Shit Into Gold
Into Gold: Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries
everything is shit. the
art must be redefined.
--Patti Smith, Babel (33)
Jim Carroll captured my heart in the fall of 1987,
when I read The Basketball Diaries for the first time.
Judging from the title, I expected the diary to be a boring boys'
book about basketball; once I had read the first few pages, however,
I realized my assumption was wrong, to say the least. This 13
year-old kid was living in a nightmare world of pedophiliac coaches
and priests, gang wars, racism, and poverty; he was a star basketball
player hooked on heroin, sampling every drug he could get his
hands on, mugging people in Central Park, and hustling gay men
for money. But he was doing more than surviving.
On the basketball court, he moved with the grace
of a cheetah; each basket, each slick pass, transformed him into
something greater than himself. And he described his nightmare
world even more elegantly, in street lingo and metaphors and sly
jokes, somehow making this nightmare beautiful.
By the time I reached the middle of the book,
I was hopelessly entranced, crawling along New York City's dirty
underbelly alongside Carroll. As fate would have it, I discovered
he would be appearing at SDSU's Backdoor nightclub and, needless
to say, I bought my ticket on the spot. Then I waited.
On Friday, November 13, 1987, the day of Carroll's
reading, thinking that multitudes of avid fans would have camped
overnight, I arrived at the Backdoor two hours early. No one was
there. With nothing else to do, I sat in a wire-mesh chair outside
the door, pulled my copy of The Basketball Diaries out
of my purse and started reading. I sat there, immersed in the
book, for at least an hour, until a strange feeling began creeping
up my spine. I heard voices behind me, and one of those voices
kept slipping into the pages of my book. The sensation was so
strange that I was almost afraid to turn around; I finally did,
though very cautiously.
Jim Carroll was sitting directly behind me,
in a wire-mesh chair just like mine. It was unmistakably him:
the long red hair, the pale white skin, and the thin, athletic
body; his voice, with its pronounced New York accent, was the
one that had crept into my book. He was talking animatedly about
an upcoming film version of The Basketball Diaries, obviously
excited about it.
My god! A character had suddenly jumped out
of the book I was reading! I was so stunned and scared that I
couldn't think of a thing to say to him. A thousand words raced
through my mind; I rehearsed and revised all the brilliant things
I might say, developing entire conversations in my mind. Then
I abruptly realized that he was walking away. I heard him ask
his friend, "Well, think we awta head ova to the aw-cade faw awhile?"
I watched his lanky body disappear into the arcade, duffel bag
By the time I recovered, a long line had formed
at the door, and Carroll strolled straight to the front of the
line, to the locked sliding-glass doors of the Backdoor. Apparently
I wasn't the only one there left speechless: while Carroll struggled
to open the doors, no one said a word; not even, "Hey Jim! No
When the reading finally began, I had a front
row seat. Carroll strode onto the stage, eyes glued to the floor,
and attempted, almost unsuccessfully, to untangle the microphone.
That taken care of, he began reading "A Day at the Races," from
Forced Entries. His manner was amazing: here he was, reading
a story about pubic lice and laughing at his own jokes. He read
with a sort of insecure cockiness, as if to say, "Okay, I'm going
to read this thing about crabs now. I kinda like this thing, so
here I go." He was so cool about it, and the piece was so beautiful
and funny, he had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with
I was mesmerized by this guy . . . this wonderful,
scraggly, nervous-looking guy with long red hair, white white
skin, hands moving constantly, dressed in black with his shoes
untied. It took a while for the quiver to leave his voice. I hadn't
really noticed it until it started to fade.
His art grew with each selection he read, towering
over us with him on top, cracking a crazy smile. He peered over
our heads from underneath that red hair, watched his hands, or
focused on a face floating six feet above us.
Then came the song lyrics; a request, he said.
