Jim Carroll: Cool Poet
Jim Carroll's 'The Basketball Diaries'
tells of his Catholic boyhood to basketball star, to living
on the streets as a junkie. His book was made int o a film that
premiered in January 1995 at the Sundance Festival.
Carroll missed the world premiere of The Basketball Diaries
at Sundance last January. He wanted to stay in New York City and
meet with a Vatican monsignor who investigates miracles, "like
the image of Christ burnt into a tortilla," he says.
of The Basketball Diaries know the miracle of Jim Carroll:
Groveling for a fix, he wrote like an angel, creating a transcendent
autobiography of his fall from Catholic grammar school golden
boy and All-City basketball star to junk-sick 15-year-old scavenger
selling his body in public toilets, ripping off old ladies' purses,
puking his guts out in a burnt-out basement, moaning "I just want
to be pure."
First published in 1978, The Basketball Diaries has sold
an estimated half a million copies; on the heels of the movie
version, it returned to best-seller lists. At book signings with
Leonardo DiCaprio, the film's star, it was Carroll the crowds
clamored for. Over the years, moody heartthrobs from Matt Dillon
to River Phoenix jockeyed to play Carroll. In the late '80s Phoenix
carried around the Diaries, claiming it was the only lead
role he wanted to play. The option money from at least 10 scripts
has kept Carroll in relative financial ease.
Now 44, his athletic body amazingly unblemished by the ravages
of heroin, his skin still translucently pale, his once orange-red
hair dulled to the color of ginger, he is divorced from music
industry lawyer Rosemary Carroll and lives alone in Inwood, his
old neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Late some afternoons, he
likes to go to church. He misses the old Latin Mass, he says:
"I liked it when the priest faced the altar. These days it's like
a cooking class." He says he never takes Communion. "I always
think I'm going to find the ideal priest, but they all end up
with booze on their breath, like when I was a kid."
He has a famous first album, too: 1980's Catholic Boy.
The Diaries soundtrack opens with Carroll, backed by Pearl
Jam, singing a sped-up '90s version of the title cut. His cult
hit "People Who Died," a raucous valedictory to boyhood amigos,
also figures prominently. Now Carroll is trying to decide whether
to put a new band together (Rhino Records released World Without
Gravity: The Best of the Jim Carroll Band in 1994) or get
back to a novel about a rich young painter in spiritual crisis.
Poetry is a constant. He rises early to write. Fear of Dreaming,
his selected poems, was published last year by Penguin Books.
He still writes in schoolboy marbled notebooks, and though he
lives the isolated life of a committed writer, he tries to stay
in touch with the world. His major vice is watching too much television.
"I got rid of cable," Carroll shrugs. "Now I just watch the infomercials."
Thirty-two years after he began The Basketball Diaries,
Carroll remains mystified by the book's staying power -- "Actually,
I wanted to write a novel, but I didn't have the wherewithal to
sustain a plot or character, and I was too young to make it literary"
-- and by his notoriety, which, he understands too well, keeps
pulling him back into his own adolescence. "Kids are always coming
up to me with a bottle of Carbona and saying `Let's go up on the
roof and sniff.' God, if they only knew how boring my life really
Though the movie treats Carroll with a respect bordering on reverence,
he admits he's never been comfortable with the film's climax:
Fresh out of prison, neatly dressed and squeaky-clean, he gives
his first poetry reading to torrential applause. "It seems like
a Narcotics Anonymous meeting," he cracks, as big a wiseass as
ever. "It would have been great if they'd just [killed] me off."
© 1995 Entertainment Weekly