Songs of Our Lives: Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died”
Margaret’s husband Michael co-owned the Bowery Ballroom and the Mercury Lounge, two iconic rock clubs on New York’s Lower East Side where I worked for a decade—my homes away from home. Margaret kept the books, but she was more than a bookkeeper. She was the den mother to all of us who worked there. On the cards we printed for her memorial we wrote, “the heart and soul of The Bowery Ballroom.”
I started out by selling tickets in the box office, selling merch for bands, checking coats, and hauling kegs. Margaret worked out of the central office, but she’d come through the clubs every day, her salt and pepper ponytail swinging. Margaret was curious. She wanted to know what I wrote about. She wanted to know why I didn’t speak to my father anymore. The companies were growing, they were opening new clubs in Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan. Margaret needed an additional assistant. I was twenty-four, busier calling myself a writer than doing any actual writing. I didn’t know the first thing about handling my own money, let alone anybody else’s. She promoted me anyway.
As Margaret’s assistant, I spent my days running around between the clubs, tallying bar receipts, corralling guest lists, and buying snacks for dressing rooms. Then I’d climb the five flights of stairs to Margaret’s office and tumble breathless through her door to deliver her paperwork. She’d lean back in her chair, grinning and chewing Nicorette. We talked a mile a minute, about books, astrology, and how stupid people could be. All in little spurts, fifteen minutes here, half an hour there. She had a business to run, and I was busy being young. Our friendship was built on these islands, these fragmentary interactions.
The Bowery Ballroom hosted rock and roll two hundred nights a year, from flash in the pan one-hit wonders to living legends like Patti Smith. For over a decade, Patti played the last three nights of every year at the Bowery. December 30 was her birthday, and Margaret would dispatch me to Ceci Cela, a local French patisserie, to get the most delicious chocolate cake we could find for Patti. She’d blow out the candles on stage.
We opened doors at 7 p.m., but Patti’s fans lined up outside as early as noon whether it was unseasonably sunny or a raging blizzard. The same faces lined up year in, year out: old Lower East Side rockers with faded tattoos and worn denim. Mostly they were women, twenty or more years older than me, many of them loudly and proudly queer. Despite our generation gap I felt we always had a rapport, meeting up like clockwork to close out the year, our shared ritual.
Patti led the ceremony, backed by her longtime band. In between songs, (and sometimes during), she would bare her soul in prose and poetry. Each year she artfully rambled about goodness, grief, death, music, peace, and love. She struck me as a willow tree; or a wizard, wise and weary. I’d watch her weave spells and think about that skinny young poet on the cover of Horses. Watching her, I would think about how I was struggling to find my own voice.
I loved hearing classics like “Redondo Beach,” “Mother Rose,” and “Because the Night.” There was one song, though, that pushed me away rather than draw me in: a cover that Patti would sing every year on her birthday, a down note to balance out the sweetness of chocolate cake. She introduced the song in the same way each year, as a celebration of those who’d died since the last time she sang it in the Bowery Ballroom’s walls. She’d mention particular names—friends of hers, famous artists. But she’d dedicate it to everyone who’d gone.
The song was “People Who Died,” originally written and recorded by the writer Jim Carroll, who is perhaps best known for The Basketball Diaries. I didn’t like it very much. The song was loud, fast, abrasive. Relentless. Patti’s guitarist Lenny Kaye and her bassist Tony Shanahan would sing the verses, a litany of tragic and untimely deaths. Then Patti would grab the mic and the whole band would scream together.
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died!
They were all my friends, and they died!
I’d stand in the back, watching the audience go nuts. All these grey-hairs had seen so much more death than I had. They’d lived through the 60s, the 70s, heroin, AIDS, and here they stood, throwing their hands and fists up towards Patti and Lenny and Tony who were leaning forward singing their hearts right back. It felt like everyone in the room but me was pulled to the same center of gravity, something dark and powerful I couldn’t find my way into. I didn’t get it. I’d shrug, go downstairs, order another beer.
Our Bowery family, we spent so much time putting on shows for other people. Margaret’s memorial was for us. She died on December 9, 2009, and we held the remembrance on December 20 in the Bowery Ballroom. Inches of snow on the ground outside, but it was a packed house nonetheless. As people eulogized her, we projected images of Margaret on a screen behind them. Margaret with red wine hogging the karaoke mic at the company Christmas party. Margaret on a boat, pulling down the neckline of her yellow shirt and touching her finger to her breast, her heart, with her mouth open as if to say: how scandalous. A black-and-white photo of Margaret in the cramped Lower East Side apartment she had shared with Michael in the 1980s. Still a dancer, still young. She sits on the floor in white underwear and a white t-shirt, staring deep into the camera, into Michael, while one muscular leg points up at the ceiling. She’s on the telephone. It’s a landline, and the curly wire runs out of the frame.
