal with emotions and loss.  I could write a mean marketing plan for a Grammy winning band, but I could not accept death. I would go out, get super drunk at clubs, and have to be carried out sobbing by my friends as the reality of never seeing my grandfather would hit me ten or twelve gin and tonics in.  During this time of self destruction, of confusion, of pain, it was Still, it was Closer, it was Unknown Pleasures– over and over and over again- that kept me from fully going over the edge.  No amount of praying, whisky or carton after carton of Ben and Jerry’s could reach me the same way that a Joy Division song could. I knew I would get through this, if I could just get to the end of the song.

It is almost 15 years ago since my grandfather died. I miss him every day. I wish he could see all the insanely amazing things I have done, and how I have tried to live fearlessly.  I will always be so indebted to Joy Division, though, for being the soundtrack to those days without hope, the days when there seemed like nothing good could happen again.

Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a media and music academic, specializing in fan culture, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture and music. She has written and presented extensively on fandom and media, including The Guardian and has recently been featured on BBC Radio 4.  Formerly a music executive where she worked with acts including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Dr. Dre and Gwen Stafani, she now lives in London and writes and lectures full-time.  Her newly edited book, Joy Devotion:  The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture is out July 15th on Headdress.  For more information, go to jenniferotterbickerdike.com
Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike



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