Heaven in a Wild Flower
"I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses."
-- Arthur Rimhaud, 1871
And so it was that in his seventeenth
year, Rimbaud vowed to
tear away the blinders of Higher
Education. Church and Family
that other adolescents wore like
trendy fashion items, and to peer
into the darker pits of the human
soul unaided hy anything save his own
intellect and poetic vision.
Those, and massive quantities of
opium and absinthe.
Those were the agents that sharpened
his eyes to telescopes that saw "sunsets
stained with mystic horrors" and
glimpsed the terrors of "A Season in
Hell," later to become one of French literature's
Rimbaud was 19 then.
Almost a century later, his vision quest
would be taken up in 1963 by a bratty New
Yorker named Jim Carroll, probably
unaware of the legacy as he sat down to
write his own declaration: "Fuck it anyway,
I just couldn't think of anything else to write
about. No dope, no nooky, no queers following
me today. I guess you start writing lame
diaries like this."
Alright, hardly "Nuit de l'Enfer," but then
Carroll was just 13 and
already leading the kind
of adolescence that'd put
the ABC Afterschool
Special off the air in short order.
When not shooting hoops on the
basketball court, he was shooting his tender veins full of
smack and still managing the kind of prose writers twice his
age could only nod about.
Carroll's songs of innocence and experience were serialized
in media res by the Paris Review. Later, the writings
coalesced into The Basketball Diaries, a book that became
his moSt famous work, a kind of Catcher in the Rye to
mortician-like nihilism kids when it came out in book form in 198O.
Carroll somehow survived to write another set of diaries,
Forced Entries, which was published in 1987 and covered
the early '70s when Warhol ruled New York and Carroll
hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Smithson and a scenefull
of other minor crazies.
He was still wavering between junk and redemption.
In between came two books of poetry, three rock 'n' roll
albums (Catholic Boy, Dry Dreams, and I Write Your Name)
and one of the spit in death's eye anthems
ever, "People Who Died," a raucous thing that catalogued
friends who'd prematurely snuffed it ("Judy Jumped in front of
a subway train/Eddy got slit in the jugular vein").
And for four years Carroll has shrouded
himself, pulling on the odd
spoken-word show or
contributing to another artist's album (like on Lou Reed's Mistrials to downtown rumors he'd disappeared into the dropper, but never really breaking silence.
Until now, with a new spoken-word album, Praying Mantis, and an uncharacteristic talkativeness. Carroll, see,
dwells in a realily beyond the ken of ordinary folk. He "hardly ever goes out" of his New York City home, "doesn't listen
to the radio" and actually likes the Traveling Wilburys. He
speaks with the fragile, wiry voice of a junk-startled moth,
fluttering from topic to topic free of anything resembling
conventional logic. He rambles, and in the marathon three-hour
phone interview we conducted I asked him a mere four
questions: the rest was mental follow-the-leader.
Carroll is prelly just-the-facts when discussing Praying
Mantis. It came about after A&R reps saw him to a reading
at the Bottom Line with Marianne Faithfull. They eventually
twigged on the idea of a spoken-word album after realizing
they weren't going to get another rock disc. Carroll agreed to
record most of it live at a single reading at St. Mark's Place.
But things get weird when he's asked about selecting
tracks for the album.
"I thought maybe we should sock on somee entries from
The Basketball Diaries," he drawls, "and I thought of ones
that were short and that I hadn't done in a long time. But when
I tried reading them dry in the studio, I felt I couldn't summon
up the voice of that character. I mean, I played pinball in the
studio to get back into his voice but I just couldn't do it."
Character? This is your life we're discussing.
"But whenever I speak about the diaries I always refer to
the guy in third person. If I were talking to an analyst I could
talk ahout the things in that book as episodes of my life and
be complelely into it as myself. But as they are in the book
they had such a long myth about them, just over time as they
were published in mags, the pieces adopted this mythical
facade. They've got certain confines that make them a different
Forced Entries is the much more literary
book. The humor and poignancy and
drama of BD comes from the events
themselves. Intellectuals thought they
were very camp when they first came out
in Paris Review. I don't even think of the Diaries as literature,
'cause it's kind of beneath and above that at the same
time. It's storytelling in a very pure form, and that's what
touches people, that's what's poignant about it."
So it was that two Forced Entries, an improv, and a clutch
of poems got the final nod for Praying Mantis. Still, the
diaries manage to hit some sensitive veins. There's this story
he has of a teacher who forced her charges to read his entries
-- to pretty grim effect.
