Conclusion: Writing as Redemption
Into Gold: Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries
In the judgment of each word
In the end, pretend you hear me.
--"In the Gears" (BN 172)
It is not possible, just now (1990), to define Jim Carroll
or to offer an official pronouncement about his work. The fact is, Carroll
is constantly redefining himself and rewriting his "autobiography" in
various genres, and he will probably continue to do so for the rest of
his life. Hence, to set him in stone now, while he is still in the process
of becoming, would be to deny the possibilities he has yet to explore.
Jim Carroll is now about 40 years old, still writing, and still seeking
to break through his own limits. He has been a street punk, basketball
star, heroin addict, romantic diarist, poet, art-scene initiate, recluse,
husband, rock star, and actor; he is now writing his first fiction novel,
so his newest identity will most likely be "fiction writer." But these
"tags" do not define Jim Carroll, nor do they indicate that with each
metamorphosis he has revised both his identity and the meaning
of his past.
Carroll revises and redefines his identity and his past with each work,
a discussion of his diaries alone barely scrapes the surface in revealing
his achievement as both an artist and the creator of himself. And while
an in-depth analysis of Carroll's poetry and song lyrics exceeds the scope
of this thesis, it is important to note in conclusion that only by appreciating
the complex interplay between Carroll's songwriting, poetry, and his diaries
is it possible to see to what extent, and how, Carroll has been able to
revise and transform his past. For example, if The Basketball Diaries
is itself a transformation of Carroll's adolescent experience, Organic
Trains takes the literary metamorphosis several steps further. Specifically,
two of its poems, "2nd Train (for Frank O'Hara)" and "3rd Train (for THE
SUMMERS)," depict events also described in the Diaries. But rather
than simply rehashing scenes, Carroll's poetry reworks and extends the
aesthetic design his diaries impose upon his life. Hence, in all of his
work, by manipulating words and images, Carroll composes endless variations
of his biography; as he revises and transforms his experience, it becomes
with each new venture, Carroll has rejuvenated his past by exploring and
reshaping its every facet through writing; each time he writes about an
experience from his past, it becomes something new and unique. He does
this by experimenting with different forms--diaries, rock music, poetry--and
by constantly reorganizing his experience within genres. With poetry,
for example, he often unifies and transposes conflicting themes within
a single poem; at other times he composes endless variations on one theme
in several poems, as with the two Organic Trains pieces and all
of the "New York City Variations" and "California Variations" of The
Book of Nods.
like the image Carroll uses in Forced Entries to describe a man
gazing at himself in mirrors which reflect each other, Carroll often cites
and alludes to his own work; the result is that events and images in his
work repeat themselves "over and over, like the picture of the man on
a Quaker Oats box. You know what I mean. The image grows smaller each
time, but extends in theory on to infinity" (174).
example of this technique can be found in "Living at the Movies (for Ted
Berrigan)" (LM 25). In this poem, Carroll does not refer to any specific
events recorded in his diaries, or to any specific event at all. Instead,
"Living at the Movies" is almost self-generating, like the Quaker Oats
box. Carroll begins with an extremely limited number of images with which
he attempts to describe and unify, in four numbered stanzas, seemingly
unlimited and unconnected subjects (some of these subjects are the process
of writing the poem, an anonymous woman, surrealist painter Rene Magritte,
"starlets and their mothers," and the processions of days and seasons).
In order to explore and express all of these things with the limited imagery
he has set up, Carroll plays with language, rearranging and juxtaposing
images to produce nearly endless variations and permutations of words
and phrases. For example, "pain sweats the hunger upon its teeth" in stanza
one (6) becomes "teeth sweating the hunger pain" in the third stanza (23),
then "I lick the sweat upon hungry pain" in stanza four (35). Also, he
repeats a number of images, two of which are "like Mayakovsky's last breath"
and "light rising into her features," to emphasize the interconnectedness
of the poem's many subjects.
Quaker Oats box technique is especially significant because, in many ways,
it is analogous to Carroll's life and work over the past 20 years. In
one sense this means pointing out all of the variations, connections,
transformations, and revisions is sort of like unravelling a Gordian knot.
