Jim Carroll is rock's poet laureate.
Although the poet / rock singer's career has been spotty, the highlights are notable. They include his 1980 rock LP, "Catholic Boy," which propelled him from cult status to national attention (mostly due to the sobering, thought-provoking song "People Who Died"), and the 1995 film "The Basketball Diaries."
The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was based in part on Carroll's first book of poetry, also called "The Basketball Diaries," published when he was 16. It was inspired by Carroll's descent from relatively innocent Catholic schoolboy in love with basketball to a nightmarish world as a heroin-addicted New York street kid at age 19.
Carroll has since published five more books, all best sellers, and released several spoken-word and rock albums.
He has co-written songs with Blue Oyster Cult, 7 Year Bitch and Sonic Youth, and recorded with Pearl Jam, Lou Reed and John Cale. He most recently collaborated with Rancid on its "Junkie Man" album. A 20-song tribute album to Carroll, "Put Your Tongue to the Rail," is nearing completion.
Carroll's latest album is the just-released "Pools of Mercury," which will be the basis of his performance here at the Crocodile.
One cut on the disc is already well known. Carroll read "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" on MTV just days after Cobain's 1994 suicide, and The New York Times published it on its editorial page.
On the new disc, Carroll reads the poem accompanied by a guitarist and percussionist.
"I wrote a lot of it on the backs of envelopes next to the phone when I talked to the person who told me what happened," Carroll said in a long, rambling phone interview. "I just started to write down images and things. It was a powerful moment.
"The poem is really about trying to understand it. It was more of a heart than an intellect poem."
Carroll said he wasn't drawn to Cobain so much for his songs - "Most of his lyrics, I couldn't understand a lot of them" - or because of their mutual struggles with heroin.
"I just knew that he had a quality with the guitar," he explained. "Like Hendrix, the guitar seemed like a natural extension of him.
"He was really a big leap in rock. He was the most innovative of all those (grunge) people. I just really thought he was terrific. There was something happening with him that was just really strong."
Carroll emphasized that "8 Fragments" is a poem, even with musical accompaniment. Songwriting is different, he said.
"I have to admit, you do wind up diminishing yourself a little bit when you write lyrics," he said. "People into rock 'n' roll, they need some kind of myth or image, an overall thing, some tribal mythology aside from the individual images within the song. They need some kind of myth to latch onto.
"With me, it was the city. I was past drugs by then (when he recorded `Catholic Boy'), but I still was certainly referencing them in songs. I wanted it to be transcendent but also right there in the streets.
"You don't have to do that with poetry. I suppose it's a little more erudite in that sense."
Carroll agreed that poetry and spoken-word are on the rise, with poetry slams and hip-hop music, but expressed doubts about their quality.
"I guess hip-hop falls into the spoken-word genre," he said. "It's like jesters or troubadours, who made risque or funny rhymes on the moment, relating to some topic at court or something like that. But I'm not crazy about hip-hop."
He said poetry slams are "kind of silly" but "anything that brings people into poetry or spoken word, that's fine by me."
At the Crocodile, Carroll will do some songs with Robert Roth of the Seattle band Truly, including "Falling Down Laughing," which they originally wrote together for "The Basketball Diaries" soundtrack, but which ended up on "Pools of Mercury." Carroll said some other Seattle musicians will be joining him onstage, but he didn't name names.
He said he will perform "People Who Died," along with other "Catholic Boy" songs. After two shows in New York last weekend, the Seattle date will be just his third music performance since the mid-1980s.
Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company