Home > Research > Interviews > Heaven in a Wild Flower (1992)

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 classics.

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 person.

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 reading.

"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 an enigma.

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

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.


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