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Friday, October 02, 2009

Person Who Died, or Rural Route Hassle

The news, from a couple of weeks ago, that Jim Carroll had died, really took me back to a weird time in my life. Like his friend Patti Smith, Carroll straddled the worlds of beat-influenced poetic writing and, after his album Catholic Boy came out, downtown New York rock music, except that as a rocker he was a one-hit wonder (the hit being the rapid-fire, incantatory "People Who Died") and I never encountered a poem of his that really stuck. He first attracted attention with The Basketball Diaries, a slim book of prose that described his life in the big city from ages twelve to sixteen, recounting his steady descent from high school sports star to a junkie hustling for his next fix. I had a Bantam paperback copy of that book when I was in high school myself, and it had a picture of Carroll on the cover. I used to dip into it sometimes, but I'm not sure that I ever finished it, and I know that I never actually sat down and read it all the way through, which given its size and journal-style presentation couldn't have taken me more than an afternoon. 

Instead, I remember spending long stretches of time stretched out on the floor or my bed, lying on my chest, staring at Carroll's picture. I wasn't especially inclined to admire a man for his physical beauty in those days, but in that picture, Carroll was beautiful in a way that I found transfixing, for what it seemed to represent. There are some writers who'd flip out at the thought of somebody caring that much about a copy of one of their books for reasons unconnected to the writing inside it, but I like to think that Carroll would have understood, and that he might have even have approved. "“When I was about 9 years old," he once said, "I realized that the real thing was not only to do what you were doing totally great, but to look totally great while you were doing it.” (A terrible movie was made of The Basketball Diaries in 1995, and Carroll tried to use its release as the occasion to stage a comeback; "spoken word poetry" was then on MTV and in TV commercials for Gap jeans, and it must have seemed that this was his real form and his moment to cash in on it. But he didn't get that much of a bump out of it, and I think that's probably because his looks had deteriorated to the point that he was no longer beautiful, but not in the kind of interesting, photogenic way that turned William S. Burroughs and Leonard Cohen into pop sages--Gandalfs with their own ISBN numbers.)

In the photo on the paperback, Carroll was standing on a street corner, his back against a wall and his face, which was gaunt but not yet cadaverous, glowered at the camera. He looked like a corrupted, possibly Satanic version of Tom Verlaine, who was my big underground hero and man-crush at the time. Verlaine had led the classic, two-albums-and-we're-outta-here downtown NYC band Television, all of which was ancient history by the time I first heard of him, early in his solo career. In terms of talent and style, Verlaine was pretty much the kind of hipster I aspired to be then, except that he was sweetly angelic and sometimes seemed to be having visions of Bernadette during his guitar solos. (I should mention, for the benefit of any youngsters in the room, that back then, "hipster" was a value-neutral term, unless it was being used by Diana Trilling. It had come up with the beats and through such cultural manifestos as Lenny Bruce monologues and Norman Mailer's "The White Negro", in a context that used it to signify a special kind of informed alienation, street aestheticism,  and special, dirty knowledge of sex and how the world works, and by the time I first heard it, it had broadened to include hicks like me who had a lot to learn about sex and how the world works and whose felt rarely hit concrete but who were doing our damndest to develop advanced tastes in the art and pop culture we liked. It was only a year or so ago that I discovered that the term is now pretty much exclusively used as a term of abuse, thrown around on the Internet to tag people whose taste in non-mainstream work differs from that of the person doing the throwing as trendy phonies. As a lover of language, this saddens me, because in its original meaning, "hipster" struck me as a pleasing word to say and write and read that served a clear and useful purpose. I think it's a loss, especially since it's not as if we were really hurting from a shortage of terms of abuse.)

Carroll's tainted kind of urban dweller beauty was very appealing to me, way out there in one of the parts of Mississippi that even other Mississippians regard as the sticks. It made me want to be a city boy, even as it led me to buy into the idea that being a city boy of the cool kind naturally entails some especially ugly kinds of self-destructive behavior. I was of an age where hustling sounded smarter than being an office temp: it probably freed up a lot more of your hours for going to the movies. And there were parts of the book that did stick with me, especially the very last lines: "I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure." Those words summed up what, for me, was the appeal of the fantasy of having been a junkie. I actually did that, fantasize about having been a junkie. Mind you, I didn't fantasize about being a junkie. As a kid, I never got into drugs or even alcohol, and this had nothing to do with morality or common sense. I remember not ever feeling the pull. I guess a lot of kids start there to fit in, and fitting in was already a long way from being an option for me as a teenager. I also remember that I used to tell people that, when you're living in rural Mississippi and don't fit in, it's probably a good idea to always have a clear, undistorted view of what's going on around you. But I really just never felt the itch. I liked having a clear head, because there was so much in life that I wanted to take in. And, in retrospect, I think I also recognized that, based on how I responded to things that I liked--movies, music, books, smart pretty girls--I probably had an addictive personality and that if I got to liking being drunk, my time as a social drinker would be a brief way station on my way to spending enough time sprawled on the floor that it would seriously cut into my reading.