In May of the year she died, I was working in the Bowery office when the phone rang. “Listen,” Margaret said when I picked up, and then, without a hint of drama, “I have cancer. Don’t worry. I’m gonna beat this.”
I didn’t see Margaret again until December, seven long months, though we communicated constantly by email. We had always liked to use old-timey speak, greeting each other with a grandiloquent “Good day!” whenever I came tumbling into her office. She was fond of a particular Victorian affectation: ending her letters with “I remain, Margaret.” During these months, I didn’t see her, didn’t hear the clack of her gum, didn’t witness her grin, her ponytail bobbing as she moved like a spark through space. But she remained, Margaret in my inbox, Margaret on my phone, while I stepped up my hours to fill her unfillable shoes, a writer becoming a bookkeeper.
Remission. Recurrence. Experimental treatments. And then hospice. I’d lost an old sick grandfather when I was younger, and an old sick cat. But Margaret was fifty-four years old and filled with fire. I never expected her to go. When I saw her again—for the first time in so long, for the last time—she was barely there. A knit cap on her bald head, skin and bones, a tube under her nose trailing to an oxygen canister that followed her everywhere like an anchor.
I held her hand. I don’t think we had ever said I love you before. We said it.
The next day she was gone, and I learned what grief was. It was more than a fact, more than a thought. It lived in the body, it cut and burned. I still feel the echo of the moment when I heard that she was gone, when I got the call from our friend Amanda. No words, just sobbing on the other end of the line. It doesn’t help to know someone is on death’s door. When it finally comes, it still cleaves you in the chest, and you realize how much scaffolding you’ve built inside to keep yourself upright. And then you just crumble.
Nine days after Margaret’s memorial it was time for Patti again. The same faces in attendance as always. To them, the Bowery Ballroom must have looked and felt the same that year as it always had. Though I now worked full-time for the company, I still picked up shifts at the clubs here and there. The night of Patti’s birthday show I was in the coat check surrounded by five hundred parkas and peacoats, distracting myself from my grief by reading a book. So much pain had poured out of me in the last few weeks. I was exhausted, and desperate to staunch the bleeding.
The concerts were piped downstairs through the PA. I turned the page and heard Patti say that the next number was dedicated to those we’d lost this year.
That fucking song.
Jim Carroll, the song’s writer, had died three months earlier at age sixty, suffering a heart attack while working at his writing desk. Patti dedicated it to him first and foremost. Her stories of him filtered to my ears as I read, still just background noise. She dedicated it to Vic Chesnutt as well, an eccentric and beautiful quadriplegic musician from Athens, GA, who had died of an overdose that was likely a suicide. Then I heard her say Margaret’s name.
To hear that name come out of Patti Smith’s mouth. I felt my insides wobble as the sound of it wriggled through me. I threw down my book. I climbed over the coat check table, legs shaking, ran past the bar, and with wet eyes begged the bartenders to keep an eye on my station, promising, I’ll be right back. I took the stairs two at a time and pushed through the wall of people at the back of the sold-out crowd just as the song took off running. I shouldered and squirmed into the press of bodies, desperate to be in the middle of it, the middle of the sound, the center of the lights, the heart of the cavernous room stretching high above my head.
I’d spent the last ten days rebuilding my scaffolding to keep myself from collapsing. In a flurry of song it all came undone. I was frightened of this grief, of its gravity, and yet how sickly sweet it felt to feel it fresh and new. I was terrified of losing Margaret’s memory; the touch of her hand, the kindness in her eyes. My chest split open, exposing a gap, an absence inside me where she now lived, and I heaved animal sobs into the pounding of drums, guitar, bass, and the choral call of people who died. The band leaned forward, the crowd reached out, and I reached out with them. I curled my fingers tight, nails biting skin, stretching my skeleton to its limits, feeling the swell of each breath into the absence, and finding as I did that Margaret remained. I wasn’t alone. All around me were strangers. All around me were friends. A dark glittering sea of fists. What a terrible, wonderful thing, to be welcomed into this fellowship at last.
Image credits: feature image, image 2, image 3.