Jim Carroll Can’t Escape Rock & Roll
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
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
Are you more comfortable as a singer now than back
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
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
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.