‘Catholic Boy’ Jim Carroll and The Downtown Scene
It’s rare to become a published poet by age 16, finding yourself praised by the some of the foremost Beatnik writers. It’s even rarer when no less than Patti Smith says that by age 21 you were ‘pretty much universally recognized as the best poet” of your generation. Add to that having your first album described by Rolling Stone as “a landmark of the New York punk scene,” and you couldn’t be talking about anyone but Jim Carroll, a figure who by the early 1970s was also very much entrenched in the East Village/Downtown New York scene, interacting with seminal figures in both the literary and art world.
James Dennis Carroll was born on August 1, 1949, to a working-class family of Irish descent. They lived on the Lower East Side, but by the time Carroll was eleven years old, they moved to Inwood in Upper Manhattan. Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, he started keeping a diary at twelve years old. This would later be the source for his cult-classic book The Basketball Diaries, which tells the stories of his years as a prep school basketball star in high school and heroin addict. By age 15 he was also writing poems and attending poetry workshops at St. Mark’s Poetry Project. His first collection of poetry, Organic Trains, was published when he was 16. At the same time, excerpts from what would later be The Basketball Diaries were published in the Paris Review, establishing him as literary talent and praised by the likes of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
His book, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973, released in 1987, tells the story of the next chapter in his life in his 20s when he was part of the downtown scene and still addicted to heroin. On page 2 he says, “If you haven’t died by an age thought predetermined through the timing of your abuses and excesses, then what else is left but to begin another diary.” During this time, he worked for Andy Warhol at The Factory and co-manager of Warhol’s Theater at 62 East 4th Street (as long as he wore long sleeves), lived with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and hung out with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, and The Velvet Underground. He had this to say about this time in an interview in 1987 with The Washington Post:
I was a total freak for being pulled in every direction, wanting to take in every scene,…like I’m standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and my arms are literally being pulled in both directions…the East Village Parties, or the West Village parties, or this or that opening…and I had to get rid of this ludicrous, vacuous obsession, I had to break away from that as much as being around drugs, because that’s a drug too…”
After releasing his next book of poems, Living at the Movies, Carroll went to Bolinas, California to finally rid himself of his heroin addiction (he had tried in New York City, but had not succeeded). He also spent this time writing poetry and song lyrics. Later, Patti Smith came to California with her band in 1978 and Jim went with her to San Diego. When the opening act was nixed, Smith brought Carroll to the stage introducing him as the guy “who taught me how to write poetry ten years ago,” and he ranted/rapped his lyrics with Smith and the band behind him, thus beginning his career as a rock star.
Carroll joined with a Bay Area band, Amsterdam, and they became The Jim Carroll Band. They were able to secure a recording contract with Atlantic Records with the support of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and released their debut album Catholic Boy in 1980, which some have referred to as the last great punk album. It included arguably the group’s most famous song, ‘People who Died,’ which is a catalogue of young people Carroll knew growing up who met tragic ends: “Judy jumped in front of a subway train, and Eddy got slit in the jugular vein…” (oddly enough this song was part of the soundtrack for Steven Speilberg’s 1982 film, E.T.). The album cover shows Carroll standing with his parents, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. This album was followed by Dry Dreams in 1982 and I Write Your Name in 1984.
Following this, Carroll continued publishing poetry and spoken word albums and even appeared in some films. The Basketball Diaries was made into a film in 1995 starring Leonard DiCaprio after years of various film directors purchasing it and then not producing it. Apparently, River Phoenix was seen carrying around a copy of the book and vowed to play the role of Carroll. Carroll has influenced generations of writers and musicians alike. He had this to say in 1987 about the duality of being both:
I was fortunate because the guys on the rock scene — who would never say they liked my music, except for a few — could always say, ‘I really dug your book a lot…your music’s diddly, but your books are great!’ Then writers could say, ‘You know, your real niche is this music thing’
Jim Carroll died of a heart attack in Manhattan on September 11, 2009. His wake was held on Bleecker Street at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home, and his funeral at Our Lady of Pompeii Church.