Jim Carroll’s death on September 11 brought back a lot of memories. His burst into popular consciousness in the early 1980s with The Jim Carroll Band happened when I was living in San Francisco.
Ronald Reagan was just coming to power, and would soon axe my job as a tenant organizer. This job been funded by the federal government though a program created by the Carter administration.
I was working with very low income people in San Francisco residential hotels. They were resisting evictions by landlords who wanted to convert their homes into much more lucrative tourist hotels. One of Reagan’s first presidential acts–soon after he took the solar panels off the White House–was to close down that program and get rid of us community organizers.
In San Francisco more and more people were being thrown into the streets, as Reagan cuts and ruthless gentrification began to grip the city by the throat. House flipping became a favorite speculator sport, and entire African American communities like Hayes Valley and the Fillmore were purposefully displaced.
A new nuclear arms race initiated by Ronnie Ray-gun threatened to annihilate the world, while the former soft soap pitchman installed death squads in insurgent Central America, declaring the assassins “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”
The shadows of the New Dark Age were oozing in like Bay Area fog turned toxic.
Then punk rock hit back hard, and shook the world like a 7.1 on the Richter Scale.
Out of this right wing chaos and pogo anarchy arose The Jim Carroll Band, like a Phoenix on methadone.
Jim Carroll, teenage junkie altar boy hoop star Rimbaud rocker NYC street survivor Patti Smith paramour collaborator.
I’d read about a lot of that in his book The Basketball Diaries, and fell in love with the writer who’d made it all up while bringing it all down. And whose conclusion to the book, “I just want to be pure,” summed up the ’60s for some of us anti-war freaks and counterculture creeps as much as anything ever has.
So when I heard that the newly formed Jim Carroll Band was giving a free outdoor show on the Berkeley campus, I had to be there. After a first attempt to play failed due to technical difficulties, the first song of the second try exploded into the air, then quickly crashed when the sound system again broke down, perhaps a metaphor for the state of the State then.
Jim Carroll seized the moment and called out, “We really want to play for you people!” in a New York City accent thicker than the sewage in the East River. He was tall and pale, with lank orange hair and eyes that were seeing things most didn’t, his face like a map of Ireland and the Lower East Side. Then he launched a perfect transformative mimic jump shot that let us know that a rhapsodic musical slam dunk was coming up the court fast
Once the sonic sound soared back at us, everyone knew the wait had been worth it. Though the band had been tagged as punk, and was loud and fast, there were uncool for punk parts of it like guitar solos and understandable words.
Jim Carroll’s lyrics weren’t sung, but recited in bursts of madness and brilliance. Within the white noise and black moods of his lines, the words hit you like a kind of shock therapy you could jump around to. Their meanings were initially elusive and tantalizing, making you desperate to grasp what wasn’t meant to come easy.
For me it was overwhelming and ecstatic, but only a first glimpse.
When the Jim Carroll Band’s first album, Catholic Boy, came out, I rushed out to get my vinyl copy and soon wore down the grooves. But even before the songs scarred grooves in my synapses, the cover images invited you to something you’d yet to experience. There was Jim with his arms around his parents, their faces like maps of Ireland too, totally uncool for any other junkie poet rocker, in a colorized photo by Annie Liebovitz.
Catholic Boy’s 10 songs allowed you to rock out while the recitations of the lyrics transported you to realms few have visited and returned from to share visions of damnation, illumination and redemption.
I came to depend on each cut to take me into those realms, far from the dread ascension of Reaganism, better and worse, but each alive with an energy and insight you couldn’t resist, and hardly wanted to. The songs were full of killer musical riffs and killer lines that made your blood boil. But it was a boiling away of all the political slime we were being drenched with, a cleansing of the dead skin the New Right was sloughing off on us as we descended into their reactionary hell.
And it all started with the very first lines of the very first song, “Wicked Gravity”:
The gravity here is just sick for revenge
It’s like my lungs are filled with chains
The sky seems so low
It hasn’t moved so slow
Since the virgin
Since the virgin went dancing for the rain
I want a world without gravity
It could be just what I need
I watch the stars move close
I watch the earth recede
Then there’s “It’s Too Late,” its opening lines now more infamous than ever:
It’s too late
To fall in love with Sharon Tate
But it’s too soon
To ask me for the words
I want carved on my tomb
Intimations of mortality also blast out in the initial lyrics of “Nothing Is True”:
You get nothing back for all you save
Just eternity in a spacious grave
More grief and morbidity pour out with a frantic beat on the final cut of the first side of the album, the signature song “People Who Died,” Jim Carroll’s punk radio hit that also became part of the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now. And these might be fitting words to be carved into his tomb now:
They were all my friends and all of them died,
I miss ’em, they died!
