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Joy Devotion

Jennifer Otter on the sonic pilgrimage to Ian Curtis' grave and the odd trinkets people leave behind

Joy Division is one of those bands with an obsessive fan base. It's down to the universal appeal of their music, but a lot of the devotion stem from singer Ian Curtis' personality, lyrics, life and death. Ever since Curtis killed himself in May 1980, the music and memory of Joy Division has of course lived on, but there as a cult-like feeling to the masses of people who still form Curtis' fan base. So much so that people pilgrimage to his Macclesfield grave each year on the anniversary of his death. This phenomenon is something Goldsmiths University PhD student Jennifer Otter highlights in her book and XOYO exhibition Joy Devotion, opening up tonight. We spoke to Otter about the weirdest thing she found at the grave and what her favourite Joy Division song is...

I am not sure why people leave condoms or stuffed bears, although the two items together create an interesting juxtaposition

Dazed Digital: How did you come up with the idea for the book/expo?
Jennifer Otter:
From as far back as four years old, I would say I was an anglophile. I would 'borrow' my parents original issue Beatles and Stones albums, and play them on my fat-needled Fisher Price record player. By the time I took my first trip to England from my native California, I had an unexplainable need to see the places that had inspired my idols, the people who had created not only the soundscape but provided my cultural cues for identity - Morrissey, the Brontë Sisters, Sylvia Plath, the gents of Joy Division and New Order. I went on many of these 'sonic pilgrimages' each time I visited the UK, taking loads of pictures. I was trying to capture the magic I felt from my music library in a visual medium. When it came time to pick a focus for my doctoral work at Goldsmiths University of London, it seemed a natural fit for me to investigate this connection between a time and place which may only exist between the grooves of a record, yet so many of us feel deeply committed to.  

DD: Are you a Joy Division fan yourself? Why do you think people obsess so much over Ian Curtis?
Jennifer Otter:
I started out the project being a fan of the Joy Division myth. Ian Curtis as an icon is now deeply steeped in ideas of authenticity which is tethered so closely to death and demise- yet at the same time, it is these exact traits which bring much solace and comfort to the listener;  the tragedy of Curtis's death leads to the rise of New Order, who are, in my opinion, extremely underrated for their importance as cultural provocateurs and visionaries - the elevation of not just a music scene, but an entire city on the shoulders of a band and their inner circle willing to take chances and truly think differently. It is such a great story, filled with all the elements of a classic tale. I think it is for these two reasons that people continue to be so fascinated by Joy Division. Curtis himself shares many traits of other well known personalities who died at a young age: good-looking, a talented artist, possibly misunderstood by those around him.  These threads run through other classic icons: Dean, Morrison, and more recently, Cobain. There are elements of these characteristics that many people experience- isolation, loneliness, confusion. The music of Joy Division paired with the mythos of Curtis provides comfort and companionship, especially as many of these emotions may not be socially acceptable to dwell upon or express. Here is someone else who truly (as illustrated by his death) felt these things- you are not alone.

For me, a few of their songs I find profoundly affecting, and have been the only thing to pull me through some difficult times. I watched my grandfather die slowly and painfully before my eyes from cancer. During those months, only Joy Division could keep me from exploding in rage over the unfairness or erupting in tears throughout the day. The combination of the story of the band, the lyrics, music and production create an unprecedented audio therapy.

DD: What's the weirdest thing you ever saw at the grave?
Jennifer Otter:
I have seen a lot of different items left at Ian Curtis's grave. I am not sure why people leave condoms or stuffed bears, although the two items together create an interesting juxtaposition. I have become close friends with the gentleman who actually buried Ian's ashes and has worked at Macclesfield Cemetary for the past thirty odd years. He reported seeing a vibrator left once. I would have loved to be the proverbial fly on the wall to see that visitor and get inside their head to figure out the meaning to that trinket. There are often letters sent 'to' Ian at the Macclesfield Cemetery from around the world. At any time, there will be postcards in Japanese, flowers with Italian hand writing and return addresses alongside the usual handful of guitar pics and soggy cigarettes.

DD: What do you think this tells us about the power of music?
Jennifer Otter:
I think the enduring and growing influence and importance of Joy Division illustrates not just the power of music, but the power of myth. I chose Joy Division (and Nirvana) as the two lenses to use for my PhD work, as I believe they offer a unique manner to investigate how we create our own identities and memory through song and ideas.  It is not so much about the bands themselves, but how they allow us to tell our own history.

DD: What's your favourite Joy Division song?
Jennifer Otter:
Really, 'DISORDER' may be one of the most perfect things I have ever heard. Be it in a dark club, drinking whiskey, next to the speaker, dancing with your eyes closed or in your bedroom on headphones, on a crowded the subway surrounded by people - it is celestial.

Joy Devotion is at XOYO, 32-37 Cowper Street, EC2A4AP London, tonight from 6pm with a DJ set from Kevin Cummins