In 1983, when Chris Epting was at Boston’s Emerson College, he produced a cable access TV series on which he interviewed “artists I was crazy about.” High on the list was poet-rock’n’roller Jim Carroll, whom he caught backstage before and after a performance at the Paradise Theater. Epting describes that charmed encounter and shares the full footage of their talk for the first time.
“Hey man, I hate to ask, but would you mind finding me a couple of packs of Marlboros someplace?”
Jim Carroll needed smokes and I was more than happy to run down to the corner and buy him two packs. He offered me money but I said, “No, I got it.” In his weary New York accent he puffed, “Fuck it, you’re in college, take this money; don’t be spending your own cash,” and he pushed a few dollars in my hand. He didn’t want to wander out along Commonwealth Avenue because it was getting close to show time and a line was already forming around the Paradise, where he was playing that night back in the Spring of 1983.
As I’ve written here before, I was an Emerson College student back then and I had created a little public access cable TV series which allowed me to approach (and often land) interviews with artists I was crazy about. And, back then, Jim Carroll was at the top of my list. A couple of years earlier I had played Catholic Boy, his debut album, ‘til the grooves were raw. I had read lots of his poetry and his 1978 memoir, The Basketball Diaries, was an instant favorite of mine. Not that I really had anything in common with him. But that was kind of the point. Jim Carroll took you places you could not even imagine, and he did it with style, humor and a brutal sense of gritty, gut-wrenching reality.
Myself, along with my friend Janice (who helped organize and photograph our usual proceedings) arrived at the Paradise early in the day so we could hear sound check and set up for our interview. When we walked into the drab, smallish dressing room, he was in there alone, picking over a sad platter of cold cuts.
How does one approach Jim Carroll, I wondered? I was a huge basketball fan. He had been a great player in his youth of course, but did he still follow the pro game? It felt like my only entrée. We introduced ourselves, he seemed a bit wary and on guard, and with that I stammered nervously, “Hey, did you have a favorite player on the 1970 Knicks championship team?”
As I finished the sentence I thought, ‘wait, stupid question’. In 1970 he was hanging out at Max’s Kansas City watching the Velvet Underground (you can even hear his voice on the live album that was recorded during that run). No way he had hoop memories from that time in his life. Right…?
He exhaled and took a long pause. Shit. Was he annoyed? Or… was he thinking about it? “I mean, I loved Clyde Frazier,” he finally offered, a thin smile starting to spread across his lips. “But I also loved Dave DeBusschere. He was just so blue-collar, like a lunch bucket kind a guy. From Detroit. I liked that.” I started to interject but he kept on. “I mean Bill Bradley brought lots of elegance and grace, but was also so tough underneath. I don’t know if I had a favorite, man. I really loved that whole team. That fucking bench? Don May, Bill Hosket, Mike Riordan… the Lakers never knew what hit them.”
I had seen him perform a couple of times before, right when Catholic Boy had come out. In terms of stage presentation, he was an icy presence; unblinking and seeming to just stare off at the tops of the heads of everyone in the venue. Detached. But in person, as the conversation blossomed, he became relaxed and even animated. It seemed like Jim Carroll was totally into talking basketball. And so talk basketball we did. Over the course of the next hour or so, we broke down some other Knick teams and he told me about going to games as a kid at the old Madison Square Garden.
“It wasn’t at all like the new Garden” he said. “It felt more like an old Polish Union Hall or something. It wasn’t a big, grand arena.”
I began imagining what Jim Carroll must’ve been like as a player, no doubt wily, intuitive with lots of “court sense.” The same way he read the rhythm on the streets of New York back then I was sure he applied in the context of his basketball game. He talked about seeing Lew Alcindor (one day to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) play at Power Memorial High School, when their schools faced off (Carroll was a standout at Trinity, an elite Manhattan high school). Not too long ago I asked Abdul-Jabbar about Jim Carroll. “Great poet,” Kareem said. “Seriously great poet and tremendous writer.”
Throughout our conversation, Carroll was occasionally interrupted by band members (including the great Lenny Kaye) and some club staff. He was needed for soundcheck, but he wanted to keep talking basketball. “Shit, Red Holtzman was the coach I would have wanted to play for… when [Willis] Reed came hobbling out that magical night… [Dick] Barnett from the corner when he’d kick his legs up on the jumper…” He had to go soundcheck, but he was out of cigarettes, so that’s when I ran down to a market on the corner to get him his Marlboros.
Once I returned and soundcheck was over, the band ate and then it was time to sit down and do what we had actually gone to do: videotape an interview. I recently saw the tape for the first time since we shot it back in 1983, and I’m proud to share it now as part of this piece. It is surreal for me to watch this right now. I remember thinking in my head back then, as I listened to his answers (to my seriously lame questions and comments) that I wished we were still talking basketball. I also remember thinking, I’m glad we did talk basketball earlier because I think it warmed him up and made for a nice rapport. He was thoughtful, engaged and seemed open. I felt like maybe he even trusted me a bit. He talked about Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, what it was like to meet Mick Jagger and put together the deal with Rolling Stone Records, among other interesting things.
I asked him to sign my copy of The Basketball Diaries right before he went out onstage (literally seconds after the interview ended) and then we watched the show (which was amazing; Carroll was still steely and focused onstage, but by now he had learned to use his own aloofness for dramatic effect, not unlike Bowie on the 1976 Station to Station tour).
After the show, we went to say goodbye to Jim in the dressing room as the band was hustling to get out in and hit the road. As he packed his satchel, clearly wiped out from the show, I wasn’t sure how receptive he might be to any more engagement.
“Johnny Green!” he suddenly barked at me, Marlboro dangling from his lips. Huh? “Look up Johnny Green, man. He played for the Knicks in the mid-60s and I forgot to mention him before. I fucking loved that guy. Before your time but a great player. Take it easy, man. I enjoyed our talk and thanks for the smokes.”
And then he was gone, into the New England night. My own personal basketball diary, was now in the books.
Jim Carroll “It’s Too Late” – live at the Paradise Theater, Boston, 1980: