Home > Research > Interviews > Poets, Punks, and Scenes (1999)

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, he’s 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. Carroll’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 would’ve written anyway.

And then, there’s all the less noble reasons, like the chicks that I was interested in weren’t that impressed by the whole jock scene, you know. So it was a way to get girls. That’s 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 don’t know what I would’ve done without that. Because I had a lot of problems in those times too, and I think if it wasn’t for writing I probably would’ve 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 there’s a vivid scene of that in the movie. Some people thought this could’ve inspired the shooting in Columbine: What do you think?

What I can’t 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 it’s the Internet or something, but those guys latched on to being little fascist Nazis.

Those guys just wanted to kill themselves. They weren’t making any statement; they weren’t doing anything. They just wanted to die because they couldn’t hack it, and they did a really chicken-shit thing. And I’m 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 didn’t like the movie that much. I thought the performances were good; I didn’t think it had that much to do with the book.

I don’t see any correlation between art and causing someone to go off like that. I don’t 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 Manson’s the most popular guy around. The press doesn’t want to talk about some obscure German band.

Alright, now I’m a pretty huge Rolling Stones fan, and there’s 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t 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, I’ve 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 they’re going to apply them to their own life, and if they do that, then you’re connecting with them in a spiritual way. I suppose if I didn’t think that it had some spiritual aspect to it or if it wasn’t truthful — if it was just a facade of style or something — at this point I just wouldn’t bother doing it. I’d just pack it in; it really wouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t seem like any impediment to Patti. And who knows what would’ve 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 can’t do that; I read that piece and I don’t 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 didn’t 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 Warhol’s Max’s 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 there’s still a lot of terrific bands there. And it doesn’t 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 don’t have any attitude at all; there’s plenty of guys in rock ‘n’ roll with an attitude, that’s for sure. ... I don’t really make the scene in New York that much anymore. I think that there’s, like, a big underground scene in cinema now; I think there’s a good underground scene with that. But there’s always an underground scene; I mean, the whole Velvet Underground scene.

It’s funny ‘cause I just saw Lou the other night at some photographer’s opening at a gallery. The photographer was the same guy who made that documentary that was on PBS.
“Lou Reed’s 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 wasn’t an underground scene. Andy was really above ground; Andy always mixed his art with money. He’d have these crude money men to go out and get the Shah of Iran’s 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 Ginsberg’s, 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 didn’t 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 can’t believe he’s gone; it still feels like he’s still alive to me.

I was more influenced by the New York poets, like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury.

But I think that there’s 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 don’t 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 Patti’s band and Television. And that’s what it was like in Seattle, too, and it still is. The bands really support each other. They don’t 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 don’t know where it will come from. Could be Montana; who knows. (Laughs)

Jim Carroll, you’re seriously one of my heroes; how can I learn to write poems and songs like you?

I don’t know; just be honest with yourself, you know (laughs), and read a lot. Don’t be afraid to steal stuff, but be good at it.

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