Monday, September 12, 2016

Ruminations on Jim Carroll

A week or so ago, I was going through my rather disorganized collection of old, rare (and not so rare) live "bootleg" concert recordings, and found myself compelled to dig out an old show of poet/punk musician Jim Carroll from 1980. I hadn't listened to it in years, and given the fact that I have been in a jazz/fusion and Italian prog rock kick of late, I can't really say why I felt the need to bring it out now. The fact that it was around the anniversary of his death (he was working at his desk when he died of a heart attack on September 11th, 2009) did not occur to me. I don't believe that there was any cosmic message, but it did make the timing seem appropriate.

I was not a fan of Jim Carroll growing up. Like many my age, my first awareness of him was tied to the film version of his teenage memoir, The Basketball Diaries, not that I ever saw it. In fact, I had no desire to. I think my perception of Leo DiCaprio at the time as being just some pretty boy had something to do with it. I also recall that the movie came out five months after the death of one of classmates from a heroin overdose, and I remember saying that I thought that the movie was probably just a bunch of heroin chic bullshit, and the fact that the kid in this movie was a junky didn't make him an artist. Apparently, the eighteen year old version of me thought he was qualify to make these statements without seeing the movie or reading any of the works by the real life artist. In retrospect, and this is harder to admit, I think that as a depressed and angst ridden adolescent, I probably didn't want to be shown up in that department. What's more, I was probably envious of the gritty, urban experience that I was denied by growing up in a small college town. In the end, I didn't see the movie simply because everyone else was, and I never bothered to read his books or poetry.

For all of these reasons, I was not thrilled when he took the stage at the Bottom Line in New York in January of 2002. I had gone to see Ray Manzarek, for whom he was opening, and in spite of my unjustified antipathy to Carroll, I had arrived early enough so that I would see his opening set from its start.

He took to the stage with a languid stroll that seemed like the caricature of the aging street poet, but was natural and unapologetic in his bearing, as if he knew no other way to move. He apologized for seeming lethargic, claiming that he was sick and had taken some cold medicine before the show (something I was not sure I believed). I don't remember what he said next, but I remember that my first thought was that he was not as pretentious as I imagined he would be. I wasn't quite in his corner yet, though.

That would take an additional ninety seconds.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of hyperbole. However, the turnaround happened quickly enough that I remember being surprised with myself, being aware even at that moment that my opinion went from active and deliberate aversion to pure engagement and admiration in a bizarrely short period of time.

He launched into a performance that causally blended reminiscences with distillations of short stories and articles that he had been commissioned to write over the years, with the occasional poem sprinkled in. The delicately jagged urban romance of his poetry presented a stark contrast to his humorous, sagacious, and slightly self-effacing storytelling. His tales expressed a persona that was sensitive, but tough; streetwise and resilient, but painfully aware of the ridiculousness of modern life.

Telling the story of waking up to the sound of an intruder in his apartment, and his measures to protect himself and his girlfriend, he recalled a moment of petrified recognition of his situation, standing buck naked in the middle of a dark room with a knife in his hand thinking, "but what if he has a gun?" We laughed along with him as he described his chivalry withering with his sudden attack of self-awareness.

He related how he was approached by some periodical or another for a story about a "first time," and how they didn't like the story that he proposed: The first time he watched a friend receive a high colonic. The fact that he clearly was not above scatological humor endeared me to him even more.
He launched into a story about how he accompanied a friend, who apparently either lost a bet or couldn't resist a dare, to a clinic to undergo a colon cleansing. "They take this shit really seriously," he said apologetically.

He spared no details as he described the bucket of soldiers figurine that his friend that his friend had swallowed as a child and emerged in pristine condition from his bowels. "It was the machine gunner. That one was my favorite," he said, lying down on the stage, getting into the gunner's position, just in case we didn't know which one he was talking about.

Apparently that story didn't go over well with the periodical in question.

The story they accepted was "the first time I killed a deer." I cringed. I don't know why, but in spite of everything I had heard over the past hour, I was anticipating some trite kind of coming of age hunting story or some circle of life bullshit diatribe infused with machismo. Instead he told the story of a weekend in the country with friends, with him as the fish-out-of-water city boy, in the middle of the night unable to sleep because of the oppressive sounds of nature, when he became overwhelmed by a blood curdling bleating sound coming from the yard. As he and his friends eventually all got out of their beds to investigate, they were horrified to find a family of deer gathered around one of their young, impaled on the picket fence. Apparently, they had all leapt the fence, and the baby fawn didn't clear it. It's cries of agony ripped into the air and burrowed into the minds of all of the weekend guests. Carroll related how it somehow fell to him to do what was decided must be done, to relieve the baby deer of his misery, how he was furnished with a revolver, how he stroked by the fawn's head and cradled his chin in his hands before pulling the trigger.

The room was silent. Clearly the rest of the audience was as moved as I was.  I sat there imagining what he felt, the confusion of reconciling a violent act, willfully committed lovingly, and feeling shame and guilt for doing the right thing. By this time, any preconceived notions I had harbored about this artist had been utterly obliterated.

He concluded his set with a recitation of a few more poems, now joined on stage by Manzarek  accompanying him on piano. I was never one for poetry readings, but I listened intensely, now caring deeply about what he had to say.

After that Manzarek took the stage for his "set" which consisted of him playing solo piano versions of Doors songs interspersed with reading passages from his new novel, The Poet in Exile. The book told the story of musician named “Roy,” who had played keyboards in a seminal 60s rock band, and embarks on a journey to seek “The Poet,” his former lead singer, who had seemingly died decades before but was in fact living on an island somewhere. It was too sad to watch. My friend and I left during one of the musical interludes. (I wrote more in detail about that experience here.)

Carroll in his early 80s punk rock heyday
So basically, I went to see Manzarek, and by accident I discovered Jim Carroll, who I was predisposed to dislike. It was a beautiful bit of serendipity and those little confluences are the things I love about living in New York City (and one of the reasons I miss The Bottom Line, a truly unique place, but that's another story). And although I never did go out and read The Basketball Diaries, that evening proved to be a very special one for me, and I feel fortunate that happenstance put me in the room with a great American artist. I am glad that in spite of my preconceptions, I was able to have an open mind and appreciate that moment. And now, seven years after his death, I think how lucky I was to have my mind changed while he was still alive, and I was able to experience his artistry in person.

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