Jim Carroll: Poet, punk rocker and author of 'The Basketball Diaries'

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The Independent Online

The New York poet and punk rocker Jim Carroll was the author of The Basketball Diaries, a lurid account of his transformation from a clean-cut teenager attending a private school in Manhattan to a junkie hustling around Times Square to support his habit.

Published in 1978, the book should have read as a cautionary tale but actually fed the myth of the cool, wasted junkie and provided vicarious entertainment for readers in thrall to heroin chic. It became a must-read for college students in the Eighties, and a bestseller in 1995 when it was made into a movie directed by Scott Kalvert and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The choice of lead actor proved especially apt since Carroll was blessed with good looks. "When I was about nine years old, I realised that the real thing was not only to do what you were doing totally great, but to look totally great while you were doing it," he told the poet Ted Berrigan in 1969. At that time, Carroll was part of Andy Warhol's Factory circle, and encouraged Patti Smith, with whom he also had a relationship, to concentrate on poetry rather than her drawings.

"I met him in 1970 and already he was pretty much universally recognised as the best poet of his generation," Smith told The New York Times. "The work was sophisticated and elegant. He had beauty." In the late 1970s, Smith suggested Carroll take up music like she had, and, with the added patronage of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, he secured a deal with Atco, the Atlantic subsidiary. Annie Leibovitz photographed him with his parents for the cover of Catholic Boy, the Jim Carroll Band's 1980 debut, which made the US album charts thanks to the radio airplay given to "It's Too Late" and especially "People Who Died", issued as a single just before John Lennon was assassinated.

Carroll's visceral, haunting eulogy to dead friends has endured through its recurrent use in films, most notably in the opening scene of Stephen Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, in Fritz Kiersch's street gang picture Tuff Turf in 1985, in which Carroll also appeared, and in Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

Carroll's way with words and his outsider lifestyle made him a natural collaborator as lyricist with Blue Öyster Cult and Boz Scaggs in the '80s, and Rancid in the '90s. He also recorded with Pearl Jam and members of Sonic Youth. In recent years, he devoted himself mostly to a novel, tentatively called The Petting Zoo, with the occasional spoken-word performance.

Born James Dennis Carroll in 1950, he was the son of a bar owner and was introduced to diary-writing by his school teachers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In his early teens he excelled at basketball and was already well on his way to his adult height of 6ft 3in. In 1964 he won a scholarship to Trinity, a private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As well as shooting hoops and taking part in the National High School All Star Game in 1966, he became interested in poetry and attended workshops at the St Mark's Poetry Project in Greenwich Village.

In 1967 he published a limited-edition pamphlet of poems entitled Organic Trains, and followed it up with 4 Ups and 1 Down in 1970. That year, The Paris Review first published excerpts from his journals. Carroll had started experimenting with hard drugs at the age of 13, and was leading a double life and financing his heroin habit by selling "hand jobs" and more to punters around the 53rd and 3rd area of New York, later immortalised in song by Dee Dee Ramone, who also hustled there. In spite of his dissolute lifestyle, Carroll managed to keep a detailed journal which eventually formed the basis of The Basketball Diaries. In the late '60s he briefly enrolled at Wagner College and Columbia University, but fell in with Warhol and wrote dialogue for the pop artist's experimental films. For a while, he crashed at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, and later moved into the loft space where the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Smith lived, and documented that period of his life in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973 (published in 1987).

Carroll unwittingly gave Smith her big break after being busted in upstate New York on the morning of a reading they were due to do at the Poetry Project. She appeared on her own and defended him. In her first interview in 1972, she called Carroll: "One of America's true poets. He's been fucked over by all those people. He lives a disgusting life. Sometimes you have to pull him out of the gutter. He's been in prison. He's a total fuck-up. But what great poet wasn't? It kills me that at 23 Jim Carroll wrote all his best poems – the same year of his life as Rimbaud did. He had the same intellectual quality and bravado as Rimbaud."

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who had inspired his writings, all spoke glowingly of Carroll, too. Living at the Movies, his first book to be picked up by a mainstream publisher – Grossmans – came out in 1973, and he made a determined effort to clean up. He moved to the San Francisco area where he met a law student and college radio presenter, Rosemary Klemfuss.

They married in 1978, the year he opened for Smith when she appeared in San Diego. She introduced him as "the guy who taught me how to write poetry." In Forced Entries, Carroll wrote of his admiration for Smith's drive and ambition and his own lack of the same qualities, and came to the following conclusion: "I do believe that a poet would possess a stronger intuitive sense of phrasing with a rock song. There is a way to tap into the emotions of an audience simply by the cross of a certain phrase, even a single word, against a certain chord."

He joined forces with Amsterdam, a San Francisco Bay Area group. Renamed The Jim Carroll Band, they Catholic Boy with the help of producer Bob Clearmountain, Blue Öyster Cult member Allen Lanier and Rolling Stones sax player Bobby Keys. Carroll played a packed-out gig at TRAX in New York with Richards as special guest, and appeared on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder on NBC, making headlines when he explained the thinking behind Catholic Boy. "I was this Catholic kid and I never really lost that," he said. "I loved the rituals of Catholicism. The mass is a magic ritual, it's a transubstantiation, and the stations of the cross – I mean a crown of thorns? Getting whipped? It's punk rock."

Carroll appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of Smith and Lou Reed, another streetwise artist he had sung background vocals with. He had also literally recorded with the Velvet Underground; in 1970, holding the microphone plugged into a tape machine belonging to Warhol associate Brigid Berlin for what became the Live at Max's Kansas City album. In 1982 he hooked up with the songwriter and guitarist Jon Tiven for the Dry Dreams album, and supported the J. Geils Band on tour, but after the release of I Write Your Name in 1983, he seemed to lose interest in music.

He recorded several spoken-word albums and published more poetry collections – The Book of Nods (1986), Fear of Dreaming (1993) and Void of Course: Poems 1994-1997 (1998). Carroll again made headlines when the film version of The Basketball Diaries was mentioned in connection with the Columbine shootings. "Artists have nothing to do with the deranged, vaguely connected actions of a few celebrated nutcases", was the answer he gave when refusing media appearances to talk about the tragedy.

Carroll was amazed and amused that he could now afford to live in a New York building with a doorman. "There ain't much time left, you're born out of this insane abyss and you're going to fall back into it, so while you're alive you might as well show your bare ass," he once said. This, Carroll certainly did. He showed us the dark, seedy side of New York, and inspired writers like Danny Sugarman, J. O'Barr and Irvine Welsh.

Pierre Perrone

James Dennis Carroll, poet, diarist, performer, singer, songwriter: born New York 1 August 1950; married Rosemary Klemfuss (marriage dissolved); died New York 11 September 2009.