Camden Joy (aka Tom Adelman) is a rock star music journalist, fictionalist, and musician, something of a legend and a verbal riot and it needs a writer like that, with some voltage of her own, like Trinie Dalton, in fact, to take his measure. Trinie is a music journalist, also story writer, artist, collagist, book assembler, a generally high-energy dynamo of vertiginous genre mixing, an incredibly perceptive reader and eloquent decoder of form, also a friend and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What you get here is not just an essay on Camden Joy but also an essay on form, on the consciousness of form and variation that makes art, not just one subject but five, deftly interwoven and self-demonstrated. See also Trinie’s amazing story “Escape Mushroom Style” published earlier on these pages.
All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.
— LOU REED, Rolling Stone, 1987
In music feature/biopics, the pressure to dramatize every microscopic detail of a short visit with a total stranger is inherent to creating story—what editors want. In my own experience of music journalism, this contrivance began as a fun challenge and has come to drive me nuts. I’d rather just invent stories of my own. This is where my appreciation for Camden Joy begins. In light of the prerequisite that one must pressurize nonfiction to establish somewhat artificial tension up front to carry intriguing and suspenseful delivery of “facts,” a piece of good music journalism can come to feel like a Jane Austen novel—that is to say fictional. With any subjective interpretation of the mise-en-scene, genre boundaries slip away—this is what invites me as a reader into the excitement of the “story,” and what attracted me to music journalism in the first place. But I find that need to deliver facts or an “angle” according to some other person restrictive & repellent, too prone to misrepresentation and divergence from the artist’s POV.
The musician performs for the journalist, the journalist describes it; there’s a voyeuristic dance devoted to writing music features, power dynamics clearly defined from the get-go, in which the writer/recorder/observer adopts the swagger of the star for a few thousand words while informing the readership about where the artist has been and is going. Somehow, however, good writers manage despite this form’s predictability, to transform it into lasting art by showing, paragraph-by-paragraph, how discoveries and revelations (the unexpected) spring from a simple meeting, a single ecstatic listen to a record. This is the art of the variant. Maximizing a writing form and making it yours can be poetry, can be in this case a transliteration of rock and roll.
Post-swagger in New Journalism is where Tom Adelman, aka Camden Joy, finds lineage, namely with the Manifestos and personal essays collected in Lost Joy—with the impetus to 1/ depressurize reportage in favor of author’s lived adventure driving story, and 2/ insertion of author as character into the storytelling; both in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Next, to disconnect from the narrativity of actual event completely in favor of total artifice, loosely constructed upon heaps of pop cultural reference. Adelman’s novels do this. But historical fiction does this, too—nevertheless it typically doesn’t deal so much in contemporary cultural referencing. Fictocriticism, or fiction that develops setting and character through musical referencing—in the vein of Joan Didion, Michael Taussig, Lynne Tillman, Dana Spiotta, Dana Johnson, Darcy Steinke, Ben Greenman, Jonathan Letham, Dennis Cooper… Joy’s brand of irony finds architecture here, but pushes even this trajectory. His novels are closer relatives to countercultural dystopian satire—think Ken Kesey—contaminated with what Raymond Federman in 1973 called Surfiction: conceptual projects that seek to expose the artifice of fiction as a process. In both genres, the politic is not simply implied in the content—it’s engrained in syntax, sentence construction, concept. Joy’s critiques of music in the novels aren’t explicit, then, but embedded in their reclamation of pastiche and in the seamless dedication to the conceits he sets in each story. The concept is high artifice, possibly camp per Sontag’s definition, crossbred with the exploitation of transparent metaphor.
To underscore irony, though, is the sincerity evident in the accuracy of the music lore, the obvious fandom implicit to each text’s concept. In Joy’s work, music journalism saves the day. Gathering facts and slavery to veracity—odious, dull, and rote back then to burgeoning New Journalists—what compelled rebellion and invention of new genre—experiences through Joy’s writing a fiery reversal. Weirdly, the more conceptual Joy’s novels are, the more journalistically accurate they feel to me. Maybe it’s because they convey, through the juxtapositions of hyper-specific (journalistic) musical fandom with poetic license to fictionalize—what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” I’d call this “ecstatic truth” poetry through allegory, after Goethe’s adage that links allegory to poetry by differentiating them:
It makes a considerable difference whether the poet seeks the particular as a function of the universal or whether he sees the universal in the particular. In the first case we have allegory, where the particular is valid only as an example, as an emblem of the universal, whereas in the second case the true nature of poetry is revealed: the particular case is expressed without thinking about the universal or alluding to it. (Goethe, quoted by Umberto Eco)
In the novels, musical heroes are humanized, portrayed as flawed characters—not just because flawed characters are necessary to real stories; Joy’s journalistic style proposes that the best way to tribute a hero is to retain and uphold their humanity. (Ironically, though, since they’re fictional characters whose identities Joy has co-opted.) In this, they’re allegorical and poetic, ironic and sincere.
