Jim Carroll’s Death Poem … and Mine

ScreenHunter_06 Sep. 28 22.16

Jim Carroll's recent death inspired as many eulogies and elegies as might be expected from the passing of a poet, rocker, and memorist, especially one whose reputation is so bound to a specific place (New York City) and time (the late 1970's and early 1980's). My friend Michael Lally, also an urban Catholic poet of major repute, drew some online flak for using Carroll's death as an opportunity for reflection – on Jim, himself, and his life in comparison to Jim's (they were both working-class Catholic boys who stormed the hipster-poetry barricades).

Michael spoke honestly of his sense of competition with Jim, and I defended him in the “comments” section of his post, writing: “… for those who prefer to be true to a fallen writer's memory at the moment of his death, I would answer: What could be truer than that?” I then went on to tell my own story in relation to Jim's (who I didn't know):

“I, too, felt a lot of envy toward Jim Carroll. I had a manager and was trying to get a rock n roll record deal in NYC when he switched from spoken word to music and was signed in a heartbeat. He had the looks, the magnetism, the hipness … and then, all of a sudden, he had the deal with Rolling Stones Records. (I think it was Stones …) The truth is, my feelings had no more to do with Jim Carroll than perhaps yours did. He was a placeholder for some things inside of me that needed to get out. That's not his fault – but it's my story, which is ultimately the only one I'm qualified to write.”

I was young, immature, and ambitious – a toxic combination. Things seemed to come too easily for Jim Carroll, and the truth is he did have an extraordinary gift with language – and with physical presence. It was only later in life that I learned that all brilliant writers work enormously hard, and that the post-Beat “spontaneous writing” pose was more often than not a well-crafted deceit. (Recent explorations of Jack Kerouac's On The Road rewrites demonstrate that.) And it was only after his death that I learned how painfully shy Jim was, how difficult it was sometimes for him to speak and to perform, and how directly he faced his own issues through the process of recovering from drug addiction (he had 30 years clean and sober through Narcotics Anonymous). Some of this information can be found in Alex Williams' touching New York Times piece about his final days, which includes this email to a friend:

“My self-sabotaging tendencies in all aspects of my life, along with the validation needs you referenced, go without saying. There are deep seeded reasons for both, but the latter is also an outcome of the way you are spoiled and coddled by managers, women and media et al when you are on top, and the quickness with which everyone scatters when you recede a moment.”

Jim Carroll, who wrote so well and looked so perfect for the role, had the same self-sabotaging tendencies I struggled with for so many years? And “the quickness with which everyone scatters” was something I knew too well. For a brief period in the late 1970s I was being courted by the top rock managers, taken for limousine rides, plied with fine champagne brunches and other things, and enjoying a tiny (and I mean tiny) fraction of what Jim Carroll experienced. When the demos didn't turn out well – damaged, perhaps, by my own desire to please – it all disappeared overnight. I knew how much it had hurt me, but never would have imagined that this kind of pain could be experienced by Jim Carroll – the fortunate one, the blessed one, the winner of the game.

I never connected as strongly to the Jim Carroll Band as I did to Jim Carroll the writer, though. I felt the musicians backing him were too good at rock and roll. They had all the moves down pat, without any of the minor self-mutilations needed to adequately convey his words. They got the tone right sometimes, as in the song Three Sisters, and it all came together in People Who Died. But overall I thought he would have been better served by a more electronic and experimental band (i.e. pre-hip hip, Public Image or Big Audio Dynamite), or a rawer band fronted by one of the Jones Boys (Steve of the Sex Pistols or Mick of the Clash). Or Jack Nitszche as producer, recreating the Wall of Sound.

A good example of this is the song Day and Night (seen here on YouTube). It's a really good song, and my future friend Amy Kanter tears it up on backing vocals, but it falls short of greatness. It doesn't live up musically to his devotion to craft, a devotion he saw in Kurt Cobain and described as “a young artist's remorseless passion/which starts out as a kiss/and follows like a curse.”

I picked up a book of Japanese death poems on a recent trip to Hawaii and was musing about them not long before Jim Carroll's death. Most of the death poems are too self-consciously Zen for me, but several are beautiful. 'This then,” one reads, “is the day the melting snowman/becomes a real man.” It' not all that different from the closing page of Jim Carroll's final work, a loosely autobiographical novel. I winced slightly when I read that the lead character has a raven for a companion, but – as with all balancing acts – he seems to pull it off in the end when the protagonist dies:

Finally, a last sigh of consciousness rocked him gently on the deck of an old schooner ship. Billy’s body, dark blue like the storm clouds preceding the storm, shuttered and his eyes closed dull and loosely. Sensing young Wolfram had given up the ghost, the raven glided back down aside the dead artist, whispering a last demand.

“It’s time your eyes remain shut, Billy Wolfram. Now is the time, so get on with it. Take that single step and fly.”

Was this designed to be Jim Carroll's death poem? It doesn't really matter. He had the nerve to write a paragraph in the 21st Century that includes a totem animal. Does the idea work? Does the paragraph? The answer is: He tried. He kept on storming the barricades. That's some kind of death poetry, isn't it?

Another one of those Japanese poems goes like this: “I wake and find / the colored iris / I saw in my dreams.” Me, I've never intended to write a death poem. And I don't know anything about what happens after we die. But it's an image to consider: a snowman holding an iris.