It’s been nearly a week since the passing of Jim Carroll, a man who always really reminded me of New York and whom (oddly) passed away last Friday September 11, a date which of course will also always be associated with the great US city. I’d meant to write something on Jim’s death a few days ago but alas I’ve only got around to it now.
It was the movie adaptation of ‘The Basketball Diaries’, with Leo Di Caprio in the lead role, that first got me interested in Carroll way back around 1995. From there I read the book on which it is based. For those who don’t know, Carroll’s debut prose work is – as the title partly suggests – a memoir, chronicling his teenage years from being a promising high-school basketball player in New York to a full-blown heroin addict at 15 years old, kicked-out by his mother and prone to prostituting himself to support his habit.
Published in 1978 and detailing a period in and around 1965, it’s a superbly written work and was one of the first books I’d read in my teenage years that got me really excited for its raw energy, great phrases and harrowing honesty. It’s also a tale arguably more relevant today – certainly in Ireland – than it may have been in the 60s or 70s. Fair to say it’s still one of my favourite books and one which sits comfortably as part of the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.
And punk is inextricably linked to Carroll – certainly with regards the New York punk scene. A fine poet and an inspiration to New York punk favourites such as Patti Smith, Carroll’s book was, as mentioned, published at the height of the punk explosion. Prior to that he’d read and sold his poetry as a struggling artist picking up plaudits from the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and – from the music world – Lou Reed. Indeed it was poetry which helped claw him out from the throes of addiction. It was also Patti Smith – along with Carroll’s wife of the time Rosemary – who pushed him forward to pen music to his words. An impressed Keith Richards then arranged a three-album record deal, resulting in 1980’s much under-rated punk classic and Jim Carroll Band debut, ‘Catholic Boy’.
Carroll continued to release three more albums in the 80s as well as one album in the late 1990s along with an EP earlier this decade. His poetry also began to flourish, if receiving less frequent publication as his years passed. At the time of his death, the gaunt (but then he was always gaunt) 60-year-old was working on his debut novel, tentatively titled ‘The Petting Zoo’. He died at his home in NYC, working at his desk, after suffering a heart attack.
The Basketball Diaries aside, I also loved much of his poetry – particularly from Living At The Movies – but it was perhaps his music which I most enjoyed. I had all three albums on cassette (time to upgrade them to vinyl). Oddly, in not listening to Carroll or reading his work in a number of years his name seemed to creep into my life in recent times. In San Francisco I stumbled across a signed copy of ‘Catholic Boy’ on vinyl (which I now regret not buying), while in New York I came across various editions of his work on street stalls in Brooklyn. Odd, but then isn’t it all?
Below is a poem Carroll wrote for Rolling Stone. It’s one of my favourites of his and oddly reminds me of Kurt Cobain (though it was penned in 1980 – incidentally Carroll did write a poem on Kurt Cobain’s death which you can read here).
It’s sad this vision required such height.
I’d have preferred to be down with the others, in the stadium.
They know the terror of birds.
I am left, instead, with the deep drone…
The urgency to deliver light, as if it
were some news from the far galaxies.
Jim Carroll 1949 – 2009. This was a person who died.
Jim, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother.