Bookforum talks with Camden Joy

Lost Joy BY Camden Joy. edited by Jonathan Lethem. Verse Chorus Press. Paperback, 256 pages. $15.

This year Verse Chorus Press will reissue four volumes of Tom Adelman’s writings as Camden Joy. Lost Joy compiles Adelman’s early short writings—handwritten Xeroxed manifestos that he once glued up to walls and telephone poles all over New York City, letterpressed tracts about albums he loved, short stories as music criticism, and music criticism as questionably authentic memoir. A pair of novels The Last Rock Star Book: Or: Liz Phair, a Rant and Boy Island, as well as his novella collection 3 by Camden Joy, share a tendency to put real-life musicians (e.g. Phair and bands like Cracker and Califone) in deeply fictional situations. In some cases, a character named Camden Joy appears—drumming in a band, writing a quickie rock bio for cash, awake all night after a break-up eating candy and penning a manifesto, or drowning in a river. These reissues include new introductions by Jonathan Lethem (who partly based his Chronic City character Perkus Tooth on Joy), Trinie Dalton, and Samuel Cohen (editor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace).

What’s the truth about Camden Joy? More than a pseudonym, Joy is a persona—one that allows Adelman to write novels, essays, and manifestos altogether different from the books he’s published under his given name. It’s a persona that bleeds over into his interviews, correspondences, and performances. Adelman integrates biography, his own and others’, into his fiction and obsesses over art that has repercussions beyond its frame. His art has had repercussions of its own, including, in some cases, threats of lawsuits or worse.

“I’m not writing this for money. Understand that if you understand nothing else,” opens Adelman’s unhinged monograph on Frank Black’s album Teenager of the Year. Through pleadings and directives, his writing as Camden Joy asks readers to resist the sway of the market on art. If the ’90s injunction against selling-out has come to seem quaint in an ever more harsh and pragmatic creative economy, Adelman’s larger imperatives—to pursue one’s creative impulse without regard to external forces, to be continually willing to upend the expectations set up by his prior output, and to abandon even the identity formed by an accumulated body of work—remain legible and vital.

Adelman currently lives in central New Jersey, where he recently recorded an album with his band The Oswalds. As a teenage music fan, I exchanged zines and letters with Adelman beginning in around 1994, and then, nearly two decades later, presented a paper on his work at a conference at which he served as keynote speaker. This interview was conducted over the phone and it was, as always, a pleasure to hear his thoughts on writing and music.

What got you initially interested in the use of an alternate persona?

Punk rock came when I was in seventh grade. All of a sudden the people we were listening to had the wildest names. It seemed so fantastic and cool to me. I also grew up taking for granted a huge host of pseudonyms as we all do—Bob Dylan and so on—and at a certain age I realized that this person had made a choice. When I began writing, I think it was inevitable that I put someone else’s name on the thing to see how that felt. It felt pretty neat. It felt like I could raise and lower my voice in ways that felt unexpected and were new to me.

Did this persona allow you to write things that you wouldn’t otherwise have felt comfortable writing?

Yes—especially at the beginning. Almost as soon as I started writing fiction I started getting little gigs for an alternative weekly, writing music and drama reviews as Tom Adelman. A lot of music journalism at that point was dictated by what came in the mail and what publicist you wanted to honor. The Camden Joy persona came out of a desire to write something that countered all of that and seized music back from the publicist. For whatever reason, I felt like creating a new name made it easier. I don’t know, maybe it was easier to be nastier under a different name? Maybe it was easier to call for the head of [singer-songwriter] Freedy Johnston, which I did in one of my poster-rants. If I’d written as Tom Adelman, I doubt that I would have gone after Johnston with that kind of intensity. I love the Freedy Johnston poster just because it kind of makes fun of him for changing his name, which was originally Fred Fatzer, but at the same time here I am writing under a false name. Without knowing it, I glued one of the posters on the pole right outside Johnston’s apartment and it said, “Bring me the fat head of Fred Fatzer.” Apparently, he called his manager, freaking out.

Did you ever feel like any of this crossed an ethical line?

It does seem irresponsible. Let’s say that. If someone did this to me, would I not want to go after them? I rarely get agreement from any people I write about. David Lowery (lead singer of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven) was always the most worrisome. Boy Island [which is about Cracker, but takes lots of fictional liberties] really inflamed him. He called the book’s editor and was threatening him and was saying he was going to come after me. I knew enough about David Lowery to be nervous. There was this story about how David Lowery’s manager beat up a guy with a sack full of quarters. And there was a time where I thought, if David Lowery cared enough, he might show up at my doorstep.

Lost Joy begins and ends with stories in which Camden Joy dies, two different ways. Were you trying to kill off the persona?

I thought Lost Joy would be the last thing I’d ever publish. I didn’t think I would come back to using the Camden Joy voice. I wanted to disappear like I had appeared, abruptly and mysteriously, but here I am again—using the Camden Joy name.

Camden Joy’s temporary retirement seems to coincide with your father’s death, your marriage, and the births of your children. Did these events feel related to the retiring of the person?

What is true is that, after I fell in love with my wife, my life got much more ordered. That was in 1997. And a lot of Camden Joy stuff came before that and not as much came after. I think that at the time what really helped me writing the shorter Camden Joy pieces was that my life was quite chaotic. It inspired me because I had no set place to live for a long period of time. I was not homeless. But I was staying with friends for about a year and a half. I didn’t have an apartment or anything. I was just sleeping on friend’s sofas and moving from city to city. That period was really fun and really liberating. I did a lot of experiments that were almost like automatic writing: fill up notebooks with all sorts of writing relevant to wherever I was, full of details, and full of possible narratives, and they would get plugged into things that I was asked to write, like record reviews or We’re doing an all Michael Jackson issue. Can you write a Michael Jackson story? As I read them now, I’m surprised to find these phrases that I remember composing out of what was a really nomadic existence. When I think of Lost Joy, I think of it having an uprooted feel. I think of it as the work of someone who has a ghost-like existence.

