Gerrie Lim – “A Nod of Approval: The Music and Poetry of Jim Carroll” (1986)

September 15, 2009 at 11:24 pm (Jim Carroll, Music, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles)

An article from June 1986 from Orange County Review. Jim Carroll sadly passed away from a heart attack Sept. 11th. He will not be forgotten… 


“I’ve always considered myself a poet first,” Jim Carroll says, his slightly cracked voice resounding clearly over the phone from New York. “That’s what brings tears to my eyes when I’m doing it right.”

Honing his craft to tearful perfection is something Carroll’s familiar with. Best known for his 1980 debut album, Catholic Boy, and the KROQ radio staple, ‘People Who Died’, for which critics dubbed him “rock’s new poet laureate,” Carroll has also released two more albums and published two books. The poems and prose of the books, The Basketball Diaries and Living at the Movies, have become cult favorites as chronicles of urban angst celebrating New York City’s mean streets.

“I want the angel whose touch don’t miss/Then the blood comes through the dropper like a thick red kiss,” he sang on that first album. “I want the angel that’s partly lame/She filters clarity from her desperate shame.” It was Arthur Rimbaud meets the Velvet Underground, a challenge to the notion that rock music couldn’t be literate. Anyone who thought that literature had no hip-swinging pizzazz simply hadn’t read Jim Carroll.

They’re now being given another chance. Carroll has a new volume out, The Book of Nods, published by Penguin Books in April 1986. There are 95 “nods,” “dream-like prose poems on Carroll’s favorite themes: survival, love and friendship, obsession, memory, time, good and evil, paradise and prison. It’s territory he has explored before, now expanded. Like his metaphorical
angel, Carroll’s new book aims to filter clarity.

“I’m not trying to say anything, I don’t write with any particular intent,” he insists. “What I do is make the images abstract enough to evoke a personal response from the reader. The more the person works at it, the more they’ll get out of it.

“I like to create a mood where it always seems like something’s about to happen. If the readers think something’s going to happen, then in their minds it already has happened. If it turns out to be different than they expected, that’s just an added surprise.”

The new book is full of surprises, with song-like titles such as ‘Guitar Voodoo,’ ‘Dead Salamander’s Song,’ and ‘Music Television.’ In a section called ‘California Variations,’ Carroll strays from the beaten urban path to convey instead the landscape of Northern California. Pastoral images segue into darker, more somber elements – a surrealism for imaginative readers, with lines like:

At night when the wind is slow my dreams
they tangle me in red nets beneath bridges
where water does not flow it chains my eyes…
There is so much invested in the shields
and wired fingers circling the edge
the way gravity reverses time
at the rim of a black hole in space.

“I was living in California for the first time in my life,” Carroll recalls. “It was in Marin County. I went there with a girl in 1973, right after Living at the Movies came out. I didn’t feel like publishing any more for a while, so I went into a real recluse period. I was living in kind of a bucolic setting for the first time, so I used the landscape.

“I feel it’s strong lyrically. The sustained metaphors like the shields and the edge, those are timeless subjects of poets breaking into some purer state. I was dealing with solitude and being in the country, so it was a kind of coming to terms with the landscape, with the actual geographical landscape and also with the spiritual landscape inside of myself.”

Carroll says he felt the need to push his writing into a “purer reality” after he had received critical acclaim. When Living at the Movies came out in 1973, he was 22 and had already been published in the prestigious literary journal The Paris Review. The publication of The Basketball Diaries, written when he was 15, saw him being hailed as a sensation. It also drew attention to his private life, his battle with heroin addiction fraught with rebellion against a working-class Catholic background, and a tempestuous relationship with punk poetess Patti Smith.

He got his first taste of playing rock ‘n’ roll when Smith asked him to open a show for her in San Diego. He discovered that playing music gave him “an incredible rush that you don’t get from poetry readings.” Catholic Boy brought him a larger audience, though the albums that followed, Dry Dreams and I Write Your Name, didn’t do as well. His poetry, however, led critics to compare him to the French poet Rimbaud, an acknowledged influence on such respected rock artists as Bob Dylan and Rickie Lee Jones.

Carroll, however, is uncomfortable with the comparison. “I think the comparisons of me and Rimbaud are simply out of the fact that Patti Smith fostered it when she spoke about me in interviews,” he remarks. “When Patti and I lived together, she was a clerk in a bookstore and she had a total obsession with Rimbaud. And I was a very young poet who had published his first book. I was 19 at the time. It had more to do with that. I never even read Rimbaud till I was a little bit older.”

The influences do show up now. The Book of Nods includes pieces entitled ‘Rimbaud’s Tooth Ache’, ‘Rimbaud Sees the Dentist’ and ‘Rimbaud Running Guns’. Lucid with Carroll’s irreverent wit and caustic observations on life, some of the pieces are based on Rimbaud’s biographies.

Another piece, ‘Dueling the Monkey’, was written on board a plane at 35,000 feet. His close friend and fellow rocker Lou Reed, a tai chi enthusiast, had given him a book on the Chinese martial art. Carroll based the poem on a list of tai chi body positions and exercise movements, which he now says “came out sounding very erotic.”

Music is still important to him; he has just recorded five new songs for an album with former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. The record will also feature ex-X guitarist Billy Zoom and may be released in September 1986, pending negotiations with a major label whose identity Carroll would not divulge. No producer has yet been named, though Carroll reveals he may hire Bob Clearmountain, who’d co-produced Catholic Boy.

“We have such a good band, including this kid named Jeff Scott who plays really fast guitar parts,” he says. “The songs are also more melodic. In the past, I used my voice more as a rhythm instrument. Now I sing more, so I’m using backup singers to tighten-up and brighten parts. I think I understand phrasing in a way that most singers don’t. I understood from poetry the way to get the most from a lyric.”

Carroll’s passion for poetry remains; this summer, he will conduct workshops in Boulder, Colorado, with poets Allen Ginsburg, Anne Waldman and Robert Creeley. Following that, he may give readings in San Francisco and Los Angeles, depending on the progress of a film he’s slated to act in, a campy love story starring a very motley crew: Meat Loaf, Isaac Hayes, Leon Spinks and Divine.

“It’s going to be called Medium Rare. I play a rock ‘n’ roll guy who gets lobotomized by a microwave oven,” he says, laughing. “I did a Canadian movie two years ago called Listen to the City with Martin Sheen, in which I played a guy who comes out of a coma after 20 years. I keep getting all these great parts.”

Meantime, The Basketball Diaries has been optioned for a forthcoming Columbia Pictures film starring Anthony Michael Hall. Carroll is currently working on a follow-up to that book, due next year, which covers New York City’s downtown scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the scene that made famous Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Chelsea Hotel. He has just read The Book of Nods at a festival in Bremen, Germany, returning to the United States to find the book on the Village Voice bestseller list.

An angel has arrived, and Carroll’s hoping her touch won’t miss.

Gerrie Lim

1 Comment

  1. InsideTheTourBus said,

    Thank you for reposting this article!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: