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Sunday, September 13, 2009

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.

Comments (19)

"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."


For what it's worth, this strikes me deeply. Your "human"-ness is all too familiar, and at the same time very inspirational.


You shot hoops with him Jack? That's awesome.

I always found his work to be very compelling. He had his own style that fell in the Iggy/Lou/Bowie area and his way with words really clicked with me. Besides Catholic Boy and Dry Dream,I Write Your Name is the third of his great rock and roll albums from the early 80s.

Carroll once said: "My voice has a quiver. A quiver is where you keep arrows until you shoot them."

Jack, your story reminds me of a similar experience.

At Stanford most days I would sneak off to the pool for a midday swim. One day in the 25-yeard lap pool, there was a fellow in the next lane motoring back and forth, his body perpendicular to the water, holding ten pound weights in each hand, arms extended, propelling himself by what could best be described as a bicycle kick. I had never seen anything so odd. When he paused I asked, what was he doing. Training for the Olympics he said. Good luck I responded and resumed my swim, thinking sure, the Olympics, and I would wake up the next day and find that my lifelong dream of playing third base for the Chicago Cubs had been fulfilled.

Next time I saw him was that summer, in August. He was on the top step of the medal stand in Montreal receiving the Gold Medal for the 100 meter breaststroke. His name was John Hencken; he won 5 medals in his Olympic career including 3 golds.

I had an experience a little like this with a saxophone player named David Murray back in college. The first time I met him he was telling people he was the best saxophonist in the school, and I went to check him out. Incidentally, playing drums was a professor named Stanley Crouch who went onto be a noted columnist, and is still listed on the Drudge Report.

The stuff was so out there that I did not get it. My college band was all sitting with me and none of us got it and we were supposed to be musicians. It was experimental to say the least. We used to have rhyming reviews for music: "Tight but Trite", was one. "Flashy but Trashy" was another. Seeing David could possibly have been when we came up with, "Avant-garde but Marred."

Anyway, next thing I know David is in New York getting tons of awards. Look up his discography if you want. He made something like 150 albums and the awards were like "Village Voice Musician of the Decade". They treated him like the successor to John Coltrane.

Actually, I got John Coltrane, I love John Coltrane, but I never got David Murray - at least the stuff we heard that day.

It was then I realized that I was in a lighter-weight division musically and that there was a heavy weight division that I couldn't even understand. I didn't even want to try and understand it.

But there we were, my humble band sitting on a lawn listening to this. We were being exposed to a musical monster and we couldn't even tell.

And that's when our drummer's girlfriend said the defining review: "This music f*cks with my mind."

Damn Jack, you do get around, don't you? I'm impressed. I always loved the Catholic Boy album. Jim Carroll was the real deal.

I used to get around. It slowed down somewhere between 24 and here.

Jack, that's awesome. Yeah, I heard of Carroll, never saw his stuff, but ... not about that.

About you. That you used to call b.s. all'a'time. Then it turned out it wasn't all b.s. and you changed to NOT doing the skeptic's Attention Skip so much.

Suspending judgment is being half-way there.

I urge you, I push you, I implore you to call some things 'good' on their own merits and your appreciation of those merits.

Then go into the world, be fruitful, and multiply. So, like your recent post -- oh, gloom doom, TV and newspaper Big Name Pundit celebrities are saying the Health Care Reform liveliness is dead, pass it on -- I say forget listening to 'celebrity' (so much). Screw 'em. Go with your own opinion, feelings; judge by personal word-of-mouth, non-scientific polling of people you meet, (from cousin Jim you've known all your life, to the stranger counting your change at the checkstand you'll never see again ... "so, how 'bout that health care thing," or some other 'not leading the witness' way of wording it). Get your hopes up. Help get others' hopes up. Just because on its merits Health Care Reform is 'good.' Pronounce it.

Either way -- being right or being wrong -- barely matters. The important thing is: be STRONG. Know your mind ABYC. Form it with input from others, (being sure to ask them, first). Some'll b.s. you. Some'll tell you true. Practice spotting the difference. As best you can, tone down the cynicism, put your skeptic's hat on the shelf for a moment, indulge the interaction with the person you're with which'll never come again -- can't start a fire without a spark / even if we're just dancing in the dark -- and, (by lucky turns, you'll get your percentage of hits), presto, you're all-American, buddy, I'm telling you, USA caliber, right here in your mirror.

