For someone who loves music, job titles don’t get much cooler than what’s on Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s business card. The London-based writer and teacher is currently the Global Music Ambassador for the British & Irish Modern Music (BIMM) institute, which means she gets to recruit and invite famous musicians for master classes at one of the U.K.’s most prestigious music schools.
With a doctorate in the academic study of pop music, she is a regular commentator on British media and at music festivals, and gives talks at places like Cambridge University on fan culture. She’s now positioned herself as one of the world’s authorities on the vinyl resurgence with her new book Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans, which includes interviews from such music demi-gods as Fatboy Slim, Lars Ulrich, Henry Rollins, and Nick Hornby. She was even the host of the U.K.’s official observance of Record Store Day.
By any measure of cultural cachet, the woman known as JOB has an awesome job.
But, as often as she can get away with it, on stage at festivals and on television, Bickerdike will wear a shirt that, in some way, advertises her hometown, the landscape where she grew up, the place where her heart still lives, even if the rest of her body is nine time zones away.
Bickerdike is an evangelist for Santa Cruz.
“My passion for Santa Cruz goes beyond any sort of reason,” said the 47-year-old former competitive swimmer and grad of Harbor High School. “It’s in the very nucleus of every cell of my body. It’s the best place in the universe. Full stop. Period. It has kinda soured any other experiences I’ve had going places, because I grew up in the greatest place in the world.”
Today, as a go-to authority on fan culture, particularly in her areas of most intense interest—the music of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, the cult of rock stars who died young, and the genre of mellow ’70s rock called “yacht rock”— Bickerdike holds fast to her Santa Cruz upbringing as both a badge of authenticity and as the source of a passionate attachment to music that allows her to commune with fans of all kinds.
But in many ways, that “greatest place in the world” doesn’t quite exist anymore. Her musical passions are not only a function of place, but time, too. When she talks about Santa Cruz, Bickerdike is talking about a particular era in Santa Cruz, the 1980s—pre-Loma Prieta, pre-Internet, pre-obscene real estate valuations. She is a kind of avatar of a specific generational brand of fandom, namely Gen X, the last cohort that grew up in the days before the tyranny of the download and streaming revolutions. She came of age with a nexus of habits, technologies and associations forever lost in the complete triumph of digital culture. It has created within her and many other people of her generation a sense of longing best captured in the most foundational pop song of Bickerdike’s experience: Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Young Jen Otter grew up in Live Oak and, as a pre-teen in the early Reagan years, would ride her blue banana-seat bike from her home to downtown’s Pacific Garden Mall. She was 11 when the Nicolas Cage film Valley Girl came out. The film itself was meh, but the soundtrack—Plimsouls, Psychedelic Furs, Modern English—blew her mind. She began to regularly haunt Logos, the legendary Santa Cruz used-book and record store, checking in every week to see if the Valley Girl soundtrack had come in. (It never did, but decades later, when she told the story to Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, he found the album and had it sent to her as a gift).
Later, at another downtown touchstone, Cymbaline Records, the fervent young fan would pester clerks about the Smiths’ import Hatful of Hollow. Eventually, a clerk dug out an in-store copy and gave it to her. It’s a gesture that, to this day more than 30 years later, fills her with the gratitude of a novice allowed into an exclusive community. It was at yet another downtown shrine, Café Pergolesi, where she heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” for the first time.
“I would go to Cymbaline,” she remembers, “and, oh my god, I was just shocked—shocked!—at these people, they were probably UCSC students, with dyed hair and pierced noses. When you’re 11, 12 years old in the ’80s, that felt so cool and out there.”
In those days, she says, there was a considerable coolness gap between Harbor High and Santa Cruz High. Since she was a swimmer who worked as a lifeguard at the pool at Harvey West, she knew a lot of Westside kids from Santa Cruz High and quickly moved into their cultural orbit, which was often centered on music, from punk and new wave to early hip-hop. It was a time when Santa Cruz used to feel like it was filled with music, from the Doobie Brothers hits playing at the Boardwalk and on radios at the beach, to the live music outside the Cooper House and pulsing from the downtown clubs, to the bleeding-edge pop playing in the record stores.
In 1990, Jen graduated Harbor and moved away to college at UC Davis. Even though the Loma Prieta earthquake had put a tragic punctuation on her childhood, she says, “Literally within two weeks of going off to university, I was telling myself that I’ve made the worst mistake of my life.”
The music of Santa Cruz prepared her well for a career in the still-powerful, pre-Napster recording industry. She parlayed an entry-level position as a college-radio rep into a years-long career with the Interscope/Geffen, Polygram and Universal labels, working with some of the most high-wattage names in the music biz.
Long-time friend Leslie Van Every first met Bickerdike around 2000, when Bickerdike was working at Interscope. “She’d say, ‘Hey, come with me, I have to go entertain this band.’ And it would be No Doubt! And she would be, all, ‘Whatever.’ That was just Jen’s way.”