But having been a junkie was something else. Like having been in Vietnam, it conferred upon one an instant, glamorous past and a patina of--a word that I would never use unsarcastically as an adult--"authenticity." Reviewing one of William S. Burroughs's lesset novels--you who've read more than a couple of his best-known books will recognize that this is really saying something--John Updike wrote that "The net effect Burroughs achieves is to convince us that he has seen and done things sad beyond description." When you're teenaged and pretty sad already and terrified that you might also be boring, one likely response to that is going to be, "Hell, yeah!" Never mind that actually seeing Jon Voight hustling Bob Balaban in a men's room in Midnight Cowboy was enough to get me to postpone my first trip to New York indefinitely. But even as I probably qualified for the first, if not only, "straight edge" kid in the history of the Walthall County school system, I did my best to pass as a junkie. I wore a lot of black and oozed through the halls working on my heavy-lidded, reptilian stare. Looking at the pictures of myself from those days that my grandmother insisted on using to decorate [sic] her own hallway, I was struck by how hard I tried to look bored to tears in every one of them. It was especially striking considering that I doubt that I was anything like bored at the time, boredom being a feeling that has never come to me easily. (I guess that makes me the Typhoid Mary of boredom, a chief transmitter of that to which I am immune.) I doubt that any of my hated conformist classmates ever noticed my faux-junkie act, though. They were always too stoned to appreciate it.

Eventually, I left the farm, and hit what passed for the big city, where I skulked through the suburbs confusing people who mistook my well-rehearsed coolness for the effects of chronic depression with a little insomnia thrown in, and then moved on to an almost really big city, New Orleans, where I was quick to demonstrate my street smarts by feeling a little tingle of excitement the first time I guy with a thick coat on in July asked me for fifty cents while I was sitting having breakfast in a Burger King. I've made it! I thought. The thrill lasted maybe forty minutes, wearing off fast as I stood in the poetry section of the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library and turned to look through the plate glass window to my left and see an old woman pushing a shopping cart full of junk step up to within three feet of me, turn around, drop her pants, and take a dump. I later got a job working at a Baptist mission, tutoring drunks and junkies hoping to someday get their G.E.D.s, a job that entailed a certain amount of rehab counseling. I recognize now that I was probably hampered quite a bit in that job by my own indifference to getting high; if I'd understood the appeal and felt the attraction, I probably would have been much better equipped to reach people who were in its thrall. But all I really understood and had ever felt was the appeal and attraction of the style, the pose, which smart addicts know is finally only good for hustling suckers like me. But whatever gets you through the night, right? Rest in peace, Jim.


erik said...

Of course, Burroughs and Cohen were people who weren't considered attractive *until* they got to that sage stage... doing it Carroll's way is actually kind of fucked, if you plan on outliving your youth.

I got into him at probably about the same point in my life that you did, and damn, what an impossible role model! At 15, he was already model-beautiful, getting literarily famous, and could still throw down with freaking Lew Alcindor on the playground courts.

Where do you go from there, though? I feel like he spent a lot lot lot more time living it down, than he ever did living it up. (Then again, from what I heard, for a famously-clean 40-ish ex-junkie, he was extremely fond of kahlua and cocaine, at least on reading tours)

Point being, I guess, it's pretty much always too late to be a gorgeous prodigy, but for the rest of us (we're ugly but we have the music?) it's probably not too early to start working that Gandalf angle...

kynefski said...

It was especially striking considering that I doubt that I was anything like bored at the time, boredom being a feeling that has never come to me easily. (I guess that makes me the Typhoid Mary of boredom, a chief transmitter of that to which I am immune.)

You and me both, Sunshine.

GeoX said...

Of course, Burroughs and Cohen were people who weren't considered attractive *until* they got to that sage stage...

Disagree. I found the young Leonard Cohen attractive, in a more-or-less heterosexual way.