Fast Stories From Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll talks with Truly's Robert Roth about train surfing, his Basketball Diaries and people who died
1n 1963, Jack Kerouac read excerpts of Jim Carroll's diaries in the Paris Review,
saying: "At 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the
novelists working today." Today, Carroll is 48 and he still writes better prose than
89 percent of all novelists/poets. Carroll wrote most of his biggest-selling book, The
Basketball Diaries, when he was in high school, and he's been writing intensely ever
since, rising each day at 4am to write. As exemplified by his latest book, Void of Course,
Carroll is gifted and blessed with an agile and omniscient power over modern American
language. While his writing is heavily laced with irony and charm, it's his downtown neon
vision of abandonment and wonder that burns at its core. Carroll has a dead-on, tangential
brain that seems to be floating four feet above most people (like the view from a slam
dunk), seeing all the connections and intersections most people are oblivious to.
In the early '70s, Carroll was immersed in the New York art/literary/ rock scene, working
at Andy Warhol's Factory, compiling and releasing his first book of poetry, Living at the
Movies, while going to see the Velvet Underground every night at Max's Kansas City
(incidentally, he was the one holding the tape recorder for the Velvet Underground's Live
at Max's Kansas City). Later in the decade, Carroll was coaxed onstage by friends Patti
Smith and Lenny Kaye and so began his foray into music. Among the first artists to be
signed to Rolling Stones records, Carroll recorded three albums between 1980 and 1984,
including the punk/new wave classic Catholic Boy, which spawned the cult classic
"People Who Died." Having made his musical statement, Carroll returned to
writing in the '80s, authoring Forced Entries (the sequel to Basketball Diaries) and two
books of poems, The Book of Nods and Fear of Dreaming.
I first met Jim Carroll about four years ago when my band Truly was in the final stretch
of recording our Capitol Records debut, Fast Stories...From Kid Coma. Truly's attorney,
Rosemary Carroll, who is also Jim's attorney as well as his ex-wife, had told me Jim was
looking for a songwriter to collaborate with so he could contribute songs to the
soundtrack for The Basketball Diaries, the 1995 film based on his best-selling classic
novel and which starred Leonardo Di Caprio. We co-wrote and recorded two songs for the
soundtrack, but unfortunately, Island Records wanted to stack the soundtrack with
"fresh faces" to sell CDs, and they left Jim and me off. (The movie's music
supervisor bragged openly that she had never read the book or listened to any of Jim's
records.) I always felt that these songs were perfect for the film and really captured the
vibe of the book. Ever since, Carroll has been a Truly lyrical advisor of sorts; he even
penned a few lines for our latest album, Feeling You Up. As for the songs Truly recorded
with Carroll ("Falling Down Laughing" and "Hairshirt Fracture"), they
now appear on Carroll's new album, Pools of Mercury, which is a unique concoction of
spoken word and music.
Robert Roth: I've been listening to the new album over and over. I think the whole
thing is genuinely amazing.
Jim Carroll: I did an interview with some guy in Atlanta yesterday and he thought
"Falling Down Laughing" was like the best track so far.
Roth: Yeah, I really like it. I like "Desert Town" a lot, too.
Carroll: You like that?
Roth: Yeah, it's a cool song. It's interesting because for a purebred New Yorker
like yourself the song has a western-desert accent, in a rock 'n' roll sort of way. In a
desert town...It's very desert-like--it evokes the West.
Carroll: I know, I had that line in my head for a while, you know? I changed all
the other lyrics. It was just what shot out of me when I heard the music. Originally, one
of the guys wrote that music for one of the poems, you know, he thought I could make it
into a song. But I decided I'd just do it over, you know, because I liked the poem the way
Roth: I really enjoy the music accompanying the spoken word pieces, especially
"Things That Fly."
Carroll: I like that one, too. It's almost like a song, the way (producer Anton
Sanko) put the effect on the vocals and stuff.
Roth: It's interesting the way the whole album is produced. The sequencing flows
naturally. Plus, not many artists have released an album that is 50/50 spoken word and
rock. It's a somewhat unusual concept, yet it holds my attention from beginning to end.
Very cinematic. I like the way Sanko takes the reverb off your vocals on the last line of
"Train Surfing"; it gets a little more inside your brain. It sounds like the
"bullet expanding inside your brain"; it's cool.
Carroll: That's funny you said that, because I remember that A&R guy up here,
that's the first thing he said. That was one of the first ones I played for him.
Roth: Yeah, and I remember you were telling me a while back about a screenplay that
you had been asked to write about these Brazilian kids and their subculture, and that's
Carroll: Right, exactly. That's what it's from. See, the guy that asked me to write
that screenplay.... He showed me this footage of these guys (train surfing) that he took
when he was down there. And I didn't want to go down there and do this thing. But when I
showed him the poem, he freaked out. He went to the head guy at Fox, and he wanted to get
him to give him money for me to write like a long version of that poem. In other words, it
was going to be like a semi-documentary of these train-surfing kids and their night
dancing, where they dance in these, like, airplane hanger-type buildings, you know, that
are just like tin Quonset huts. They're huge, though. And the cops just let them crowd in
with as many people as they can and they don't break up any knife fights; they just want
to let them kill each other off. And the DJs just play this weird music.
