Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143
SOURCE: A review of Living at the Movies, in Library Journal, Vol. 11, No. 19, November 1, 1973, p. 3270.
[In the following brief review, Cooney faults Carroll's poetry in Living at the Movies.]
These imitative poems range in models from the portentous pseudo-reference of John Ashbery to the flat trivialities of Ted Berrigan—the whole gamut from A to B, in fact. Not one moves or delights, and as for teaching—well, the outlook on life conveyed is the shallowest hedonism based on dope or sex. A piece entitled “A Fragment” has more point than many in the book and shows fairly the pretensions to seriousness, the inertness of rhythm and language, and the utter banality of effect: “When I see a rabbit / crushed by a moving van / I have dreams of maniac computers / miscalculating serious items / pertinent to our lives.” Don’t miscalculate: avoid this book.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673
SOURCE: A review of Living at the Movies, in Poetry, Vol. 125, No. 3, November, 1974, pp. 162-65.
[In the following review, Malanga favorably assesses Carroll's Living at the Movies, commenting on the original technique and confident voice employed in the collection. Malanga also compares Carroll to well-known poet Frank O'Hara.]
The great thing about the work of a genuine poet is the atmosphere which it creates in the mind of the reader. This is as difficult to define as it is impossible to miss. It has a great deal to do with technique and with style, but only in so far as they are an integral part of the feeling and thinking that go to make up a poet’s work. But it is as equally difficult to fail to realize it, when a writer turns out to be a genuine poet. Jim Carroll at twenty-five is a genuine poet just as surely as Rod McKuen and Rod Taylor are not. In reading Jim Carroll’s first full-length book of poems Living at the Movies it is quite evident to me that he fully understands the nature of poetry because he perceives and follows the nature of his own life, and with that recognition of his nature, he is able to write about it.
Mr. Carroll’s poems are populated with people he has loved and crowded with those who love him. His poems are irrigated by friends, by his own kind and consanguinity. He is original without being unique. His technique, however, is in advance of his maturity. At times he is capable of spoiling a good poem by a precious or very sentimental line or phrase, like “and our life is that rusted bottle … pointing north”, in “The Distances,” but never of trying to make one out of any emotion that is not an integral part of his own deep feeling.
The poems seem roughly to group themselves into “general” poems, usually longer, where a subject is viewed from many different angles and states of consciousness, and the “specific,” where something is seen whole in a flash as in “A Fragment”:
When I see a rabbit crushed by a moving van I have dreams of maniac computers pertinent to our lives.
In them the vision is so strong that there is no craftiness and the medium of poetry gives way to an idea that can’t wait for doctoring-up to be born a flawless declarative sentence. That fast kind of poetry is always the best kind of writing. I think it’s spiritual without being churchy as some of the longer poems seem.
Literature is not a competition. Yet Jim Carroll will invariably be compared by some critics both with some of his contemporaries and with their predecessor Frank O’Hara. Carroll’s poems are not so perfect as O’Hara’s nor is his vision so intense. While there’s nothing extremely deep in the experimental and phenomenological sense, his range is wider than O’Hara’s; his feelings not deeper, but made general, as in “Silver Mirrors”:
A horse moves this weekend into our living room
he says, “Oh, quickly form a ring around me as to prevent the merciless insane hounds from attacking my weakened legs in attempt to drag me back to the icy palace in the wintry regions.”
“Then you are the one they sent?”
“Very clever, did you bring it?”
There is not one awkward word or tacky locution disturbing the exquisite poise and flow. I’m reluctant to quote specific lines because when the poems are best they make such complete sense that to quote excerpts merely cheapens the effect.
On the whole Jim Carroll has the sure confidence of a true artist, meaning he is confident about the right things. He is steeped in his craft. He has worked as only a man of inspiration is capable of working, and his presence has added great dignity to the generation of poets of the 'seventies to which he belongs. His beginning is a triumph.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159
SOURCE: A review of The Basketball Diaries, in American Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, February, 1980, p. 9.
[In the following review, James lauds The Basketball Diaries.]
The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll is a literary miracle; a description of the formation of an artistic sensibility written by the artist, not in retrospect, but in the process. It is a portrait of the artist not just as a young man but as a child, written by the child, and thus free of the mature artist’s complicated romantic love of himself in pain. It also works engrossingly well as a narrative, The Catcher in the Rye for real, for bigger stakes.
The Basketball Diaries is an anecdotal journal kept by Carroll from the age of twelve to fifteen, more or less from the first time he shot heroin until he showed up at Ted Berrigan’s poetry workshop, a basketball in one hand and his poetry in the other, when he became something of an overnight sensation. Entries from the Diaries have been leaked one and two at a time to various poetry magazines over the years, surrounding the work with the atmosphere of legend. Once every couple of years there would be a new rumor that it was being published in toto; now, at least, here it is.
It makes a difference, seeing it all together. Reading it in drips and drabs over the years, a rather precious impression was created by Carroll’s sharp ear for hip street lingo and the Mark Twainish droll exaggerations. It seemed to be the charming but trivial work of a precociously gifted young writer. The catch was that anyone who had read Jimmy Carroll’s poetry (such as the extraordinary collection Living at the Movies) knew it was charming but trivial like Moby Dick is charming but trivial. Seeing it all together bears out one's ongoing suspicion that there's more here than the swaggering bravado of a smart kid grown up all wrong.
The tone of the Diaries is an uncanny blend of almost unnerving self-possession and a gentle, fully developed sense of irony. The first entry, by the young basketball player just turned thirteen, is representative:
Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event. … My coach Lefty is a great guy; he picks us up for games in his station wagon and always buys us tons of food. I’m too young to understand about homosexuals but I think Left is one. …
In the less than three years covered by the Diaries, Carroll progresses from the Biddy League to a start in the “very spectacular National High School All Star Basketball Game,” from sniffing Carbona cleaning fluid on the Staten Island ferry to heroin addiction, from taking his girlfriend Joan to church league basketball games to S&M scenes with a middle-aged woman and hustling fags in the bathroom of a porno movie theatre, from spitting on the first graders at school to armed robbery in Fort Tryon Park to support his habit.
The Basketball Diaries is a blow-by-blow account of a season in Hell. By the age of fifteen, he had experienced more in the way of existential vicissitudes and worldly observation than several ordinary middle class lives combined. Despite the adolescent egoism and occasional tendency towards smart-aleckiness, the theme that reverberates through the whole, like the recurring melody of a jazz improv, is the struggle of a boy to hold on to his sense of himself. The Basketball Diaries is concerned with the ethics, rather than the politics, of survival.
In one telling episode, the junk-sick narrator goes in desperation to his middle-aged lover for money to procure the only medicine that will avail. She gives him the money; a friend who has come along goes out to score the heroin, leaving Carroll to sweat and shake it out till he gets back. His insatiable lover attacks him as soon as the friend leaves. He is revolted and tries to leave, although he can hardly move from the cramps. “‘What about my sixty dollars, you prick!’ she screamed. ‘What about my innocence,’ I said, going down.”
Rimbaud is the name that pops up when people (Ted Berrigan and Patti Smith, for instance) talk about Jim Carroll, and The Basketball Diaries in particular. It is a useful invocation, for a change. One especially thinks of Rimbaud's remark that “The soul has to be made monstrous.” If one word describes what happens in the Diaries, it is monstrous. The difference is that Rimbaud is talking about a self-conscious, systematic cultivation of the monstrous with the end of becoming a visionary, “the supreme Savant.” There is nothing so calculated about Jim Carroll’s excursion into the inferno; if there is an organizing principle here, it is not, refreshingly, the design of an artist preparing himself for writing poetry. He is only obliquely aware that he is a writer, which is exactly the genius of it. The Basketball Diaries functions with the kind of unimpeded sensitivity of observation that sometimes occurs when the writer is in direct, intimate touch with himself when his writing approaches artlessness.
Make no mistake: The Basketball Diaries is no great work of literature. It is not literature, in the usual sense, at all. It is a great work of storytelling, in the most elemental sense—storytelling, as in Homer, the kind of storytelling that happens when two good friends on a cross-country drive find themselves on the interstate in the middle of the night, two hundred miles from nowhere. It suffers from all the faults of the genre, too: some of the stories sound made up, others are stock footage from anyone's adolescence. In a prefatory note, Carroll says that people frequently ask him, with understandable skepticism, whether it all really happened. His response is a quotation from Hassan Sabah, the founder of the cult of the Assassins: “Nothing is true; Everything is permitted.” To put it another way, the question is no more pertinent here than with Homer. Even the parts that are made up are true.
Like any narrative of the truth, The Basketball Diaries is a harmonious blend of funny passages and depressing passages. When it is funny it is hilarious, reminiscent of Lenny Bruce at his best. When it hits a blue note, it is harrowing, as in the final entry:
In ten minutes it will make four days I’ve been nodding on this ratty mattress … both my forearms sore with all the little specks of caked blood covering them … two sets of gimmicks in the slightly bloody water … all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags … I get up and lean on a busted chair … I can see the Cloisters with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window … four days of temporary death … I just want to be pure.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3753
SOURCE: “A Star Is Borning,” in New York, Vol. 14, No. 4, January 26, 1981, pp. 32-5.
[In the following essay, Flippo addresses Carroll's move from poetry writer to rock musician and interviews the poet/songwriter about his life, his former drug addiction, and his literary influences.]
Lola from Budapest is a bit of a psychic, among other things, and one afternoon not long ago, when she settled into her customary front-row seat in NBC’s Studio 3A in Rockefeller Center for the taping of the Tomorrow show, she just naturally started divining things and reading life lines and such. Lola from Budapest—that’s the way she’s billed on her business cards and fliers—offered to hypnotize Tom Snyder when he strolled out to warm up his audience, and he good-naturedly declined. Lola from Budapest adjusted all her parcels and bags and turned to me to check out the old life lines and to ask who would be on the show. Lilli Palmer she knew. Maureen Reagan she knew. Jim Carroll she didn’t know.
“Well,” I said, “he’s sort of a singing poet, a street kid alive with the rhythms of the city. He was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a poetry book and …”
(Oddly enough, a phone call a few days later to the Pulitzer Prize committee revealed the fact that Carroll as well as his fans only thought that he had been nominated for a Pulitzer for his poetry book, Living at the Movies. When I told Carroll that I was stripping him of his so-called nomination, he said that “some lady” at Viking Press had written him a letter telling him that Viking intended to enter his book for Pulitzer competition and that he had since lost the letter. So, apparently, has Viking.)
Lola from Budapest cut me off. She was dubious. “I wait till I hear him,” she said. As a skeptic, she was a definite minority member of the studio audience, about half of which was young and black-leathered-up-with-silver-chains. I recognized many of the Carroll chain gang from his show the night before at the Ritz. It was only his second New York rock-‘n’-roll performance—as opposed to his poetry readings at St. Mark’s and such places—but there was no doubt he was the hottest ticket in town in a season when rock’s big events, like the Plasmatics’ Cadillac explosions, were causing giant yawns all over town, from Hudson all the way up to 86th Street. Jim Carroll, former teenage junkie, whiz-kid poet, basketball legend who went from Lower East Side asphalt courts to hardwood-floored gyms and prep-school uniforms at Trinity, seemed to be about two minutes away from full-fledged rock-‘n’-roll stardom.
Everybody was talking about the republication of his teenage-junkie book, The Basketball Diaries, and about his new album, Catholic Boy, and that great teenage flame-out song, “People Who Died,” from that album that had become an underground-radio sensation even before the album came out, and that had people in radio tip sheets, like the influential FMQB Album Report, saying radio things like “‘People Who Died’ is phono-matic sales stirring rock” and “best new candidate for hot phones.”
A young poet whom Ted Berrigan called “the first truly new American poet,” who was signed to Rolling Stones Records, and whose New York rock debut, last July at Trax, featured no less a guest guitarist than senior Rolling Stone Keith Richards (who has a nodding acquaintance himself with the ins and outs of junk) was one hot number indeed.
There can be little doubt that Carroll the poet is a far subtler and sharper persona than Carroll the rock-‘n’-roll lyricist. Carroll the poet could write (in Living at the Movies), “I sleep on a tar roof / scream my songs into lazy floods of stars … a white powder paddles through blood and heart / and / the sounds return / pure and easy … this city is on my side,” in the poem “Fragment: Little N.Y. Ode.” With “Sure …” he wrote a devastatingly funny junkie’s apologia: “I got / a syringe / I use it / to baste / my tiny turkey.” Carroll the rock lyricist doesn’t come close to such economy of wit.
But Lola from Budapest knew none of this. Tom Snyder, who is big on bringing up his Catholic upbringing at any opportunity, picked up on Catholic Boy right away and decided that Carroll might pep up an otherwise moribund moment or two.
At the rehearsal before the show’s taping, Carroll had been noticeably nervous and had broken out in cold sores. The four Secret Service agents who accompanied Maureen Reagan kept giving him the cold eye, and they pounced on him the first time he went into the makeup room.
Carroll, a rangy, gaunt-faced, six-foot-two character with pale-red hair, nervously paced the sound stage, lighting one cigarette after another. “I'll have a hard time,” he said to me, “trying to pretend that it’s Snyder and not Danny Aykroyd I’m talking to. I’ll just try to steer him away from drug questions and just quote from The Basketball Diaries: ‘Junk is just another nine-to-five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined toward shadows.’”
It turned out Snyder was easy on Carroll and went light on the drug subject and didn’t even mention the Diaries passages where Carroll spoke of hustling gay men. Snyder talked about Catholicism and patent-leather shoes that reflect up girls' dresses. Carroll was still nervous and kept digging one too white leather jazz shoe’s toe into the red carpet of Snyder’s little round turntable of a set, just a couple of feet from where Snyder’s brown teddy bear sits beside his chair, always just out of range of the camera.
Lola from Budapest liked Carroll at first. “He is beautiful,” she leaned over and whispered to me. “He will do well in future. He has sense of humor and is ambitious. Good-looking boy.”
Her smile faded a bit as Carroll talked about how he was a product of Catholicism, “redeemed through pain, not through joy,” and how Christ’s forced march with the Cross and subsequent crucifixion were “just like punk rock.”
Snyder assumed his deep-think mantle and asked if Carroll perhaps mightn’t think that some people—but certainly not Snyder—mightn’t think that such a statement bordered on blasphemy.
Carroll ground his toe into the carpet: “No.” He said that since he was six years old he had been looking for a vision, a sign from Christ, but had never gotten close, even that time he invited Christ home to watch the World Series with him and Christ was a no-show, and that he figured that the reason Christ put him on permanent hold was that Christ spent 24 hours a day giving a buzz to all these born-againers who seem to have a direct celestial hookup. That got a studio laugh, and it also generated several hundred unhappy letters from members of the Moral Majority around the country.
Carroll talked about how basketball had been his great equalizer when he was a disadvantaged kid and how he could go one-on-one against any rich suburban kid and whip him and how he had gotten onto heroin when he was deathly afraid of marijuana because at that time, in the early sixties, everybody said that marijuana was addictive. He squeezed in his nine-to-five quote and then got up and sang “Wicked Gravity,” a song “about transcending.”
Snyder had been refraining from smoking on camera because it was a national anti-smoking holiday or something, and he raced over to the corner of the studio and lit up a cigarette. Lola from Budapest did not respond to “Wicked Gravity” as enthusiastically as did the chains-and-leather gang, although, it must be said, many normally dressed people who wore cloth seemed to like hearing Carroll’s rather emotionless delivery of lyrics about doing it all night without touching, and seemed to like the Jim Carroll Band’s cheerful full-speed-ahead attack, very reminiscent of the Stones or Faces on a sloppy good-time night when the sound of rock ‘n’ roll is a slightly menacing don’t-tread-on-me metallic anthem of the young and free. The music, loose and raucous, had a commitment to the rock-‘n’-roll tradition of exuberance and rebellion; the words were bitting and cold and totally impersonal, as detached as a commuter who is late for the 6:23 and finds his path blocked by a blathering Moonie. Maybe Carroll planned it that way and maybe he didn’t, but the combination of fire and ice—hardly new, anyway, in any kind of performance and especially so in the arena of rock poetry—provides a conveniently articulated urban sensibility for the urban inarticulate who went into cold storage after Jim Morrison died and who thought Patti Smith was a pale substitute and hid out downtown during disco and Barry Manilow. The no-morals majority of the hard-core New York rock fanatics doesn’t mind at all if Jim Carroll sounds a little bit like Lou Reed or David Bowie, just so it’s still the cold-steel-and-concrete sound of the city, a sound that provides a personal, alien soundtrack for those who don’t fit in—or who like to think they don’t fit in.
When Jim Carroll finished “Wicked Gravity,” Lola from Budapest’s facial expressions seemed to indicate that she was working up a re-evaluation of Jim Carroll. “What is your opinion?” she asked me. I said I thought that the jury was still out and that I liked some of what he did. Lola from Budapest grasped my hand and shook her head: “He has no emotions. He is schizophrenic. Maybe drug addict. Maybe homosexual.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that those were precisely the qualities required to become a rock-‘n’-roll star circa 1981 in this town. The requirements are stricter than the college boards.
“I was vulnerable, but they said I was mesmerizing,” Jim Carroll was telling me as we walked east on 54th and crossed Broadway after his band rehearsed one afternoon. “Mesmerizing. That was the word. That’s what got me into rock ‘n’ roll.”
I remembered a chilling moment from his Ritz show. I was sitting at a balcony table, 30 feet above the true-grit fans packed in front of the stage, where Carroll was half-chanting and half-singing “Nothing is true” (“everything is permitted”), which strikes me as half-baked Nietzsche, but you never know how many people actually chart their lives according to pop-music lyrics. I felt a sudden pressure on my shoulder and turned to see a pale young man climbing up on my table. “Excuse me,” he said, “I need to jump off your table here.” “Well, why?” I asked, trying to stall him before he or someone he might land on got hurt badly. “That’s what he wants me to do,” the young man said, gesturing toward the stage. “Well,” I said, grabbing his ankle, “he told me he doesn’t want you to kill yourself.” The young man smiled vacantly and climbed down off the table and patted me on the head: “You’re a good man.” He wandered off, singing “Everything is permitted.”
I didn’t even mention that to Carroll as we walked along 54th, the main reason being that he was already nervous enough about even existing as a semi-public person without taking on the burden of the psychos who turn up in the wake of any known face. He’d been visibly shaken by the press of autograph hounds who had trapped him in the NBC lobby after the Snyder show. He’s still getting his street-smarts back, he laughed. One of the first things that happened to him when he moved back to New York from California, where he’d gone to kick smack and methadone, was that he got mugged right outside Radio City and the mugger wasn’t satisfied with Carroll’s ＄300 and came back and broke his nose for him.
He's not quite the same cocky young poet who was published as a teenager in The Paris Review and had people like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs cheering from his corner and had Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman as friends. And he had been one of the best basketball players in the city and had been a poor Irish kid who got a scholarship to Trinity and had been a pioneer long-hair-doper-cool-guy-athlete who excited some people because he could dunk a ball backward and excited other people because he could dunk a ball backward while stoned and then write about it. Even though he was a “scholarship guy,” a poor kid thrown in with New York’s rich, he fit in well at Trinity. He was a certified star basketball player and he was quick-witted enough to bluff his way through classes and he had a street swagger and he took out glamour girls who went to the Professional Children’s School, little foxes who were already in show business. Some of his classmates remember that he was as swift a bullshit artist as there was. They still recall that he once wore a fake arm cast to school to get out of baseball or football practice—especially football, because everybody could tell right off that he detested physical contact. And while it says in The Basketball Diaries that the book was written between his twelfth and fifteenth years, some of his classmates say it was more or less rewritten and polished between Carroll’s fourteenth and eighteenth birthdays, and closer to the eighteenth than the fourteenth.
Jim Carroll and I turned up Sixth Avenue and stopped in O’Neals’ for a Coke for him and a beer for me. He is off drugs and drinks only an occasional shot of tequila. He still has a rancid memory of the time he had his stomach pumped out after chugging most of a fifth of scotch and then passing out in the snow up in Inwood Park and almost losing parts of his fingers from the frostbite. What a drag for a young romantic. To this day, the smell of scotch turns his stomach, he said as we slid into a booth at O’Neals’. He lit a cigarette with jerky movements and talked in nervous spurts, looking around the room at nothing in particular.
Why, I asked, has he not identified Trinity in the Diaries, calling it instead a “posh private school.”
“I thought I’d get sued,” he laughed, and he loosened up a little. “As it is, they’re all thrilled by it at Trinity. I still go up and see Frank Smith, my Latin teacher.”
After Trinity—Carroll didn’t bother to attend his graduation ceremonies—he did a month of college before dropping out to be a star teenage poet and druggie. Artist Larry Rivers hired him as an assistant, and Carroll stretched canvases and sharpened pencils at Rivers’s 14th Street studio and lived in Rivers’s 91st Street apartment. “I was only getting off three or four times a day [on heroin],” Carroll said, “just to stay high. I wasn’t into doing it for a lifestyle, just to write and to nod. At night, I’d go out and hustle, make some money. I wound up just staying up there and baby-sitting Larry’s kids. Which was great. I’d walk them down to the zoo and meet my connection at the fountain on 72nd near the boathouse. On a rainy day, I’d meet him at the Museum of Natural History, because he loved those big panoramas. I think heroin makes you like things like that, miniature little landscapes. Junkies tidy up always. So, if you kept a system like I did—I didn’t have a partner or old lady to hassle with—I kept everything very neat.
“I loved Larry,” he said after a sip of his Coke and a fresh cigarette. “If there was anybody from around that art scene who had an influence on me, it was Larry. This was a real cool dude. I even started to imitate his walk. He’s the only guy who ever had that effect on me in the art world. Frank O’Hara might have—if I’d known him. I followed Frank O’Hara one day when I was first into poetry, followed him home from the Museum of Modern Art, because I knew he worked there. This was like two months before he died. I followed him in a taxi and he got off at Astor Place and I followed him up to 10th Street and Broadway, right across from Grace Church—you know Poe’s poem ‘The Bells’ was written when he was living near there, about the bells in that steeple. But, to me, it’s the place where Frank O’Hara’s last apartment was. I followed him to his house. I’m sure he didn’t notice me. But of course I always got told by poets that ‘Frank would have loved you.’ He seduced every guy on the scene—all the straight guys too. I made it a point never to sleep with any guys in the poetry scene, except, you know, the gay guys, which were plentiful, you know, in the older-generation school of New York poets. But I’m sure with Frank I would have wound up in bed. He was an idol.”
Carroll cupped his cigarette in his hand and sipped at his Coke and looked off at nothing. “I was the young protégé,” he finally continued. “They really took me in the way they didn’t take in younger poets who came along later. I came along at the right time.”
What happened, I wondered, that made him flee New York for Northern California in 1974 when he thought he was nominated for a Pulitzer?
Carroll looked me straight in the eye. “I knew I was gonna kill myself if I stayed in New York. I was f—king around too much. See, I was on methadone then and I was starting to buy extra bottles because when you’re on a certain dose you can shoot as much heroin as you want and not feel it. The theory of methadone in New York is to keep them on as high a dose as allowed 'cause then you can’t feel junk even when you shoot it and you can work; it just gets you straight. You feel it when you’re first on the program, but after a month you don’t even feel it. But the methadone program in Marin County was like a college dormitory; they really helped you get off junk. It was still real tough. Methadone’s an insidious drug, infinitely harder to get off than junk. I kicked junk cold fifteen times; the withdrawal symptoms peak after about three days and last about eight days.
“But methadone is a month of physical torment at the very least. You can’t get any sleep to escape it. I hate even thinking about it. But at any rate, I came out of it. And then I just became a recluse. I’d take my twelve-mile hike with my dogs up along the coast.”
Carroll jumped up to get a fresh pack of smokes. I suddenly noticed that the happy-hour crowd around us was leaning in very close to listen.
When Carroll got back I asked why he thought he should go into rock ‘n’ roll.
He smiled. “When I’d do readings, people would say, ‘Mick Jagger reading poetry—you should do rock ‘n’ roll.’ I said, ‘No way, man.’ I respected people’s singing voices then. Forget it. Even when Patti [Smith] did it. Her lyrics were better than her poems, to me. But Patti wasn’t as accepted and didn’t have a reputation in the poetry scene like I did. I was supposed to read with her the first night she did it with music, with Lenny [Kaye] playing guitar behind her, but I got busted in Rye, New York, because I was visiting a friend who had some hash. So I was in jail.
“But my connection with New York in my recluse period was reading about CBGB and punk rock and Television and Blondie and Talking Heads, and one by one they all got signed up by record companies and came out to San Francisco to play the Old Waldorf. I checked them all out. Then Patti came out, and I did that show down in San Diego with her. I got this band together. Rosemary [his next-door neighbor, whom he married] put it in my head about doing this. First, just writing songs, and then thinking, ‘Well, what the hell, I don’t need vocal proficiency. I could write songs to my own vocal limitations.’
“So I started to think, ‘Rock’n’ roll!’ When I did the shows with Patti, I saw that it could be done. It was incredible fun, and it was so intense and scary and beautiful at the same time. It was remarkable. What a feeling. It’s still that way, you know. I think it’s just a natural extension of my work, of the images. By making images just obscure enough to be made personal, I have the street imagery, but you have to have that kind of mythology built into it, because that’s what kids understand. I don’t like to deal with any subject matter straight out, you know. So, I’m pretty talked out.”
He turned away silently to the wall while I dealt with the check.
“Henry Miller,” he said. “Henry Miller’s study of Rimbaud, which is really a study of Henry Miller, was the big factor for me going into rock—that was it. That whole thing about getting a heart quality out of work rather than just the intellectual quality. A good poet works on both. Miller spoke about the inner register and how a good poet has to affect virtual illiterates as well as affecting people through the intellect, and I figured so many poets are just writing for other poets today. It’s all intellectual concrete minimal poetry. There’s a school of poets in San Francisco called Language Poets. What the f - - k does that mean?”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Nods, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 229, No. 14, April 4, 1986, pp. 57-8.
[In the following negative review, the critic chastises Carroll and the collection of prose and poetry Living at the Movies.]
Carroll would like to be poetry’s renegade stepchild, an avant-gardist, the forerunner of a new art form. These poems and prose pieces show exposure to Borges, Kafka, particularly Rimbaud—the romantic, drug-taking exception to all rules who has stymied many scholars and led many bright children astray. The original attraction of Carroll was a sort of jejune decadence, which he has, since his Living at the Movies (1973), pretty much outworn. This collection, about the poet’s deepest emotional experiences in California and New York over the last 10 years, is wincingly embarrassing. It is especially painful because Carroll’s real talent often peeps through the dross. This is a bad example of serious talent destroyed over the years by negligence and disregard for self-discipline.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150
SOURCE: A review of The Book of Nods, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 7, April 15, 1986, p. 84.
[In the following brief review, Guillory praises Carroll's ability to shock readers with incongruous images in The Book of Nods.]
Carroll’s prose poems (or “nods”) are like verbal equivalents of Dali’s paintings: a man vomits the hands of a clock (in “Silent Money”) and a cat jumps into a mirror (in “Watching the Schoolyard”). But these incongruities quickly lose their shock value, and Carroll sometimes fails to create a meaningful context for his images. More successful are his conventional lyric poems. In “A Night Outing,” for example, the poet admires “the way still grey water / Throws the moon / … right back at itself.” “New York Variations” and “California Variations” amount to interlocking meditations on urban landscapes “where diesel trains pass at noon every day.” The Book of Nods is always interesting if sometimes uneven.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
SOURCE: A review of The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, in New York Times, July 9, 1987, p. C23.
[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt discusses The Basketball Diaries and its sequel, Forced Entries, and the evolution of Carroll's voice and storytelling abilities.]
Jim Carroll is a poet and rock musician in his mid-30’s who grew up in several poor sections of Manhattan, the son and grandson of Irish Catholic bartenders. In the fall of 1963, when he was all of 13 years old, he began keeping a diary: “Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event. The Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I’m actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate.”
The diary project proved successful. He kept at it for at least three years, later published excerpts of it in The Paris Review and other magazines, and eventually brought out a version of it in book form, The Basketball Diaries (1978), which created something of a sensation for its hair-raising portrait of adolescent street life in New York.
It was not a book that seemed likely to produce a sequel. Filled with a kind of vitality, though clearly exaggerated in its boastful accounts of drinking, drugs, sex and every sort of crime from stealing cars to hustling homosexuals in Times Square, the diary’s final entry leaves its author on the brink of the abyss:
“Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags. Four days of temporary death gone by, no more bread, with its hundreds of nods and casual theories, soaky nostalgia (I could have got that for free walking along Fifth Avenue at noon), at any rate, a thousand goofs, some still hazy in my noodle … Nice June day out today, lots of people probably graduating. I can see the Cloisters with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window. I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure.”
But behold, a sequel has now been published, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971–1973, which appears along with a new edition of The Basketball Diaries. Jim Carroll is 20 as it opens. He regrets having thrown away his basketball career—“I’m sitting here watching the N.B.A. All-Star Game on TV and I’m watching guys I used to seriously abuse on the court scoring in double figures now against the best in the game.”
But he’s embraced the life he’s leading—hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, working for Andy Warhol at the Factory, publishing occasional poems, socializing with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, George Balanchine and William S. Burroughs, and doing drugs even more intensely, if possible.
The voice is grown up now. There are occasional vestiges of its origins (“That was it for Anne and Ted and I …,” but the whine and the adolescent strutting are gone. The author now admits that the entries are “embellished and fictionalized to some extent … mainly for the sake of humor,” which, he has found, “has an uncanny ability to create its own energy and push on a writer against his will.”