He held the mic in his hands like a prayer and paced across the
stage like a cheetah, back and forth, hypnotizing. There was no
band, but there was music--invisible music. His words struck like
heartbeats, and he handled them like explosives:
I want the angel that knows the sky
She got virtue, got the parallel light in her eye
I want the angel that's partly lame
She filters clarity from her desperate shame
I want the angel that knows rejection
She's like a whore in love with her own reflection
I want the angel whose touch don't miss
When the blood comes through the dropper
Like a thick red kiss
And he walked back and forth across that stage,
wrapped up in those words as if he were somewhere else, as if
the words were speaking through him, forcing themselves out of
his body through a too-small mouth.
I wanted to open my thesis with this experience
because, in many ways, it shows the transformative power of Carroll's
writing; ideally, it also reveals the main reason I am writing
about him, which is a reason I find myself unable to express accurately
with words. That is, more than any artist I've ever known about,
Carroll has essentially created himself through
writing. He's led a nightmarish life, yet, in a moment, he can
metamorphose from a 13 year-old New York street punk into a grown
man in a wire-mesh chair; he can transform into a rock star or
an art scene initiate, a heroin addict or a basketball player
or a nervous poet on a stage.
But most importantly, it is his writing which
produces this metamorphosis. Through writing, Carroll transforms
his triumphs and his most vile experiences into poems, diaries,
and songs of visionary beauty. With metaphors and sparkling imagery,
he makes us laugh at the most disgusting, sad, and horrifying
things imaginable. As a writer, Carroll is an alchemist capable
of transforming shit into gold.
Jim Carroll was descended from three generations
of Irish Catholic bartenders. He was born on August first, between
1948 and 1951 (I discuss this ambiguity later in the chapter),
in New York City, to Agnes (nee Coyle) and Thomas J. Carroll (Contemp.
Auth.); he grew up on the lower East Side of Manhattan, attending
public and Catholic grammar schools. 
As he recalls:
I wasn't the kind of kid who liked nuns. . . . But in the third grade
I was close to being called a brownnose for staying after school to
help Sister Victoise. . . . It was like hanging out with a good ballplayer
to learn new moves--I got this radiance from her, a sweet sense about
grace and living your life with compassion. . . . she gave me a sense
of humanity that went beyond the faith that I was already doubting.
In 1963, at the age of 12, Carroll was a typical New York street punk,
playing basketball and baseball, sniffing glue, and playing drums in
a band called the Blue Dels (Hirschberg 25). But what made Carroll a
unique street punk is that he was also writing about his exploits, applying
the "sense of humanity" Sister Victoise had taught him, in his "basketball
The Basketball Diaries, first published in 1978,
documents the ups and downs of Carroll's double life between the ages
of 12 and 16. By the time he was 13, Carroll had already lost his virginity,
had injected his first shot of heroin, and had sampled a wide variety
of drugs. He proudly called himself a member of the "Diaper Bandits,"
a notorious group of youngsters who stalked the area east of Central
Park and robbed unwary passers-by. But he was also a star basketball
player and a bright student, and he was still keeping his diaries. Because
of Carroll's double life, the Diaries "are a real Jekyll &
Hyde affair"; Carroll "Has his public life of 'great potential'[:] he's
college material by day but lowlifer by night. Loves basketball for
its grace, finesse, and sweat, plus all the girls he meets" (Platenga).
Around 1964, Carroll's basketball coach helped him
earn an athletic/academic scholarship to the elite Trinity High School.
At Trinity, Carroll was a star basketball player, but his equal passions
for new experiences, drugs, and writing were beginning to overtake his
love of athletics. Luckily, "one of the brothers, hip to the light in
Jim's eyes, made him the sports editor of the school paper and passed
along columns by Red Smith and others that Jim would study, underlining
metaphors, and slowly begin to understand the craft of writing" (Milward
142). Carroll told Ted Berrigan that:
by the time I got to Trinity the straight Jock
trip had begun to wear a little thin. . . I still had as much
charge, but I simply began getting off into new directions,
like pills, sex, drugs, booze and The New American Poetry. I
had been keeping my basketball diaries since I was 12, and so
when I got turned on to poetry at Trinity, writing it just came
naturally. I read Howl first, I guess. Then Frank [O'Hara].
