About Jim Carroll
Updated 14 February 2009
Download this as a PDF
Lynn Hirschberg, describing a Jim Carroll Band concert in 1980, before
the release of Catholic
Boy, reported overhearing a Oui photographer remark,
"You're watching the Dylan of the 80s, you know. . . . Seeing
Jim Carroll now . . . is like witnessing history."
Jim Carroll expressed the Bomb-fear anticipation, the optimistic
nihilism and glittering darkness of the 1980s that we who were
there felt even if we couldn't communicate it ourselves. When
Lennon was assassinated in front of the Dakota in December
1980, "People Who Died"
was one of the most-requested songs on FM radio, just after Lennon's
own "Imagine." Steven Spielberg chose "People
Who Died" to play during the opening scene of E.T. The
Extra-Terrestrial. "People Who Died" tapped a mainline.
It was a hit even before it was released, and, as Newsweek's
Barbara Graustark noted, it "propelled [Carroll] from underground
status . . . to national attention as a contender for the title
of rock's new poet laureate."
by Christopher Browne (Playboy 1981)
Who Died" wasn't the only thing that sustained Carroll's reputation.
The first full-length article
about him appeared in 1969, when Jim was 19, and he was featured in
Rolling Stone as early as 1973--the same year, it was rumored,
that he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize at age 22. The 1980 release
of Catholic Boy, along with the re-publication of his cult-
classic book The Basketball Diaries, shot Jim and his band into
the international spotlight. Catholic Boy, named the second-most-popular
album of 1980 by BAM, is now considered one of the last great
punk albums. Jim appeared with his band on the variety program Fridays,
he was interviewed by Tom Snyder, and he was featured on the MTV series
The Roots of Rock, hosted by Lou Reed. Cover stories appeared
in Newsweek, New York, Creem, Interview, Melody Maker, Stereo Review,
Rolling Stone, Variety, and Penthouse.
Playboy even printed a cartoon in which the punchline was, "Ever since the advent of Jim Carroll,
'I'm a Catholic junkie poet' seems hipper than 'What's your sign.'"
Jim Carroll Band's success can be attributed to the powerful combination
of pure rock 'n' roll with Carroll's poetic sensibility and ability
to write from his own experience, forging a style that articulates
the relevance of the individual to the particular, the past to the
present. Carroll once said, "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,"
and that's exactly what he does. Musician, Player and Listener
described Carroll as "a transformer, chanting and moaning his
litany into something infinitely more palpable than symbols made
Jim Carroll Band's first US tour
When reporters began lining up in droves, wondering, "What's
a Pulitzer Prize nominee doing fronting a rock band?" Carroll
was already well-known in underground circles for having lived a
life of mythic proportions. One writer observed, "Carroll has
his own voice and sound and he earned it the hard way." Descended
from three generations of Irish Catholic bartenders, Carroll was
born in New York City in 1950. He spent his childhood living on
the city's Lower East Side, attending Catholic schools, and at age
12, shortly before his family moved to Upper Manhattan, he began
keeping the journal that would eventually be published as The Basketball Diaries (1978). In this diary he recorded
the ins and outs of his remarkable adolescence. A star basketball
player and excellent student, he won a scholarship to Trinity,
an elite private school on Manhattan's posh upper West side.
While leading the Trinity
Tigers to victory as an "All Ivy" player, Jim led
a double life. He had first experimented with heroin at age 13,
unfortunately thinking marijuana was the addictive stuff; he was
soon a junkie, supporting his habit by hustling gay men.
Trinity School Tigers, 1968
From the 1968 Trinity School Yearbook
age 15, he was still hooked, but he was also writing poems and
attending poetry workshops at St.
Mark's Poetry Project. His diaries immediately attracted the
attention of the literary crowd around him. When he published
his first collection of poetry, at age 16, and excerpts from The
Basketball Diaries were printed in Paris Review, he
was firmly established as a genuine prodigy and a literary talent
to be reckoned with. Poet Ted
Berrigan took young Jim under his wing, and toting a manuscript
of The Basketball Diaries, the pair made a pilgrimage to
see Jack Kerouac,
who observed, "At thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes
better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today."
