- Dennis Keeley
- A warped perspective: Cracker's David Lowery, left, and Johnny Hickman
And there's no reason why David Lowery shouldn't like Camden Joy's new novel, Boy Island. It's about being a musician, writing songs, starting a new band and going on the road with three other guys on a tour that begins but never quite ends. Any rock musician could relate to being stranded on boy island, that beat-up van that moves through the middle of the night, heading from here to nowhere in particular.
Only the more David Lowery read of Joy's novel, the more upset he became. Lowery could no longer ignore the fact that the book's main character bore his name, played in his bands and lived his damned life. It was him. And it was most definitely not him.
Lowery could no longer pretend this was just a work of fiction -- by a man who doesn't even write under his own name. He couldn't stomach reading about how he and his bandmates engage in a contest called "tonnage," in which each member tries to screw the fattest chick possible to rack up points that are tallied at the end of the tour. He saw himself distorted in the writer's fun-house mirror and did not like the reflection. He felt his privacy had been invaded, his life violated.
"It's bizarre to be fictionalized," Lowery says, understating his outrage. "And it's offensive, because a lot of people don't understand it's a fictionalization. And secondly, I feel the writer himself -- and this is why I chose to speak about this -- he really is dangerously close to being a stalker by anyone's definition. He has had an unhealthy fixation with Cracker. If you dislike something artistically, personally or whatever, you let it go. You let it go. You don't write a book to further your obsession. I would think that's one qualification of being a stalker."
Camden Joy -- who works by day answering phones in a downtown Montpelier, Vermont, office and whose real name is Tom Adelman -- says he is hurt "so much" by Lowery's description of the book as "stalker fiction." He complains to his friends, who tell him only to shut up; what did he expect, for God's sake? Even they tell him David Lowery is a real person, not some figment of his imagination. At some point he had to know he crossed the line.
Joy insists he meant no harm, that the novel -- in which a character named Camden Joy joins Cracker as its drummer in 1991, tours with the band, then confronts his burgeoning homosexuality when he strikes out in the game of tonnage -- is a tribute to Lowery's songs. He swears it's not simply an homage to Camper and Cracker, but an appropriation of the songwriter's "aesthetic." After all, Joy insists, Lowery's best songs are the ones in which he names real people. Why must the author be punished for employing the same technique?
"I thought I was tipping my hat to David, and it took me a really long time to write the book," Joy says, sounding not a little sad about all of this. "I thought I worked hard to understand what drove him and what his music was about. Apparently he took it as an attack, which is not how I intended it."
Lowery wants to defend himself against such an assault, but he hates talking about the book, which was just published by Quill, an imprint of HarperCollins. He says this will be the last time he even mentions it to a journalist. He doesn't want to give the book any more free publicity. He will not help sell a book that sells him out.
At its best, Boy Island is like a good three-minute pop song: It's sensation without substance. But when you know what the book was constructed from -- intimacies betrayed, facts twisted to fit a writer's agenda -- it leaves a nasty aftertaste. No matter how noble Joy's intentions, the result is more than a little disturbing. He has taken someone else's truth and twisted it into his own fiction, consequences be damned. Actually, they were never even considered.
And because there is indeed a little bit of fact buried inside Joy's narrative, the line is only further blurred. A decade ago Joy traveled with Lowery and Cracker, interviewed the band, then used his information to write his novel without the band's okay. The result, in the words of novelist Carol Shields (who wrote about "Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion" in The New York Times last month), is "the tissue of imagination." It's indolent fiction, a thinly veiled truth offered up with the defense that it's nothing but an "imaginary tale." And such things are bound to cause harm, intentional or otherwise. As Lowery points out, readers are going to either take the book at its word or spend the entire time trying to figure out what is and isn't "truth."
But Joy insists his is a literary technique as old as books themselves. As he was writing Boy Island, the fan within -- or, to be more precise, the groupie -- believed Lowery and bandmate Johnny Hickman would love the book. Turns out he was wrong: Shortly before publication, Cracker's attorneys contacted HarperCollins, threatening a libel suit. Since Lowery is a public figure, a libel suit would never fly. Instead, the publisher made a small change to the book's disclaimer. Originally it read, "With the exception of those persons appearing under their own names, albeit at times in fictitious circumstances, all other characters are imaginary." The "at times" has since been deleted.
Lowery takes great pains to point out what is fact and what is fiction in the book. He says, for instance, that the tonnage game was played by one of Hickman's pre-Cracker bands; it was not, he insists, a Cracker pastime. Joy says the publisher's lawyers have told him not to talk about what is and what isn't true. The threat of libel, he says, is enough to keep him mum on specifics.
"The way I think of the book is akin to painting on a Polaroid," Joy says. "You have a Polaroid that's wholly accurate, then you start working with it, and you have something neither one or the other. No one will come at this story the way I have. I alone know where fact falls off and fiction begins. That might be one of the games I want people to be interested in, but that's not the only thing. I want to create a mosaic that is larger than that, where you look back on the experience of reading it and think, "This is really about how [rock stars] are given to us as an invention.' 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. I am trying to replicate that, the mystery that goes into the music, the uncertainty, the wobbly feeling of not knowing where we stand with this person singing this song and whether they're telling the truth."
