Like Trenton But Without the Thrills: The Writing of Camden Joy

January 13, 2014   •   By Ben Bush

IN LATE 1995, a series of handwritten manifestos were photocopied and then wheat-pasted onto vending machines, electric poles, and other surfaces around the city of New York. In a poster on the music of Pavement, the author compares the love his misguided girlfriend shows for him to “the love that a chime tower bears for the dead […] or a youth fascinated by a Glock pistol.” How can she love him, it asks, when he is unworthy of love compared to a band like Pavement? Each of the many manifestos were signed “Camden Joy.”

Interviewed by the zine Loud Paper, Joy was asked how he’d chosen his name. He describes walking around Trenton, New Jersey, researching a short story, when a local asked why he was setting his story there.

I said I just wanted one of the darkest, saddest places in the country, and I figure that if you can find a reason to go on in a city like Trenton then that is a beacon that can carry you through anything.

And they said, “Oh, Trenton is not so bad at all, you ought to go to Camden.” I always thought of Camden Joy as something that would carry you through the darkest times.

Since wheat-pasting posters falls into a legal gray area, potentially considered destruction of property, a pseudonym may have also offered the bonus of a shield from law enforcement.

The Trenton resident’s advice to pay a visit to Camden seems a sound one. By 1995, when Joy’s postering project began, Camden, New Jersey — still reeling from closures at its Campbell’s Soup factory, Navy yards, and aerospace plants — had been left with 20 percent unemployment, a drug trade fueled in part by visitors from the suburbs, and a spiraling murder rate. The city had packed more than 1,200 inmates into a prison built to house 450, nearly three times its intended capacity. The city of Camden is also the birthplace of the second-oldest US record company, RCA Victor — though by the 1990s, the jobs at the record pressing plant were long gone. A more dispiriting deindustrialized city is hard to imagine.

His chosen name’s implied contradiction threads through his writing: “Joy” shows up as excitement, bordering on mania, and as what feels like a genuine and passionate love: his love for eccentric rock performers with a taste for melody and — at times more troublingly — his love for “blossom-faced, bough-armed Marie,” a (frequently ex-) girlfriend. “Camden” appears as a kind of danger and uncertainty. An undercurrent of menace frequently underlines the work, as in a broadside in which Joy commands readers to bring him the severed head of indie-guitarist-turned-light-rocker Freedy Johnston then addresses Johnston directly: “I would crawl through glass to claw your eyes. I would offer a hug if my suit were explosive.”

Joy referred to his early writing not as posters and chapbooks, but as broadsides and tracts — terms that not only explicitly predate rock as a phenomenon, but that also place the writing in an expressly political or religious context. His tract on the life and music of Al Green began as performance piece: a sermon delivered at Los Angeles’s Skylight Books, and, like the reverend at the core of that letter-pressed monograph, Joy’s writing has as one of its goals a conversion experience: the conversion that music fans often try to bring about in their peers. Politically, Joy’s early writing frequently shares in the rhetoric of the radical fringe. For example, note the use of interrogatory direct address in this leaflet by 1960s Lower East Side Anarchist street gang Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers:

Can you sleep with Che under dorm regulations?

Will Aretha Franklin sing the 6th international?

Can you MOVE!

Now, consider this section from Joy’s tract “The Greatest Record Album Ever Told,” in which the author is outraged that Elektra records has cut Frank Black from their roster following the release of his inventive album Teenager of the Year, the eponymous Greatest Record Album Ever Told.

You all must mail letters of protest for you are as much to blame as anyone, even more so, for look inside your soul and answer honestly these hard-put questions: Did you tout this CD to all you came in contact with (&c.), did you organize sign-up drives, incentives for Frank Black listeners, did you call radio stations to demand ‘Less Breeders, More Black Man’ and did you send your message to the world proudly?

The music industry’s lineage of adopted names runs long: Syd Barrett, Frank Black, Captain Beefheart, Freedy Johnston, Danny Kaye, and Peter Tosh — all stage names — appear in Joy’s writing. At age 15, I mail-ordered one of Joy’s tracts and sent him an illustrated booklet I’d made of Captain Beefheart lyrics. Joy responded with a letter that described a wildly off-tempo Beefheart performance from a late-career tour, when “the Trout-Masked one was coked to the gills.” Beefheart’s best-known album, Trout Mask Replica, contains in its title the idea of a double fake. In Beefheart’s phrase, not only is the mask used to disguise identity, but it also isn’t even the real mask.

The book Lost Joy is an anthology of Joy’s shorter work and feels like a singles or B-sides compilation. In lieu of an author photo, the book’s frontispiece is a snapshot of a three-person rock band posed in what looks like a suburban living room. Vases, beer steins, CDs, tapes, and hardbacks fill the bookshelf that lines the living room’s back wall. Only the drummer’s face is visible. The bass player and a guitarist stand, instruments slung behind their backs, faces covered by bandanas and sunglasses. Instead of instruments, they wield rifles. Crouched at the front, poised before a low-slung vocal mic is a figure, likely Joy himself, also holding a gun, seemingly aimed at the viewer’s right shoulder: the relationship between menace and erased identities made visible.

In his writing, Joy often elides the names of performers and bands, instead rendering them as initials, converted to nicknames, or feigned as forgotten. Michael Jackson becomes the MJ-97, a robot or pop product maintained by an enormous staff of workers. Joy’s novel about the Eagles, Palm Tree 13, is two-thirds through before the band’s name is mentioned. The refusal to name the band allows the reader to see its members as characters defined by their actions within the story rather than as the icons or caricatures that might otherwise come to mind. We see the character “Frey” as a layabout drunk, struggling just to empty an ashtray, rather than Glenn Frey, the classic rock superstar with a net worth of $70 million. Speaking to Robert Wilonsky, Joy compared the use of real world figures in his writing “to painting on a Polaroid.”