Roth: So what do these kids do? Do they climb on top of trains and ride them?
Carroll: It's just the velocity is like--I mean, these things go like at about 90
miles an hour. The tracks just go out from like the nice part--the part in Rio in front of
that big statue of Christ on the mountain where everything in front of that is like very
opulent for the tourists, you know, (but) when you get behind Christ, it's like all these
fucking houses made out of pieces of corrugated tin and all these kids playing soccer with
like, you know, little rolled-up pieces of tape and shit. I mean, they either have to
start working for the drug people at a certain point or else they're not going to get
anywhere, you know. The really homeless kids are just always being shot by the death squad
Roth: What are the odds that they get blown off the train?
Carroll: Sometimes it's like 20 kids on one car, you know? Oh, there's plenty of
deaths every year. ...I just saw a thing like on TV where some kid was doing it. And like
they were like train surfing, they called it, on a train in New York, like an Amtrak
train. And that's like, not really going as fast or anything. He didn't get killed doing
that, he just wound up like 40 miles away from home and he was only 13. He got killed by a
bunch of kids who like kind of were trying to get his money and shit, you know? And they
called this "Train Surfing Death," and I go, "What the fuck is that?
Here?" Because the trains just don't go like as fast as those things.
Roth: I want to ask you about the piece "I Am Not Kurt Schwitters"; who
is Kurt Schwitters?
Carroll: He's a painter from the turn of the century; he was part of the Blaue
Reiters. He was a German expressionist, you know? Like, it was around the time of the
cubists, and the cubists thought that they were going to...be like physicists and
understand the universe through painting, you know? I mean this is why Picasso got totally
away from that--they realized within a few years that it was bullshit.
But, the Fauves and the Blaue Reiters were this kind of alternative school of painting.
Their thing was like, "You're not going to understand shit; we're just going to have
a blast with colors." So their painting was more just totally expressionistic. It was
real like, brutal and stuff. Schwitters' painting is lumped in with them, but he's not
really as much like Nolde or some of the other bunch. The other thing is, though, that a
lot of his writings have, like in the past 10 years, been discovered and have become the
way Cocteau was, or Artaud, and he's become this real surrealist writer hero in the past
10 years or so among the kinda arty set. But I always liked his paintings, and that poem
started out as kind of a joke years ago between this friend of mine where he said,
"I'm not so and so," when he was knocking at somebody's door. The guy couldn't
hear him through the intercom so he said, um, "You mean this is, uh, I don't know,
George Grosz?" and he said, "I am not gross!" And I said, "And I am
not..." and I just thought of like the weirdest person I could think of and I said,
"Kurt," cause he was a painter and I said, "I am not Kurt Schwitters!"
And I always thought, like, I'm going to use that someday.
Roth: You don't hear poetry like this on records very often. I'm just hoping that
Pools of Mercury will re-awaken people to the power of poetry because I think it's
digestible to even an MTV attention span.
Carroll: Well, the thing is that I did; there were some poems [on this album]
that--I mean, some of them are different than my other poems; they're more accessible in a
certain way, you know? I don't think a poem is really worth its salt unless it works on
the page. That's why I don't like poetry slams that much and shit like that. I mean,
they're cool and they bring people into poetry and that's all good, you know? And you
could just decide, once you get into it, you could neutralize your tastes from within it,
you know? So, in that sense, that's all fine. But to me, most of the poems at poetry slams
that like would win or are most effective are like your worst poems, you know? They're
short, and they're either very funny or shocking or something. But they don't work on the
page, you know? They sound good, they might be very lyrical and shit. But any poem should
have a lyrical thing, that's just innate. If you're a writer you should have that built
in, like an intuition. It's just like a sense of rhythm with a musician.
Roth: How did Pools of Mercury go from being a spoken word album to having a bunch
of songs on it?
Carroll: I mean, obviously, as you know, I had those two songs from you and Truly
from The Basketball Diaries thing, although as you noticed, I changed "Falling Down
Laughing." I put it into the third person.
Roth: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I don't think that the song lost
anything by doing that at all, but I was curious why you chose to do that. Was it a way of
not getting characterized or not revealing too much?
Carroll: Yeah, I mean I wrote it for The Basketball Diaries, and it was for the kid
at that age. It's obviously about some kid. I mean, he's just living out in the streets
and stuff. I am not [laughs], at this point, living like that. And so I thought I'd just
make it a song in character about somebody. Which I suppose I probably should have done
about more personal songs anyway, because it's all people just focus on.... And then,
after that, we had the piece by Lenny [Kaye, Patti Smith Group]--"The Beast
Within." Then the guys from the band, especially Anton and the guitar player, Tristan
Avakian, started to come in with some songs for me to write lyrics to. On the first album,
I wrote all the music to like "Wicked Gravity" and "Catholic Boy" and
"People Who Died." On the other ones, I collaborated on the music with the guys
in the band. But on the other albums, I maybe have one or two songs that I wrote myself. I
can play the guitar well enough to write songs. I'm not a very good player, you know, but
for the type of straight guitar rock, it didn't really require more than like three chords
Roth: What's "Pools of Mercury" about?
