Catholicboy.com
 
Support CatholicBoy.com!
$
Home > Research > Academic Studies > Chasing the Dragon: The Junky as 20th Century Hero

Chasing the Dragon:

The Junky as 20th Century Hero

CHAPTER 4: THE TRICKSTER

Dragons live for ever, but not so little boys.
-- "Puff the Magic Dragon"

Like lesser mortals the hero does not come into this world fully formed. As Powers points out, even comic book heroes begin their lives with what is known as an "origin story" which purports to explain the source of the hero's extraordinary powers and his motivation for dedicating his energies to the good of the community rather than merely seeking personal gain. 1 The first of Alexander Salkind's series of Superman movies (Richard Donner 1978), it will be remembered, showed the young Clark Kent in a state of confusion over the nature of his identity and his mission on earth. The reason for this was that the powers-that-be did not consider a raw adolescent to be a suitable candidate for the job of saviour of the Western hemisphere, whatever his physical prowess. Ancient wisdom confirms this theory. The initial cycle of the hero myth, as outlined by Paul Radin in his 1948 study Hero Cycles of the Winnebago and later elaborated by Jung and Henderson, is the Trickster cycle. By no means unique to native American culture - Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Semitic variations on the theme exist - the Trickster cycle follows the progress of the embryonic "creator of the world and establisher of culture" through forty-nine, frequently bawdy and often hilarious, episodes as this initially unconscious being learns to differentiate between good and evil, order and chaos, pleasure and pain. 2 Initially at one with nature and at odds with humanity, Trickster slowly and painfully reverses his position and moves towards socialization as he comes to accept the bounds of his physical identity, his sexuality and his responsibility for his own actions. According to Henderson:

The Trickster cycle corresponds to the earliest and least developed period of life. Trickster is a figure whose physical appetites dominate his behaviour; he has the mentality of an infant. Lacking any purpose beyond the gratification of his primary needs, he is cruel, cynical, and unfeeling. 3

For Jung Trickster "is obviously a 'psychologem', an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful copy of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level" (Radin p.200). Or, to use the more widely recognized Freudian terminology, Trickster is pure id and, as such, has the potential to be the type of revolutionary hero likely to give way to the excess which certain Romantic minds considered to lead to the Palace of Wisdom.

Once again, the hero and the dragon are one, Jung seeing Trickster as a collective personification of the shadow and stating:

He is a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness. (ibid. pp.201-2)

Not bound by sex, Trickster is able to change gender at will (cf. Episode 20) and, consequently, is associated in some myths with the primal man-woman who created the universe. Karl Kerényi (ibid. pp.175-9) sees European parallels in the Greek gods Hermes and Heraclese and in the "picaro" (central character of the picaresque novel), Trickster showing a similar refusal to be tied down to geographical or social situations and frequently causing disaster owing to his unconscious nature. Like all aspects of the hero, Trickster is a dynamic symbol with constantly renewed historical relevance. Radin states:

The symbol which Trickster embodies is not a static one. It contains within itself the promise of differentiation, the promise of god and man. For this reason every generation occupies itself with interpreting Trickster anew. No generation understands him fully but no generation can do without him. Each had to include him in all its theologies, in all its cosmogonies, despite the fact that it is realized that he did not fit properly into any of them, for he represents not only the undifferentiated and distant past, but likewise the undifferentiated present within every individual. This constitutes his universal and persistent attraction. And so he became and remained everything to every man - god, animal, human being, hero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer and creator. If we laugh at him, he grins at us. What happens to him happens to us. (169)

Back in the early 1950s the middle-aged junky William Lee, while hiding from the law in Mexico City, was amazed to hear stories from the States of a new breed of adolescent opiate addicts. 4 Since that time, however, much ink has been spilt in all branches of the media in documenting the activities of juvenile junkies. Inevitably this has led to the emergence of junky Trickster heroes whose stories, as I shall reveal, display a number of striking parallels with their mythical precursor. From The Wild Boys (1971) onwards Burroughs shifted his own centre of emphasis onto adolescent protagonists, the central persona of William Lee giving way to that of Audrey (later Kim) Carsons, in fact a move back in time to examine the early fantasy existence of the same character. Taking a more conventionally chronological approach, writers like Jim Carroll and Danny Sugerman have reported on their own adolescence, creating characters who, like Trickster, reject the principle of order to lead the instinctual life and are eventually punished for doing so.

According to Radin there are two sides to Trickster's character, that of "divine culture hero" and that of "divine buffoon" (p.125). Wakdjunkaga, the Winnebago Trickster, for example, begins his existence as a desocialised being, "an utter fool, a breaker of the most holy taboos, a destroyer of the most sacred objects" (p.133) and, as such, he is not unique to American society. Looking back on the English punk phenomenon ten years after its inception Iain Chambers describes the movement as "a dramatic illustration of the alarming advancement of Britain's diseased state". 5 That a sensible commentator could use such extreme terminology for what now appears such a harmless historical event seems extraordinary. Hindsight, though, can sometimes cause culture-blindness. Marcuse, of course, famously claimed that mainstream capitalist culture castrates the deviant by accepting him into its bosom with open arms. This process takes time, however, and it is easy to forget the general hostility towards punk in Britain in the late 1970s.

Both Nina Antonia's biography of Johnny Thunders and Fred and Judy Vermoral's Sex Pistols: The Inside Story (1987) show that during 1977 the Heartbreakers, a gang of genuine New York junkies, were wandering around the British Isles making very little effort to conceal their drug preferences yet remaining unmolested as the media, the police and the patriotic yob element showed themselves to be more interested in the Sex Pistols, a group of lager louts from London who happened to have broken one of their society's most holy taboos by making a record which expressed less than flattering ideas about the reigning monarch.

