High Times Greats: Jim Carroll

A 1982 interview with the late basketball player, addict, and poet extraordinaire.
High Times Greats: Jim Carroll
Kate Simon/ Star File; Eric Thompson/ Wiki Commons; Bob Gruen/ Star File

For the October, 1982 issue of High Times, Glenn O’Brien interviewed writer, musician, and poet Jim Carroll (1949-2009), who would have been 71 years old this August 1.

Jim Carroll is an incomparable guy: If you wanted to compare him, it would have to be with a crowd. Like Rimbaud, he was a poetry sensation as a teenager, then quit it. Like Pat Ewing, he was all-American as a freshman (although with Jim it was in high school). Like William Burroughs, he turned the junkie experience into a literary classic. And, like Patti Smith, he went from poetry stardom to rock stardom in a flash.

Jim Carroll’s first fame was as one of the greatest high-school basketball players of his time. He might have been an NBA star if he hadn’t discovered poetry and heroin. In his early teens he had decided to become a writer, and he kept diaries of his incredible life on and off the court. At about the same time, he became addicted to heroin. His first book of poetry was published when he was only 16. The Basketball Diaries were published after Jim had become a recognized poet. At an age when most boys are just beginning to think about college, he had already lived a lifetime.

Jim pulled a partial Rimbaud. The great French poet went to Ethiopia and never wrote another line. Jim didn’t go that far—just to California. He became a recluse and stopped writing. But after a while he came out of it. He had taught Patti Smith a lot about writing; she returned the favor by teaching Jim about rock. One night he jammed with her band and a rocker was born. Jim got his own band together and reemerged as a rocker and a poet. He signed with Rolling Stones Records and made an album, Catholic Boy, that pleased rock and poetry critics alike. He put out a second LP, Dry Dreams, and he’s also been getting back into poetry.

High Times: Was The Basketball Diaries the first thing you ever wrote?

Carroll: Right. Except for my grammar-school paper. That was the only good thing about Catholic school—I had this brother who taught me. He made me clip out Arthur Daley and Red Smith’s columns from the New York Times sports page and underline the metaphors and similes and stuff like that. When that school year was over I still wanted to write. I wanted to write a novel. I had the capacity to deal with characters and metaphor, but I couldn’t sustain a plot. I figured the only form I could use would be a diary—just let it evolve itself.

High Times: Were you writing the diaries with publication in mind?

Carroll: It was with an audience in mind—it wasn’t like a diary that I was keeping for myself. Then I started to get interested in poetry after I got a scholarship to this private school and got over the neighborhood idea I had of poetry being wimpy and sissyish.

The inspiration for writing was really getting to like the relief that I got in that kind of landscape inside of my head. They always tested me for epilepsy when I was a kid because I’d go off on these long dazes, just staring out in space. Like if I was waiting for a basketball game to end because I had the next game in the playground, they’d be snapping their fingers to get my attention because I’d just be drifting off.

High Times: How did you get into the St. Mark’s poetry scene in New York City?

Carroll: I went there to go to the readings, on Wednesdays when the biggies read. I hung out at St. Mark’s for a whole summer and into my next school year, but I was too shy to approach any of the people whose works I liked: Ted Berrigan, John Ashberry and people like that. I did know Ginsberg because I’d hang out with him at antiwar marches and stuff, and he had kind of a crush on me, so I would get him to read poems I had written and talk to me about poetry. I’d go to the open readings but I was too shy to get up and read. Then this guy from City College published a book of my poems and it gave me a chance to introduce myself and give it to people, and before long I was taken up as a young poet on the scene. I was publishing my poems in the World, the Paris Review and Poetry. I was reading on Wednesday nights. God, I was incredibly nervous at those readings. Much more so than when I started to do rock. I hated it, it was really frightening, but I didn’t want to miss my chance.

High Times: Did the kids you were going to school with know you were going to poetry readings? Or were you leading a double life?

Carroll: The kids in school did. This was a private school and the kids were hip, going to see the Fugs on the weekend. They’d come to readings. But the kids in the neighborhood—forget it, man! It was a big secret there. I would read them some of the diaries once in a while, but it wasn’t too interesting to them. Most of the guys I grew up with became fucking thieves or cops.

High Times: You were a basketball star as a high-school freshman.

Carroll: I was high-school all-American. My sophomore year was my best. By that time I could dunk a ball backwards. In my senior year I was still good, but I was on the decline. My interest had shifted to poetry then and I was starting to do drugs more and more. I was still good for that league, but they took away all the scholarships I had gotten. Scouts who were really big on me years before would take me out to dinner and I’d be nodding out in the lasagna. I just got interested in poetry and it wasn’t there anymore. Most people think it was drugs, but it wasn’t; it was that I just cared about writing.

High Times: Were you into music in high school?

Carroll: Yeah. I got into the Fugs, the Velvet Underground, Roy Orbison; but I didn’t really get knocked out until I heard Phil Ochs and Dylan. But after I left New York, I never listened to music, not even the radio. I’d get a tape of Patti Smith because we were old friends and I wanted to hear what she was doing, but otherwise I wasn’t listening to music at all.

High Times: You got the idea to do rock when Patti called you up onstage at a concert?

Carroll: Yeah. We were in this little movie together that had a scene where she played the piano and guitar while I read a piece. She asked me to come to a show in San Diego one night, so I went and there was some hassle with the opening act—one of the roadies for the other act had punched Patti’s brother or something. The promoter said, “Okay, Jim can do it. We’ll do what we did last night.” I had two things memorized: a song called “I Don’t Live in My Body” and one called “Cruelty.” She was playing her one-note guitar and she really took my nervousness away. She was such a pro onstage. She was rubbing up next to me, cooling me out. After the first minute or so I was really into it and it went over real good. I didn’t have any music; I was just rapping it. But I felt the difference between a poetry audience and a rock ’n’ roll audience—the energy.

High Times: Do you still plan to do readings?

Carroll: Oh yeah. I used to be really nervous reading poems. Now, from the experience of performing in front of an audience, I’m a lot better at reading. It’s a great base to have. At first I felt like I was moving away from that scene, but now I really like the anchor of still being a part of the poetry scene.

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