He is reaching for something deeper now. Instead of hip talk, he’s trying for poetry. Of a stately Times Square prostitute he writes, “The whole effect … was as if someone had placed a Rubens portrait at the bottom of a cesspool, and after centuries of strangeness and decay among the stillness of vile things and vile notions, some chance lightning hit … and out of it she was risen … delivered onto these streets in a pink Cadillac.”
Instead of teen-age bravado, he writes of violent suicide, of “evil as a pervasive entity,” and of the emptiness of adolescent fantasies. “And what is it you want?” he asks of his desire for a fashion model he sees on an elevator. “It is not sexual, though you do want her. You want her because, in some unfathomed way, she is the proof, the proof of those things you always knew existed but could not define. Yet you’ve had women like this in the past, and in the end they proved nothing. They solved nothing. They were usually not too bright and were terribly self-indulgent. They were, as this one is, only another emblem of your own vanity, and the vanity of your Art.”
Despite the maturing voice of Forced Entries, the two diaries remain similar in their quest for extreme sensations and their eagerness to shock the reader. One is aware almost throughout that the author is more intelligent than he appears and that he takes a certain pride in dissipating his gifts.
And yet the diarist finally gains control of himself. The image with which he dramatizes his victory over drugs will disgust many readers, just as many of his effects will seem excessively overwrought. But readers who can stomach the ending of Forced Entries will find it both effective and convincing. And beside the description of his cure there is the external evidence of the poetry collections he has published since 1973—Living at the Movies (1973) and The Book of Nods (1986)—as well as the three music albums he has released—Catholic Boy, Dry Dreams and I Write Your Name.
But whether or not one believes Jim Carroll’s redemption, his two diaries constitute a remarkable account of New York City’s lower depths. At the very least, they should serve further to demystify the usefulness of drugs to writers. Finally, the main reason that Mr. Carroll decides to kick his habit is for the sake of his art. “It’s my only choice for my work. I need a consistency of my moods if there is to be any consistency in my style. I can’t attempt to write always in the hollow flux of desperation and incipient terror. I try to cover this up, cower behind some facade of humor, hoping that old Aristotle was right—that humor will act as a catalyst to purify the tragic. But it can’t go on. My body is broke.” He has to mend himself, unpleasant though the purging proves to be.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271
SOURCE: “A Follow-Through beyond the Hoop,” in San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1987, p. 3.
[In the following review, Delacorte lauds Carroll's ability to create witty one-liners and clever vignettes in Forced Entries, but asserts that the book lacks substance and has an unfulfilling conclusion.]
Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries was an extraordinary piece of work—an account of four years, more or less, in the life of a kid growing up in New York City.
The kid happened to be a basketball star, a thief, a male prostitute and an incipient junkie, so there was plenty of action and things got pretty lurid. But still the most impressive thing about the book was the smooth sophistication of its prose. To be sure, Basketball Diaries didn’t appear in book form until 1978, when Carroll was in his late 20s, and various anachronisms suggest that its text had been altered or augmented well after its 1963–66 time frame. But enough of Basketball Diaries had been published contemporarily, notably in The Paris Review, to provide ample proof that most of this cool, nihilistic, terrific stuff really was composed by a kid no older than 16.
In Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971–73 the author is now an adult, already something of a celebrity in New York poetry circles and a heroin addict of several years’ standing. His life is nowhere near as interesting as it was back in the mid-’60s, but it’s still consistently weird, and when he’s not nodding off or trying to kick the habit, he tends to be in the presence of lots of famous people. Most of these people, of course, are not the sort you run across on Entertainment Tonight.
Carroll serves as Edwin Denby’s escort at Lincoln Center; he baby-sits for Allen Ginsberg; he works at Andy Warhol’s factory; he swaps anecdotes with William Burroughs at a party; he goes out to dinner with Bob Dylan; he has a taxi brazenly rustled from him by Salvador Dali; he spends a bizarre Christmas Day speeding around Manhattan with a famous painter (easily guessed as Larry Rivers) until they get arrested because the artist can’t prove he owns his brand new Cadillac; they get sprung from jail by Jacob Javits.
If Basketball Diaries was Oliver Twist projected into the late 20th century, then Downtown Diaries is a sort of rococo and very hip Liz Smith column, with Carroll as both gossip columnist and central character. Does this mean it’s a bad book? No. Not by any means. It zips along, most of the time; it’s full of great stories, and occasionally it steps out and says something that makes us wish it hadn’t been treated as (to use a favorite Carroll word) such a goof.
Toward the book’s beginning, Carroll finds himself watching the NBA All-Star game on television, “watching guys I used to seriously abuse on the court scoring in double figures now against the best in the game. … I should have stayed an athlete, body well-tuned, cruising around with my accountant in a Porsche, maroon and chrome.” In basketball, Carroll says, “there’s always only one direction: to the cylinder on the fiberglass rectangle. And you don’t have to aim. If you do, you’re off.”
Instead he’s chosen poetry, which is “like looking too closely and too long into a mirror; soon your features distort, then erupt. You look too closely into your poems, or listen too closely to them as they arrive in whispers, and the features inside you—call it heart, call it mind, call it soul—accelerate out of control … You realize, then, that you can’t attempt breaking down too many barriers in too short a time, because there are as many horrors waiting to get in at you as there are parts of yourself pushing to break out.”
Writing about writing, writers generally can’t get too far beyond the most pedestrian observations. Here, between anecdotes, Carroll casually tosses off an epiphany and earns great respect. But does he deserve it, really?
I’m still trying to figure that out. In Basketball Diaries, intentionally or not, he did a marvelous job of establishing his character—pulling no punches and holding nothing back. There were moments, particularly excursions into petty crime and not-so-petty sexual violence, when my gut reaction was that Carroll was drifting into fantasy or fiction, or repeating stories he’d heard, perhaps from other kids who actually had experienced them. Then I’d catch myself, and I’d wonder whether my disbelief was based entirely on my wanting to like, to identify with the Carroll character. Was I saying, logically, hey—this kid wouldn’t have stooped that low? Or was I saying, emotionally—I hope he didn’t do those things, because I sure wouldn’t?
Of course, from the author’s point of view the reader’s confusion on such a point is absolutely irrelevant, as long as the reader stays interested. And through Basketball Diaries the reader was likely to stay riveted for any number of reasons—the most striking of which were that it was so well written, and that we were rooting for Carroll, for this kid. Given the circumstances, what exactly were we rooting for? For a happy ending, I suppose, and that’s precisely what Carroll, what the kid, wasn’t about to give us.
Basketball Diaries ends with 15-year-old Carroll “nodding on this ratty mattress … both my forearms sore as s—t with all the little specks of caked blood covering them.” Downtown Diaries begins with Carroll turning 20, as he uses his aunt’s birthday present, ＄20, to score some heroin. Five years under the bridge and not much has changed, evidently. But then how many junkies would report: “The dope was as good as Hector said. On the way back over to my room at the Chelsea I saw an owl on Seventh Avenue. It was doing a little gymnastic routine on a lamppost.”
Downtown Diaries is stuffed with little throw-aways like that, with vivid little moments, and with terrific stories. And yet…
And yet I kept expecting something, some substance, that never arrived. Basketball Diaries was a sort of perverse bildungsroman; we may not have been pleased by its developments, but they did occur. Here, there is rather languid movement in no particular direction until, a few months in, Carroll starts talking about moving out to a little town in Northern California to kick his habit. There is a reference here, a reference there, and then all of a sudden on page 125 he arrives in … Bolinas!
And for the next 30 pages the book is incessantly boring, because Carroll is a fish out of water. In its meandering way, the book has been leading to this: the rite of purification, the great battle against the “small pink simian” that holds Carroll captive. But nothing happens. Carroll makes vapid observations about California. He gets a dog. He has teeth extracted. He makes his big attempt to kick drugs; little regard is paid to the major event. He returns to New York.
And he never really regains momentum. Back in Manhattan there is a strange and awful party, there is the Dali anecdote, and there is a final, nice bit regarding the exorcism of an abscess, an ultimate cleansing. Ironically, the happy ending that didn’t come in Basketball Diaries has thus sneaked into the final pages of Downtown Diaries. It’s good news, but unfortunately we don’t care nearly as much for the 1973 Jim Carroll as we had about the kid he’d been.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323
SOURCE: A review of Forced Entries, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 55, No. 9, May 15, 1987, p. 767.
[In the following review, the critic pans Forced Entries for its lack of substance. While acknowledging the occasional flashes of intense humor and wit, the critic derides Carroll for providing too much debauchery and not enough intellectual or literary content.]
A slice of the debauched life of poet Carroll at the tail end of the 60’s, before he embarked on a second, dual career as a rock singer.
Carroll achieved recognition early in his 20s with the publication of Living at the Movies, his first collection of poetry, and The Basketball Diaries, a record of New York youth steeped in sports, dope, and urban iconography. Here, he picks up the story as he’s living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, addicted to heroin, and spending nights at Max’s Kansas City consorting with other dubious luminaries of the late-night celebrity scene. Girlfriends come and go; figures the likes of Ginsberg, Warhol, Leary, Morrissey, and Dylan make routine and generally uninteresting appearances; there’s a variety of truly peculiar jobs—including an assignment at Andy Warhol’s Factory and a rare opportunity at managing a porno theater—before Carroll has a chance to cool his heels and detox in California. For readers hellbent on self-destruction, there are a lot of handy tips here—the proper procedure for shooting heroin, the etiquette of hop parties, directions for pharmaceutical mixes that eliminate the necessity of sleep (always an annoyance when trying to keep up with the busy jet set), and a judicious rundown of various bodily diseases.
Carroll’s sense of humor occasionally makes a welcome intrusion into the sleazy grandeur of street scenes and 60’s clichés, and his prose often flashes with genuine intensity and wit; but there’s surprisingly little said here about poetry, poets, or what Carroll might disdainfully refer to as the intellectual or literary. Shame.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630
SOURCE: “The Way They Were in Greenwich Village,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1987, p. 10.
[In the following review, Hochswender praises the “ornate and harrowingly stark” writing collected in Forced Entries. Despite his contention that the stories in the collection are often self-indulgent and filled with slang, Hochswender asserts that Carroll's energetic language and creative descriptions give his memoirs an authenticity that mainstream documentaries lack.]
In this country we now have a permanent counterculture. The symbols of rebellion may change with the generations, but the dialectical swing has become constant. To the gray flannel suit and attache case, the 1950s counterposed the beret and the black turtleneck. To long hair, leisure suits and peace medallions, we more recently added shaved heads, studded leather and swastikas. Now, of course, we have the return of the gray flannel suit. It’s hip to be square.
For most of us, cultural trends come and go, fashions rise and fall. They touch us and amuse us—they’re fun. We take on the plumage of a colorful age, then shed it when it’s time to grow and move on. From bop to Boesky, as individuals we somehow continue to molt and re-feather with the seasons of life and history. But we all know people so captivated by their era that they become captives of it. In the two books at hand, we see how the cultural moment can have a catalytic influence on society while exercising its own peculiar drag on individuals.
In Down and In: Life in the Underground by Ronald Sukenick, we get a solemn and sometimes vainglorious account of the rise of bohemianism in postwar America. Against the’50s cult of gray flannel and success, Sukenick celebrates the seedy, beer-splashed splendor of the American demimonde, as it emerged in Greenwich Village and environs. His story is peopled with familiar heroes—Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Norman Mailer—drinking, brawling and creating with barbaric intensity. But it’s about mere dropouts as well as those who made a handsome living out of dropping out. And it is very much about the bars they dropped into: the San Remo, the Cedar Tavern, the White Horse and Max’s Kansas City.
Indeed, Sukenick’s tale is a real elbow-bender, a bar story—smoke-filled, sawdusty and mythic—with the kind of boozy garrulousness and emphasis on fellow-feeling that one tends to associate with first the beatnik age and later the age of Aquarius. It all goes to show that the so-called “underground” was just as violent, insecure and preening as any fraternity house scene of that period or this—but with a different set of rules and expectations.
Both a creature and an observer of this raucous milieu, Sukenick carefully traces the evolution of the underground in music, poetry and art, from the Village jazz scene of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus et al. at the Five Spot and other venues, through the formation of the Fugs, the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s back-room court at Max’s Kansas City, where downtown cool cats encountered uptown cash. Here the underground elite discovered that the avant-garde could be a vehicle for “making it”—the title of a well-known book by Norman Podhoretz (a whole '60s–'80s epic in himself) and the ultimate no-no in Sukenick’s moral spectrum.
Is it possible to be hip and successful at the same time? This is the question that obsesses the author. He informs us that “The myth of Bohemia … can be devastating for hangers-on who have no strong artistic vocation providing a purpose for that kind of life.” But then he hammers away relentlessly at “middle-class values,” whatever they are. An artful polemicist first makes his target formidable and worthy of attack, then tears it to pieces. Sukenick’s middle class is simply a bogey, a faceless evil characterized at best by a style of dress (“seersucker”) or a profession (anything other than poet, jazz musician or bar owner seems to constitute “selling out”). You begin to wonder what he’s really driving at.
An interesting footnote to his larger concerns can be found in an interview with the self-described real-life model for the Jade Butter-field character in the novel Endless Love (played by Brooke Shields in the film). According to this woman, Jill Littlewood, the product, in the story and in real life, of an ultraliberated 1960s Chicago household, her parents abet and encourage her torrid sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boyfriend, even buying her a double bed so he can sleep over comfortably. Eventually, Littlewood revolts against the permissiveness. At 16, she buys herself an expensive briefcase and a “secretary suit” and decides she is “gonna do well in high school.” As her parents were “getting kinkier and kinkier,” she was “getting straighter and straighter.” To make her rebellion complete, she is now married to a doctor and living in the Los Angeles area.
To a large extent, the book consists of such interviews with scenemakers from the times. You can almost see them now, salt-and-pepper beards, a bit of a belly, that burnt-out well-tripped acid look in the eyes, as they reminisce about the good old days. And romanticize. Some of these anecdotal passages, too many of them, lead nowhere. Frequently it’s difficult to tell who’s speaking. Between the ongoing egotism, the grimy settings and cliquish squabbles of the great talents. Down and In manages to become, like a serious romance that leaves its audience in stitches, a persuasive argument for holding down a regular job.
One can relive the '60s, for example, so much more vividly simply by sitting in the middle of the park listening to a tape by The Doors. It just wasn’t much of a literary experience. It was musical and tribal. As the song goes, “When the music’s over, turn out the lights.”
Another denizen of the back room at Max’s Kansas City was Jim Carroll, poet, rock star and heroin addict. His junk-induced dreams and downtown adventures have inspired writings—beautiful ravings, actually—that are ornate and harrowingly stark. His most recent book, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971–1973 picks up where The Basketball Diaries left off—with the author living from one fix to the next.