Likewise, William S. Burroughs dubbed Carroll "a born
he reached the end of his teens, he moved within one of the most
exciting arts scenes ever to develop in America. In the 1970s,
the period he writes about in Forced Entries (1987), he hung out with
Beat guru Allen Ginsberg and worked for
artists Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol (he even appeared in two Warhol films),
lived with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and was rubbing shoulders with
people like William Burroughs, Bob
Dylan, and the Velvet Underground. He can, in fact, be heard between
songs on the Velvet Underground's legendary Live
at Max's Kansas City album--he was holding the microphone.
Carroll and Patti Smith
publishing Living at the
Movies in 1973, Jim fled New York and headed to California
to finally kick his epic heroin addiction. He spent several years
enjoying solitude, writing poetry and . . . song lyrics. He had
toyed with the idea of working with a band for some time and thought
it would be interesting to write songs for other artists to perform.
But in 1978, Patti Smith came to California on tour with her band,
and Jim accompanied her to San Diego. A conflict arose with her
opening act, so she appeared on stage and introduced Jim as "the
guy who taught me how to write poetry." Jim came on stage
and rapped/ranted his lyrics with Patti and her band behind him.
The crowd went nuts, and a rock star was born. (sound clip / review)
hooked up with the Bay Area band Amsterdam and together they became
The Jim Carroll Band. They played San Francisco's
clubs with great acclaim, so when Jim returned to New York to sign
contracts for the re-publication of The Basketball Diaries with Bantam,
he brought a demo tape with him and was "discovered" by
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Catholic Boy was
released on Atlantic in 1980, followed by Dry Dreams in 1982 and I Write Your Name in 1984.
Basketball Diaries (1978)
three- album contract with Atlantic fulfilled, Carroll embarked
upon a 14-year vacation from rock 'n' roll, but he had left his
mark. His legendary voice and vision have kept him firmly planted
on the American landscape as a cultural icon and world-scale artist.
A best-selling author of six books, Carroll has inspired a new
generation of writers, including Danny Sugarman (Wonderland Avenue)
and J. O'Barr, whose graphic novel The Crow, was made into a film starring
Brandon Lee. Yes, Carroll's influence spreads to film as well.
In the 1980s he appeared in the James Spader, Robert Downey, Jr.,
vehicle Tuff Turf (1984) and Ron Mann's two Poetry in
Motion movies. His writings directly inspired author Irvine
Welsh, whose novel Trainspotting became a blockbuster film
in 1996; Welsh acknowledges Carroll in his 1994 book The Acid
House, also adapted to film in 1998.
Basketball Diaries, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (1995)
Carroll inspired Harmony Korine, author of the critically-acclaimed
screenplay for the controversial film Kids
(1995). Finally, in 1995, Carroll's own work was adapted in two
major films: Curtis's Charm, produced by Academy
Award nominee Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, 1997), and The Basketball Diaries, starring Leonardo DiCaprio
and Mark Wahlberg. The Basketball Diaries film was a long
time in the making: director after director bought the film rights
throughout the 1980s, and the role of Jim was coveted by just
about every member of the "brat pack." Shortly before
his death, River Phoenix was seen carrying around a worn copy
of The Basketball Diaries, vowing to get the lead part.
Basketball Diaries, Norwegian Translation
audience extends around the globe. His books have been translated into many languages, including Japanese,
Italian, French, Spanish, German, Norwegian, Dutch, Czech, and
Swedish. Following in the footsteps of his heroes Bob Dylan and
Lou Reed, his work is studied by scholars and taught in college courses.
As a musician, he has combined forces with many of the heavy hitters
in the business. His songwriting credits include collaborations
with artists as diverse as Marcus Miller of Boz Scaggs, Blue Oyster Cult, 7 Year Bitch, Pleasure
Thieve, Ray Manzarek (The Doors), and Sonic Youth. He has performed
with Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Richard
Hell, Marianne Faithfull, Ray Manzarek, Robert Hunter, Allen
Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.
