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Jim Carroll

Literary Greats (Part XIII)

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

Recognized for many different reasons; a diarist, poet, and punk rock musician, he was part of New York’s post punk and beatnik scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s and had lived a harrowing existence of drug addiction and prostitution in his younger years famously chronicled in his best known novels, the gritty autobiographical, The Basketball Diaries and it’s follow up, Forced Entries. In addition to his literary output, his music also continues to influence many artists and poets of the post punk genre and spoken word.

Born James Denis Carroll in Manhattan, New York, August 1st 1949, he was raised in a Irish working class family to parents, Thomas J. and Agnes Carroll (nee Coyle) within the Lower East side of Manhattan, traditionally an immigrant, working class neighbourhood. He had one sibling, his older brother Tom and his father and grandfather were both bartenders in their conservative Irish neighbourhood. His father was absent most of his life and during Jim’s drug addiction years, it became a significant source of tension between them, although by the 1990’s they had managed to patch things up.

Even less is known about his mother aside from the fact she struggled to control Jim’s anti religion and anti- authoritarian ways.

When Jim was eleven, the family moved north to Inwood in Upper Manhattan and inspired by his literary hero, Jack Kerouac, at age twelve he started keeping a diary which would later be the source of his acclaimed book, The Basketball Diaries based on his teenage high school basketball career, his descent into heroin addiction and prostitution from twelve to sixteen.

Although he hated the Catholic schools he attended, he was encouraged to continue writing by some of his teachers who saw a real talent in his poetry.

He attended several Catholic Grammar schools between 1955 and 1963 and was a talented basketball player throughout grade and middle school which earned him an academic and athletic scholarship to the private Trinity School in Manhattan in 1964. He became one of Manhattan’s top basketball players and played in the 1966 National High School All-Star Basketball game. He continued his first passion of writing and attended poetry workshops and his first collection of poetry, Organic Trains was published when he was sixteen and in the depths of his heroin addiction.

He started experimenting with drugs at age twelve and soon turned to heroin with it first beginning as experimentation and casual use but before long he became addicted and turned to gay prostitution to fund his habit. He turned to a life of petty crime and violence to keep his habit fed, continuing to write prolifically while searching for something pure and holy, a stark contrast to his anti- religious ideations.

During these years he was still known as a talented poet and graduated from Trinity School in 1968. The same year he started publishing The Basketball Diaries in excerpt form only in the late sixties and early seventies until it was published in its entirety as a book in 1978.

In 1969 he attended both Wagner College and Columbia briefly before dropping out and began making his presence more known in the literary world. Between 1967 and 1971 he published many poems in various literary magazines including the prestigious literary journal in the country, Paris Review. During this time his prolific output earned him a place in the art community with two publications being the most pivotal publishing his definitive poems, ‘Prell’ and excerpts from The Basketball Diaries in the Paris Review and ‘The Distances’ in Poetry Magazine. Founded in 1912, Poetry Magazine is still in continuous publication making it the oldest monthly magazine devoted to verse in the English language.

The Paris Review excerpts not only won Jim the Random House Young Writers award in 1970, it also made an impression on some of New York’s leading art crowd. His poet friend, Ted Berrigan was instrumental in this and hitchhiked with Jim to Maine to visit his literary hero, Jack Kerouac. After reading thirty pages of ‘The Diaries’, Kerouac stated that, “At the age of thirteen, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 per cent of the novelists working today.” Even William Burroughs commented than Jim “must be a born writer.”

Mark Norton (former vocalist of 1970’s Detroit Punk band, The Ramrods) also observed that, “Generally, it is the kiss of death to be blessed by the gods so quickly,” in reference to Jim’s poetry success. And in many ways it was with Jim’s combination of youthful good looks and “street punk” image coupled with his pristine poetry and “pornographic” diaries he came across an a enigma to many and found himself thrust into the limelight with a reputation of talented, young street poet and where the lines blurred between the transformation of his life into art.

Like Rimbaud, Jim Carroll wrote prophetic, hallucinatory poems, lived a decadent life and achieved fame not long after puberty with his earliest work that became paramount over his later art.

