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Catholic Boy

Catholic Boy
August 10, 2020 12:52PM
Forty years ago, the Jim Carroll Band unleashed its stunning debut album Catholic Boy upon the world. (Wikipedia states that the disc was released in January 1980, but that seems awfully early. At any rate, I don’t remember reading anything about the band until late 1980, and Mr. Robbins’ review didn’t appear until the January 1981 number of TP.) “Horrible, pretentious tripe from a semiliterary New York street survivor who fallaciously imagines his tales of degradation and urban insanity to be of interest to anyone else,” Terry Rompers proclaimed of the band’s first two platters in The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records. Those tales were, however, most assuredly of interest to my fifteen-year-old self; indeed, Catholic Boy remains one of my Top Ten favorite albums of 1980. By the time of the second TP Guide’s release, Carroll, along with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Suzanne Fellini, and other innocent victims, had been purged from the book entirely.

Carroll received strong notices in Musician and Creem—a journalist for the latter magazine described the artist, if I recall correctly, as “looking as if he’d stepped out of a William Burroughs novel”—but the great writers at TP definitely didn’t appear to be fans. (“A poet, perhaps,” Mr. Robbins allowed. “A rock ‘n’ roller? Not really.”) Carroll always seemed to me to be an archetypal TP artist, but he was obviously moving into the void left by the then-recent retirement of Patti Smith, so perhaps that rubbed folks the wrong way, or maybe he just got on people’s nerves in general. Junkies have a way of doing that, even “semiliterary” ones. Nevertheless, I was a fan.

“Carroll’s sing-speak is as convincing as the acting in a high-school play,” Rompers complained, but—for the teenaged, middle-class me—this poet maudit’s dark visions seemed intensely felt. His lyrics are memorable enough to have lodged themselves inside my skull for the last four decades, although sometimes Carroll’s attempts to force his poetry into the confines of a rock song lead to syntactical awkwardness. The stanzas of “Nothing Is True” and “I Want the Angel,” however, glitter and cut like diamonds on glass. (These Covid days, whenever I sanitize my hands, I remember the “Nothing” protagonist who “cleans her skin with a krypton laser.”) “People Who Died”—which Mr. Robbins called “a heinous bit of juvenile nihilism”—manages to be both contrived and funny as hell, and the song rocks like a demon. In 1980, I was besotted with David Bowie, Gary Numan, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads, but Carroll was my gateway drug to such artists as the Velvet Underground, a group that actually deepened my understanding of, and my appreciation for, those great English and American art-rockers. Carroll’s degradation-and-urban-insanity tales chronicle the disintegration of society to such a degree that Catholic Boy (even though it arrived afterwards) could easily serve as a prelude to the dystopia of the Heads’ Fear of Music, as well as to the nightmarish narcotized world imagined in Tubeway Army’s early songs. His characters are broken, atomized individuals whom one can easily imagine being ground into dust by the inevitable totalitarian takeover, when people will get their sleep through tubes in their arms.

Of Carroll’s original album trilogy, only Catholic Boy and 1983’s I Write Your Name have been reissued on CD, though selections from 1982’s Dry Dreams appear on 1993’s essential A World Without Gravity retrospective. His poetry remains in print (Fear of Dreaming is an excellent introduction), and his posthumous novel The Petting Zoo, although seriously flawed, is well worth reading. (I couldn’t get the book out of my head for a week or so after I finished it, and lord knows I'll never think of JFK's assassination in quite the same way again.) I’ve never, for some reason, read The Basketball Diaries, or seen the film adaptation. Perhaps, deep down, I prefer my junkies in small doses.

Robert Christgau, who awarded Catholic Boy a B+, also attacked Carroll as “a phony—a moral weakling who’s been charming suckers ever since he ran away from home.” The “moral weakling” indictment could be leveled at any number of similar drug-addicted rockers, from Bowie and Lou Reed to Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders, so I’m not sure why Christgau felt the need to single out Carroll. But no matter. From the perspective of miserable 20(/)20, the Jim Carroll Band’s debut disc offers a chilling soundtrack for our disease-ridden and revolutionarily nihilistic times. We won’t be redeemed through joy, it appears, and we may not even be redeemed through pain. As for me, I want the angel that never loses.
Re: Catholic Boy
August 10, 2020 03:16PM
The Jim Carroll Band’s Catholic Boy has been imprinted on my DNA through repeated listening...a phenomenal debut and statement by any measure as far as I’m concerned.
Re: Catholic Boy
August 11, 2020 12:27AM
Th critical derision of Carroll is a head scratcher . Why Reed, Thunders, et al get praised to high heaven (as well they should be) while Carroll got dumped on doesn't really scan. Sure, he wasn't as good as them, but who was? “People Who Died” was a massive hit on KROQ, us kids thought it was fantastic. I still do, actually. The rhyme scheme, the mix of tragedy and mordant humor, the furious energy of the music, and Carroll’s precisely imprecise vox all add up to a smash hit.

And “The Basketball Diaries” and its follow-up “Forced Entries” are page-turners that both have a place on my bookshelf. Fictionalized? Semi-fiction? I don’t care. I’m also an Irish-Catholic basketball fan/school player with NYC roots who had a kinda crazy semi-unsupervised upbringing (but never a junkie, fortunately!) and it felt more real to me than most things I had read.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 08/11/2020 12:32AM by MrFab.
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Re: Catholic Boy
August 11, 2020 12:46PM
Agree with both Middle C and Mister Fab. A few months back, I looked for Carroll's entry on this site, and was puzzled not to find it, as he was clearly considered part of new wave back in 1980.

I did not know that he was critically reviled in some circles, and can't wrap my head around this. Catholic Boy is an excellent album, and "People Who Died" an absolute banger, both musically and lyrically. I thought that "The Basketball Diaries" was considered a minor classic as well. That's enough to redeem any artist/author in my book, even if their other works might be flawed.
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Re: Catholic Boy
August 12, 2020 08:21AM
"People Who Died" was a weird mixture of "beat" vibe yet ultimately mainstream [the BVs especially] for me to consider it New Wave, but that didn't mean I didn't still like it. Can't say I heard another song ever by Jim Carroll.

Former TP subscriber [81, 82, 83, 84]

For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®
Re: Catholic Boy
August 12, 2020 09:39AM
I have never understood the enthusiasm for Carroll's work. As noted here, there was a brief, scabrous dismissal of his first two albums in the first TP record guide but subsequent editions ignored him completely. Don't recall why. Maybe I will give them a listen and put something more thoughtful on the site. (Unless someone else wants to do it...)
Re: Catholic Boy
August 13, 2020 04:19PM
"People Who Died" sounded surprisingly punk for a song that got mainstream rock airplay in the early '80s.
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