This time he’s graduated from the uptown teen smack scene to Manhattan’s chic and artsy downtown. He spends his days working for Andy Warhol at The Factory, which, he tells us, is “boring as an empty bag. … Even the boredom has no depth.” And he spends his nights at the ballet sitting with Balanchine and the critic Edwin Denby. Carroll moves from swish to swank with ease.
On a little side trip to Times Square, “Forty-Deuce” Street, his description, like the bathroom scene at Grand Central Terminal from the earlier Basketball Diaries, gives an idea of his radiant sense of depravity:
“I still recall, vividly recall, the first night I spent alone in Times Square. I followed this one whore through the late hours as she moved like a trawler through the currents of deals denied for short green … She was enormous, over six feet easily, including, naturally, her four-inch heels, which I thought inviolate … never to be removed. Her breasts were crawling, like some sea life from an unchartable depth, out of a black bra … the bra beneath a dress which was so short that, as I faked lacing my sneakers, crouching on one knee, I could clearly see revealed the connection of her black-seamed stockings and her red garters, like two deadly circuits fused to activate a device of total annihilation. A vial of mascara must have been emptied on those eyes. The whole effect … the body … the dress … the makeup … was as if someone had placed a Rubens portrait at the bottom of a cesspool, and after centuries of strangeness and decay among the stillness of vile things and vile notions, some chance lightning hit … and out of it she was risen … delivered onto those streets in a pink Cadillac. And she walks and walks because there is nobody who can make her price.”
This is the '70s, and Carroll’s very existence turns the '80s notion of “work hard and play hard” on its ear. His theme is “play hard and take hard drugs.” His memoir has some documentary value—meetings with remarkable men, everyone from Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan to Terry Southern, W. H. Auden and the KGB, are humorous and sharply drawn. He also establishes interesting links between the “happenings” of the '60s and the performance art that remains influential today. But the real attraction of Carroll is the energy of his language, whether applied to fantastically baroque nods or to mundane urban realities, like defrosting the refrigerator or murdering a roach.
As with any diary, at times the author seems quite full of himself, and, as a consequence, full of something else. For the poet, “not dying young can be a dilemma,” he tells us. And he’s a frenetic name-dropper. For example, the section entitled “Hello, Dali” consists of nothing more than a chance encounter on 57th Street, where Salvador Dali commandeers his cab. But somehow Carroll has the slick slang to carry it off. He’s a collector of fancy words, and at one point he makes a note to himself to use the words serpentine and abattoir in his poetry. Sure enough, both appear inconspicuously later in the book.
When, ultimately, Carroll finds his redemption in California, detoxing in the bucolic confines of Bolinas, we sense the enormity of the underground experience, as lived, in ways a documentary history can only grope for.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3233
SOURCE: “Verbal Entries: An Interview with Jim Carroll,” in The Booksmith Reader, www.booksmith.com.
[In the following interview, portions of which also appeared in The Street, Gladysz and Carroll discuss Carroll's writing career, his methods of writing Forced Entries and The Basketball Diaries, his literary influences, and his rehabilitation from heroin use.]
Perhaps best known as a rock musician, Jim Carroll is also an accomplished poet and writer. His best lyrics, such as “People Who Died,” are themselves a kind of poetry. Recently, a film based on his best-selling book, The Basketball Diaries, was released to general acclaim. His first commercially published book of poems, Living at the Movies (1973), was issued when he was just twenty-two. That was followed by The Basketball Diaries (diaries, 1978), The Book of Nods (poems, 1986), Forced Entries (memoirs, 1987) and a selected poems, Fear of Dreaming (1993), which also includes uncollected and newer works. A spoken word recording, Praying Mantis (1991), was released as a compact disc on the Giant Records label—and a two cassette recording of The Basketball Diaries (read by the author with musical accompaniment by guitarist Lenny Kaye) was released by Audio Literature (1994). Other spoken word recordings can be found on various Giorno Poetry System anthologies.
[Thomas Gladysz:] Forced Entries was your last book of prose. How did that book—a kind of sequel to The Basketball Diaries—come about?
[Jim Carroll:] I had made a deal for two books. I hadn't been keeping a diary during the period of Forced Entries, though I had about fifteen pages from then. That was enough to give me a voice. Then, I just threw myself back into that period. Forced Entries is a triple or quadruple entendre, it has all these different meanings. Some keep coming to me. A lot of them were “forced” in the sense that they were painful to write. In that period of my life, I was being pulled in different directions. The effect it had was on my style, on my writing. The thing I needed was stability.
I was living in this hollow flux of desperation, as I describe it at its low point—and at other times it was high hi-jinx. The drug situation was there, though a bit more in moderation. I could work with it while I was on heroin. I never liked the notion that you needed drugs to write or that drugs helped you, except that heroin makes you very neat! It gives you a sense of control. I like control—in the sense of losing control when you have control. The other type of losing control is when you don't have control in the first place. That's not a creative type of lost control.
I gave Lou Reed a bound copy of the galley proofs. I said to him, “I think the years are wrong. Wasn't it 1970 that you broke up [the Velvet Underground], that summer—the gigs at Max's.” “No” he said, “it was 1969.” Actually, he might be wrong! This girl told me she distinctly remembers it was the summer of 1970. Lou told me it doesn't matter, that we would all be better off if 1969 was 1971. So actually, Forced Entries is 1970 to 1972, a two year period. I gave them the title. Of course the publisher wanted—and it was O.K. with me—to have the sense of continuity with “diaries.” They wanted diaries [in the title] since The Basketball Diaries had done so well, and they wanted years, so there was the two year time span. It's irrelevant in a sense, it is not a historical document.
Then Forced Entries are recollections, rather than diaries?
Yes. I was not keeping a daily diary, in the sense in which The Basketball Diaries were written. When I started that book [The Basketball Diaries] I wanted to be a writer—in the sense of being like a sports writer, a journalist.
I was a sports writer for the school newspaper in grammar school. The only good thing I got out of grammar school was this Brother who taught me writing through cutting out the sports columns of Red Smith and Arthur Daley from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Underlining metaphors and similes, showing me certain techniques, explaining allegories, sustaining a metaphor—he really taught me a lot. When that summer was over—the summer I was twelve just turning thirteen—I realized I wanted to write. But I didn't have assignments anymore. I thought about writing a novel. I could deal with dialogue and imagery and voice, but I couldn't deal with sustaining a plot.
So, I decided I would write in a diary—not a “dear diary” type of thing, but one where I was writing on days where something anecdotally interesting happened so that each entry could stand by itself. When I got a scholarship to a private school, I got more erudite in my tastes. I wanted to become a poet then. I saw that was what I wanted to do. Poetry wasn't just sissy stuff. In the neighborhood where I grew up, that was the take you had—I thought the same thing. But when I read Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg, I thought that contemporary poets had the strength of rock and roll. It [writing] was natural for me, which was strange because I had no family history of artists. My family was totally against it.
The strength of that [The Basketball Diaries] is its voice, the street rap voice—I could have changed that to something more aloof and made the book more introspective, which would have made it dreadful. With Forced Entries, I needed to establish a voice. I had about fifteen pages of the book. They were usually shorter entries, three pages at the most; and on other days, I just had made notes to remember. When I was writing Forced Entries—stylistically—I really wanted to get back and continue that voice, make it honest, because that is where the strength is in a book of diaries. I still only wanted to write on days when each would stand as a separate piece. By the nature of that time in my life, I had to be more introspective. I had the capabilities as a writer to be more introspective. From when I was 19 on I knew how to write well enough and express myself in terms I couldn't have done during The Basketball Diaries.
A lot of these [entries] are very funny. I believe in counterpoint as the strength of all art—in the formal contrapuntal sense of music, in the classical sense. Counterpoint, like the guitar line running against the rhythm; in pop music, against the hook. I had to offset the funny things with something more introspective, not something necessarily sad, but a coming to terms with a bad situation. It was strange writing it. Looking back, that's what was painful. I started to remember from the notes—which were just surface notes—which would remind me of certain days. I had to go deep into myself, it was like therapy in a sense. It was painful. Someone said to me that it must have changed your life in the present. It didn't, because I purged all that pain by actually creating the work of art.
One theme in Forced Entries is your desire to gain control, both of yourself and of your life.
I wanted control in the sense that I could have it so I could lose it. I always wanted to know the classical rules of poetry, so I would be able to break them. I didn't think there were any rules that couldn't be broken. But, I wanted to know those rules first. As far as control is concerned, in the first section of the book, I had this obsession with making the scene—which was part of being young. My body could take it, I was resilient, I was strong and it had a thrill to it But living at different people's houses affected my writing, and that's what bothered me. I couldn't go back and forth without losing some mental control. I didn't know if I was up or down.
Would you say that it was your writing that spurred you to take control of your life?
Well, yes, I felt like I had to make some move. Most people felt that I went to California to get off drugs, but that was only one part of it. Also, it was to gain a sense of control. When I went to California and had some kind of stability—more stability than control—I was able to transform knowledge into wisdom. That was all important aside from getting off drugs. That's what I needed in my life then. That was a period in my life when I felt very lost.
Do you feel then that your desire to be a writer gave you the motivation to quit drugs?
Well, it's hard to really say. I've seen people in every walk of life and people who seem not to have much incentive get off drugs. Guys who came back from Vietnam who never did drugs got back and would do all this junk, like take ten seconalls. That was just a waste of the junk because they would just knock themselves out. Ten reds would knock you unconscious or else you would just be stumbling around and falling on your face. It was obvious they changed over there and they just wanted to die. They probably didn't want to come back in the first place—and when they did, they were going to off themselves as quickly as possible. The guys I am thinking of—three guys in particular, all died at different times. They found all three in the river.
I saw other guys who were in 'Nam who were out of work and strung out. Or who were on methadone and without much incentive—they had a much stronger will than I did. They just decided they wanted to get their shit together, because their lives were nowhere, and they were going to make it better. Being a writer, I don't think, gives you an incentive.
Something you write about in both The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries is your fear of nuclear holocaust. I suppose it's the one thing beyond our control. Do you still think about it today?
If there were a real crisis I would. I have a fear of it inbred in me as much as the rituals of Catholicism. [Nuclear holocaust] was a religion. As I write in my book, the Russians exploded their first H-bomb the day I was born. That was a new god. Anything with that much power has to be called a god, or a demon. It has too much strength to be called anything else. For me, there's a quality to it as if I were one of the early members of the Church, one of the apostles.
I grew up in this generation where, as in Atomic Cafe, you duck and cover. You go out into the hall or put your coat on your head. Once a week we would have air raid drills. We would go into the hall and get into a certain position and tuck your head between your legs. I remember my brother egging me on the night of the Cuban missile crisis—him saying how the missiles were aimed at us and how the Russian diplomats were leaving town that night and how they were going to bomb us. I also remember this Christian Brother at grammar school said “if those sirens start ringing” (and I didn't like that cause I thought that sirens wail, they don't ring, I noticed that mixed metaphor and it bothered me)—he didn't say, “and I don't think it will,” he just said “if it does we have enough food stored down in the gymnasium to last us four months.” I can remember every detail of that day. I was walking around scared shitless.
Then a generation passed when the idea of nuclear deterrent idea was really bought and mothers started to assure their kids that it really can't happen. A whole generation didn't worry about it. Then all of a sudden, kids who would sneak back stage or wait in the parking lot after a show would talk about how they could understand those fears. It was pretty scary to them, and to me. That runs pretty deep.
You knew Edwin Denby, the New York poet and dance critic, and he figures considerably in Forced Entries—your book of diaries. How did you come to meet him?
I remember the time I came to know him, at a poetry reading. I had hung around St. Marks since I was fifteen. Nobody really knew who I was, since I was too shy to introduce myself. Then I had a book of poems published when I was fifteen and a half, called Organic Trains. I gave it to Ted Berrigan—who was a kind of leader of the second generation of the New York School of poets, to give to other people. Ted said “oh, I always wondered who you were.” And Anne Waldman, I gave her some copies. She said, “We always wondered who this young red headed guy was.”
After a reading, I remember Denby going “now I'm making my way over to Mr. Carroll” and saying “how do you do, I'm Edwin Denby.” Someone had given him a copy of my book! He took a certain interest in me as this kid—this street kid, whom he was going to give some culture to in the form of dance. I took him to a basketball game once, thinking “wait till you see the moves these guys make.” He was really quite fascinated. It wasn't all ballet.
There is a scene in the book where he takes me to sit near Ballanchine. That was amazing, as well as meeting all my favorite dancers. I remember going to the Carnagie Deli with Paul Taylor after Edwin had taken me to see Taylor dance for the first time with those beautiful sets by Alex Katz. Edwin had a real influence. He taught me a lot. He had such a generous intellect and was such an interesting man.
In Forced Entries you also tell of the time you trailed Frank O'Hara a few weeks before he was killed. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Never. I followed him around a number of times. The first poem I ever read by him was “To the Harbormaster” (from Meditations in an Emergency) on a friend's bulletin board. I got Lunch Poems and I was totally enthralled and followed him around. What was strange was the TV show that came out after he died. It was announced he had died two weeks after it was shot. In it he read a passage from a screenplay he was writing for a film by Al Leslie, the painter and filmmaker. One of the lines that stuck out was “I feel like going out in the middle of 14th street and lying down in the middle of traffic.” Well, that would come soon since he got run over by a beach buggy on Fire Island.
With Ted Berrigan, you had gone to meet Jack Kerouac, after Kerouac had read parts of The Basketball Diaries.
It was hard to get past Kerouac's wife, you know. Guys would come to visit him all the time. He didn't like hippies, and he was real conservative toward the end of his life. His wife kept anyone away from the door who came to make this pilgrimage type of thing with a copy of On the Road. If she did let you in, he might wind up getting high and go on a three day drunk, and she wanted to prevent that at all cost. Ted had trouble getting in the first time he went up there. This was with Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton, I think, to do The Paris Review interview.
Coming back from Maine—where we were staying with this guy from the Fugs, Lee Crabtree—Ted and I were hitchhiking down the coast to Cambridge to do a reading. We were not too far from Lowell, so Berrigan said, “Let's stop off and see Jack.” We got there and his wife was very nice and let us in. But he was in bad shape and very crotchety. It really didn't go well except that he had read The World, this mimeographed magazine from St. Marks. It was a poetry magazine, except that they had this prose issue. The story usually goes that he read them (The Basketball Diaries) in The Paris Review, but that didn't come out until after he died. What I did was send him the manuscript.
He liked me in a certain way—maybe because I wasn't too hippie-ish. This was a time in his life when he was advocating William F. Buckley for president—so you can't really trust the things he was saying. Politics was one thing with him, he was on surer ground with his writing.
