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Home > Research > Interviews > Fast Stories From Jim Carroll (1998)

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 it was.


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 "Train Surfing."

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 guys.


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 and shit.


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 later on.


Roth: How have you been affected by the deaths of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs?

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, wasn't it?

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.


The original interview was found here.

   

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