Carroll Has Llittle Trouble Finding the Right Words
Jim Carroll, long known
for his poetry, first-
person prose and
is working hard on
finally completing his
Photo by Ray Lego/
Cut the Fat
Carroll's sport of choice, as his fans know, is basketball. After
all, he was All-City in his mid-'60s New York prep school days
and could hold his own against contemporaries such as Lew Alcindor
(that's pre-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the hoop-ignorant) and Tiny
it didn't stop him from conjuring football when talking about
what goes into his spoken-word shows. And, no, he's not taking
the term "poetry slam" literally. "To tell you the truth, I never
know what I'm going to read until 15 minutes before the show,"
he said last week from his Manhattan studio, "and when you're
up there, it can make for a metaphor — a quarterback calling an
audible, or changing the set list with music. "If I'm getting
a sense from the audience (that it's not going over), then you
need to change what you have planned. It's the sense I'm getting
from the audience. If they really are (reacting), you can try
new (stuff). You can try a monologue. The better the monologue,
the better the piece will be."
course, Carroll won't have any trouble finding material, old or
new, for his show Saturday night at the Tune Inn. The lanky, 50-year-old
redhead, a cult-idol teen poet in the '60s, saw his stardom reach
the mainstream thanks the 1978 publication of his autobiographical
book "The Basketball Diaries," and the song "People Who Died,"
from his debut 1980 rock album, "Catholic Boy." ("Diaries" was
turned into a wrongheaded 1995 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio
as Carroll; more on that later.) But Carroll has six books of
poetry (from 1967's "Organic Trains" to 1998's "Void of Course")
and two books of prose ("Diaries" and 1987's sequel, "Forced Entries")
on which to fall back. He also has two novels ("The Petting Zoo"
and "Stigma") that he started a decade ago and is working to finally
finish, and he could pull a passage from them, too. Sometimes,
he even whips up monologues off the top of his head. While he
said it usually takes four tries to get one down the way he wants,
he still talks longingly about the one he nailed on the first
take in Boston five years ago at a Jack Kerouac tribute show,
about the last bear to die at the Sarajevo Zoo. It's Carroll's
personal, haunting holy grail of monologues. "So many people in
Boston make tapes (of my shows). Nobody made a tape this night,"
he said. "This was the first time it came together the first time.
If I could just get a transcription. Cassie (Carter, his assistant
and Webmaster of his http://www.catholicboy.com/
site) puts out a feeler (for tapes of shows), and someone usually
has one. But one hasn't turned up yet." Forget the heroin that
ruled his life from the mid-'60s through the early '70s, duly
noted in "The Basketball Diaries" and "Forced Entries." Forget
women — though he does seem to stay friends with the ones with
which he's been close, such as onetime lover/roommate Patti Smith,
who first put him on a rock stage, opening for her in 1978; and
Rosemary Klemfuss, his ex-wife, who is also his lawyer. Forget
rock'n'roll, his last output being last year's EP, "Runaway."
Carroll's most enduring love has been with the word, both written
and spoken; after all, he started his "Diaries" when he was 12.
And even conversation can be an art form with Carroll. This interview
lasted about as long as Saturday's show will — 90 minutes. Ask
him a question and he'll start his response slowly, haltingly,
full of "ums," then pick up momentum and speed and adrenaline
and some tangents along the way before, maybe 15, 20 minutes later,
winding down — but not before pulling back every one of his tangents.
And one of the things he talked about is his novels, and he's
making an effort to complete "The Petting Zoo" right now. They
were enough of a challenge to Carroll already — the first third-person
novels by a writer whose forte has been first-person true stories.
But they just kept dragging and dragging and ... "For the first
six years, I didn't do anything but write out ideas for each of
them," he said. "The first one was 'Stigma.' It's a straight,
linear, narrative novel. When I told my agent, he was thrilled.