The most obvious Trickster figure within the Sex Pistols organization, and the most relevant for our study as he made the transition from lager lout to junky, was bass guitarist Sid Vicious. The undifferentiated state of Vicious' personality is undisputed. Sex Pistols' secretary, Sophie Richmond, described the twenty-year-old in her diary as "Very insecure and young" while Antonia suggests that Vicious' use of opiates stemmed from his "childish admiration" of Thunders. 6

Added late to the band as, if the animated credits to Julian Temple's The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1979) are to be believed, "The Gimmick", Vicious was hospitalized with hepatitis only two months after being recruited (Vermoral p.74) but, as visual documents of the time display, he played his given role well. Previous to his arrival the one visual asset possessed by the group had been the Dickensian dementia of singer Johnny Rotten. Vicious added a brooding violence to the proceedings and a keen eye for outlaw chic. As can be seen from the God Save The Queen video (May 1977), Bruce Springsteen stole the bandanna-hanging-out-of-the-back-pocket idea from Sid and by the promotional clip for Pretty Vacant, three months later, the bassist had the black leather jacket and stoned slouch perfected, gazing at the camera with hooded eyes like the shadow incarnate.

There was, however, always something quintessentially English and adolescent about the Sex Pistols and when stretched over a longer period of time - Temple's dramatized documentary, for example - it becomes obvious that Vicious has taken the Keith Richards/Johnny Thunders junky look back to its source: the British cartoon Trickster Dennis The Menace. An archetypical naughty schoolboy and junior Anarchist first drawn by David Law in 1951 and ascending to the front page of the Beano in 1974, Dennis belongs to a comic tradition in which rebellious youth strikes against the arbitrary adult authority of parents, teachers and police with the weapons of "play" and "fantasy", though, in true Trickster fashion, the rebellion is quelled at the end of each episode through the pain of a spanking from the adult controllers. 7 His Trickster-like affinity with the natural world is shown by his close relationship with his practically identical, though somewhat less articulate, dog, Gnasher, and his equally anarchic occasional pet pig, Rasher. In true Trickster fashion the Menace has managed to inspire antipathy right across the political spectrum - from "concerned" parents and right-wing law enforcers to feminists, librarians and deconstructionists - while keeping the youth of Great Britain entertained for over forty years, and in the cartoon credits to Temple's film the representation of Vicious is clearly based on the figure of Dennis, no doubt sparking off a whole network of cultural references in the minds of the audience. As the film progresses we see Vicious playing out his Trickster role to the hilt. For his performance of Somethin' Else Sid perfectly parodies his own public image, staggering out of bed in soiled bikini underpants, the crotch of which is emblazoned with a swastika, and climbing straight onto the motorcycle conveniently parked in his bedroom, from which he obligingly mimes the old Eddie Cochran number while girlfriend Nancy Spungen lifts her pink sunglasses to look on with heavily drugged eyes. After feigning his famous slashing-the-chest-with-a-broken- bottle routine Sid goes on to add further to the coffers of Cochran's heirs by performing C'Mon Everybody, once again on the bike, this time in front of a countryside backdrop.

The scenes in Paris show Vicious' Trickster-like lack of ethics and desire to shock as he wanders the streets wearing a swastika t-shirt frightening housewives, threatening an old man with a knife, eating too much strawberry cake and hitting a prostitute in the face with the residue and just generally being a naughty schoolboy. As a climax to the film the erstwhile bassist's legendary white-tuxedoed performance of My Way is cut with news clippings detailing his arrest for the murder of Spungen. To emphasise his junky outlaw persona Sid mimes "I shot it up and kicked it out" - replacing Sinatra's equally indelicate "I ate it up and spit it out" with something at least grammatically correct - and then goes into what Jung would no doubt describe as one of Trickster's "pointless orgies of destruction" (Radin p.196), pulling out a pistol and shooting several members of the audience before making his disgruntled exit. The film ends with a collage of "Sid is Dead" headlines documenting an event which those who oversaw Vicious' career had seen for some time as being inevitable. An extract from Richmond's diary recording a conversation with the Pistols' manager, Malcolm McLaren, shows this to the case: "Emma found Sid a flat in Maida Vale, unfurnished, 7 year lease - (1984 it ends up). When I phoned Malcolm to OK it he said that's fine, he'll be dead by then. True enough..." (Vermoral p.107).

Despite these comments it would be wrong to accuse McLaren of controlling Trickster. It is in Trickster's nature that he is out of control, as the Vermorels' interviews with Vicious show. Though often incoherent and confused, however, Vicious can, at times, be quite articulate in an adolescent sort of way, stating clearly his disapproval of adult hypocrisy - "I hate insincerity" (ibid. p.172) - and his desire to stay in the Trickster state: "Grown-ups have just no intelligence at all. As soon as somebody stops being a kid, they stop being aware" (ibid. p.170). Vicious, in fact, presents himself as being at such an undifferentiated stage of development that he has yet to acquire personal tastes of anything other than a negative nature - "I don't like anything particularly" (ibid. 173) - and it was only when Spungen introduced him to opiates that he could find anything to do with his newfound wealth: "I can think of one thing to do with money. (He and Nancy laugh.) One thing. That's what I do with all my money. Every halfpenny of it" (ibid. 172). McLaren, then, did not control Trickster but he did find ways to successfully market Trickster and this process did not stop with Vicious' death.

In Alex Cox's dramatized film biography, Sid & Nancy (1986), we are presented with Vicious' story couched in the director's own ideological framework. Cox's viewpoint is telegraphed by the fact that Sid's famous swastika t- shirt is replaced in the film by a natty hammer and sickle number. Though an Englishman, Cox was in America during the British punk explosion and, hence, his stylized view of the English scene often looks suspiciously like the Californian aftermath with every audience member a Vicious clone. Then again, perhaps the director was attempting to emphasise his subject's pervasive cultural influence.