The intertextuality of Carroll's work is especially complex. In "Jody,"
from Dry Dreams, for example, Carroll alludes to Living at the
Movies twice when he sings, "Jody, I spent years living at the movies,"
and, "Downtown the rooftops are wide / I was sinking in the tar, I screamed
/ 'This city is on my side'"; the latter refers to "Fragment: Little N.
Y. Ode" (LM 28). In the same song he also alludes to the "presence" entry
of The Basketball Diaries (89-90): "Remember the park / And how
we entered at the zoo / That's when I told you that the cheetah / Walked
as fine as you." Likewise, in Forced Entries, Carroll says Salvador
Dali and his escort "were perfect examples of those variations in presence
which I've written about before: it was the difference between a chimpanzee
and a cheetah" (160).
are also many tie-ins revolving around The Book of Nods. Carroll
sings of Jody's "breasts like bleeding limes," and in "Just Visiting"
the narrator tells his hostage, "Once I told this girl she had breasts
like bleeding lemons, she thought that was a beautiful thing to say" (BN
63-64). The first stanza of "Work, Not Play," another song on Dry Dreams,
duplicates the opening of "Watching the Schoolyard": "It's a decade past
my decadence. My beast wears rings and he hides under the shadows of my
silent hesitations. Each image is so clear, yet I have no hands" (BN 13).
In "Watching the Schoolyard," Carroll also says, "Still, I think I have
moved closer to my heart," a statement he makes repeatedly in the California
section of Forced Entries. "Borders" recalls "Low Rider," on Dry
Dreams, repeating, "The radio on . . . radio on" (BN 149). "Me, Myself,
and I" is very similar to the title song of Catholic Boy, beginning,
"I was born in a pool. They made my mother stand" (BN 46). One of the
"New York City Variations" refers to the same Eddie of "People Who Died,"
who was "stabbed in the jugular at mid-day"; as in "People Who Died,"
Carroll says, "And I salute you, my brother" (BN 79). "Lenses" echoes
a line from "I Want the Angel," another song from Catholic Boy:
"Their bones are so sharp; they can break through their own excuses" (26).
in The Book of Nods alone, one finds two different versions of
the same poem in one of the "California Variations" (107) and "Prologue"
(119): appropriately, the first begins, "Starting with little in mind
/ the best you might do is take it / all the way," and the second begins,
"Starting with little in mind / the best you might do is begin it / over
and over again." Also, Carroll originally published "Quality" (BN 19)
as "The Bees" in 1974, and "A Night Outing (for James Schuyler)" (BN 121)
in 1976; for ten years he continued to revise both of these works for
publication in The Book of Nods. But this process of perpetual
revision and recycling is even more apparent in some of his earlier work.
For example, his uncollected poem "Red Rabbit Running Backwards (for A.
W..)" recycles lines from nearly every poem in Organic Trains.
He also continued to revise "Heroin" (LM 19-20) after its first publication
in 1969, and he changed "The Answer" to "Sure . . ." (LM 58).
added to this complex intertextuality is the fact that the chronology
of Carroll's work as a whole is a complex tangle; hence, it is difficult
to determine exactly when certain events occurred or where a particular
theme originated. Apparently, he composed Organic Trains during
and shortly after the period of The Basketball Diaries, then completed
The Basketball Diaries, wrote Living at the Movies, and
began The Book of Nods before and during the period of Forced
Entries. Then, during the period of Forced Entries, Carroll
published Living at the Movies (1973), completed The Book of
Nods, and wrote the lyrics for Catholic Boy. Meanwhile, he
formed the Jim Carroll Band. In 1978 he published The Basketball Diaries,
then released Catholic Boy in 1980, after which he wrote Forced
Entries, released Dry Dreams (1982) and I Write Your Name
(1984), and published The Book of Nods (1986). In 1987 he published
Forced Entries along with the re-release of The Basketball Diaries.
than trying to unravel this Gordian knot, I'd like to cut straight through
to the circumstances surrounding Carroll's writing of Forced Entries.
