The image is burned indelibly into memory. Leonardo DiCaprio manning the New York skyline from the top of an apartment building, masturbating to the moon and the stars — free, as he says, of the need for contrived sexual fantasy — and effectively rising above it all. King of the world, so to speak.
But self-glorification was clearly not the point of The Basketball Diaries, as much as it was never the path of its author, Jim Carroll. Instead, the film — based on Carroll's best-selling memoir — painted a picture of dramatic duality: strung up in basketball success and strung out in junk-addled artistry. Already a basketball star at 13, and published in the Paris Review by 17, Carroll's story was indeed unique, scarred with the speed-marks of precocious ascent. Carroll was on methadone by his early twenties, and has spent the remainder of his career (poet, musician, author) as something of a hipster legend.
These days, at 52, Carroll is toiling away on his next venture, a work of long-form fiction that will be his first foray into the third person. On the phone from his New York home, his voice winds and burns like stale steam emanating from a subway shaft. There's wisdom, hope and sadness in there, all wrapping around a prodigious 52 years of digging deeper, and talking about it just beneath the pop-culture radar.
"I just keep saying the same thing over and over again," he says. "So it's really not that hard."
The book currently in Carroll's head, and only partially on paper, details the rise of a New York painter in society circles, doubtful about his own inspirations and inclined to search his soul for a defining identity. Not too far from the tree then?
"I guess so," he says. "But the character has no biographical markers for me except that he's an artist."
The book's been a long time coming, having been the focus of some discussion during the Basketball Diaries press junket in the mid-'90s. Initially it was two books, two different plot lines that came to Carroll within a month of each other. But the immense workload of said multi-tasking and the meticulous preparation inherent in Carroll's work (research has taken the place of heroin), became a little too daunting.
"I had to do a lot of research for these books, and I did that for like three or four years," he says. "And finally, my agent and my lawyer and I had lunch, and it was like a literary intervention. They said, 'You can't write two books at once,' which I was trying to do. 'And you can't research anymore, because you become obsessed with research — it becomes like an avocation to you.'"
Vocationally, Carroll's scope seems to have narrowed. His previous rock outfit, The Jim Carroll Band — born out of a fortunate peer grouping of Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and The Rolling Stones in the '70s — garnered some radio play in the early '80s, namely with the stunning punk diary, People Who Died. It was a natural progression for Carroll, leaping from the poetry stage into the semi-messiah posturing of a rock & roll front man. "Where are all the goddamned poets who were going to change the world?" he once asked.
"That was from reading this biography of Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins by Henry Miller, when I was in this recluse period in California. That's what Henry Miller was talking about, that poets these days are just writing for other poets, and not in the noble sense of being vehicles to change the world."
Does he think he achieved that?
"Not in any didactic or any political way, for sure, because I was never a political writer," he says. "In just, like, an aesthetic or heart sense."
Carroll spent much of the '80s optioning The Basketball Diaries to film studios, who kept the ball in the air for over a decade. "I think people just had a hard time getting an ending to the film," he says. As a result, the part of young Jim bounced somewhat comically in retrospect, from teen star to teen star nearly every year.
"It actually went from Matt Dillon in 1981, to Eric Stoltz in '83, then Anthony Michael Hall, and then River Phoenix. That whole brat pack thing, and then Leonardo [DiCaprio]."
Just beginning his Tiger Beat prime, DiCaprio may have seemed an odd choice (although, not odder than Anthony Michael Hall), but his popularity would go on to ensure a whole new audience for Carroll's work. It did, however, threaten his life once.
"One time they were shooting on location in Hoboken, and some radio station must have said they were going to be shooting," he recalls. "I thought these girls were gonna lose it. They were breaking down barricades. I was really scared. I mean, I ran up on the roof. I thought it was gonna be a full-out brawl."
"Yeah," Carroll laughs. "He bears a heavy cross."
Where most might cringe into the theater corner watching a teen heartthrob playing their life, shooting up and falling down, Carroll's take is decidedly more sober.
"Looking at myself on the screen, or somebody playing me, was not really any different than when I would stand up on the stage and refer to the kid in the third person," he says. "Once you already filter something through any artistic medium like writing, it becomes a different meaning, like an archetype."
And with the filtering of his current work promising more fictitious projection and less of The Jim Carroll Show, the archetype can live on through his characters. Only a little bit cleaner now.
"At a certain point, I realized that you can't rely on the electric youth, rock & roll energy forever," he says. "I knew I had to come from a more sober place, and I thought, I'm not gonna make this book too funny. But y'know, humor has a way of showing up in funny places. You can be postmodern and call it irony — it doesn't matter what it is — but it seems to be sneaking into this book like it does all of my other prose."Billy Manes writes for Orlando Weekly, where the full-length version of this feature appears. E-mail comments to [email protected]