Zoilus by Carl Wilson

‘It’s too late - there’s no one left
that I even wanna imitate’
RIP Jim Carroll, 1949-2009

September 14th, 2009

I want my will and capability to meet inside the region/ Where this gravity don’t mean a thing/ It’s where the angels break through . . ./ It’s where they bring it to you/ It’s where silence, silence can teach me to sing…. I want a world without gravity, it could be just what I need (what I need!)/ I watch the stars pull close, I watch/ I watch the earth re-cede! - Jim Carroll Band, “Wicked Gravity,” 1980

I’ve been surprised by all the reactions on all the social-media to the death of Jim Carroll - most of them making the obvious “People Who Died” jokes, but many full of real emotion and quoting any of the countless apropos lines and images from his poems and songs. Surprised, because I’ve always had the foolish feeling that aside from that song (and the Basketball Diaries, especially the movie of course), Carroll was almost my personal secret. “People Who Died” was almost certainly the first real punk-rock song I heard, or was certainly the most punk-rock song I’d heard when it first came on the radio while I was staying in my grandparents’ basement in Selkirk, Manitoba, and along with Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” and the serious literature that I’d just begun reading - Joyce, Hesse, Camus - it made me guess that there were emotional registers, certain kinds of seriousness, that I hadn’t yet accessed. I was 12 years old.

Unlike Gabriel, whose album I bought pretty much right away, Carroll’s kind of seriousness might still have scared me - or more likely his kind of cool - and so I didn’t at first look for more of his work. But then, looking at an issue of Penthouse for, as you may imagine, entirely other reasons, I read this profile of Carroll. I have a very distinct memory of being locked in the bathroom reading about this impossibly handsome, incredibly talented, terrifyingly reckless young man - I’m convinced in fact that this article is the reason I’ve never ever been tempted to try heroin in my life. But all the glamour that Carroll invested in poetry was also a revelation.

I’d been writing stories and maybe a few attempts at song lyrics. I’d heard Patti Smith (the guys at my local record shop made sure the kid got a copy of Horses early in our guru-grasshopper relationship), but hadn’t understood yet that she was a part of a milieu, and that milieu was New York poetry. I bought Catholic Boy and later Dry Dreams and was both mesmerized and energized - probably the number-one album on my personal jump-around-at-the-mirror hit parade. I knew not just every word but every inhalation, every inflection, every stylishly slurred syllable (”I-watch-the-Stars-pull-close-I-waa-ITCH!, Ah. watch. th’. Earrth. Ree-ceeede“). I wanted to be Jim Carroll but clearly I wasn’t going to have his story. Nor his looks (just look in the mirror you’re singing into). But I was a Catholic boy, too - I could contemplate being “redeemed through pain, not through joy.” And I could perhaps emulate his ridiculously fine-grained, articulate disdain: “I want the dilettantes and parvenues to choke on my wrists/ They think the pearls, they think the pearls that I wear are pills/ I want their gravity to shatter, but it really doesn’t matter/’Cause I got somthin’, I got somethin’ in my eye that kills.”

In short he was the first person who really made me imagine being cool, because he seemed to have a whole alternate system for it rooted in intelligence and vision and a bemused lack of interest in social obligations. Wanting to be cool for the first time is no small thing (and the last time you want it is probably a big deal too). Wanting to do it by writing poetry? A little misguided, but usefully, indeed magically so.

I feel disloyal for not following Carroll’s later records and books as they became less punk, more mature and sure, less the direct unfiltered flow of inspiration that Ted Berrigan saw in 1969, when he paralleled Carroll to Rimbaud and almost seemed to feel that Rimbaud suffered most in the comparison (I suspect if Berrigan had also been going to parties with Rimbaud, he wouldn’t have had that problem). I don’t think I was the only one who neglected him, stopped listening. It must be tough to be the former prodigy, then get middle-aged. With someone else a death at 60 would seem horribly young, and I’m sure those close to Carroll must be feeling that way. My sympathy goes to them. But when I heard that music and read about him in 1981, it felt that by the time he was 30 he’d lived more lives than most people ever do, than I probably ever would. I am grateful for the challenge he presented, to make life that vital (which I understood in some sense also meant to risk it) and to somehow taste or at least catch the scent of its mercurial, mutable essence. I’m still working on it, Jim. This song is for you, my brother.

