The Poet Speaks
By Stephen Perrin
Beat Scene 32(1999): 59
Note: most of this article was not printed in the original source.--CC
The front cover of Jim Carroll's Void of Course declares that it is a new work by the "author of The Basketball Diaries" while the back cover describes Carroll as a "diarist and rock musician". Neither of these descriptions are particularly helpful and nor is the decision to open the book with the by now over published, though still emotionally moving, "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" which once again places Carroll in the rock 'n' roll junky arena to which he does not truly, or at least not completely, belong.
The problem with Carroll is that he has always had two voices and most commentators have chosen to privilege the street talking wise ass adolescent narrator of the diaries over the more measured tones which tend to dominate his poetry. In a some ways this vocal schizophrenia can be seen as a dramatisation of the conflict between America and Europe. Carroll's prose is unmistakably American, in the way that, say, Mark Twain's or Elmore Leonard's prose is American, while his verse has always seemed more European, in the sense that, for example, John Ashberry seems like a European poet whereas Frank O'Hara does not.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Void of Course, and of Carroll's new album, Pools of Mercury, is that these two voices finally seem to be coming together. The European influence on the poetry is still there - at its most obvious in direct references to Goethe, Genet, Schiller, Kline and Pound (another "European" American poet) and, as ever, in the surrealistic imagery and prose poem experimentation which makes the frequent comparisons of Carroll to Rimbaud not as vacuous or lazy as they might initially seem - but for the first time the humour which has made the prose so entertaining for so many readers becomes manifest in the verse - too many instances to list but "Sick Bird's" comic vision of Chaos Theory and the description of the blackbirds' revenge on the corpse of Wallace Stevens in "Facts" are good places to start.
The one place where the two voices have always come together, however, is in Carroll's frequent live readings which are best documented on his 1993 spoken word album Praying Mantis (Giant Records). Pools of Mercury is something of a cross between that record and the poet's less successful experiments with rock 'n' roll in the 1980s. Of the fifteen tracks (some of which overlap with Void of Course) the ten spoken word pieces work better than the five songs, partly because producer Anton Sanko has, with the help of David Torn among others, provided more imaginative backing - spooky guitar loops, rattly percussion, smatterings of strings and brass and even, on "Train Surfing", elegant trip hop beats. The songs tend towards heads-down rock 'n' roll in the manner of the old Jim Carroll Band and, while I have my reservations about Carroll's singing abilities, "Falling Down Laughing" is as good a song as he has written since "People Who Died" from his first album, Catholic Boy (1980).
Just as he has always had two voices Carroll has always had two main subjects, himself and New York City, and there is no change here. Both book and album are filled with mechanical and geographical movement - train journeys, references to South America, Holland, even Liverpool - but always return to "the city". While the album plays the obvious card and ends with Carroll intoning "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" over wobbly shards of feedback Void of Course reaches a more interesting conclusion. Simply entitled "Poem" (though renamed "My Ruins" on the album) it may be Carroll's finest work yet, reiterating his belief in poetry as a way to transcendence, as the poet's body rises above the city and he attempts to turn "love that's lost in betrayal into something / Beside bitterness into anything beside this rage".
From this vantage point, above and beyond both America and Europe and clearly more relaxed and confident with both the content and form of his work, it would seem that Jim Carroll has finally found his one true voice.
POSTSCRIPT #1: Put Your Tongue to the Rail, a tribute album to the Jim Carroll band by a collection of Philly indie kids, will be released by Rockslut Records in late November 1998. Hearing other singers take on Carroll's songs reminds the listener what a gifted lyricist the poet is. Worth special attention are De Control's Elvis on Pro Plus version of "Dry Dreams" and Bottom's queercore jazz cabaret rendering of "Catholic Boy". Contact 1242 Federal Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19147, U.S.A.
POSTSCRIPT #2: Shortly after the completion of this article the author and his subject met briefly in lower Manhattan. Mr Carroll informed Dr Perrin that his favourite colour "has pretty much always been green".
Void of Course is published as a paperback at $12.95 (ISBN 0-14-058909-0) by Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A.
Pools of Mercury is released by Mercury Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY10019, U.S.A.
All of the above can be ordered via the Jim Carroll Website http:JimCarroll.forbin.com