“Teddy sniffing glue, twelve years old, fell from a roof on east two
nine, Cathy was eleven when she pulled the plug on 26 reds and a
bottle of wine, Bobby got leukemia 14 years old, look like 65 when he
died, he was a friend of mine.
Those are people who died, died!” – Jim Carroll
I suspect that some post punk, alternative, indie, modernist grunge,
deconstructionist act will kick out a quick “tribute” version of
“People Who Died” that includes Jim, who died this past week at his
desk in New York. Jim was sixty years old and had just completed a
new novel which the publisher was about to send to print.
Jim Carroll was supposed to be the poet laureate of punk. He hit the
writing scene at age thirteen when some of his pieces started
circulating around the super hip downtown scene. He caught the
attention of other New York writers, most notably some of the beats
like Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. His work reached Jack
Kerouac, still alive but incredibly down and out living in the Hotel
Detroit in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, who wrote that, at 13,
Carroll’s work was better than 90% of professional writers in America.
I was three years old that year so I don’t think any of Jim’s early
work made it into my awareness for another decade and a half or so.
In fact, I do not think I had any exposure to his written work prior
to his forming the Jim Carroll Band and releasing the very important
punk LP, “Catholic Boy.”
Jim was very much part of the punk scene and hung out at CBGB, Max’s
Kansas City and other of our haunts. I met him on many occasions but
I cannot recall having exchanged more than a sentence or two at any of
these encounters. I remember that Jim was actually fairly shy, very
tall and, when I did get to reading his written texts, I realized he
was also brilliant.
Jim Carroll, back before his band would do readings on stage during
breaks in a Patti Smith show, she wanted to get him as much exposure
as possible so as to promote punk poetry and the work of Carroll
especially as they were close friends. Jim fell in love with the rush
of live performance at punk events so he went out and started his own
Critics almost immediately crowned him as the “Bob Dylan of the Punk
Era” and the voice of my generation. While almost all of Jim’s
published work, to me at least, was generated out of genius, he sadly
leaves us with far fewer published works than one would expect from a
guy who was recognized by the big time when he was only 13. Some
people say it was heroin that kept his productivity poor but he had
kicked the smack addiction well before the band and the publication of
his legendary, “Basketball Diaries” work of non-narrative prose (a
must read even if you saw the movie as they are quite different).
“Too old to rock and roll but too young to die,” Jethro Tull
A whole lot of the greats of punk didn’t have the grace to check out
while young (just like Syd, dead at 21). Some of the people were
friends of mine, others casual acquaintances and still others with
whom my relationship was a nod or quick greeting of recognition as one
of the regular faces in the crowd.
In 2002 alone, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone and Joe Strummer from the Clash
would all die and the following year Johnny Ramone joined them. Like
the Jethro tull line quoted above, these guys all died young on US
census data standards but, with our crowd, it, as people might say
regarding a used car, wasn’t the years but, rather, the miles. Many
of our miles were off-road and involved smoking, snorting, drinking or
injecting serious poisons into our systems. Many of us survivors look
back and wonder why some are gone and others stumble forward as we all
shared similar and dangerous behaviors.
It’s sad that Jim didn’t leave us with more work. The Ramones, the
first ever punk band, may have been the most productive act from that
scene and are survived by an incredible catalogue of songs. Carroll,
even while alive, frustrated his fans as every time he came to town to
do a reading, the event would sell out but he would read the same old
stuff. Living up here in Cambridge, I stopped attending his spoken
word events and poetry readings when I could no longer wiggle my ass
onto the guest list. I think I last heard him read at some club over
on Lansdown Street (sometimes called Ted Williams Way) about 15 years
ago. By then, I was a full time hacker, married and modestly
respectable. Many of the early punks whose band, like mine, never
made it ended up with similar fates. A few still hang around either
the periphery of the “what’s hot” music scene pretending that being 55
years old and hanging around with kids who were born after Syd died is
still cool and a very small number actually made it as executives in
the recording industry who seem so sleazy when one encounters them.
Of course, a few of the bands made the big time and those who are
still going and making new music deserve our praise and
congratulations for keeping the fire alive.
I can’t say that I will miss Jim Carroll. I learned he had died last
week while on a phone call with my sister who had heard it on the
radio on the way to her teaching position. If she had told me that
Jim had been dead for five years or that he was coming to Harvard
Square for a reading, I would have believed her. While I include
“Catholic Boy” in my “All Punk” playlist on my iPhone, I hadn’t spent
much time thinking about him. I wondered if we had ever shared
needles but his obit said he had quit smack well before we would have
had the chance to meet so I guess the answer is no.
I’m not sure how to end this post. I really enjoyed Jim Carroll’s
work but can’t remember anything beyond a nod of greeting that I had
actually shared with him. He was undoubtedly a brilliant writer whose
body of work, while small, is very worthwhile. I guess I feel like
another chip of my misspent youth has been knocked off and my
attachment to cornerstones of that exciting era is gone.
So, kids, I’m looking forward to the Youtube video of “People Who
Died” that includes some lines about Jim Carroll as it is probably the
highest honor we can pay him.