Three Imaginary Girls

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Jim Carroll, poet and musician, died of a heart attack in his apartment on September 11.

Most of those who loved his work that I knew found out about this on Facebook last night; I don’t know how early it had been reported. There is a sense of second hand news in this; though this is a musician’s passing which means a lot to me. 

The Jim Carroll Band’s first album, which was the first album that Jim Carroll released, was called Catholic Boy, which came out in 1980. It was simultaneously adored and loathed by many people, for being so forthright in combining poetry and punk-inspired rock. As it was often described in its time, it was raw like The Ramones and its lyrics reflected the milieu of Carroll’s peers, including Patti Smith and Lou Reed.

In the pre-hardcore, punk underground, it was considered a release for “one of us.” It dealt honestly with God — many of us came from very religious homes, which is why we found in its existential urgency a similar rage against authority and peer pressure and societal normalization, but incredibly focused on finding meaning in the pain these things caused us. “I was a Catholic boy, redeemed through pain, and not through joy,” Carroll sang, and we loved that, embracing the dourness of our upbringing in the way that the military punk character in the film American Beauty would say, “Please don’t give up on me sir!” every time he was abused. Organized religion made for very organized, and forceful, personal protest. 

Catholic Boy also dealt honestly with sex (“Three Sisters”), the love of reading (“Crow”), including science fiction and other weird genres (“Wicked Gravity”), hatred of academic poseurs and celebrity hangers-on (“It’s Too Late”), and more, all in the same ways other artists like the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads had done, but with a vibrant literacy. It was as if Carroll had envisioned a world where really smart, stripped down rock should not be left to lo-fi cult artists or marginalist weirdos. Carroll was a romantic leading man in the band, but his somewhat limited range as a vocalist put people off — the same kind of people who can’t stand Dylan (in other words to us, nobodies).

It was “People Who Died,” on the end of the first side of that record, that everyone kept talking about, it’s the song my new hardcore friends liked as a one hit wonder, and its topic of death and drugs is what shadowed Carroll’s career which followed. I soon met people who criticized Carroll as glamorizing drugs and its destruction on lives, which wasn’t helped by the slick treatment of his junkie/street hustler upbringing, The Basketball Diaries, starring Leonardo DeCaprio. 

That film was based on a memoir Carroll had written a few years before the Jim Carroll band released their first album, and it was a great book, as were some of his other literary works, mostly poetry, thereafter, including Living At The Movies. Carroll dedicated his work to folk rocker Phil Ochs, and his love for the doomed protest singer showed up a lot in his work too (the poem “Heroes”, in which Carroll admits he “sat in the rain / with the New York Times / trying to get your act down”). There is no little irony in this, as Dylan once criticized Ochs for being more of a writer (journalist) than a musician — and others have said the same thing about Carroll.

Carroll went on to do two more rock albums in his zenith period, and last year his second one (Dry Dreams) had a couple of songs that helped get me through some painful experiences — also dealing with loss. “Jody” and “Rooms” are about casting teenage spells on people you love, seeing what time has done to our friends, really hating your ex-lover for awhile, listening to people move about outside our bedrooms and wishing we could have ordinary lives too, lives that weren’t labyrinths of obsession and intoxication and the feeling we’ll never be redeemed.

Carroll never entirely slipped from view, in fact he released several books and records (the album Praying Mantis from the mid-90s is particularly good) and when he performed with Patti Smith at Bumbershoot in 1995 Seattle turned out to show both a ton of love. But for a moment, before rock mistook “stoopid” for “stupid” and became afraid to deal with dope as a subject for intelligent black humor, Jim Carroll spoke for the same people Lou Reed had, but a younger one, with a deeper humanism, a bold poetic style, and a vivid warning to stay away from needles. That makes him much more than a new Dylan or a one hit wonder in my book.