Kicks Joy Darkness (1997)
has recorded with Pearl Jam, Rancid, Lou Reed, Danny
Barnes, and John Cale, and he joins some of the biggest names
in music on compilations like Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness,
Back to the Streets: Celebrating the Music Of Don Covay,
and Home Alive: The Art of Self-Defense.
Your Tongue to the Rail: The Philly Comp for Catholic Children
surprisingly, Carroll has had a tremendous impact on contemporary
rock music. Many young rock artists look to Carroll as a mentor,
including Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees; even Carroll's own musical
hero, Pete Townsend of The Who, has credited Carroll with influencing
his work. For the Basketball Diaries film soundtrack, "People
Who Died" was remixed by producer Thom Wilson (The Offspring,
T.S.O.L., the Vandals, the Dead Kennedys), and Carroll re-recorded
his song "Catholic Boy" with Pearl Jam. Meanwhile, Rancid
invited Carroll to write part of their song "Junky Man"
and record it with them. "Junky Man" earned Carroll
a gold record. He also collaborated with Truly on Fast Stories
. . . From Kid Coma. Carrol's songs have been covered by artists
diverse as Marilyn Manson, the Drive by Truckers, and 7 Year Bitch.
In 1999, a multi-band, 20-song Jim Carroll Band "tribute"
album, Put Your Tongue to the Rail, was released
by Genus Records in Philadelphia.
Book of Nods (1986)
has kept his finger on the pulse of American culture. In 1986, he
appeared on MTV, reading from his second poetry collection, The
Book of Nods, and between sets at the 1993 Lollapalooza, concert-goers
watched Carroll read his poetry in a spoken-word video directed
by Bob Dylan's son Jesse, proving that poetry and spoken-word have
an audience with the video-generation. Following Kurt Cobain's suicide,
Carroll appeared again
on MTV, this time reading his now-legendary "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain," which he
also published in The New York Times on New Year's Day, 1995.
Meanwhile, he has also occasionally published prose pieces in GQ
and the New York Times.
media have continued to seek him out as well. For example, Dennis
Miller interviewed him in 1992, in 1995 Carroll appeared on Good
Morning America, Extra, and Entertainment Tonight,
and in 1997 he was prominently featured on PBS's documentary Lou
Reed: Rock 'n' Roll Heart. Carroll's audience continued to grow
throughout the 90s. On the poetry-reading
circuit over the past decade, Jim's shows never fail to attract
standing-room-only crowds, and in the past three years it has not
been unusual for unfortunate fans to find themselves shut out of
overflowing auditoriums. Carroll has inspired a whole new generation
of budding poets who, even if they've never heard of The Jim Carroll
Band, see him as The Poet of their generation. Amusingly enough,
Entertainment Weekly's Lewis MacAdams noted that, in 1995,
"at book signings with Leonardo DiCaprio, . . . it was Carroll
the crowds clamored for."
Carroll reading in
Photo by Tom Wear
If Jim Carroll was "the Dylan of the 80s," he also voiced
the passion of the 90s. Now, he heralds the new millennium with
his first rock album in fourteen years.
of Mercury (1998)
Void of Course (1998)
of Mercury offers the darkly beautiful lyricism we expect
from a seasoned poet, set like a gem in the musical craftwork
of producer Anton Sanko (producer of Susanne Vega and composer
for films including Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia), Tristan
Avakian (Biohazard, Mariah Carey, Virgin 2.0), Frank Vilardi (Celine
Dion, Jewel, Susanne Vega, The Roches), Erik Sanko (Lounge Lizards,
John Cale), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group guitarist and producer
for Suzanne Vega), Robert Roth (Truly), Gordon Minette, and David
Torn. Released concurrently with Void of Course, a new collection of
poetry, Pools of Mercury is an intense combination of new
songs and music-backed spoken-word pieces, including "8 Fragments
for Kurt Cobain."
2002 and 2003, Carroll recorded three spoken-word albums: a dramatic
reading of Jack Kerouac's previously-unreleased screenplay Doctor
Sax and the Great World Snake, collaborated with
banjo-genius Danny Barnes on William Blake's The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell, and recorded two Sherlock Holmes
Carroll is now completing a novel, tentatively titled The Petting Zoo.