In the film's early English scenes Sid, despite the well publicised environmental alienation of the punks, is the Trickster at one with his surroundings, playing out his Dennis the Menace role to the full. Whether smashing the windows of a Rolls Royce in Maida Vale then conversing tenderly with the small dog he finds inside the car, beating up a journalist in a club or messing about in the street with his friend, Wally, Sid is a working-class hero who has transcended the mundanity of his given social position and found his true self in the world of play. The targets of his violence are always justifiable within the political framework of the film, being representatives of the music business or wider British establishment. What is more, his Trickster's luck keeps him free from external forces of authority, his wild antics simply serving to beef up his public image. In the group sequences he is shown as musically inept but providing an edge of vital anarchic energy to the band, an energy which contrasts sharply with our first view of the languid Nancy, lying back smoking heroin and complaining about the lack of availability of needles in the British Isles.

As the film's setting moves increasingly onto American soil Sid is robbed of his energy and becomes completely alienated from his environment. He has been in New York for a week before Nancy informs him that that is where he is and he is presented as a victim of authority from the opening scene in the Chelsea Hotel where the police find him in a catatonic trance beside Nancy's corpse. Not surprisingly, before Nancy's death when she is trying to persuade him to carry out their suicide pact, Sid states that he wants to go back to England as that is the only place where he believes he can straighten himself out. Ultimately his lifeforce enjoys a brief triumph over her deathforce as he stabs his over-demanding lover.

Between these two scenes Vicious is shown falling increasingly under Nancy's vampiric influence. At their second meeting - when our hero has gone gallantly to the defence of the damsel in distress after she has been insulted by a washed-up rock star - Nancy tells him that he should "Never trust a junky". She then goes on to prove the wisdom of this statement by taking his money and leaving him to wait all night in the rain for her return. Sid is presented as so innocent that he literally does not have the sense to come in out of the rain. When the couple are eventually reunited Sid loses his virgin veins to Nancy, initial vomiting gives way to sex and the evil American goes on to use opiates and sex to take away the vital Englishman's lifeforce, reducing him to a stoned puppet who repeats every word she says. The dragon, it would seem, has overcome the hero but the Pistols' chief image-maker can see the iconographic possibilities of all of this. When Sid's colleagues complain about the standard of his musicianship McLaren tells them: "But Sidney's more than a mere bass player. He's a fabulous disaster. He's a symbol, a metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He's a fuckin' star!"

Freed from the object of his desires on the Pistols' American tour Sid regains some of his lost energy and reverts to his Trickster role. We see him insulting audiences, fighting with cowboys and carving "Gimme A Fix" on his chest with a razorblade in an attempt to entertain half a dozen Texan groupies, but with the band gone the final third of the film turns into the chronicle of two collapsing junkies.

Again this part of the story is not free from Cox's ideological commentary. In a set piece scene in a methadone clinic a black Vietnam veteran relates the story of the CIA flying heroin paid for by the taxpayer out of the Golden Triangle on US planes while he and others fought the Cong "because smack is the great controller. It keeps people stupid when they could be smart." On the whole, however, what we get are the old mundane junky details: scoring on the street by the bucket on a string method, being mercilessly manipulated by the sleazy pusher, Bowery, shivering with junk sickness on the subway, vomiting in pain on a cold cell floor, endless hours of television, longer hours of waiting, Sid mumbling "When was the last time we fucked?" and Nancy screaming "And you didn't even save me any" while she beats him for lapsing while she was away.

Nancy's death is telegraphed in a number of ways. In this film's version of My Way Sid finishes his act by shooting Nancy in the chest. She rises again, however, and joins him on stage wearing her blood-stained white wedding dress and a barbed wire tiara which closely resembles a crown of thorns. Later the couple discuss a suicide pact and Sid tells Nancy's grandfather: "We're gonna go out in a blaze of glory. But don't worry, you'll be proud of us". An indifference to danger is displayed when the stoned couple are dragged out of their burning hotel room by firefighters and, finally, Nancy buys the knife which will be the instrument of her death. By this stage of the film her dialogue has been reduced to variations on the theme of: "I wish I was fuckin' dead."

It is worth noting here how much, by the late 1970s, rock and roll and junky ideology had become fused. While trying to persuade Sid to go through with their suicide pact Nancy, who is convinced that her lover's career is washed up, yells: "Sid...the glory!" The glory she is talking about includes the car crashes which ended the lives of James Dean and Eddie Cochran and the plane wreck that finished off Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and J.P.Richardson as much as it does the overdoses of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and their ilk. The Romantic concept of the early death has, of course, existed at least since the demise of Percy Bysshe Shelley and, by this point in history, the junky had become one of many conspicuous cultural martyrs but there is still the sense that taking on the dragon is the most heroic of deaths in that it lessens the element of chance involved in road, air or sea travel as the hero confronts the beast with his eyes open to the possibility of danger.

One must ask, however, what exactly Alex Cox had in mind in making Sid & Nancy. Vicious was, at best, a flawed icon who could never decide whether he wanted to be Eddie Cochran, Johnny Thunders or the third Kray twin. Equally, Cox never seems sure of the image he is trying to present. As stated above, the political stance of his film presents Sid as an innocent victim of external forces mainly portrayed through the character of Nancy. At times, however - the scene in which the hero and heroine act out Rodin's The Kiss on a New York street while slow motion garbage falls around them - a romantic wistfulness invades the vampiric treatment of the relationship. This particular scene is so out of character with the rest of the film, though, that it smacks somewhat of a film maker who had for the first time got his hands on enough money to try a little experimentation. The romantic theme continues through to the conclusion of the film, however, when, in a direct parallel of the final episode of the Trickster cycle (Episode 49) in which the Winnebago hero consumes one last meal on this earth before achieving his apotheosis, Sid polishes off his ultimate sublunary pizza and dances on the wasteland with some little black kids to a backing track by KC & the Sunshine Band as Nancy comes to meet him, wearing another white wedding dress, in the final taxi. As usual the groom wears black and the happy couple ride off into the sunset locked in a passionate embrace.

