Redeemed Through Pain
This past week I've been rereading Jim Carroll's Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries. A friend of mine once referred to Carroll as a guilty pleasure, a statement I find unnecessarily and unjustifiably condescending. Maybe I took it the wrong way. This book is certainly not a difficult read, being a diary it's short, episodic and lends itself to reading either catch as catch can or all the way through in one or two sittings. It's easy to get through even if you are feeling a bit distracted, perfect for the short attention span reader. But the main reason it reads easily is because Carroll is deft with his prose, capturing the essence of his characters and settings in vivid detail without excessive wordiness or strained attempts at cleverness. His sentences have a casual and conversational yet exact rhythm, which scans as deceptively simple, but is not. It's the sign of a writer who knows exactly how to hit his mark. His background in poetry informs his mastery of rhythm evidenced in lines like; "She moves away in small quick steps that crack the thin layers of ice forming on the pavement, saying something that is immediately lifted in a white swirl upward and across the street into the treetops of the park".
Now in most cases stories by or about junkies are a bore. Despite what the last 40 or so years of pop culture might have lead you to believe, junkies just aren't that interesting, by nature they tend to live a rather circumscribed existence; score, fix up, nod, look for more. Look no further than the screen adaptations of Jesus' Son and Requiem for a Dream for examples of how dull and tedious their life's can be to recount. But Carroll remains compelling even amidst the thrall of his addiction, by almost always being involved in some pursuit beyond just the feeding of his monkey, even if it's racing his crab lice with Patti Smith (her idea by the way). He even manages to bring back some striking images from his nods. A St. Mark's Poetry reading he nods out and has a vision of the book that the writer is reading from "wrenched out of his hands by some invisible force of wrath and justice, which lifted it up and nailed it to the huge wooden cross behind the reader". He observes the inability of many poets to effectively read their work aloud with the comic simile "you can almost see the words dropping in front of the podium onto the liturgical red carpet, squirming in circles like fumigated bugs, before even reaching the audience".
He has an impeccable sense of comic timing, especially surprising for a poet, a calling that isn't exactly known for a high percentage of guffaws. Well, this book is hysterically funny in places. The detailed account of Allen Ginsberg losing control of a high powered vibrator plays out as a perfectly scripted comedy sketch, every gesture and expression in place. Which leads me to another attraction of Forced Entries; its cast of characters. It is roughly centered around events in downtown New York between 1970 and 1973 and is filled with many of the now famous denizens of that milieu. There are appearances by Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe under the aliases Jenny Ann and Roger as well as factory luminaries Brigid Polk (as Gloria Excelscior) and Paul Morrissey. Painter and sometimes jazz musician Larry Rivers appears under the initials DMZ and there are shorter cameos by W.H. Auden, Bill Burroughs, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. None of this comes off as name-dropping either, their appearances always being part of a lively anecdote leading to a punch line and/or point and peppered throughout with sharp characterization and eye for detail: Jerry Rubin as "dangerous hypocrisy in fancy boots", Ultra Violet and the other "superstars" as "just so many used up singles, easily burned up in a sporting moment... Truman Capote a pill stained thousand" and Dylan with his clothes "hanging well on his post-motorcycle crack-up slump" and his "atavistic" eyes.
Allen Ginsberg actually makes several appearances. And Carroll describes him in a manner filled with both admiration and bemusement at his more questionable counterculture allegiances and hobnobbing tendencies. Any one with a passing familiarity with Ginsberg can tell Carroll has him down pat, from his description of his "Zen posture of a man who knows how to take a really proper shit" to Allen "literally hopping up the stairs in anticipation of greeting" the Russian poet Voznesensky. These humorous descriptions of Allen are again always underlined with a genuine admiration for the man as both a great poet and a genuinely nice guy. When describing his relations with Allen thusly "I like to break down the solemn faade and reach the goof heart" Carroll displays an innate understanding of perhaps THE crucial ingredient of the Beat Poets' work.
Carroll also has that indispensable tool of a great writer, a well-honed bullshit detector. This keeps both his writing and his taste level and straightforward, he doesn't use poetic imagery and metaphor for its own sake, only when it enhances his narrative or assists him in capturing something arcane. He's just as likely though to come street level and simply call a spade a spade. For example, explaining his passing on an offer to read at a benefit for Timothy Leary he quickly pinpoints the uneasy feeling Leary has given so many. "It has a lot to do with that condescending, salacious smile, just like an advertising executive leering over some bunny at the Playboy Club".
Best of all is how Forced Entries captures an important time and place, the ferment of the scene in downtown N.Y. in the early 1970's. Imagine walking down to Max's Kansas City at dusk (following a mysterious laser that cuts through the city no less) and dancing to 'Sympathy for the Devil' on the jukebox while waiting for the Velvet Underground to begin their nightly set. You can get a vicarious taste of this by listening to the Velvet Underground's Live at Max's Kansas City album while reading Forced Entries. The Live at Max's record was actually recorded by Jim Carroll who was holding Brigid Polk's tape recorder. Carroll's "codeine mumble" is clearly heard in between songs, requesting double Pernods, commenting on the crowd and such. Despite Billy Yule's tasteless drumming it's a vivid document and makes a great companion piece with Forced Entries.
The lasting impression that Forced Entries leaves is Carroll's ability to see the humor and comedy even or perhaps especially in the most dire of circumstances. Neck deep in the mire so to speak. I imagine he would agree that it was this insight that allowed him to eventually escape the clutches of addiction and stay true to his muse. Despite his own lyric about being "a Catholic boy, redeemed through pain and not through joy", its maybe more a case of his ability to understand both as two sides of the same coin, as intermingled and inseparable that led to his redemption. Going through the muck and clean out the other side by always keeping his head lifted towards some higher aspiration.
© 2003 William Crain