I was introduced to Camden Joy’s work through Dennis Cooper’s assignment of my first book review for the LA Weekly Literary Supplement, on the release of Joy’s novella trilogy: Palm Tree 13, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, and Pan. In re-reading, I still find this triptych appealing and brilliant—back in my original review I wanted to offer a tribute even more metafictional & sincere than Joy’s ultra-meta treatments of Mark E. Smith & Glen Frey—an impossible task. Joy’s metafiction is absolute in those stories—his conceits unwavering and apparent, the satire loud and clear. So much so that he furthers the declarative style from his Manifesto series by transforming the declaratives into revelations that admit the aim of the books’ themes and conceits…for example in Palm Tree 13, Joy admits how easy (and predictable) it is in fiction for the reader or author to search for and to grasp metaphorical & allegorical intent:
After all, it took little brainpower to grasp that the department store was, in truth, a livery stable, and that the firehouse and the bank and the liquor store were all much older than they first appeared. They would simply travel the whole town, walking backward to a hundred years ago. They would defrock the present and will themselves into the frontier period that patiently awaited. (74)
This “defrocking” is exactly the project in all three books; Frey’s cowboy frontier as metaphor for the music industry, in this case, takes the notion of Swagger literally as Frey moves through a frontier that is tough for those in it (artists) and a seemingly glamorous, nostalgic stage set for those looking in from the outside (fans).
Here is the scene from on-lookers’ POV:
On hot summer days, everyone left their doors wide open. There was always music playing. Women wearing aprons peddled corn on the cob from tamale steamers. Men in sequined sombreros rested on corners practicing mariachi tunes. JD leaned out of the window and fired his capgun to delight the neighbors. Mahogany beauties sat on porches with grandparents in rockers, eyeing the world with suspicion. It was a place of crude language and cheap liquor. (63)
And here is Frey’s worn and tarried cowboy vision of it:
Melcher’s words slowly sunk in. They confirmed something Frey had long suspected to be true. The frontier was dying. Frey suddenly saw that it wasn’t just him who was looking to settle down, but the whole darn country. The spirit had gone out of the open prairie; the frontier was dying. (47)
It’s interesting to me how during the moments of epiphany allegory is double-edged, acquires double meaning because of the journalistic, essayistic undertones. Frey’s frontier parodies the music industry, sure, and does so through pastiche: by mashing “frontier” themes into a study of LA in the 70s. But more importantly, this impetus & narrative strategy belies a deep dig into the “stories” of Glenn Frey, Neil Young, David Geffen, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others who populate this book…to tribute by humanizing them through the reinvention of story that fiction allows. Similar strategies were employed in James Schuyler’s What’s for Dinner, in which the characters from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and run amok; or Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range, a pastiche as tonally swaggery as Palm Tree 13, but made literally from cut-up cowboy novels.
Music journalism (or art criticism in Schuyler’s case) as nonfiction for magazines perhaps couldn’t previously accommodate this kind of effort, especially given the necessary wall erected between journalist/critic and artist—that is, conflict of interest rules. Conflict of interest rules are important, but on the flipside they breed journalism that perpetuates myth and rumor; which again ironically, is what transforms a musician into a rockstar.
Joy’s overt myth-making is a radical bifurcation, or maybe tributary, of music journalism’s habit of mythologizing musicians. Mythologizing is a main function in fiction too, of course; and Joy acknowledges this throughout the trilogy. In Hubcap Diamonstar Halo, the protagonist constantly considers how to turn his lived experience of a car accident into song:
G’ll be working on a song when acutely he recalls a detail of the accident. The windshield buckling, for example, disassembling as it gushes back to shower him in a great many pebbles and splinters of grass. How to make that into music? (19)
This serves as allegory that transcends journalistic scrutiny—every creative person can relate to compulsion to make art from experience. In Hubcap, the allegorical aim is so inclusive, inviting all artists as readers in on G’s efforts to musically catalog his near-death car crash, that Joy switches occasionally to usage of 2nd person POV:
You inform him his system is undergoing a condition of extreme shock. He nods as if sympathizing with the complaints of a stranger, then gives a shudder and goes limp. For some reason this does not stir your concern. You find yourself without the urge to go for help. (25)
The usage of 2nd person obliterates boundaries between observer and observed—inviting the reader into the artist’s mind. This sets up sympathetic relationship for later in the story, when G. broaches larger philosophical questions about the nature of stardom and creativity:
Do you think any star can still derive even the most basic ego pleasure from expressing themselves artistically? The coordinator shakes his head. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. (37)
I’ve made much of the differences between writing critically and writing fiction here, in an effort to delineate what genres are capable of and how Adelman combines them to expand their possibilities, but ultimately I think working in any genre or medium is about discovery of authorial opinion; all creative processes clarify and organize experience. My favorite aspect of Camden Joy novels is—just as Goethe found poetry in specificity—that they reiterate the compatibility of genres through highlighting distinctions between them.
ENDNOTE—SWAGGER in OED, as dating back to 1600:
a. intr. To behave with an air of superiority, in a blustering, insolent, or defiant manner; now esp. to walk or carry oneself as if among inferiors, with an obtrusively superior or insolent air.
b. spec. To talk blusteringly; to hector; †hence, to quarrel or squabble with; also, to grumble. Now only (directly transf. from prec. sense), to talk boastfully or braggingly.
In my usage, I shuffle past superiority to reclaim the proactive, confident aspects of the term: to promenade, to revel, to take possession or to own, to pimp, to create dizzying pageantry. Swagger can be unassailable, magnificent, rebellious, durable, and alluring (opposite of punk in historical/original usage = punching bag, man-toy, whore).
—Trinie Dalton, adapted from a paper delivered at MMLA 2013, Milwaukee.
Trinie Dalton is the director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing Program. She has published six books, most recently Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). She teaches fiction and critical writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Art Center, and USC. She has forthcoming fiction and poetry in Santa Monica Review, The Austin Review, GAG (Capricious Publishing), The Milan Review; she has art writing forthcoming in books about David Altmejd (Rizzoli), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), Dorothy Iannone (Siglio), Dorothy Iannone’s Retrospective (Berlinische Galerie/Migros Museum), and Abstraction in Contemporary Video Art (UC Press). Visit her at sweettomb.com.