Monday, September 14, 2009
Jim Carroll 1949-2009
Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
– Jim Carroll, "People Who Died"
Who would have thought a punk song reciting a litany of tragic deaths could be so macabre and touching at the same time?
"People Who Died" was the best-known song from Jim Carroll's 1980 album "Catholic Boy," and sadly it's the one that springs to mind after hearing of his death from a heart attack Sept. 11 at age 60. A privileged prep school kid and star athlete who fell into heroin addiction and gay hustling before resurrecting himself as a poet and punk rocker, Carroll wrote songs about surviving. There's nothing ironic about "People Who Died." All the names belong to real people, and the song is Carroll's tribute to them. He lived the same lives they did. He just lived long enough to tell about it.
Most people know Carroll - if at all - from the 1995 film THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, based on his 1978 autobiography of the same name (Leonardo Di Caprio played him in the film). In addition to two memoirs, Carroll published six books of poetry. And although he made a half dozen albums, his first, "Catholic Boy," is the rawest expression of his talent. The playing isn't always inspired (it sometime sounds a little too much generic bar band proto-punk), but the lyrics snap and tear. I haven't listened to the album in years (I only have it on vinyl), but complete verses are still lodged in my memory.
For example, from the title song:
"I make angels dance and drop to their knees
When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed
I understand the fate of all my enemies
Just like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane ....
I was a Catholic Boy
Redeemed through pain, not through joy."
Why Abel Ferrara didn't work this into the soundtrack of BAD LIEUTENANT will always be a mystery to me.
Carroll's history and past lives are well documented. He hung out with Andy Warhol, partied with Lou Reed and was close friends with Patti Smith, who encouraged his music. Allegedly, it's Carroll's voice that can be heard during between-song chatter on The Velvet Underground's classic "Live at Max's Kansas City" album from 1970, inquiring after some Tuinals and a double Pernod. Though he'd kicked heroin in 1973 after nearly 10 years (he'd started at age 13), Carroll was always gaunt and pale, and had become even more skeletal and haunted in recent years. If anyone had been casting a film about the last years of noir writer Cornell Woolrich, they would have needed to look no further.
But what I'll always remember Carroll best for is a poetry reading he gave at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1983. The buzz over his first two albums had died out and he was still in the studio recording the third, so he'd faded from public view. The reading was held in a tiny room in the old College Avenue Student Center, about 30 chairs in all, only half of which were occupied when he took the small stage. To everyone's surprise, he brought along Lenny Kaye, guitarist with the Patti Smith Group (and a Rutgers grad), who'd been working with him in the studio that afternoon.
After reading several poems (the one I remember best was titled "Your Clitoris," the final lines being "Your clitoris/Is a monument/To my boredom"), Carroll brought Kaye on stage. He plugged his electric guitar into a small amp and they proceeded to premiere songs from the still-in-progress album, "I Write Your Name." This to a room of 15 people, Carroll gripping the mike and prowling the stage, Kaye playing scorching guitar behind him through a single tiny amp. When the power outlet to the stage blew out with the overload, Carroll continued to sing a cappella, moving out into the audience, snarling his lyrics, any dividing line between poet and rocker long shattered. It was one of the seven top music moments of my life.
**** Above, Patti Smith, left, and Jim Carroll in 1969. Photo by Wren D'Antonio.