I got to see him again in New York, between six and eight months before he died. He had to come into New York once in a while to see his agent. He was at Larry Rivers' house, and of course he was surrounded by all his old friends. I went up to him, and he said he had gotten the manuscript. He said he would write me a letter of introduction. I didn't want to publish the book then. I wanted to establish myself not as a street writer, but as a poet. What he was essentially doing was giving me a blurb. When I did decide to publish The Basketball Diaries, Anne Waldman solicited a blurb from Burroughs for the jacket of the original edition.
Kerouac sent me this letter, and said, if your publisher wants a blurb, here. I feel funny about blurbs. Myself, I don't like to use them. But now, I get sent books from people who want blurbs, and I feel like I should reciprocate. Maybe it is bad for me not to, but I usually don't do it. I try to avoid it. Certainly, that quote from Kerouac has been wonderful for me. I feel he was being very generous. I know he wouldn't have written it if he hadn't liked the work; I think he felt I was carrying on a certain spirit that was influenced by him. He thought I was carrying a torch, and in a spiritual sense, I was.
I hadn't in fact read Kerouac when I wrote The Basketball Diaries. I didn't read On the Road or even Dharma Bums. I read The Town and the City first, which was his first novel and pretty straightforward in form. I hadn't read him and I hadn't read Burroughs—but I had read Ginsberg by the time I got to the middle part of the book as well as Frank O'Hara and John Ashberry and all the poets in the Donald Allen anthology.
There is one final thing about which I am curious. There is a mysteriously named character in Forced Entries called “D.M.Z.” Who is it?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5610
SOURCE: “‘A Sickness That Takes Years to Perfect’: Jim Carroll's Alchemical Vision” in Dionysos: Literature and Addiction Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 6-19.
[In the following essay, Carter offers an assessment of Carroll's diaries, poems, and rock lyrics. Carter discusses the role of Carroll's drug use and addiction in the “ongoing struggle to transform the raw materials of his life into a pure reality” that defines him as an artist.]
pollution is a result of the inability of man to transform waste. the transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man. gold, being the chosen alloy, must be resurrected—via shit, at all cost. inherent within us is the dream and task of the alchemist. to create from clay a man. and to recapture from the excretions of man pure and soft then solid gold.
—Patti Smith, “The Salvation of Rock,” Babel (140)
Jim Carroll was 12 years old when he realized that he was immersed in a world rife with corruption, where respectability was synonymous with hypocrisy, where proper appearances merely concealed depravity, where authority figures used their power to oppress others, and where it seemed someone was always trying “to steal the light from [his] eyes” (“City Drops”). It was 1962, and a war was raging in Vietnam. On the home front, racism ran rampant, and air raid sirens wailed as Khrushchev warned, “We will bury you” and “Your children will live under Communism” (Morris 19). Carroll, a street punk and star basketball player from the lower east side of Manhattan, sought some way to rise above the desolation and insanity of his circumstances to find out what was inside himself and achieve his full potential. Being a basketball star couldn't save him: he had to find a new way to transcend the emptiness and hypocrisy of his world by virtue of his own integrity, talent, and vision. So, in the midst of chaos, at the age of 12, he began to write.
Carroll's diaries, poems, and rock lyrics over the past 33 years reflect his ongoing struggle to transform the raw materials of his life into a pure reality, and his drug use/addiction, “the sickness [he] took years to perfect,”1 has played a significant role in this process. As a teenager, Carroll needed to find a reality that didn't lie to him—that came to him directly, without mediation or circumvention—and in Winter 1964, just before he entered Trinity High School, he tried heroin for the first time. He writes in The Basketball Diaries:
I was just gonna sniff a bag but Tony said I might as well skin pop it. I said OK. Then Pudgy says, ‘Well, if you're gonna put a needle in, you might as well mainline it.’ I was scared to main, but I gave in, Pudgy hit it in for me. I did half a fiver and, shit, what a rush … just one long heat wave all through my body, any ache I had flushed out. You can never top that first rush, it's like ten orgasms. … So, as simple as a walk into that cellar, I lost my virgin veins. (30)
While Carroll rationalizes this extreme act as a result of peer pressure, the fact is that he sacrificed his innocence, his “virgin veins,” for what he considered the pure, intense reality of heroin. His first shot of heroin was no symbolic gesture: he effectively broke loose from the hypocritical world which always threatened to crush him and leapt headlong into the underground. His descent into the drug culture was somewhat haphazard, embarked upon without much foresight, but this act eclipsed every “super layup” he ever made on the basketball court. Through drugs and his participation in underground culture, Carroll felt he had discovered the honest, direct reality he had been seeking but which “respectable” society denied him.
Ironically, Carroll entered the underground at just the moment when possibilities began to open up for him in “respectable” society. Carroll's basketball coach had helped him earn an athletic/academic scholarship to Trinity, an elite Catholic high school. There, Carroll was a star basketball player (he played in the National High School All Star Basketball Game in Washington, D.C., in 1966 [The Basketball Diaries 153-55]), but his equal passions for self-examination, new experiences, drugs, and writing were beginning to overtake his love of athletics. Carroll told Ted Berrigan that:
By the time I got to Trinity the straight Jock trip had begun to wear a little thin … I still had as much charge, but I simply began getting off into new directions, like pills, sex, drugs, booze, and the New American Poetry. I had been keeping my basketball diaries since I was 12, and so when I got turned on to poetry at Trinity, writing it just came naturally. I read Howl first, I guess. Then Frank [O'Hara]. (9)
For Carroll, sex, drugs, and poetry were intimately related; hence, at the same time his dabbling in drugs exploded into full-blown heroin addiction, forcing him to hustle gay men to support his habit, Carroll's passion for poetry blossomed. As John Milward notes, “… Ginsberg and e.e. cummings taught [Carroll] that poetry was not a hermetic academic pursuit,” and, “Initially he saw [heroin], as a means to a literary end” (142). Carroll explained, “Junk made me alert. … for me the nods were magic—when the cigarette butt would burn your fingers, you'd jump back in total surprise that you weren't actually on that beach with the sun kissing the horizon. But the nods weren't like dreaming—there was no surrealism. Just an intensified reality” (142, 170).
One effect of Carroll's descent into the underground and his experimentation with drugs was a new way of seeing his world, and he applied this new vision to his diaries and early poems. His vision, he knew, was based on the solidity, the integrity, of his underground existence and of the concrete world around him, and writing gave him absolute freedom to transform that world. He describes this freedom in one of the most powerful passages of The Basketball Diaries:
I think about poetry and how I see it as a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way words are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape. I just get the images from the upstairs vault (it all comes in images) and fling 'em around like bricks, sometimes clean and smooth and then sloppy and ready to fall on top of you later. Like this house where I got to sometimes tear out a room and make it another size or shape so the rest makes sense … or no sense at all. And when I'm done I'm stoned as on whatever you got in your pockets right now, dig? (159)
Through writing he takes possession of his reality and transforms it. If his world is chaotic and ugly, he can forge coherence and beauty in his diaries and poems; if his reality is unalterable, he can create and fulfill infinite possibilities with his pen.
One interesting example of the way Carroll transforms concrete reality and expands its possibilities can be seen in some early poems which draw imagery from the preliminaries to the “Winkie and Blinkie” passage of The Basketball Diaries. In the diary, Carroll is on a bus to Long Beach, Long Island, having just swallowed two bottles of codeine cough syrup: “I was trying to cop a short nod again on the bus ride but this crazy old lady keeps giving me shit about being a commie because I got a red tee-shirt on. … she goes on insisting that she has this vision that I'm gonna die within a month because a giant clock was gonna fall on my head” (58). In some of his earliest poems he offers three different perspectives on this experience, first in “2nd Train (for Frank O'Hara),” from Organic Trains:2
Today at the Long Beach Station everything was amazingly white and sand was stuck in my tennis sneakers that seems to be the way things are going lately I was forewarned about clocks falling on me so all I felt was 8 colors as my wrist watch flew into the sky's cheek. watches are very symbolic of security they remind me of Frank O'Hara. Frank O'Hara reminds me of many wonderful things, as does the vanilla light which is dripping from his January eyes.
Then again in another Organic Trains poem, “3rd Train (for THE SUMMERS)”:
A woman comes up to me and questions the aesthetic value of a red tee shirt this was the same woman who yesterday warned me about clocks I'm convinced she was a communist. (9)
And finally, an uncollected poem, “Red Rabbit Running Backwards (for A. W.),” offers yet another variation on the same scenario:
… The aesthetic value of a red tee shirt you making me see that could be what I mean if it were not for the fact that the hurricane has bent the trees and I can't see anything, in fact can only feel. can only feel the 8 colors inside which somehow seem to indicate that all the clocks are falling on and around me from the sky. The Communists know what I mean. …
In each poem, concrete “facts” from his experience metamorphose into something entirely new. In fact, Carroll's poetry is almost self-generating, with one poem or diary taking off from another to create ever more expanding worlds of almost infinite possibility. “Red Rabbit Running Backwards,” for example, takes off from the first line of “11th Train” and recycles lines from nearly every poem in Organic Trains.
The ties between drugs and Carroll's expanding artistic vision especially begin to emerge in his diary descriptions of his “nods,” or drug-induced experiences, some of the most poetic passages in the Diaries. Describing an L.S.D. trip, he writes:
At dawn light came in shafts and led me to some fields nearby to watch the tall reeds wave and then become fingers calling me over. I rolled in the dew drenched things as though they were lifting me across and through them with the fingers and my body did no work at all, in fact, I forgot all about any body I had and left it behind finally, thinking I was just a spirit flashing incredibly fast all through, wiping up the dew invisibly. (129)
Another tab of L.S.D. leaves him “listening to some sparks fly out of an unknown album of jazz … literal sparks, all around as that music ran” (133). Later, he finds in his pants pocket a poem “I wrote on an experience with L.S.D. a while ago”:
Little kids shoot marbles where the branches break the sun
into graceful shafts of light I just want to be pure. (140).
Carroll's drug experiences not only inspire his poems and diaries, he also wants his poems and diaries to duplicate and produce the same effects as his nods. In one diary, after drinking codeine cough syrup, he writes: “I was so zonked that I'd let whole cigarettes burn down to the filter and burn my fingers without taking one drag. We had about six hours more of good solid nods and then sat around and rapped slowly about all our little visual dreams that passed in our heads clear as movies” (82-83). Significantly, in 1974, Carroll duplicated this imagery in his poetic statement for Rolling Stone: “I find that my poems have all turned into sheer verbal movie, image over image into kind of dream machines in every form, so that the reader depends a lot on the intensity of the final rush. The more capable one is of just plain nodding off and feeling from each line … the better” (Margolis 42).
These passages give some notion of where the title of his third book of poems, Living at the Movies (1973),3 comes from: Carroll attempts to create poems which produce the same “rush” as drugs, which to him is like the fleeting, though concrete, images of a film. For him, writing should be as intense as a heroin rush: the reader and writer alike should experience poetry much as a drug user feels a high—as a physical, mental, and spiritual rush. Perhaps most importantly within the context of the Diaries, this implies that drug use for Carroll is not an escape into oblivion, but (at least initially) an active, disciplined process. Carroll explained to Milward, “I wanted to see what oblivion was like without staying in that pit. I wanted to see everything that was in me, and junk slowed things down so I could take it all in. … it was like sliding into a tunnel of my own design” (170). At the same time, Carroll's drug use and poetry allow him to create a reality different from the ugliness and brutality of his everyday life. Carroll told Danny O'Bryan and Mark Reese that “in poetry I wanted to be taken out of my quotidian life … spirituality comes from trying to get out of myself so I could go into myself from a different direction” (Poem, Interview, Photographs ).
The “quotidian life” Carroll transforms in his poetry is often that of The Basketball Diaries, which is itself a transformation of Carroll's reality. Had he never written a word, Carroll might have been just another New York street punk grown up (or dead), a star basketball player gone to waste, a heroin addict, a hustler; he might have been numbered among the excrement of human society, polluted and unable to resurrect the debris of his life. But The Basketball Diaries performs an amazing feat of alchemy, transforming the waste of Carroll's adolescence into a victory. In the tradition of [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, [Arthur] Rimbaud, [Jean] Genet, and William Burroughs, Carroll is not being decadent for the sake of decadence, nor is he attempting to self-destruct. Carroll uses his “nods,” as well as his own corruption, to broaden his vision and see new things, about which he can write afterward. As with his poetry, writing diaries enables Carroll to impose order upon the chaos of his life, transform its ugliness into beauty, and explore infinite possibilities, but it is also a weapon. In the Diaries, Carroll's drug use/abuse and marginal/decadent status are the ammunition he uses to assault the corrupt social order which made his life chaotic and ugly in the first place.
In one sense, like Burroughs, Carroll serves up a “naked lunch,” displaying the depravity and hypocrisy inherent in a so-called “respectable” society unwilling to face itself. The “establishment” points an accusing finger at “them commies,” “longhairs,” “niggers” and “spics,” “junkies,” and “perverts,” refusing to acknowledge its own corruption. But with New York City as “the greatest hero a writer needs,” Carroll lays bare “what's really going down out there in the pretty streets with double garages” The Basketball Diaries 160). What's “really going down” is that the Communist threat is “some dream dreamed up to take the rap for you” (127); that the “‘fine’ Christian Brothers” of the Catholic Church are getting their kicks “running around with their rubber straps beating asses red for the least little goofing” (18), and “deriving some pleasure out of these dutiful tasks thrust upon [them]” (35). While narcotics forces claim to be out saving the nation, dauntlessly battling the drug epidemic, they're “rapping right out loud to each other how much they ought to give in for evidence and what they ought to keep to sell for themselves back onto the street” (128). In disclosing this reality, he attempts to “get even for your dumb hatreds and all them war baby dreams you left in my scarred bed with dreams of bombs falling above that cliff I'm hanging steady onto” (160).
More importantly, though “there is nothing so calculated about Jim Carroll's excursion into the inferno,” as Jamie James notes, in a way Carroll follows a program similar to Arthur Rimbaud's, cultivating “the sickness [he] took years to perfect.” Carroll becomes all of the evil things society fears. He grows his hair long, becomes a “minority” within minority culture, steals, attends Communist Party meetings and protest marches, gets hooked on heroin, and hustles gay men to support his habit. Rimbaud believed that becoming a visionary requires one “to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses,” and to become as depraved as possible (100). “[T]he problem is to make the soul into a monster,” Rimbaud writes; “Think of a man grafting warts onto his face and growing them there” (102). In The Basketball Diaries, Carroll is making himself into a visionary; he is Rimbaud's “great criminal” (102) against the so-called traditional values of society because he dares to swallow all the poisons his world has to offer, transforming what is useful to him, and spitting the rest out. Rather than passively allowing himself to become polluted, he seeks out corruption, then filters it through actions and words. His vision of his world is entirely his own, and he paints a portrait of this world in his own language—in slang and street rap. Through his actions, clarity of vision, and street lingo, he uncovers the emptiness of his world's values, challenges them, and forges his own, new values through a relentless exploration of himself.
