Home > Research > Interviews > Catching Up with Jim Carroll (1999)

Catching Up with Jim Carroll

"I live outside my body, in my head so much, it's a strange dichotomy," Jim told me recently during an hour-and-a-half phone conversation in which we spoke of everything from ancient Islamic assassins to computerized recording techniques. Each question was like the cover of a thousand-page book and I didn't want to miss a word. He speaks in rapid three to five word bursts, at once both hesitant and urgent. The conversation was almost a performance in itself.

Initially, it was the secret to his slimness that I thought would be a nice ice-breaker and I was amazed to hear that he was actually fifteen pounds thinner not too long ago. Is a vegetarian diet perhaps a part of his routine? "No, I eat meat, but practically every girl I go out with is [a vegetarian] so I might as well be." Jim is divorced from his wife, Rosemary, who was also his lawyer "which really complicated things." The two met in Bolinas, California, during one of Jim's self-imposed exiles from the endless temptations of New York City life in the 1970s. Rosemary eventually introduced him to the San Francisco art/punk/poetry community and it wasn't long before Jim was back onstage again, only with a rock'n'roll band instead of a book of poems.

Sound Clip...
Falling Down Laughing
from Pools of Mercury (Mercury Records)

Four albums and twenty years later, he's at it again. Jim Carroll has a new band, all pudgy faced babies in comparison to their leader, who at 48 is as youthful as a former high school athlete turned poet/junkie/rock star can be and is on tour to support Carroll's new CD Pools of Mercury and book Void of Course. On a November night, as chilled as the morgue at Bellevue, they hustled two sets of quintessentially hip spoken word and rock'n'roll that transcended both genres and redeemed Carroll again, this time at the Bottom Line, where fellow literary whiz kid, Bob Dylan used to jangle a participle or two. Not bad for Mr. Carroll, everyone's favorite "Catholic Boy," who is lucky not to be among the "People Who Died," to quote his 1981 debut album and the band's encore song (performed with guest guitarist and past/present collaborator Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group).

"People always had the wrong take on that song. They thought it was some glorification or something, but it was just a eulogy for these guys who had lost their potential before their time. Had it just taken away from them. There were a couple of suicides in there, but mainly it was people who died accidental. It definitely wasn't romanticizing death. It was a way of celebrating these people, you know?"

I asked Jim how close he's come to "the edge" and losing his own potential thusly.

"The times I've come to the edge really were just by accident. I felt closest to "the edge" when I was getting held up one time. It was just one guy with a gun, but he was a real rabbit. He was nervous as hell, so I thought he was gonna shoot me just by the way he was shaking with the gun. I never had a serious OD or anything. I did go out on heroin, if it was really good, but I never had to be taken to the hospital, like friends of ours."

And of his reputation for penning such classically decadent lyrics as "Nothing's true and everything's permitted."

"I'm much too Catholic to really believe that. That's why in the song, I put it on this chick who I thought was whacked. I certainly slipped into it at times, more then than now. When I was even younger, I slipped into it more, but I don't think it's something I want to follow."

Never having seen Jim Carroll in person, but longtime admirers of his stiletto sharp writing and amphetamine schemed rock'n'roll, the always effervescent Jet Set Jenna and I were eager to connect with the man who to quote Patti Smith is "the guy who taught me how to write poetry." Having now witnessed Mr. Jim in his pale, sweating flesh I have to officially add my voice to the chorus of Avenue A apostles who sing his praises. Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Lou Reed are a few of the infamously influential names that come to mind while watching Carroll read, sing and ad-lib with the casual eloquence of Oscar Wilde on crystal meth. Personal favorites like "Wicked Gravity" and "It's Too Late" came alive with the same serrated energy they had when first played 17 years ago. Amazingly, Carroll can even turn blowing his nose into a defining part of the act. "That was anti-histamine, not fifty dollars," he said when a few in the audience wondered aloud what was really in the Kleenex. I asked him about that later and he explained how adult allergies were responsible for his dripping nasal passages, rather than anything more exotic or expensive.

The Bottom Line's "No Smoking" policy must have made for a jittery night for a few of the rehabbed and domesticated cats in the crowd. After all, having given up the booze, pills, coke, junk, speed, etc. a person should be allowed to do SOMETHING! Still, the expectant attendees got off fine and frequently as Mr. Jim's streetwalking words mixed seamlessly with the band's swath of percussion, synthesizer and guitar effects. New tracks "Train Surfin" and "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" somehow hypnotized and exhilarated simultaneously. These ethereal arrangements, worked out between Jim, Anton Sanko (who produced the new record and plays keyboards in the band) and precocious punk guitarist Tristan, were trippy, haunting and reminiscent of the Rhythm Devil's from the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now.

