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Jim Carroll Moves Between Two Worlds

A successful poet, musician and novelist, Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries, is thought of as an underground icon, but his influence goes far beyond the counter-culture cult that has worshipped his words for almost three decades now.

Carroll has recorded with Pearl Jam, hung out with Andy Warhol and dated Patti Smith, among other things. If you require any more proof of Carroll's reach into the mainstream, just think about this: Leonardo DiCaprio played Carroll in a movie about his life (Basketball Diaries).

Despite having lived a life that would destroy most men, Carroll remains a working writer, first and foremost. If anything, his writing is growing stronger with age, as shown by his most recent book of poetry, Void of Course.

Late last year, Carroll simultaneously released Void of Course, and a soundtrack of sorts, Pools of Mercury. I spoke with Carroll about these works, as well as a wide variety of other subjects.

CDNOW: What made you decide to do an album again now?

Jim Carroll: It didn't start out as a music album, but the new poems I had let themselves be read.

I don't think that a poem is worth itself unless it works on the page. But I do think, since I've been doing a lot of reading in the last few years and stuff, that I can't help but be affected by something beyond the natural lyricism.

So it [Pools of Mercury] started out as a spoken word album, and I had no intentions of doing songs. Because I have this weight now of running into these A & R guys from different record labels that have been bugging me for years to do a music album.

I'm not going to name names but there's a guy from this one label that's been bugging me for years; he's a good friend of Lenny Kaye. So he asked Lenny, "What's Jim doing?" He had us get a lunch together and wanted to do something and I would tell him, "I just don't want to," and I didn't, really.

And then there was another guy, the head of this record company, who really wanted me to do something. It started about three years ago. He had a big, booming new label, but I just didn't feel like doing it.

So now I'm gonna be up the creek when I run into these guys, because basically, flavor-wise, this is more of a rock 'n' roll album than it is a spoken word album.

One thing about publishing your diaries from when you were so young is that your past is always out there. It's not as if you can put who you were behind you. Is that ever hard to deal with?

Fifty percent of the stuff in the notebooks was never published or anything, so that was stuff written that I didn't want saved. You're really a writer or a musician 24 hours a day, I suppose, but I have ways of getting out of that water myself. It was drugs for a long time, but it hasn't been that in a long time, so it's just some survival instinct.

"You're really a writer or a musician 24 hours a day, I suppose, but I have ways of getting out of that water myself."

Yeah, there's some great feeling of getting rid of all of this stuff, but like you say, you really can't, so you just have to deal with it.

With the great bonfire of '79, purge was some instant gratification that lasted a few days and then it was back to starting on the next notebook. It doesn't last, but nothing lasts; when I first heard the final mixes on the record I thought, "Whew, it sounds so fucking great," but then -- the quality I don't think slips in my head, but that initial rush that you did this is gone immediately. If you can hang onto that then you're set.

What was the time span in which these poems were written?

I wrote these poems within a very short period of time. They really seem very old to me now. I gave them to the publisher about eight months ago and I had read them for about a year while they were in their first drafts.

While I was writing them, I was rereading them at readings, so they don't seem as new to me. There's a certain excitement in that sensation, but that's what I'd like to get rid of, the pressure of always having to go on to the next thing. But I'm lazy enough as it is about working, so I don't think that would be a very good thing.

How did making this album differ from your earlier ones with the Jim Carroll Band?

One of the great things about it is I was learning about the technical aspects of recording. It seemed overwhelming at first, being in the studio on the first album.

I could have learned so much from Bob Clearmountain. He's one of the best producers and engineers there is, but it wasn't really until the end, when we were doing the vocals over and mixing, that I really got a sense of mixing a record. I never wanted to put my energies into that before. It was enough learning how to work with the band.

I thought the studio was beyond me. I'm not good with electronics and stuff. But the last week we were mixing. I did come up with some ideas of where my vocals should pull out in this one duet.

This girl who was singing with me had this feverish, on-the-money voice that came out really clear. I said "Drop my voice out there, don't double us." I just pushed my lever down on the board and he said, "Wow, that sounded great!" And I felt so good. It was like my big contribution to the album. Fuck the lyrics or the singing or anything, I made that mixing choice.

"When you're performing, rock & roll has that ecstatic youthful energy that's in front of you. Guitar is coming from behind you -- it's like a sandwich."

By the third album, I knew what I was doing in the studio. Of course, this time was completely different. Everything is digital now, so it's completely different; you have so many possibilities it's almost a bad thing.

Do you enjoy performing?

When you're performing, rock & roll has that ecstatic youthful energy that's in front of you. Guitar is coming from behind you -- it's like a sandwich. And it lets me in a state where I would get so into the songs, I had this way of performing where I would seem out of myself, the audience would get this kind of mesmerized vibe. That was always the thing that people would talk about.

I always liked that. It was when I would start to lose that, because after a while you can't sustain that every night doing some of the same songs.

One or two songs you can bring it back, and when you have a new album and new songs maybe, but after a while you catch yourself doing these staged moves. And you'd start to drop some shit, which is fine, but it's not what was most effective to me when I first did it. And it wasn't as pleasurable as it was.


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