Because he can see clearly, and because he is able to write about his experience, he inverts the established reality of heroes and villains, exposing the hypocrisy inherent in a “respectable” world unwilling to face itself. As he puts it:
Some lady professor … asked at one point if we weren't scared of the drug scene, then weren't we at least feeling guilty about using junk. I think now and that pisses me off. Like what is guilty or who is guilty for fuck sake? Big business dudes make billions come out of their ass and they ain't shelling out a reefer's worth of tax. Kids walk through some jungle I don't know how far away and shoot people, and white haired old men in smoking jacket armchairs make laws to keep it all going smoothly. I swim in the river and have to duck huge amounts of shit and grease and “newly discovered miracle fibers” every five feet I move because those smokestack companies don't give a flying fuck … Shit my man, it's so all there that no one's seeing it anymore. (199)
Carroll says, “The real junkie should be raised up for saying fuck you to all this shit city jive, for going on with all the risks and hassles and con, willing to face the rap” (189), and he descends into the abyss, into the darkest depths of heroin abuse, prostitution, and theft; into the bowels of a corrupt society. But because he is in possession of his own vision, he transcends the hypocrisy of “respectable” society; he is able to purge himself of this corruption and remain pure. As he told Lynn Hirschberg in 1979,
Purity means that you always have something up your sleeve, that you have something you've earned, that you have something to move toward, that your vision is intact. Purity, to me, exists within states of what would be thought of as impure. You can live within a state of total decay. You can live in that state and still be totally pure if your vision remains intact, if you know that you've got to keep moving ahead because you haven't reached that light yet, the light at the end of the tunnel. (27)
In The Basketball Diaries, within a “state of total decay,” Carroll seeks to purify himself through the integrity of his own vision. His awareness of the corruption surrounding him on all sides heightens his urgent sense that there must be a “light at the end of the tunnel,” and it is up to him alone to reach it.
Carroll said in an interview with Barbara Graustark, “Susan Sontag once told me that a junkie has a unique chance to rise up and start over” (81), and the ending of The Basketball Diaries offers that possibility. The final entry finds Carroll at the bottom of the pit, in the darkest depths of excess, stoned for four days straight. As he emerges from his drug-induced stupor, he looks around, realizing for perhaps the first time the depths he has reached. While he has physically lost all control and dignity, and while his environment is filthy and disgusting, his writing prevails. He details what he sees so poetically, and with such striking precision, that the scene becomes almost beautiful:
In ten minutes it will make four days that I've been nodding on this ratty mattress up here in Headquarters. Haven't eaten except for three carrots and two Nestle's fruit and nut bars and both my forearms sore as shit with all the little specks of caked blood covering them. My two sets of gimmicks right along side me in the slightly bloody water in the plastic cup on the crusty linoleum, probably used by every case of hepatitis in upper Manhattan by now. Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags. Four days of temporary death gone by, no more bread, with its hundreds of casual theories, soaky nostalgia (I could have got that for free walking along Fifth Avenue at noon), at any rate, a thousand goofs, some still hazy in my noodle. (209)
As his clarity of vision returns, Carroll needs to purge himself of the poison and make a resurrection; he thinks
about my conversation with Brian: “Ever notice how a junkie nodding begins to look like a foetus after a while?” “That's what it's all about, man, back to the womb.” … A wasted peek into the mirror, I'm all thin as a wafer of concentrated rye. I wish I had some now with a little Cheez-Whiz on it. I can feel the window light hurting my eyes; it's like shooting pickle juice. … Nice June day out today, lots of people probably graduating. I can see the Cloisters with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window. I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure … (210)
It's an optimistic conclusion—but, unfortunately, Carroll remained addicted to heroin until well into his twenties, as is documented in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973 (which actually covers a period more like 1968-74). Eventually, Carroll realized that he had become a cartoon version of the “drugged out poet,” and he had made a mockery of his own poetic vision. In Forced Entries, he admits:
I'm sick of writing about dope, about drugs in every form. I'm sick of recording the ups and downs of indulgence, and sick of releasing dispatches of misery via abstinence. I thought I could deal with, perhaps even come to understand, my obsessions through some strained eloquence. I thought I could eventually pierce every veil through chance metaphor, but how many flowers can serve as metaphors for that initial mingling of blood and water encased in the barrel of a syringe? (120-21)
He knows, “It can't go on. My body is broke. I'm shitting where I eat” (114). In Forced Entries, Carroll records his discovery that his addiction was destroying his only source of purity: his writing. As he puts it, “I can't attempt to write always in the hollow flux of desperation and incipient terror” (114), and, “The fact is that instead of freeing myself through language, the language itself has become a hostage, and the room where we are held becomes smaller every day. … Only without boundaries can the words transform into something beyond themselves” (121). Finally, around 1974, he fled to Bolinas, California, and successfully conquered his addiction through a methadone treatment program.
Even after his recovery, though, Carroll has continued to seek a pure reality; specifically, his ongoing project has been the retroactive transformation of his past and of the addicted self he cultivated for so much of his life. In the 1980s, this transformation took form in Carroll's entry into rock music. In light of his recovery from heroin addiction, the first Jim Carroll Band album, Catholic Boy (1980), reinterprets The Basketball Diaries as a journey through hell which led to redemption. “I was a Catholic boy, redeemed through pain, not through joy,” Carroll sings in the title song, and “City Drops Into the Night” describes the process of this redemption. In Carroll's experience, it is at moments of absolute decadence, “When the body at the bottom / That body is my own reflection,” when salvation is realizable. At that moment, endless possibilities open up: “Before the darkness there's one moment of light,” when everything can change. The characters in the song find themselves at turning points, when their situations can change radically, for better or worse:
It's when ambitious little girls start to dream about a change in style It's when the slick boys got their fingers in the telephone dial . …. …. …. … It's when the sneak thieves are checkin' the alleys for unlocked doors And Billy's sister's gettin' frantic 'cause Billy's sister's little brother can't score
For Carroll, one “moment of light” came and went in the final entry of The Basketball Diaries, as he wallowed in the deepest depths of heroin abuse and wrote, “I just want to be pure.” During the period of Forced Entries, another opportunity opened up when Carroll hit bottom and decided to leave New York.
The ending of “City Drops Into the Night” also reveals the specific nature of Carroll's salvation. First, he had to realize the prison he had built for himself in the endless cycle of obsession and heroin abuse:
They're always gonna come to your door They're gonna say it's just a routine inspection But what do you get when you open your door? What you get is just another injection And there's always gonna be one more With just a little bit less until the next one
The “dealer” (of drugs, fame, whatever) is always willing to oblige a habit and, in doing so, they and the drug become rulers of the addict's fate. But the sense Carroll conveys is that the cravings and corrupting/controlling forces will continue to impinge upon the addict so long as s/he perpetuates the addiction. Eventually, as the addict descends further into the abyss and gives him/herself over to her/his obsessions, the addiction and corrupting forces siphon away any vestige of hope the addict might have. As callous as a mugger hiding in a darkened alley and robbing a passer-by of her life savings, these corrupting forces “wait in shadows and steal the light from your eyes / To them, vision's just some costly infection.” And once the addict has been robbed of all hope and of the artistic vision which will offer salvation, the “moment of light” passes, leaving the addict with nothing but darkness, despair, and corruption. But Carroll seized upon the moment of light in time and he was redeemed. Hence, as he concludes the song, he transforms the drug metaphor as he becomes the “dealer” who, rather than doling out corruption, deals revelation and hope:
You should come with me I'm the fire, I'm the fire's reflection I'm just a constant warning To take the other direction Mister, I am your connection.
Like Rimbaud's poet, Carroll becomes “truly the thief of fire” (103), transforming himself into a modern-day Prometheus, shedding light on the underground experience, the trap of addiction, and the natures of fame and art. He shows that it is possible to make it all new—to enlarge and grasp that moment of light. He becomes “the fire's reflection,” the reflection of both the ugliness and the beauty of addiction and underground experience.
Carroll's point is that no matter how deeply an individual descends into the abyss, redemption is still possible through a finely-tuned artistic vision, and he has continued to stand by this belief. Recently he published “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain” (1994), in which he identifies with the anguish which led Cobain to suicide, alluding to a number of his own autobiographical works.4 In the first fragment, referring to his own experience with the hazards of genius (“Which starts as a kiss / and ends like a curse” [“Nothing Is True”]), the connections between his vision and drugs, and the difficulties he faced in breaking free from addiction, he observes,
Genius is not a generous thing In return it charges more interest than any amount of royalties can cover / And it resents fame With bitter vengeance
Pills and powders only placate it awhile Then it puts you in a place where the planet's poles reverse. Where the currents of electricity shift
Your body becomes a magnet and pulls to it despair and rotten teeth, Cheese whiz and guns.
But he asks Cobain in the seventh fragment:
But Kurt … Didn't the thought that you would never write another song Another feverish line or riff Make you think twice? That's what I don't understand Because it's kept me alive, above any wounds.
Perhaps drugs were Carroll's inspiration, their effects his ideal model for poetry—but it was his writing itself, his need to write and create a pure reality, that saved his life and has kept him going for forty-five years. He writes in Forced Entries, “I think of my past as if it were some exquisite antique knife … you can use it to defend yourself or slit your own throat, but you can't just keep it mounted on some wall” (2). Carroll has yet to leave his past frozen, “mounted on some wall” for perpetuity. He is in a constant process of “Doing now what is / Needed for what / I am becoming” (“Coda”): not only has he written two autobiographies (Forced Entries was published in 1987), he also reworks his life in other forms, poetry and rock music, within which he continually experiments with new ways to relate his experience. Hence, with each work, he perpetually revises his autobiography so that it is always new, always alive, and never quite finished. While Carroll's sickness took years to perfect, transforming it into something beyond itself is a project to last a lifetime.
Carroll refers to his heroin addiction as “the sickness I took years to perfect” in his poem “Paregoric Babies” (Living at the Movies 99; Fear of Dreaming 101), his second diary Forced Entries (182), and in his song “Dance the Night Away” on I Write Your Name.
Organic Trains is Carroll's first book of poetry, a limited edition published in 1967 when he was 16 (Kuennen 84). According to his 1968 Trinity High School yearbook, Carroll was “The first of the class of '68 to be published …” (qtd. in Musser 1).
Carroll's second collection of poetry is 4 Ups and 1 Down (1970), an eight-page, limited edition pamphlet containing five poems, all of which are reprinted in Living at the Movies.
Carroll's references in the poem to his own published works are extensive. See “Coda” in Fear of Dreaming (273) for financial accounting imagery similar to that in the first fragment. See also “Rock 'n' Roll” in Forced Entries (164-65), “Them” on Dry Dreams, and “City Drops Into the Night” on Catholic Boy for Carroll's views on the relationship between genius/vision and fame, to which he alludes in the first and second fragments. For the magnet imagery in the first fragment, see “The Loft Party” in Forced Entries, where Carroll writes, “I should split, but this city is like a lodestone, and I'm a tin motherfucker” (107); and “this place is a lodestone, and its reach is as long as all our doomed desires” (108). Also, “Extractions” deals with the problem of a rotten tooth, which comes to represent the pain of his past (FE 134-37). The final entry of The Basketball Diaries contains the Cheez-Whiz reference (210); in an earlier entry, Carroll discusses the growing importance of writing as his reason “to hang on a bit longer” (151). In addition, Carroll's references to “guitar claws” and rock audiences in the second fragment repeat imagery he uses in one of The Book of Nods's “New York City Variations” and “Poem” (see Fear of Dreaming 191, 225). The concluding lines of the eighth fragment, “Which starts out as a kiss / And follows like a curse,” are from his song, “Nothing is True,” on Catholic Boy. These are but a few of Carroll's intertextual allusions.
Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. London: Hamilton, 1987.
———. Dickens. New York: Sinclair Stevenson, 1991.
Berrigan, Ted. “Jim Carroll.” Culture Hero 1.5 (1969): 9-10.
Carroll, Jim. The Basketball Diaries. 1978. New York: Penguin, 1987.
———. Catholic Boy. Atco-Atlantic, SD 38-132, 1980.
———. “City Drops Into the Night.” Catholic Boy. Atco-Atlantic, SD 38-132, 1980. ———.
———. “Coda.” Fear of Dreaming 273.
———. “Dance the Night Away.” I Write Your Name. Atlantic, 80123-2, 1983.
———. “Nothing Is True.” Catholic Boy. Atco-Atlantic, SD 38-132, 1980.
———. Poem, Interview, Photographs. Published in Heaven Chapbook 50. Louisville, KY: White Fields, 1994.
———. “Them.” Dry Dreams. Atco-Atlantic, SD 38-145, 1982.
———. “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain.” Poem, Interview, Photographs. Published in Heaven Chapbook 50. Louisville, KY: White Fields, 1994. Rpt. New York Times Magazine 1 Jan. 1995: 31.
———. Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll. New York: Penguin, 1993.
———. Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973. New York: Penguin, 1987.
———. 4 Ups and 1 Down. New York: Angel Hair, 1970.
———. Living at the Movies. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1981.
———. Organic Trains. [New Jersey]: Penny Press, 1967.
———. “Red Rabbit Running Backwards (for A.W.).” Stone Wind 4 (1973?): 113.
Graustark, Barbara. “Mean Streets.” Newsweek 8 Sep. 1980: 80-81.
Hirschberg, Lynn. “Jim Carroll: The Vision Explodes.” BAM 15 Aug. 1980: 24-27.
James, Jamie. Rev. of The Basketball Diaries. American Book Review 2.3 (1980): 9.
Kuennen, Cassie Carter. “Jim Carroll: An Annotated, Selective, Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1967-1988.” Bulletin of Bibliography 47.2 (1990): 81-112.
Margolis, Susan. “100 American Seducers on Their Craft & Sullen Art.” Rolling Stone 16 Aug. 1973: 42-49.
Milward, John. “Catholic Boy.” Penthouse Mar. 1981: 140+.
Morris, Charles R. A Time of Passion: America 1960-1980. New York: Harper, 1984.
Musser, James P. Skyline Books, Counterculture, Beat & Modern Literature: Jim Carroll. Catalogue. Forrest Knolls, CA: Skyline Books, 1995.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: Perrenial-Harper, 1976.
Smith, Patti. Babel. New York: Putnam's, 1978.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292
SOURCE: A review of Void of Course, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, September 28, 1998, p. 96.
[In the following brief review, the critic discusses the poems in Void of Course.]