Gavin Hayes, vocalist and guitarist for the band Dredg, which started in Los Gatos, also met Bickerdike through Interscope when his band was signed to the label. “She brought a whole maternal piece to the Interscope thing,” he said. “She’s still one of the most educated and passionate people about music that I know. She’s been able to retain this kind of excitement of a 14-year-old kid in line at a punk show.”
In 2001, a classmate at Harbor, Hunter McPherson, was killed in a random act of violence in San Francisco. His death shook her. The music industry was in the throes of a fundamental and painful transformation, and Bickerdike herself was “drowning in depression, booze and self-loathing.”
Hunter’s murder moved her to make a change. She decided to do what she had only fantasized about before—move to the U.K. to enroll in a doctoral program in cultural studies at Goldsmith’s in London.
As much as she was devoted to Santa Cruz, the music that stirred her soul in those days was almost exclusively Brit-pop. Joy Division is source of endless fascination. In her thirties, she considered the Smiths her religion. Only in that context does leaving sunny California for gloomy England make any sense.
It was 2009 when Bickerdike made the leap across the Atlantic. On her last day in Santa Cruz, remembers her friend Van Every, she rode the carousel at the Boardwalk and grabbed the brass ring, which she kept. On the way out of town, they stopped at the beach at Natural Bridges, where Bickerdike scooped out a handful of Santa Cruz sand. “She literally held it in her hand until we got to the airport,” said Van Every.
In the last decade, she’s written four books, and is working on another, a biography of Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico. She’s grown into her role as a kind of resident expert in fan culture. When something happens in music culture that demands mainstream attention, such as the death of David Bowie or Prince, “I’m hauled out like Hannibal Lecter,” she jokes. Having a Ph.D. lends her an air of credibility, but being a woman in media doesn’t hurt. “The vagina really helps me get those jobs,” she says.
Why Vinyl Matters is Bickerdike’s first book for mainstream audiences. (Her previous books, including such titles as The Secular Religion of Fandom, were more academically oriented). Vinyl is essentially a highly curated series of interviews with U.K. music-industry heavyweights who’ve given a lot of thought to the cultural and artistic dimensions of listening to music on vinyl LPs. It’s a roster of people that might baffle the casual fan, but will make hearts flutter for music snobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bickerdike is not among those who claim that music necessarily sounds better on vinyl than on other formats. Her devotion to vinyl has more to do with the ritualistic aspects of vinyl culture—which, in her view, allows for a more public identification with admired artists, from the display of record collections in the home to the rock T-shirts so beloved by Gen-X fans.
“Vinyl takes up space in your life,” she says. “So when you buy that Talking Heads album, you’re putting a stake in the ground and saying this is worth taking up space in my home. It’s like [visual] art in that way, and it makes a difference.”
FOR THOSE ABOUT TO YACHT
Yacht rock—a catch-all term that includes Toto, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald and many more—has legions of fans around the world, but Bickerdike’s passion for it is not likely to win her a lot of friends in the higher reaches of the rock world.
“I once almost got into a fistfight with Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit about Hall and Oates,” she says.
Another time, in an interview with New Order’s Peter Hook, she asked him about his foundational album growing up, to which he replied that it was Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. When he turned the question back to her, “I bust out with Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. You should have seen it. He looked like I farted in his face. He was like, ‘That’s not as good as the Slits!’ I was like, what? I was 10 years old, buying this record of this chick with bright orange hair! That was pretty outrageous for a kid in Santa Cruz.”
Her fierce defense of cheesy rock is part of her fearless personality. “When I was single and dating people, I could reveal if I had a venereal disease or a secret child, and it was no big deal. But once I said I had Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required on vinyl, that would be the end of the relationship.”
In 2012, Jen married a native Brit, James Bickerdike (who, she says, is not a fan of yacht rock). They were married in Santa Cruz, by the surfer statue on West Cliff, and after the ceremony, the whole wedding party followed the sound of the Doobie Brothers and Hall and Oates to the Boardwalk.
In the U.K., Bickerdike is still the outsider. And to her, that’s a good thing.
“One of the big reasons my career has gone so well here is because I’m different. I’m a Californian, and people think that’s weird and exotic and bizarre. They always ask me, ‘Why would you ever leave California?’”
If there’s hint of darkness in her life, it also has to do with Santa Cruz. For years, she has told anyone who’ll listen that she’ll one day return to Santa Cruz. But the cost of housing has made that dream seem as remote as ever. When she looks at the houses available in the area and the prices they’re commanding, “It’s something that repulses, horrifies and saddens me in a way that I really cannot put into words. It’s completely illogical, but I still long for it, desperately, in a way where I don’t really want to be anywhere else.”
In describing Bickerdike’s attachment to Santa Cruz, her friend Leslie Van Every evokes Gone With the Wind.
“What Santa Cruz has meant to her is extraordinary,” she says. “It’s her Tara. It’s where she goes when she has to decide the next steps in her life. It’s where she gains power and where she feels centered. Every time she leaves, it’s like you can see the marks of her fingernails as she’s being dragged away. But she has a great thing there. She’s married to a Brit. She has obligations there. But she will return and make an impact here. Jen Otter’s story is certainly not finished in Santa Cruz.”