You have a Polaroid that’s wholly accurate, then you start working with it, and you have something neither one or the other […] I am trying to get to this thing where we are haunted and pursued by celebrities and what we imagine them to be by listening to their records […] the uncertainty, the wobbly feeling of not knowing where we stand with this person singing this song and whether they’re telling the truth.

In addition to serving as pseudonym and writing persona, Joy also appears as a character. Who is Camden Joy? Although each fictional incarnation is different, he is frequently un- or under-employed, always already just-been-broken-up-with by his girlfriend, writes candy-fueled rants, and is variously a rock biographer for hire, a drifter who lives in a ravine, a liquor store clerk, or a traveling knife salesman.

Joy’s novel Boy Island is a fictionalized account of the author’s three-month stint with the band Cracker — best known for their hit “Low” — during their first ever tour, before they had even decided on a name. The author rode in the tour bus, worked the merch table, and sold T-shirts, but in the novel (told, unlike Joy’s earlier work, largely in third person), a character named Camden Joy becomes the band’s drummer, something the author never did. In the novel, David Lowery and his band, as part of a game they call “tonnage,” continually tally the combined weights of all the women they’ve slept with on tour. This fictional Camden beds exactly no one until 200 pages into the book, when abruptly a first-person narrator appears: a gay sound technician who seduces the drummer. It’s an interesting moment in part because, for the first time in one of Joy’s texts, we have a narrator who is explicitly separate from Camden the character.

Perhaps fittingly, this novel about the character Camden Joy’s coming out caused the outing the pseudonymous author’s identity as well. Lowery was outraged by Joy’s portrayal of him in the novel, and, in interviews, Lowery consistently referred to the author not by his pseudonym, but by his given name, Tom Adelman. In coverage of the public quarrel, Adelman seems genuinely surprised and hurt by Lowery’s reaction.

In a pair of Joy’s stories that were published shortly after this — “Dum Dum Boys” and “The Greatest Record Album Band That Ever Was” — Camden Joy the character dies or is dead. In “Dum Dum Boys” the narrator returns to his hometown in the southern tip of California’s Central Valley and learns that a high school friend and one-time bandmate has died. This high school friend, who went by the name Camden, had become prone to crazed rants against the Chinese and the police, and ended up living in a ravine. The unnamed narrator describes how, even prior to hearing this, he’d considered wallpapering the major city in which he’s spent his adulthood with rants written under this friend’s name. “Dum Dum Boys” both separates and blurs the two Camdens. Are the posters and stories we have been reading the works of the ranting delusional friend or the calm narrator tempted to memorialize him? Joy as character and Joy as writer are both present in the story, with it left deliberately unclear which is the real Camden — and then, after these stories, Joy the character seems to be effectively dead. A strong novelistic third person replaces the unhinged rants of the earlier writing.

What does a name tell us? Western naming traditions indicate a connection to one’s parents, as in the last name that one receives at birth, or to one’s spouse, a name received through marriage. The Long Ball, Adelman’s first book published under his own name, is a nonfiction account of the 1975 baseball season — from spring training to World Series, told entirely in present tense — and, fittingly, Adelman dedicates it to his father and his wife. Fathers, sons, and family reoccur throughout: centerfielder Fred Lynn’s father tells reporters he used to throw a baseball against the kid’s head to make him lose his fear of it; Pete Rose sees his deceased hard-to-please father’s face appear in the heavens after his record-breaking 4,192nd base hit.

If in his writing under the name Camden Joy, unattachedness is the norm, in Long Ball, that isolation — the loss of family, team, and community — is a horror that continually threatens Adelman’s 1970s America. In Long Ball, these community-shattering forces are represented primarily by the introduction of the close-up to televised sports and the arrival of free agency, which disconnects players from the teams and cities that they were once rooted in. Both of these ideas are present in Adelman’s description of Red Sox catcher Carlton “Pudge” Fisk and his climactic on-camera freak-out after hitting a World Series–winning home run:

Fisk’s mad, spontaneous, desperate dance beneath the nearly full hunter’s moon becomes a television moment everyone remembers, a sequence that is credited with reawakening interest in the national pastime, and even is said to heal the rift of the sixties allowing fathers and sons to talk once more. It has other results, less welcome. Henceforth, memories of sporting events will become increasingly more visual and less visceral. Viewers will always first and foremost remember how the participants felt before they recognize their own particular response. The rampant close-ups will emphasize personalities and superstars. The individual will be cut adrift, his contributions visually isolated, just as symbolically, free agency will cut players free from teams, and Ted Turner’s tactics will isolate teams from traditions.

Cracker frontman David Lowery’s unmasking of Joy as Tom Adelman might have seemed a loss, an invasion — the removal of an invented identity that had allowed the author to stake out more extreme positions — but in Long Ball Adelman recreates his original identity as a positive: using his given name as connection to family, neighborhood, and city.

Adelman’s books under his own name are more steady, more sure of themselves, and more engaged with relationships and responsibilities to others than his earlier writing. His work as Camden Joy is at times uneven, but frequently innovative, formally experimental, filled with an electric vitality. Collected together, this idiosyncratic body of work represents a refusal to be constricted by the expectations of one’s own earlier personas and shows a writer continually pushing to keep the creative process itself unpredictable and alive.


Ben Bush’s writing has appeared in The Believer, The Literary Review, and elsewhere.