ARCHIVES: Jimmy died at his desk in upper Manhattan (Jim Carroll, 1949-2009)

Jim Carroll put on a lot of mileage in his 60 years.

This pre-Franorama World post was from my MySpace blog Sept. 30, 2009, 6:44 p.m. PDT:

It was just an intersection of one time, one show, one night and one morning after. I wish to hell I could remember any of our conversations, aside from the one I printed. But I was living in the moment — I wasn’t thinking that one day the guy would be dead and I’d be in a coffee shop 2,500 miles away, looking back on him and thinking jeez, I wish I could remember some pearl that the guy imparted. At the time, it was just the intersection of two regular guys — except that one of the guys was a famous poet who had a lot to say at one time and whose work intersected with my formative musical and adult years.

You probably know by now that Jim Carroll, that legendary New York poet whose teenage journal about his mid-’60s descent from high school sports stardom to heroin addiction became “The Basketball Diaries,” died Sept. 11 of a heart attack at his home in Inwood, the section of upper Manhattan where he grew up. He was 60, but seemed much older when he collapsed at his desk. My meeting with him was a collision of past image and present reality.

*****

My first encounter with Jim, like many my age, wasn’t with “The Basketball Diaries,” but “People Who Died,” in early 1980, two years after the book was first published. Carroll took his turn as a rockstar and recorded the album “Catholic Boy,” and this was the big radio hit. In the days when this geek — then going to college on Long Island, a half-hour from Manhattan — was still immersing myself in punk/new wave/whateverthehellyouwanttocallit, this song was wiry, fast, loud and absurd and silly. It was a song about all these people dying in improbable ways: Bobby ODed on Drano on the night that he was wed; but Tony couldn’t fly — so he died!; and so on. It was danceable and silly and I was a ball of energy caroming off floors and walls in dance clubs then.

It wasn’t until I grew up a little — well, until I graduated from college — that I bought the “Diaries” (and the ’70s follow-up, “Forced Entries”), and I read Carroll’s most vivid fall from grace, as brutally self-honest a story as I’ve encountered, all told in this bizarre sort of cool, hip detachment. And I learned, of course, that all the people who died in the song were real! The deeper I read, the more guilty I felt for all those times I cranked the stereo, for all those nights I maniacally danced on the graves of those people. I mean, who would’ve guessed that those stories were real?

The story remained vivid all those years, and I was hoping someone would make the movie version. Well, don’t ask for something; you might get it. It was with great anticipation that I went to see the movie when it came out in 1995; after all, Leo DeCaprio was playing Carroll (albeit a shorter version than the All-City center), so this was gonna be good. Well, even Leo’s best acting couldn’t make a recognizable chicken salad out of this godawful piece of chickenshit. Of all the bars, all the gin joints and all the movies, this novice MTV director walks into this one. It was a horrible and superficial job, full of overly simplistic, heavy-handed imagery (Leo hanging off the cyclone fence like Jesus? Jesus indeed …) and a disgrace to Jim and his life.

Anyway, fast-forward to May of 2001, in the final third of my time as the New Haven Register’s entertainment editor/music writer. At the time, there was an alt-music club in an old Kresge’s downtown (since burned down) called the Tune Inn, owned by a very interesting Portuguese guy named Fernando Pinto. In the ’80s, he took a tiny disco in a strip mall in Naugatuck called the Night Shift and brought in the likes of Bo Diddley, Sonic Youth, Phish — when their first LP came out; he got about 20 people — The Fleshtones, The Lyres, The Cynics, Johnny Thunders & Patti Paladin, Johnny Copeland, Hubert Sumlin, Anson Funderburgh & Sam Myers and Pinetop Perkins. In the early ’90s, he moved on to book a place in New Haven called The Moon, where his big claim to fame was bringing Nirvana’s only-ever performance in Connecticut (the week “Nevermind” came out). In the mid-’90s, he opened the Tune Inn and, despite every shady effort by the city to force him out of business — they didn’t want punks in Ninth Square; they wanted to bring in yuppies — he kept the place going nearly a decade.

And around that time, Fernando was toying with bringing in spoken-word performances; Richard Hell would come later. But Jim was his first attempt at spoken-word, and I was game for an interview. After all, “The Basketball Diaries” was one of those indelible books that left its impact — it’s on my list of books that make me never ever want to write my own book — and besides, it had been a while since we’d heard about him, so I was curious to see what he’d been up to. Cassie Carter, the keeper of his www.catholicboy.com Web site, was kind enough to set me up for a phoner with him.

