When Jim Carroll died in September 2009 at age 60, it went largely unnoticed by the rock culture which had once embraced him, and had spoken about this New York poet-turned-singer in the same breath as Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
Carroll’s rock career was admittedly short — a few albums in the early Eighties and little else — but his literary life was fascinating. And well known to the post-punk generation.
His ’78 autobiographical story of his teenage time on a basketball scholarship but in with drug scene was turned into the movie The Basketball Diaries in ’95 which starred a young Leo DiCaprio as Carroll.
The film — later to be controversial, see clip below — was courageous in showing the world of heroin in New York in the Seventies, and its effects on people. It came with a tagline about “the death of innocence and the birth of an artist.”
This is what Jim carroll had to say in an interview with Elsewhere:
My friends just had hysterics. I don’t think my innocence was dead by the end of the book, or the end of the film for that matter. It was just tarnished.”
As an established poet (books, increasingly on spoken word albums) and performing on the same circuit as Patti Smith and hanging out with Lou Reed, his move into rock’n’roll performance was perhaps inevitable.
“From when I was very young, people always used to tell me that I had this rock’n’roll presence when I used to do poetry readings, and would tell me I really should try to do rock’n’roll. And when I finally did do it, I did it really intensely, without looking back.
I didn’t want to just do it in some dilettantish sense, I wanted to give my energy over to it completely.”
To his credit he did, briefly.
He got a band together — rather workmanlike Stonesy rock — and toured, made albums and so forth. But the albums never really cut it and his best shots were on his debut, Catholic Boy of 1980, for which he also enlisted Lenny Kayeand Blue Oyster Cult’s Alan Lanier.
The single however, People Who Died, does have a grim and desperate quality as it strings together a litany of his friends who were killed, or killed themselves, in sometimes unusual ways (“a bottle of Draino on the night that he was wed”?).
But the relentless momentum, the increasing anger and the mindlessly air-punching chorus lifted this beyond a cool, slim and cheek-boned poet having a dabble in rock’n’roll.
Although in retrospect, despite what he said at the time, that’s pretty much what it was.
Jim Carroll Band – People Who Died