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A Word Revolution

Punker and poet Jim Carroll -- hero for the disaffected -- comes to town Friday to rap some works from his latest book of poems.

Rock and literature rarely cross paths, but when they do the results are frequently riveting. Consider Jim Carroll. He's been an acclaimed poet since his early 20s and his junkie memoir, The Basketball Diaries, is considered an alternative classic. But he's probably best known for the series of punk albums he released in the early '80s. Starting with Catholic Boy, which most consider his masterpiece, Carroll created a body of songs whose edgy riffs and streetwise insights were balanced with a master's command of moody imagery. Even tracks like the fluke hit "People Who Died," a turbo-charged elegy to casualties of the fast life, had a vivid depth and an obvious craft. Evocative, sly and sometimes terrifying, these albums seemed the natural culmination of the gritty lyricism pioneered by Lou Reed and Patti Smith.

"I read a book called The Time of the Assassins by Henry Miller," Carroll recalls, while at home in Manhattan. "It was a study of [19th-century French Symbolist poet Arthur] Rimbaud. [Miller] makes a point of [asking], Where are the poets now who are taking on the traditional role of poetry, of changing the world? And I thought the only way of achieving that -- it might be naive -- is through rock 'n' roll. 'Cause nothing has an audience like rock 'n' roll. Poetry certainly didn't. So you have to give it a shot" -- which Carroll is, giving two spoken-word performances this Friday at Borders (Center City) and the Tin Angel.

Though his records sold well, Carroll quickly left the music business. "I wanted to get back to writing books," he says. But like William Burroughs, who was an early inspiration and later a friend, Carroll remained a kind of patron saint of rock. Much of this has to do with The Basketball Diaries, a chronicle he wrote while in high school which details his descent into heroin and crime. A best-seller, as well as the basis for a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the book has become as much a rite of passage for disaffected teens as any album by Nirvana.

"It's not a very literary book because I was so young," says Carroll, who's now in his late 40s. "There are some precociously good images in it. It's about a certain surface voice that's really important and you could trust, which sustained it.

"When I did heroin, I knew it was my drug. It slows down a landscape enough that you can see the bullshit for what it is -- at first. After a while it just becomes an excuse for not doing anything and thinking there was some nobility in not doing anything."

Carroll's been clean now for many years, but that early notoriety certainly hasn't hurt his career. His publisher, Viking/Penguin, estimates that he's the best-selling poet on its vast roster; and his new book of poems, Void of Change [Void of Course--ed], has already gone into a second printing. His spoken-word performances draw better than most such events. And even his serious literature regularly gets reviewed in the mainstream media.

It's an enviable position for an author, but it's not quite enough to make Carroll give up rock altogether. For one thing, there's the songwriting he's always done for such diverse acts as Blue Oyster Cult, Rancid and even Boz Skaggs. There's also the abiding respect his work still commands among younger musicians. Indeed, in Philly alone there are enough local fans to fill a forthcoming tribute disc titled Put Your Tongue To the Rail (independent).

"I really liked the kid energy," Carroll says of rock. Now, after almost 15 years, he's getting back into it with his new disc, Pools of Mercury (Mercury). A blend of spoken-word and outright songs, the album is probably the best single representation of Carroll's sensibility. Produced by Anton Sancho, the record has an underlying vaguely industrial texture that unifies the tracks and compliments the poet's urban vision.

"The poems were pretty dark so I wanted some kind of counterpoint," says Carroll. "It started out as a spoken-word album with music. What happened was I had this one song they asked me to write for The Basketball Diaries movie that they didn't use. Anton liked it and from there, once the door was open, it could have been a complete rock record."

Mercury probably works best the way it is, with Carroll's voice -- simultaneously wondering and jaded -- giving a human form to his portraits of psychic dislocation. But it's still a joy to hear rave ups like "Falling Down Laughing." And it's a real testament to Carroll's artistry that after all this time, he can still sound dangerous.

As for a complete return to rock 'n' roll, that's pretty unlikely. Carroll's working on two novels, one about a painter's spiritual crisis and the other about the Vatican's investigation of a miracle.

"My agent and publisher are really horny for them," he laughs. "I had to do a lot of research for both these books. And last year my agent, my lawyer and other people gave me this literary intervention at lunch. Like, 'You got to start drafting one of them!'"

But even if he never rocks again, one gets the sense that it won't make much difference to Jim Carroll. "There are different ways of writing," he says simply. "Technically, it's two different disciplines, writing a song lyric or writing a poem. But in a sense of vision or aesthetic, you want to achieve the same end: just make the imagery evocative."

He pauses, then makes an observation that could sum up his entire career. "At this point, all those things are connected."


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