That is, because Carroll wrote Forced Entries after his entrance
into rock 'n' roll, he had the opportunity to reshape his entire past,
from The Basketball Diaries up to his entry into rock, and
recontextualize his venture into rock 'n' roll. This is just what he did,
with the result that he was able to escape the confines of his past to
write the fictional, story-like songs of Dry Dreams and I Write
fact is, Forced Entries is an excellent example of Carroll's aesthetic
shaping of the chaotic materials of his life. Actually, Carroll began
writing song lyrics for Catholic Boy while in California; yet he
altered this chronology in Forced Entries by placing his "Rock
'n' Roll" entry in the "Back to New York" section (164), almost at the
very end of the book. This is significant because, when Forced Entries
ends, Carroll has exorcised the demons of his past, but he is in a state
of limbo: the final word of the book is "Wait." In essence, Carroll has
structured the ending of the book in such a way that it revises the meaning
of his entrance into rock 'n' roll: he is "waiting" to enter rock 'n'
roll, which will become his salvation.
appreciate the transformation Carroll achieved with Forced Entries,
it must be understood within the context of his entry into rock, and then
be re-seen again, in reverse. The release of the Jim Carroll Band's first
album, Catholic Boy, in 1980, drew a great deal of attention to
Carroll and spurred a flurry of articles about him. And while Catholic
Boy is perhaps the greatest revision of his past Carroll had yet achieved,
his critics and admirers, like the members of the art scene in the 1970s,
seemed interested only in his adolescent decadence and "street" image,
not in his transformation of it.
Blind to the complexity of Carroll's work and his perpetual revision and
transformation of his past, and in spite of the fact that he has repeatedly
risen above the street punk identity of The Basketball Diaries
through writing, Carroll's audience still saddled him with the
tag of "street punk."
of the reason for this, it seems, is the fact that the old cycle had begun
anew: the release of Catholic Boy coincided with the publication
of the Bantam edition of The Basketball Diaries. As a result, Carroll
found himself at the beginning of the 1980s in the same position he found
himself at the beginning of the 1970s. As with his entry into the New
York art scene, the Diaries simultaneously drew attention to him
and advanced his entry into rock 'n' roll while throwing his process of
transcendence into a tailspin.
is ironic about the resurrection of Carroll's old persona via The
Basketball Diaries is that, with Catholic Boy, he finally
found a most cathartic way to rewrite and transcend his past, that of
The Basketball Diaries in particular. In Catholic Boy, Carroll
re-sees the period of The Basketball Diaries, going so far as to
expand upon a quotation in the book's "Author's Note" in "Nothing is True."
He also reinterprets aspects of his art scene days; in "It's Too Late"
he sings, "There's no one left that I even wanna imitate," and decides:
ain't no contribution
To rely on the institution
To validate your chosen art
And to sanction your boredom
And let you play out your part
of all, Catholic Boy is the exploration Carroll was previously
afraid to undertake: he traverses the darkest, scariest facets of his
experience, and transforms them into something new and strangely beautiful
through rock music.
"People Who Died," for example, he names 13 friends who died young, listing
only their names, ages, and causes of death; the first two stanzas are
sniffing glue he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine
G-berg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in upper Manhattan
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet in the head
Bobby O.D.'d on Drano on the night that he was wed
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died
Rayhill, who fell off the roof while sniffing glue, and Bobby Sachs, who
died of leukemia, both appear in The Basketball Diaries, as do
Eddie and Herbie (and Tony, indirectly), whom Carroll names later in the
song. "Eddie" is probably "Fat Eddie," or "Sloppy Eddie," one of Carroll's
best friends who appears frequently in the Diaries. Herbie Hemslie
leads the gang throwing bricks off a rooftop during Teddy Rayhill's memorial
service (27); later in the book, Carroll mentions that "Herbie was in
stir on a murder rap. Seems he pushed some guy [Tony] off a roof . . .
." In the same entry he asks his friend "what became of the rest of the
old Boys' Club bunch. He just mumbled that most of them were either strung
out or doing a bit at Riker's Juvenile" (177).
The Basketball Diaries, Carroll was unable to describe the horror,
fear, and confusion he felt when faced with death. At Teddy Rayhill's
memorial service, he notes the only options are to say a prayer or stand
"and [feel] shitty about everything" (27). After Bobby Sachs's wake, he
says, "I left dazed out in the streets like I had just come out of a four
hour movie I didn't understand" (68). When his friend tells him Bobo died,
Carroll laughs about it, but when his friend says, "Bobo was my brother,"
Carroll is silent. Finally, when he finds a "dry dive" case on the sidewalk,
he asks, "What the fuck am I supposed to say?" (108).
