Jim Carroll died yesterday. It wasn't as if I knew him. He was but one of many representatives of that era in southern Manhattan that I just missed. In 1967, when I was born, Carroll was 17 and had just published his first book of poems. By the time I could walk, he was working in Andy Warhol's factory. In 1978 he published The Basketball Diaries. I was 11. My sister, infinitely wiser at 4 years my senior and deeply into the cranky edge of New York music, had a copy.
I read it serendipitously over and over again--the story of a boy, not much older than me, who experienced a world of sex and drugs and music and life that seemed exciting and forbidden to an overweight pimply farmboy. New York was impossibly far away: a three hour drive. I'd been a few times on field trips. It seemed inconceivably large and claustrophobic at the same time, like standing underneath the bones of a woolly mammoth.
Fascinated by Jim's bad behavior, titillated by his experiences, I found my own excitement in the form of an Atari 2600.
I couldn't afford my own, and my parents, deep in the throes of hiding my fathers alcoholism, were in no position to be anything but thankful someone else (the farm owners, the family of my best friend) was providing me meals on a regular basis. A few hundred yards from my meager bed lived a massive Advent projection television and an Atari 2600 with a seemingly endless supply of cartridges. As a generation of kids running feral on a farm, it was all too easy to sneak out of whatever invented chores the adults had concocted to hide in the attic with Combat, Pitfall, Slot Racer, Adventure.
I would sneak into this heroin den of pixelpower on Sunday afternoons while the family was at church, worshiping Nolan Bushnell.
1980: Jim Carroll releases "Catholic Boy," an album of generally derivative neo-punk that features the only music he'll ever be known for: "People Who Died."
I play Zork on the school's Apple II computer until my fingers bleed. I develop elaborate hand-drawn maps. The arcade in the nearest big town -- some 20 minutes away -- gets a Tempest console. I spend vast amounts of money on it, learning every nuance of the first 30 levels, and holding court on the leaderboard for months, in what would be an extremely rare occurrence in my videogaming career.
Flash forward some 30 years. 2009. My musical tastes still draw me towards a city that never sleeps, towards 2AM surprise performances from unknown-but-cool bands and a youth culture long since passed me by in Greenwich Village and below. But the real me, the one who experiences life from moment to moment, is still trapped in the mainstream of gamer culture. "The Dead Weather" while playing World of Warcraft.
And to be honest, there's really no part of me that holds any real nostalgia for Julian of Games Past. Nearly without fail, every nostalgic burst of reminiscence into my Jim Carroll game years results in little more than a pang of longing and a "What Was I Thinking." Pac-Man, years later, is redundant and boring. Defender? Redundant and boring. Only a stand-up, original arcade cabinet with a working spinner and a decent screen featuring Tempest can consistently elicit that tuning fork in my loins that says "yes, yes, yes." Monkey Island, all these years later, is a museum piece -- beautiful, and thankfully preserved, but less engaging with every passing year.
Jim Carroll is gone, another old horse dead from a counterculture scene I worshiped and just missed. Nintendo's Virtual Console, Good Old Games, the dozen emulators on my PSP, the endless retreads of ancient glories packaged as "treasuries" and "collections" and "greatest hits" all claim that I can go home again.
But they lie. The past is gone, as surely as Warhol and Vicious and Lennon are rotting in their respective repositories. Better to look for the shock of the new than the warm blanket and comfort food of what will never be like it was.
Article image from The Minus World.