Vicious' real end was, of course, much more sordid. At twenty-one, the traditional age of maturity, this particular Trickster seemed unwilling to become a "grown- up" and thus opted out of the individuation process and gave in to the dragon, evoking the destructive power of the shadow and taking the overdose which Nancy had always wanted him to take. As a modern myth maker, however, Cox is obliged to show Trickster's symbolic passage to maturity and this he does through the women's initiation rite of the marriage, thus transforming tragedy into comedy, the meaningless into the meaningful, divine buffoon into divine culture-hero and neatly tying up the Trickster myth. Perhaps, however, the final comment on the film should be left to its subject who, when asked for his comments on the cinematic medium, stated: "I don't like any sort of film. I hate films...Because people have to act parts in them. Play people who they're not, do you know what I mean? And it's pretence, it's lies, it's just shit. It builds things up to be not what they are" (Vermoral p. 100).

If Vicious resembles the typical British Trickster figure, Dennis the Menace, the young Jim Carroll, in The Basketball Diaries (1978), must be compared to Dennis' American precursor, Tom Sawyer. Carroll's book begins with the hero as a twelve-year-old naughty schoolboy. The episode in which the youth steals a "Food Carnival" delivery bike to ride home during a power cut and sets off down Broadway with the restaurant's overweight Italian manager giving chase on foot is pure Twain, transformed a hundred years in time and a thousand miles in space. 8 What is more, to conform to the heroic stereotype, the youth displays the early exceptional ability traditionally attributed to the embryonic hero. A star basketball player in his early teens, Carroll is subject to media attention - newspaper stories with titles like Beatnik Basketball Player (p.128) - and peer adulation. Suitably he is an individualist who refuses to follow prearranged strategy yet remains his team's top scorer (p.71) and an athletic scholarship to a high-class educational establishment takes him out of his impoverished Lower East Side background to become "a big time basketball star and all around hip motherfucker at a private school" (p.113).

As with Twain, however, Carroll's seemingly innocent childhood garden has a dark, sinister side, the Trickster- like "meaningless cruelty" (Radin p.141) manifesting itself in membership of a group which the press christen "The Diaper Bandits" - a more literal version of Tom Sawyer's robbing and murdering gang which specialises in snatching handbags from old ladies (p.6) - and later mugging dog-walkers in Central Park and threatening them with a knife in order to get money to support his growing heroin habit as the youth becomes increasingly interested in a form of scoring which takes place away from the basketball court. Drugs, in fact, are so endemic in the Lower East Side community that, for Carroll and his peers, sniffing Carbona cleaning fluid and vomiting on the head of a fellow traveller on the Staten Island ferry (pp.3-4) is a natural progression from playing tricks on the nuns at school. As a rebellious individualist Carroll's drug use becomes simply a part of his "Fuck dumb rules" attitude (p.56) and his vision of mood-altering substances is typically adolescent. Most of the fun comes from scoring when one is not supposed to, an activity which provides a similar excitement to playing truant with friends. Thus drug taking becomes a game as Carroll jokes about using cough syrup to get him through "the little day-to-day hassles of our post-puberty years" (p.67), ruins a basketball game by taking downs in mistake for ups (pp.70-2), smokes marijuana in a the toilet of a commuter train (pp.97-98) and sneaks out of his posh private school between classes to cop heroin and shoot it in an 89th Street basement (pp.81-2).

That the thrill of danger is the motivating force for these adventures is revealed by Carroll's comments on the bomb paranoia that has haunted him for as long as he can remember, which demonstrate the youth's ability to transform fear into a positive sensation:

Today I was hustling around Times Sq. and thought about it and got a strange rush of unknown sex giddiness off the idea of leaning here and now against a wall in leather pants throwing pouting eyes at customers strolling by dead in the centre of the target... (p.93)

What the adolescent Carroll is doing, in his narrative and his life, is transforming himself into a hero of his time. Having captured an audience through his sporting prowess he attempts to keep its attention through more elaborate means, taking on the only dragon available to him and, typically, he images his own heroism in terms of cool. When asked what he does by the work- obsessed pupils at the local drama school which his girlfriend attends Carroll replies: "I'm cool, that's all, you motherfuckers" (p.103) and, typically of the Trickster hero, achievement of specific goals is set aside for entrance into the world of play. As Carroll says of himself and his fellow junkies: "We've just mastered the life of doing nothing, which when you think about it, may be the hardest thing of all to do" (p.105).

Away from this rationalisation after the fact, however, this Trickster's introduction to the dragon is, if not unconscious, at least confused:

I never did write about the time I took my first shot of heroin. It was about two months back. The funny part is that I thought heroin was the NON-addictive stuff and marijuana was addictive. I only found out later what a dumb ass move it was. Funny, I can remember what vows I'd made never to touch any of that shit when I was five or six. Now with all my friends doing it, all kinds of vows drop out from under me every day. That day I went down the cellar of Tony's building, all sorts of characters were in this storage room "shooting gallery", cooking up and getting off. I was just gonna sniff a bag but Tony said I might as well skin pop it. I said OK. Then Pudgy says, "Well, if you're gonna put a needle in, you might as well mainline it." I was scared to main, but I gave in, Pudgy hit it in for me. I did half a fiver and, shit, what a rush...just one long heat wave all through my body, any ache I had flushed out. You can never top that first rush, it's like ten orgasms. After a half hour of nods and slow rapping I shot the rest of the bag, this time myself. I was high even the next morning waking up. So, simple as a walk to that cellar, I lost my virgin veins. (pp.24-25)