"People Who Died," Carroll emphasizes the punk aesthetic he has honed
over the years. While he is not speechless, he offers no words of wisdom,
consolation, or sentimental gushing to help soften or make sense of these
deaths; the list of names, the ages, and the causes of death say
enough. In fact, as the song progresses and the list grows, the sheer
number of names becomes almost overwhelming:
took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from a cell in the tombs
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in the jugular vein
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Herbie pushed Tony from the Boys' Club roof
Tony thought that his rage was just some goof
But Herbie sure gave Tony some bitchin' proof
"Hey," Herbie said, "Tony, can you fly?"
But Tony couldn't fly, Tony died
Brian got busted on a narco rap
He beat the rap by rattin' on some bikers
He said, "Hey, I know it's dangerous,
but it sure beats Rikers"
But the next day he got offed
By the very same bikers
to reemphasize these numbers, Carroll repeats the list again in the middle
of the song.
shows there is nothing he can say to explain or enlighten the horror of
death, and that there is little room for sentimentality (the only vaguely
sentimental line is, "Eddie, I miss you more than all the others / And
I salute you, brother"); he repeats all he can say in the chorus:
are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
as he observes in Forced Entries, "Violence is so terribly fast
. . . the most perverse thing about the movies is the way they portray
it in slow motion, allowing it to be something sensuous . . . " (101).
"People Who Died" is a case in point: rather than making the song a slow
dirge, the band amplifies the terrible speed of violence, backing the
song with breakneck guitar and a frantic beat while Carroll attempts to
out-shout the music.
Who Died" is probably the most written-about work of Carroll's career,
mostly because it is a shocking way to talk about death. On the one hand,
it has been hailed as a sort of punk anthem. But on the other hand, because
Carroll does not treat death in a sentimental, brooding fashion, listeners
frequently misinterpret the song as a glorification of death. Carroll's
defense is simple:
I understand that the day after [John] Lennon died that song was
the most requested thing at a lot of radio stations. . . . The
thing is people have been puttin' down the song for glorifyin'
death, but it really celebrates lives. It's about people who got
cut off without fulfillin' their potential. (Damsker)
important aspect of "People Who Died" is just this: by illuminating the
stark reality of death, its senselessness, and the void left where his
friends once were, Carroll emphasizes the value of life, amplifying
the sense that these people died without fulfilling whatever potential
their lives had in store for them.
in an interview following the release of Catholic Boy, Clarice
Rivers asked Carroll how many of his friends have died. Carroll replied:
A lot. A lot of the kids I graduated with from Catholic grammar
school went to Viet Nam. Forty kids graduated with me and eleven
of them died there. It's an incredible percentage. Also, a lot
of my friends from when I was young died or went to jail or got
into drugs and died. I got into drugs at the same time and fortunately
. . . This song is about that. It's like an elegy but it's not
sentimental. It just lists the people who died, how they died,
how old they were and that's all.
cuts himself short here, but the fact is that he could have been one of
the people who died. Because of this, "People Who Died" celebrates not
just life but Carroll's own life--the fact that he survived. The song
is about the fact that Carroll, unlike his friends who died young, at
least has the chance to fulfill his potential. As he said in an
interview with Barbara Graustark, "Susan Sontag once told me that a junkie
has a unique chance to rise up and start life over. But I want kids to
know it's not hip to indulge yourself at the bottom unless you're planning
on one helluva resurrection" (81).
interviews as well as in his writing, Carroll enjoys quoting himself;
he pulled this last line from "City Drops Into the Night," another important
song on Catholic Boy. "City Drops Into the Night" is representative
of the theme of corruption and purification characterizing Catholic
Boy (and all of Carroll's work). As the title song states: "I was
a Catholic Boy / Redeemed through pain, not through joy," and Carroll's
central concern on Catholic Boy is showing how he descended into
the abyss and emerged redeemed.
in "City Drops Into the Night," and throughout the album, Carroll juxtaposes
images of decadent street life against the opportunities for redemption
which arise at key moments within this scene:
when Billy's whores are workin'
They're workin' with the skeleton crew
It's when the sky over Jersey
That sky starts to drain from view
It's when my woman [pawns] her voice
So she can make her old excuses sound new
knows from experience, it is at these moments of ultimate decadence, "when
the body at the bottom / That body is my own reflection," that salvation
becomes possible. This theme of endless possibilities opening up in the
midst of desolation comprises the chorus of the song:
when the city drops into the night
Before the darkness there's one moment of light
And everything seems clear
The other side seems so near
What seemed wrong?