An alternately self-exposing and swaggering Bukowskian diarist, Carroll reinforces his rock-star-like pop culture niche with his latest volume of poetry, which somewhat resembles a compilation of power ballads. Given that Carroll’s fame was established by the beloved 1970's memoir of drug addiction The Basketball Diaries, it makes sense that his poetry [in Void of Course] works to further the author’s forever young and ostensibly hip public image, as in this ode to the late Kurt Cobain: “You should have talked more with the monkey / He’s always waiting to negotiate / I’m still paying him off … But Kurt … / Didn’t the thought you’d never write / another song / Another feverish line or riff / Make you think twice?” Carroll runs through a whole gamut of classic rock-star stances in this volume, from the maudlin lover of beauty and love (“You squeeze out the life and poison. / Tightly your pale thin thighs your thick hare lips / last night, our mouths meeting, / it was all we ever wanted to know about the truth”) to the dancefloor (“all the young boys were gyrating”) to the cocksure hombre who can face down even death. While he references writers Frank O’Hara, Jean Genet and Rimbaud throughout. it may be Carroll’s own precarious presence on the scene that gives star power to his pathos, no less winning for its slack charm: “It could be a smudge from the inky thumb / Of a slack X-ray technician / It could be the radiant image / of a tumor on my lung … Monday, I'll learn. / I think I should stick around, you know?”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202
SOURCE: A review of Void of Course, in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 4, October 15, 1998, p. 389.
[In the following brief review, the critic lauds Carroll's poetic ability in Void of Course.]
Carroll, experienced with heroin himself, offers belated advice to the corpse of Kurt Cobain in the volume-opening “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain”: the price of genius mixed with that of fame makes a fatal cocktail, “which starts out as a kiss / And follows like a curse.” Desperation and desire emanate from Carroll’s verse [in Void of Course], but with a certain poignancy, as if these words just have to be said. Carroll exhumes his life and loves, and his candor at times startles. He can shift gears, from a dirge like the Cobain piece to a comical, though no less serious, aside on the avant-garde, Buddha, or his father’s last words (“Promise me that you’ll never eat / Any of that Japanese food. Promise”). Funky, amphetamine rhythm propels the collection and conjures the city, with its tenements, rushing crowds, flickering televisions, and park benches. As Carroll ages and matures, he acknowledges that “I’ve spent too much time / Expended angelic energy / On my own disintegration to hand the contract over / To another now.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7284
SOURCE: “Unspoken Genius,” in Real Detroit Weekly, January 13–19, 2000.
[In the following interview, Alteri questions Carroll about his spoken-word recordings, his feelings about poetry, his drug addiction, and the conflict between his musical career and his literary aspirations.]
[Alteri:] Why did you start doing spoken word performances?
[Carroll:] Well readings is just another name for spoken word performance I guess. When the whole spoken word thing happened, you know new things came along like slams and people doing more amalgamating performance art with spoken word pieces. Usually in the old days, performance art happenings, the best ones, were wordless and so it’s just like a combination of both. I come from the old school where I think any poem worth its salt has to work on the page. But I also think it has to have a natural lyrical quality to it and of course it’s much better if you can hear the person read it but I still believe that you have to delineate on the page by the line. It’s just a matter of technique, short lines slow it up and it just defines how it should be read. I have made concessions from what poetry readings used to be.
In the old days there were certain poets whose poems I really liked on the page who were really dreadful readers, which is true to this day. I think John Ashbery is the best poet alive and he’s a really boring reader. At the same time there are other poets whose poems I didn’t like on the page and they were just fantastic when they read. Like Ginsberg, well I liked Allen’s poems on the page, but he was a fantastic reader too. Other beats, more obscure beat poets like Ray Brahms or somebody like that, whose poems I didn’t like on the page but when he read he had that jazz thing happening, but that’s kind of an old school thing.
I’ve made certain concessions. I did this spoken word record in '93 with no music, Praying Mantis. I put a couple of pieces on that which worked when I read them but I didn’t put in my next book because they didn’t seem to work on the page. I was doing a lot of readings so I thought, I guess I am writing certain pieces for the ear rather than for the page or for the eye. I’m more aware of it and I guess through rock and roll I learned to perform better.
The other thing I started to get into doing monologues. I’d start out with a germ of an idea that wasn’t written down and it’s more like telling a story. It’s difficult because you’re working without a net, you don’t have any page to resort to; if you go off it’s really bad. You really need energy from the audience for something like that. And a lot of them, each time you do them, some new character comes or you get something different and after a while some of them turn into short stories. You write them out and put (them) through the literary machine. Sometimes they work as short stories, I’m working on some of them now and I’ve done that in the past. Others don’t and you just kind of discard those and it’s just as well. That’s more of a spoken word aspect that I wouldn’t do at a poetry reading when I was young.
But aside from that, the other thing is since I write prose and poems I always usually start with prose pieces, whether it’s a monologue or a piece from a book. The problem is I’ve been working on these novels and it’s much different than from taking things like in Forced Entries that are short diary entries and they read very well it’s hard to read from these books because you could go twenty pages and still not hit the germane parts. There are some parts where I can take little fragments. There’s no real plot or anything, there’s just an image that works as a slice. For the most part I find it hard to read from those. I usually like to read prose pieces and have most of them be kind of funny and then the second part of the reading I’ll read poems which are usually more serious but I’ve noticed it depends what poems I read. It seemed at the last reading the poems were pretty funny too.
Most of the poems I read now are from Void of Course, my most recent book. With poems, it’s like with songs, people have certain favorite ones they want to hear and then don’t mind hearing those over and over again, you’re just reading one time a year. But with prose, people want to hear a different piece than they heard the year before. I don’t know exactly what prose pieces I read last year, but I’ll find out and I won’t read the same pieces this time. I don’t know what the difference is, that’s just my way of going about it. The main difference between spoken word and poetry readings, (spoken word) has opened more doors. I’m not really into poetry slams and stuff. Usually the poems that win, and people will even admit it, are their weakest poems they’re just funny, shocking …
Yeah. But it brings more people into it and it makes poetry more accessible in different forms and people can just get into it and then once they're there they can neutralize it from their own taste. In that sense it’s a good thing and all those things are welcome.
The whole thing of spoken word being some phenomenon that’s going to be there with rock and roll is total bullshit. That’s never going to happen, people want a backbeat. I just know from doing both, I could feel the difference from the audience. But there are certain similarities and certain tricks you can bring from rock and roll. Writing a lyric and writing a poem are two different things technically.
It always angered me when critics would refer to the lyrics as poems because they’re very different (even if) in the aesthetic sense you try and do the same thing. But I don’t think that spoken word is going to eclipse music in any sense. I see people incorporating it at different times in a useful way and that’s good. Someone will come along and put it all together in some unique way but I don't who that's going to be.
Do you think that poetry has become more accessible to the public?
Yeah. I think so, I mean poetry as spoken word. I think rap has helped do that. In New York there’s a lot of rap guys who go to spoken word venues like the Nuyorican Cafe and they’ve been taken in. At first they was a separation and some antagonism but now a lot of rap guys are just reading their pieces without any music.
I think it makes it all more accessible because poetry readings (are) not something that everybody is going to get into. That’s why I’ll start off with a prose piece that’s funny and more accessible to people who are not used to it (poetry readings) because it’s an acquired taste. I see it with all these kids.
I have this new audience of kids who bought The Basketball Diaries after the movie came out, which surprised me because I thought they’d just see it because of Leonardo or Marky or something. When it went back on the New York Times Bestseller List my publisher and I couldn’t figure out who was buying all these books and it turned out to be all these kids. I soon started to get all these letters from these kids like between 12 and 18 and they would show up at readings. That was great because I always liked kids who were the age when I wrote the book reading it. It certainly brought up some problems for me in the past couple years. Most of the letters I get from kids, they’ve read The Basketball Diaries and then they actually did go out and buy my books of poems and they hadn’t really read poems before and they dig 'em. That’s good from another direction. I think it is more accessible now and it is bigger. I just mean not on the level of rock or anything.
When you wrote The Basketball Diaries and when they were subsequently published, did you have any idea the impact they would have?
No When I wrote them I had no idea but you have to remember when I wrote them I didn’t think about publishing them. I didn’t write them as a dear diary, I did write them for an audience really even if I didn’t know it at the time. I was addressing an audience. I say it right in the book sometimes. But I didn’t think about publishing it because then I got into poetry and pushed that aside.
Then they had a prose issue of this poetry magazine and they asked me if I had any prose, this was when I was about 17 or 18, and I said, “Well I have these diaries I wrote and they’d be kind of camp in a certain way.” I remember Ted Berrigan, a poet who was like a big mentor of mine, a big brother, he said, “This is a money book, man.”
Then the people at the Paris Review read them and said, “You should send us about thirty pages.” So when they were published there I got all these letters from publishers who wanted to do it, but I didn’t publish it then, this was in 1970. I just didn’t think it was a good time to publish it because it wasn’t really a hippie book.
When I started to do music I looked at the diaries, I had been in the recluse period in California for years and I hadn’t thought about publishing anything really. I had to go to New York and I brought The Basketball Diaries with me because I thought that if The Ramones are writing songs about guys sniffing glue and there’s all these pieces about sniffing glue and cleaning fluid in the Diaries. I think it’s much closer to the punk audience. So I waited until then. I guess it was just a thing of timing at that point.
The way its gone on through other generations since then has been interesting to me. The whole thing of the shit in Kentucky and Columbine is weird and I don’t know what that’s about. I can’t account for the impact, the only thing I can think that separates it from other books like that is it was written at the time when I was that age. It wasn’t a book about youth looking back. I mean they are great books like Catcher in the Rye that are written looking back and that’s just coming from another angle. That book certainly has spawned a lot of havoc too. It also may be because they’re in diary form but still read like a novel in a certain way. It lets kids read them (by) skipping around at first.
I remember when I first published it and I sent a copy to Sam Shepperd. He sent me this letter, because he’d read them in magazines over the years. I was living near him in California and I said, “I finally published the fuckin’ thing.” He said “send me a copy.” When he first read it he read them just skipping around and he thought he read them all and then he’d find one he hadn’t read and it was like a bonus. But then he read it cover to cover and he said it had a completely different effect. I thought that was really terrific.
I know when Bantam first published it they did some kind of study on how many people had read different Bantam books for each copy sold and The Basketball Diaries had the most people who read it for each copy sold because it was borrowed from so many people.
Whenever I do booksignings people are always saying, “Could you make this out to so and so because I stole his copy and this is the only way I can become friends again, if I get a signed copy.” You know you can pick it up and just read two excerpts and stick it in your pocket and leave. (You can) read it that way and then get a different take reading it cover to cover.
It’s also one of the most stolen books apparently. The guy at Barnes and Noble told me. In a lot of bookstores, with Charles Bukowski and (William) Burroughs and (Jack) Kerouac I think, it’s in the information section because it’s stolen a lot.
Wow, that’s cool.
Yeah it’s kind of cool.
Does it bother you that The Basketball Diaries is your most well-known work?
Yes. That’s why I’m working on these books now. These novels, the one I’m working on now, is in the third person, it’s not autobiographical at all. Of course it bothers me, I mean my first album was the most successful album by far too. I mean that happens. It happened with On the Road, well On the Road wasn’t Kerouac’s first book but the Town and City didn’t sell at all. It happened with Patti’s (Smith) first album, well at least it was more successful commercially. I mean it’s her fans favorite album. I don’t know what that has to do with it, but it pisses me off at times, you know? What are you going to do though?
Do you think of yourself more as a poet rather than a diarist or a novelist?
Yeah I always thought of myself as a poet. That’s what I made up my mind I was going to be when I was like 15 or 16. And you know I had success very early, I was kind of the token prodigy at St. Mark’s (Poetry Project) which is a good thing and a bad thing. Early success can lead to an arrested adolescence in a way which is not good. But I’ve always basically thought of myself as a poet.
With rock and roll it was a complete fluke how I got into that. I was writing some songs for other groups and then, since with punk you really didn’t have to have a good voice or anything, there was a local band all ready-made when I was on the West coast who wanted to do something with me. It just went over really well and then we started to work together. I came to New York and got a record deal. I never would have imagined I would have been doing that.
With prose, I have a sense of prose that brings me enjoyment. Since I’m working in total fiction, the characters are entertaining to me and they’re like real people whereas poetry I’m dealing with taking myself out of my day to day life in a much different way. But actually in Void of Course the poems are much more about dealing with myself than in my earlier poems where they were more erudite in a certain sense. (There’s a lot of) angst, betrayal—it’s not a happy book. (A poet) is just always been what I thought I was and was meant to be. These other things just seem to come up you know?
I think if I was starting all over now being a writer, I’d probably be dealing with film. All the young writers I know who are really talented in New York are all into film. They either write screenplays or [are] directing. Actually I’m kind of working on this screenplay myself now you know, but I can’t throw myself into it like these guys can. Also being around film now I see that any half-ass can direct, you just need a good director of photography, a good cinematographer and you’re fine. So that’s not such a big deal.
When Harmony Korine first sent me a copy of the screenplay for KIDS I read it through and it was like a fucking novel to me I never read a screenplay like that. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. He’d been trying to get in touch with me for years and I called him up immediately and said, “This is fucking great.” He’s incredibly well-read but he doesn’t really have much interest in writing novels or anything like that. He published a book of little short surreal pieces but I think that was just because he was doing them and he was hot and they gave him a lot of money for it (laughs). I mean even guys who started out writing books like Sherman Alexie, he’s totally more into film now it seems to me.
Richie Price, who’s a big screenwriter, he’s a contemporary of mine, and he always said when he went out to Hollywood, “You should come out here, man. There’s a fucking fortune just for writing a three page outline.” And it’s true, but he could write rewrites really fast and I’m not really that good at that. So it’s a different thing for me. I just feel like if I went out there, I’d just be stuck there so I try to avoid it at all costs.
You worked with and hung out with a lot of seminal people in the art/literary/punk scene, did that influence your work at all?
Well not really. I mean when people started to make it or deciding what their best medium was, I left New York (in '73 when Living at the Movies came out) and went to California. (I) was kind of away from that whole scene. I mean it depends on the people. Do you mean the older people like Allen (Ginsberg) or are you talking about people like Patti Smith from the punk scene?
Both, I mean you were sort of in both weren’t you?
Well yeah. Poetry-wise I liked Allen’s poems and I was influenced by his mind. I talked to him a lot about politics and stuff but I wasn’t into the Beats so much poetry-wise. I was more into the New York School guys. The Basketball Diaries kind of has that Beat writing thing, but I wrote that so young.
In poetry I wanted to get away from that. I was a little snot. I wanted to be more erudite and I was more influenced by Frank O’Hara and (John) Ashbery and the New York School who were coming from the French and German poets. But in a way I definitely learned a lot from Allen. Burroughs, out of all those writers, I think I learned a lot reading his books.
But with Patti when I first knew her she had just left art school and she was mainly doing drawings. Then she started to write poems and she would show them to me. She was just starting to put a band together when I left New York. I saw her first couple of shows and I thought, well this is the medium for her. I always knew Patti, just from being with her, had this vacillation from this sweetness to this total rage and magic thing happening so I always knew she was a great performer just from her first poetry reading.
