In Homage to the Sorrows: Jim Carroll 1949-2009

jim-carrollRock and roll poets are few and far between, and the modifier suggests something less than the genuine article, someone who would never be courted by the literary world, a maverick imposter in the hallowed house of words. Jim Carroll was that rare, exotic creature, a rock interloper whose talent could not be airily dismissed. A lauded contradiction who was equally at home in a rock band and a literary salon. He had also been a budding basketball player, the handsome embodiment of the American dream, but Carroll's early sporting promise took a turn towards darkness. He would never really emerge from these shadows, but that made him the Rimbaud of Manhattan and beyond.

It wasn't the desire for Hollywood gloss that landed Leonardo DiCaprio the part of Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries; he looked very much like the man he portrayed on screen. The movie turned Carroll from a counter-culture icon, and minor Warhol-ite, into a more rounded (and more wealthy) kind of celebrity. It was never a role he'd ever craved, but one that kept falling his way.

Talent and looks gave Carroll an incredible allure. When questioned about the Columbine shootings, he gave short and withering shrift to those who attempted to engage him on the matter. “Artists have nothing to do with the deranged, vaguely connected actions of a few celebrated nutcases” was how he resisted the requests to appear as a talking head on the matter. Artistic influence is one thing, but trying to make artists responsible for such events is merely reflexive scapegoating by those who need someone to blame, and Carroll knew that from experience.

James Dennis Carroll was born August 1, 1949 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where his father owned a bar. His fall from clean-cut teenage sportsman, attending the prestigious and private Trinity School on the Upper West Side, where he'd won a scholarship in 1964, was slow and initially undetected. He'd discovered hard drugs at the age of thirteen, resulting in a strangely comic double life of male prostitution to fund his heroin habit, and sporting accolades at the National High School All Star Game in 1966. By the time he turned 18, Carroll had already published a pamphlet of poetry, Organic Trains, having been a regular at the Sts Mark's Poetry Project in Greenwich Village. When extracts from his journals were trailered in the Paris Review in 1970, the The Basketball Diaries were germinated. He dropped out of Wagner College and Columbia University, which lead to his inevitable inclusion in the Warhol set, where he wrote dialogue for the silver-wigged wonder’s experimental films.

In that year he met the budding artist, and then occasional poet, Patti Smith. It was Carroll who advised her to concentrate on her writing more. By the end of that decade she would return the favor by encouraging him to follow her route into music. Jim and Patti were perfect bookends of masculine and feminine androgyny and downward mobility. Carroll was a strange amalgam of two Davids, Johansen and Bowie, betraying the vulnerable harshness so evident in both men, but adding a strange other-worldliness of his own.

He shared a loft with Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a period he brings vividly to life in The Downtown Diaries, 1973, published 1987. He was also a resident of the legendary Hotel Chelsea. When his first full collection of poems was published by the prestigious Grossman & Co., Carroll had arrived at the age of 23. The collection betrayed a wise and mature eye at odds with the youthfulness of its creator. Drawing praise from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, he became the new kid in town. An attempt to get clean by moving to San Francisco resulted in his marriage in 1978 to Rosemary Klemfuss. His collection of stories The Book of Nods appeared in 1986.

In the late 1970s, Carroll acted on Patti Smith's advice, and with Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s help he secured a record deal with Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. His debut album, Catholic Boy, was a blistering tour de force that dented the American album charts in 1980. Carroll was photographed standing between his parents by Annie Liebovitz, an iconic visual contradiction of conformity and dissidence; she also provided the cover shot for the follow-up, Dry Dreams, and he became a major draw on the college circuit. At a sell-out show at TRAX in New York, Keith Richards made a guest appearance. The Jim Carroll Band released the wonderfully focused I Write Your Name in 1983, but despite a snaking version of “Sweet Jane” enhanced by Carroll's junky-yelp phrasing, and tracks that suggested greater things to come, especially the Cramps-like “Black Romance” or the heartbreakingly sad “Dance the Night Away,” he'd lost interest in the music side of things.

Three albums seemed enough for his short attention span, and although he would collaborate with Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs in the '80s, his true interest was spoken word recordings. His Praying Mantis collection means the listener will never be able to think of the assassination of J.F.K, veal fillets, masturbation and Barbra Streisand without smiling repeatedly. It is an added irony that Carroll's paean to departed friends, “People Who Died,” soundtracked the opening scene of Spielberg's E.T.

Jim Carroll published two further collections of poetry in the 1990s, Fear of Dreaming in 1993 and Void of Course three years later, but the man who'd long ago relished “When I was nine years old, I realised that the real thing was not only to do what you were doing...but to look totally great while you were doing it” became a shambling, skeletal shadow of his once elegantly wasted self. The Basketball Diaries was a cautionary tale that became an epistle of heroin chic. It still exudes an air of effortless cleverness and poise. Carroll was a poet of pared-down brilliance, but that attribute of his poetry he also imposed on his own physicality. He seemed a man from another time, someone who embodied a sensibility lost in these quickly changing times, but one who elicited a tremendous respect from his peers. His is a select but perfectly formed canon of work. In the words of one used them sparingly, his "POEM" requests

Pay homage to the sorrows
Make your sadness graceful

If possible

Your confessions as well...

peace, Robert Cochrane

The Jim Carroll Band

cochrane.jpg

Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear soon.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.