I think it's gonna be just about right
Before the city drops, the city drops
the city drops into the night
the guiding tone of "City Drops Into the Night" is one of anticipation
and hope in the face of desolation: "Before the darkness there's one moment
of light," when everything can change. The characters in the song
all find themselves at turning points, when their situations can change
radically, for better or worse:
when ambitious little girls start
They start to dream about a change in style
It's when the slick boys got their fingers
They got their fingers in the telephone dial
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It's when the sneak thieves are checkin'
They're checkin' the alleys for unlocked doors
And Billy's sister's gettin' frantic
Cause Billy's sister's little brother can't score
It's when the woman from the dream is,
Oh my God, that's the woman on the floor
Each promise was just one promise more
Carroll, one "moment of light" came in the final entry of The Basketball
Diaries, as he wallowed in the deepest depths of heroin abuse and
wrote, "I just want to be pure." During the period of Forced Entries,
another opportunity opened up. Talking with John Milward, Carroll described
this turning point:
and this hardened tough guy had this rip-off scene going, until
one day this dealer was waiting for us. We came onto this guy
in the hallway, but he had a friend, because when my partner opened
the door to the apartment, an ax came down and split his head
right down the middle. (172)
this second turning point, the notion of possibility for Carroll is directly
related to his awareness that "it could have been me," as in "People Who
Died." In Forced Entries, Carroll writes, "Since Miguel got his
head bashed in by the dealer we tried to rip off last night, I've tried
to reconsider my immediate plans for the future or non-future. I can't
shake the feeling that it could have been me, not Miguel, who walked into
that hallway first" (113). After this, Carroll enrolled in a methadone
program and began the process which led him to California and rock music.
the ending of "City Drops Into the Night" reveals the specific nature
of Carroll's salvation. First, he had to realize the prison he had built
for himself in the endless cycle of obsession and heroin abuse:
always gonna come to your door
They're gonna say it's just a routine inspection
But what do you get when you open your door?
What you get is just another injection
And there's always gonna be one more
With just a little bit less until the next one
is ambiguous, but here it can refer to drug dealers; of course dealers
are always willing to oblige a habit and, in doing so, they become rulers
of the addict's fate. But the sense Carroll conveys is that corrupting
forces (street life, the "system," and the art scene as well as drugs)
and the craving for sensation will continue to impinge on the addict so
long as he/she perpetuates the addiction, whether he/she is addicted to
drugs, fast living, exotic sensations, fame, or whatever.
as the addict descends further into the abyss and gives him/herself over
to his/her obsessions, these corrupting forces siphon away any vestige
of hope the addict might have. As callous as a mugger hiding in a darkened
alley and robbing a passer-by of her life savings, these corrupting forces
in shadows and steal the light from your eyes
To them, vision's just some costly infection
the addict has been robbed of all hope and of the artistic vision which
will offer salvation, the "moment of light" passes, leaving the addict
with nothing but darkness, despair, and corruption.
Carroll seized upon the "moment of light" in time, and he was redeemed.
Hence, as he concludes the song, he transforms the drug metaphor as he
becomes the "dealer" who, rather than doling out corruption, deals revelation
you should come with me,
I'm the fire, I'm the fire's reflection
I'm just a constant warning
To take the other direction
Mister, I am your connection
put it, "The poet . . . is truly the thief of fire" (103). Hence, Carroll
transforms himself into a modern-day Prometheus, shedding light on the
underground experience, the trap of addiction, and the nature of art.
He shows that it is possible to make it all new--to enlarge and grasp
that moment of light. Rather than feeding his audience poison, corruption,
and darkness, as does the drug dealer, he feeds his audience light and
purity. Finally, and most importantly, he becomes "the fire's reflection,"
the reflection of both the ugliness of his past and the beauty of the
underground experience. The point is that no matter how deeply an individual
descends into the abyss, redemption is still possible through a finely-tuned
many ways, rock 'n' roll was Carroll's salvation. It not only gave him
a chance to re-see his nightmarish past in a new way and transform it
into something beautiful, but it also gave him a larger audience and a
more flexible means to communicate with that audience. As Carroll puts
it, "Basically, with rock there's a much better chance at creating some
magic than there is at poetry readings. The energy from the audience at
a concert is incredible. . . It takes you out of yourself" (Kenton). He
also told Divina Infusino:
see [rock] as an extension of what I've always done. . . The energy
of rock 'n' roll is similar to what the energy of poetry used
to be. It serves the same function that poetry used to serve,
even in the traditional sense that poets used to sing.