Joy is in his mid-thirties and has since written about Cracker as a rock critic for various publications. In a recent Village Voice piece, he writes of the band as a one-hit wonder, with the song "Low." But he had been a fan of Camper Van Beethoven during the late 1980s. He not only adored the music, which was a strange brew of smart, wry rock constructed from bash-and-pop guitars and Middle Eastern violins, but also the way it reminded him of the Clash and the Band -- groups, he says now, that "stood above the individual." He admired how easily Camper made the leap to a major label (Virgin Records) with 1988's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and how it managed to release its finest album with corporate funding. Camper, he insisted, bought in to the system without selling out to it. But the band broke up shortly after the release of 1989's Key Lime Pie: Earlier, Lowery had told multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Siegel he could no longer work with him, and then Lowery and bassist Victor Krummenacher stopped talking. The band, Krummenacher has said, had "run its course."
Joy, however, became obsessed with the band when he heard that it had broken up under "mysterious circumstances." For him, the timing could not have been better: He was trying to finish a novel, he had just lost his job, he had grown depressed from a lifetime spent in Los Angeles, and he was looking for a way to kill some time. So he decided to follow around Lowery's new, then-unnamed band during its first tour. He bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went along for the ride. It was, he says, a good time to take off.
"As we went along, I got to ride in the van with them and sold T-shirts," Joy says. "I thought they were really cool.I was going to ride around the country anyway. I enjoyed hearing the same music every night. It was a nice little adventure."
Lowery tells almost the same story, but says Joy was less a companion than an unwelcome shadow. They wondered who this guy was showing up at show after show. Joy creeped them out; they referred to him as "Hinckley." Finally Lowery approached him and asked him what he wanted. Joy told him he wanted to write a book about his beloved Camper Van Beethoven -- words that calmed the singer's fears and stroked his ego. He liked the idea of having his old band's story told. Who wouldn't want their past celebrated in permanent ink, their forgotten histories preserved for tomorrow? Lowery even gave Joy the phone numbers of people who might fill in the gaps.
"He was really persistent," Lowery recalls. "He interviewed me about Camper, and I gave him numbers of people he wanted to talk to. I mean, I thought it would be good to have Camper's story told. But most people began to feel that really he wasn't interested in writing about the band per se, but that he wanted to pry into Victor's sexuality, which made everyone uncomfortable. In the end, everyone did shy away from him." Joy dismisses such notions; he insists he was interested in writing about Camper, its music, its impact and its eventual dissolution.
Joy left the tour after three weeks -- the time frame of Boy Island -- and returned to Los Angeles, where he spent the next two years interviewing Camper acquaintances and writing their history. But in the end, he despised the final product: It was too focused on facts, too dry, too dull. Joy realized he had written the kind of book he would never want to read, so he tossed it aside. "It didn't have the drive, the blood or the entertainment of music," Joy says. Besides, no publishing house wanted to touch a book about a cult band that sold in the thousands. "I thought it was over."
Not long after that, Joy became a genuine darling in the incestuous, back-slapping world of rock criticism. In the mid-'90s, Camden Joy began posting his rock and roll rants on Manhattan street corners during the annual College Media Journal music conference. His diatribes and rants, one of which was titled "Freedy Johnston Must Die," were copied and circulated throughout the tiny congregation of music journalists. Writers tried to figure out who he was, or if Camden Joy was but a pseudonym for a variety of people. For a brief, shining moment, Joy was a cult icon.
In 1995 the Portland-based publishing house Verse Chorus Press released the first of Joy's mini-manifestos, titled The Greatest Record Album Ever Told -- which, in Joy's mind, was Frank Black's album Teenager of the Year. The following year saw the release of The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was, a fanatical celebration of Al Green and an explanation of where parking-meter spare change really goes. Both beautifully bound, delicately packaged tracts were hailed in the music press as the work of a rock-crit guerrilla. (His third tract, The Greatest Record Album Band That Ever Was, about Creedence Clearwater Revival, appears in the latest issue of Puncture magazine.)
In 1998 Verse Chorus published Joy's first work of fiction, titled The Last Rock Star Book: Or, Liz Phair, a Rant, in which the author (and narrator) receives an offer to write a quickie where-is-she-now biography of the singer-songwriter. Joy was working on another book when, in 1993, Phair released her sexually and emotionally explicit debut, Exile in Guyville. Joy would listen to the album incessantly, jotting down scenes he thought the album suggested. By the end of the book, Camden Joy can no longer tell where his girlfriend begins and Phair ends. Phair, for her part, insists she has never read The Last Rock Star Book.
While writing that novel, Joy came back to his Camper Van Beethoven book. Only this time, he thought he could use "fiction" to tell the band's story and relate his own coming-out tale. But his tribute to David Lowery and his bands has backfired: The subject of fascination -- his passion, perhaps even his obsession -- has turned on him. Lowery often says he thinks there is "something clinically wrong" with Joy. The love letter has brought only scorn.
"I guess it's the price of being famous, in a way," Lowery says, trying to shrug it all off. "A lot of bands in the last ten years have grappled with this: "Now we're famous, and fuck being famous.' A lot of people battle with it, and it makes them look ungrateful to their fans. But they're right. I wanted to play music and make a living at it, but I didn't really want my true self on stage, and I never put my true self on stage. I don't really want that known. I understand why people freak out about fame. Half of me is like, "That's the price of being famous,' but the book invades the private part of my life, which I never offered to anyone to look at. And that is specifically what Camden Joy goes after."