Jason Knowles interviewed Carroll on Tuesday, February 20, 1996, in Bowling Green State
University's Lenhart Ballroom for about half an hour before Carroll's spoken-word
performance there. Most of the 800 people who attended the show had already arrived and
filled the 400 chairs on the floor as well as the 250 seat balcony; more chairs were being
brought in while Carroll spoke with Jason. A crowd of fans stood around the table
throughout the interview.
A few of Carroll's remarks appeared on BG24's news program the following evening, but
aside from those clips, this interview makes its first and only appearance here on the Jim
Carroll web site. In transcribing the interview, I chose not to edit it at all. In fact,
because I want this interview to reflect the way Carroll actually talks, I made a point of
including all of his "you knows," "ums," and shifts in thought. The
tricky part was deciding how to punctuate Carroll's comments . . .
What would you consider your best work to be?
What I'm working on now. It's gotta be.
What's that? What are you working on now?
Well, I'm working on novels, two novels, actually, I mean I'm working on one specific
one, but two came to me at the same time, the ideas, so I went through the process of
having to write them all out in my notebooks, and now I'm in the process of like doing the
first draft of the one. I had to pick which one. One's a straight narrative, the other's a
more fragmented book. I chose the more fragmented book. I chose the more fragmented one
against my publisher's wishes--the other one's more of a . . . money book I guess
What are the names of the two books?
I just have working titles: The Petting Zoo and Stigma.
What do you do the most of: writing, or poetry, or music? What do you consider
I consider myself a poet. That's what I was, that's what I decided I was gonna be when
I was, you know, 15 years old, and I, you know, and I was. I mean, I got into rock 'n'
roll. It was kind of a strange thing. Punk rock made the possibilities possible for my
vocal limitations. Then again, I had a lot . . . from being a poet I understood phrasing
better than most singers, so um, in that sense . . . and I got better technically so that
I could sing. Actually, I can sing better now than I could when I was really doing albums.
I could do harmonies like with Lenny Kaye when we'd like work on songs with other people,
but um . . . But I like the period with music and stuff, and obviously people know me best
for my prose, from Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries. But, you know,
basically I've always thought of myself, and I established myself early as [a poet], you
know, before The Basketball Diaries. That's why I didn't publish them earlier. I
wanted to publish my first big book of poems, and so I waited until Living at the
Movies, and that came out when I was like 22. And then I waited another . . . I went
into a recluse period in California, and then I came back to New York with The
Basketball Diaries and the band. I was glad, I mean, it was much more suited for the
kind of punk ethos. The Ramones were writing songs about sniffing glue, and that's what I
was writing about in the book; it wasn't about a hippie thing.
What do you want the audience to get out of your work? Is there a general message
that you have?
Um . . . I want them to . . . you know . . . um . . . realize that their spirit's
connected with, um, every other spirit in the universe [laughs]. And that I want my images
to be evocative enough so that people can put them to their own . . . Either my lyrics or
poems. I mean, with prose it's a little different, it's more subjective, but I mean I want
to make images just obscure enough so that people can make them their own, relate them to
their own life and change them in a spiritual sense. I don't write many political poems
because I don't think . . . We're in such a screwed up world, in global terms.
Everything's so screwed up that some kind of spiritual renaissance has to happen. Politics
can't solve what it's fucked up for so long. [Corrects himself:] What it's messed up
for so long [laughs].
Speaking of images, do you think that your portrayal in Basketball Diaries
Well, I thought that Leonardo's portrayal was fantastic, you know. I thought the
director had no idea what the book was about, you know, um . . . but um . . . You know, he
was a techno-freak. Before we started shooting, the screenplay was good on paper. It had
all those voice-overs straight from the book. But, you know. I just um . . . I made a lot
of changes, I inserted a lot of things, and then he just um . . . And that was all fine in
pre-production, um, and they kept those changes, most of them. But then when I saw a
possibility to use Ernie Hudson's character--the Reggie character, who wasn't really in
the book, they added him . . . And since he was new, I figured we could use him as a
vehicle to help. Because he obviously knows--he's interested in his writing, you know, his
diaries--and we could have used him to educate Leonardo about writing, you know. Like when
Leonardo wises off to him about "get me a bag" after he's kicked, you know, he
should say . . . I said to the director, let Ernie come back saying, "Listen, man, if
you wanna speak with that wise-ass junkie voice all your life, then you'll be a junkie.
