Having Words With . . . Jim Carroll
Having Words With . . . Jim Carroll
a new rock album in stores, a new book of poetry on the shelves
and two novels in the works, Jim Carroll, 49, is hitting middle
age with a confident stride not to mention a cult-like status.
After surviving a childhood of heroin addiction and failed athletic
dreams, Carroll emerged as a young poetic prodigy, rubbing elbows
with such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
His most famous work, "The Basketball Diaries," may have been
penned between the ages of 12 and 16, but Carroll has published
eight books of poetry and reams of short stories since then;
his first collection of poems, "Living at the Movies," is still
in print after 24 years.
Carroll has also been enamored of rock, throwing himself into
the Andy Warhol-Velvet Underground art-music scene of the late-'60s
and early-'70s. He eventually released three albums of his own
in the early '80s as the Jim Carroll Band, meshing his poetic
talent with his love of music. Now, after almost 15 years, Carroll
has "let that rock energy back in" and is once again performing
music. Citysearch.com recently spoke with Carroll about his
return to the rock arena, his poetry and a Hollywood lawsuit.
citysearch: So, who are you playing music with these
Jim Carroll: It's with a bunch of guys from different bands
Q: Like who? How did you meet?
A: See, this record that I did (in 1998) called "Pools of
Mercury" started off really as a spoken-word album with music,
but I had such a good band in New York that I had a couple of
songs that I'd written with this guy in Seattle, Robert Roth;
he was in a band called Truly. Robert and I wrote a couple of
songs and I played them in the studio when we were doing the
record and [the New York musicians] said we should record these
things. And I'd been hesitant about doing any songs, but we
decided to do it, you know, and it kind of changed the take
on the album. When I was going out to Seattle not long after
that, I spoke to Robert and he said he could get together a
band [for a concert]. And I thought just to do like a couple
of songs, you know. But when I got out there, he had this band
with the drummer from the Posies, I think the bass player was
Hiro [Screaming Trees], and this other guy from the Fastbacks
playing guitar. So they had basically been rehearsing that week,
and all we had time to rehearse together was at the sound check.
But they had learned a whole set of songs, like the whole "Catholic
Boy" album and a few others, and plus the new song. I read and
then the band came out and did a set. It was really terrific.
We hadn't rehearsed or anything and it all came off without
any mistakes. They sounded great. At any rate, Robert will be
playing with us [in Portland]. But I don't know if it will be
the exact same band as last time.
Q: What made you decide to get back into music?
A: Well, I didn't really decide to do it. When we were in
the studio doing ["Pools of Mercury"], it was just kind of a
fluke. When I had the guys in the studio I just happened to
be playing the songs that Robert and I had done, and they just
said that we should do those over, just record them now. So
we did, and once you let in that rock and roll energy it's very
hard to get away from it. In fact, it kind of got me into trouble
with a lot of A&R guys at different record companies who
had been asking me every other year or so [to make another rock
record]. I explained to them that it was an accident.
Q: I read that you were working on a couple of novels.
A: Yeah, that's what I'm doing now. They're both completely
fiction, in the third person, and not autobiographical at all.
It was kind of a blessing and curse. I had this idea for this
one very straight narrative novel with a hook in it, you know,
that came to me first, and I started to do all these notes on
it and research it. Then two months after that, I came up with
this other idea for a novel. It was much different, though,
a more fragmented type of book from the writing standpoint,with
a lot of flashbacks and stuff. It wasn't a straight narrative,
sequential book; it was more arty in a way, I guess. I chose
[to write] the more fragmented one, even though it was less
commercial. My agent wanted me to do the other one, actually,
but it was just easier to work on that book.
Q: What do you think about the recent lawsuit involving
the families of the Kentucky shooting victims who are suing
the filmmakers of "The Basketball Diaries?" They're claiming
that the dream sequence in the movie is what inspired the young
A: I don't think [the movie] had any causal threat to it.
The kid in Kentucky, that just happened to be the first thing
he said after three days of silence, "I saw Jim Carroll do it
in the 'The Basketball Diaries.'" He was referring to the movie,
because in the scenes in the book I say that I don't want to
shoot anybody. I talk about using a machine gun, but when I
was in high school, getting a machine gun in New York. I suppose
it would be possible, but not like in the culture of guns like
in Kentucky. It's that one scene. But the fact is, all that
slow motion the lawyer talks abouthe thought it glamorized it
like a ballet or somethingit was a fantasy sequence, and slow
motion has always been a way filmmakers portray fantasy sequences.
I don't see how? I mean the [Kentucky] kid had real problems,
you know. He could have been set off by anything, like being
turned down for a date, I don't know. I just think it's all
a bunch of bullshit, really. I think the [lawyer] is kind of
reaching, like a high-profile ambulance chasing job. "The Basketball
Diaries" has been banned from school libraries in a lot of places
for years, and this [lawsuit] just made it more so.
Q: What did you think of the movie?
A: I'm not crazy about that film, you know. It's OK as it
was. I had sold the options for that film every year for like
13 years before it was made, and so I saw a lot scripts for
it. Some were good, a lot of them were terrible. It's a very
difficult thing to do. In the movie [the director] had to use
a composite of different characters to give [Leonardo DiCaprio]
his little posse. In the book, I'm moving from one situation
to another, I'm hanging around with my street friends and then
with these private-school kids, you know. There aren't too many
characters who are continuous throughout the book. [The movie]
actually gave me a whole audience of kids 12 to 17 years old.
It was surprising to me because it put the book back on the
Times best-seller list and my publisher and I didn't know who
was buying all these books. I thought kids would watch the film
and go see Leonardo and Mark [Wahlberg], and I never thought
they'd go out and buy the book, but they did.
Q: What do you hope to convey to an audience through
reading your poetry?
A: It's nothing that I have specifically in mind. If I read
pieces from "Forced Entries," the kind of funny parts to start
off, then that's just pure entertainment. But there's some poetry
that has some value. ["Forced Entries"] was written during a
part of my life when I was changing a lot of learned trivia
into wisdom by being in the country for the first time in my
life. But with poems, I like to make the images abstract enough
that people can just make them their own, you know. I mean five
different people could get five different takes on what the
meaning is, and they'll all be correct because it's how they
perceive it through the heart, not just the intellect. I don't
want to pound out some message to anybody, or anything like
Q: So do you consider yourself a surrealist?
A: I love surrealism, but it's a very tricky thing. To label
a poem surreal, in the sense of the surrealists, that's where
everything is surreal. A surreal poem could start off
very heightened and magical, but unless you're the best the
of surrealists like Max Jacob and people like that, you can't
sustain that heightened sense of surrealism. So it can become
very tiresome and mediocre; it can be a message of bad poetry
pretty often. I like to have the images grounded so you can
approach it, like I say, at a heart level as well as an intellectual
level. I mean, a stream-of-consciousness surreal poem stringing
surreal images together is really just coming from the intellect,
it doesn't really affect that heart quality. There has to be
more vulnerability and joy or pathos or chaos conveyed within
those images; those basic human qualities that I want to be
evoked by people.