Unspoken GeniusPoets, Punks, and Scenes
An Interview with Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll is a bona fide
cultural icon. Born in New York City, he spent his teenage years shooting hoops and heroin
in a time documented by his best selling book The Basketball Diaries. Years
later, he sold millions of records as the lead singer/songwriter for The Jim Carroll Band.
Since then, hes been relentless in publishing books and poems. Wednesday, he speaks
at the UC Commons at 8:30 p.m. (The show was rescheduled from Monday, Nov, 8.)
I got an opportunity to
talk to Jim Carroll via telephone from his apartment in New York City. Carrolls
manager told me it would be a 10-minute interview, but we ended up talking for more than
an hour. Here are some snippets from our conversation.
Mr. Carroll, what got
you into writing?
What got me writing was a
lot of things that were both noble and ignoble. I suppose there was something romantic
about writing. I knew I had talent. But I wasnt into poetry when I first started
writing The Basketball Diaries because, coming from my neighborhood, poetry
was just considered sissy. But when I got a scholarship to this private school, I saw that
there were certain contemporary poets who had the same power as rock n roll.
And I didnt know about limitations then; I thought anyone could do this. So I just
went ahead and did it, and fortunately I got adopted as sort of the token prodigy at the
poetry project downtown when I was very young. But I wouldve written anyway.
And then, theres all
the less noble reasons, like the chicks that I was interested in werent that
impressed by the whole jock scene, you know. So it was a way to get girls. Thats
half kidding around, but there is a kernel of truth in it.
But in a serious sense,
when I did start writing, it was like an outlet for being outside of things. It filtered
my life, and it gave it more clarity. I dont know what I wouldve done without
that. Because I had a lot of problems in those times too, and I think if it wasnt
for writing I probably wouldve wound up dead or totally lost like a lot of friends
of mine were.
In the book The
Basketball Diaries, you write about having a fantasy about taking a machine gun to
your classroom, and theres a vivid scene of that in the movie. Some people thought
this couldve inspired the shooting in Columbine: What do you think?
What I cant
understand is, if you were an outsider when I was in school you got involved in doing
something creative, you know. You got in a band or you started to write or you got
involved with the peace movement or something. I suppose its the Internet or
something, but those guys latched on to being little fascist Nazis.
Those guys just wanted to
kill themselves. They werent making any statement; they werent doing anything.
They just wanted to die because they couldnt hack it, and they did a really
chicken-shit thing. And Im sure none of those people they got were people who
actually antagonized them.
I thought that scene in
The Basketball Diaries (the movie) was kind of corny when I saw it, having
Leonardo Di Capprio with that trench coat and that Terminator look. But, I mean, I
didnt like the movie that much. I thought the performances were good; I didnt
think it had that much to do with the book.
I dont see any
correlation between art and causing someone to go off like that. I dont know how the
press latched on to ... well, they did find copies of The Basketball Diaries
at those kids houses, but they never said anything about The Basketball
Diaries. And they never said anything about Marilyn Manson, yet the press brought it
up. They kept showing that scene from the movie, and they kept bringing up Marilyn Manson
because Leonardo is the most popular guy around and Mansons the most popular guy
around. The press doesnt want to talk about some obscure German band.
Alright, now Im a
pretty huge Rolling Stones fan, and theres a great photo of you jamming onstage with
Keith Richards on your song People Who Died in a New York club in 1980. Tell
me about how that came about.
(Laughs) Originally when I
signed, it was with the Stones label, and the idea was for Keith to produce that
first album Catholic Boy. It was totally, like, strangeness to me cause
I had just come back to New York to make the paperback deal for The Basketball
Diaries, and Id been in this long recluse period in California where the
highlight of my day was walking my dog down to the post office.
Then when my band came to
New York to play, the first two shows Keith played with us, it was great. We went over the
song with Keith, and he basically knew it. But he was really stoned out of his mind before
the show, and I thought it sounded terrible from the stage. Keith was turned up loud, so
he was totally dominating the rhythms with the leads he was playing. But when I listened
to the tape of it, it sounded fantastic. The second time he played, actually, Mick was
singing too, and that was more of a happening, but it was more subdued. Keith had the song
down, and it didnt have as much edge as the first time.
But, I mean, it was great.
Keith is a really great guy. I see him once in a while. I see Ronnie Wood he lives
in New York and Keith I see, and I see Jagger once in a while. I thought Jagger
would be like snotty rock n roll jaded guy, but he was always really sweet to
me. And Keith is Keith. What you see is what you get.
Now I was reading in an
interview that you were talking about writing a book about a painter who thinks his work
is empty, so he goes out looking for truth, and he doesnt want to paint again until
he gets some answers. I was wondering if that was inspired by issues you dealt with in
your own art.
