Beginning today, serialization of transcription of Jim Carroll’s June 30, 1986 Naropa Poetics and Music class. [see here for Jim Carroll reading]
Larry Fagin: Ladies and gents, welcome to the second week of Naropa [July, 1986] poetry summer camp. I’m pleased tonight to have.. and honored and thrilled to have, Jim Carroll with us, who first came to light at aged fifteen, with a book called, (an) amazing book called, Organic Trains, began to appear on the St Marks Poetry Project scene, 1967? (19)66-67, I guess, and, then, authored a book of memoirs, called The Basketball Diaries (which has since, I believe, been made into a major motion picture)
Jim Carroll: Not yet, Larry
Larry Fagin: Not yet, but soon – and (he’s) also the author of two other volumes of poetry, Living At The Movies, and, recently, The Book Of Nods, and, subsequently, in the field of popular music, has three long-playing records available now – Catholic Boy is the first one, Dry Dreams, and I Write Your Name – Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll: Well, I’m totally unprepared really. I mean, my feeling about this teaching stuff, I don’t know. I suppose the main thing, what most people here, taking this want, is, you know, to get their own… [Carroll suddenly breaks off, to address technician/student poised over the record-player – “Oh wait a minute, don’t play that yet! ..”I’m sorry” (too (soon with the) music”… He then continues..]
But.. I guess.. most people.. You see, when I told them I’d do this this year, I…you know, like, the idea was.. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it” – and then I didn’t really know what the class description was going to be. So I got the catalog and found out. And then.. So it had to dowith the writing (of) song lyrics and stuff. So, a number of the things that I’ve gotten already have a lot to do with…(are) just poems too. So, either way is fine, you know. I can speak about, you know, the difference between the two. I mean, it’s really only a technical difference, which is an important thing, but.. I mean. I don’t think it should be any different – if you want to be poor (if you want to be rich with music, then, write shit!).
But, at any rate, so, what I’m going to do, like, next time, the people in the class can read their pieces maybe, and.. if anyone wants to bring (in) an instrument, by the way, you should do that. You should play along with these songs if you have music for them. Otherwise, if you don’t have music for them, I’m going to bring in a drum-machine. So.. It’s much easier to do it that way, you just kind of rap it or sing it. And it’s easy. That way we can just try the thing at different tempos and see which way it works best, you know, in a certain song. Sometimes if you write, like, a real hard-core song it might be better at a slower tempo, you know – and vice-versa, And if you write a ballad, you pretty much know it’s a ballad, but, I mean, beyond that, there’s this kind of fuzzy area where you don’t know what the tempo should be.
I mean, basically, if, I think, like, if you really have, like, an intuitive gift for poetry, then you probably have an intuitive gift for music in the sense of writing lyrics, in the sense that – I mean, at least it was that way for me, although, I started relatively late really, doing songs, you know, where I had enough confidence, finally, because the punk movement came along, and I realized, you know.. People would tell me sometimes, years before that, when I was a very young poet, that I should have a rock band and stuff. But then, when friends of mine, like Patti Smith and stuff, started to do it. And then when people who couldn’t sing at all started to do it, then I decided to do it, you know.
And I’d already, by then, been writing lyrics for some other bands. Then I just decided to write music myself (I could play the guitar well enough to write songs, the outlines for it, or else, with the guys I had in this band, and for the first album) and, you know, (I’d) just get on that way.
(But) the point I’m making is, like, if you have an intuitive gift for… some lyrical ability inside of you, then, I mean the way it is for me is (that) when I’m writing a poem, I’m always, like,hearing it coming from outside somewhere, you know. It could be this.. You know, like, you could..throw (it) back (to).. schizophrenia, or the Muse, you know (which is probably one and the same!). But, I mean, there’s that.. You hear it from that side coming at you. That’s why.. I mean that whole Charles Olson Projective Verse theory was in a sense, difficult for me when I first read it, simply because it was, kind of, you know, overwhelming – and seemed a little bit too difficult to me, when I was fifteen,first reading (The) New American Poetry anthology by Don Allen, where I found all the poets that I really liked and didn’t like at that time, you know (some of which I liked and found out that I didn’t like later, some of which I didn’t like and found out I liked a lot later)
But.. At any rate, like, that whole theory of Projective Verse really had to do with just, in a simplistic sense, the breath-unit, you know. Every line,rather than having a formal meter had to do with the breath unit. So when you heard these lines come from outside, you know, you just, you.. you couldn’t rely that people were going to hear you, hear you at read, reading everywhere. If you published them, you were going to have to rely on dictating how people themselves should read them by their form on the page. So, you’d hear the poem kind of being whispered in your ear by whatever this thing was, coming from outside, and, you structured the poem (or at least I did) in that sense. I mean..
