Nevermind that his most famous literary body of work, The Basketball Diaries, was penned between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Jim Carroll, now 48, is at a prolific peak. His new book of poems, Void of Course, mixes his wry sense of humor with his dark acumen. He is working on two novels simultaneously, and one has movie production potential. And for the first time in fourteen years, Carroll has returned to the rock sphere, where he left his imprint in 1980 with the Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." His latest album, Pools of Mercury, is an amalgam of his crafts, part spoken word, part rock & roll.
The Basketball Diaries film may have brought snippets of Jim Carroll's heroin-addled youth to the masses, but the New York-based author has amassed more of a following over the years as a cult figure. He puttered on the periphery of the New York Beat poets (though Carroll considers himself more a protege than a member), and he dabbled in the New York punk scene, befriending the likes of Patti Smith. With the passing of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs last year, Carroll remains one of last survivors spanning both those realms.
The Rolling Stone Network spoke with Carroll by telephone from New York before he headed out on a spoken word tour. Though Carroll tends toward tangents and anecdotes that make any conversation twice as long as you expected, his insights and humor make you want him to keep going. Carroll talked candidly about his songwriting, his new books and Kurt Cobain.
What was your inspiration for getting back in the music?
Actually, when I started doing the record, it was mainly going to be a spoken word record with music. I had one song I had written a few years ago for the Basketball Diaries movie. I figured I'd just play it for [Anton Sanko], the producer. He had these terrific musicians and stuff, so we just re-recorded it and decided we'd use it. And then it was just this sudden rock & roll energy there. Once I let in one song it started to become more and more like a rock & roll record. You know, it was bad in a certain way. There were certain guys at record companies who had been asking me for years to do a rock & roll record. It's the last thing I really wanted to do. Now I've had to call them up and apologize for doing this because, I mean, it just kind of happened. Rock & roll, it's that electrical-like energy. Once you start doing it there are still these shards of it that pull you into it.
Are you more comfortable as a singer now than back then?
When I first started I just relied strictly on passion because I wasn't technically a good singer. I'm still not technically a very good singer, but I think I'm a better singer now than I was when I first started. I have kind of a different sound on every song, and some of it is through effects, but not really that much. The engineer asked me if I ever hurt myself when I sing because I just get so tight when I do it. It's harder for me to relax when I sing.
How is it different writing with music in front of you rather than a blank piece of paper?
There's a big difference between writing a song lyric when you have music in mind and writing a poem which has to stand up on the page as well, you know. A real good poem that's worth its salt has to work on the page and can't just work on a spoken word album. I suppose that's my objection to poetry slams and things like that. Most of the poems, on the page, don't work that well.
In the past year William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg passed away. How did that effect you?
It's still hard to think that Ginsberg isn't around. I keep thinking I'm going to go to some benefit reading and he's going to be there like he always was. That's difficult. People would rely on Allen to get other poets to do benefits for other things and there's no one really to fill that void. I was much more influenced when I was young by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery and the so-called New York school of poets. But as I got older I learned more and more from Ginsberg. He was like a mentor to me. Burroughs, on the other hand, I always thought, well, that he was kind of uneven in his works. But I thought Naked Lunch and Junkie, those books had huge effects on me when I was young.
New York has a presence in a lot of your poems. What's your view of Mayor Giuliani's cleaned-up version?
The New York that's in my poems is the New York that's in my head, and it doesn't have much to do with Giuliani. I walked past Times Square the other night and it was just like being in Vegas or something. But it wasn't the sleazy Vegas. I can remember when I was a kid going up to Times Square and it was this breathtaking sense of depravity, which I think every kid should go through and be exposed to. Now, it's more like Disneyland or something.
You wrote "8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain" right after he died. Did you feel a connection with his heroin experience?
I only met Kurt Cobain twice, and he was certainly not a people person. It would be very hard to get to know him. I don't know if you could compare his experience and mine. I mean, he was a big rock star when he was into that, really. I was still a kid on the streets. But I think that when I was doing rock & roll and that same thing happened, and it did happen, people offered me heroin all the time. They offered me glue to sniff. They thought that the Basketball Diaries, my life, just froze after the last page of it and I was still into all that stuff, you know. But if I had gotten into doing rock & roll and had that following and had all these people offering me stuff, it would be very difficult to have lived.