Home > Research > Interviews > Interview: Jim Carroll (1999)

Interview: Jim Carroll

With a new rock album in stores, a new book of poetry on the shelves and two novels in the works, Jim Carroll, 49, is hitting middle age with a confident stride—not to mention a cult-like status.

After surviving a childhood of heroin addiction and failed athletic dreams, Carroll emerged as a young poetic prodigy, rubbing elbows with such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. His most famous work, "The Basketball Diaries," may have been penned between the ages of 12 and 16, but Carroll has published eight books of poetry and reams of short stories since then; his first collection of poems, "Living at the Movies," is still in print after 24 years. Carroll has also been enamored of rock, throwing himself into the Andy Warhol-Velvet Underground, art-music scene of the late '60s and early '70s. He eventually released three albums of his own in the early '80s as the Jim Carroll Band, meshing his poetic talent with his love of music. Now, after almost 15 years, Carroll has "let that rock energy back in" and is once again performing music. recently spoke with Carroll about his return to the rock arena, his poetry and a Hollywood lawsuit. So, who are you playing music with these days?
Jim Carroll: It's with a bunch of guys from different bands in Seattle.

CS: Like who? How did you meet?
JC: See, this record that I did last year called "Pools of Mercury" started off really as a spoken-word album with music, but I had such a good band in New York that...I had a couple of songs that I'd written with this guy in Seattle, Robert Roth; he was in a band called Truly. Robert and I wrote a couple of songs and I played them in the studio when we were doing the record and [the New York musicians] said we should record these things. And I'd been hesitant about doing any songs, but we decided to do it, you know, and it kind of changed the take on the album.

When I was going out to Seattle not long after that, I spoke to Robert and he said he could get together a band [for a concert]. And I thought just to do like a couple of songs, you know. But when I got out there, he had this band with the drummer from the Posies, I think the bass player was Hiro [Screaming Trees], and this other guy from the Fastbacks playing guitar. So they had basically been rehearsing that week, and all we had time to rehearse together was at the sound check. But they had learned a whole set of songs, like the whole "Catholic Boy" album and a few others, and plus the new song. I read and then the band came out and did a set. It was really terrific. We hadn't rehearsed or anything and it all came off without any mistakes. They sounded great. At any rate, Robert will be playing with us [in Portland]. But I don't know if it will be the exact same band as last time.

CS: What made you decide to get back into music?
JC: Well, I didn't really decide to do it. When we were in the studio doing ["Pools of Mercury"], it was just kind of a fluke. When I had the guys in the studio I just happened to be playing the songs that Robert and I had done, and they just said that we should do those over, just record them now. So we did, and once you let in that rock-and-roll energy, it's very hard to get away from it. In fact, it kind of got me into trouble with a lot of A&R guys at different record companies who had been asking me every other year or so [to make another rock record]. I explained to them that it was an accident.

CS: I read that you were working on a couple of novels.
JC: Yeah, that's what I'm doing now. They're both completely fiction, in the third person, and not autobiographical at all. It was kind of a blessing and curse...I had this idea for this one very straight narrative novel with a hook in it, you know, that came to me first, and I started to do all these notes on it and research it. Then two months after that, I came up with this other idea for a novel. It was much different, though, a more fragmented type of book from the writing standpoint, with a lot of flashbacks and stuff. It wasn't a straight narrative, sequential book; it was more arty in a way, I guess. I chose [to write] the more fragmented one, even though it was less commercial. My agent wanted me to do the other one, actually, but it was just easier to work on that book.

CS: What do you think about the recent lawsuit involving the families of the Kentucky shooting victims who are suing the filmmakers of "The Basketball Diaries"? They're claiming that the dream sequence in the movie is what inspired the young shooter.
JC: I don't think [the movie] had any causal threat to it. The kid in Kentucky, that just happened to be the first thing he said after three days of silence, "I saw Jim Carroll do it in the 'The Basketball Diaries.'" He was referring to the movie, because in the scenes in the book I say that I don't want to shoot anybody. I talk about using a machine gun, but when I was in high school, getting a machine gun in New York...I suppose it would be possible, but not like in the culture of guns like in Kentucky. It's that one scene. But the fact is, all that slow motion the lawyer talks about—he thought it glamorized it like a ballet or something—it was a fantasy sequence, and slow motion has always been a way filmmakers portray fantasy sequences. I don't see how...I mean the [Kentucky] kid had real problems, you know. He could have been set off by anything, like being turned down for a date, I don't know. I just think it's all a bunch of bullshit, really. I think the [lawyer] is kind of reaching, like a high-profile ambulance-chasing job. "The Basketball Diaries" has been banned from school libraries in a lot of places for years, and this [lawsuit] just made it more so.

CS: What did you think of the movie?
JC: I'm not crazy about that film, you know. It's OK as it was. I had sold the options for that film every year for like 13 years before it was made, and so I saw a lot scripts for it. Some were good, a lot of them were terrible. It's a very difficult thing to do. In the movie [the director] had to use a composite of different characters to give [DiCaprio] his little posse. In the book, I'm moving from one situation to another, I'm hanging around with my street friends and then with these private-school kids, you know. There aren't too many characters who are continuous throughout the book.

[The movie] actually gave me a whole audience of kids 12 to 17 years old. It was surprising to me because it put the book back on the Times best-seller list and my publisher and I didn't know who was buying all these books. I thought kids would watch the film and go see Leonardo and Mark [Wahlberg], and I never thought they'd go out and buy the book, but they did.

CS: What do you hope to convey to an audience through reading your poetry?
JC: It's nothing that I have specifically in mind. If I read pieces from "Forced Entries," the kind of funny parts to start off, then that's just pure entertainment. But there's some poetry that has some value. ["Forced Entries"] was written during a part of my life when I was changing a lot of learned trivia into wisdom by being in the country for the first time in my life. But with poems, I like to make the images abstract enough that people can just make them their own, you know. I mean five different people could get five different takes on what the meaning is, and they'll all be correct because it's how they perceive it through the heart, not just the intellect. I don't want to pound out some message to anybody, or anything like that.

CS: So do you consider yourself a surrealist?
JC: I love surrealism, but it's a very tricky thing. To label a poem surreal, in the sense of the surrealists, that's where everything is surreal. A surreal poem could start off very heightened and magical, but unless you're the best the of surrealists like Max Jacob and people like that, you can't sustain that heightened sense of surrealism. So it can become very tiresome and mediocre; it can be a message of bad poetry pretty often. I like to have the images grounded so you can approach it, like I say, at a heart level as well as an intellectual level. I mean, a stream-of-consciousness surreal poem stringing surreal images together is really just coming from the intellect, it doesn't really affect that heart quality. There has to be more vulnerability and joy or pathos or chaos conveyed within those images; those basic human qualities that I want to be evoked by people.

The original interview was found here.


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