Well, Ive always
tried to have some kind of spiritual quality in my work. Creating images that are
evocative enough for different people to interpret in different ways means that
theyre going to apply them to their own life, and if they do that, then youre
connecting with them in a spiritual way. I suppose if I didnt think that it had some
spiritual aspect to it or if it wasnt truthful if it was just a facade of
style or something at this point I just wouldnt bother doing it. Id
just pack it in; it really wouldnt be worth it for me.
Patti Smith said that
you taught her how to write poetry. How did that happen, and, on flip side, how did you
learn to write rock n roll?
When I first knew Patti,
she was just coming from art school and doing a lot of drawing, and she wasnt into
writing that much, but she was a huge rock n roll fan. And, you know, we were
having this thing together. I guess it was just from being around each other a lot and the
fact that she was making this transition from drawing and plastic arts to being around
words that she started to write more. On the other hand, it was Patti who was a big
influence on getting me into doing rock n roll. Even back in those days she
said we should both get into rock n roll and start a band. Even though neither
of us could play an instrument, that didnt seem like any impediment to Patti. And
who knows what wouldve happened, but I went out to California.
It just so happened that I
was spending time with Patti when her album Easter came out and she was
touring. I went to San Diego with her after she played in San Francisco, and I wound up
being in some punky movie with her. Then in San Diego, her opening act got in a fight with
her roadies and got booted off the tour. Patti said, Jim could open the show; we
could do what we did in this movie, and I said, I cant do that; I read
that piece and I dont have it with me. But I was writing songs at the time for
the Blue Oyster Cult, and I said, I have these songs from the Cult that I have
memorized, and I could maybe do a couple of those. And it was the first time I was
in front of this rock n roll audience. I didnt know whether I should
thank Patti or kill her for it.
People talk about you as
being one of the last ties to both the beat movement of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs,
and also of the Andy Warhols Maxs Kansas City, Factory and Velvet Underground
scene. Where is the counterculture these days?
The counterculture is all
over. I was in Seattle about two weeks ago, and theres still a lot of terrific bands
there. And it doesnt have all that in fighting of, like, bands hating each other.
Bands work with each other. I mean, even bigger bands. I saw Peter Buck from R.E.M., and
those guys are the sweetest guys. They dont have any attitude at all; theres
plenty of guys in rock n roll with an attitude, thats for sure. ... I
dont really make the scene in New York that much anymore. I think that theres,
like, a big underground scene in cinema now; I think theres a good underground scene
with that. But theres always an underground scene; I mean, the whole Velvet
Its funny cause
I just saw Lou the other night at some photographers opening at a gallery. The
photographer was the same guy who made that documentary that was on PBS.
Lou Reeds Rock n Roll Heart?
Yeah, he was having a show
of his still photographs, and I saw Lou there. I love the Velvet Underground; they were a
huge influence on me and my writing and when I started to do music.
And the whole Andy scene
really wasnt an underground scene. Andy was really above ground; Andy always mixed
his art with money. Hed have these crude money men to go out and get the Shah of
Irans wife to come pose for a fee. It was really quite perverse.
But the CBGB scene came out
of that. The most underground scene was the poetry scene when I was young, which was
really a couple of generations past the beat scene. When I was young, I never really felt
that connection with the beats. I always liked Allen Ginsbergs, poems and I liked
William Burroughs ...
And Kerouac liked you.
I only met him like two
times, and he liked The Basketball Diaries because it was real simple; it was
just straight storytelling. But he was a bitter alcoholic the times I met him, and I
didnt really get to know him.
I knew Allen from when I
was really young; I learned a lot from him, and we were good friends through his whole
life. I still cant believe hes gone; it still feels like hes still alive
I was more influenced by
the New York poets, like Frank OHara and John Ashbury.
But I think that
theres underground scenes emerging all the time in every form of art. I think that,
ever since the punk rock movement and the grunge movement, you dont know where the
next city is going to be where some terrific bunch of bands can emerge. The whole thing is
the one thing in common with the grunge scene in Seattle and the whole New York
punk scene at CBGB all the bands supported each other, like the Talking Heads and
the Ramones, and Pattis band and Television. And thats what it was like in
Seattle, too, and it still is. The bands really support each other. They dont put
down each other and try to step on each other. And, I mean, when that petty shit gets into
it, that makes a scene real toxic. Wherever the next scene pops up, it will have to have
that type of atmosphere where the bands really have a community, rather than a sense of
trying to burn each other all the time.
And I dont know where
it will come from. Could be Montana; who knows. (Laughs)
youre seriously one of my heroes; how can I learn to write poems and songs like you?
I dont know; just be
honest with yourself, you know (laughs), and read a lot. Dont be afraid to steal
stuff, but be good at it.
© 1999 Kaimin Online
The original article was found here: http://www.kaimin.org/nov99/11_5/eyecarroll.html