But side two of Catholic Boy opens with “City Drops Into the Night,” a lengthy slower song that snakes its way towards another consciousness beyond the repression, death and destruction and other junk that the Reaganites were trying to shoot us up with, as Bobby Keys wails on his sax all the way through it:
It’s when the body at the bottom
That body is my own reflection
But it ain’t hip to sink so low
Unless you’re gonna make a resurrection
They’re always gonna come to your door
They’re gonna say it’s just a routine inspection
But what you get when you open the door
What you get is another injection
And there’s always gonna be one more
With just a little bit more until the next one
They wait in shadows and steal the light in your eyes
To them vision’s just some costly infection
But listen, you should come with me
I’m the fire, I’m the fire’s reflection
I’m just a constant warning
To take the other direction
A few tracks later, in “Crow,” Jim Carroll’s tribute to artistic and former romantic partner Patti Smith, another vision of the other direction arises:
But Crow, when you throw yourself under
The streets are hard when you cannot lose control
They don’t know, to them the dark don’t whisper nothin
And they’re all gonna try to rip the wind from your soul
And the concluding and title track, “Catholic Boy,” perhaps puts it the way James Joyce would’ve liked to, if there were electric guitars back in his day:
They starved me for weeks, they thought they’d teach me fear
I fed on cellmates dreams, they gave me fine ideas
When they cut me loose, the time had served me well
I made allies in heaven, I made comrades in hell
I was a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild
Around this time I saw The Jim Carroll Band perform at the I Beam on Haight Street in San Francisco. The lineup was the same as on the album: Brian Linsley and Terrell Winn on guitars; Steve Linsley on bass and Wayne Woods on drums. They lit the place up, but not the way Reagan wanted to in Managua Harbor.
Another constant reminder to take the other direction. And you could dance all the way. At the I Beam that night we all did, stomping on Reagan’s future grave with every step.
1982 brought US deployment of nuclear Cruise missiles in Europe closer, as well as the release of The Jim Carroll Band’s second album, Dry Dreams.
Though noted, as in the headline of Jim Carroll’s obit in the San Francisco Chronicle as “Poet, Addict,” the man was one of the few social critics on the popular music scene who took on Reagan’s rampant militarism and articulated its connections with the rise of corporate power.
The song “Barricades” on Dry Dreams castigates those who were trying to make us forget the horrors of US intervention in Southeast Asia in the ’60s as they promoted invading Central America in the ’80s:
Who made promises for the neutron bomb?
It will singe your lungs to death
And leave the corporate lungs unharmed.
Who made promises with such insidious charm?
But it would have made things clearer
In old Vietnam
That’s when Kevin got called up
Richie got called up
And Kevin never came back
Richie never came back
Their folks got a letter in the mail
They got a telephone call
I ain’t gonna die for Standard Oil
IBM? I wouldn’t die for them.
GE? Not me!
This scathing lyricism continued on The Jim Carroll Band’s third and final album, 1983’s I Write Your Name. “Freddy’s Store” focuses on the arms buildup fostered by Reaganism, and the accompanying war fever spreading across the land:
Can you live in the tropics?
Can you fight on sand?
Have you compunctions to function
In a far off land?
Can you kill a despot in an African nation?
Can you bite a pill
If the operation don’t go down?
1983 is also the “since 26 years ago” oft cited these days when reporting the latest still increasing unemployment rate, the former recession compliments of Big Daddy Reagan of course.
In “No More Luxuries” from I Write Your Name, Jim Carroll lets us know his take on that “economic downturn”:
Your uncle’s scandals shook the House of Lords
Your daddy’s squeezed out as Chairman of the Board
No more doctors writing no more scripts
No more intercontinental trips
No more crystal pistols up your nose
The dry cleaners want money for the clothes
The Rolls Royce, my dear, need it be said
If I were you I’d think mo-ped
No more dining out at 21
What you want now comes in a bun
Calvin called, he wants his hand made vest
And he snipped, snipped, snipped
At your American Express
No more luxuries!
I saw The Jim Carroll Band play two more times, once in San Francisco, the final time in San Diego. By that last time it seemed Jim Carroll was tiring of his role as a rock and roller, and was ready to return to his true calling as a poet, to continue his search for “a world without gravity.”
On September 11, 2009, he may have found it. Accounts of his death reported that he “died while working at his desk” at his home in Manhattan.
It’s so sad now that he’s not here to provoke and amaze us, to deflate the sick ass leaders who continue to urge us to kill for Capitol Hill and slug more corporate swill.
Decades before the cry “Another world is possible,” rang out, Jim Carroll was already cluing us in.
After all, he’d already been there.
Jim Carroll’s life may not have lasted as long as Ronald Reagan’s, but he stood for and touched us with a purity that the old more dead than alive Prez could never even have dreamed of.
In his song “It’s Too Late,” Jim Carroll’s lyrics shriek out at the essential emptiness of those like Reagan who inanely smile and wave and mouth somebody else’s evil script:
But it ain’t no contribution
To rely on an institution
To validate your chosen art
And to sanction your boredom
And let you play out your part
As for Jim Carroll himself, his art and life continued until the end towards the goal of “I just want to be pure.” And his words and life will always remain “a constant reminder to take the other direction.”