Monday, November 3, 2014

Song of the Day: The Jim Carroll Band - People Who Died (1980)

This is the best punk song you've never heard. Jim Carroll was the NYC street punk/poet who wrote the autobiography The Basketball Diaries, which was turned into a film in 1995 with a young Leonardo DiCaprio playing Carroll. Carroll lived a life few of us can fathom, with heroin, prostitution, trouble with the law, friends dying, and everything else thrown in, all before he turned 20. It's one of the most extreme cautionary tales of modern urban life. But few people know that Carroll's redemption and overcoming his addictions culminated with his forming a punk band at the end of the 1970's, and this was their debut single. (FYI: the song doesn't start until about 20 seconds into the video)

"People Who Died" is morbid, and all the more so because it's factual. The stories Carroll tells in the song are all based on people he knew. At first it might seem inappropriate to turn so much tragedy into entertainment, but to Carroll, this was his life. This isn't entertainment to him, it's a coping mechanism. 

One of the central missions of the original punk movement was to seize back reality from the ridiculous excesses of 70's mainstream rock, and few were more prepared to do that than Carroll. I encourage everyone to look up the complete lyrics to the song, but here are two verses where the starkness of the words are equal parts shocking and heartbreaking. 

Herbie pushed Tony from the Boys' Club roof
Tony thought that his rage was just some goof
But Herbie sure gave Tony some, some bitchin' proof
And Herbie said "Tony, can you fly?"
But Tony couldn't fly... Tony died 
Brian got busted on a Narco rap
He beat the rap by ratting on some bikers
He said, "Hey, I know it's dangerous, but it sure beats Rikers."
But the very next day he got offed
By the very same bikers

Is this funny? I guess, kind of. But to Carroll, tragedy didn't have the same sting when it was all around you, all the time. All people find ways to laugh about their misfortune. For Carroll, misfortune was just far more extreme than what most of us are used to. But he did better than merely laugh about it, he used it to fuel meaningful art. 

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 30, 2014

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