But if you wanna be a writer, like I think you do, then you've gotta learn your own voice.
'Cause a voice is what a writer--that is all a writer has, and finding your true voice is
the hardest thing you have to do, and that's a journey you gotta set out for. If you wanna
do that wise-ass, you know, quick-shot comeback, then um . . . you're just gonna be a
smart junkie." So . . . And Leo loved it, and Leo and I, when . . . Scott couldn't
hear us, he's so techno-freaked, you know, settin' up the shots. So . . . we walked off
the set. It didn't matter if I walked off the set, but when Leo walked off the set, it
meant something [laughs]. But he came back and, you know, they shot it. And then they
re-shot the ending. The original ending was much more ambiguous. 'Cause I don't think . .
. All of a sudden this kid is radiant in apotheosis. You know, I mean, if he was gonna
read at the end, they should have had some build-up. I mean, you see him writing and these
voice-overs and stuff from it . . . But I like the film a lot, I mean, you know, 'cause
the performances were so great, and Leonardo was like fantastic. Um . . . I thought Marky
was fantastic. I thought James Madio--Pedro--and Anton, um . . . I thought Lorraine Bracco
and I thought Bruno Kirby was great--what a hard part to play, man [laughs]! But, I mean,
I dunno. It's doing great in video, actually, so . . . But it just doesn't in the end
really have, you know . . . I just couldn't understand what the source of this guy's
passion--this director's passion--to do this was, because he was so passionate about
getting the project.
Can you tell me a little about your spoken-word readings about Kurt Cobain? And what
do you think about Kurt Cobain?
Well, I wrote that poem . . . um . . it was . . . I mean, I didn't write it for
the MTV Unplugged thing, but it um happened that . . . I gave them--for Standards
and Practices a week before the show--I gave them a different piece. It was a long piece,
you know, 'cause I was supposed to like be the main guy and have half the show. Instead, I
said, listen, I wrote-- See, you gotta understand, though, the show aired about four
months later; it was, you know, it was like shot on the Monday after Kurt killed himself
on like Friday, you know. And I found out about it from . . . I found out about it from a
rock 'n' roll friend who called me . . . uh . . . from a . . . uh [seems to be debating
about whether to reveal his source] . . . Eddie Vedder, it was, actually. He thought, I
was sure, I knew. 'Cause my ex-wife was Kurt's lawyer and the godmother of their kid, you
know, and is Courtney's lawyer too, and um . . . And I knew that he tried to commit
suicide in Par-- in Rome; I knew that wasn't some prescription drug thing. So um it didn't
surprise me, but it surprised me, you know, and um . . . the main thing was Eddie was
freaked out, so I was talking to him. They were touring, he's in Washington. I mean, it's
really nothing to do with that, but um . . . I started to scribble down these different
lines as we were talking, you know, kind of out of what we were saying. And then I looked
at them a couple of days later, on Sunday, and then I wrote down a bunch more, and then on
Monday morning I looked at them and it was pretty good. So I wrote out as much more as I
could, and then just put it together. It wasn't even typed until we got down to MTV and I
said in the run-through, I'd like to read this poem instead, you know. Which was-- all the
other poets on the show, it was fine with them 'cause that gave them, you know, like much
more time to read themselves, 'cause it was only about four-and-a-half minutes, and the
piece I was gonna read was like 15.
So you don't know what you read a lot of times, I heard, when you go up on stage?