For Carroll, sex, drugs, and poetry were intimately related;
hence, at the same time his dabbling in drugs exploded into full-blown
heroin addiction, forcing him to hustle gay men to support his habit,
Carroll's passion for poetry blossomed.
When Carroll was 15, he began attending poetry readings
at the St. Mark's Church (Milward 170). Run by Anne Waldman, the St.
Mark's Poetry Project assembled such poets as Allen Ginsberg, William
Burroughs, Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, and Patti Smith, and provided
a creative atmosphere in which Carroll was able to work seriously at
his writing. He wrote almost unceasingly, publishing his first book
of poetry, Organic Trains, in 1967.
Although Carroll wrote his second book of diaries,
Forced Entries, during the 1980s, the book describes his adventures
in New York's hip art scene more or less between 1969 and 1973, as well
as his subsequent escape to California in 1974. After briefly attending
Wagner College and Columbia University (Contemp. Auth.; Milward
172), Carroll dropped out to become assistant to New York artist Larry
Rivers, worked at Andy Warhol's Factory, frequented the backroom of
Max's Kansas City, where he listened to the Velvet Underground, and
was Patti Smith's beau for a time. During this time he also wrote the
poems for Living at the Movies, first publishing five of them
in 4 Ups and 1 Down (1970).
By the time he was twenty years old, he was deeply
enmeshed in New York's art scene; however, at the same time, his heroin
addiction had utterly taken over his life. In 1974, following the publication
of Living at the Movies (1973), Carroll fled to Bolinas, California,
to kick the habit.
He spent the first four years in Bolinas "practically
a recluse . . . learning to enjoy boredom" for the first time in his
life. In a 1981 interview with Clarice Rivers, Carroll explained that,
while he was in California,
I wrote two books and another book of poems. Towards
the end I worked pretty much on writing rock lyrics. I wrote
a book of prose poems and a book of short stories which is the
one I'm interested in now and which is all finished. The book
of poems has also been completed. I think I might take this
book of poems which has about 60 pages and the best of some
of my old poems and make that a book.
The books he mentions here eventually came together as
The Book of Nods (1986), and the lyrics ended up on Catholic
Milward details Carroll's lifestyle in Bolinas and
early relationship with Rosemary Klemfuss, whom Carroll married in 1978.
Rosemary lived next door to Carroll with her husband; she was "slowly
recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident and would come to
use the bathroom in Jim's house." Carroll says,
One night I was sitting out in the yard, spacing
with my dogs, when I noticed Rosemary. She stood up against
the moon in a white gown that shook my spine. It was my vision
of the Virgin, or at least a top-of-the-line saint, and she
walked me over the hills and into San Francisco and from isolation
to rock 'n' roll. (174)
During his period of seclusion in California, Carroll
says, his only "contact with New York was reading the Village Voice."
As he read, he saw "these bands in the ads, like from CBGB's. I knew
they'd kind of come out of the same scene that Patti [Smith] came out
of, and I was interested in hearing them--people like Mink deVille and
Blondie and the Talking Heads" (Hirschberg 25). Rosemary took Carroll
to see these up-and-coming bands at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco.
As Carroll saw the bands being signed, one by one, with big record companies,
he saw possibilities for himself in rock, too.
#9;Hence, while living in
California, the idea of writing rock songs first occurred to Carroll.
Part of the reason, Cain indicates, was that "When he gave poetry readings
in his younger days, people told him he had the aura of a rock star."
But Carroll had some reservations, as he explained to Chet Flippo:
"When I'd do readings, people would
say, 'Mick Jagger reading poetry--you should do rock 'n' roll.' I said,
'No way, man.' I respected people's singing voices then. Forget it.
Even when Patti [Smith] did it. Her lyrics were better than her poems,
to me" (35). Carroll was hesitant for three major reasons. First, as
he explains in Forced Entries, "my singing abilities are so serious
a handicap that it would take a whole new scale to make the entire thing
less than ludicrous. Music without melody, where my voice would simply
be another rhythm instrument, like a drum."
