You might know not know Jim Carroll by name if you’re my age or younger, but you probably know the film Basketball Diaries (starring that dreamy Lenny Dicaprio). It’s about Jim Carroll’s true adventures being young and doing drugs and stuff. And writing killer poetry – rumor (and Wikipedia) has it that the dude was nominated for a Pulitzer at age 22. What have you done?
Anyway, apparently at the urging of Patti Smith (good advice – when Patti Smith suggests that you do something, you fucking do it), Jim Carroll started the cleverly named Jim Carroll Band and, in 1980, released a little album called Catholic Boy. The Catholic boy in question is, obviously, Jim Carroll. But the album is a real treasure from the glory days when punk music wasn’t represented to the kids by the paltry-ass likes of Blink-182 and Green Day (who, by the way, are not punk in any way shape or form and if you tell me that they are, I will hit you. Even if you’re a girl – I’m not sexist).
One of the first things you’ll notice when you take a spin through Catholic Boy is that Craig Finn and The Hold Steady owe a pretty heavy debt to this dude. Carroll arguably has a better vocal range than Finn, but not by much. However, a lot of Catholic Boy is spoken/sung poetry over badass rock music (the guitar solos aren’t quite up to Tad Kubler’s level of awesome, but they’re still pretty rad) and the themes (drugs, religion, death, not necessarily in that order) are familiar turf for Hold Steady fans. Compare, for instance “Stuck Between Stations” by The Hold Steady: Finn sings, “There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly/ but he didn’t so he died” with Carroll’s line from “People Who Died” (which is, by the way, Matt’s new favorite song about death. I listened to this tune at top volume on what would’ve been my sister’s 32nd birthday, which may sound perverse to many of you, but I assure you she would approve): “Herbie said, ‘Tony, can you fly?’/ But Tony couldn’t fly – Tony died.” In the Craig Finn Universe of Cleverly Veiled References, there is no coincidence. Don’t believe me? Ask the man himself. Another allusion, possibly to “People Who Died,” is in “Constructive Summer,” from last year’s holy-shit-it’s-good Stay Positive: “My friends that aren’t dying are already dead” comes awfully close to “they were two more friends of mine/ I miss ’em, they died.”
If the only joy to derive from Catholic Boy came from playing connect-the-dots to Hold Steady songs… okay, I’d probably still dig it. But Carroll pulled off a better trick with Catholic Boy than paving the way for my favorite rock band – he bridged the gap between Patti Smith and the Ramones, welding her elegant I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to their buzzing guitars and Joey Ramone’s punk geekiness. Carroll even manages to sound a bit like the late Mr. Ramone on “Three Sisters,” and there are a few moments on “Wicked Gravity” and “Day and Night” where Carroll sounds a bit like Ms. Smith. (Another connected dot – listen to Carroll’s “Day and Night” and The Hold Steady’s “Chillout Tent” back to back. Awesome)
The uptempo songs propel Catholic Boy, especially album opener “Wicked Gravity”, “Nothing is True” (“you get nothing back for all you save/ just eternity and a spacious grave”, he sings), and the stellar “People Who Died.” The slower moments aren’t bad at all (wouldn’t be one of my favorite albums if that was the case), though “City Drops Into the Night” is a bit long.
Because Carroll is a poet, you could argue that the main appeal of Catholic Boy is in the lyrics (a charge leveled at Craig Finn and company) and that’s not really out of bounds. But so what? The lyrics are, pound for pound, fucking awesome. When Carroll sings, “It’s too late/ to fall in love with Sharon Tate,” he doesn’t play it for a shock (are you reading this, Eminem? Can you read?); it’s matter-of-fact, and it gets at least a 4x multiplier on its score for leading to the lines, “It ain’t no contribution/ to rely on the Institution/ to validate your chosen art/ and to sanction your boredom/ and let you play out your part.” In my birth year, it would appear that Jim Carroll had pegged the Los Angeles music scene for the foreseeable future. Of course, Carroll didn’t need any institution to validate his art – Patti Smith had already done it. So the next time you think you’re hot shit, ask yourself, “What does Patti Smith think of my stuff?”
I feel I should end this review with a confession – I hadn’t heard of the Jim Carroll Band until early this year when my friend and fell0w Hold Steady Enthusiast Zac mentioned them to me and zapped me a copy of Catholic Boy. This should in no way diminish my argument that it’s one of the best albums of the last 29 years, however. I merely bring it up out of painful desire to not bullshit y’all – I’m not going to pretend that I was into Jim Carroll before it was cool to be into Jim Carroll (apparently Patti Smith can make this claim, but I cannot), but I’m going to tell you that there are few albums that I’ve owned for three months that make it to my all-time best list. That alone should tell you how plain ol’ cool this album is and if it doesn’t, listening to it will.