On a Good Day is changing

On a Good Day is coming to end. Well, its first phase in at least. When I started this blog, it was intended to be a personal blog about being a dad, a way of preserving of my thoughts and memories of fatherhood. But I love music as well, and so I thought, why not make it a blog about both fatherhood and music.

Problem was, I never really able to crowbar those two subjects together in a way that really worked. I was also constantly torn between blogging just as a hobby, and trying to make the blog ‘successful’ (whatever that means – lots of readers I guess). Eventually I came to realise that trying to make it successful was taking all the enjoyment out of it for me, and that at this point in my life I didn’t have the time or inclination for blogging as anything other than a hobby. I’ve learnt a lot over the last few years though, and now have dozens of others ideas for blogs and websites, some of which may even come to fruition in future years.

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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



Parents’ Pop Programme – Fable

As a parent, I’m well aware that I’m woefully out of touch with today’s pop music. That’s exactly the way it should be, you might say, and a perfectly valid opinion it is too. But some of us (well me at least) would like to stay vaguely aware of what’s going on in the pop world, so that when our children start listening to pop music (if they’re not already), we have some clue what’s going on.

So, Parents’ Pop Programme is here, to introduce you to a currently successful pop artist each month. Educational? Hopefully. Enlightening? Perhaps. Enjoyable? Perhaps not.

This month’s Parent’s Pop Programme is a guest post from Alison Campbell, who makes fabulous children’s clothes under the name Marble Moon. Find her at Etsy and Facebook. My own daughter has a number of Marble Moon items so I can recommend them personally. Alison writes about an artist who if your kids’ aren’t listening to yet, they may well be soon – Fable.

What is Fable?

In the old (pre-kids, natch) days I used to go to see bands spontaneously all the time but now the very few gigs I do attend are not really gigs, but concerts, that must have been planned for months in advance, are unmissable (when a babysitter is £10 an hour….), and the option of a designated seat is a definite boon.

So finding myself at a random night of bands was like a blast from the past. Of course we didn’t actually get out till after 9 (you know how it is) so we caught the tail end of one band of gentle souls and all of the headliners, Fable. I assumed they were a band but from my retrospective research it appears Fable IS the singer and the musicians are a backing band. It’s a distinction worth making because she was the entire show. There was literally no need to glance at the boys up the back (although my husband claimed the synth player looked like Aphex, not that I had even noticed there was a synth player by that point) because Fable, if that is her real name, is utterly captivating. She is a tiny goth with a huge amount of charisma, energy and a stadium-filling voice pelting out suitably dark lyrics over electro-tinged rock. The venue was the bar of a small and quirky Brighton hotel; I was later told she had recently supported The Cult at Brixton Academy and “owned the stage”.

Oh and she is young, really young. At least to us. Apparently it was her 21st birthday the night we saw her. “People are young these days”, I remarked to my husband, while contemplating my emerging crows’ feet.

What do they sound like?

I was reminded variously of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (although more due to Fable’s look than sound that night, with her asymmetric black hair and zebra print mumu) but sound-wise Muse, Skunk Anansie and even fleeting Rage Against the Machine came to mind. Loud, full, strangely uplifting, impossible to ignore.

Are they any good?

During the show my comments to my husband were that although it was quite the live show, I wouldn’t go home and listen to them. But actually I have (and not just to write this post). “Human Pretending” in particular got under my skin, but the stand-out moment for me really was the stunning cover of “Let’s Dance” (prefaced with a suitably disrespectful announcement of “let’s channel some dead people”) that ticked every box for cover versions that are quite possibly better than the original.

How popular are they?

Judging by the home crowd on the night she certainly has a few hardcore fans and the fact they have scored a spot at Glastonbury (on the Shangri-La Hell stage…who knew that was a thing?) suggests she may be on the up. Highly recommended to fans of Glasto headliners Muse, of which I am not one.

Which kids are listening to them?

Probably those who hate their parents and are preparing right now to stick it to the man.


Children have the right to music

A fantastic guest post today from Alison Campbell of Marble Moon childrenswear.

Marble Moon

Alison writes:

The first music my oldest daughter heard ex utero was Joanna Newsom and Isan, carefully selected by my weary husband to welcome her into our music-loving home and introducing her from the very start to my preference for quirky female singers and his Electronic leanings. We continued to listen to whatever we fancied, mixed in with a few nursery rhymes and baby-signing tunes, until she was able to express a preference. And thanks to the signing, that may have been sooner than most toddlers.

Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom

“No Mummy, not that one, I want mine” accompanied me putting on “My very first album” for the umpteenth time and consigning my own tunes to work-time only. And after a while, my affection grew for the third-rate version of Postman Pat in a Welsh accent, the passionate boy-band style rendition of “wind the bobbin up”, and “row, row your boat” apparently sung by David Cameron. But it grated that she allowed her dad to play his electronic music with impunity, and I had to admit defeat, one child deaf to the pleasures of indie music.

Two and half years later, we had a precious little boy, who we named Theo. He was born with no heart rate, and though he was resuscitated, he died a few hours later. I always felt that he would have been my musical child soulmate, based on the scant evidence of him causing me to nearly faint at a Plaid gig when pregnant and once kicking in time to the Peep Show theme music. I also believe Theo is a guitarist’s name; witness the protagonist’s son in Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” and a minor character in School of Rock.