Carroll: Well, it's basically like one of those "People Who Died" songs
that I always like to do where there's a different person in each verse. But it's all set
in this playground: The chick's in the sandbox and another chick's on the swing, and the
chick's on the bench. [He recites the lyrics] "Got no past, they can't arroll: Yeah,
I still feel those shards of that electric rock 'n' roll energy pulling on me, you know?
Roth: Yeah, I can feel it just listening to this thing. The new book, Void of
Course, is a collection. But you are working on a novel right?
Carroll: Well, the new book is poems, you know? But I have two novels that I've
started working on that I did the research for. They came to me at once about five years
ago. One's a straight linear-like story with a murder mystery built into it, which like
two movie guys have already offered me the film rights for. The other one is a more
fragmented book. And so that's the one I'm working on first, 'cause it's easier to write,
really, like I could write it in like different fragments really and put it all together
Roth: How have you been affected by the deaths of Allen Ginsberg and William
Carroll: Allen, especially, was a poet who reinvented poetry readings as like an
event. I mean, his readings were like rock concerts. He was the first rock 'n' roll poet.
I just feel it's a real end of an era, and I guess you know I feel very sad. I've known
Allen since I was 15 and I never thought he was going to die.
Roth: I remember in 1996 there was a Newsweek cover story about heroin chic where
the writer in the story's first paragraph blames his introduction to, and addiction with,
heroin on The Basketball Diaries. I know that really pissed you off.
Carroll: And then it had some Seattle rocker from some big band who wouldn't name
himself who had been off heroin for years talking about how everybody thinks they're going
to be Keith Richards or Kurt Cobain--they have to take heroin. But then the writer asks
him what made him first do heroin. He said, "I think I did it for the first time the
day after I finished The Basketball Diaries." He was blaming me for this whole thing.
Roth: For me, that book made me want to write, it didn't make me want to shoot up.
Carroll: I get more [letters from people], since The Basketball Diaries
movie--which you know was questionable; I liked the performances, I didn't like the
director or any of his direction of it. But I mean, it did uncover this whole new audience
of kids who did read the book afterward, and I mean 90 percent of the letters from them
are about how you got them or their sister or their brother off junk, you know? It lit
them up about what was happening, you know? So I don't understand that.
Roth: Which takes me to my last question, which is about the piece that ends Pools
of Mercury--"Eight Fragments for Kurt Cobain." Is the line "Cheez Whiz and
guns" a reference to the last page in The Basketball Diaries?
Carroll: Well, I mean the gun thing, it's obvious.
Roth: I'm talking about the Cheez Whiz.
Carroll: Yeah, well I just think of Cheez Whiz as a junkie food, you know?
Roth: Yeah. I mean that poem is amazing, and when you got to the part: "But
Kurt...didn't the thought that you would never write another song, another feverish line
or riff, make you think twice? That's what I don't understand. Because it's kept me alive,
above any wounds. If only you hadn't swallowed yourself into a coma in Rome...you could
have gone to Florence and looked into the eyes of Bellini or Rafael's portraits." Oh
man, my eyes started watering up. That poem was somewhat commissioned by MTV on the spot,
Carroll: They did that spoken word unplugged thing, I was scheduled to do it. I
sent them the other poem 'cause it had passed standards and practices that I was supposed
to read. But then Kurt died on Friday, and they were shooting the unplugged thing on
Monday. I wrote the poem in just a couple of days, you know? Then I said, "I've got
this new poem," and I read it at the run through and they timed it and stuff and they
said, "Oh, you've gotta read that." Of course they wanted that poem, you know?
And I don't know; it was a real heartfelt poem, so, and it's always been one of my most
popular poems since then. So I figured it kind of had to be on the album, you know? And
it's like, I think, the first poem in the [Void of Course].
Roth: So you're coming out here to do something in November at the Crocodile Cafe?
Is that just a reading or are you coming out here with a band?
Carroll: Yeah, yeah. No, I'm not coming out with [a band], I might do a couple
shows in New York with one. You think you guys might want to do a couple songs with me?
Roth: Absolutely, we could learn "Wicked Gravity," "People Who
Died" and a couple off the new record. Love to.
Carroll: Yeah? All right, well, we could do "Falling Down Laughing."
Roth: Yeah, exactly. Whatever you want.
Jim Carroll will perform an evening of spoken word and music at the Crocodile Cafe in
Seattle 11/17. For the music portion of the set, Robert Roth and a band will back Carroll.
© 1998 BAM Media
The original interview was found here.