Quite simply put, he's never boring. A huge range of subjects from the meaning of the cosmos to cute kitties are given a deft, wry, warm-hearted examination. With just a teeny tang of fleeting crankiness -- for salt.
The reader is honestly informed and amused - not hectored and bullied by agenda-wielding egoists. As he says in the interview: "you can teach with humor." For example . . .
Our session with Jon Carroll was extremely educational. We now know with a great degree of certainty that there is no Bart station named "Oakland."
Carroll had given us foolproof instructions for getting to a cafe next to the Bart Oakland Station - but we Fooled and ended up frantically racing to MacArthur when we should have been rocketing to Rockridge. It was in the middle of that really vile storm last winter.
There was much hysteria . . .
Somehow we got to the right place only 15 minutes late, dripping wet and pretty damn rattled. (Ever driven in Oakland before?)
But Carroll exudes a deep calm and sympathy, and we quickly got down to some fine journalistic nitty-gritty . . .
*For They Hae Slay The Earl of Carroll and Laid Him on the Green.
Goblin Magazine: Where are you from originally?
Jon Carroll: I was born in L.A. My parents were divorced. I grew up in the various towns that constitute L.A. I was in Pasadena for awhile, Manhattan Beach, Claremont, places like that. My mother moved around. Then I came up here to go to college when I was eighteen and this has essentially been my home ever since. I went to work in Beverly Hills for three and a half years, lived in Santa Monica and Chicago for a year each for a job. And in each case when the job ended I moved back here. These jobs were in the late 70's.
Goblin: You were assistant editor of Rolling Stone for awhile weren't you?
Carroll: I was managing editor for three glorious weeks and before that I was associate editor for a longer period of time in '70. It was astonishing. It was the beginning of Rolling Stone as an event. It was the coolest thing at the time, the publication that everybody was picking up on. It wasn't the only magazine at the time that was trying to do that and there are obscure reasons why it won and others didn't -- and I'm not even sure I understand the reasons; until Hunter Thompson got there, and that became the reason. Thompson was the thing that pushed it over. There were lots of people who were understanding that music was political and that's what was happening.
Goblin: Do you remember people running around frantically with Thompson's faxes?
Carroll: When I was there the faxes were mostly from Jann. Because the management of Rolling Stone, meaning Jann Wenner, sort of rubber banded between his desire to be a rock star and scene maker and the necessity for him to be a magazine editor. He was not a natural magazine editor -- concerned with prose and the aesthetics of putting out a magazine. He got the job because it was half his idea and he had money to invest. Goblin: Why was your term with Rolling Stone so short?
Carroll: I was somebody who came more from magazines and prose. I wanted to be a magazine editor and a writer and didn't want to be a scene maker. I interviewed rock bands but I was more interested in writing the interview, and the interview form. I met John Lennon and Steve Winwood, but my overall reaction to that was shyness, unless I could put on my journalistic robes and ask questions. I never wanted to stay there afterward and be their friends. While Jann was still around, there was this guy named John Burks who was the managing editor of Rolling Stone and was responsible for a lot of the best political stuff that they did, like the coverage of Altamont and the Kent State shooting was his. I became a follower of his. He and Jann got in a war for the magazine because the advertisers had told Jann, "knock off the political stuff and review music please," and he did.
Goblin: But they still do political articles.
Carroll: Sure. This was the 1970's, this issue has gone back and forth. Back then they didn't have the cachet and the cash to resist what advertisers told them.
Goblin: Is that why Rolling Stone plays it safe now?
Carroll: Yes, I think the personality of Jann is to keep the magazine successful, and to take chances within narrow confines to take care of business. And that's an interesting call. He's published a lot of wonderful stuff but he knows where the lion cages are located, and he knows what kind of meat they like and when to throw it to them.
Goblin: You've been the editor for a lot of magazines. To what extent can you be creative and put interesting stuff in a magazine, while at the same time you have to keep it commercial?
Carroll: You always have to keep it commercial. When you think of the magazines that run without advertising, and I think MAD is the only one that has had continued success on a national scale . . . The business of magazines is selling readers to advertisers. It has nothing to do with selling magazines to readers, that's a byproduct of the essential economic exchange. Therefore you have to concern yourself with advertisers at some point and that is a combination and series of difficult judgment calls: how far you can push them, what will make you mad, which ones you care about, what can you do that will be so popular that the advertisers will not care because of the numbers they're getting. It's a series of extremely tedious maneuvering. The reason why magazines come and go with such a great rate is because advertisers are loyal only to the demographics and whatever their polls tell them; the coupons, and the various ways they have of figuring out if the ad is being seen and acted upon by the readers of magazine A and B.