What was it like recording a full length album after more than a decade's absence?

"It was really a lot of fun. It was originally going to be a spoken word album with music. I had been doing a lot of readings and I knew which poems worked well being read to an audience. And with all this digital technology, you can just move words around as much as you want. If you want to pause, you can put a pause, you can stretch a syllable out. It's amazing. And this was good, because the producer, Anton Sanko, who Lenny Kaye recommended and who I worked with on a Kerrouac benefit record, had a different take on spoken word. Usually, you just read the piece and guys jam behind it. But Anton's thing was not on the melody, it was all about rhythm. His thing was finding the rhythm in what I was reading. Even if the piece didn't have drums, he would base things on the syllables meeting the downbeat, rather than guys jamming a melody. So it was a lot different and I really liked it."

Elaborating further on the new album's genesis Jim said, "There was no way we were just going to have one song on it. It's that electricity of rock'n'roll that I thought it was kind of over. But once it was introduced and you have a really good band there... We had about three other songs that we could have had on it, but we still wanted to have some spoken word on it. But it could have gone on to become a completely rock'n'roll album, which probably would've been OK with me. But certain A & R guys at different record companies, three I can think of, have gone out for lunch with me and asked me if I wanted to make a record, you know like a rock'n'roll record and I said no. These guys were there every year. So I felt kinda really bad that this thing had songs on it, you know? I saw one of these guys about two weeks ago and he said 'I heard your new record man, what the fuck is up? I thought it was a spoken word record, you got all these songs on it!' And I felt really guilty, you know? But it was just an organic process. It just happened. I was trying to explain it to him and he was really quite pissed!"

Back at the Bottom line, a show can easily get lost in an overdose of echo and reverb, but blessedly, the number and duration of altered audio states were kept to a knowingly efficient minimum. Before anyone could pass out from the sheer subtlety of it all, the set list hit back hard with a no frills refill of overdrive and Rolling Stones approved groove. In fact, Stones guitarist Keith Richards has recorded and jammed with Carroll in the past. Jim recalls those days as "some of the great moments of my life." Even though no Stones were to be seen rolling on stage this particular evening, with Lenny Kaye on hand, there was no shortage of rock'n'roll authenticity and the show surged like a speedball through the back alleys and rooftops of Carroll's lurid, lyrical landscapes.

Carroll's literary leanings began long ago and were brought to the big screen in 1995 with the movie Basketball Diaries. I couldn't help but ask Jim of his thoughts on the film and it's 'titanic' lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Well, I thought the performances were real good. I was a little freaked out when they told me Leonardo was gonna be in it. But when he auditioned, I completely changed my mind. I thought, 'Oh, this guy's perfect!' He was more like guys I work with than anyone else in the movie. It was Marky Mark actually who created Leo Frankenstein and introduced him to the whole New York nightlife and Leo just freaked out! He thinks you can stand on any streetcorner in New York and have more fun than going to every club in L.A. I went to a club with him and I couldn't keep up with him.

"As far as the movie goes, I think Marky was great and I think Leo was really terrific in it. I liked the screenplay on paper actually. I've seen about twelve different screenplays for that book 'cause I've optioned it so many times. Some of them were really good. Some sucked. But they always had a problem with the ending. Because in Hollywood, they always gotta tie it up at the end, make the guy either dead or he's gotta get clean. If they just ended with him staring out the window I think it would've worked. It would've been very literary. The way they re-shot it was kinda corny, so clean and everything. But, the screenplay was good. The guy who wrote it picked out some of the best stuff from the book. But the director was just a techno freak. He didn't have any literary sense at all."

To attempt a summation of these recollections, opinions and screams of consciousness is an Everest sized task, but here goes – Jim Carroll's gig, whether watching him perform, or just chatting on the phone, is a chance to live vicariously via intellectual injection, a life spent out where the ice is thinnest and frozen "pools of mercury" can give way to a "locked wing" or a glimpse of heaven. It's a fast break through a ghostly place where angels sing and resurrection is as close as a mirror's reflection. And even though you're really only on the edge of your seat, by a stage, in a club on a Thursday night, it's still an exciting, inspiring, place to be, as my time spent with the Basketball Diarist proves. I do wish he'd get some sleep though, I get tired just hanging out with him!

January 1999


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