Vinyl Vlog 470

Vinyl Vlog 470

Wednesday, 30 December 2020
”Catholic Boy” from the reissued Catholic Boy LP by Jim Carroll Band.

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the Fat Possum reissue of the Catholic Boy LP by the Jim Carroll Band. Readers need to know that, first, I did not sleep on this review [the Fat Possum reissue of Catholic Boy was originally released on October 10, 2019 –ed] – the truth is that I’ve written and then started over with this review a multitude of times, but it has always stalled at one point of another, and caused me to start over. Mayne it’s because I’m too close to it; I’ve written about author/musician Jim Carroll several times – his work has had a significant impact on my life. Trying to present that and still present a cogent review for those who may not be familiar with the artist or his body of work is not easy without going into all the backstory of the artist’s life. So let’s start dry: “Jim Carroll was a writer first who grew up in New York, published his breakthrough novel in 1978 and then moved to Los Angeles where he wrote and recorded Catholic Boy – which was originally released in 1980. There is a strikingly similar tone and authoritative voice associated with both Carroll’s prose and his music; in fact it could easily be argued that one artform could not exist without the other, in Carroll’s case. He was encouraged to write and record Catholic Boy by fellow New Yorker Patti Smith, and there’s no doubt that the singer’s fingerprints exist – albeit indirectly – on this album. It could be argued that (even less directly than in Smith’s case) the sensibility of fellow New Yorker and fellow recovered hard drug addict Richard Hell is on this album too – although Hell had nothing whatsoever to do with making Catholic Boy, directly. That doesn’t mean there doesn’t feel as though there’s an influence.

That swirl of creative activity – the emergence of punk from New York, the influence of some of those musicians on pop culture in general and on creative writing as well as journalism – is what informed Catholic Boy as Jim Carroll was writing and recording it in Los Angeles. In effect, it is a love letter to the Big Apple by a man who came of age there – but who needed to move away from the city to realize it.

With that knowledge in hand, appreciating Catholic Boy gets a whole lot easier to do. As “Wicket Gravity” opens the A-side of the album, some of the ghosts of New York punk manifest (the guitars do not echo The Ramones or Tom Verlaine, but rather more closely tie themselves to the work of Lenny Kaye and Ivan Julian), and the bass and drums simply seek to hold the song together while Carroll introduces a hyper-literate vocal style which has been hardwired to a vocal delivery similar to that of Iggy Pop. In effect, there is a sense of innocence present which is as unavoidable as the darkness which accompanies it; true, it is a little loose and feels a little uncertain as a result, but these things help to endear the song to listeners – not alienate them from it (no wonder Pearl Jam helped Carroll realize the soundtrack for The Basketball Diaries – the way this first album is assembled is right up that band’s alley). From note one, guitarists Brian Linsley and Tarrell Winn erect a sound which features some elements of New Wave (which , in 1980 – when the album was originally released – was very exciting) – and shares more than just a little of a genetic similarity with alt-rock as well. That sound is capable of instantly stealing interest, and then it’s contained by bassist Steve Linsley and drummer Wayne Woods, which seals the deal, in performance; the results are timeless – it plays as strongly in 2020 as it did in 1980, and really gets Catholic Boy started on the right foot.

After “Wicket Gravity,” “Three Sisters” blazes forth with punk power chords on full display and finds Carroll further fleshing out the New York that he grew up in before easing off the throttle for “Day and Night” – which sort of finds the place between Richard Hell’s “Betrayal Takes Two” and Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” and inhabits it comfortably. Even now – in spite of the ‘very Eighties’ synth undercurrents included (which used to get employed to fill out the mixes of songs – and does here, as well), the romantic tendencies of “Day and Night” hold up well as Carroll reflects on a girl who may or may not have really existed, but lives in undying beauty with the help of the author’s lyrical talent. After that, the A-side of the album falls back into gear for more Noo Yawk punk as Carroll envisions it with “Nothing is True,” before the singer immortalizes many of the ghosts of his childhood for “People Who Died” – which closes the side.

To this day, regardless of the context in which is appears, that “People Who Died” became the song which introduced Jim Carroll to the world as a musical entity is perfectly understandable. More than any other track in the singer’s songbook, it exemplifies the heart of New York punk and lives through it – while also quietly implying that the movement had ended and new things were on the horizon.

After the explosion of “People Who Died” prompts listeners to flip the record over at its conclusion, “City Drops Into Night” renews the energy that the A-side trailed off with for the B-. There, some listeners may compare the chorus-or-flange-effected and palm-muted guitars to something that John Carpenter might have written for the score of one of his movies, and the sax passage in the song echoes David Bowie’s work in the same decade. The combination is a great, dimly-lit backdrop for the song, which reads menacingly through darkness and, by the end, listeners will find that they feel chilled from the experience, but also energized by it as well.

After “City Drops Into Night” sets a tone for the side, “Crow” lightens and speeds up a little to achieve something which resembles an early Eighties-era Lou Reed cut, and continues with Carroll’s hypnotic street dialogue (which also sounds more than a little like Lou Reed – albeit in a higher vocal register) before the decidedly more “New Wave” tone of “It’s Too Late” fumbles the rhythm by presenting itself as entirely too upfront and trying to appease a pop market (which it may have been able to do in 1980, but sounds anachronistic now), “I Want The Angel” feels as though it wants to be a duet with Debbie Harry and then the title cut closes out both the side and the album beautifully.

Now, there’s little doubt that those who are familiar with the Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Basketball Diaries, are familiar with the song “Catholic Boy,” but those who are unfamiliar with this album need to know that the song plays a little differently here. In the film, the song was re-recorded by Carroll with Pearl Jam backing him – which sounds pretty far-removed from the version here. While similar, this take of “Catholic Boy” fits right in with the rest of the album’s running; unlike Pearl Jam’s version, the musical performance is leaner and rougher around the edges. Here, the bass andd drums work together to propel the song along (in the soundtrack version, the bass is more passive), and the rhythm guitar doesn’t seek to soothe through the chorus as it did in the film. Conversely too, the lead guitar plays a far rattier permutation of the solo passage here than was the case of Mike McCreedy’s performance in the soundtrack. As a result, “Catholic Boy” ends the album in a far more raucous manner than how the song opened the movie; in this case and context, the song baits listeners into wanting more instead of gently hinting at what may come (which is what the soundtrack version did).

…So ends the album. In retrospect, “Catholic Boy” did leave listeners wanting more, there would just not prove to be more to have. In 1980, not a lot of listeners were looking for a bookish punk (in 1980, those listeners who were looking at punk on the west coast at all found albums like X’s Los Angeles or maybe the first couple of EPs by Black Flag – which featured Keith Morris and Ron Reyes on vocals, respectively), and Carroll proved to be even more out of sync with popular taste as years continued and albums got even less popular reception (to put none too fine a point on it, I’m a Jim Carroll fan and I didn’t know he released two more studio albums and a live album after Catholic Boy in the Eighties). True, Carroll would make cultural inroads with Rancid and Pearl Jam in the Nineties, but even those were of little consequence. That said, Catholic Boy stands as the enduring musical document that Jim Carroll made in his abbreviated musical career; it is a pretty good (but certainly not perfect) album and that it has been reissued on vinyl by Fat Possum Records is a genuine delight – made bittersweet by the fact that there can be no new music and an ongoing reissue campaign is very unlikely. [Bill Adams]


Further Reading: – Jim Carroll – The Basketball Diaries[Book review]

The Fat Possum-pressed vinyl reissue of the Catholic Boy LP is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.

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