Home > Research > Interviews > Alter Boy: Jim Carroll Rising (1998)

Alter Boy: Jim Carroll Rising

From Catholic boyto catholic man, writer and rocker Jim Carroll has experienced more in his 48 years than Jack Kerouac and Lou Reed combined. Last month, the author of The Basketball Diaries returned to the public eye, releasing Void of Course, his first book of new poetry in more than a decade, and the "60 percent music, 40 percent spoken-word" recording Pools of Mercury, his first new album in seven years (and his first album with music in nearly 15). Add to this creative resurgence a nearly finished Jim Carroll Band tribute record, and Carroll is close to consigning to oblivion his role as the real-life Leonardo DiCaprio. He spoke to us from his hometown, New York.

Jim Carroll
Crocodile, Tuesday, November 17

SW: You have some Seattle connections: Pearl Jam and 7 Year Bitch have recorded your songs; Robert Roth from Truly wrote the music to a couple of tracks on your new album; and you wrote a poem about Kurt Cobain that appears in the new book and album . . .

Carroll: I re-recorded the song "Catholic Boy" with Pearl Jam for the Basketball Diaries soundtrack. I thought they were going to do it with Eddie singing the song--and I'm sure that's what the record company wanted. But they called the label and said, 'Jim should come out here and do this.' . . . It was recorded live in the studio, basically. Eddie played rhythm guitar--he was a much better guitar player than I thought, actually. The thing about recording like that is you really have to sing your ass off with each take. . . . My voice was out of shape, I couldn't get beyond the sixth take. . . . The only regret I had was that I should've doubled up on the vocals in some parts to make it a bit different than the original.

SW: The New York Times ran your poem "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain," and it received some angry letters complaining that your piece "romanticized" Cobain's death . . .

I might have been romanticizing part of his life--his genius, his music. I don't see the point of writing an elegy if you're going to trash someone. Obviously I've had situations in my life that were similar. When I was doing heroin, I had a reputation for my poetry--but I didn't have the money or the fame of a rock 'n' roll star. As I found out when I did my music--maybe it was just the kind of music we made, or the circles we were in, but we had a perverse amount of coke-dealer scum just offering us enormous amounts of cocaine. . . . It must have been unrelenting for the guy to get any peace of mind to get away from the stuff. . . . Love and stuff like that, that's a whole other ball game, 'cause that can drive you right there. . . . Since then, I've heard all these other theories about his death. But I don't really care about that shit. It's fodder for the Internet. . . . I really did see something in his music that wasn't in all the other bands that were coming out of that scene. His basic attachment to his guitar--I can only think of Jimi Hendrix who had that thing, but in a more manic way, for more manic times.

SW: Tell me about the current tour. It's a solo, spoken-word format?

Seattle's a little different, because I probably will do a few songs in Seattle. Robert [Roth] will probably play with me. . . . Maybe we'll do some of the songs that are on the album and some old songs. We won't have much time to rehearse--I've done that before, and that can be the best.

SW: A lot of your work is being released all at once. Did you suddenly become very industrious, or were the book and the album building up for several years?

Aside from the Kurt Cobain poem and a couple of others, the poems were all written in the past year and a half or two years. And I'd never had that prolific of a period. I had a big break-up with somebody at the time, so I was writing a lot. I thought since I'd done all this writing that I'd just do this book of poems. Why I chose to do an album I don't know. It drives my literary agent nuts, because he wants me to finish these novels I've been working on. The first has a murder mystery in it; the second is more autobiographical, I guess. It's about a hot-shot New York City painter who's really successful at the age of 33, but he thinks his work is empty. . . . He freaks out at a Velazquez retrospective at the Met, and he goes on a spiritual quest--he's not gonna paint again till he finds some answers.

SW: What made you decide to do music again?

I liked this one song Robert [Roth] had given me. He sent me the DAT from Seattle, and I did the vocals here in New York. That was a demo tape, and I played it for the guys here. They were in the studio for what was going to be a spoken-word record. Then it opened up, and became more of a rock 'n' roll record. It was just a spontaneous thing that happened. You let that rock 'n' roll energy in, and it pulls at you. The only bad thing is there are these A&R guys who have been trying to get me to do a record for years, and I saw one of them just the other day. . . .

SW: How do you go about adding music to your spoken-word pieces?

Ginsberg. I came to the studio when he was doing the spoken-word thing. He'd read, then he'd have people do the music, then he'd read again. And he would get into this kind of sing-song thing. It's a real trap. Most people, you lay down your vocals, and they just kind of jam behind it . . . but when I tried it, it turned into some quasi hip-hop shit. 'Cause you want to find a melody. That's how [producer] Anton [Sanko]'s different--it's all about the rhythm. He wanted me to hit certain words on the downbeat.

SW: Are there any poems you've written that you wouldn't read aloud?

I like to think that I've had a natural quality of lyricism in my work. But any poem worth its salt has to work on the page. I had a couple of pieces I read on Pools of Mercury that I didn't wind up putting in any book, 'cause I didn't think they worked well on the page.

SW: You've been around long enough to see the various mutations of punk rock. Do you have any ideas about where rock is headed?

I always thought that the spirit of so-called grunge was the culmination of what American punk rock was about--or should be about. It had more angst than the Ramones or something. I like the Ramones a lot, but there's more urgency in Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Punk is a great catchy phrase, but to me it just meant hard rock by kids who're honest.


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