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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

People Who Died

Maybe you're expecting a post about Patrick Swayze here, but it's not gonna happen. I loved Dirty Dancing and was saddened by the story of Swayze's battle with cancer, but I don't have anything really profound to say on the subject of his passing. I was never hugely influenced by him in anyway and I'm sure you're not all that surprised to hear that.

My sorta morbid blog post title is also the title of a punk song that I've adored since I was a teenager. It's by Jim Carroll. And now he too is a person who died, so this is my ode to him.

Jim Carroll was a poet and a musician and most famously the author of the Basketball Diaries. He died on September 11 of a heart attack. I didn't hear about it until Sunday which seemed odd in this age of instant celebrity death updates via text message and Twitter. My dog also died that day. And I really hoped she would go the day before because September 11th is such a tragic day already. For some reason, it comforts me that she and Jim Carroll died on the same day though. On the other hand, it upset me hugely that Michael Jackson died on the one year anniversary of my friend Marcel's death. This was supposed to be my day to be sad about Marcel, not the world's day to be sad about Michael Jackson. I dunno grief-- real grief, not celebrity death grief-- is an odd thing. But let's get back to Jim Carroll, who was personally a much bigger influence on me than Michael Jackson.

I discovered his poetry first via my dad who always wanted me to appreciate Ginsberg, but I turned to the likes of Burroughs and Jim Carroll instead. Why? Because they wrote about drugs and I was 14 and drugs were playing a bigger and bigger role in my life. In the course of one year my view and experience with drugs had gone from claiming I would always "just say no" to learning my best friend had smoked pot and thinking she was an idiot to trying pot myself to falling for a guy and finding out he had a heroin problem. You'd think my journals from the summer before freshman year and the summer before sophomore year were written by two completely different people.

I was attracted to Jim Carroll's poetry because he wrote in a style I admired and he wrote about raw, gritty real experiences. It was the kind of poetry I was trying to write at the time. As for "Howl" I just didn't get it. I still don't think I've read the whole thing and when my dad made a joke about reciting it at my wedding, I froze up in fear. I love Burroughs, but he's definitely weird and hard to understand. I can't tell you how many times I started and stopped reading Naked Lunch. But when I got my hands on the Basketball Diaries I read it straight through in one sitting. I was both enthralled and terrified because seeing the way Jim changed for regular basketball playing boy to junkie and looking at the shift in my own diaries... It made me think.

I read and re-read the Basketball Diaries and watched the movie quite a bit while I was in high school. I first heard the Jim Carroll band when they played the song "People Who Died" during the credits. They may have even showed the music video in the credits if I remember correctly. I also adored the 7 Year Bitch cover of his song, "It's Too Late."

He also wrote a poem called "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain," which I read so many times I probably had it memorized at one point. A lot of people have paid tribute to Kurt Cobain, but I really think Jim's poem is among the best. If you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to check it out here.

I think the stanza that always stuck out to me most was this one:

But Kurt...
Didn't the thought that you would never write another song
Another feverish line or riff
Make you think twice?
That's what I don't understand
Because it's kept me alive, above any wounds

Let the words keep you alive, above any wounds was something I told myself repeatedly as I struggled through my teenage years. The words eventually faded into my subconscious, but they are probably part of what brought me here. Though I didn't fully recognize Jim Carroll's influence on my work until Sunday night.

I read about Jim Carroll's death via a link posted on Twitter literally five minutes before I had to go to work. I had no time to process it before I was in thrust into the midst of loud, drunk Bears fans at the bar where I work. If you were keeping up with my tweets that night, you'd know that I had a very annoying night and I hate bartending during football. But in there was a bright spot. One customer came in and was more interested in talking to me than watching the football game. He'd read my column in the local newspaper and asked me what else I wrote. I told him books and pointed to the postcards we have hanging up above the bar with their covers. As it turned out he used to be in the bookselling biz, so he was genuinely interested and asked me a lot of questions.

"Would they be appropriate for my twelve year old nephew?" he asked.

"Um, probably not," I told him. "The publisher lists them as 14 and up. I mean it depends on the kid...." I trailed off, thinking about how badly my friend's twelve year old daughter who is like a niece to me wants to read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and how grateful I was to pass that decision off to her dad.

"What is there like sex, drugs, and suicide in there?" he questioned further, laughing a little like he expected me to say no.

"Yeah, actually."

"Seriously? All three."

"Well, sex and drugs in the first one, but there's all three in that one," I said, pointing at Ballads of Suburbia.

"What did you write the next Basketball Diaries or something?"

I blinked at the question. No one had ever made that comparison. And it seemed like an obscure one to make. Why not the more well-known Go Ask Alice? But I guess he's a book guy, maybe he knew about Jim Carroll's death. Maybe I wasn't the only in the bar staring at the football game mindlessly but while thinking about Jim Carroll. But before I could ask him if he'd heard about Jim Carroll's death, I had to answer his question and the answer, I realized was... "Wow, um, I never really thought about it before, but in a way yeah, I guess."

I really hadn't thought about it before and maybe they don't have all that much in common besides heroin (boy in NYC in the 60s into basketball and heroin vs girl in the suburbs of Chicago in the 90s into punk rock and heroin), but I hope I was able to infuse the honesty and realness that I admired in Jim Carroll's work in my own.

I never did get to ask the guy if he'd heard about Jim Carroll's death. I had to pour drinks and then there was a near bar fight (oh football season, how I loathe thee).... So the first person I really talked to about Jim Carroll was my friend Jenny. She told me something I didn't hear in the obituary I'd read: apparently Jim died at his desk, working. Seriously, what an inspiration that Jim Carroll, right to the very end.

If you haven't read his stuff, I advise you to read that poem for Kurt and pick up a copy of the Basketball Diaries. And please comment away in Jim Carroll's honor.

Now lets all enjoy his song:


Tinker Ramone said...

My best friend, Jason, who died about 5 years ago was a huge Jim Carroll fan. I remember his tattered copy of Basketball Diaries was always on his dresser. People Who Died, was his favorite song, I can still hear him singing along everytime I hear it.

When I read that Jim Carroll died my first thought was, I wonder if Jason knows, followed by a deflated sigh. It made me sad that many people didn't know who he was when I mentioned him. I wonder what tribute my friend would have payed to his memory...

Since Sunday night when I found out, that song has been playing over and over in my head. Those are people who died, died.

Punk Rock Girl said...

Jim Carroll's album Catholic Boy (which contained "People Who Died") was called the last great [old school] punk album. What I loved about Jim Carroll was his acknowledgment of the role Catholicism played in his development. Nothing like Catholic school to turn you into a true rebel! A few weeks ago I read the following quote from current punk musician Frank Turner: "Punk rock is very, very much like Catholicism. It gets you when you’re young, you probably hate it at some point, but it never goes away." The first thing I thought of when I read that was Jim Carroll. As soon as I heard of his death early yesterday morning, I posted "People Who Died" on my Facebook. Jim Carroll was unique.

Today is the anniversary of Johnny Ramone's death, btw.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the poem recommendation. I'd never heard of it. Reading "8 Fragments of Kurt Cobain" set my mind running, which is always a good thing.

I knew who Jim Carroll was from The Basketball Diaries, but I didn't and don't know much about him or his work. Thank you for sharing and enlightening.

I think certain words, songs, books, movies mark us in ways our subconscious never quite forgets. I've been writing (in one way or another) about the same thing since I was 14 years old. I've learned to present the idea with more finesse, but, stripped down, it's the same old tune.

Oh, I too loathe football season.

simmone said...

great post stephanie, was really sad to hear of his death - i had similar reaction to the basketball diaries ...