Rock 'n' roll is more accessible to kids than poetry. Kids don't
read poetry. In America, poetry has always been considered wimp
But with rock 'n' roll, kids with no verbal sophistication can
still get what I'm saying because they feel it through their "inner
register," as Henry Miller called it--through their hearts. (F6)
he remarked to Chet Flippo that "Any poet, out of respect for his audience,
should become a rock star" (35).
Carroll did become a rock star--immediately. Laura Fissinger notes that
"People Who Died" "started to get heavy play on a surprising number of
stations, and the journalists began to line up" even before the release
of Catholic Boy. Carroll was an enthusiastic interviewee, at least
initially. Steve Sutherland notes that:
with Jim Carroll is like taking your first verbal free-fall parachute
jump--what looks like it's gonna be some relaxed drift across
the rock 'n' roll landscape, can suddenly accelerate into an alarming,
up-rushing stream of brutal, buffeting images so swift, so stunningly
honest you invariably turn chicken, tug the chord, interrupt and
pull up with the next safety-catch question.
[journalists] came away impressed. . . . And what copy he made:
he looked like a ghost, like he'd been dipped in white wax. He
seemed hidden, distant, and as vulnerable as a child. He was bright.
He chain smoked, pulled at his pale red hair, couldn't sit still.
He talked non-stop, in metaphors and street slang and guileless
gestures, about anything they wanted to know. Almost. (44)
"almost" began to expand, however, as Carroll found himself being asked
the same questions over and over again, and every article referred to
him as something along the lines of "the ex-junkie poet-turned-rocker
who wrote The Basketball Diaries and Living at the Movies."
His replies to interview questions became standardized. Everyone asked
how he got into rock; Carroll's stock answer was always the Patti-Smith-Henry-Miller
one, in varying degrees of detail. When asked what happened in California,
he talked about his dogs. Everyone especially wanted to know about his
heroin addiction; finally, Carroll said:
gotten to the point where I don't talk about drugs anymore generally,
you know? And it's all just so boring now, besides. This guy from
Penthouse [John Milward] did a real long profile on me;
in that many sessions, y'know, you can't avoid it because it's
part of my history, and the Diaries have a lot to do with it.
That's an image they lay on you, you know. But I don't want to
dwell on it anymore. Besides, a lot of the songs have references
to getting away from junk. (Fissinger 44+)
also became clear that journalists were missing the point of Catholic
Boy entirely. As Infusino observes, many critics "labeled Carroll
the new leader of the 'death cult of rock,' similar to the role Jim Morrison
of The Doors once played" (F6); this was largely due to "People Who Died."
In most interviews Carroll explained the concept of the song very carefully,
but when Mark J. Norton asked if Carroll wasn't "exploiting the memory
of his dead friends for his own gains," Carroll blew up:
. . . That song is a celebration! Some asshole wrote that me and
Jim Morrison were into some sort of death trip and it's about
time someone said something about it. Once and for all--THAT'S
BULLSHIT!! ("Heart-on" 64)
journalists during this period, however, were able to look past the hype
surrounding Catholic Boy and Carroll's decadent youth to offer
some insight into his art. Notably, in her portrait "The Transformation
of Jim Carroll," Laura Fissinger analyzes the media hype itself, viewing
Carroll as an unwilling martyr-in-the-making. Fissinger cites models of
such "sacrificial lambs" as Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop and compares their
martyrdom to that which the media was imposing on Carroll. She suggests
that, with Carroll:
art and the things the artist becomes receptacle for get too tangled
up to judge separately anymore. The value of the art becomes
obscured, a matter of doubt--frequently before the martyr makes
the final exit, and almost always afterward. The problem for those
preparing the stake is that Carroll's demons seem to be at bay
right now. Worse, as he rides them to fame he's also doing what
he can to keep them there.
as with The Basketball Diaries, Carroll's biography and his transformation
of it became confused. The fact is, Carroll's critics and admirers wanted
him to be a martyr; they wanted him to have a death wish, regardless of
what he actually says on Catholic Boy.
saw this quite clearly and recognized it as the antithesis of the celebration
of life and endless possibilities he has explored throughout his
career. His disillusionment is obvious in "Them," a song on Dry Dreams,
as he sings:
say, "I'll live for your sins
if you will die for mine" . . .