How has it been to revisit the Camden Joy books as they’ve been rediscovered in recent years? How do they read differently now?

I’m shocked at, I want to say, the rapidity with which I wrote. When I look back on, at least at Lost Joy, it’s just like looking back on any piece of art that you made twenty or more years ago. You notice first that your brain does not work this way anymore. Good writing often maps the way that the brain works, it shows how this neural pathway connects to that neural pathway and so on. If you can get in sync with the writer, then what you experience is some kind of parallel trip through the neurons. It used to be that I owned those pathways and it is no longer so. I read the Camden Joy books and I’m experiencing them as an outsider. Wow, did this really happen? I guess he likes this song. I better go out and listen to it. A lot of stuff I go back and look at and I’m embarrassed by, but I’m not embarrassed by Lost Joy. There are a few stories that maybe I wish I hadn’t included, but there are a lot of interesting sentences, that once I get in the middle of, I think Gosh, I wonder where this one is going. You know? I’ve always thought there was a ginormous amount of creepy sex in the Camden Joy work. Now I have children and I think about which parts of my writing I would allow them to read. [Laughs]

What led you to have the narrator, named Camden Joy, kidnap a woman who is maybe his ex-girlfriend, maybe Liz Phair?

I was trying to imagine what this guy is like, at first using the sympathetic portrayal of the absent boyfriend from the story of Phair’s record Exile in Guyville, and then turning him into someone who is extremely unlikable. I felt like I was hearing that all over the Liz Phair album, which itself provokes with its inconsistencies—about sex, obsession, and art. But here’s my problem—and it’s the same problem with my baseball books—I never think about the audience and what they want to hear. Someone who buys a book about Liz Phair wants to know that this character is going to be treated well in this book. Someone who buys a book about the Boston Red Sox wants to hear Boston history that isn’t about how they used to be racist. I don’t think too clearly about those things obviously in advance. I know there are people who like Liz Phair and bought the Liz Phair book and then thought, What does this have to do with her? But to me, what it had to do with her seemed so obvious at the time I wrote it.

Your writing as Camden Joy blends fiction, criticism, rock history, and rock myth. Your baseball book Long Ball applies techniques of novels to its non-fiction subject. There’s intense sensory descriptions of scenes in which, for example, a major league baseball player is playing catch with his father in the backyard. How did your editors react to scenes that I can only assume are to some extent imagined in a work of non-fiction?

There is a lot of detail in it that I got that’s verifiable by newspaper, but every so often I did feel that I was more of a novelist. There are scenes that are made up but that feel real to me. Baseball fans don’t seem to be worried about how you knew the texture of the sky on a particular day, but they’ll call you out you’re off by one number on the number of stolen bases a player has.

You’re working on a group of songs that are sort of narcocorridos—drug songs based on a folk ballad structure from the 1800s—but from the perspective of a consumer in the drug trade. What got you interested in narcocorridos?

Periodically, I have these glimpses into my own ignorance and I realize how little I know about certain events, certain countries, stuff like that, and I will give myself a little education on these things. The concept of narcocorridos was very intriguing to me. That there are different cartels that listen to different styles of music and expect their songs and their tributes to be sung in certain styles. The Sinaloa cartel does these really old-fashioned-style narcocorridos. I found that fascinating. I think you could see that, as with my music writing, what fascinated me is that it’s music that bleeds over into all sorts of areas of life. I had a couple collections of recordings of corridos of the Mexican Revolution and another on the origins of the narcocorridos, which involves a lot of people recording in the 1920s singing gorgeously and—as with a lot of things recorded in the ’20s—with rhythms and tones that have since been lost. I read a terrific book about narcocorridos by a Boston writer who hitchhiked through Mexico and met with the different songwriters. I was reading a whole lot about Mexico and trying to understand the Mexican drug trade, which took me back into Mexico’s history. The cartels are driven by the drug consumption of wealthy Americans, so I write the songs from the perspective of a complicit American, a drug user. Also, as a songwriter, I was attracted to the intense structure and the formalism of it. My initial interest was whether I could meet that formalism and yet still subvert it.

In a talk you gave you said that, for you, the goal of the writing was to have your own goddamn riot. What was the closest you ever got to your own riot?

I’m actually pretty wussy. I remember in the ’90s when Sarah Vowell was following me around to do a piece for This American Life and she’d see the police and say, “Go over there and put that poster up right in front of the police.” She really wanted me to openly defy them and show myself to be this hero that was not me at all. I was like, “No, no, no. What if they hurt me? What if they talk to me? That could hurt my feelings.”

But, this is amazing to think back on: there used to be time when you’d come into the theater and you’d sit here and you’d wait for the previews to start and it would be a blank time and there’d be nothing on the screen and no sound and you didn’t have an iPhone. When I wrote that Kill the Movies manifesto, I was originally thinking of this time. I always thought that was the time to get up and go to the front and start telling people things! Because anyone could! It just seemed like such an open space. Gosh, if I were worth my salt, I would deliver Kill the Movies as a speech in an actual theater. (“hack those bigheaded hipster snots and their glamorously large thirty-foot Hollywood faces from the projection screen, and like some circle of soiled fabric simply roll them up, make them long trumpeting tubes in our hands, which we would raise to our nothing mouths to amplify our puny voices”) That would have been the closest I’d gotten to an actual riot.

I am still owed one goddamn riot.

Ben Bush is a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Twitter: @BenHBush