Though an unconscious realisation that something has changed seems to pervade the above passage, at this stage junk is just another way for the youth to get "fucked up", no different from cough syrup, alcohol, marijuana or glue; just something to be consumed on the passage from boyhood to manhood. Carroll's early poem Sure... shows the attitude of cynical bravado typical of the New York street addict:

I got
a syringe
I use it
to baste
my tiny turkey 9

The fact that Carroll's turkey is still "tiny" suggests a small habit which, in the Lower East Side of the mid-60s that the poet describes, would be considered as little to worry about as the habit of taking a couple of martinis before dinner in the more conventional neighbourhoods of Manhattan. The extent of opiate use in this particular ghetto is revealed by the twelve-year-old Carroll's early comments about the parents of a friend, both of whom are on junk and the mother, as a consequence, is on the corner looking for trade (p.8). What is more, the area is subject to a general breakdown of justice, with narcotics officers confiscating drugs then selling them in the street (p.105). In this moral wilderness we see how historical changes affect Trickster. Tom Sawyer's friend and alterego, Huckleberry Finn, it will be remembered, had to make the choice to go to Hell, Carroll is convinced that he is already in the Inferno with no opportunity for escape. All he can do is refuse to accept the hypocrisy of his elders and their attempts at social control; not only the magazines "where they take the new drugs and make them seem horrible demons for the dumb-ass public" (p.59) but also the more direct invasions upon his personal privacy:

What did set me thinking was this therapy rap session I went to last night with a few other H pals. Some lady professor there asked at one point if we weren't scared of the drug scene, then weren't we at least feeling guilty about using junk. I think now and that pisses me off. Like just what is guilty or who is guilty for fuck's sake? Big business dudes make billions come out of their ass and they ain't shelling out a reefer's worth of tax. Kids walk through some jungle I don't know how far away and shoot people, and white-haired old men in smoking jacket armchairs make laws to keep it all going smoothly. I swim in the river and have to duck huge attacks of shit and grease and "newly discovered miracle fibres" every five feet I move because those smokestack companies don't give a flying fuck...Shit my man, it's so all there that no one's seeing it any more. And it's dumb-ass of me to bring it up even now because it's all so much bull-pap corn and I cut out of that a long time ago, so maybe that's why I don't feel too guilty right now...come back later, prof. (pp.161-2)

Given the inconsistencies of adult society, heroin becomes a way for the user to hold on to some kind of reality and a way for the initiate to achieve a rite of separation from those around him for whose values he can have no respect: "I am sane, it takes a little dope now and then...but I have maintained sanity" (p.86).

The realities of gender, however, seem a little more difficult to hold onto as, in true Trickster fashion, Carroll appears to be in a state of undifferentiated sexuality. Initially the youth's closeness to nature keeps him in auto-sexual state, preferring to go onto the roof of his building to masturbate under the stars without the interference of real or imagined female images (p.34). As the diaries progress, however, a harsh juxtaposition develops between Carroll's teenage romances with girls of his own age and his business dealings with the older men to whom he sells his body for money. The hustling experiences are introduced without any preliminary buildup (p.93) and narrated in such a detached manner that, once again, one is forced to think of the Trickster myth; specifically those episodes in which the embryonic hero sends his (detachable) penis over the river to have intercourse (Episode 16) and that in which he changes sex, marries a chief's son and becomes pregnant simply because he is hungry and believes that he will benefit from the wedding feast (Episode 20). Just as Vicious' habit of carving slogans on his chest showed a fundamental alienation from his physical identity, Carroll's transformation of his body from a sporting machine to an ambisexual erotic toy for the use of others to a simple channel for drugs highlights this separation from the self and, like Trickster, he has to learn that his body is an essential part of his being before he can stop hurting himself.

This realisation may begin with the hero's traditional performing instinct, the jousting spirit emerging as Carroll admits to enjoying having oral sex with a client before an assembled audience in a 14th Street porno movie house (pp.152-4) but, as with Trickster - who only discovers that his anus is an essential part of himself and not a rebellious "younger brother" when he attacks it with a burning piece of wood (Episode 14) - the main lessons are conveyed through pain. There are, of course, the usual junky punishments of getting sick and being unable to cop, which Carroll sees as an equalization process, robbing the hero of his cherished individuality: "Yep, I'm good and sick without that fix now my rap of being the one who can keep it all under control is in that breeze cluttered with the same raps a million times run down by a million other genius wise ass cats walking like each other's ghosts around the same sick streets in my same sick shoes" (p.152). Further torment is added, however, when, at the age of sixteen, Carroll receives a three month sentence in Riker's Island Juvenile Reformatory for possession of three bags of heroin and a syringe (p.145). Carroll served only a month, owing to the intervention of his headmaster, but during his time on the Island he was made further aware of his body by the violence of the guards and "the asshole bandits of shower room rape" (p.149).

In the Winnebago version of the Trickster myth the hero's passage to maturity is marked by his acceptance of the domestication of a wife and children, something which Wakdjunkaga, like any warrior, does reluctantly. As we have seen, Alex Cox chose to end Sid & Nancy in a similar manner but by that point, with his subjects safely out of the way, the director was free to impose any ending he chose upon his tale. Carroll's process of maturation, on the other hand, is slower and more painful, confirming Jung's statement that "every step forward along the path of individuation is achieved only at the cost of suffering". 10 Halfway through the narrative the hero's affinity with natural justice - he beats up a sadistic pervert and liberates the cat which this character is planning to torture to death (p.87) - suggests that he may be losing some of the self-centred lack of concern for the wellbeing of others which is essential to the Trickster persona. Interestingly, however, it is Carroll's first dope habit which increases his sense of responsibility:

