Like so many denizens of the New York that produced Warhol and The Velvet Underground, then gritty punk rock, hip-hop, and no wave, poet Jim Carroll didn’t fare so well into Bloomberg-era NYC, a developer’s paradise and destination for urban professionals and tourists, but not so much a haven for struggling artists. As the city changed, its creative characters either rose above its shifting demographics, moved away, or—as Carroll did—retreated. Carroll, who died in 2009 at 60, spent his last years in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood—once a bustling Irish-Catholic enclave—living in the same building where he’d grown up and writing against time to finish his first and only novel, The Petting Zoo. His last years were by no means tragic, however. Given the tumult of his early years as an addict, and the long list of friends from the downtown New York scene that Carroll lost along the way—to overdoses, AIDS, cancer, suicide—I’d say he was a literary survivor, who died (at his writing desk, it’s said) doing what he loved most.
Carroll came to mainstream consciousness with the release of a 1995 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, based on the book Carroll’s most known for: the 1978 memoir The Basketball Diaries, a collection of teenage journal entries from his double life as a high school basketball star and junkie hustler. But even with that movie’s nods to Carroll’s mature years as a poet and musician, it’s doubtful that few people came away with much more than a vague sense of what the street-wise Catholic schoolboy DiCaprio character had gone on to do. Which is a shame, because Carroll really was a terrific writer, from his debut poetry publications in the 60s and on throughout the next three decades. Even in the obscurity and semi-seclusion of his later years, he wrote wise, incisive essays and criticism (such as this 2002 review of Kurt Cobain’s published Journals for the Los Angeles Times). And despite the memoir and film’s popularity, Carroll considered himself primarily a poet, in the symbolist tradition of his literary heroes Rilke, Rimbaud, and Ashbery. (See Carroll at top, in his harsh New York accent, read from his 1986 collection of poems, The Book of Nods.)
In a manner of speaking, Carroll suffered the curse of one-hit-wonderism, except in his case, he was lucky enough to have two hits—the memoir (and later film) and the song, “People Who Died,” from Catholic Boy, his debut album with the Jim Carroll Band (video above), which even made it onto the E.T. soundtrack (giving Carroll royalties for life). The band came about with the encouragement of Carroll’s fellow poet and former roommate Patti Smith, after Carroll kicked heroin and moved to California. Carroll wrote songs for Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs and collaborated with Rancid, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, and guitarist Anton Sanko (on his 1998 return to music, Pools of Mercury). His years in rock and roll transmuted through most of the nineties into dramatic readings, spoken word performances, and lively monologues, such as those collected on the 1991 release Praying Mantis. In the track below, “The Loss of American Innocence,” Carroll delivers some shambling, and pretty funny, stories about the characters in his novel-in-progress.
Carroll had been telling these stories about Billy the downtown painter and a certain chatty raven since the late 80s. As the monologues crystallized into short prose pieces, he slowly, painstakingly assembled them into The Petting Zoo, which saw publication in 2010. It took him twenty years, and he didn’t live to see it published, but he left a final legacy behind, and it’s a flawed but serious work worth reading. In 2010, Carroll’s longtime friends Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye celebrated the novel’s publication with readings and performances at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. Below, see Smith read an excerpt from The Petting Zoo. The sound’s a bit tinny and the camera shakes, but it’s worth it to see living legend Smith read from Carroll’s legendary final song.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness