Joy Division

Filling in the gaps with poster boy Camden Joy


Sarah Vowell
February 22, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

have you ever cared so much about a record you had to write it a letter?
Cared so much you photocopied the letter, carried it with you, pasted it all over town?
Taped it to telephone poles, glued it to walls? Cared so much you cracked?

The pseudonymous New Yorker Camden Joy has scribbled and taped and glued
rambling musical missives for the last four years. Part crank, part critic,
Joy's embarrassingly personal prose obsesses over indie bands and their
place in his apparently lonesome life. One of his more famous postings
asked, in all-caps and felt tip pen, "the American President of the
United States and all them U.S. trade reps to haul Pavement to the trade
talks, they are our grandest export, our finest product, infusible in hot
weather, our best materials, Pavement should be carried on our shoulders and
emblazoned on our backs and ushered unto waiting planes at the last minute
and with an almost effete, deliberate importance, their bellies bloated with
our very best meats."

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Joy's relationship to the music industry is complicated. He often rails
against rock's capitalist trappings. He wrote a 47-page pamphlet proclaiming
Frank Black's "Teenager of the Year" as "The Greatest Record Album Ever Told"
and proceeded to lambaste Black's former label, Elektra/Asylum, for dropping the
musician from its roster. On the other hand, Joy ambitiously courts
mainstream journalists; my first contact with him came via a 13-page
fax of his press clippings (in which traditional critics
all but crown him rock writing's bizarre new messiah). A package of
booklets soon followed, including the impossible overrating of Black, a
weird religious tract on Al Green called "The Greatest Record Album Singer
That Ever Was" and the brilliant if baffling "The Lost Manifestos of Camden
Joy."

As an agent provocateur, Joy walks right by criticism's gap, screaming. He
has no time for the divide between first-person arts writers who insinuate
themselves into analyses and third-person reporters who, through some
hopeless nod to objectivity (or just shyness), try like mad to remain invisible in
their own prose. Joy makes a plea for gushing. He told me, "I would like to have
some sort of effect on the way people think about
music. I think what's happened is we're very afraid of sentiment. In review
after review, I'll see the word sentimental applied as a negative attribute.
I don't understand that. I come from a world where sentimental is actually
kind of nice."

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"I come from a world ..." Joy says those words almost condescendingly, as if
he sees himself as some sort of enlightened alien, an ambassador of emotion
come to teach us dried-up earthlings a little something about bravery. While
his heart-on-sleeve approach might inspire a few eggheaded rock writers to
explore their touchy-feely side, he ignores the fact that effective criticism
involves a conversation between fandom (or anti-fandom) and intellect. But Joy's lack-o-logic
makes his essays difficult to follow. He's not so interested in developing arguments, which makes his pamphlets awkward and meandering. His
talents lie in two places: one-breath manifesto invectives (where Freedy
Johnston's bad album equals betrayal, prompting the author to sneer, "I would
crawl through glass to claw your eyes. I would offer a hug if my suit were
explosive") and critical insights woven through fictitious narratives. His novel "The
Last Rock Star Book or, Liz Phair: A Rant" will be published by Verse Chorus
Press next month. A continuation of Joy's writer-as-stalker motif, the
book exists in conversation with Phair's album "Exile in Guyville," telling
the story of the protagonist "Camden" and his girlfriend "Liz." "She's had
previous relationships," he writes, "been burned, has trouble trusting
anyone." I'm sure Joy's fictional love fantasy will only make Phair that
much more open.

Ordinarily, death threats and delusions offer tell-tale warnings that an
individual should be avoided face-to-face. But in the spirit that sends my
newsier colleagues off to war zones, I dropped behind the lines of Greenwich
Village and went on poster patrol with Camden Joy.

It was the week of Valentine's Day. If you think Joy is hyperbolic about
three-minute pop songs, you can imagine how bent out of shape he gets about
his own love life. His girlfriend -- a real woman, apparently -- broke up with
him. It was conspiracy. He blames the phone company. If not for the Nynex
corporation's incompetence at pay-phone upkeep, Joy and his enjoyed would be
together still. So he hatches a flier campaign with two goals: to condemn
Nynex and to get her back.

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While I had romanticized postering as this secretive in-the-dark guerrilla
action, it is actually cold and boring work. Especially in the middle of a
February storm, when the tape will barely stick to slushy surfaces and your
feet freeze up as you pass cozy restaurants and bars where the people inside
look warm and so very nonchalant.

Until that first night of traipsing (two more evenings of watching him
attach sheets of paper inscribed with things like "Camden's Conspiracy
Hearts" would follow) I had considered Joy, even at his least publishable, a
fellow critic. I (along with a dozen others, including New York Times pop critic Neil Strauss) had even joined his "gang" last September for the five minutes it took to write a poster addressed to the CMJ music conference about giving neglected musical talent a chance. But standing there, between a bright window of drinkers and the man who had drawn an innocuous heart around
the words "LINE DEAD," I had never sensed criticism's intermediary role so
keenly. I felt invisible, alone, and engulfed by context, alienated from
both him and the crowds of people around us. On 13th Street, he wraps
elastics around a red flier, drawn with descending valentines that look like drops of blood.
I can't understand a word of it, though it's my job to try. Instead, I point at the plaque on the building in front of us; anarchist Emma Goldman lived here. His poster, then, is
this spot's second monument to the irrational. I was outnumbered. Joy trudged along
with Goldman's ghost behind him, breaking the law every 10 feet. I stumbled beside them, reminding myself that there's a big difference between being an anarchist and writing about them.

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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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