I'm gonna be fifteen soon and the summer's "Pepsi-Cola" heroin habit is tightening more and more around me. I'm getting that feeling for the first time since I lost my virgin veins at thirteen that I gotta start getting my ass together 'cause school's coming at me mighty quick and no way of doing that scene with a habit. A "Pepsi-Cola" is a small habit, a first habit that finally sneaks up on you while you're telling yourself, "Shit, I been fucking around with junk for three years and I know when to lay off and I ain't getting me no habit." But one morning you wake up, suddenly your nose is running and your eyes are tearing and the leg and back muscles start feeling tight and heavy. The laugh's on you finally, no matter how long you think you got it "under control". So now I look in the mirror and realize I better cut loose, no jiving myself any longer. (p.99)

Further forced maturity comes through the comments of Ju- Ju Johnson, the middle-aged junky who once used to con welfare offices out of money by telling the social workers that his wife had recently died of cancer and he and his son (Carroll) had become homeless after settling the hospital bill. At Carroll's suggestion that they resume their partnership Ju-Ju informs him that he would no longer be able to pass for his offspring: "that long hair of yours, your features filling in, naw, like you got the junk halo now all over. No more innocence, man. And frankly you look totally seedy" (p.167).

The most important maturation process which takes place in The Basketball Diaries, however, is Carroll's development from basketball star to junky to writer as this Trickster escapes from "the narrow confines of law, custom, circumstances, fate" through the Hermetic art of poetry. 11 Extracts from the Diaries were published in various magazines throughout the 60s and 70s, the teenage author receiving the patronage of Ted Berrigan and the praise of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and, as the text of the Diaries progresses, Carroll comes to find that writing poetry gets him "stoned as on whatever you got in your pockets right now, dig?" (p.131) and plans to take the Trickster's revenge upon society by tapping the creative aspect of the shadow and channelling his violence into art:

Now I got these diaries that have the greatest hero a writer needs, this crazy fucking New York. Soon I'm gonna wake a lot of dudes off their asses and let them know what's really going down in the blind alley out there in the pretty streets with double garages. I got a tap on all your wires, folks. I'm just really a wise ass kid getting wiser and I'm going to get even somehow for your dumb hatreds and all of them war baby dreams you left in my scarred bed with dreams of bombs falling above that cliff I'm hanging steady to. Maybe someday just an eight page book, that's all, and each time a page gets turned a section of the Pentagon goes blast up in smoke. Solid. (p.131)

In fact Carroll had his first book of poetry, Organic Trains (1967), published when he was seventeen and, with the benefit of hindsight, claimed that an artistic product had always been the aim of his dabblings with junk, telling John Milward in 1981 that the phrase "I just want to be pure," which recurs throughout The Basketball Diaries, "came because I was trying to find purity in decay. Other junkies were oblivion seekers...but I wanted to see what oblivion was like without staying in that pit...". 12 Whatever the truth of this statement, Carroll survived the hero's journey into the pit, overcame the dragon and found the passage to maturity through the activity of writing, which seems a suitable fate for a Trickster when one considers that the Winnebago believed that Wakjunkaga was the creator of literature. 13

Having worked through Dennis the Menace and Tom Sawyer it seems a natural progression to move on to Holden Caulfield. Though ostensibly an autobiography Danny Sugerman has described Wonderland Avenue (1989) as the "Rock'n'Roll coming-of-age novel" which he had wanted to write since reading Catcher In The Rye at the age of fifteen. Jim Carroll is named, along with his wife, Rosemary, William Burroughs and other luminaries, in the list of "friends, associates and heroes" which appears in the Acknowledgements to Sugerman's book, which seems appropriate as Wonderland Avenue can be seen as a continuation of The Basketball Diaries with one vital difference, that while Carroll was a poor boy whose sporting abilities gave him upward social mobility Sugerman was excessively rich and the move from the Lower East Side to Beverly Hills affects the archetypical story chiefly by a quantitative increase in excess. Unlike Carroll, or most other junkies for that matter, Sugerman was free from economic restrictions and thus indulged in even more outlandish Trickster-like behaviour. The boy's natural chemical imbalance may also have had some influence on this, however. A hyperactive Beverly Hills brat, Sugerman was banned from the homes of his mother's friends at the age of three and prescribed tranquillizers by the time he was five. At thirteen he was forced to take Ratlin in an attempt to regulate his metabolism and behaviour but even the efforts of the medical profession and their ideal of "Better living through chemistry" could not stop this Trickster believing that trouble is "much more fun (and definitely more interesting) than being good, any day" and "that it's much easier to apologize than it is to get permission". 14

Though Sugerman's early sporting success at baseball may have had something to do with his father sponsoring teams (p.27) he does show a precocious business sense and after witnessing a performance by the Doors at twelve years old and deciding "It was the end of the world as I had known it" (p.38) he began working for the band at thirteen (p.58). Doors vocalist Jim Morrison became a surrogate father to the youth, providing him with journalistic work which found Sugerman interviewing Mick Jagger, among others, while still at school (p.193).

