To rock audiences, Jim Carroll's crowning achievement was the near-hit "People Who Died," a brutally emotional punk record saluting the victims of the New York drug culture. In truth, however, Carroll's artistic legacy was considerably more complex and far-ranging -- an acclaimed diarist, poet, actor, and spoken word performer, his formative years even served as the subject of the film The Basketball Diaries.
The product of a working-class background, Carroll was born and raised in New York City. He was a highly touted basketball prospect, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road inspired him to begin keeping a journal at the age of 12; later published in 1978 as The Basketball Diaries, his early writings vividly chronicled his teenage addiction to heroin, which led him into a life of crime and hustling. By the time he was 16, Carroll was a published poet; 1973's Living at the Movies further established his reputation as a prodigy and funded a move to Northern California, where he was finally able to shed his drug habit.
Inspired by the success of his friend Patti Smith, who also married a background in poetry with a career in rock music, Carroll began writing songs; in 1978, backed by the San Francisco band Amsterdam (comprised of guitarists Terrell Winn and Brian Linsley, bassist Steve Linsley, and drummer Wayne Woods), he cut a handful of demos, and was signed to Rolling Stones Records. Produced by label head Earl McGrath, the Jim Carroll Band's debut album, Catholic Boy, appeared in 1980; the subject of significant critical acclaim, it featured "People Who Died," the group's definitive moment.
After a move back to New York and the replacement of Terrell Winn and Brian Linsley by Paul Sanchez and Jon Tiven, the Carroll Band returned in 1982 with Dry Dreams, followed by 1984's I Write Your Name, which received lackluster reviews. With his three-record contract fulfilled, Carroll dismissed the group members and resumed his prose and poetry work. After an appearance in the 1985 film Tuff Turf, he published The Book of Nods in 1986 and Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973 a year later. During the remainder of the '80s, Carroll balanced his poetry and prose material while writing tracks for other artists such as Blue Öyster Cult (Club Ninja) and Boz Scaggs (Other Roads). He also appeared on spoken word albums by John Giorno's Dial-a-Poem Poets.
As the 1990s dawned, Carroll was frequently approached to return to music, but he remained firmly dedicated to his spoken word work; his first solo album was Praying Mantis (1991), a collection of spoken word performances, not new songs. While he occasionally performed as a musician, his primary focus remained his literary pursuits. Notably, Carroll was one of the first poet/rockers to break down the barriers between poetry/spoken word and mainstream rock music. He participated in various readings beginning in the mid-'80s, but his 1994 performance on MTV'sUnplugged was most moving, with a soon to be legendary poem, "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain," a mesmerizing tribute.
In 1993 he published Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll. In 1995, both The Basketball Diaries and the short story Curtis' Charm were adapted into films; he also contributed lyrics and vocals to Rancid's multi-platinum release ...And Out Come the Wolves (1995). A year later Carroll also contributed to the benefit release Home Alive: The Art of Self-Defense, and in 1997 Carroll was one of a number of high-profile writers, musicians, and actors who contributed to the Kerouac tribute album Kicks Joy Darkness, where, backed by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, and Anton Sanko, he read "Woman." The year 1998 was monumental for Carroll. He released a brand-new collection of poetry in his new book, Void of Course, as well as returning to rock in his own cathartic way with the release of his first album in nearly 15 years, Pools of Mercury. This combined his classic wounded poetry with song, noting his collaborations with Sanko and Kaye.
In 1999, a comprehensive tribute release entitled Put Your Tongue to the Rail: The Philly Compilation for Catholic Children showcased 25 local artists from Philadelphia empowered by the work of Carroll. Two years later, Carroll issued the Runaway EP, which featured live cuts of material from Pools of Mercury and an eclectic cover of Del Shannon's pop hit as the EP's namesake. It turned out to be his last major release, however. He died in September 2009 of a heart attack. ~ Jason Ankeny