(I've got my particular pet crusades I'd like you to champion, but this ain't about those.) This is about you setting an example of realizing that you and those around you, people you meet, got what it takes to ... well, uh ... run this country. Run a country. We're capable as he!! and we're not going to take incompetents' crap anymore. Sleazeballs like Wyden. Corrupt frauds like half the US Supreme Court. We can do better.

(And, this is about this problem I got with hesitant, self-effacing, un-emboldened, shy, risk-avoiding conservative Capricorns, especially the ones who got talent, merit. Take stock, JB, you're holding a high hand at the table -- sometimes the card's ain't worth a damn / if you don't lay 'em down. Call out the phonies frauds and liars and get them out of the game -- citywide and statewide. And maybe raise your sights just a tad bit higher than street con panhandlers you can remove. :-)

As much as Carroll taught you about yourself, keep reciting it and keep learning more. Mental isometrics: Help humankind. (Since we're in a world o' hurt.)

I'm trying to say about you, bojack.org, and this moment in time, (sorta -- the tone, not the specifics), what Frank Rich says about Obama, here.

Obama’s Squandered Summer, by Frank Rich

The day before he gave his latest brilliant speech, Barack Obama repeated a well-worn mantra to a television interviewer: "My job is not to be distracted by the 24-hour news cycle." The time has come for him to expand that job description. His White House has a duty to push back against the 24-hour news cycle, every 24 hours if necessary, when it threatens to derail his agenda, the nation's business, or both. ...


Wow! This ranks right up there with your story about watching Walter Cronkite give the evening news. You've had some cool experiences, professor.

And David Murray, Bill? Another wow! (OT, Bill, your name came up over Toro Bravo paella this weekend as a public figure with a populist message most similar to Bud Clark's. As such, the consensus around the table was that you would be a competitive mayoral candidate.)

James Carroll was the real deal for a lot of us ... even those of us who only found him because of Leonardo Dicaprio.

"And they can't touch me now
I got every sacrament behind me
I got baptism, I got penance
I got communion, I got extreme unction
Man, I've got confirmation

I was a Catholic boy
Redeemed through pain
And not through joy

And now I'm a Catholic man
I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can"

Tenskwatawa, I have no idea how old you are and whether you watched JFK get gunned down and you lived through the assassinations of RFK and MLK and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, Sprio Agnew, and Watergate and all the Viet Nam protests and TV footage of Viet kids burning up of napalm. And on and on. But at some point if you see enough of that long enough, well cynicism becomes your friend. I am speaking for me, not Jack. But I suspect most from my generation regard government with deep suspicion unless they've been asleep or on drugs or brain dead.

I remember McCarthy on the radio.

I remember the 'daring test case' of the '56 Eisenhower campaign buying TV ad time, which some doubted to be legal. (Of course, the incumbent '52-'56 Eisenhower first administration immediately declared oh, yes, paid political ads on TV was definitely legal, definitely definitely definitely.)

I had not heard that Jim Carrol had died. He was a good friend of Allen Lanier, a founding member Blue Oyster Cult, who put Carrol's lyrics to music on a song called Perfect Water in 1986. It's a great song on an album that was significantly sub-par compared to BOC's 1974-82 albums.

I saw Jim Carrol read poetry in San Diego at a comedy club in Pacific Beach in 1990. He was also supposed to read at Columbia Hall at UO back in '93, but canceled. The word was that he was having problems with his demons again.

Catholic Boy was a good album and Basketball Diaries was a poignant film that played a considerable role in making Leo DiCaprio a star. For YouTube kicks, check out The Jim Carrol Band on the 1980 SNL knock-off called Fridays (LA's SNL which launched the career of Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame).

We can see so many blessed persons like Jim move among us. When we look.

Further fine remembrance and propers, at Slate.


Did you know that a movie was made from his book? Your blog entry sparked an interest for me, so I looked up his book on Amazon and found an interesting critique of the movie in a review there.


I am a high school and college buddy of Jack's.On a extended visit to Stanford Jack introduced me to Jim Carroll and we hung out a few times.
You could tell he was a very sensitive guy on another level of conscienceness.
He had great taste in women though.
God rest his soul.
Jack, stay well.

Jeff, you remind me that I spent more time with Jim, even after that night on the basketball court. And he and that woman friend subsequently married.

I saw the Jim Carroll Band open for Lou Reed at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ in the 80's. I doubt there was acrimony b/t them. I don't think Lou stole the lyrics of Sweet Jane from Carroll.

From Sweet Jane:

"Riding a Stutz Bearcat, Jim,
those were different times;
The poets studied rules of verse
and ladies rolled their eyes."

I think the lyrics, if anything, are referring to Jim Carroll!

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