Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jim Carroll, Catholic Boy

A couple things come to mind when I read that a writer has made a rock 'n roll record. First, I expect the lyrics to be better than average. They should be. Writers presumably know how to communicate in insightful ways. Second, I expect it to suck. This is because the ability to write weighty content does not translate to good rock 'n roll, and often results in unlistenable, pretentious twaddle.

I've been writing elsewhere about Jim Carroll, teenaged junkie and prostitute, basketball star, Pulitzer Prize nominee, and one hell of a writer. Jack Kerouac thought enough of Carroll to proclaim, "At thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today." His book The Basketball Diaries was the stuff of legend, a flat-out hallucinogenic, disturbing masterpiece about leading a double life at the ripe old age of 15; basketball hero at a posh NYC high school, on his way to scholarships and accolades, and heroin addict who hustled gay men to support his habit. So when Carroll decided to make a rock 'n roll record, which he did in 1980, I was both intrigued and skeptical. It was bound to be a fascinating ride. But would it sound any good?

It turned out to be just fine. That debut album, called Catholic Boy, was and is one of the great records of the early '80s, an adrenaline shot of anger and despair and black humor, smart enough to obliquely reference Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, visceral enough to encompass overdoses and gangland murders, and buttressed by immortal power chords. It was as if Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe had gone to Harvard, double majored in journalism and philosophy, and then joined the Velvet Underground and plugged a guitar into a stack of Marshall amps. The album's most famous song, "People Who Died," was all over the radio in late 1980, and the day after John Lennon was assassinated radio stations were inundated with requests for Carroll's litany of heartbreak and despair. It earned him a shot on Saturday Night Live, and his performance is still one of the most memorable from a long and distinguished list of great musical acts that have appeared on the show.

He's never bettered Catholic Boy, although he's made a handful of albums since then. And if "People Who Died" is the undeniable highlight, the whole album is still revelatory, the perfect merger of a smart guy, a world falling apart, and the anguished howl that resulted. I'm still particularly partial to the title track, shown above. That's because I'm a Catholic boy, too, born and raised, and I don't know if anyone has better encapsulated that peculiar package of hope and guilt, the promise of heaven and the weight of the world. I love this stuff; music, lyrics, the whole desperate shebang.

I was born in a pool, they made my mother stand
And I spat on that surgeon and his trembling hand
When I felt the light I was worse than bored
I stole the doctor's scalpel and I slit the cord

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

I was two months early they put me under glass
I screamed and cursed their children when the nurses passed
Was convicted of theft when I slipped from the womb
They led me straight from my mother to a cell in the Tombs

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

They starved me for weeks, they thought they'd teach me fear
I fed on cellmates' dreams, it gave me fine ideas
When they cut me loose, the time had served me well
I made allies in heaven, I made comrades in Hell

I was a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild

I make angels dance and drop to their knees
When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed
I understand the fate of all my enemies
Just like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

I watched the sweetest psalm stolen by the choir
I dreamed of martyrs' bones hanging from a wire
I make a contribution, I get absolution
I make a resolution to purify my soul

I was a Catholic boy,
Redeemed through pain,
Not through joy

They can't touch me now
I got every sacrament behind me:
I got baptism,
I got communion,
I got penance,
I got extreme unction
I've got confirmation
'Cause I'm a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild!
Now I'm a Catholic man
I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can.
-- Jim Carroll, "Catholic Boy"


John McCollum said...


John McCollum said...

"When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed"

I always thought he said, "When I enter a church the fetus statues bleed."


Anonymous said...

Plagiarized from Paste Magazine.

Andy Whitman said...

I wrote the article in Paste. Okay with you, anon, if I plagiarize myself?