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Jim Carroll (1949-2009): He just wanted to be pure

He was tall and thin, wide-eyed with nearly translucent skin and a shock of bright, almost orange-red hair pouring onto his forehead.  He moved with the natural grace of a former athlete, but it was the flow of his speech that caught your attention.  Even in casual conversation, invariably while chain-smoking, the third generation son of an Irish Catholic bartender seemed to transition seamlessly from topic to topic in a dialect of New York City working class vernacular, punctuated by spontaneous flashes of brilliance--a striking image or use of figurative speech--that seemed uncanny, if not outright miraculous.
 
Jim Carroll, who died at age 60 of a heart attack last Friday in Manhattan, was a 20th century American Rimbaud--charismatic and vulnerable, blessed and cursed by the same gift.  Every iota of his thought stream seemed geared toward a certain epiphany of expression.
   
In an era before the term "rock star" was routinely used to describe people of accomplishment in fields other than rock music, Carroll was literally and most emphatically a "rock star."   The former New York City high school basketball all-star, turned heroin junkie and street hustler, turned poet and best-selling memoirist and punk band leader seemed to have already lived several overlapping lifetimes by the time of his first and only Buffalo appearance in the fall of 1981 at the old Allentown Community Center on Elmwood Avenue near Allen Street.
 
 
On a Friday evening in October, he read with one of his mentors from the St. Mark's Poetry Project in lower Manhattan, the influential "New York School" poet Ted Berrigan.  It was one of those storied nights in Buffalo literary history, with the room so crowded that Just Buffalo co-founder and Executive Director Debora Ott enlisted help from the onlookers to raise the windows of the room for ventilation.  Berrigan and his wife the poet Alice Notley (who has since become the essential female voice of the "New York School") were no strangers to the Buffalo scene, and commanded the lead-off and anchor reading spots. 
 
Carroll, who was then riding the crest of his popularity as the author of his journal turned memoir The Basketball Diaries (1978) and the release of his debut album Catholic Boy (1980), featuring the single "People Who Died," which became something of a valedictory statement for the punk movement in America, and (somewhat improbably) found its way onto the soundtrack for the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., found himself sandwiched in between, a position not altogether unfamiliar to him from his years of sharing a lower East Side apartment with punk icon Patti Smith (who along with Keith Richards launched his career in music) and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. 
 
Although a significant portion of the crowd that night had come specifically to see him, Carroll seemed to defer to Notley and Berrigan, both in terms of the length of his reading and the intensity of his performance.  He read snippets from his 1973 collection Living at the Movies (notable for its cover by artist Larry Rivers), a seemingly obligatory passage from The Basketball Diaries, and a longer and seemingly more engaged selection of poems from his then work-in-progress, the manuscript that would become The Book of Nods (1986). 
 
Others may remember it differently, but I thought his reading completely overshadowed by Berrigan--a giant of a poet (The Sonnets and So Going Around Cities) and man who would be dead himself of heart failure at age 49 less than two years later, and particularly Notley--easily one of the most underrated American poets of the past half century--who read from How Spring Comes and Waltzing Matilda.  Later at the after party, which went late into the evening, I remember having a conversation with Carroll about basketball while he sat perched on a sill of a half open window surrounded by an aura of blue cigarette smoke.
 
It was poetry--not heroin--that short-circuited his basketball career, Carroll always insisted.  As as a teenager, he was the only white player on the New York City all prep school team, which included future NBA Hall of Fame stars Connie Hawkins and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar).  The same could not be said about his literary career.  When the highs and lows of his life ceased to be so existentially intense and focused--as they would inevitably have to if he was going to survive--his voice flattened out, blended in.  He continued writing, reading, performing and occasionally recording over the subsequent decades, not altogether removed from the scene around the St. Mark's Poetry Project and the clubs on the Bowery, but no longer its signature voice.
 
There was a revival of interest in his work in the mid-1990's, around the time that the Scott Kalvert directed film version of The Basketball Diaries (set in he 1990's, not the 1960's) starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio, and an impressive cast including Lorraine Bracco and Bruno Kirby as Carroll's parents and Mark Wahlberg, Juliette Lewis, and Ernie Hudson in supporting roles, was released in 1995.  Carroll's last two books Fear of Dreaming (1993) and Void of Course (1998) were released during this period, and he continued to perform and record, both with his band and solo on spoken word CDs.  Carroll moved back to New York after his marriage to California based entertainment attorney Rosemary Klemfuss ended, and he claimed to be working on a novel called The Petting Zoo, which remains unpublished.  Recent photographs of him reveal a shockingly gaunt and emaciated figure, barely recognizable to those who remember him in his rock star days. 
 
The Basketball Diaries, which reads somewhat like a Irish Catholic version of William S Burroughs's Junkie, or a much more honest and poetic antecedent to James Frey's pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces, ends with a harrowing passage which has been much quoted in the days since his death, but still resonates with those who relate to Carroll's personal iconography of dissolution and redemption: "Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags. Four days of temporary death gone by, no more bread...Nice June day out today, lots of people probably graduating. I can see the Cloisters with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window. I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure."
 
--R.D. Pohl
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