It's a money book. It's a murder mystery. It deals with these
two priests, and a miracle happens. I always wanted to have a
whole novel come to me and not be autobiographical." "The Petting
Zoo, meanwhile, is "a more fragmented book about this painter
in New York who goes on this kind of quest. He goes to this Velazquez
retrospective and freaks out at the spiritual aura. He has a breakdown
and vows never to paint again until he finds some spiritual aspect
in his work. His friends try to talk him out of it. "Both of them,
I had to do a lot of research into. 'Stigma' has a lot of arcane
religious stuff: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch and
the Book of Jubilees and the Talamud. And then I had to write
out all the ideas for plot and chapters for both. "Then I had
a literary intervention. Three years ago, my agent, my lawyer,
who's my ex-wife, and a couple of other people said, 'Listen —
we don't care.' By that time, we were also offered film rights
to 'Stigma.' One producer wants me to do it just as a screenplay.
I didn't want to do that. They said, 'You just have to stop your
research. Give us a rough draft. Give us three chapters. We don't
need an outline. We could get serious money.' My editor was saying
that." If Carroll has has a motivation in getting it finished,
it's this: "I wanted to forget 'The Basketball Diaries' — well,
not forget it, but give it perspective." That book has been Carroll's
financial and cross-cultural mealticket, but it's also been a
source of frustration and misinterpretation — from the flap over
"People Who Died," based on people in the book (see sidebar);
to the film; to people who said it indirectly helped cause the
Columbine massacre. Besides, he wrote it more than 30 years ago.
It's perhaps a testament to him that he didn't sour on the movies
after "The Basketball Diaries." In 1997, director Atom Egoyan
bought his short story "Curtis's Charm" to produce as a low-budget
film; the movie, written and directed by John L'Ecuyer, was named
best Canadian film at the Toronto Film Festival. "I thought, it
was a 12-page short story; how are they gonna make a film out
of it?" said Carroll. "(L'Ecuyer) had a great literary sense.
So did Atom." Meanwhile, the richness of "The Basketball Diaries"
was diluted into an extended music video, though Carroll liked
DiCaprio's performance. And this was a film whose rights had been
sold every year since the book's publication (once to John Malkovich,
who, Carroll said, wanted to make the lead character black). It
was a film once shopped to John Cassavetes to direct. Instead
... "The director (Scott Kalvert) was the one I had a problem
with," Carroll said. "He was an MTV director. He kept saying he
had such a passion for it. He gave me whatever I wanted to change
(in the script). But this was all before he started shooting.
"He kept saying how the album and book had a big effect on his
life, but once he started shooting ... all he wanted to do was
look at that video monitor. Then I realized I don't know where
his passion comes from. It didn't come from anything literary,
and always it was hackneyed." On one hand, the film opened Carroll
to a new audience. "It was back on the (New York) Times best-seller
list. That doesn't happen after 15 years," he said. "The kids
are going in to see Mark (Wahlberg) and Leo, then when they bought
the book, they bought books of poems and stuff. Now the kids from
13 to 19 and stuff come to the shows." On the other, there's what
Carroll calls "the whole (bleep)ing gun thing." He wrote in his
"Diaries" about dreaming about shooting off a gun in class — not
to kill anyone, but to shoot overhead and let off some steam.
In the film, it became a dream sequence in which DiCaprio blew
away his classmates. And it was reported after Columbine that
one of the killers had seen the film. "That's been so wearing
on me, and I don't really want to talk about it,' he said. "(Sen.
Joe) Lieberman was talking about gun violence and he showed that
scene. The reality was at first it only affected the video selling.
A lot of stores won't sell it now. I thought it wouldn't affect
the book. Now, in some schools, it's totally out. Now I even worry
about bookstores. "I cannot put it on the filmmaker and stuff.
That's a bizarre, sad situation. People don't understand if you
want to be an artist, if you want to exemplify good, you have
to exemplify evil. People just don't get that. It's a difficult
thing." That said, "I'm not completely burned on (the movies).
All the general weirdness, there's nothing you could do about
it or say about it."
IF YOU GO
Event: Jim Carroll (spoken word; all
Time: $15 (includes admission to 10 p.m. show by
Arab on Radar, VPN and Skeleton Key; admission to 10 p.m.
show only is $8)
Place: Tune Inn, 29 Center St., New Haven
Tickets: $15 (includes admission to 10 p.m. show
by Arab on Radar, VPN and Skeleton Key; admission to 10
p.m. show only is $8)
Info: (203) 772-4310
© 2001 New Haven Register
The original article was found at http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=1831437&BRD=1281&PAG=461&dept_id=7573&rfi=8