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A Fan's Notes

[whitespace] Camden Joy
Katy Radditz

The Last Groupie: Pop poet Camden Joy

Camden Joy's pop obsession

By Jennifer Pryzybylski

Heart displaces cant in the work of the author and pop herald known as "Camden Joy." His is a world of musical ablution. Al Green is tricked out in Ellison and preacher robes. Frank Black is an unsung magistery. Famous in certain circles for his devotional posters, his self-published rock & roll manifestos and his first novel, The Last Rock Star Book (or Liz Phair, a rant), Joy was called "one of this country's most original music writers" by NPR's Ira Glass. Bay Area pop obsessives will get to see what all the hype is about when Aquarius Records presents, starting Feb. 1, This Poster Will Not Never Change Your Life, a selection of pictures and posters that document three years of Joy's pop culture street rants.

How did you choose Liz Phair?

Essentially I was writing two books and repetitively listening to Exile in Guyville. Mornings were spent on a Victorian-like novel which just swam about in a tight little circle like a goldfish in a bowl. And in the afternoon, I would work on the Liz Phair book, which unfolded everything.

I once wrote all of these gospel songs, substituting "Johnson" for "Jesus." Similarly I realized that if I changed the narrator to a first-person and inserted "Liz Phair" for basically any woman that came up, it creates this really odd coherence and weird tension.

You must be pleased that it still reads "current."

I'm older now and there are some creaky sentences that just make me wince. But in a way that fits the narrative voice. And it's a chance to show I can try to hold something bigger together.

How old were you when you wrote it?

I was turning 30, which I really think had an effect on it. I was going out to see punk bands a lot in L.A. every week. I tried to reconcile how meaningless a lot of the rock & roll vocabulary is in the adult world. We school ourselves in it almost religiously, and it really has very little application.

The older you get, the more of an anachronism the culture of popular music is.

Yeah, and it's a little embarrassing. But at the same time you don't feel as if you can deny it.

Have you had any response from Phair?

No, meeting famous people is always disappointing. I want her to be a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a trademarked character. What if she reads it and gets really mad?

Do you see the novel as a continuation of the tracts and manifestos? Did they seem related? You sound more controlled in the book.

That seems accurate. I don't really like Jack Kerouac that much, nor Lester Bangs. It's like, "Settle down!" They're funny and I enjoy humor, but a certain amount of heart seems to be missing. In contrast, my writing style comes out of this self-loathing: "That was terrible--I have to do completely the opposite."

Although the voices of the tracts, the manifestos, the posters and the book are all different, what crystallizes them for me is this great love of music.

That is a constant. I come from this family where no one is really into art. I think I was the only one who went to college.

The Al Green booklet was a wild ride.

What happened was I had just lost my job, my girlfriend and I had just broken up, and I had about $1,200 in my savings account. So I said, What the hell. I'll spend all the money I have and publish this as a fake religious pamphlet. So then I was stuck with all of these pamphlets and had to find out a way to sell them, so I found a bookstore in L.A. that would allow me to give an oratory. I thought I would do this fierce Camden Joy thing. So I have this screen behind me and I am sort of proclaiming like a preacher. It was definitely a performance art kind of thing, the first time I'd done anything like that. It held together fine as a lecture, but when I typed it all out and saw what people would have to go through to read it, I thought, Oh God, this is never going to work.

I felt like every white guy who ever wrote about black music always had to come from a racism dissection. He had to say, "OK, look, I was born in a racist culture, these are the earliest
incidents ..." They all have to come clean. I thought it was ridiculous--can't we invent something more interesting?

So that's where the melanin theory and all the rest came from?

Well, I had a friend who when he was 4 years old thought white people grew up to be black. The mistaken notion of a 4-year-old. I wondered how old I could make the narrator and have him mistakenly think this. That was a lot of fun to communicate as a lecture.

So what is the time line of all of these works? The novel, Frank Black, Al Green and then the manifestos?

Al Green and the manifestoes were almost simultaneous. The Al Green Lecture occurred on my last day in L.A. I started putting out manifestos pretty soon after arriving in New York City. Crazy things, mostly written on subway rides. I had some money from a bunch of temp jobs so I published them together. It was exhausting. I quit my job as a legal secretary. Looking back, I'm surprised by the hefty clip of writing. It was really amazing to me that not only did it hold together but that people actually took an interest in it. Then the Freedy Johnston manifesto really backfired.

What happened?

It's sort of a sad story. I continued to hear how Freedy keeps getting better and better. Um, can we please tell the truth here? My friends and I would sit around and talk about Freedy Johnston and what the hell happened to him. Instead of politics, we were discussing Freedy Johnston [laughs]. All this stuff is so stupid, like arguing, "Hey, didn't tinfoil used to be thicker?" My girlfriend and I negotiated that I could put it up but only in areas far away from the neighborhood where she and mutual friends of Freedy lived. So I took the train into the East Village from Williamsburg. The next morning at 8am there is a call from Freedy Johnston on her answering machine. It turns out he was renting an apartment in the East Village. That morning he came down and stuck to the lamp post "Bring me the (fat) head of Fred Fatzer." He wasn't amused. My girlfriend freaked and all sorts of friendships were in doubt.

All that over one flier?

Well, yeah, but it did call for his death. My solution was to review his next CD for the Village Voice. I called it "Call off the Fatwa." My hope was that his friends would read it and show it to him: "See, we told you that guy was deranged."

And he was appeased?

Apparently. Plus, I had a surprising amount of support from people who were mutual friends, saying, "You don't understand what he's doing. It's not about you, it's more about pop culture." It's like after they catch these assassins, they go on trial and suddenly learn all about the true nature of their childhood.

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From the January 18, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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