In 1998 I spent about a half hour in the dressing room of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco interviewing the Jim Carroll, who died of a heart attack last Friday. It happened at the last minute, unsolicited, and I wasn’t very well schooled in his poetry. But I did admire his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, and loved “People Who Died.” So we talked about those things and about his years in the Bay Area, where he finished up that book, got clean, and started his punk band. My recollection of him is hazy—thin, smoking a lot, very engaged, with a voice that’s a strange mix of lilt and gravel. I recall encouraging him to talk more about his days in the town of Bolinas partly because I liked how he pronounced it, stretching the middle syllable out. Boh-leeeen-iss.
I’m not sure how trustworthy the factoids in the brief article that resulted are, though it would be nice if the Dalai Lama were indeed a fan of “People Who Died.” He certainly didn’t sound like he was bragging, and his discussions about his literary heroes generally seemed to be earthbound. Jack Kerouac blurbed The Basketball Diaries, writing that “at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today,” and in 1999 he told an interviewer how he scored that blurb. He wasn’t actually a big reader of Kerouac, but he was a great admirer of the beat poets who circled around him (h/t Steve Silberman):
I got to see him … 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 form 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.