In Sugerman's tale we witness not so much a maturing out of the Trickster persona as a refining of the art. The Doors, he claims, opened his mind to "more creative, intelligent trouble" (p.41) than he had been involved with in the past, which included not only blowing up the plumbing at his school and closing down the water supply for the whole area (p.45) but, inevitably, drugs. As with Carroll, Sugerman's use of intoxicating substances - initially marijuana and beer - is part of his general rebelliousness and seen by the protagonist himself as a way to achieve cool:

Getting high gave me the freedom to be whoever I wanted, to escape who and where I was. Just being on drugs makes you feel cooler because other people think you're cool and you see the reflection of yourself in their eyes. Or maybe you just project cool and they pick up on that. That other people didn't think it was cool, weren't impressed at all, but rather condemned it, only enhanced its overall appeal. (pp.99- 100)

The slowness of Sugerman's maturation process is revealed by his desire to stay in the pre-sexual state - "Music and getting high was all I wanted, all that mattered. Good loud music and good strong dope." (p.128) - but the youth is not cut off from all emotion and does admit to "an almost psychotic need to belong" (p.96) which is heightened by his family situation. Blaming himself for his parents' divorce and feeling alienated by his mother's love for his violent, ultra-conservative stepfather, Clarence, Sugerman is forced into the first stage of the hero's rite of passage, separation from his cultural nexus: "I had been ejected from the family unit of which I had felt an integral part, and been sentenced to a separate existence [...] Clarence could go ahead and persecute my body, my spirit, but he couldn't touch my otherness [...] I didn't place myself above or below, only separate and against" (p.16). Like the oblivion seeking junkies whom Carroll criticised, however, for Sugerman the initial appeal of opiates comes from their negative, non- heroic qualities. Refusing hallucinogens because under the influence of LSD "Nothing seemed solid or dependable" (p.148), despite Morrison's attempt to warn him off opiates Sugerman comes to see heroin as the natural solution to all of his personal problems, rejecting wealth and interrelation with others for a more reliable substance: "...drugs kill pain, new cars don't. Where people hurt, drugs comfort. People come and go while drugs remain reliable and loyal" (p.295).

Before admitting his desire to be swallowed by the dragon, however, Sugerman attempts to stress the heroic nature of his battle with the beast, casting off the riches of his father in order to live the Trickster lifestyle to the full, to "practice a complete and total absence of any and all available limitations. To live in a way I hadn't, except in my dreams" (p.218). Having been provided with a house in Laurel Canyon and a credit card by Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek (p.235), Sugerman responds to Morrison's death by going on a Quaalude, cocaine and alcohol binge, an action which he sees as his own heroic confrontation of death: "It was almost as if I wanted to be the one who died" (p.206). As with Carroll, however, whose addiction was a response to a particular geographic and socio-economic situation, Sugerman cites history as a contributing factor to his own excesses, stating of the early 1970s: "Using drugs wasn't merely recreational any more, it was mandatory. There was nothing else to do" (p.220). Into the precarious poly-drug cocktail on which Sugerman exists, however, heroin enters like a personal saviour: "That first time I did it, I knew. This is it. People go to jail for this and it's worth it. I knew why people would rob from their family, lie to their best friend, or risk freedom and even their life to get it. This is how I always wanted to feel, but couldn't, didn't know how to, until now" (p.272).

Despite his initial attempts to warn his girlfriend, Tiffany, off the drug - "I know it's so good you shouldn't even try it once" (p.279) - even more than for Carroll and his friends copping and shooting becomes an elaborate game for the couple: "It was a fun and important game, including all the ingredients a game should possess - danger, teamwork, excitement, and reward. To say nothing of agility, cunning, and a lot of luck" (p.292).

Analyzing his chosen role, Sugerman sees himself as the hero taking hold of his own destiny by confronting the dragon head-on and, again, his comments reveal how the rock and roll and junky mentalities had become fused:

I knew it put me on a collision course with death, but at least I knew where that path led. It wasn't uncertain - unsafe, maybe, but that just made it all the more interesting as far as I was concerned. I'd come to the conclusion I much preferred mystery with my life and certainty with my death to mystery with my death and certainty with my life. At least it put me in control of my destiny at a time when I felt out of control in relation to everything else. Besides being interesting and fun, it feels good, too. Who wants to live to an old age anyway? That was never one of my priorities. Better to burn out than fade away and all that. What would you rather do? Live a slow boring life to eighty years old only to die of some unknown cause, maybe cancer, slowly and painfully, first the hearing gone, then the sight, then the mind, a burden for family and friends? Or live to twenty-one but have eight years of experience and action packed in tightly under your belt, looks and pride intact, and be in a position to choose your own means to an end?
Besides, dying didn't scare me. Growing old scared me. (p.294)

Trickster's luck seems to work better for rich junkies like Vicious and Sugerman than poor addicts like Carroll and on the one occasion that he was arrested Sugerman found that his brother was the doctor on duty at the jail and, consequently, the evidence that could have landed him behind bars was conveniently "lost" (pp.319-20) leaving the youth to continue living out his romantic outlaw fantasies: "You have no idea how great it feels, the power it gives you, carrying a half gram of pure heroin around on your body, ready to be used. It's enthralling - better than having a gun or a rifle by your side; better than a million bucks in a suitcase - thrilling, but scary too..." (p.329).

Whereas we saw Vicious implode rather than become a grown-up and Carroll gradually accepting the individuation process, in Sugerman's book we observe the protagonist fighting with increasing desperation against anything which will take him out of the Trickster state. In his constant internal battle to break away from parental conditioning opiates form an important means of escape as the hero steps into the shadow: "Narcotics were a deliberate and final elaborate step away from the world into which I had been born and the first step into a new, thrilling unknown" (p.297). As with Trickster, then, the process of maturation has to be forced upon Sugerman through pain. Eventual physical degeneration leads to him interrupting a performance by Manzarek's band by going out onto the stage to ask the audience "if they had any drugs for a dope-sick manager" (p.364). As the group's tour progresses so does Sugerman's degeneration, to the extent that he has to be met by a wheelchair at airports and, what is more, his Trickster's luck begins to run out. He is robbed at gunpoint by a black kid in Harlem from whom he was trying to score (pp.367-8) and forced by a lack of ready cash to let his gay dealer to perform an act of fellatio upon him in exchange for drugs while his girlfriend looks on in disgust (pp.384-5). On his first attempt at injecting heroin, after a considerable period of inhaling the drug, he spends seventeen minutes dead on an operating table - "First I saw God./Then I died." (p.375) - during which time he describes himself as floating above his body, torn between heaven and hell before being brought back from the gates of the Inferno by the voice of his sister (pp.378-9).