Her poems to me were much better, the words to me, were much better set to music than they were at the page. I think she’s written some good poems and they’re really unique. I could see, this was when she just had Lenny (Kaye) playing guitar and Richard Sole playing keyboards, she didn’t have a drummer or anything.
My only connection when I was in California was reading the Village Voice. In about three years the whole thing was happening at CBGB’s and the Mercer Arts Center and Patti was just a huge star, I mean it surprised me on that level but it didn’t surprise me. She was made for rock and roll and it was made for her.
Then people like Richard Hell, who was Richard Meyers when I left, just hanging around the poetry scene and stuff. I wonder a lot what would have happened if I stayed in New York. If I would have gotten into music too. I don’t know if I would have. My little snot-nosed tendencies (laughs) might have made me say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” I think that it was just the right thing for me to do at that time, to get away. That was the best influence for me and just being by myself alone and in the country for the first time in my life and having a dog. My dog was my biggest influence on my work (laughs).
Of course all the poets like Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman who were around St. Mark’s were I guess the biggest influences on me, I learned a lot. But (when) the whole burgeoning of the punk scene (happened), the highlight of my day was going to the post office in this little town in California while everybody was being wild at CBGB’s. I kind of miss it, the fact that I wasn’t there.
All those people were influences on my life and since my life was pretty much so connected to my work, it was kind of the same thing. Just from being with Patti, I had this Apollonian craft thing and she was completely dionysian just let it all blow out. A lot of that rubbed off of me as much as it could, so in that sense it was a big influence just in a personal sense from all those people. But then I was away, so I can’t say it was a huge influence like in a direct literary sense.
When you got started in rock and roll, how did you keep that persona different from Jim Carroll the writer?
I had to put the writer thing aside. I can’t stand doing things in any dilettantish sense and I thought the first thing people were going to look for was, “This is just some fucking pretentious shit” or something. I was really conscious of that and I just thought if I was going to do rock and roll, I just got to throw myself into it completely.
The thing I really always liked best, and maybe that’s why I did side projects often in different mediums, was I liked to learn new things. It was just great learning about music. I always could play the guitar in a limited sense but not well at all, enough to write music to songs. Music always influenced my writing a lot, inspired it and I listened to a song and it would inspire me to write a poem more than it would if I had read a poem when I was a young poet.
But when I started to actually do rock and roll, and certainly when I started to do rock and roll I think the freedom for that was just given to me by what people were doing in New York at CBGB’s. I just felt that I had put aside the writing aspect and just write songs and, like I said, there’s a difference in the craft, but that’s just a technical thing.
It wasn’t really that hard. It was just trying to get the most out of the tension between the music and the lyrics, counterpoint was always really important to me in any art form, either by opposites or cross currents with chords and stuff. I was just learning a lot and put myself into it completely when I was doing it.
And then by my third album and when we were finished touring, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to get back to writing. I didn’t regret it at all, it was a really great time. I felt like I was a musician during that whole period, but I didn’t have a musician’s attitude. The guys in my band they would have toured 360 days in a year. I like performing a lot, but I didn’t like being on the road and all the psychological paraphernalia. It was a lucky thing I started relatively late because all the drugs and things that were available, I would have killed myself when I was younger.
There were certain nights I just didn’t want to be in front of an audience. I didn’t have that feeling (of) no matter how sick you are, when you get on stage you’ll feel great. If I felt shitty physically or mentally … certainly at the beginning songs would take me out of myself but after a while, doing it night after night, you’d just be performing and you’d have to learn how to be an entertainer. That was a difficult thing to do and I felt uncomfortable doing it. And after a while there were nights that I just didn’t want to be in front of people performing, it wasn’t fun. For the guys in the band it was great. That’s when writing books started to come back into my mind.
Recently you’ve collaborated with younger musicians like Rancid, do you see any difference between the generations?
Not really. They were completely professional and when I did a reading out in Seattle a couple of months ago, I did some songs, these guys from different bands had rehearsed some of my old songs and some new songs from Pools of Mercury, and it was great.
I don’t know, it’s a Seattle thing. I think it’s a real communal thing with musicians there, they don’t backbite. I think that’s the way it was in New York from talking to Lenny Kaye. When I was starting music, it was in San Francisco and most of the bands would really bad mouth other bands and hated each other. And if you got a record deal, they really hated you. It was just this whole jealous backbiting thing. I couldn’t get that because at the poetry scene at St. Mark’s it was always everybody supporting everyone in this real communal way. So it seemed like bullshit to me.
I didn’t really know Rancid’s music when they asked me to do this and I couldn’t believe the guitar playing, it could have been Joe Strummer singing the vocals for all I knew, but that’s just where they were coming from.
The only thing about, and it doesn’t have anything to do with musicians it’s just the technology, I can’t stand digital recording. I just like recording on real tape. I just think that you really lose a lot with all these binary pixels and stuff. It’s just a physical fact that drums and bass just stick on magnetic tape and compress and you just don’t that sound digitally. When I was doing Pools of Mercury it was all digital. Everything going through a computer, it was amazing the stuff you could do. You know in '83 vocoders and stuff were amazing to me too, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t like the whole digital thing. I’m much more of an analog person.
It’s more natural that way.
Yeah. Just as far as the musicians, collaborating with them. I collaborated with Boz Scaggs, how weird is that? I just admire people who are really good at their craft. And, like I said, I like to learn new things and if there’s nothing to learn (laughs) there then you don’t learn anything. You just throw it away, but you usually do if you’re looking for it.
A lot of great art whether it be writing, music or painting has been made under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Why do you think that is?
(laughs) I guess because it’s a very lonely thing and because it drives you crazy after a while. I never liked coke when I was growing up. We had a perverse amount of big cocaine dealers who were fans of the band, for some reason. It was a different drug, it was so much purer out in San Francisco. The fact was everyone was doing cocaine then and it was a real musician’s drug. It was a real insidious drug. I got to see pretty soon (that) it was kind of demonic in a certain way, real selfish. It didn’t have any warmth to it, it’s a real cold drug. Boy you got me going (laughs).
When I was doing a lot of hard drugs when I was young, that’s when I typed things up. I’d get really neat and I actually didn’t really write that much on heroin. Boredom is the best high to me and that’s when I write best.
I can’t drink at all. I cannot understand like when Kerouac would say, “If you get stuck when you’re writing, just have another shot or something.” If I got stuck when I was writing and had another shot, by the second one or maybe one and a half I’d just might be underneath the typewriter (laughs). My metabolism doesn’t work that way, it just knocks me out. So I can’t understand the alcohol syndrome with writing.
I see it with certain writers where they can work for days by drinking and it just keeps them level in a certain way. That’s a genetic thing (laughs). Just like the way with heroin, people always think of it as naughty now. With me, if I did enough I’d nod out or eventually I would after a few hours but (usually) it would give me bunches of energy and, like I said, most of the stuff I wrote then was rewritten later, but it was good for typing up things I had already written and it made me very precise in a certain way and it gave me energy to do this shit work. In the sense of making me precise it would make me see that I was wasting words so it would be good for editing and just getting rid of a lot of crap. But ideas and stuff did not come to me, there was no Kubla Khan thing happening.
Artists are always going to look for some kind of way to break through some other door and you have to move around your consciousness now and then to see things from different angles. Unless you want to go off and be a yogi for 80 years and write maybe one book and it probably won’t be too interesting, then the easiest way to do it just take drugs. Well actually I was thinking of writers I liked that didn’t take drugs, but they were total drunks and that’s certainly a drug.
I can’t smoke grass in New York, I wish I could. I get too paranoid, the grass is too strong. I wish I had crappy grass or something. I could never write on grass either. I wrote one good piece on grass once I think. I loved smoking grass to be able to not write though and just put it out of my head and watch movies and be entertained. In that sense I kind of miss that. Maybe I’ll move somewhere where there’s crappy grass. If this applies to Detroit I don’t know.
There’s crappy grass in Detroit.
Well, that’s what I want! (laughs)
You’ve been called the “Keith Richards” of poets, is that a fair comparison?
I never heard anybody call me that. C’mon (laughs). I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine what Keith’s poems would be like and I’m sure Keith can’t imagine, well he can imagine what my guitar playing’s like—it’s terrible. I’m sure it’s probably coming from a certain presence on stage at times. I take exception to this, well maybe it’s not true, maybe I don’t take exception to it. I don’t know the way I carry myself on stage, you know I don’t think about it consciously, but I remember someone once commenting that I was all over the place. And then I remember someone writing about a benefit for a musician who hurt himself here in New York City and Lenny Kaye organized it and Patti played at it and the Dictators and Marshall Crenshaw. The guy wrote that he’d seen me read a lot but he’d never seen me with my band. But he said that I came off looking so healthy and together and that I was really straight up and I looked really good. So I think I’ve overcome the Keith Richards analogy there.
Well I think this guy was getting at when you started you were the rebellious poet, you weren’t in the classical school maybe because you were so young.
I don’t really see that, that doesn’t just point to Keith. The thing about Keith is completely not giving a shit—well yeah so in that sense it’s like that in a certain way, but I was little snot. I was rebellious in the sense that I wouldn’t show up to readings when I supposed to because I was stoned and shit. Yeah I was a fuck-up too, I was little snotty fuck-up. Yeah in that sense I’ll accept any comparison to Keith. Even flopping around like a fish on stage, I don’t care (laughs). But I was pleased when I saw that review that I looked very healthy and had it together.
Almost as if you had put that past to rest in a way.
Yeah, I was dancing around like Mick (Jagger) instead of falling down to my boots.
Growing up Catholic is there any spiritual aspect that you put in your work?
Yeah absolutely I think my work is very Catholic oriented. I can’t stand the politics of the Church but I’ve always been fascinated by the mythology of the church and the rituals of the church. I once said on some talk show once, I got a lot of shit for it, (that) Catholicism and punk rock were very much alike. What could be more punk rock than the stations of the cross where this guy’s getting whipped and has to wear a crown of thorns and weeps into a veil and leaves his image behind and then gets crucified and rises up? I meant it in a really good way. I just thought the analogy was valid and all these idiots called about it.
But I do think that whole blood as a metaphor for life, Christ’s blood as a metaphor for this kind of homeopathic balm of redemption is just something that’s always fascinated me from when I was young. And also, especially with Catholicism, the feminine side, the whole cult of the Virgin which is not in the other Protestant churches, not just with the Virgin Mary but with Mary Magdalene too. That feminine side, I find it very sweet and it’s also reassuring.
But the hideous part, I mean I liked most of the stuff that came out of Vatican II, but getting rid of Latin was the worst thing that you could possibly do. You can’t have a valid ritual without some kind of mysterious language. I can remember saying the mass in Latin and it was just so fantastic. I wanted to know what these words meant, it still sticks with me. It made me take Latin for six years in school.
I thought that was a big mistake. I think that the Church would be a lot better off with (Latin). It just seemed like some cheap ecumenical conciliation and I thought that it just takes away from the ritual of it and any real sense of ritual.
All these things are ingrained in my work, especially in my poems. There’s a lot of religious imagery either overt or a somewhat more subtle sense. It’s a big part of me. The whole aspect of the Church as politics is a whole other thing. As far as my own sense of faith and belief, I would love to have to have absolute faith but I can’t say that I do. I admire that in a certain way from certain people. I’m going to go into my own sense of faith or anything but yeah just the whole ritualistic aspect of it.
I’ve learned a lot from Buddhism, but I can’t really understand people like Ginsberg going off and becoming Buddhists even though Tibetan Buddhism is really fascinating. I think it’s almost like language. If you’re trained in a certain religion by a certain age you kind of have to walk that path no matter what. It’s just put on you, unless you have some complete epiphany or seizure on the road to Damascus. It would have to be something of that magnitude to really change it around in the sense of it being really integral to your heart. That’s another thing about Catholicism, it has that heart sense to it especially through the cult of the Virgin. It’s not just an intellectual thing.
New York City is also really important to your work and influences a lot of your writing, how do you feel about the sterilized New York of late?
Well it’s terrible. Guiliani’s really out to lunch but I can’t blame it all on Guiliani, I mean the whole cleaning up is all Guiliani, it’s just almost impossible for people to live in Manhattan anymore. It’s just ridiculous. I have friends living in two story houses in L.A. who are paying half what I’m paying for my fucking apartment in New York. And fortunately I make a living from writing. There’s so many writers who are friends of mine who can’t afford to live in Manhattan unless they’ve been living in a rent subsidized place.
Even the outer Boroughs, after Tribeca and Soho got filled up with artists living in lofts then it moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and now the prices there are outrageous. I mean Staten Island’s next.
San Francisco’s kind of the same way but even though you’re paying the same amount you get more bang for your buck there.
I felt really blessed to always have grown up in New York but I also felt one of the best times in my life was when I lived by myself in California and I just was able to filter all this learned trivia into some kind of wisdom. Actually, I can write better about New York when I’m outside of New York than I can when I’m here in a certain way, not poetry-wise but prose-wise. So it doesn’t really matter to me where I live as a writer and I don’t make the scene anymore. I don’t really go out. I keep telling myself I should. I was in a real hermetic period for a while but now I’ve moved back downtown. I feel like I should be going out more. Actually I went out last night so that should take care of a month or something.
Do you miss that community of artists that used to exist in New York?
Well I think it still does at St. Mark’s. St. Mark’s had their big New Year’s Day marathon reading like they always do. I did the one last year and it was so packed. It was like playing with a band at some theater somewhere. It was really scary, people were sitting on the stage. This year I missed it because I had the fucking flu. So I felt bad about that.
But that sense of community is still there at St. Mark’s and I do miss it in a certain way and I feel like I should be, in some ways, a part of it but it’s not just a matter of place to go, it’s a matter of intersection of time and place in your life. There was a time when it was the right time and place for me to be in that recluse period in California or to be hanging around St. Mark’s. I don’t feel like this is the time for me now. I go out and I just get worn very quick by things and I just want to split. I’m turning into this boring person.
If there was fire and you only had time to grab three things, what would they be?
Actually I was in an apartment that had a fire about five years ago. I know a grabbed this stash of cash that I had in this place because I had some money that I hadn’t put in the bank. I know I got that (laughs) that was pretty pragmatic. I took these, they’re made by Zen monks in Japan, they’re kind of like Zen rosaries and they’re carved meticulously, they’re so realistic. They’re these little skulls and you use them every year to say a prayer for each monk or friend of yours that died.
Somebody played to the Dalai Lama “People Who Died” at this Zen retreat and he thought it was a funny song (laughs) and he gave me these things as a present. So I grabbed those, you know you got to take something from the Dalai Lama. And then I took a flashlight too because the power went out.
If I had to take a third thing looking around my apartment, shit. I’d take those prayer beads. I’d take this drawing I have that’s hanging up near the door actually (laughs) maybe in case there is a fire. I guess I'd have to take the manuscript to the book I’m working on. I’d have to take that and hopefully be able to get the notes to the other book too.
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