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Catholic. Junkie. Poet. RIP

Jim Carroll Book Cover

Jim Carroll Book Cover

I first read Jim Carrol in 1990 at an odd intermediate stage in my life after living in England for a couple of years. I’d been squatting, and living an underground life then it all ended and I was back in a very depressed Montreal, looking for somewhere else to go – and along came Jim Carroll, the Beats, Sonic Youth – a whole underground sensibility that was very New York, very different from anything in the Anglo-Saxon world I’d inhabited until then.

I had the ‘Downtown Diaries’ on my first and only trip across the US, when I caught the train from Chicago to Texas, went down to Mexico for a couple of weeks, then back by train to New Orleans and New York and Montreal. A year later, after visiting a couple more times, I moved to New York for the first time and caught the tail end of the 80s era (even if it was 1991, just after the first Gulf War), when money flowed freely if you knew how to tap into it, the Lower East Side was still a war zone, and the homeless covered Manhattan, sleeping in every second doorway, camping out in the parks.

New York City was still an urban frontier, though with common sense and a little luck, nowhere near as dangerous as people made out.

I’ve always liked Jim Carroll because of what he represented – a thinking Catholic, the same in-between classes writer with little formal education as myself, with long exposure to the streets – the kind of writer of whom I think Verlaine once said, “Got up to live before he sat down to write.” It’s amazing how that type of writer seems to have disappeared now, replaced by the mfa program trained variety: stylish, technically sophisticated, professional – and largely irrelevant. Carroll was of that great tradition in US letters, going back to Hemingway, maybe even Melville, that of writing from the perspective and even position of the underclass. When I first discovered him, coming from Canada where the Anglo-Saxon middle-class model was (and still is) the norm, this was a revelation indeed.

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

He was so much a part of an era, the 80’s in New York. I was never that interested in his band. In his writing, he peaked in the 80’s, then didn’t do much after that. Friends who saw him read in later years,  said he read almost exclusively from his early work and routines. For better or worse, he became part of the junkie pantheon – Buroughs, the Velvets, almost any punk from the 70’s (and so on). Surely, he was thinking of heroin when he wrote: “it’s sad this vision required such height, I’d have preferred to be down with the others.”

Jim Carroll reading ‘For Elizabeth’ a video shot for the Lallapalooza  Festival (I don’t know the year).

We can’t wax nostalgic about New York in that period. Exciting it might have been, but it was also dark – very dark. You only have to read Legs McNeil’s ‘Please Kill Me’ to see how quickly the spark of creativity and energy that gave us punk rock spiraled into drug addiction and basic nullity, a pattern that was to be repeated across cities, countries, cultures over the next fifteen years, until bohemia was drained of any vitality, or even meaning. Perhaps it was unfair, but when I put my own druggy years behind me, I stopped reading Jim Carroll.

Carroll was from Manhattan of course, but in a way he was as much an exile because of his literary ambitions, his drug addiction, as the self-imposed exiles like Warhol, et al, who came from outside the city. With gentrification, a Jim Carroll isn’t even possible now – how can anyone who isn’t a profesional, and who isn’t college-educated, and thus trained to think like a college student, going to survive in present-day New York (or London. Or Paris. Or in any of the great cities of the West?). I’m not saying for a moment that drug addiction is glamorous – if it fed some part of Carroll’s art, then it killed and severely limited it as well. But without that underclass, and the people who embody that underclass enough to write/ paint/ film/ whatever, our cities are going to become dull, dull places, riding on myth and real estate.

Jim Carroll on the Dennis Miller Show (Partial Interview and reading).

Surprisingly, the best newspaper obit I read was not in the American papers, but the Guardian. Then a very touching obit from Tom Clark, who knew Jim when he went to California in the 70’s to quit heroin.

You can read about all things Jim Carroll at

I hadn’t read Jim in years then last week I went and bought the compilation ‘Fear Of Dreaming’. I don’t read much poetry so can’t really comment on his abilities as  a poet. But I do remember the lines and poems that stayed with me, and going over those old poems had that reassuring quality of a seeing an old friend after a long, long absence, and I was sorry I’d forgot about him for so long, when once I’d had everything he’d written up to that point.

From ‘Fear Of Dreaming’ (and originally ‘Book of Nods’?):

Our Desires

There is a wind that seeks the crevice

under my heart

the way insects file at night

beneath a doorway

It’s edges are rough, it slits

the cords. It trips my steady breathing.

When it comes there is no one

I can trust

It seems, at times, I have designed

too well this vision of you.

I cannot survive your eyes

when they are scarred with a need

for some lesser form of love.

I admit to this conceit.

And though you will not accept it

You love it nonetheless

It is just like you. Our desires

will always be kept sharp

by a kind of perversity. A need

to be each forever alone . . .

Its colour is violet, like lips

that have been smashed at night

or robbed of blood by lack of breath.

The wind I was speaking of does this.

I can feel it now.

Jim Carroll 19   – 2009 RIP

6 thoughts on “Catholic. Junkie. Poet. RIP”

  1. I find it offensive that you refer to him as a “junkie” poet, not to mention it just sounds dumb. When was the last time you read any of his stuff? Jim Carroll was about so much more than that.

    1. You forgot the ‘catholic’. The label comes from I think Rolling Stone magazine. Somebody wrote ‘Jim Carroll made being a catholic junkie poet hip’. Of course I know his poetry was more than that, but for better or worse, his name was associated with heroin. Like Burroughs et al. But then I guess you didn’t bother to read the whole post . . .

  2. Jim Carroll was a little bit of old New York, when the city, in all its filth and dangers, could be romanticized and justifiably so. I’m glad you wrote about him. I too regard Carroll as a post post-modern Burroughs, a true inhabiter of the streets, in every sense of the term.
    Great post.

  3. Dear Vanessa,

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Shortly before I wrote the post, I went to a midtown Barnes and Nobles and looked for some of his books and was a little shocked to find nothing available. Finally, in another store, I found a poetry compilation: “Fear of Dreaming”. It’s good to read Jim again – it’s probably been close to fifteen years since I last read one of his books, and I used to have everything he wrote up to that time.

    There was a long article in the NYTimes ‘Last Flight of the Pheonix’ (‘Last Days of Jim Carroll’ online) that laid out his last days (he was broke, he was back in the neighborhood where he grew up, he was finishing a novel, his first, which may come out posthumously). Made me sad that I’d neglected him all these years, but then writers are like friends right – they come and go?
    I like the term ‘post post-modern Burroughs . . .

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