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Steve CannonSteve Cannon turned 75 the week before last. His birthday party was held at the Tribes gallery, his home since the 70’s, with readings by Karl Watson, Michael Carter, Shalom Naumen, and the ‘Unbearable’s book release party.

I got there late, after both the readings were over. The food trays picked clean, though half a box of wine remained. Steve was sitting on his living room couch in front of the apartment doorway, the same place I’ve found him almost every time I’ve gone to see him over the last 20 years. Drinking wine, smoking, and hanging out with the dozens of people pressed in around him.On the walls were the striking photographs of the GirlEye show curated by the gallery. Everyone was drunk. It was just like old times.

Steve comes from New Orleans originally, but he’s been in New York since the 70;s. He is a poet, playwright, and novelist, and was a long-time professor at CUNY until he retired in the early 90’s. In the 70’s, he had a bestselling novel: “Groove Jive & Bang Around”, which gave him the money to buy the building he lives in now. He is almost fully blind, and has been so for the last dozen years, the end result of glaucoma. He has people read his books and newspapers and emails to him, but still gets out to shows and readings. He has plenty of help around the studio, and many people drop by.  I doubt he’s alone much.

When I first started going down in the early 90’s, the gallery was just starting up and Steve could still see, though he wore dark glasses, even at night. On warm days, he hung out on his stoop, and everyone he knew from in and around the neighborhood would drop by. Some days, you could get a reasonable cross-section of the Lower East Side of the time – young white bohemians like myself, old black poets Photo display from the Girleye Show
and writers who’d known Steve for decades, local Puerto Ricans, drug addicts. Many of the people around him were stalwarts of the 80’s Lower East Side writing music art drug scene. Some, like the poet John Ferris, had hung out in the political and writing scene in 60’s and 70’s Harlem.

I liked Steve and John and the other guys, and liked the connection to black NY history and art. Most of all, I liked to listen to them talk politics. They really knew their stuff, and in the self-referential, curiously parochial New York of the day, it was refreshing to talk with people who knew what was happening in what was left of the Soviet Union, Iraq, or Africa, unfiltered by the lens of the New York Times or CNN.

I had another connection with Steve: we’d both squatted in London, in roughly the same neighborhood, though 20 years apart – me in the late 80’s, Steve in the 60’s. I’d been in Westbourne Park, then virtually abandoned, Steve in Kilburn, the then Irish neighborhood in the north of the city. “We thought we were broke,” Steve said, “but there was a bunch of motherfuckers across the street – they had nothing at all! We were rich compared to them!”

Steve Cannon with Michael BlloombergBy the mid-90’s, the Tribes gallery was becoming something of a local institution. Despite the glaucoma, Steve was involved in the rebirth of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, in the Living Theatre, and Bullet Space. His stoop, and his gallery became a popular hangout for a lot of kids arriving in town from Europe, Japan, across America. Bit by bit, I stopped going down.

But in a Lower East Side I hardly recognize, it’s good to see Steve, and his piece of history, still providing the conduit to the past.

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Jim Carroll Book Cover

Jim Carroll Book Cover

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.

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

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.

Jim Carroll on the Dennis Miller Show (Partial Interview and reading).

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’?):

Our Desires

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

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Unreal City,   60
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,  
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,  
I had not thought death had undone so many.  
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,  
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland.

Boy, does that describe London. As it was then, so it is now . ..

I don’t understand people here. I don’t understand their coldness, the way they can be crammed so unbearably close together, yet remain so comopletely isolated – like they hardly even see each other. When I think back to the long period when I was away from London in the 90’s, it was this isolation that most scared me about this city – the fear of being swallowed by the grey, by the extreme anonymity, until I felt I hardly existed. The grey creeping into my nerves, senses, soul . . . a weight where my heart should be, congealed into grey mornings and grey afternoons . . . that monotonal emotional pitch that comes so easily to the Anglo-Sexon spirit.

This fear is a little further away now, but I still feel it. Isolation hangs about this city like the damp. When I first got back to New York this spring, one of the most intense pleasures (and pains) was being able to feel again. it was like discovering a faculty that had gone missing, like the ability to see colour after seeing only in black and white . . . I don’t remember London always being this way, but perhaps my circumstances were different before. Maybe that’s part of why people drink so much here, so they can feel again – so they can feel like they EXIST . . .

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