"She sent me a bunch of papers her class had written, and
it pretty well defined the problems of American education to
me. I mean, some of these kids, man! This was San Diego
State and all I can think of is these tanned blond kids who'd
rather be out surfing than reading this book, or on the beach
drinking brewskis. So it was just these paragraphs from guys
saying, 'My main question is is this guy a faggot or what?"
All these comments were completely depressing, but then I
realized that's what happens if you've been made obligatory
"I went to Chicago and everybody was coming up with
these new copies of the diaries to get 'em signed, so I knew
right away there was a class on it. And there was, actually. I
met the guy who taught it. He told me down in Texas, in the
real fundamentalist area where he'd taught this hook, he got
run out of town. Not just the University, but the entire fucking
town! I know from reports it gets taken off high school
library shelves and it's part of book burnings just like my
records, but it's all so innocuous to me."
"People Who Died" and its two-fingered salute to death
also spooked peoplc, especially DJs, who handled the record
like an unexploded bomb.
"Usually they'd slap this disclaimer near the beginning,
this description of the subject matter like it was some kind of
movie on TV, even though it didn't have any of those George
Carlin seven deadly words. It's a eulogy in a really joyful
way, celebrating friends who died before their lives were fully
lived, and I think it's obvious from the way it's sung: 'I salute
you brother/I miss you more than all the others,' I mean,
there's nothing macabre about it, but these DJs' responses
were so cliched, thinking it was some kind of demonic song.
Even my girlfriend's guitarist, who was about 16 when it
came out, told me he thought it was a scary song, some horrific
thing he shouldn't listen to, as though it were like looking
at a dirty picture.
"If I wanted it to be that, I could've picked people who
died in much more grotesque ways -- falling on spikes and
stuff. When I was seven years old we set up a high-jumping
thing, and we put two sticks down to hold up this other stick.
But one of them
was a slat from a
bench, and when
we broke it, it
had a point on
it. And this
kid just disemboweled
himself on it.
Like in one end
and out the other. That wouldn't have
worked too well in the song, y'know (He
sings) 'Christy got impaled on the high-jump
fleld/And he sure looked fucked up'."
A dry chuckle, like moth-wings in a killing jar. Pause.
"I cried about it for three weeks afterwards."
And there it is: the shred of redemption shining at the centre
of Carroll's darkness, the humanity that saves even his most
harrowing images from nihilism. For if you survive The
Basketball Diaries' intravenous terror, you'll find it fades out
with Carroll rasping, "I just want to be pure ..."
It's here for a sentence, then he's off topic-hopping in that
startled-insect voice, mulling over his spiritual progeny like
Henry Rollins ("Well, let's just say we've got different attitudes.
I've got a piece I'm doing at the reading that'll better
explain where I stand on him and Jello Biafra and the rest")
and whether he'll encore singing with Groovy Religion
(Probably, unless tremors of angst or some recalcitrant terror
comes over me").
Then he rings off, three hours later, only fractionally less
Still, some talents burn so bright you can only blink as you
behold them directly. You've got to glimpse it through the
lens of their work, and I can't find any clearer statement of
intent than this:
I am trying to abide by the clues
in the dreams left half-fulfilled
on the deathbed of each brother,
where the tears of a sister stained the milk-white sheets.
And I look to my generation
and dream in blasts of hydrogen,
where the residue of all my nights
is changed to stars.
The process is a circle, is brilliant and works,
as the final collapse of dying suns cradles new ones to life.
--The Book of Nods
© 1992 Chris O'Connor / Eye Weekly
Download the complete article as a PDF.
Cassie Carter's editorial comments: This article is one of two I have seen in which
Carroll specifically refers to me, and it's nothing to brag about. When I met Jim Carroll
for the first time, I was teaching composition courses at San Diego State University, and
I had given my students The Basketball Diaries as optional reading. (I was the only
instructor using the book, by the way.) Once the class had finished the book (whether it
was BD or another work of their choice), I asked them to write down three questions
about the book, which they would later try to answer in their own journals and reading
responses. Well . . . when I met Carroll for the first time, I made the mistake of showing
him these questions. He was amused by the first few, but he was clearly insulted when he
got to one asking, "How could Jim stoop to hustling queers? Is a a flaming
homosexual?" I swear, Carroll did not do readings in San Diego for several years
after that. In any case, here is what Carroll said about all this in his interview with
Chris O'Connor for Eye Weekly, introduced by O' Connors remarks.