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Home > Research > Interviews > 'Diaries' Author's Life an Open Book (2002)

'Diaries' Author's Life an Open Book

TAMPA - Jim Carroll didn't stand much chance of passing his draft board physical.

Well into the heroin addiction he would chronicle so harrowingly in "The Basketball Diaries," the 19-year-old Carroll had taken the extra precautions of getting high before heading to Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton in 1969.

"I even embellished my tracks as much as I could to make 'em look real nasty," Carroll remembers by telephone from New York City.

"When I got to the place where they draw your blood, the guy said, `I can't get a hit here,"' Carroll says.

"This big, black orderly, he came over and said, `Just go in right over it,' and just stuck that needle in, right through all the scar tissue," Carroll says with an audible wince.

"He got a hit right away," Carroll says with a laugh. "You've got to admire that skill."

Carroll's writing - whether prose, poetry or song - shows a similar skill. Uncompromising, unsentimental and sometimes brutal, Carroll draws blood through vivid imagery, his stark language mirroring his gritty urban street and subway existence.

For Tampa poet Chris Temple, Carroll's "The Basketball Diaries" was a "wide-open door" into another world.

"It opened up this white suburban kid's mind to the doings and goings-on of New York City, the hustling, the drug culture," says Temple, whose band, Ashes of Grisum, will perform following Carroll's reading at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg tonight.

"The Basketball Diaries," published in 1978, is Carroll's story of his early teenage years, during which he pursued both hoops and heroin.

He also pursued poetry, attending workshops and publishing his first collection, "Organic Trains," at age 16. The teenager won praise from Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and by the early 1970s had been published in Paris Review and Poetry.

In 1973, after publishing the poetry collection "Living at the Movies," Carroll left New York City for California to try to beat his heroin addiction. (This period is covered in Carroll's "Forced Entries," published in 1987.)

Carroll continued writing poetry while in California. He also began writing song lyrics, originally with the idea of other performers recording them. But an impromptu appearance at a 1978 concert by a friend of Carroll's, poet turned rocker Patti Smith, convinced him he wanted to take the stage himself.

He formed the Jim Carroll Band, which established itself in San Francisco clubs before moving to New York City. The band picked up the patronage of Keith Richards and released its debut album, "Catholic Boy," in October 1980.

Blown Away' By Rock Poet

Tampa's Silvia Curbelo has been published in journals such as American Poetry Review and Kenyon Review, as well as "Norton's Anthology of Hispanic Literature."

Her first exposure to Carroll, though, was through his music.

A friend, poet Dionisio Martinez, "played me a couple of cuts from `Catholic Boy' over the phone, and that was it. I ran out and bought the album the next day," Curbelo remembers by e- mail.

"I was blown away by the sheer energy of the record. The music seemed to intensify and magnify the language.

"And of course, I loved the idea of a rock poet," Curbelo writes. "Here is a guy who had been published in The Paris Review and Poetry, the most prestigious literary journals around, and he has a couple of poetry books under his belt, and he puts together this phenomenal band."

Curbelo, 46, recalls dancing to "People Who Died," the single from "Catholic Boy," at the old El Goya in Ybor City. She says Carroll influenced "a lot of people of my generation, particularly musicians with a more literary bent."

"I think after that, alternative music became more about words and music," Curbelo writes. "The thoughtful, evocative language of folk poets like Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon and [Bob] Dylan was spilling over into hard rock and punk music. You could thrash on a big, bad electric guitar and say something of consequence, too, and say it eloquently."

Off The Road, On To Writing

Carroll and his band released "Dry Dreams" (1982) and "I Write Your Name" (1984) before bowing out of rock 'n' roll.

"I was just tired of the touring," Carroll says. "If you're playing every night for a week ... sooner or later you're just gonna be entertaining. You're not gonna get ... that sense that the song is changing you. >

"At that point, I kind of knew I was going to want to get back to writing."

He has continued to write poetry, publishing his most recent collection, "Void of Course," in 1998. That year he also released an album of spoken word and music, "Drops of Mercury." He followed that with an EP, "Runaway," in 2000.

He has collaborated with musicians as diverse as Blue Oyster Cult, Boz Scaggs and Rancid. He's writing with Ray Manzarek for an album by a new version of The Doors.

And "The Basketball Diaries" was made into a 1995 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Carroll is hard at work on a novel, which he thinks could eclipse "The Basketball Diaries" in popularity. If that happened and tempered his popular connection with narcotics, all the better.

"I've been clean for so long," Carroll points out. "I want some props for that.

"It bothered me when I was first doing music," Carroll says, remembering shows at which Richards joined the band. "The reviews said, 'Jim Carroll had to settle for being the second most famous musician and the second most famous junkie in the room tonight.'"

"The Basketball Diaries" had made Carroll's history an open book.

"Someone on a call-in show, some young girl ... asked me a very simple question. She said, `How can you write about things that are so private and so weird?'

"I answered that if you want to be a writer, you have to be able to write about the most private things that happen in your life, no matter how strange or embarrassing they might seem," Carroll says.

"You don't have to do that, but you have to be able to do it. You can avoid it completely and most of the time you probably should. But you have to be able to go there if you're going to be a real poet."

ON STAGE

WHAT: Author Jim Carroll reads from his work.
ALSO: Irritable Tribe of Poets will precede Carroll, and Ashes of Grisum will perform after his reading.
WHERE: State Theatre, 687 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
WHEN: 9 tonight
ADMISSION: $15
INFORMATION: (727) 895-3045

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Reporter Curtis Ross can be reached at (813) 259-7568.

   

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