Jim and I talked for 90 minutes. The show went 80 minutes. (The story version on his Web site is missing most of the paragraphs, but I swear it wasn’t a run-on story in original form.) Aside from my two-hour impromptu phone talk with Dick Dale one night in 1994, it was the only time I ever did an interview that lasted longer than the artist’s performance. The interview itself, which was casual and very conversational (and that’s how I’d know how well an interview was going — if it got really long and conversational, and I kept the artist’s interest, then it was a success) was a piece of performance art unto itself. Jim would start answering a question, snake off into one tangent, then another, then another, and about 20 minutes later, he’d wrap up the initial question — after tying up every single tangent in the process.

We talked about how he approached his performances, how he would pull monologues off the top of his head (and was looking in vain for a recording of one he nailed in one take in Boston five years before), about the film, how he was trying to finish not one, but two novels — “The Petting Zoo” and “Stigma” — and, while not trying to distance himself from the “Diaries,” at least give them a sense of perspective. The more we talked, I had a feeling the books were starting to become an albatross around his skinny neck. He’d been working on these books for years in dribs and drabs, and it seemed like an endless process.

Of course, I had to see him that Saturday night at the Tune Inn. The Jim Carroll I saw live in the smaller room of the club (the part with the bar, natch) talked with the same flat, casual detachment with which his stories read in the two dimensions of print. He had an aura of cool about him — not because he was JIM CARROLL, a literary and onetime music star, but because he had lived this survivor’s life that allowed him to be cool about things, to discern what really mattered and what didn’t. And fame, it seemed, didn’t matter to him. Of course, it helped pay the bills — and brought in royalties and performance fees — but having been famous, and having been around people who were much more famous from a young age (remember that he was a contemporary of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a high school hoops star) brought him that certain perspective. He was casual, accessible and entertaining. The fans got their money’s worth.

It was past 11:30, and Fernando was trying to get Jim back to the train station so he could catch the last Metro-North to Grand Central. He asked me if I wanted to go along for the ride. We got in his ’70s Ford Econoline van. No luck; missed the train. Since the lodging in New Haven was quite expensive, Fernando drove him out to Branford, two towns east of New Haven, to the Branford Motel on Route 1. I had never been there, but the place was a classic no-tell motel. We walked in with Jim and he dropped his stuff in the room. One cinderblock wall was decorated in that wood lattice framework used on crawlspaces of houses. It was painted dark green. There was a huge, heart-shaped tub — black, dark green; I forget, but it looked dreary; I think it was black — and the crowning touch, befitting Jim: A Nerf basketball hoop and backboard was attached to the top of the bathroom door. You couldn’t pay anyone enough to make that up.

We left and headed a mile or so east on 1 to the Parthenon Diner. The world will little note nor long remember what we said there — hell, I can’t remember a thing we talked about; after all, we were pretty talked out in that phone conversation. It was just three guys having a late dinner; then we dropped him off. He would take a cab to the train station in the morning.

The impression I got was that while the public saw this image of cool, it was not a terribly happy life he was living. He was performing at a club in a not-so-big city for about a hundred people, staying in a rundown tryst nest afterward. He was probably doing these appearances infrequently. He was probably bringing in some royalty checks from his books and albums and movies, but that couldn’t have added up to much. He was much more gaunt than I had imagined, even taking his height (6-3) into consideration. And while his name had drawing power, there seemed to be an underlying sadness, or at least a resignation, about him. Maybe it was knowing that the white-hot flame of fame had passed him by, though as a gifted writer, it could never totally be extinguished. Maybe it was the writer’s block accompanying his unfinished novels. But whatever it was, I got the impression that he was living an austere, poet’s life in New York, and that it was not necessarily a cheery one, no matter how cool an aura he radiated.

Well, I moved away and left the music-writing gig nearly three years later to start a new life on the other side of the country, and I didn’t think about Jim much — except to occasionally run into a copy of the story I did on him, still in the moving box, and wonder whether he was gonna finish that book. Or if I missed it in the midst of reconfiguring and resettling my life.

And then, on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, he collapsed at his desk in his apartment. And The New York Times ran a follow-up story three days ago about his final days. His past caught up to him, and not in literary form. The gaunt redhead, who looked so youthful and hip half a lifetime ago when he was publishing his milestone/millstone book and making his signature punk record, had been suffering from circulation problems in recent years that made walking difficult, as well as the aftereffects of pneumonia and hepatitis C. Also, he had grown a long white beard. Looked like 65 when he died? More like 75.

And his semiautobiographical “The Petting Zoo” was still not finished. However, according to the story, it was in the final edits and might be ready for publication this time next year. No mention of “Stigma,” though. I hope he gets to finish it in his next life and get on with the rest of the work he couldn’t bring himself to complete in this one.

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