Visions from a Razor's Edge
"Fuck it anyway, no dope, no nookie, no queers following me
today, I guess you start writing lame diaries like this."
Age 14, The Basketball Diaries
Reading Jim Carroll can be a dramatic experience. A street-smart kid
who experimented with drugs in a private school in the lower-east side of New York City,
he wrote The Basketball Diaries. It is unsettling as much as it is colorful and
fascinating, with a bitter taste of the underground scene. It casts you beyond the glitter
to bare the true city, permeated with the distinct smell of Warhol present in such
cinematic works as "Midnight Cowboy". You are compelled to take a descent with
Carroll, but not a surrealistic ride down a rabbits hole. It is rather the sickness
of heroin addiction at the age of fifteen. It is a poets attempt at shocking realism
reminiscent of William Burroughs Junky rather than merely the hedonistic
adventurism that brought fame to Jack Kerouac.
He is knee-deep in drugs and sex and hustling gays, and hangs onto a
tough-athlete image, but manages to nevertheless absorb knowledge. There is a subtle
stylism present in Diaries, whose growth you can follow to the very last page as Carroll
develops. Kerouac once wrote, "At 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose
than 89 percent of the novelists working today."
With a sharply endowed mind he turned to writing poetry. Like Allen
Ginsberg, he sees drugs as a means to a literary end. The lyric seductiveness contained in
his first major publication, Living at the Movies, reportedly caused Carroll (at a mere 22
years) to be the youngest ever nominee for the Pulitzer Prize:
sleep on a tar roof
scream my songs
into lazy floods of stars...
a white powder paddles through blood and heart
the sounds return
pure and easy...
this city is on my side.
Fragment: Little N.Y. Ode
Breaking his heroin addiction cold for one last time by moving to
California in 1974, he took up the idea of using rock music as a medium to expand.
"Any poet," he says, "out of respect for his audience should become a rock
and roll star." To this end, he follows in the footsteps of ex-girlfriend Patti Smith
and the influential Lou Reed, a good friend. His first album, Catholic Boy (1980),
won him quick attention, not only as a singer, but also as an artist as a whole. (Living
at the Movies was re-released and sold in one week what it had sold in the first two
years of its original release.) One song, "People who Died", with its rush of
guitars and the same rough-edged content of his diaries, soon became a cult classic,
especially among the college crowd:
sniffing glue, he was twelve years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-Nine.
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On twenty-six reds and a bottle of wine.
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old.
He looked like 65 when he died.
He was a friend of mine.
Now, two albums later, hes making another due out next year, one
that promises to be as thrilling as the first. He is working with such legends as Ray
Manzarek of the Doors, Billy Zoom of X and, of course, Lou Reed. At the same time, the
next installment of his diaries, dealing with the Andy Warhol years, is being completed
while a film version of Basketball Diaries is being made. 18-year-old Anthony
Michael Hall is playing Carroll (it was originally to be Matt Dillon, but his manager
didnt want him to do the drug scenes).
In the meantime, we can delve into the visionary experience of a new
collection of poems and drug-induced prose poems (called "nods") entitled The
Book of Nods. Most were written after the fact, but still contain brilliantly
fantastic and surrealistic images and startling concepts, with topics ranging from romance
and sex to meetings with historical figures and a trip to Paraguay. Those who still have a
romantic obsession with his underground and drug life will be pleased with this book, yet
it is as beautiful as his first anthology, a high art that seems eons beyond the first
attempts at writing in Diaries: "Across the cathedrals of Paris the sun is
bending, weary like the eyes of their marble saints, who blow cracked trumpets to the
water birds at dawn."
much poverty. It follows me through subway cars.
Poverty to die a death within ones own family.
Poverty of the darkness across the ice. Poverty of cataract eyes.
Poverty of young men alone behind the stairway, who practice
Alchemy inside bottle caps, who know
The altruism of a last syringe.
Once just the young listener amid elder contemporaries, Carroll has
uncompromisingly proven his talent in a book of passion, vibrating with captivating themes
and bold images, swirling with the charisma of Kafka and Rimbaud. More is yet to come.
© 1986 Karl Irving / Daily Nexus
See Irving's accompanying interview, Nods of Days Gone By