A Tribute to Jim Carroll – by Gena Mason

Jim Carroll

Learning this morning about Jim Carroll’s death lit a fire under my ass. Not so much because his considerable gifts compelled me to complete more of my own work as soon as possible. No, mostly because I’d known him yet never become close to him as I’d always wanted. We’d met a number of times; I’d hung out backstage at a few of his performances; and we’d had some engrossing chats. I had a major crush, and we had a mild flirtation. But drama in both our lives, and our own personal faults, prevented an intimate or lasting relationship. I can only be grateful that I knew him a little.

I’ll never forget the first time we spoke. I’d been a big fan of his for years. When I read his book Forced Entries, I was instantly smitten and awed, and Jim Carroll assumed an immediate place in my post-adolescent pantheon of heroes. Like me, he was a poet, rocker, occultist, and former hustler. He was also a brilliant bad boy, black-clad, red-haired, and sexy in a weirdly otherworldly way. Plus I love good stories, and he had tons of them. And that rare visceral intellect of his — I’m a sucker for the type. Another fallen angel. I sensed the presence of a kindred spirit, and when I found out he was still alive, there was no question that I was going to meet him.

My chance came not long after. One early evening, at the Jersey City hole-in-the-wall where I lived in a railroad flat above Bonner’s Bar and Grill, I was listening to local radio station WFMU. Suddenly, between songs, the DJ announced that Jim Carroll, the Dictators, and others were performing that night at a benefit for Tom Clark. (Tom was — and still is, last time I checked — everyone’s favorite 2A bartender. Back then he’d broken his leg and needed help paying medical bills.)

You bet I hustled myself right downtown. I think the show was at Brownies, before its demise and later permutations. I arrived before Jim’s set, and spotted him towering over the crowd. That ethereal look was unmistakable. I think his band played just one song, and then I saw Jim getting ready to leave. I was sitting on a barstool near the door, and worked up the nerve to speak to him. As he headed for the door, I caught his eye and beckoned. Jim was gracious enough to stop and stoop down to hear me out.

Fate is not always kind. At the exact moment that I opened my mouth to speak, the hardcore band that had been setting up launched into the first song of its set. And I mean it was loud. So loud that the whole audience started, startled. My heart sank. But I manned up. I put a hand on Jim’s shoulder and yelled into his ear, “Forced Entries is one of my favorite books!” Again gracious, he thanked me, and then walked out.

In a way, the incident presaged the entire course of our relationship. Then, as later, we met and connected, but some unexpected dissonance erupted and our paths diverged.

I didn’t see him again until months had passed. Meanwhile I visited a psychic whose insightful inside knowledge of my life and predictions about my still-unwinding future have haunted me in the ten years since our session. During the one-hour meeting, the seer told me about a man who was to be the love of my life. She described his light eyes, light hair, and light skin. He would want me to go on a trip with him, she said. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but thought more about it later and started keeping an eye out for someone who fit the profile.

I saw Jim Carroll again a month or so later, when we shared the bill at the Poetry Project’s New Year’s Day Marathon at St. Mark’s Church. Jim was talking to Patti Smith, who was also scheduled and whose friendship I’d been nervously courting. I went up to Patti and said hello, but I ignored Jim, instinctively guessing Patti didn’t want me talking to him. As Jim later told me, my instincts were correct. But Patti was polite, and reached out for me to shake her hand. That was enough at the time; I knew there’d be more to come.

Again I was right. Soon after, I heard Jim was slated to teach a summer course at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Yeah, you bet I was there. I quit my temp job as a secretary at Columbia House (you know, 10 records for one cent, or whatever) and flew to Boulder. I tried to enroll in Carroll’s course, but it was full, so my two weeks were instead spent with the wonderful Anne Waldman. Still I stayed on the lookout for Jim. And then it happened: one day Anne assigned everyone in her class to spend 5 minutes in someone else’s course and write about it.

Yeah, you guessed it. I chose Jim’s class, of course. He was late, of course. So late that some wondered whether we should leave. When he finally arrived, the first 5 minutes of his “lecture” were rambling, marginally coherent, and brilliant … of course. And of course I waited for him after class. My heart pounding, I went up and asked if he ever taught writing in New York. He said no — no more than that. Disappointed, I started to turn away when he threw a lifeline: “Hey, didn’t I see you talking to Patti at New Year’s?” What a relief. And it became a joy, as we began the first of several gossipy conversations that we had about other poets and people we knew. In fact, my chats with him made that summer literally magical for me. Both of us being students of occult sciences, I remember in particular one balmy, starry summer night during which we had a long and fascinating conversation about alchemy, kundalini, and the Golden Dawn. Jim showed unexpectedly at a poetry reading I also attended the next night. Once or twice I glanced over in his direction and caught him looking at me. We had another intimate chat afterward, but parted ways that night, the final evening of an enchanted summer.

Later I saw Jim in the City. I was a guest backstage when he did shows downtown. He’d given me his address and a phone number, so I left a note at his place, plus a voice mail message or two. Maybe he’s the one the psychic predicted? I wondered. I didn’t put that much stock in it, but thought I’d give it a try. But Jim didn’t respond. So I resorted to high school strategy. I called Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith’s guitarist), to learn my chances. Hands off, he told me. Jim was taken. Plus there were other circumstances that I sensed then and that have become clearer to me over time.

I was devastated. But just then my life had started devolving into a form of barely controlled chaos that has persisted for the ensuing ten years. And my female fury at being rejected led me to dismiss Jim from my mind entirely. I never saw him again, and rarely thought about him — until today, when I saw his picture next to an onscreen obit.

So I see in Jim Carroll a cautionary tale. Not about the dangers of drugs, but about something that in my opinion is far worse. About the tragedy that can happen when we let pride, guilt, sorrow, and events create between us a distance that can never be bridged. People you care about — or you yourself — can disappear at any time, without warning.

As for the love of my life, well, the verdict’s still out on his identity. It wasn’t Jim Carroll. Nor were Jim and I ever close, though at some point I think we both wanted to be. Nonetheless, he mattered to me, and he matters still. And naturally there’s more to this story than I can or will disclose in this, my very first blog entry.

An entry, that, far from forced, is my tribute of thanks to Jim. For from him I have I learned regret. I know in my bones that, had fate not intervened with mysterious dissonance; had not our own issues and problems scrambled the signals; we could have become close. Who knows — maybe destiny stepped in to protect me from him? I can never be certain. But in death Jim taught me the error of dismissing from my life people I care about. And, though our paths touched only briefly, I’m happy to have known that talented writer, compelling performer, and fascinating human being (if human he was). And I’m more grateful now for the other blessed and gifted souls whom I am fortunate enough to have in my life. Thank you, Jim. Maybe we’ll both do better next time.

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