I've never quite understood the point of rock criticism. What is there to say, really, about a rock song? It rocks or it doesn't. Occasional attempts at a higher kind of criticism, freed from the burdens of mere subject matter, generally result in pretentious mush. (One thinks of Greil Marcus and winces.)
Some critics fall back on a simpler solution: they improvise. In the hands of such critics, H.L. Mencken once noted, "what starts out as the review of a book, or a play, or other work of art, usually develops very quickly into an independent essay upon the theme of that work of art, or upon some theme that it suggests--in a word...it becomes a fresh work of art, and only indirectly related to the one that suggested it." In Mencken's opinion this is a fine thing. Unfortunately, it's a strategy pursued far too seldom by rock critics. Music magazines are filled with pointless profiles of very dull people, lined up alongside dutifully written consumer guides to new recordings.
That's why I was tremendously pleased to find the "lost" manifestos and pamphlets of Camden Joy, a music critic most definitely given to higher (albeit rambling) forms of critique. Who is Camden Joy, one might ask, and how did his manifestos get lost in the first place? The story, so far, is this: Sometime last fall, Mr. Joy (or representatives thereof) began pasting and pinning small xeroxed "manifestos" on walls and bulletin boards around the city of New York. The topics varied considerably. One of the first manifestos was an angry writer's call to "protest the Unabomber," who had "unfairly commandeered a publishing deal with the Washington Post while 'forgetting' that the rest of us hommes des lettres suffer our mal au coeur in relative silence." Another begged Madonna to allow him to father her child, to let him be the man to "put a little Hansel in your oven." Still another demanded that we "KILL THE MOVIES" for heartlessly delivering such tepid crap.
But most of his pieces had to do with rock music, though often only in the most indirect of ways. Joy--not his real name--wrote paeans to such bands as Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and the Mekons, and even to Paul Simon's Graceland (which he called "The Greatest Record Album of the Eighties").
The manifestos (there are said to have been 150 in all, written over a three-month period) were strange and passionate little statements. They clamored for, and indeed demanded, attention. At times they bore extravagant proclamations--suggesting, for example, that Pavement be touted at trade talks as "our grandest export," the band "carried on our shoulders and emblazoned on our backs and ushered into waiting planes at the last minute and with an almost effete, deliberate importance, their bellies bloated with our very best meats."
But there was an oddly private feel to even the most public minded of these works, reflecting less on the exterior world than on the strange thoughts and obsessions that make up our lives. Fandom is, ultimately, a private thing, whether we are alone in our rooms after midnight listening to a favorite song or attending a concert and imagining that the singer is singing just to us. "Let us now sing (as public men) of PRIVATE things," Joy wrote in one of his most affecting pieces, distributed around the seedy environs of Times Square last December. "So tiny are we beneath this eternal celebrity balloon parade and standing knee-deep in garbage our frantic gesticulatings go unnoticed....Let us now praise hot dogs and finger pies and stuffs which garner sneers."
Most of these posters, I would imagine, have by now been torn down, covered over, or reduced to rags by inclement weather. Luckily, some two dozen of the posters have been collected into a small book, The Lost Manifestos of Camden Joy, available by mail from TransGraphic in Oregon and at the Rag & Bone Shop in New York.
A small "fact sheet" accompanying my order explained that the editors, impressed with Joy's "carefully-cadenced, almost biblical, syntax," had attempted to contact the critic with newspaper ads and flyers. Unsuccessful, they finally decided to assemble as many of his manifestos as they could find and published the collection on their own.
Shortly afterward, the editors say, they received a telephone call from "a gentleman claiming to be this 'Camden Joy,'" who was pleased with their efforts and who promptly sent along longer works for publication as well--manuscripts that had supposedly been rejected by "agents of large publishing houses," who declared them "incomprehensible." These manuscripts have now slipped into print in the form of two handsome little booklets, entitled (with typical extravagance) The Greatest Record Album Ever Told and The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was.
The "facts" on the fact sheet are all improbable, of course, but it's doubtful that they were intended to be taken as literal truth. For all I know, Joy may himself be an agent of a large publishing house who's lighted on this simple ruse to gain some indie cred. Or he may in fact be, as he says, an underpaid liquor-store clerk with a lot to say and no place to say it. My communications with Joy have not cleared the matter up: he insists that the fact sheet is "mostly correct," though he goes on to suggest that it may contain "a few intentional mistakes."
But it doesn't really matter now, does it? These days the walls between indie culture and the mainstream are pretty porous. No sooner will I run across a new zine--a tiny, precious xeroxed thing stuffed away in the corner of a fiercely independent little bookstore--than I will discover that it's already been discovered, written about in Interview or Details or Spin, which is where I first heard about Camden Joy.
Though he was a music fan, until recently Joy had no interest in criticism. Then, while driving with a novelist friend, he got a sudden flash of inspiration.
"We were at a stoplight," Joy told me, "and Matthew said to me, very softly, 'Red light, red light, run it / Red light, red light, run it.' Of course you get the reference--the Replacements. Then Matthew goes on to say that he could write a 350-page book easy just about that one song, a song which has, what, maybe eight words tops? I made no reply but when I got home that night I was lying in bed thinking what a great book that would be. I began in my head to write it for him."