In the spring of 1970, Patti Smith, the famed singer/songwriter author and poet met Jim Carroll for the first time at a poetry reading and for a brief time during the summer he became a roommate of hers. Around the same time he started working for Andy Warhol writing film dialogue and would later become the co-manager of Warhol’s Theatre. His book of collected poems titled, ‘Living At The Movies’ would include some inspirations from his time working with Warhol and was published in 1973, with it’s success so extraordinary, that at twenty two, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

However, his drug abuse had also began to take its toll on his already frail frame and with the help of a literary grant, eager to kick his heroin habit for good, he moved across country to Bolinas, California, a small artist’s community north of San Francisco. It was here he met his future wife, Rosemary Klemfuss, a law student at nearby Stanford University who would later become an entertainment attorney known for her famous clients, Nirvana’s late frontman, Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love.

Having become finally sober, In 1978, Jim Carroll and Rosemary wed and would have two children together, Aaron and Cassandra and after the success of ‘The Diaries.’ Rosemary encouraged Jim to pursue a musical path. Later than year, when the Patti Smith Group toured the West Coast, Jim travelled with them and was given an opening spot where he performed spoken word pieces over the band’s musical accompaniment. Shortly thereafter, he out together his own band initially called, Amsterdam, however they recorded their first demo as The Jim Carroll Band.

Famously, The Rolling Stones, Keith Richards got the band a record deal with Atlantic and the band released their debut album, Catholic Boy in 1980 to great critical praise.

Touted for baring his soul like a born ‘rock n roller’, Catholic Boy became an honest telling of the brutality of New York, including an ode to the casualties of New York’s drug scene, which Jim had lost many friends to. The track, ‘People Who Died’ would become the album’s most known song. Following the album’s success, the band moved to New York to record two more albums, ‘Dry Dream’s in 1982 and ‘I Write Your Name’ in 1984 which fulfilled the requirements of the band’s record contract but did not receive critic’s approval. Upon completion of the contract, Jim dissolved the band and went back to writing full time and began to explore another avenue, acting, making small appearances in the 1985 American drama movie, Tuff Turf starring a young James Spader, while publishing another book of verse and prose poetry, The Book of Nods in 1986.

The same year he and Rosemary filed for divorce but remained friends and he spent the rest of the 1980s moonlighting in the music industry, penning lyrics for bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs.

He continued to experiment with spoken word pieces in the early 1990s and famously participated in an MTV Unplugged session in 1994 reading his poem, “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain” that aired in June, a month after Kurt Cobain died. In 1995, he was thrust back into the public eye when the film of The Basketball Diaries was released starring a young Leonardo Dicaprio as the adolescent Jim. For the movie’s soundtrack, Jim teamed up with grunge titan’s, Pearl Jam to re-record his Catholic Boy’s title song.

The film was widely received but to mixed reviews despite grossing $2.4 million at the box office. Its ambiguous adaptation though largely accurate took too many creative liberties, although it served to highlight Leonardo’s mesmerising performance.

By 1997, Jim was once again bitten by the musical bug and went on to collaborate with two members of New York native, alternative band, Sonic Youth and producer, Anton Sanko for a Jack Kerouac tribute album titled, ‘Kicks Joy Darkness’.

Soon after, they helped him make his first record in fifteen years titled, ‘Pools of Mercury’ which included the aforementioned poem, ‘8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain’ rendered into a song.

Solidifying his return to music, Jim continued to release records and perform spoken word concerts with bands, although his prior years of drug abuse had physically become more apparent.

In the 2000’s he moved back to Inwood, Manhattan to the same building where he had grown up. By now, he was virtually reclusive due to his ill health and his once powerful athlete’s body had now been weakened by pneumonia and hepatitis C, plaguing him with constant circulatory problems. On September 11th, 2009 his body finally gave out and he died of a heart attack at his writing desk. He was sixty years old.

During these last years, he was finishing another autobiographical novel, ‘The Petting Zoo’. The book was in its final edits and was published posthumously in 2010.

“Jim’s combination of youthful good looks and “street punk” image, coupled with his pristine poetry and “pornographic” diaries, came across an a enigma to many, and he found himself thrust into the limelight”

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elocal Digital Edition – October 2020 (#235)

elocal Digital Edition
October 2020 (#235)