Goblin: There seems to be a certain amount of credibility that gets lost when you compromise too much. Because the credibility with the reader is also very important. If they think you have integrity they may be much more likely to buy the products you endorse, especially in music.
Carroll: That was one of the interesting things. I don't know how much self-censorship is involved. In general the record companies didn't care if the reviews were good or bad. They didn't try to dictate praise, praise, praise, they just wanted reviews, reviews, reviews. They didn't want an endless essay on the march on Washington. The tiny number of Black people on the cover of Rolling Stone was another scandal, considering they were covering rock music. If you throw out Jimi Hendrix you got nobody until Michael Jackson. Black music was covered on the inside but the feature articles tended to be teen idols.
Goblin: Is that a smaller example of how everything is getting watered down, so as not to upset big business?
Carroll: Everything in mass media certainly is. There are a few reasons for that. The first reason is that the economy has changed a lot over the last quarter of a century, things are tighter generally. Secondly there is a popular urge to identify with products that didn't exist when I was growing up. People want logos on them, it's an utterly new thing. They don't think about compromising or blanding -- they think it's all the same thing. A lot of people that you talk to are just not upset about the notion that advertisers are controlling editorial content. If those advertisers can put another sixteen pages of articles about celebrities in a magazine, and those celebrities endorse a certain kind of watch, well cool, great.
The need for information remains constant. What's happened is that the magazine mass media, which used to be a semi-reliable delivery system has become a far less reliable delivery system. While that was going on the alternative press sprang up which in many ways was a much more reliable delivery system -- it printed rumors and didn't check facts very well -- but it was honest, didn't have corporate agendas, and wasn't censored. Then alternative media, because of changes in advertising and demographic patterns, and the money that classified ads make (as a huge example) became big. These ground level papers like the Bay Guardian and the SF Weekly got rich and became very comfortable. And it's a fact of life that when you're making $500,000 a year you take certain steps to make sure you don't end up making $50,000 a year. Whereas when you were making fifty that seemed to be a fine amount of money to be making. That's the nature of corruption.
Goblin: Are you basically optimistic about the future of world civilization? Not just in publishing, but the general control of people's minds through the mass mergings of interests?
Carroll: I see forces and counter forces. I believe in some sort of cosmic stability. The Net is the big countervailing force, zines are also. There are a wide variety of other ways people have found to communicate with each other. Ideally if you look at the ancient model of what newspapers and magazines are . . . they're members of us, who happen to be good at telling stories, telling the stories of what we've done and seen. I say "tell a story" in a very literal sense. That's what it's supposed to be, it's not a priesthood, it's a job. Increasingly it becomes a priesthood. It's a semi-celebrity deal, you become further and further removed from the classic people telling other people information. And understanding the art of it, the art of narrative, that's what you're good at. That becomes corrupted and somebody who is more like us, more honest and reliable steps in.
Goblin: You have a certain power now, and you must have a moral agenda coming from the 60's.
Carroll: I have never had an overarching vision or agenda. I have a series of things that I believe are right and wrong, and they change. I have opinions about certain issues and I have things that I hate, but a lot of it has to do with kindness, generosity and loving. On the other hand what I'm doing is popular entertainment and there is a lot of humor. Clearly you can do teaching with humor, but I'm as much drawn to the technical challenges of writing the column as I am to that.
I write 270 columns a year, there are more than 270 worthy causes in the Bay Area. I could do the worthy cause of the day with the post office box at the end and nobody would read it. Still, I feel that there is an obligation to do a certain amount of good in the traditional Victorian sense. So the question is how much do I do every year. Goblin: There was an article in the recent New Yorker, called "The Fall Of Fun," about how the fun has gone out of writing. Now the parties are all about corporate networking and there's no bohemian writers getting drunk anymore.
Carroll: Not where I am but I'm not in New York. It's hard for me to know. I've been here so long, my friends are more or less the same folks I started out with. They're older, most of them are richer, they have the same sort of ideas and there's the same kind of hanging out. They have aged, so there's less drinking, drugging, and sex. I'm in a niche. I've gotten comfortable and I don't need to be ambitious. I didn't realize it when I took the job but I've gotten where I'm getting. It's what I'm doing when I grow up so I don't need to network with anybody.
Goblin: Now that you've stopped drinking what are your opinions on booze and pot?
Carroll: When I stopped drinking I made simple rules, which are not to use drugs and not to drink. Because if I decide to take my writing to more complicated areas it gets harder to keep within the boundaries I need to keep it in. I stopped drinking because my liver was getting messed up. It wasn't a huge spiritual awakening. I used to write stoned.