Of course, such a book wouldn't really be about that song at all; it would begin with the song, to be sure, but invariably it would head off into a thousand other topics at once, spiraling outward into a small history of contemporary culture and life; the song would have the same relationship to the finished book that a grain of sand has to a pearl. That more or less goes for all of Joy's works.
Oddly enough, some of Joy's most passionate writings are devoted to (or, rather, take as their grain of sand) artists with very little indie cred. His pamphlet The Greatest Record Album Ever Told is a joyous elegy to Frank Black's Teenager of the Year, the second solo record put out by the former Pixie and freelance UFOlogist.
The Greatest Record Album Ever Told fiercely defends "our disowned pudgy genius" and his ill-fated record, whose low sales caused him to be dropped (unfairly, Joy contends) from his record label. Black's crime: in a time of corporate grunge alternativism, he dared to put out what was essentially (and unashamedly) a pop record--with lyrics that not only weren't bitter but were almost completely abstract and (perhaps not incidentally) incomprehensible.
Black's record truly is a delight, but Joy's love for the album is something else. Joy begs us to listen again to the record, points out its many fine features ("each song a compact feast dense as a collapsed star with melodies smushed into more melodies, offering as many varied colors and textures as a Moroccan carpeteria, each track with a thousand choruses, a bunch of bridges, untold verses, impossible guitar catchiness, everything spry and lovely and irresistible"), and begs us to spread the word about this poor ignored album.
Joy urges us to write to the "Romanov despots" at the record companies responsible for Black's dismissal. And though he presses upon us the urgency of the task, he cautions us to exercise a certain prudence. "LETTERS SHOULD NOT BE ACCUSATORY, it is better to assume that the cruel profiteers at 4AD and Elektra are, in fact, willing to seek a remedy for stripping our greatest national asset of his livelihood 'IF' they are properly informed. Please be courteous and send your letter promptly. You may wish--to reassure the badged men in front, given the recent difficulties--to upon your envelope write 'NO EXPLOSIVES ENCLOSED HEREIN but merely things of EXPLOSIVE IMPACT.'"
It seems almost churlish to point out that Joy's whole campaign is based upon a misapprehension. Black himself has reported (in a bit of writing on his Web page) that he and the "Romanov despots" at 4AD are in fact "old friends" and that he had asked to be let out of his contract. He's since put out a record, The Cult of Ray, under the aegis of Sony Music Entertainment and hardly seems to have been "disowned" at all.
Of course, to describe The Greatest Record Album Ever Told as telling the true story of Frank Black is to miss the point; it's like describing Ulysses as a book about a couple of Irishmen wasting a day. The pamphlet does deal with "Our Black Man"--it's saturated with him--but it's also a commentary on the contemporary state of institutionalized alternative culture, a postmodern parody of the tired tropes of music reviewing, and a bittersweet farewell to "angel-haired, candy-mouthed Shaleese," a former (and much missed) girlfriend.
The pamphlet, like all of Joy's writing, is a curious mixture of the public and private. In his "public" mode, Joy disburses facts (and possible facts) like an ancient professor addressing his students. With deadpan earnestness, Joy embarks upon a "scholarly" exegesis designed to prove that "beneath the humble attire of POP! music" Black "has gifted us with detailed renderings of broadly disparate historical occurrences." To illuminate Black's "Whatever Happened to Pong?" Joy treats us to a miniature history of the early years of Atari. And to explain Black's seemingly mysterious "Ole Mullholland," Joy dredges up the controversial history surrounding Los Angeles chief engineer William Mullholland, the man who brought water to Black's favorite city in the early 20th century by constructing a vast aqueduct, "an engineering challenge some lately compare in difficulty to sending man to the moon."
Within a few pages Joy abandons his scholarly tone and returns to being the carnival barker, boisterously promoting the album he almost convinces you to love as much as life itself. And always, always, the ghost of Shaleese, his lost love, hovers in the background, making a spectral appearance in the midst of an extended reverie on Black's fascination with flying saucers and other such oddities. The pamphlet is transformed into a kind of meditation on friendship and forgiveness and human frailty: "As for the seriousness of his affection for UFOs, okay, it's like when you follow someone out to their car to help load in something--they might be someone you're starting to dig, potential friend-stuff--until they pop the trunk and you see something ASTONISHING, a side of them you never expected, your every preconception about them shifts, like when rose-nosed, candy-mouthed Shaleese blurted out that thing at that party about how 'There should be a law against governments,' like maybe they are closet astrology buffs and they carry a whole horoscopic kit in their trunk or they turn out to be hostile to Darwin or Marx or into B&D (or D&D!), they believe Reagan Was Right or they play in badminton champion-ships, maybe they are practicing pagans with a trunkful of books about white witchcraft and the mystical properties of nettles and burnt cumin, they are revealed to be secretly 'Different' in other words. Seeing such things one at first always naturally recoils in horror but we are next obliged to 'INVESTIGATE' (as in: 'A law against governments, bough-armed, peach-fuzzed Shaleese, what a cool idea but who'd enforce it?') for many people are first completely one thing and then completely another and they might have been dedicated Scientologists just a few years before--WHO ARE WE THAT WE 'DARE' TO JUDGE--and this says what I mean to say about the affection Frank Black bears for items of a saucery flying nature: how we must tolerate it with sympathy for they are to him the only hope worth hoping, clearly all else pales next to life on other planets."
