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Jim Carroll; wrote songs, ‘Basketball Diaries’

JIM CARROLL JIM CARROLL (Getty Images/File 2002)
By William Grimes
The New York Times / September 14, 2009

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NEW YORK - Jim Carroll, the poet and punk rocker in the outlaw tradition of Rimbaud and Burroughs who chronicled his wild youth in “The Basketball Diaries,’’ died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 60.

The cause was a heart attack, said Rosemary Carroll, his former wife.

As a teenage basketball star in the 1960s at Trinity, an elite private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Carroll led a chaotic life that combined sports, drugs, and poetry. This highly unusual combination lent a lurid appeal to “The Basketball Diaries,’’ the journal he kept during high school and published in 1978, by which time his poetry had already won him a cult reputation as the new Bob Dylan.

“I met him in 1970, and already he was pretty much universally recognized as the best poet of his generation,’’ the singer Patti Smith said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The work was sophisticated and elegant. He had beauty.’’

The diaries began, innocently: “Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event.’’

By the end of the book, Mr. Carroll was a heroin addict who supported his habit by hustling in Times Square. “Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags,’’ the final entry read, continuing, “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.’’

“The Basketball Diaries,’’ reissued in a mass-market edition in 1980, became enormously popular, especially on college campuses. In a film adaptation in 1995, Leonardo DiCaprio played the part of Mr. Carroll.

The writer’s good looks and flair for drama made him ideal raw material for rock stardom. “When I was about 9 years old, man, I realized that the real thing was not only to do what you were doing totally great, but to look totally great while you were doing it,’’ he told the poet Ted Berrigan in the 1960s.

In the late 1970s, with the encouragement of Ms. Smith, he formed the Jim Carroll Band, whose first release, “Catholic Boy’’ (1980), is sometimes called the last great punk album.

James Dennis Carroll, the son of a bar owner, spent his childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he attended Roman Catholic schools until transferring to Trinity.

In 1970, The Paris Review published excerpts from his journals. A book of poems, “Living at the Movies’’ (1973), won him both acclaim and a wider audience.His life was colorful. Hailed by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as a powerful new poetic voice, he became a fixture on the downtown scene. After briefly attending Wagner College on Staten Island and Columbia University, he found his way to Andy Warhol’s Factory, contributing dialogue for Warhol’s films. Later he worked as a studio assistant for the painter Larry Rivers and lived with Ms. Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer. He chronicled this frenetic period in “Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973.’’

In 1973 Mr. Carroll left New York to escape drugs. He settled in Bolinas, an artistic community north of San Francisco, where met and married Rosemary Klemfuss in 1978. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by a brother, Tom.

Mr. Carroll’s music career started by accident when Ms. Smith brought him onstage to declaim his poetry with her band providing background. Encouraged by the response, he formed his own band. It caught the attention of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who arranged a deal with Atlantic Records.

The critic Stephen Holden described Mr. Carroll in The New York Times in 1982 as “not so much a singer as an incantatory rock-and-roll poet.’’ Like Lou Reed, he had a mesmerizing power, evident on such songs as “People Who Died’’ from “Catholic Boy,’’ a poetic litany of his dead friends that became a hit on college radio.

The group’s next two albums, “Dry Dreams’’ (1982) and “I Write Your Name’’ (1984), caused much less stir. After writing lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs, Mr. Carroll returned to the studio in 1998 to record “Pools of Mercury.”

Mr. Carroll published several more poetry collections: “The Book of Nods’’ (1986), “Fear of Dreaming’’ (1993), and “Void of Course: Poems 1994-1997’’ (1998).