Our third child, Weeza, has had basically no choice and is equally happy listening to her 90s rock namesakes, her dad’s more extreme adventures in electronica, or the Tom Gray-penned songs from the storybook Penguin (probably her favourite, if I’m honest). Seeing her bob up and down or stamp her feet with joy to any music is a pleasure that can’t be beaten. She also knows how to use the volume dial, to ear splitting effect and an innocent “oh dear!” from out of her 16-month old mouth.

Recently, aged nearly 5, our Senior Daughter watched Labyrinth for the first time and coincidentally, and rather inexplicably, spent several PE classes preparing a dance routine to Bowie’s Starman. Here was my chance. On hearing that the Goblin King and Starman singer were one and the same, she inquired “Are there any more David Bowie songs, Mum?”. The floodgates opened. We listened to Hunky Dory, which I followed on with Blondie’s Parallel Lines, wanting to lay down the right musical foundations. But where to go from there? So much of my favourite 90s indie I wanted to lead her through turned out to be truly inappropriate: Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Sleeper….so much drugs, so much sex. It almost seemed worse than much of the hip-hop that her dad had recently been listening to because I thought that hearing English voices, she would be more likely to make out the words and ask what they meant. This was unexpected.

I decided to play her a demo CD made by a band I and your usual blog host’s wife had been in, together with a Swedish friend, in the mid noughties. Jackpot – she loved it! We played it all the time and Senior Daughter started playing rock stars in the playground and singing our songs. Until I let her watch a video we had made for one of our odder tracks, The Thin Man, having forgotten how weird it was. She was really freaked out, and no surprise given that it features a floppy man wearing a creepy mask who comes to life, chases us and ends up being dumped in the sea in a suitcase.

Now we seem to be in a comfortable middle ground. Senior Daughter still often asks for Bowie (she’s a purist though – only the early 70s stuff), but we once again enjoy a heartfelt sing-a-long to Frozen, or even good old nursery rhymes. And I’ve come to realise that there is a reason for children’s music to exist. It is a safe space for simple enjoyment of rhythm, rhyme (or not) and sounds that may or may not tell a story or help a child to learn. The earliest pre-school music is not invested with emotion, which may be one reason why we as adults find it hard to put up with.

Now, children growing up too fast is something we always lament as a society, and perhaps we shouldn’t hasten this by encouraging them to listen to music with adult themes, just as we steer them away from films, books or computer games that are age-inappropriate. I enjoyed my teenage journey of musical discovery on my own terms – I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it dictated by my parents. Or other adults, remembering a time at middle school when a PE teacher had to sub one of our music lessons and she just played us a Pink Floyd album to, in her view, give us an education in music. This may be amongst the reasons why I can’t bear Pink Floyd.

So I won’t be pushing any more indie classics on the children for now. I hope they have the rich and rewarding experience of discovering the music they love at their own pace.

Review – What Happened Miss Simone?

Netflix is a parent’s best friend. Especially in the early days of parenthood, the chances of sitting down to watch a TV programme at the time it’s scheduled, without being interrupted by a hungry/poorly/grumpy baby are slim to none. The chances of something you actually want to watch being on are even lower. So the ability, in those rare free moments, to always be able to find something to watch is invaluable.

We’ve worked our way through the likes of Breaking Bad and Community, and Netflix original series like House of Cards and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. As well as original TV shows, Netflix are increasingly producing original feature length documentaries. This is great news for my wife and I, as we both love them. Give us a six hour series on the Tudor dynasty, or a BBC4 documentary on the history of the toilet and we’ll be happy. We may not have watched quite so many when our daughter was very small, as we didn’t have the concentration levels and couldn’t stay awake long, but we’re back on track now. Even better, for us, than a documentary is a music documentary, so we’d been looking forward to ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’ the Netflix documentary on Nina Simone a great deal. I knew a little of Nina Simone’s music, but very little about the woman herself, so was prepared to be enlightened.

Nina Simone

The documentary didn’t disappoint. It got the balance just right between archive footage and talking heads (I tend to prefer more of the former than the latter), and plenty of her wonderful music. The biggest takeaway for me was finding just how radical she was during the civil rights movement, and how damaging her views were to her career. During her early career Simone was seen as a talented but uncontroversial singer, mainly covering over peoples songs. She was prolific and extremely successful, and could have continued to be so. However, as the civil rights movement grew in strength during the 1960s, Simone became increasingly radical, writing angry, raw songs such as ‘Mississippi Goddam’. That particular song sounds so powerful even today that it’s hard to imagine the impact it had 50 years ago. However, Simone’s views, closer to the ‘any means necessary‘ of Malcolm X than the peaceful protests of Martin Luther-King angered her white American fans, eventually leading to her emigrating in the late 1960s and living a semi-nomadic lifestyle for the remainder of her life.

Two elements of the documentary particularly interested me as a parent. Firstly Simone’s childhood, during which she spent hours and hours at the piano each day. This led to a great talent but not a happy childhood. It is this kind of thing I worry about when I worry about being a pushy or competitive parent. Is it worth sacrificing happiness in an attempt to achieve greatness? Secondly, Simone as a parent. Her daughter Lisa is a major contributor to the documentary, and describes her mother as mainly absent during the early years of her life because of a busy touring schedule. In later years, overseas, Simone was more present in her daughter’s life but also angry, temperamental and violent, turning the abuse she herself had suffered at the hands of her husband on her daughter.

Lisa Simone, Nina's daughter
Lisa Simone, Nina’s daughter

Lisa didn’t seem angry or bitter, just sad that she had lost her mother in spirit many years before she actually passed away. The lesson of this fine film is one we should all know well by now. Great talents such as Nina Simone bring much joy to our world but experience precious little themselves.