Highly recommended: A reminiscence from poet Tom Clark (and others in the comments).

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  2. Saelan says:

    I only know Jim Carroll by reputation, so the thing that sticks out most to me in this piece is that you read Joyce when you were 12. Quite the prodigy, Mr. Wilson.

  3. sean says:

    i don’t know jim carroll. now i do, a little. will find more. thank you. this was a good gift to him.

  4. Brad Nelson says:

    Good to know someone else was reading Joyce at 12, not in the “Ho ho! We were both smart fuckers!” sense (and any scenario involving that line should be immediately followed by “WHAT HAPPENED TO US?”), and I ain’t even going to pretend that my initial clawing through Ulysses retrieved understanding, and I don’t pretend to have any knowledge about you at 12, Carl, but it’s just strangely nice to know that someone else also went for Joyce when he made that jump for “serious literature,” that that was another’s thick spell.

  5. Matt Collins says:

    Can I join in on the “I read dense modernist prose at an early age” back-pat?

    And mention that it is only because of Jim Carroll that reading that sort of thing can get you laid.

  6. Tom Wilkie says:

    Around the time you found Jim Carroll you were going through somewhat of a musical renaissance, you also discovered Tom Waits around this time. At the time I found the music rather dark and imposing but I also knew you were onto something, little did I know it was also the beginning of something. In retrospect Jim Carroll helped you define your tastes, helped you grow and was a part of your adolescence.
    Sorry for your loss.

  7. zoilus says:

    Just on the Joyce thing - first, it was Portrait and Dubliners, not Ulysses, which I found too daunting (although listening to lots of a marathon BBC reading of it one Bloomsday sometime in high school helped, I still haven’t done a straight-through reading, tho I think I’ve read most of the episodes by now). Second, it was

    And yes, Tom (hi!), I’m not sure whether Waits or Carroll came first, but the effects were different - Waits stirred up dreams of whiskey jazz and the Beats, Carroll heroin punk and poetry… both pretty crucial. (I didn’t explain the heroin thing above - between Carroll, Burroughs and a few other things I for a while had a romantic-fatalistic feeling that I would end up a heroin addict someday, which in real life had the effect of scaring me away from any contact with it. It just seemed so powerful.)

  8. zoilus says:

    Oops, the “second” above was - reading Joyce at all was by a lucky accident that involves a funny story about science fiction and my Grade 8 vice-principal, too involved to tell here. Suffice to be said I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

  9. Tom Wilkie says:

    Well Carl I’m glad the Waits whiskey jazz image eventually triumphed the Carroll cranking heroin persona, you would have made a lousy heroin addict, as opposed to a good one….

  10. tom clark says:


    Really appreciated this sensitive, understanding, heartfelt response to Jim’s work. He did indeed work hard at the work. The writing (which after all came before the public figure, and obviously enabled that) did not come easy for him, and the proof lies in the complexity and power and reach of its impact-to which your essay is a lovely testimonial. You have done him proud.

    FYI, to sort out my contribution, it came in two parts, the memoir is here:

    Jim Carroll

    And also I’ve commemorated the funeral service (and the “Catholic boy”) here:

    Jim Carroll: Pax Aeternum

  11. PI says:

    Well Carl I’m glad the Waits whiskey jazz image eventually triumphed the Carroll cranking heroin persona, you would have made a lousy heroin addict, as opposed to a good one….

  12. macaroo says:

    Carl: Scanning your site for the most signifigant items of 09. The death of Jim Carrol has to be #1. I too remember taping the 6 o’clock rock report and Bob Makowitz saying “that’s my pick for the best song of 1980″ refering to “people who died”. That was the first time I had heard the song and wondered why CKOC hadnt had it on the top 40. Carrol’s work (both written and in song) has emerged as influential . Still not sure if folks really do understand the scope of this.
    P.S. Thanks for turning me on to Tom Waits, I would have thought “ol 55″ was an Eagles song…

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