He was for real
Jim Carroll, the punk rock poet whose book "The Basketball Diaries (Age 12-15)" revealed enormous power and painful vulnerability all at the same time, has died. He was 60. They say he died of a heart attack.
I knew Carroll when I was in law school in 1978. He was this scrawny red-haired guy with an East Coast accent who hung around the law school -- more specifically, he hung all over one of the smartest and most attractive women in the school. She was platonic roommates with a friend of mine, and Jim would stay over at their place most of the time. I will never forget a night I had dinner at that rented flat in Palo Alto. After we ate and sat around for a while, Jim wanted to go across the street to the schoolyard to shoot some hoops. So we did. It was too dark to see much over there, but we did hack around for quite a while. More than a token shootaround, to be sure. He played with passion.
"I write poetry," he told me. "I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize." I took a long look at him and at his fabulous girlfriend and I thought to myself, "Yeah, sure, buddy. And I'm F. Lee Bailey." But I had to hand it to him -- he had a great thing going.
So I graduated and moved to Portland, and I'm rummaging through Cameron's Used Books one sunny afternoon when I come across this:
Well, I'll be darned. It was him, all right, and he had been telling the truth. And what a book! An amazing story, about a place and a life that I knew pretty well myself. New York, adolescence, Catholic school, the schoolyard, then smack, and corruption, the things people do for smack. He got it exactly right, with words beyond anything that I thought could be assembled. It was breathtaking.
I think I was in the same room as Carroll only once after that. It was the fall '78 Springsteen concert at Winterland, the Bill Graham venue in San Francisco that was about to close. I seem to recall that he and his girlfriend, who by then was his wife, were in the audience. But I don't remember seeing them -- someone in the party I was in reported the sighting. It was a general admission, no-chairs affair, uncomfortable and hard to see. I do recall that you didn't have to see much to realize that Springsteen was at the height of his powers.
A few years later, MTV arrived, and shortly thereafter, there was Carroll again. Now he was on my TV screen, fronting a punk rock band, and droning out his latest poems. "They were all my friends -- and they died!" This time, I wasn't surprised. I knew he had the goods. There were at least two albums produced from that time frame: "Catholic Boy" and "Dry Dreams." We cranked them up for a few years.
Carroll had once been a pal of Lou Reed -- in the Velvet Underground-Andy Warhol days, I believe -- but Carroll and Reed had had a major falling out. One of the stories Carroll told me was that Reed stole the song "Sweet Jane" from him, and that was a part of why they were no longer on speaking terms. At the time, I thought that this was an egregious line of b.s., but I was so wrong about everything else Carroll said that now I think it might be true.
I knew from watching a cousin of mine up close that there was rarely, if ever, any such thing as an ex-junkie. Given Carroll's past, I figured his life would never be easy, and it wouldn't be a long one. But he lived six decades, and he produced work well past the turn of the millennium. He had a website, here.
Leave it to me, when in the presence of a true artist, to see a scammer instead and miss a chance to tap into something great. I'll never forget Jim Carroll, because the brief time I knew him wound up teaching me a lot about myself.