I'll summon the darkness
if you buy the wine
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They make you feel so clever while you're being sold
possibly as a result of all the misinterpretation of his work and the
focus on his youthful decadence, Carroll's past became ugly to him again.
Talking about his Basketball Diaries persona with Scott Cain, Carroll
hinted that he had nearly disowned his past: "There are some things I
can relate to, but other things I refer to in the third person because
it seems like a different person. It's like the prehistoric past." Likewise,
he told Cain he was considering a move to San Francisco or Boston because
"My whole history is in New York . . . . Now I want to get away from it
for the same reason that I wanted to move back. I'm referring to my street
roots too often. There are too many flashes of things I did as a kid which
are not too pleasant to me now."
the midst of all this, Carroll began writing Forced Entries. In
a 1981 interview with Clarice Rivers, to whom he dedicated the book, Carroll
explained his plans for the diary, stating that it would be "half-fictional
and half-autobiographical." The crux of the book, he said, would be his
move to California,
one of the big parts in this basketball diary is the change from
just being a street kid, and going to Catholic and public schools,
and all of a sudden getting a scholarship to this very posh private
school with very wealthy kids, for the first time . . . .
early battle plan is significant both because it shows Forced Entries
is in many ways a conscious revision of The Basketball Diaries,
and because it reveals the importance of the California section of the
book. Like his admission to Trinity, Carroll sees his move to California,
not his entry into the art scene, as a chance to rise above his "street"
Also, even more significantly, is the notion that Forced
Entries is half fictional and half autobiographical. I wondered about
the "Author's Note,"
so when I talked to Carroll in July of 1989,
I asked him about "The Poet and the Vibrator" (FE 24-29), which to me
seemed far-fetched. He said, "I swear it's true! Well, he didn't exactly
say, 'My dick feels like a sparring partner,' but I swear it's true!"
Then he said, "Well, maybe it's a bit exaggerated, but it was really funny."
The fact that I have gleaned--from talking to Carroll, from his interviews,
and from reading his work--is that Jim Carroll does not lie. The fictional
nature of Forced Entries (and all of his work, for that matter)
has to do with the way he reorders and embellishes events in order to
make them more true.
In "The Salvation of Rock," Patti Smith writes that
"Pollution is a result of the inability of man to transform waste" (140),
and Carroll undoubtedly considered rock his own salvation--his means to
transform the waste of his past. Hence, with Catholic Boy and The
Basketball Diaries having been so largely misconstrued, Carroll again
set about the alchemist's task of transforming his polluted past into
gold. In Forced Entries, he battles the demons of his past as well
as the distorted interpretation and stigma of his past which his critics
had imposed upon him. Therefore, Carroll consciously tries to "put a lid
on the seamier side of the double life I've continued to lead" (FE 113).
Furthermore, directly confronting the "death wish" his critics have attributed
to him, Carroll adopts a confessional tone in Forced Entries, almost
exaggeratedly repenting of his sins. And, finally, with the elaborate
metaphor of the bursting abscess in "Opening Night," Carroll illustrates
that he was redeemed and was ready to begin his life anew with
rock 'n' roll. Appropriately, at the end of Forced Entries, he
writes, "I've pierced a veil" (184); likewise, Patti Smith writes: "within
the context of neo rock we must open our eyes and seize and rend the veil
of smoke which man calls order" (140).
importantly, in Forced Entries, Carroll is emphasizing that he
is no longer the street punk of The Basketball Diaries.
By the "Back to New York" section of Forced Entries, Carroll has
moved beyond his street punk identity to become an artist. He is an artist
capable of transforming a California storm into a mystical experience,
capable of depicting the textures of New York City in flawless detail,
and capable of transforming his hideous past into a work of art. As he
shows throughout the diary and throughout all of his work, Jim Carroll
is an artist capable of turning shit into gold.
©1990 Cassie Carter. This material may not be reprinted except by permission from the author.