Well, it's just like rock 'n' roll with the set list. You know, we had a set list of
course, especially if we were playing, like, the bigger the venue, you have to have the
set list. But it's like the quarterback calling the [????] when he gets to the line of
scrimmage and sees the defense, you know. You check out the audience, and you just get a
certain feel. I mean, with rock 'n' roll, you know that you might have just done a
mid-tempo song, but you can't do that ballad that's next on it; you need a rocker to get
the audience back up, you know. Like that. So I'd just change it, which, you know, meant
that I'd have to go around and-- 'Cause, you know, if one guy doesn't get it--it's usually
the drummer--then you're screwed, you know [laughs]. Um . . . you got the beat for a
ballad and power chords [laughs]. I mean, um, so you gotta go back and like scream
to each of them over the din, um, like, "We're gonna do 'Lorraine!'" "Okay,
Lorraine?" "Lorraine." "Lorraine?" "Yeah."
"Okay." [Laughs.] And um . . . No, um, I'd decide, but it'd depend on, you know,
whether they you know--sometimes the guitar roadies would have to go get different guitars
for different songs and stuff, you know, like, "Ya need another guitar?" But I
dunno, um, with poetry readings it's not as complicated as that; it's just that-- I mean,
I have a basic sense of what I'm gonna do, but from the audience, you know, I get a
feeling of where I should go as I'm going along. You know.
What do you think about this audience tonight?
I have no idea! [Laughs, looking around at the crowd.] I mean, the audiences I've been
doing lately at colleges have been enormous. You know, I mean, it's--I'm sure it's because
of the movie and stuff, you know. And the book went back on the New York Times Best
Seller list and stuff, which really amazed me and my publisher, you know. Um . . . but . .
. Seems like a nice audience. So . . . um . . . I'm not even sure what the first piece I
am gonna read tonight is. I think I have an idea. I think I want to read one fairly long
prose piece and then poems, you know, so I'll see.
I know you have to be going, but one more question. Tell me about, in Basketball
Diaries, about the drugs and heroin. Tell me about drugs and kicking drugs.
Well [laughs], kicking drugs is not anything you wanna do while you're on your
vacation. It basically sucks. You know, I mean . . . This is why Leonardo was so good. He
never had any experience like that, but you saw when he's kicking in Reggie or Ernie's
apartment, that gracefulness he had from walking down the street and playing
basketball--even though I was a much better ball player than that! [Laughs]--but
that gracefulness with which he carried himself, all of a sudden he took it away from
himself. 'Cause there's no position--you try every position to get comfortable and you
can't, you know. There's something--these cells are screaming inside of you for something,
you know, cells that you've created, you know, and only want one thing. And so um it's
really . . . So that was really his most amazing thing to me, that he got that. But um . .
. I dunno . . . um . . . I mean, there's not much to say about it, you know.
We know it's tough.
What's your favorite part about basketball?
My favorite part about basketball?
What's your love for basketball?
Well, I say this in um whatchamacallit, um . . . in Forced Entries there's a
line--um where, it's one excerpt where I'm talking about-- I'm watching the NBA All Star
game, and there's guys playing like Tiny Archibald and stuff that I used to play against,
you know, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who was Lew Alcinder then, you know, 'cause he was
older than me but we grew up in the same neighborhood, you know. And um I thought, ah, I
screwed up. I shoulda stayed into basketball; I coulda been playing now, you know. I mean,
it was a fantasy, and um . . . Because I was as good as Tiny in high school, but I just
wasn't progressing at the rate that he was progressing, you know. Um, and I had started a
lot earlier, too, so I thought, you know [laughs]. At any rate, I was talking about that,
but then I kinda got this epiphany about poetry which I write about there, about demons
coming in and stuff, and it woulda been easier to just deal with basketball. You gotta
read the piece. But the last line is, in basketball, the thing about basketball that's
great, is that you can . . . um . . . you can resolve all your mistakes immediately and
beautiful in midair.
© 1996 Jason Knowles / BG24 News
This interview is used by permission. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited without
permission from Jason Knowles and BG24 News.