Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Was A Catholic Boy, Redeemed Through Pain...

To my surprise I found out over the weekend that poet and rock n' roll star Jim Carroll died two months ago in New York City. I went straight to the New York Times' website to read his obituary, which you can find here. A heart attack killed one of the world's most compelling and original writers. He was 60-years-old.

Reading the Times' obituary I was struck by the 2002 photograph of Carroll the Times' editors chose to run. He looks like a debauched priest, minus the robe and collar. With his arms folded across his chest, Carroll stares at the viewer with piercing blue eyes framed by cheeks that look as if they're caving in. To put it bluntly, Carroll looks downright seedy in this photo.

The second thing that struck me while reading the piece was the date of Carroll's death — September 11, 2009. Eight years to the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that saw the Twin Towers blown away. I wonder if he didn't have some kind of perverse satisfaction that day, being so close to 'Ground Zero.' Carroll had certainly fantasized about New York as Ground Zero in his writing.

Let me explain. Jim Carroll was the author of two books I'm very fond of — The Basketball Diaries (1978), which chronicled his basketball scholarship to a private school and descent into drug addiction on the ruthlessly mean streets of New York City, and Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971 to 1973 (1987) which tells the story of Carroll's time spent working for Andy Warhol and chumming around with then unknown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Carroll's then girlfriend Patti Smith.

There's a section in The Basketball Diaries which I remember very clearly. Carroll is hustling in downtown Manhattan to fund his increasingly hungry drug habit. He fantasizes about a nuclear bomb dropping on Manhattan, with himself standing at Ground Zero. While Carroll wrote this memoir the United States was still in the grip of the Cold War. Mutually Assured Destruction seemed a very real possibility. The passage is a beautiful contrast of those two trusty themes: sex and death. Nuclear annihilation as the biggest orgasm of all time.

To say a bit more about The Basketball Diaries, it covers a three year period from fall 1963 to summer 1966. By the end of the book Carroll is in prison trying to kick his habit. The book spares nobody — not the priests, the abusive coach, or Carroll's fellow travelers in New York's underground. The Basketball Diaries is often hilarious, an effect of the book's complete and unashamed honesty about some of Carroll's truly base behaviours, and the appetites that drove him during those years of his life.

Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971 to 1973 is a more polished work than Carroll's first memoir. Downtown Diaries contains some particularly acid observations about Warhol and his 'Superstars.' Truman Capote is described as a, "pill-stained thousand (dollar bill)" And the scene where Carroll accompanies Mapplethorpe and Smith to an exhibit featuring plastic body parts modeled on cancerous organs left me with a deep sense of unease. Again, as in The Basketball Diaries, Carroll doesn't pull his punches. He shows his readers all the scars, needle holes and mental wounds borne by his real life characters. Together these memoirs are not only fantastic word portraits of a time and place, but also reveal messy truths about being human and failing. In Carroll's case it was the failure to become a basketball star because he was pulled down by drugs.

In his lifetime Jim Carroll had other accomplishments as well. Besides being a damn fine writer he was a poet and a rock star. I haven't heard much of Carroll's music, which he recorded with the Jim Carroll Band, but I do own the band's first album, Catholic Boy (1980). The title track was used in the soundtrack for the 1995 movie adaptation of The Basketball Diaries, which featured a young (and very handsome) Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. You can find the soundtrack version of Catholic Boy here on YouTube.

I respect Carroll for his honesty in recounting sometimes funny, often ugly events, and in so doing turning them into art. He managed to capture the experience of being human in words, which is the highest praise I can give. Goodbye Jim.

On a side note, if you're interested in reading more about New York's once unbound counterculture, I suggest reading Bruce Benderson's Sex & Isolation and Other Essays. Benderson is eloquent, and his views are his own; nothing borrowed here. His insights into sexual politics are scalpel sharp, and his storytelling skills are anything but ordinary. You can read more about Benderson's essay collection on the UW Press website here.

No comments:

Post a Comment