Following this Sugerman's friends begin to be eaten by the dragon: Suzette, an occasional lover, overdoses and is repeatedly raped after he has refused to give her sanctuary (p.395), Pamela Morrison, wife of his surrogate father and the woman with whom he lost his virginity, also dies of an overdose (pp.399-400), and, finally, while he is in the mental hospital to which he has been committed by his father in an attempt to make him kick the habit, his girlfriend, Tiffany, overdoses, two-and-a-half months pregnant with the child he had told her to have aborted (p.445). Once more a remarkable parallel with the Trickster myth occurs as, in describing his physical degeneration, Sugerman's emphasis on the scatological aspect of his withdrawal symptoms recalls the fact that Trickster was similarly punished with flatulence and diarrhoea for the crime of going against nature and eating forbidden fruit (Episodes 23 and 24). Sugerman goes on to compose his own version of Trickster's lament: "Well, what a foolish one I am. This is why I am called, Foolish One, Trickster" (Radin p.25). Typically he is more wordy than his Winnebago precursor:

...I thought I'd done everything right, followed my best instincts, stayed true to myself whenever possible, taken every appropriate step in achieving my version of the American Dream. I was twenty-one years old. I had a gorgeous house in Laurel Canyon, a beautiful girlfriend, the best car in the world, all the money, drugs and hot shit a young man could want. I was young and successful in the business of my choice. I had it made. I had it all. And look where it got me - laying in a bedful of puke and sweat and shit, locked inside an honest to God loony bin with two giants for my own personal security guards. Now, everything I had was gone and all I had left was a five-hundred-dollar-a-day drug habit and maybe, if I didn't die in this insane place first, just maybe, my life. (pp.xvii-xviii)

Sugerman's maturation out of the Trickster role, then, comes in a negative manner, chiefly through disillusionment with the way his life has developed. Just as Carroll came to realise that "You just got to see that junk is just another nine to five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined towards the shadows" (p.162) Sugerman accepts that "being a drug addict was a full-time job" (p.351), bemoans the fact that he has allowed the dragon to gain control of his existence - "I wasn't doing the drugs any more. The drugs were doing me." (p.412) - and despairs that his active struggle with the beast has given way to an alienated passive voyeurism: "Every day I watched myself kill myself a little more and I found it endlessly fascinating and that terrified me even more" (p.413).

Desperate measures fail to yield results as Sugerman's tolerance is so high that a gram of heroin plus a gram of cocaine can neither get him high nor kill him (pp.414-6). Faced with this failure Sugerman initially returns to heroic rhetoric in resuming his war against the beast: "It was war and one of us was going to have to win. I could not give up. I might never begin to forget the pleasure of drugs, but I couldn't live with the pain, the humiliation, the lack of living anymore" (p.418). Ultimately, however, on the point of death Sugerman is most concerned by the fact that all the heroic elements seem to have disappeared from his life: "My life - hell - had become boring. It wasn't tragic, it wasn't interesting, it was incredibly, achingly dull" (p.432). Thus, more bestial than divine, he enters voluntarily into therapy, deferring to external authority in a most unTrickster-like fashion, essentially reversing his earlier rite of separation through a rite of incorporation which confirms the essential tenets of a society in which psychology has come to replace religion, and works his way out of the Trickster persona and into the next stage of life as a successful businessman; more like his father than his surrogate father and more like an average adult member of the tribe than a juvenile outlaw Trickster hero.


Notes

1 Richard Gid Powers, "Myth, Ritual and the Comic Strip G-Man", Ray B. Browne (ed.), Rituals and Ceremonies in Popular Culture (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980, pp. 206-25) p. 213. [BACK]

2 Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Mythology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956. p. ix, p. 125.
For the duration of this chapter all further references to this work appear in the text. [BACK]

3 Jung, Carl G. Man And His Symbols. London: Picador, 1978. pp. 103-4. [BACK]

4 Burroughs, William S. Junky. London: Penguin, 1977. p. 143. [BACK]

5 Chambers, Iaian. Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture. London: Macmillan, 1985. p. 175. [BACK]

6 Vermoral, Fred & Judy. Sex Pistols: The Inside Story. London: Omnibus, 1987. p. 74.
Antonia, Nina. Johnny Thunders . . . In Cold Blood. London: Jungle, 1987. p. 50.
For the duration of this chapter all references to the former work appear in the text. [BACK]

7 Carpenter, Kevin. Penny Dreadfuls and Comics. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983. p. 101.
Barker, Martin. Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics Manchester: Manchester UP 1989. pp. 85-8. [BACK]

8 Carroll, Jim. The Basketball Diaries and The Book of Nods. London: Faber & Faber, 1987. p. 112. For the duration of this chapter all further references to this work appear in the text. [BACK]

9 Carroll, Jim. Living at the Movies. New York: Penguin, 1981. p. 58. [BACK]

10 Jung, Carl G. Psychology & Religion. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. New York: Pantheon 1953. para. 413, p. 273. [BACK]

11 Kerényi, in Radin, p. 190. [BACK]

12 Cassie Carter Kuennen, "Jim Carroll: An Annotated, Selective, Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1967-1988", Bulletin of Bibliography, Vol 47, No 2, June 1990, pp. 81- 112, p. 96. [BACK]

13 Kerényi, in Radin, p. 191. [BACK]

14 Sugerman, Danny. Wonderland Avenue. London: Abacus, 1991. p. 89, p. 3, p. 67. For the duration of this chapter all further references to this work appear in the text. [BACK]



Questions? Comments? You may contact Dr. Stephen Perrin at perrins@livhope.ac.uk

   

Site Map | Contact Info | About this site | About the webmaster

The Jim Carroll Website © 1996-2017 Cassie Carter