..And it was a very simple technique, you could slow up a poem by suddenly
having a few short lines or have very long-running lines, you know, like (Walt) Whitman did – and Allen did in “Howl”, by, you know, keeping that same rhythm going with the same balanced long line. And then, you know, you can’t really help but.. But then when.. you hear.. (And when I first heard Ginsberg read “Howl” – which it took me going to about eight readings of his before he read it – because he was sick of reading it by the time I first heard him read
But I did hear him read “Kaddish”, which is kind of the same thing, early on, and, you know, it was not too far off from the way I heard him from, you know, just reading it in my own mind, because he had.. (he) had directed it right there on the page for me. So, I tried to do the same thing with my poems – and it was just a simple leap then from – if you’re hearing it in your head, then when you’re writing a lyric, then, you should be hearing some form of music, you know, at least a certain tempo, or, like, a… enough, you get enough of idea so that you, at least, know what the phrasing should be.
I mean, the one strength I had going over to rock ‘n roll from poetry, I think, was the fact that I understood phrasing, from poetry, better than most singers, to make up for all the technical inadequacies I had as a singer when I began. I mean, with each album I got, you know, I think I got, better as a singer, I knew how to use back-up singers more and more, I knew how to…I knew how to get engineers who knew how to run little machines and make your voice sound better. I found out the uses of the Vocoder.. And so, I really had..you know
that kind of change.
But I always had this certain idea in my head of the way the music should be, by the way that… That’s why the words came first, you know. And then I’d work it out on the guitar, as much as I could. If I had trouble working (it) out on the guitar, because of my
limitations on that, I’d kind of just sing it to the band the way it should be, and they’d
work it out, you know – and we’d share the writing credit – (which I never really
thought was fair, I ..but…(and) these guys are (just) sitting there..)
But a band, of course, is an incredible surprise, in the fact (that) sometimes you have this music in your head, when you’re writing something. Lately, I’ve been writing songs for other people, you know, and I’d write a lyric… I wrote this lyric called “Perfect Water”, actually – I think I have it here. I’ll read it.. It’s.. I don’t have the tape, I mean, or the album. It’s on the new Blue Oyster Cult album, actually (Club Ninja) – I always liked the Blue Oyster Cult – I mean, this friend of mine, Allen Lanier, wrote a lot of.. well, a couple of.. the only ballads I
have on my first and third album (what? – “Day and Night”, on the Catholic Boy album and “Dance The Night Away” on the third album, I Write Your Name). He was the keyboard player in The Blue Oyster Cult so that’s how I had this connection to him. He’s actually not in the band anymore, but they still did this song. But then, I gave it, you know, to them, and it was completely.. I was hearing a completely different..you know, from how I want(ed).. I didn’t tell them how I wanted..how I heard the music, and it came out so different from the way I heard it, it was interesting to find that out, you know. So…I’ll read this.. what the hell..
“Perfect Water – The dark wind/ braids the waves/The crazed birds raid the trees/Is that
our destiny?/To join our hands at sea/And slowly sink, and slowly think/This is perfect water, passing over me./ Do you know Jacques Cousteau?/Well, he said on the radio/ That you hear bells in random order/Deep beneath the perfect water./ inside the shivering spiral tide/I shut my eyes like a bride/And ride across the curve without borders/A life of perfect order/Like some orphan daughter/I wait beneath the perfect water/ I swimout and dream the final dream/Inside the pure and warm Gulf Stream/Where two large blocks of ice/melt into my hands like dice/ And I roll seven on the floor of the sea/ And I feel the perfect water washing over me.”
