A farewell to a key post-Beat, whose creative life stretched from Warhol’s Factory to Cobain’s Seattle, from St. Mark’s Poetry Project to the white heat of punk, a writer of prose and verse who rocked out at the height of the new wave
I can’t quite recall when I first came across Jim Carroll. It was probably around the mid-Seventies when the hip, young gunslingers of the New Musical Express were perennially opening up fresh cultural vistas and plugging new names and exotic-sounding talents from the other side of the Atlantic – acts like the Shirts, Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.
In those days, it was easy enough to keep track of the British music scene by catching a couple of gigs a week – always making sure you saw the supports so you’d know who’d be up and coming in the next six months – and scouring the record shops and second hand stores for both singles and albums. The big labels rationed their releases and the independents were only just finding their feet so, if you were smart and kept your ears open, you didn’t miss much.
But the US was just a land of the imagination. You could see Graham Parker or the Clash or Tom Robinson or Eddie and the Hot Rods and buy their latest releases but, as punk erupted in Britain around 1976, the American scene seemed a world away, a musical haven that could only be enjoyed vicariously, principally by consuming those red-hot, front-line reports by NME writers like Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray who covered the latest developments at CBGBs in New York City.
Yet things moved quickly. During 1977, the groups who had been shaking up the Bowery, arguably the roughest neighbourhood of Manhattan – Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and quite a number of others – released their key debut long players and were speedily dispatched to England on tour to promote them. And there was certainly sense in this – while America itself was barely aware of this new wave of homegrown music-makers, British fans had already been briefed by the sharp-witted, weekly rock press and hungry to see them live.
Jim Carroll, whose name began to crop up in these vivid notices, was both a part of this scene and apart from it. The great poet-cum-rocker, a New Yorker in every essential sense, actually left the city some time before the CBGBs sound exploded. In fact, Carroll, after enjoying extraordinary acclaim at the end of the Sixties and the start of the Seventies, had quit his home town for California in 1973.
Why? Well this teen prodigy, whose abilities as a street poet and a nascent literary star had already won praise from Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac before he was even 20, had decided finally to try and escape his demons. Born in 1949, Carroll, a High School basketball ace, had become hooked on heroin from his teenage years. His departure for California was a device to help him kick the habit.
Whether Carroll ever successfully found the cure is open to conjecture but there is no doubt that while he was away he embarked on resurgent adventures that would see his special talent as a poet revived and coupled to the power of rock’n’roll. After he appeared on stage with Patti Smith, his long-time friend and rock-poet in her own right, he decided that the best way to express his artistic manifesto was through his own band.
In 1978, Carroll would not only form the group that would carry his name; he also issued what would prove to be his signature work, The Basketball Diaries, an emotionally powerful and sometimes torrid memoir of his youthful years as ambitious sportsman, apprentice junkie and would-be writer.
The Basketball Diaries confirmed Carroll as one of the key post-Beats, a young writer who tipped his hat to those forms of radical expression the Beats had pioneered two decades before: dirty realism and nostalgie de la boue. Those celebrations of quotidian wonder, confessional memoirs from the urban margins, heightened experiences cultivated by the Gotham night strung out on the bohemian barricades, were revived in the fertile, feverish prose of this rising Irish-American
Filmed in 1995, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the central, autobiographical role, the book confirmed its author as a rare case: someone who could both live on the edge and then find the dazzling descriptive power to document that experience.
By now, punk, new wave and the legend of CBGBs were well established and the Jim Carroll Band were able to ride this rising tide of interest in a frenetic rock style that was fast, furious and pared down to the basics. The group’s 1980 debut album Catholic Boy spawned the hit single ‘People Who Died’, a potent and certainly harrowing reflection on the casualties of narcotics row. It was a scene the writer of the lyric knew only too well.
Yet, when the death of Carroll was revealed on September 11th, 2009, it was quite surprising to think that this precocious adolescent and then hard-living adult, who had stood too close to the flame too many times, had survived to 60, not a grand old age in contemporary terms but a mark we may not have predicted for him when he was showing all the signs of an early demise in those dangerous, touch-and-go times.
One thing that Carroll did do, before a heart attack took him as he wrote at his New York desk, is chalk up a full and colourful existence: one that stretched from Andy Warhol’s Factory, through the fertile Lower East Side poetry scene and then on to the great rock renaissance that ran from the early 1970s to the turn of the 1990s, from the New York Dolls to Seattle grunge. Some of his final music recordings were with Robert Roth of Truly, an under-rated band on the Rain City scene.
Carroll connected several eras in the Manhattan cultural underground: from the Velvets – he worked in Warhol’s film studio – to the Beats – he became friendly with Allen Ginsberg through the St. Mark’s Poetry Project – and the punks – he was closely linked to the downtown sounds of Patti Smith, sharing both accommodation and, for a time, a romance with the other major rock bard.
His final years were less dynamic than his hyperactive decades of productivity as writer and rocker. Working on the manuscript of a final novel called Triptych, a book that had been some 20 years in the making, he became something of a loner. Struck by pneumonia a couple of years before, he was also struggling with some pressing domestic matters – a poor physical condition, record company litigation and some tax issues – Steven Taylor, Ginsberg’s guitar accompanist who played with Carroll on a few occasions, revealed when I spoke to him in the days after the news of his passing.
Another friend, the poet Anne Waldman, also a close collaborator with Ginsberg, told me: ‘Allen was impressed with his accomplishments. Worried about him, at times, as we all did. The Methadone was a deadening necessity. But Jim was sharp, alert, funny and could still loop you around with some great stories and monologues. He had some enlightened humour about his own self. Women adored him, though it was hard to be totally enfolded in his increasingly reclusive life.’
Note: This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form at Words of Warner (simonwarner.wordpress.com) on September 27th, 2009. You can read Warner’s Guardian obituary of Jim Carroll at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/22/jim-carroll-obituary and a longer tribute to the writer, ‘Jim Carroll: Poetry prodigy, post-Beat and punk rocker’, in Beat Scene, No. 61, 2009.
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