Second, Carroll had a terrible case of stage fright:
The fact is that I am horrified to face a modest-sized
audience at readings, when I understand (and trust) my capabilities.
I shudder, literally feel a spread-open hand guiding up my intestine,
a spiked armadillo in my belly, at the thought of facing a rock
audience under the weight of my mistrust and limitations. (164)
Finally, he was afraid that he would tarnish his image
as a poet if he went into rock 'n' roll. As he told Flippo, "Patti [Smith]
wasn't as accepted and didn't have a reputation in the poetry scene
like I did" (35).
However, Patti Smith played an important role in changing
his mind. Since Carroll met her in the late 1960s, Smith had awed him
with her limitless energy and integrity as an artist and poet. When
she powerfully transformed rock into an artistic medium, without sliding
into intellectualized "art rock," Carroll was fascinated.
Then, sometime in the late 1970s, Smith came to California on tour with
her band. Carroll attended her show in San Diego and, when a disagreement
erupted with the opening act, he found himself on stage: with Smith's
band backing him, he rapped his new poem-lyrics. For Carroll, "it was
great. It was the first time I felt like a real poet" (Hirschberg 25).
Of this experience, Carroll says:
I went out on the stage and it was incredible,
because for the first time in my life I was having fun on stage.
I never liked giving poetry readings. But there was this incredible
energy from these kids in the audience and there was this incredible
energy coming from the music behind me. This was my first taste
of really doing it and liking it, having all this energy and
having these kids to perform for--not just some kind of stuffy
college poetry audience. . . . I also saw the potential to reach
an audience which usually wasn't that interested in poetry.
After this, Carroll realized, "Well, what the hell, I
don't need vocal proficiency. I could write songs to my own vocal limitations."
He further explains:
I started to think, "Rock 'n' roll!" When I did
the shows with Patti, I saw that it could be done. It was incredibly
fun, and it was so intense and scary and beautiful at the same
time. It was remarkable. What a feeling. It's still that
way, you know. I think it's just a natural extension of my work,
of the images.
Carroll found that, on stage with a band behind him,
his stage fright disappeared. Also, he also saw that, rather than tainting
his poetry, rock 'n' roll had the potential of enlarging it. In this
respect, Henry Miller's Time of the Assassins was a prime influence:
Henry Miller's study of Rimbaud, which is really
a study of Henry Miller, was the big factor for me going into
rock--that was it. That whole thing about getting a heart
quality out of work rather than just the intellectual quality.
A good poet works on both. Miller spoke about the inner register
and how a great poet has to affect virtual illiterates as well
as affecting people through the intellect, and I figured many
poets are just writing for other poets today. It's all intellectual
["concrete" and "minimal"] poetry. (Flippo 35)
At this point, Carroll felt poetry was somewhat hypocritical
and snobbish: poets were writing only for each other. As he put it,
"for the first time I started to realize that a poet should not just
be an artist for art's sake, but should at least try to change the world"
Hirschberg explains that "Carroll had written the
words to a few songs and was looking for a band when he heard Amsterdam
play at the beach near his home in Marin." Amsterdam's members were
Terrell Winn, Brian Linsley, Wayne Woods, and (later) Steve Linsley.
While he wasn't terribly impressed with their music, "which seemed stuck
in a '60s time warp," Carroll liked the way they played. When Carroll
was asked to do a poetry reading at the Mabuhay Gardens, he thought
it might be fun to perform his songs, instead. Hence, he approached
Amsterdam, who agreed to back him. They rehearsed three times before
the show, and they were such a hit that the management "asked us to
come back and play the late show" (26).
In the meantime, in 1978, Carroll finally published
The Basketball Diaries which, although critically ignored, was
something of a hit in underground circles (James). Also, around this
time, Carroll and Amsterdam recorded a three-song demo tape. When Carroll
returned to New York to sign a deal with Bantam for the republication
of The Basketball Diaries, he took the demo tape with him and
played it for an executive at Rolling Stone Records (some sources say
this executive was Paul McGrath, some say it was Earl McGrath). Hirschberg
notes that, "On the basis of the tape, they signed Jim Carroll to a
three-record deal" (26). 
When the Jim Carroll Band released its first album,
in 1980, Carroll became an instant celebrity. Up to this point, his
work had received very little attention: Ted Berrigan wrote the only
review of Organic Trains in 1969; Living at the Movies
received only two reviews after its publication in 1973 (Gerard Malanga's
was a stone rave; Seamus Cooney said, "Don't miscalculate: avoid this
book"). The Basketball Diaries received no reviews at all upon
its first publication in 1978. Yet in 1980, with the simultaneous release
of Catholic Boy and the republication of The Basketball Diaries,
Carroll's picture flashed across the pages of nearly every major magazine,
and journalists went into a frenzy.
The problem was that they raved about the wrong things.
That is, while many of the authors of these articles have made the same
observations I have, noting Carroll's remarkable ability to transform
into any number of personas at will, most journalists are so fascinated
(or disgusted) with Carroll's biography and his appearance that they
fail to recognize his writing as the source of this transformation.
Hence, while they spend pages and pages recounting Carroll's nightmarish
past, and the miracle of his having written The Basketball Diaries
between the ages of 12 and 16, they fail to make one necessary connection:
Carroll transformed his past into a work of art, and he rose above the
decadence of his youth, through writing.
John Milward, for example, witnessed the same "magic"
I did seeing Carroll read his work:
Jim Carroll stands before an overflow audience
at New York's Public Theater, flipping through The Basketball
Diaries. . . . Slipping into his sidewalk prose, Carroll
slowly peels 16 years off his gaunt, burnt-angel frame like
a carving knife skinning an onion. But there are no tears. .
. . "I was just gonna sniff a bag," Carroll reads from the book
. . . , "but Tony said I might as well skin pop it. . . ." Carroll
pauses, his eyes like saucers and the silence saturated by the
memory of that first shot coursing through his veins. (141)
Yet, while Milward's is an excellent biographical essay,
the article concentrates almost entirely on Carroll's heroin addiction.
So many journalists focused on this, in fact, that Carroll told Laura
Fissinger he simply didn't want to talk about drugs anymore (44, 96).
Even worse than the journalists who focus on Carroll's drug addiction,
in "Jim Carroll's Rock 'n Roll Heart-on," Mark J. Norton has Carroll
talking about Greenpeace and saving the whales.
Because Carroll's critics are mostly misguided, although
there are dozens of articles about him, there is no "literature" about
Carroll to speak of. Aside from a number of book reviews in library
journals and my own recent annotated bibliography, there certainly is
no scholarly literature. Furthermore, the articles about him repeat
the same information over and over. When discussing The Basketball
Diaries, journalists rave about Carroll's horrible adolescence,
his drug addiction, stealing and hustling, or, as with Mark J. Norton's
review, "The Wide World of Drugs," they see the book as a manifesto
of the drug culture. Understandably, everyone also has to mention that
Jack Kerouac said, "at the age of 13, Jim Carroll writes better prose
than 89 percent of the novelists working today." With Forced Entries,
they either complain about Carroll's name-dropping or adore the book
as a "documentary history" (Hochswender), and they always compare it
to The Basketball Diaries. Finally, when journalists write about
Living at the Movies, they will, without fail, mention Carroll's
nomination for the Pulitzer Prize at age 22--a false rumor perpetuated
solely by the media.
The reviews of Catholic Boy were generally
very positive, although most journalist say Carroll's singing voice
is terrible. Likewise, the six critics who reviewed The Basketball
Diaries in 1980 and 1987 loved it (Bart Platenga, Jamie James, and
Tony Perry offer perhaps the most insightful articles on Carroll to
date). However, when the Jim Carroll Band released Dry Dreams
in 1982, critics either damned the album with faint praise or slaughtered
it. Adam Sweeting, for example, wrote that "Nothing straightforward
ever happens to Jim. Everything he does is metaphorical." He also concludes
that "There's nothing here to suggest that Jim Carroll has ever experienced
anything real at all. He probably spends his time in the launderette
reading Heavy Metal comics and Playboy. We are not amused." Critics
continued to complain about Carroll's singing voice, but the largest
hurdles Dry Dreams faced were the comparisons with Catholic
Boy. Dry Dreams didn't fare very well.
The number of articles published on Carroll has steadily
dwindled since 1981. When the Jim Carroll Band released its third and
last album, I Write Your Name, in 1984, it received only four
reviews. The reviews of this album, however, were of a different variety
than earlier ones, especially since, according to critics, Dry Dreams
wasn't a hard act to follow. While Bruce Pollock called I Write Your
Name "less embarrassing than frustrating," he also conceded that
the title song "deserves to be considered as a kind of rock and roll
Howl of the eighties" (747). Likewise, Eric Levin remarked that
"Jim Carroll has an ear for language and an eye for imagery" (34), and
Danny Sugarman said, "I Write Your Name is the album Jim Carroll
always wanted to make and should have made but couldn't until now. This
is the one, not his other two."
With I Write Your Name, Carroll stopped making
rock 'n' roll albums, at least temporarily. However, during this rock
'n' roll period, Carroll was also involved in a number of other projects,
some of which extended into the latter part of the 1980s. He began writing
Forced Entries shortly after the release of Catholic Boy,
published a number of selections from The Book of Nods, recorded
readings from Forced Entries for John Giorno's Dial-A-Poem series
(Life Is a Killer  and Better an Old Demon than a New
God ), went on the poetry reading circuit, and appeared in
Ron Mann's Poetry in Motion (1983) video and in the film Tuff
In 1986 he published The Book of Nods, followed
by Forced Entries and another edition of The Basketball Diaries
in 1987. With the release of The Book of Nods, Carroll was again
in the limelight, sort of. He read from it on MTV, and journalist Joyce
Caruso wrote a flattering article on him in Elle in 1988. At
this point, negotiations were in progress for a film version of The
Basketball Diaries, starring Anthony Michael Hall. (When I asked
Carroll about this in 1989, he told me he sells the film rights to that
book about once a year.) Since 1986, Carroll has toured the reading
circuit about twice a year, and he is now writing his first fiction
novel. He may be considering recording a new rock album with ex-Doors
keyboardist Ray Manzarek . . .
Such is Jim Carroll's biography, along with critics'
appraisals of him to date. In laying all this out, I hope to offer a
sense of Carroll's general life story and achievements as portrayed
in the media. This distinction is important because
not only does Carroll tell quite a different story in his two diaries,
but his second diary is in many ways a reaction to the stigma his past
became as a result of this media portrayal. (I discuss this in the conclusion.)
As journalists recount it, Carroll's biography is a just another biography
of a decadent culture hero. But in his diaries, while Carroll is trying
to tell the truth about his life, he is also transforming it into something
beyond itself--a continuing, constantly metamorphosing work of art.
Therefore, while all of Carroll's work is, in one way or another, "about"
his life, it is also very much a record of his ongoing struggle to find
a sense of "purity"--a purity he can find, in the end, only by transforming
his life through writing.
For this reason, I have chosen to discuss his two
diaries, The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, to
show not just Carroll's shocking biography, but his transformation of
it into art. Patti Smith once wrote, in "The Salvation of Rock":
pollution is a result of the inability of man
to transform waste. the transformation of waste is perhaps the
oldest preoccupation of man. gold, being the chosen alloy, must
be resurrected--via shit, at all cost. inherent within us is
the dream and task of the alchemist. to create from clay a man.
and to recapture from the excretions of man pure and soft then
solid gold. (Babel 140)
Had Carroll never written a word, he might have been just
another New York street punk grown up, a star basketball player gone
to waste, a heroin addict, a hustler; he would have been numbered among
the excrement of human society, polluted and unable to transform or
resurrect the debris of his life. But he did write, and still writes,
perpetually revising and transforming the waste of his past into works
of startling beauty, turning shit into gold.
In one sense, writing diaries for Carroll serves a
purpose similar to that which Albert Appel notes of Nabokov's Lolita.
That is, Carroll, like Humbert Humbert, purifies his nightmarish, ugly
experience through the filter of his imagination so that his autobiography
"takes on a new life: frozen in art, halted in space, now timeless,
it can be lived with" (xxii). On the other hand, Carroll has yet to
leave his past frozen. He is in a constant process of becoming: not
only has he written two autobiographies, he also reworks his
life in other forms, poetry and rock music, within which he continually
experiments with new ways to relate his experience. Hence, with each
work, he perpetually revises his autobiography so that it is always
new, always alive, and never quite finished.
Furthermore, just as Humbert Humbert calls upon his
readers "to participate in the scene I am about to replay" (Nabokov
59), Carroll asks his readers to participate in his metamorphosis. We
are not to just read about his life; we are to experience it with him,
attempt to understand it, and discover the beauty of it. In both The
Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, Carroll directly addresses
his audience in author's notes, clearly indicating both that his diaries
do not document the "literal truth" of his biography, and that he wants
us to be part of the story. The "Author's Note" of the original The
Basketball Diaries states:
Just to clear a few matters up pertaining to
I was 12 yrs. old when I began writing it down,
it continued until I was 15 nearing 16.
"Did it all really happen to you?" I get that
one put to me often. Well . . .
To answer that simply, they are as much fiction
as biography. They were as much made up as they were lived out.
It all happened. None of it happened. It was me. Now it's you.
Likewise, the "Author's Note" in Forced Entries
(though Carroll told me it was written by lawyers as libel protection)
Because I know from repeated experience one question
which will be asked later, I will try to answer it now. This
diary is not the literal truth and is not meant to be a historical
recounting of the period. The entries were consciously embellished
and fictionalized to some extent. My purpose was simply to convey
the texture of my experiences and feelings for that period.
As in the first "Author's Note," Carroll asks his readers
"to make the characters your own," and concludes, "I sincerely
hope this has not answered all your questions" (vi-vii).
What makes the author's notes especially interesting
is that, actually, most of the facts in Carroll's diaries are verifiable
(I checked everything I could). That is, the biographies themselves
are for the most part factual. However, judging from Carroll's interviews
and early publications of The Basketball Diaries, he changed
characters' names (apparently to avoid lawsuits): Mike Tittleberger
is "Benny Greenbaum," Corky Ball is "Bax Porter," Luther Green is "Sammy
Fulton," Frank Smith is "Mr. Brothers," and Dean Meminger is "Ben Davis."
Likewise, in Forced Entries, Patti Smith becomes "Jenny Ann,"
Larry Rivers becomes "D.M.Z.," and Brigid Polk becomes "Gloria Excelsior."
More significant, however, is the fact that Carroll
altered the chronologies of both diaries; that is, where he painstakingly
details the "facts" of his biography, he takes great liberties regarding
the dates of most events. Importantly, because of this, his exact birth
date is a matter of doubt; secondary sources place it at 1950 or 1951,
but Carroll never verifies either date. In Forced Entries, for
example, he claims he was born "the day the Russians scattered the remnants
of their first bomb into the atmosphere" (1); this event occurred in
1949. Furthermore, in the first entry of The Basketball Diaries,
dated Fall 1963, Carroll says he is 13, which would set his birth date
at 1950. Even so, an earlier publication is dated November 6, 1962,
which would move his birth date to 1949 again.
In any case, Carroll exploits this ambiguity to suit
his aesthetic design. For example, in the first entry of The Basketball
Diaries, Carroll emphasizes that he was admitted into the Biddy
League under false pretenses: "The Biddy League is a league for anyone
12 yrs. old or under. I'm actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake
birth certificate" (3). With his ambiguous birthdate and fake birth
certificate to match, Carroll sets up a carefully constructed aesthetic
framework for the book: by society's standards (in this case, the Biddy
League's) he is illegitimate, so he must find a way to transcend this
status. At the same time, in this entry Carroll also reveals that the
society itself is hypocritical and corrupt (Coach Lefty not only gives
him the fake birth certificate but is a pedophiliac as well), so the
question becomes: who is really unauthentic, Carroll or the "system"?
Because of this, Carroll must find a way to rise above this society's
corruption and hypocrisy to maintain his own integrity.
Likewise, in Forced Entries, Carroll again
uses his birth date to set up the aesthetic theme of the book. While
many of the events later in the diary chronologically came earlier,
when Carroll was 18 and 19, the first entry marks his twentieth birthday.
Again, this single alteration unifies the entire book. His birth date
now associates him with greatness and legitimacy: he was born on the
same day as Herman Melville, the Emperor Claudius, and Jerry Garcia
of the Grateful Dead (1). Nevertheless, as he reaches adulthood, Carroll
now realizes he has yet to fulfill his potential for greatness. Hence,
he begins the book idly appraising his future, gauging "the passage
from a disturbed youth to a disturbed adult" (2). Because of this, as
with The Basketball Diaries, Carroll sets out again to validate
himself and transcend corruption by entering the "system," this time
as an adult rather than a self-destructive kid.
The alterations of Carroll's chronology are significant
because they indicate that the primary purpose of the diaries is not
just to document his biography. By imposing order on his chaotic life,
and by setting up tangible themes within his biography, he is able to
transform his life into a work of art.
Carroll wrote Forced Entries nearly a decade
after the events it describes, and his hindsight allowed him to structure
the diaries in such a way that events connect logically together. However,
even though Carroll reworked and reorganized The Basketball Diaries
to some extent after the fact, it is for the most part the diary Carroll
kept during the period. Hence, the real chaos Carroll experienced underlies
the book's aesthetic unity. He lives in the shadow of the cold war,
and his world is one of crime, poverty, racism, hypocrisy, sexual and
religious corruption. He is addicted to heroin and hustling gay men,
and trying to rise above his conditions through basketball, drugs, and
Hence, because real life is not orderly, The Basketball
Diaries does not offer the flawless unity of a fictional novel,
nor is it as impeccably structured as Forced Entries. Carroll
descends to horrible depths, experiences terrific victories, then falls
back down again, over and over. But even within the chaotic details
of Carroll's life, he imposes a general pattern in his diary. There
is a gradual opening up from the first few pages to the end. The Biddy
League in the first entry, with its pedophiliac coaches, is a microcosm
of a corrupt society as a whole, in which respectable-looking businessmen
molest young boys in public restrooms, and Catholic priests take sexual
pleasure in beating their students. Lefty's racial prejudice expands
into a world ruled by bigots, leading to fears of "them commies," "them
longhairs and junkies," and contributing to the war in Vietnam.
Finally, what makes Carroll's diaries truly remarkable
is that he is able to write so eloquently about the chaos and corruption
surrounding him, and about his own corruption, his drug addiction, his
defeats and victories, and make sense of it all. Carroll's ultimate
transcendence is in the street lingo he uses; this, combined with his
black humor, is an explosive mixture in his alchemist's brew. In both
diaries, Carroll shows off with language, with each turn of phrase being
a sort of slam dunk with language. His street lingo becomes punk poetry,
and his manipulation of it is a self-controlled game. If he has no control
over his physical existence, his control of language is remarkably consistent.
Likewise, he uses humor to cope with his victimization and lack of control,
ironically juxtaposing appearance and reality, and deflating the pretensions
of his hypocritical world with the turn of a phrase.
The fact is, the real miracle of Jim Carroll is not
his shocking biography, but the way he has transformed it into a work
of art. Hence, while his diaries can be viewed as a continuing initiation
story, straight autobiography, or documentary histories, I've chosen
to focus my discussion on the ways Carroll uses his biography to illustrate
the development of his artistic sensibility. This can be seen in his
poetry and rock music, but the diaries are perhaps the best examples
of that sensibility.
©1990 Cassie Carter. This material may not be reprinted except by permission from the author.