Goblin: William Burroughs said that once you've been stoned enough times you can learn to free associate while you're sober.
Carroll: I think it's entirely true. In the beginning there was some freedom that it allowed me to get at synapses that aren't supposed to work together. Now it feels like speaking inside a voice and letting it talk. If I think if it's appropriate for what I'm doing I go there and connections start being made. And I can't answer as to whether I'd be able to do that if I hadn't used drugs and taken acid and stuff.
Goblin: With information moving so fast is it possible for different age groups to relate to each other?
Carroll: I do, and what did it for me was the Net. I got on line early in '87 and there was a small group of people there who I became friends with based on shared interests; mostly on books, movies, media, magazines, stuff like that. We would talk online and I had no idea how old they were. I was a public figure by then so they had some idea of how old I was. Occasionally there would be a point of reference and they would say, 'Oh, I was two when that happened.' And I would be surprised. But it was okay with them and it certainly was okay with me because it connected me with a bunch of readers I didn't think I'd be connected with. Out of that experience I have good friends who are 20-25 years younger than I am.
Goblin: Is it strange that you need such an impersonal medium to talk to somebody younger -- like it might be inappropriate if you spoke to them in person?
Carroll: It's harder. People look like people's parents. People have to work through that one way or another. I have that problem talking to people who are 75. I have the same trouble sitting down with a person of that age and seeing and believing they've had the same kind of life that I've had; went through the same sexual and political experiences, the same ideas, etc. That's harder for me with older people than with younger. But I do wonder if younger people have experienced enough to know what I'm feeling, thinking, or believe in. That's because we were trained to be separate. There are cults of youths that are extremely pervasive and the trouble in this media saturated world is not the quality of the information (because there's alternate sources to find out information) it's the quality of the information you can't see -- it's the soup that you're swimming in. It's not the chunks of macaroni that float by, it's the actual soup. We're told a lot of stuff about who we're supposed to be based on how old we are and it's very hard for us -- not only to relate to other people, but to have an image of ourselves apart form the image we're told we're supposed to have. People forget who they are.
Goblin: Perhaps because young people watch so much television that brain-washing is much worse than it was for past generations.
Carroll: I don't know, I watch a lot of TV so I'm not sure. I'm of the understanding that the brain washing is everywhere. It's the deal, the world that we live in, all the products and all the everything. It's cultural.
Goblin: Do you think the 60's were to your generation what the 30's were to your parents' generation -- in terms of freedom and partying?
Carroll: I believe the popular cliche to be true that the 60's mostly happened in the 70's. That was certainly true in my experience. They certainly didn't happen from '60 to '66. What did I know about partying? I was in High School. Marijuana was something that jazz musicians used. I am unable to separate any theories about decades from my own personal history. I don't know from decades. It's unclear in my mind if that's just a useful way to divide up people's experiences so you can chew them up. Certainly all I can say from my experience is I did all my partying from the years '68 to '75. Goblin: There seems to be truth in many negative stereotypes ("the Dutch are always frugal," is a lighter example). Do you feel it's wrong to make generalizations about any group of people -- nationality or otherwise. Most liberals feel it's totally wrong.
Carroll: Experience suggests otherwise doesn't it? Acknowledging they're generalizations you can make generalizations. I don't really have the answer. That's where the whole notion of correct speech, incorrect speech, hate speech come from. The reason it's pernicious is that it denies people the opportunity to express what they've noticed or what they've seen. Once you get it out then you find it's culturally determined. The way to do that is to take yourself into another culture where you're not so bound by all the assumptions and then look at it. In Nigeria, where my wife is writing a book, everyone is always late. "Those Black people, they're always late." When in fact everybody is always late because it is rude not to greet someone in the street, and not to greet them in a way in which you ask about how all their family is doing, you listen to the answer, you talk to them, etc. That's the base line for social activity, that comes first. Time issues come second. It has nothing to do with how they could be on time if only they tried. It's just that they come from a culture where punctuality is second place. As long as everybody plays by the same rules than you're fine. It's when somebody who plays by different rules comes in that things don't work out.
Goblin: What are your spiritual beliefs?
Carroll: I'm a general sort of notational Buddhist. Most people who wander around Northern California are. I believe in God, sort of. I definitely believe in prayer, and I pray. I believe in good works, I believe in showing up, paying attention and telling the truth.
Goblin: How would you define God?
Carroll: Anything that isn't me. All the stuff out there. I'm unsure if there's another intelligence or power but there's a lot of the universe that isn't me and I'll call it that. If there's a work of miracle in my life then I'll testify.
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