After more than a decade out of the rock scene, poet and author Jim Carroll is back with his latest album of songs, Pools of Mercury. When asked why he's making music again, the lanky New York City fixture said singing rock 'n' roll is one of the greatest highs around.
He should know. Carroll is the author of the acclaimed, reportedly autobiographical book, "The Basketball Diaries," which recounts the escapades of a young kid experimenting with heroin and carousing on the streets of New York.
"There's no better feeling sometimes than when you're able to sing," Carroll, 48, said in a recent conversation. "I once said a poet has the right to sing as loudly and vocally as he wants to. Most poets should face a rock 'n' roll audience for one night to keep them honest."
Carroll pieced together Pools of Mercury -- his first rock album since 1984's I Write Your Name -- with producer Anton Sanko (Suzanne Vega) guitarist Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith) and a host of session players. The result includes such catchy rock songs as "Falling Down Laughing" (RealAudio excerpt), originally written for the film adaptation of "The Basketball Diaries." In addition, somber spoken-word pieces, such as "Zeno's Law of High-Heeled Shoes," are accompanied by atmospheric background music.
First published as a poet at the age of 16, Carroll received critics' accolades in 1978 for "The Basketball Diaries." But it took the punk-rock movement to inspire Carroll to sing.
He formed the Jim Carroll Band, and in 1980, they released their debut album, Catholic Boy, on the custom-label established by British rock legends the Rolling Stones. Carroll even scored an alternative-rock hit with "People Who Died," a fiery, uptempo rock single from the album.
"I can't sing that well, but when punk-rock came along, it changed all that," Carroll said. To make up for what he termed his "technical deficiencies," he used an understanding of phrasing he gleaned from poetry. As a counterpoint to crashing power chords, he'd drop the volume of his voice, thereby changing the dynamics of a song. These were "things that singers who are technically much better might not do," he said.
Kaye -- longtime guitarist for Smith, another punk-era-poet-turned-rocker -- pegged "Falling Down Laughing" as the song that made Carroll decide to record his first rock record in 14 years.
" 'Falling Down Laughing' is such a straight-ahead rock song, [and] it provides a bridge from [his earlier career as a musician to the present]," Kaye said.
Producer Sanko, who also plays several instruments on the album, said Carroll's main focus was, as one might expect, on the lyrics. "Words are a lot more important to him than the average singer," Sanko said. "He's not the kind of guy that's going to sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at a baseball game."
Certainly, Carroll's writing has a power and resonance, particularly in the case of a piece such as his "8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain" (RealAudio excerpt). Carroll acknowledged some basic similarities between himself and Cobain -- the late singer-songwriter with grunge-rock icons Nirvana -- but added that he wrote "8 Fragments ..." as a way to help himself understand Cobain's suicide.
"I wrote it right after he died," Carroll said. "Usually, I would take some time, but it just happened very quickly."
Carroll concluded that Cobain must have been in great pain. "That's real despair when your work can't even save you, because there's always something more that I've wanted to do, artistically, that has stopped me from thinking about that."