Home > Research > Interviews > Jim Carroll: Interview for BG24 News (1996)

Jim Carroll

Jason Knowles interviewed Carroll on Tuesday, February 20, 1996, in Bowling Green State University's Lenhart Ballroom for about half an hour before Carroll's spoken-word performance there. Most of the 800 people who attended the show had already arrived and filled the 400 chairs on the floor as well as the 250 seat balcony; more chairs were being brought in while Carroll spoke with Jason. A crowd of fans stood around the table throughout the interview.

A few of Carroll's remarks appeared on BG24's news program the following evening, but aside from those clips, this interview makes its first and only appearance here on the Jim Carroll web site. In transcribing the interview, I chose not to edit it at all. In fact, because I want this interview to reflect the way Carroll actually talks, I made a point of including all of his "you knows," "ums," and shifts in thought. The tricky part was deciding how to punctuate Carroll's comments . . .

What would you consider your best work to be?

What I'm working on now. It's gotta be.

What's that? What are you working on now?

Well, I'm working on novels, two novels, actually, I mean I'm working on one specific one, but two came to me at the same time, the ideas, so I went through the process of having to write them all out in my notebooks, and now I'm in the process of like doing the first draft of the one. I had to pick which one. One's a straight narrative, the other's a more fragmented book. I chose the more fragmented book. I chose the more fragmented one against my publisher's wishes--the other one's more of a . . . money book I guess [laughs].

What are the names of the two books?

I just have working titles: The Petting Zoo and Stigma.

What do you do the most of: writing, or poetry, or music? What do you consider yourself?

I consider myself a poet. That's what I was, that's what I decided I was gonna be when I was, you know, 15 years old, and I, you know, and I was. I mean, I got into rock 'n' roll. It was kind of a strange thing. Punk rock made the possibilities possible for my vocal limitations. Then again, I had a lot . . . from being a poet I understood phrasing better than most singers, so um, in that sense . . . and I got better technically so that I could sing. Actually, I can sing better now than I could when I was really doing albums. I could do harmonies like with Lenny Kaye when we'd like work on songs with other people, but um . . . But I like the period with music and stuff, and obviously people know me best for my prose, from Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries. But, you know, basically I've always thought of myself, and I established myself early as [a poet], you know, before The Basketball Diaries. That's why I didn't publish them earlier. I wanted to publish my first big book of poems, and so I waited until Living at the Movies, and that came out when I was like 22. And then I waited another . . . I went into a recluse period in California, and then I came back to New York with The Basketball Diaries and the band. I was glad, I mean, it was much more suited for the kind of punk ethos. The Ramones were writing songs about sniffing glue, and that's what I was writing about in the book; it wasn't about a hippie thing.

What do you want the audience to get out of your work? Is there a general message that you have?

Um . . . I want them to . . . you know . . . um . . . realize that their spirit's connected with, um, every other spirit in the universe [laughs]. And that I want my images to be evocative enough so that people can put them to their own . . . Either my lyrics or poems. I mean, with prose it's a little different, it's more subjective, but I mean I want to make images just obscure enough so that people can make them their own, relate them to their own life and change them in a spiritual sense. I don't write many political poems because I don't think . . . We're in such a screwed up world, in global terms. Everything's so screwed up that some kind of spiritual renaissance has to happen. Politics can't solve what it's fucked up for so long. [Corrects himself:] What it's messed up for so long [laughs].

Speaking of images, do you think that your portrayal in Basketball Diaries was accurate?

Well, I thought that Leonardo's portrayal was fantastic, you know. I thought the director had no idea what the book was about, you know, um . . . but um . . . You know, he was a techno-freak. Before we started shooting, the screenplay was good on paper. It had all those voice-overs straight from the book. But, you know. I just um . . . I made a lot of changes, I inserted a lot of things, and then he just um . . . And that was all fine in pre-production, um, and they kept those changes, most of them. But then when I saw a possibility to use Ernie Hudson's character--the Reggie character, who wasn't really in the book, they added him . . . And since he was new, I figured we could use him as a vehicle to help. Because he obviously knows--he's interested in his writing, you know, his diaries--and we could have used him to educate Leonardo about writing, you know. Like when Leonardo wises off to him about "get me a bag" after he's kicked, you know, he should say . . . I said to the director, let Ernie come back saying, "Listen, man, if you wanna speak with that wise-ass junkie voice all your life, then you'll be a junkie. But if you wanna be a writer, like I think you do, then you've gotta learn your own voice. 'Cause a voice is what a writer--that is all a writer has, and finding your true voice is the hardest thing you have to do, and that's a journey you gotta set out for. If you wanna do that wise-ass, you know, quick-shot comeback, then um . . . you're just gonna be a smart junkie." So . . . And Leo loved it, and Leo and I, when . . . Scott couldn't hear us, he's so techno-freaked, you know, settin' up the shots. So . . . we walked off the set. It didn't matter if I walked off the set, but when Leo walked off the set, it meant something [laughs]. But he came back and, you know, they shot it. And then they re-shot the ending. The original ending was much more ambiguous. 'Cause I don't think . . . All of a sudden this kid is radiant in apotheosis. You know, I mean, if he was gonna read at the end, they should have had some build-up. I mean, you see him writing and these voice-overs and stuff from it . . . But I like the film a lot, I mean, you know, 'cause the performances were so great, and Leonardo was like fantastic. Um . . . I thought Marky was fantastic. I thought James Madio--Pedro--and Anton, um . . . I thought Lorraine Bracco and I thought Bruno Kirby was great--what a hard part to play, man [laughs]! But, I mean, I dunno. It's doing great in video, actually, so . . . But it just doesn't in the end really have, you know . . . I just couldn't understand what the source of this guy's passion--this director's passion--to do this was, because he was so passionate about getting the project.

