I was honored recently when the good folks at Noble Rot asked if I’d like to write liner notes for their reish of Jim Carroll’s debut spoken word album, Praying Mantis .
Carroll had a wonderfully corrupting and simultaneously purifying influence on my adolescent brain: I loved his early ’70s drug tales The Basketball Diaries and the album Catholic Boy, and was somehow able to convince the local 7-11 clerk to sell me the issue of Penthouse in which Carroll was interviewed.
At that age I was always scanning for influences, and Carroll led me to Frank O’Hara, the MOMA curator whose lunch hour poems fed a second career of even greater acclaim. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer, but not to write for a living, and that I was going to curate… something! So thanks, Jim, for opening doors I still use daily.
Here are my notes to Praying Mantis, available now from your local retailer or online record shop:
When New York writer Jim Carroll broke into mainstream celebrity in 1980/81, it was with the one/two punch of the successful mass market Bantam reprint of his small press
teenage junkie journals The Basketball Diaries and his debut album for Atco/Rolling Stone Records, Catholic Boy, featuring the gleefully morbid hit eulogy “People Who Died.”
The album and book worked together to establish a Jim Carroll persona that, while commercially viable, was nowhere the hard-to-pin-down Carroll would want to spend the rest of his creative life.
The publication of The Basketball Diaries was itself something of a fluke, born out of a need for material when the Poetry Center at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery issued a call for prose content for a special issue of The World magazine. At a loss for polished material, the young poet turned in excerpts from his youthful diaries of prep school sports, paid street sex and a measured descent into sensual drugged excess, ala Rimbaud.
These were an immediate camp hit in downtown literary circles, and later excerpted in The Paris Review, but Carroll wasn’t convinced they represented his best work and resisted the Dope Scribe pigeonhole.
Years of heroin addiction led to exile in rural Northern California, where Carroll cleaned up, wed, and explored the nascent San Francisco punk scene. Inspired by his one-time lover Patti Smith’s crossover from poet to rock and roller, Carroll wrote some songs, formed a band and passed a primitive demo to friend Earl McGrath, then president of the Rolling Stones’ label. Keith Richards was favorably impressed, and Catholic Boy was warmly received by critics, radio and fans.
But when two subsequent albums failed to build on this success, and musical collaborator Brian Marnell died after fighting his own heroin addiction, Carroll decided to put music aside and focus on poetry and live performance.
Praying Mantis (1991) was the result, a mainly live recording laid down at his old haunt St. Mark’s, before an enthusiastic audience. Drawing on his experience as a rock performer, Carroll unfurls a mixture of semi-improvised comic monologues and precise bursts of poetry, including pieces from his collections Living at the Movies (1972) and The Book of Nods (1986).
As delivered in his distinctive Noo Yawk whine, with some words so tangled in thick vowels they’re almost another language, others punctuated by a peculiar cadence where pauses appear unexpectedly, the material requires intense attention that rewards with humor and flashes of subtle, elegant observation.
Fans of Carroll’s non-fiction and rock and roll, concerned that a spoken word album might be dry, will be appeased by the tales of racing pubic lice, performance art collaborations with cockroaches, an erotically-charged heist tale and the Catholic take on Philip Roth’s masturbatory super time riff from Portnoy’s Complaint. But comic notes aside, there’s a dark urban poetry here, and visions filtered through a sieve of corruption, vice, longing and complex chemistries. As a statement of transition, Praying Mantis struck a confident note of a nimble artist reinventing himself anew.