If The Greatest Record Album Ever Told is a meditation on lost love disguised as a kind of promotional pamphlet for an overlooked popster, The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was is a reflection on race and the perverse propagandistic powers of the "Advertocracy" disguised as a paean to soul singer Al Green.
The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was is a more mannered work, a surrealistic black 'n' white tragicomedy animated by a strange central conceit: the notion of "Invibiosus Dermal Melanism"--that is, the idea (said to be concealed from the public by a vast conspiracy of silence) that black boys grow up to be white men and white boys to be black men.
Like I said, this one is a little surrealistic. I found it much less affecting than Joy's other writings; it seemed a little too precious, too self-consciously artsy. Though, admittedly, his admiration of Green is creatively expressed. "Al Green sings 'Take Me to the River,'" he writes, "which I hear as 'Take Me to Al Green,' for Al Green IS my river."
In the pages of Spin, writer Richard Gehr has described Joy as a kind of critical "stalker." And so I was both intrigued and a bit alarmed when I received an E-mail message from Joy himself. He'd heard (from "that Spin writer guy") that I was writing about him and wanted to talk. And so, a little nervously, I began an electronic correspondence with Joy. I peppered him with questions, at times serious, at times perverse ("When you say 'Kill the Movies,' surely you don't mean Twister?). He responded in detail, after a fashion. He didn't quite understand some of the questions; perhaps my wording left a little to be desired ("What the HELL is the deal with The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was?").
Perhaps his most interesting answer came in response to my question about Lester Bangs, the legendary writer who pioneered a kind of free-associational gonzo rock criticism in the 1970s that no one has ever been able to duplicate. Bangs (who died in 1982) couldn't stick to his subject: he didn't see the point. And so, in Bangs's hands, what started off as a review of the Stooges might become a miniature history of 60s rock from ? and the Mysterians to Led Zeppelin, then a Stooges review again, then an even-more-miniature history of American jazz before finally becoming a self-described "program for mass liberation" that was only partly a joke. Bangs's sprawling style was no affectation: he was honestly trying to get at something ineffable, and the path to enlightenment was not always direct.
"It's sad he had to die, you know," Joy wrote. "But when I used to read him I thought he was ridiculous and sloppy." Joy explained that he had once planned to "devote my life to crushing all rock critics," Bangs being somewhere near the top of his list. Joy said that he wrote a "whole thick carefully researched book on Camper Van Beethoven and their breakup, which I intended as a reply to the Bangs style of journalism--the book was...almost stuffy in its restraint. I thought that was daring, sort of like the furious Elvis Costello wearing a very formal suit and tie." (The alleged book, of course, remains unpublished.)
Eventually, Joy concluded that suit-and-tie stuffiness was not the way to go about it at all. "I realized a better way to ruin Lester Bangs for everyone was to copy the pitfalls of his lazy ways by outdoing him at it," Joy told me, "showing he was an asshole by lying about everything, hazing all reference points, succumbing to any digression."
Joy has clearly succeeded at this strategy: his writings mix fact and fancy with such carefully careless abandon it's impossible to fully believe anything he writes, even when it is undoubtedly true. In The Greatest Record Album Ever Told, Joy runs through Frank Black's history before heading the Pixies, making up whatever facts he needs along the way and fudging the rest:
"Born same year as 'BEATLES '66,' as a boy Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson IV is continually teased for having same name as one of The Monkees. In late eighties Thompson meets Kim Deal and--envying her monosyllables--surreptitiously tricks her out of her name. She retaliates by writing band's first hit 'Gigantic' found on a record album called ROSA something (late eighties), labeled by Sounds and Melody Maker 'the best thing to come from Boston since "More than a Feeling."'"
If any of this is true, it's almost surely by chance. Joy's writing is reminiscent, in its way, of Los Angeles's now-legendary Museum of Jurassic Technology, lovingly described in Lawrence Weschler's recent book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an amalgam of a natural history museum, a circus sideshow, and some kind of performance-art practical joke. Like Joy's tiny pamphlets, the museum is physically unassuming: a tiny storefront filled with exhibits of implausible objects and explanations of seemingly impossible science--from X-ray emitting bats to human horns to sculptures small enough to fit in the eye of a needle. Some of them are real, others are hoaxes, and it's often impossible to tell which is which.
But no one seems to mind: as with Camden Joy, to insist too much on literal truth would be to miss the point--and to spoil the fun.
The Lost Manifestos of Camden Joy, The Greatest Record Album Ever Told, The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was, and a tape recording entitled Camden Joy Expresses Teachings and Advocations are available for $4 each from TransGraphic, PO Box 14806, Portland, OR 97293.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Collage by Victor Thompson.