I first read Jim Carrol in 1990 at an odd intermediate stage in my life after living in England for a couple of years. I’d been squatting, and living an underground life then it all ended and I was back in a very depressed Montreal, looking for somewhere else to go – and along came Jim Carroll, the Beats, Sonic Youth – a whole underground sensibility that was very New York, very different from anything in the Anglo-Saxon world I’d inhabited until then.
I had the ‘Downtown Diaries’ on my first and only trip across the US, when I caught the train from Chicago to Texas, went down to Mexico for a couple of weeks, then back by train to New Orleans and New York and Montreal. A year later, after visiting a couple more times, I moved to New York for the first time and caught the tail end of the 80s era (even if it was 1991, just after the first Gulf War), when money flowed freely if you knew how to tap into it, the Lower East Side was still a war zone, and the homeless covered Manhattan, sleeping in every second doorway, camping out in the parks.
New York City was still an urban frontier, though with common sense and a little luck, nowhere near as dangerous as people made out.
I’ve always liked Jim Carroll because of what he represented – a thinking Catholic, the same in-between classes writer with little formal education as myself, with long exposure to the streets – the kind of writer of whom I think Verlaine once said, “Got up to live before he sat down to write.” It’s amazing how that type of writer seems to have disappeared now, replaced by the mfa program trained variety: stylish, technically sophisticated, professional – and largely irrelevant. Carroll was of that great tradition in US letters, going back to Hemingway, maybe even Melville, that of writing from the perspective and even position of the underclass. When I first discovered him, coming from Canada where the Anglo-Saxon middle-class model was (and still is) the norm, this was a revelation indeed.
He was so much a part of an era, the 80’s in New York. I was never that interested in his band. In his writing, he peaked in the 80’s, then didn’t do much after that. Friends who saw him read in later years, said he read almost exclusively from his early work and routines. For better or worse, he became part of the junkie pantheon – Buroughs, the Velvets, almost any punk from the 70’s (and so on). Surely, he was thinking of heroin when he wrote: “it’s sad this vision required such height, I’d have preferred to be down with the others.”
Jim Carroll reading ‘For Elizabeth’ a video shot for the Lallapalooza Festival (I don’t know the year).
We can’t wax nostalgic about New York in that period. Exciting it might have been, but it was also dark – very dark. You only have to read Legs McNeil’s ‘Please Kill Me’ to see how quickly the spark of creativity and energy that gave us punk rock spiraled into drug addiction and basic nullity, a pattern that was to be repeated across cities, countries, cultures over the next fifteen years, until bohemia was drained of any vitality, or even meaning. Perhaps it was unfair, but when I put my own druggy years behind me, I stopped reading Jim Carroll.
Carroll was from Manhattan of course, but in a way he was as much an exile because of his literary ambitions, his drug addiction, as the self-imposed exiles like Warhol, et al, who came from outside the city. With gentrification, a Jim Carroll isn’t even possible now – how can anyone who isn’t a profesional, and who isn’t college-educated, and thus trained to think like a college student, going to survive in present-day New York (or London. Or Paris. Or in any of the great cities of the West?). I’m not saying for a moment that drug addiction is glamorous – if it fed some part of Carroll’s art, then it killed and severely limited it as well. But without that underclass, and the people who embody that underclass enough to write/ paint/ film/ whatever, our cities are going to become dull, dull places, riding on myth and real estate.
Surprisingly, the best newspaper obit I read was not in the American papers, but the Guardian. Then a very touching obit from Tom Clark, who knew Jim when he went to California in the 70’s to quit heroin.
You can read about all things Jim Carroll at catholicboy.com
I hadn’t read Jim in years then last week I went and bought the compilation ‘Fear Of Dreaming’. I don’t read much poetry so can’t really comment on his abilities as a poet. But I do remember the lines and poems that stayed with me, and going over those old poems had that reassuring quality of a seeing an old friend after a long, long absence, and I was sorry I’d forgot about him for so long, when once I’d had everything he’d written up to that point.
From ‘Fear Of Dreaming’ (and originally ‘Book of Nods’?):
There is a wind that seeks the crevice
under my heart
the way insects file at night
beneath a doorway
It’s edges are rough, it slits
the cords. It trips my steady breathing.
When it comes there is no one
I can trust
It seems, at times, I have designed
too well this vision of you.
I cannot survive your eyes
when they are scarred with a need
for some lesser form of love.
I admit to this conceit.
And though you will not accept it
You love it nonetheless
It is just like you. Our desires
will always be kept sharp
by a kind of perversity. A need
to be each forever alone . . .
Its colour is violet, like lips
that have been smashed at night
or robbed of blood by lack of breath.
The wind I was speaking of does this.
I can feel it now.
Jim Carroll 19 – 2009 RIP