So that song was, like..I mean, I heard it completely different. And then.. I’m doing this album with Ray Manzarek, and I gave it to him – at the same time – (which was a big mistake, you know – because, he was really pissed,because he’d come up with new music for it that he really liked, but when the (Blue Oyster) Cult said (that) they wanted to do it, he.. ) – But I thought, you know, “a bird in the bush is better than one on a potential-album-in-the-future,” and so on, (especially, when they let you keep the publishing (rights)!), and I figured
that, you know, I’d just.. I said, “there’s plenty of lyrics that we’ll have ready, don’t
worry about it”. But he came up with a completely different music for it too, you know, which kind of fit in away.
But the one thing he did was, he didn’t get.. I knew there had to be… “This is perfect water,
passing over me” – and the real line I liked was – “Do you know Jacques Cousteau?/Well, he said on the radio” – You know, it had to be, really, like, casual there, and he had it, like, real slow (the rhymes didn’t even hit, you know). So.. I mean that’s one thing that just didn’t seem right, so that was another reason I decided to go with the other one (which I never heard until the fuckin’ record came out! ) –and it’s pretty good. (I mean, you can’t hear the lyrics for all the guitars,but, you know.. you can if you try, actually, but..)
At any rate,that’s an interesting fact that happens when you write with other people. It’s
the difference between when the music… that’s another thing – when the music comes first, rather than.. when the music comes first, not like.. On the second, on my second album (Dry Dreams) , I decided to give the band, like,more slack writing music – and they came in with tapes of, like, just blank cassettes with no music and no melody-line really, just the chord-outlines – and so – that way it gave me the freedom to write (not only) the lyrics but also write, like, melody-lines for my own vocal limitations, you know. And that was completely different.
It was easier in a way because you could fill in and you had, like, the music as a guide, but it wasn’t… I don’t think it’s as true, and you can’t get the same, like, strength, and purity, from a lyric that way,simply because, when you’re writing the lyric first, then you’re really hearing
the natural music that comes with it in your own mind – and you can’t beat that.It’s like the same way that someone who might have a technically-better voicethan Bob Dylan singing one of his songs, you know.. It just doesn’t have thesame quality when Joan Baez sings “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, (rather) than Dylan, because, it’s just… you know.. she has (an) achingly pure soprano, but.. but.. what the hell.. I mean, it’s not Bob Dylan! He wrote it and
he knows exactly where that little pause.. (which, of course.. in music, the pauses are as important, or, a lot of times, more important, than, you know, the actual words themselves – which is true for poetry too, I think) -But that’s just all.. it comes from experience after a while, working with it..
But the main thing.. So that’s the main thing, you know. If, like, people.. can just, you know, bring in their stuff, and we’ll just.. like, take turns, like, doing that next time.
But..I’ll also.. I have this tape, I’m writing songs for Boz Scaggs.. –
No, I shouldn’t play that, because that’s not fair to him..
Student: Oh come on!
Jim Carroll: No, it’s for his new album, and, you know, he doesn’t want me to play it for everybody. But it’s an example of… Like, I had to, with him, sing the.. you know, just gibberish words, the way the phrasing was, and his line, and where he wants the lyric to be – and then he gave me, another copy of it with just.. without him singing on it.
But, see, when someone does that then you know that the guy’s a singer and he wants it that way, you have to try and fit each word to the meter. And, youknow, he gave me, like gibberish for his first verse, like, “Those were hard times back in Delhi…” – something
like that – (he actually wrote a first verse and wanted me to kind of write the rest of it, you know, and.. and gave me even.. it was like a story, about some guy who always wanted something more. He wrote me this long letter, you know – Some guy, who, like, from the “Sixties, who went to the Haight, and then went to India and stuff. And I thought, you know, this is.. you know.. Let me start from the beginning, it’s kind of a.. (pre-programmed), you know – this is what you’ve gotta do.But, he sells a lot of records, and, like I say, I’m not going
to pass up that opportunity!..
to be continued
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately eighteen minutes in]