Celebrated author and musician Jim Carroll died on Friday. The following essay appears in Paste's September issue.
Whenever a writer makes a rock record, I expect two things. First, I assume the lyrics will be better than average. They should be—writers presumably know how to communicate in insightful ways. Second, I expect the album to sound like an erudite mess. This is because the ability to write perceptively does not automatically translate to good rock ’n’ roll—there are numerous examples of articulate people making unlistenable, pretentious twaddle. Amy Tan and Scott Turow, no slouches as novelists, have produced dreadful music. Similarly, novelist Madison Smartt Bell and poet Wyn Cooper are fine writers, but their 2003 foray into rock ’n’ roll was a veritable snoozefest. So I had my doubts about Jim Carroll.
thought enough of him to proclaim, “At 13 years of age, Jim Carroll
writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today.”
Carroll’s book The Basketball Diaries was the stuff of legend, a
disturbing and harrowing confessional about leading a double life at
the ripe old age of 15—basketball hero at a posh NYC high school,
on his way to scholarships and accolades, and heroin addict who
hustled gay men to support his habit. So in 1980, when Carroll
decided to make a rock record, I was both intrigued and skeptical. It
was bound to be a fascinating ride. But would it sound any good?
It turned out to be one of the
great records of the early ’80s, an
adrenaline shot of anger and despair and black humor—smart enough
to obliquely reference Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,”
visceral enough to encompass overdoses and gangland murders, and
buttressed by some righteous, soul-rattling power chords. It was
called Catholic Boy, and it seemed like Raymond Chandler’s Philip
Marlowe had matriculated to Harvard, double majored in journalism and
philosophy, and then joined The Clash.
there to share our grief. Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” the
single from Catholic Boydidn’t need to. Jim Carroll, spewing rage and heartbreak, said it
all for us.
Though he’s made a few albums
since then (including two Velvet Underground-style spoken-word
hybrids), he’s never been better than on Catholic Boy and “People
Who Died.” That song is the undeniable highlight of his musical
career, and that entire debut album is still revelatory—the perfect
merger of an intelligent man and a world falling apart. I’m still
partial to the title track. That’s because I’m a Catholic boy
too, born and raised, and I don’t know anyone who has better
encapsulated that peculiar package of hope and guilt—the promise of
heaven and the weight of the world. I love the whole desperate,
For most of the past 30 years,
Jim Carroll has done what he’s always done. He’s written prose
and poetry. And he’s read his words aloud, usually without musical
accompaniment. It’s what writers do. But for a brief moment in the
early ’80s, Carroll unfurled his poetic gift to the accompaniment
of slamming drums and thunderous guitars. He recorded an album that
deserved the Punk Pulitzer, an award that doesn’t exist. It should.