Can you tell me a little about your spoken-word readings about Kurt Cobain? And what do you think about Kurt Cobain?

Well, I wrote that poem . . . um . . it was . . . I mean, I didn't write it for the MTV Unplugged thing, but it um happened that . . . I gave them--for Standards and Practices a week before the show--I gave them a different piece. It was a long piece, you know, 'cause I was supposed to like be the main guy and have half the show. Instead, I said, listen, I wrote-- See, you gotta understand, though, the show aired about four months later; it was, you know, it was like shot on the Monday after Kurt killed himself on like Friday, you know. And I found out about it from . . . I found out about it from a rock 'n' roll friend who called me . . . uh . . . from a . . . uh [seems to be debating about whether to reveal his source] . . . Eddie Vedder, it was, actually. He thought, I was sure, I knew. 'Cause my ex-wife was Kurt's lawyer and the godmother of their kid, you know, and is Courtney's lawyer too, and um . . . And I knew that he tried to commit suicide in Par-- in Rome; I knew that wasn't some prescription drug thing. So um it didn't surprise me, but it surprised me, you know, and um . . . the main thing was Eddie was freaked out, so I was talking to him. They were touring, he's in Washington. I mean, it's really nothing to do with that, but um . . . I started to scribble down these different lines as we were talking, you know, kind of out of what we were saying. And then I looked at them a couple of days later, on Sunday, and then I wrote down a bunch more, and then on Monday morning I looked at them and it was pretty good. So I wrote out as much more as I could, and then just put it together. It wasn't even typed until we got down to MTV and I said in the run-through, I'd like to read this poem instead, you know. Which was-- all the other poets on the show, it was fine with them 'cause that gave them, you know, like much more time to read themselves, 'cause it was only about four-and-a-half minutes, and the piece I was gonna read was like 15.

So you don't know what you read a lot of times, I heard, when you go up on stage?

Well, it's just like rock 'n' roll with the set list. You know, we had a set list of course, especially if we were playing, like, the bigger the venue, you have to have the set list. But it's like the quarterback calling the [????] when he gets to the line of scrimmage and sees the defense, you know. You check out the audience, and you just get a certain feel. I mean, with rock 'n' roll, you know that you might have just done a mid-tempo song, but you can't do that ballad that's next on it; you need a rocker to get the audience back up, you know. Like that. So I'd just change it, which, you know, meant that I'd have to go around and-- 'Cause, you know, if one guy doesn't get it--it's usually the drummer--then you're screwed, you know [laughs]. Um . . . you got the beat for a ballad and power chords [laughs]. I mean, um, so you gotta go back and like scream to each of them over the din, um, like, "We're gonna do 'Lorraine!'" "Okay, Lorraine?" "Lorraine." "Lorraine?" "Yeah." "Okay." [Laughs.] And um . . . No, um, I'd decide, but it'd depend on, you know, whether they you know--sometimes the guitar roadies would have to go get different guitars for different songs and stuff, you know, like, "Ya need another guitar?" But I dunno, um, with poetry readings it's not as complicated as that; it's just that-- I mean, I have a basic sense of what I'm gonna do, but from the audience, you know, I get a feeling of where I should go as I'm going along. You know.

What do you think about this audience tonight?

I have no idea! [Laughs, looking around at the crowd.] I mean, the audiences I've been doing lately at colleges have been enormous. You know, I mean, it's--I'm sure it's because of the movie and stuff, you know. And the book went back on the New York Times Best Seller list and stuff, which really amazed me and my publisher, you know. Um . . . but . . . Seems like a nice audience. So . . . um . . . I'm not even sure what the first piece I am gonna read tonight is. I think I have an idea. I think I want to read one fairly long prose piece and then poems, you know, so I'll see.

I know you have to be going, but one more question. Tell me about, in Basketball Diaries, about the drugs and heroin. Tell me about drugs and kicking drugs.

Well [laughs], kicking drugs is not anything you wanna do while you're on your vacation. It basically sucks. You know, I mean . . . This is why Leonardo was so good. He never had any experience like that, but you saw when he's kicking in Reggie or Ernie's apartment, that gracefulness he had from walking down the street and playing basketball--even though I was a much better ball player than that! [Laughs]--but that gracefulness with which he carried himself, all of a sudden he took it away from himself. 'Cause there's no position--you try every position to get comfortable and you can't, you know. There's something--these cells are screaming inside of you for something, you know, cells that you've created, you know, and only want one thing. And so um it's really . . . So that was really his most amazing thing to me, that he got that. But um . . . I dunno . . . um . . . I mean, there's not much to say about it, you know.

We know it's tough.

It's terrible.

What's your favorite part about basketball?

My favorite part about basketball?

What's your love for basketball?

Well, I say this in um whatchamacallit, um . . . in Forced Entries there's a line--um where, it's one excerpt where I'm talking about-- I'm watching the NBA All Star game, and there's guys playing like Tiny Archibald and stuff that I used to play against, you know, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who was Lew Alcinder then, you know, 'cause he was older than me but we grew up in the same neighborhood, you know. And um I thought, ah, I screwed up. I shoulda stayed into basketball; I coulda been playing now, you know. I mean, it was a fantasy, and um . . . Because I was as good as Tiny in high school, but I just wasn't progressing at the rate that he was progressing, you know. Um, and I had started a lot earlier, too, so I thought, you know [laughs]. At any rate, I was talking about that, but then I kinda got this epiphany about poetry which I write about there, about demons coming in and stuff, and it woulda been easier to just deal with basketball. You gotta read the piece. But the last line is, in basketball, the thing about basketball that's great, is that you can . . . um . . . you can resolve all your mistakes immediately and beautiful in midair.

This interview is used by permission. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited without permission from Jason Knowles and BG24 News.


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