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Dig It: Jim Carroll, stranded in New York.


A Beat poet finds his groove and swings to it

By Davina Baum

SOME BIOGRAPHIES refer to Jim Carroll as "poet, musician and former heroin addict," as if heroin were somehow part of his creative CV. Heroin did indeed inject much of his early work with swirling, nodding colors. He took his first shot of the drug in the winter of 1963, at the age of 13. He thought that marijuana was the addictive drug; he chose heroin for its innocuousness.

Carroll's life between the fall of 1963 and the summer of 1966--hustling for nickel bags on New York streets, nodding out at the "headquarters" with his friends and seducing elderly women--is detailed in The Basketball Diaries. The book is Carroll's best-known work, thanks in large part to Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the junkie poet in the highly distorted film version of the book.

Jim Carroll is now 51 years old, an old man from an old generation. Heroin no longer appears on his current CV--he kicked in 1973. He continues to live on the fringe; his performance at Montalvo was originally scheduled for Oct. 4 but was changed to Oct. 18 because Carroll was unable to get on a plane--he carries no identification and couldn't get a passport in time.

His oeuvre includes six collections of poetry, two books of prose, punk-rock albums with the Jim Carroll Band, spoken-word releases and various collaborations. He counts Patti Smith among his close friends--he moved in with her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970; around the same time, he started working for Andy Warhol, writing film dialogue.

Beatnik cred does not an artist make. How many hundreds of people worked for Andy Warhol? How many list Allen Ginsberg as an acquaintance? Carroll managed to distinguish himself; he managed to make it to 51 and still be relevant, primarily in his careful nurturing of a trend--spoken word--that has ebbed and flowed in popularity and is now vibrant again. Carroll may be a poet--not a rare breed, nor a lucrative one--but he is a poet who performs ceaselessly.

Hearing Carroll read his work at his performances increases his charm. His New York origins are evident in his reedy voice: rubber veranda becomes verander; toward transformed into too-wood.

His poignant poems reach back and forth in time, evoking brightly colorful images. Much of his work draws from heroin memories, or extends counsel to others--like his tender eulogy for Nirvana's frontman, "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" (published in Void of Course: Poems 199-1997; Penguin Poets, 1998), which speaks of "a young artist's remorseless passion/ Which starts out as a kiss/ and follows like a curse." His work has a bitter, world-weary edge, tempered by a seemingly unflappable wonder at the natural world: "I watch the sun cross over the reservoir/ all day sometimes/ a few hours soaked into air cotton/ like cloud syringes drawing up blue/ like darkness when it's through" (from "Song," published in Fear of Dreaming; Penguin, 1993).

Jim Carroll was a poet first. He will be a poet last, whether he's writing in loose rhymes, abstract form or streaming prose. In a passage from The Basketball Diaries he lays out his mandate, clear to him from even those drug-hazed early days:

"The more I read the more I know it now, heavier each day, that I need to write. I think of poetry and how I see it as just a raw block of stone ready to be shaped ... I just get the images from the upstairs vault (it all comes in images) and fling 'em around like bricks, sometimes clean and smooth and then sloppy and ready to fall on top of you later. ... Solid."

Jim Carroll appears Oct. 18 at 8pm at Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Rd, Saratoga; $25-$30; 408.961.5858.

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From the October 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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