First, you’re born. Then you go to kindergarten and high school and college and then you live on your own. Eventually – reluctantly -- you learn how to pay your bills and call the principal’s office and regularly see the dentist and so on and so forth, but I think you never really grow up until the day you have to dismantle your parent’s house. Until the day you have to get rid of all your old books.
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Furniture can go into storage. Clothes can go to Goodwill, and everything else, fuck it. But books have a special place in my heart, and at least at my parent’s old house, there are so damn many of them. Every room has a bookshelf and each one contains the outward manifestation of someone’s entire inner life.
It’s bad enough dismantling my Dad’s collection, which include the books he brought from London when he immigrated in 1955, a ton of penguins, school prizes, high school textbooks, and a book autographed by his favorite artist Henry Moore. But it’s even harder to do my own books, which include not only the ones I loved as a child and college texts through two different programs, but about one thousand novels of varying degrees of literary merit which I like to feel that any minute I can put my hand on. It’s not any one book I want to keep. It’s the entire collection.
Splitting them up feels like a violation, but I can’t keep them all, because space, like time, is an actual thing, and it’s at a premium and anyway, many of them are falling apart. However, every day it takes me ages to figure it out each one’s individual fate. For example, I was doing this task the other day that I came upon one called “Hubcap Diamond Star Halo.” It was by a writer and singer called Camden Joy and as I turned it over in my hands, I remembered that I had only read a single page of it and thought it so poignantly, beautifully, written that I put it down and never looked at it again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it. I always told myself I’d get around to it. It was just that it pained me to do so. Reading it would be like letting a stranger stroke my mind and who would want to do that?
That’s my memory of it, anyway. Years passed – a quarter of a century, minimum – and I received a copy of a Camden Joy CD in the mail. But I didn’t play it, because the thing is, my life alongside new music has been so traumatic that I have deliberately created a world where actually listening to any is a bit of an effort. I don’t have a stereo in my home, so the only time I can listen in a concentrated fashion is in the car and then only occasionally because I mostly listen to NPR. But the other day I was driven off NPR by the news of Elizabeth Warren dropping out of the Presidential race. The pundits were picking her over like vultures and it made me so sad that I decided to listen to music instead.
It was at the golden hour just before the sun sets, when the cypress and pine trees that line my route through Golden Gate Park are extremely spooky and jagged, and you can see in between them to where the sky lightens up in the exact place where the ocean begins, and you know for certain there is about to be a fog. I put my hand into my bag and it fell on the only CD I own right now, which is the new one by Camden Joy.
The CD is called “Updated Just Now,” and it has a mere seven songs on it. I suppose they’re songs, anyway, because they are sung, but they are more like little short stories set to music. They use the kind of conventional instruments and time signatures you hear on other recordings – that is, guitars, bass and drums, plus cheesy keyboard sounds, a xylophone or a hurdy gurdy or something, all recorded so you can hear the fingers on the strings, so to speak -- and the music was recognizably of that genre, so popular when I was younger, where the singer’s voice is slightly off kilter and so sounds like it’s someone you know. The songs are singable – they have choruses and what not -- but they are also punctuated throughout with unsettling fragments of old media, mostly of disasters being reported in the news, which inevitably tethers the music to the incredibly dispiriting zeitgeist of now.
Maybe that was why it DID something to me. It was like that damn book, only shorter. I knew the instant I heard it that it was speaking to some part of me that isn’t on the surface of my brain at all, some nameless part of me that lives very much deeper down. What even was it? I don’t know, except to say that it is possible that the songwriter and I have read all the same books, and now we’ve forgotten them all and are trying to reconstitute them in a form that speaks to the here and now.
Oh, it’s a fools game, trying to describe music, but it’s a full hour’s drive from San Francisco to where I live, so I was able to get to know the characters on this record pretty well that night, and I had to wonder what made them so compelling to me. Maybe it had to do with its dissemination; that it was for all intents and purposes handed to me personally, outside the sad-making tornado of capitalist realism – and that temporary autonomous zone is also wherein most of the songs themselves take place.
For instance, the opening track, “American Trash,” is about the way that the media makes shitty things seem romantic and glamorous - “you know that feeling when you see something tragic and laugh?” -- and then when you find out the truth the world becomes less beautiful. “One More Chance” is about a series of people who get in trouble with the law through no fault of their own, like one who gets out of a prison and has sex with a priest in the gloomy men’s room of the greyhound station, or another who helps a stranger out who then turns out to be a felon. “Sing a Song of Love” is some kind of dreamlike pirate story that borrows images from Spain and Shakespeare and then affixes them to a narrative that lurches into absurdity: “Above a sky of mint toothpaste/a fog rolls in from outer space/a thief enters the house he cased/and takes the place of what’s-his-face.” “Everyone’s a Love Story,” which requites a farmer boy’s high school love-turned terrorist, is the catchiest and least obtuse of the set, but although it tells a very romantic tale, it’s not one that the movie of will star Reese Witherspoon. It’s so shy that it’s more like a sigh than a triumph.
Such song subjects, and the treatment of them here, clearly do not speak of the world that we currently live in, or if they do, it is only as a critique. And I suppose that’s why I like them so much, because at the moment I, too, feel like my entire being is in revolt. Back in the day, theoretically, I wrote about music in order for it to become popular. Or that was my mandate, anyway: I’m not sure that’s what I was really doing, since deep down I didn’t care if it became popular, I only cared about writing, qua writing, and as a commercial endeavor, that didn’t go well, it didn’t go well at all.
So maybe that’s what Camden Joy and I have in common: rather than cater to a mass audience, unintentionally, he and I create things that are essentially for audiences of one. Theoretically that should be easier than hitting it big, but I’m beginning to think it might be harder. That’s why I’ve decided to hide my work, in the cyber equivalent of a bookcase in my parent’s house. I want it to be a brilliant surprise, like this record was to me.