IMAGE: Campbell Robertson
The last time David Carr was in Portland was in 1974, when he rode down with the Rainbow Tribe from a yippie camp-in near Spokane and got let off a marijuana-possession rap by a highway patrolman.
At least he thinks that’s what happened.
The New York Times columnist—he covers media-business hemorrhaging and Hollywood’s awards season—is the first to admit his memory isn’t what it should be. For much of the ’80s, he was a crackhead, eventually fired from his Minneapolis alt-weekly reporting gig for “having recklessly sautéed my brain in fistfuls of pharmaceutical spices.” But when Carr sat down to write his memoir in 2006, he turned his old investigative-journalism tricks on himself, interviewing the people who could recall what he couldn’t. The Night of the Gun, a Times bestseller, is a triumph of persistence over memory—it has a clinically tough sadness, one that came from recognizing his positive self-image as a pleasant lie. “People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived,” he writes. This week, he’ll dredge his past twice more in Portland. But first he talked to WW.
WW: By all rights, and in your own words, you should be dead. Why aren’t you?
David Carr: I actually rode about 15 miles on my bike this morning and lifted some weights and I’m off the cigs. So I’m not even really close to dead; I’m feeling pretty damn good. It was luck. Some of the people I went back to talk to were dead, and why were they dead? Not a lot of gun violence—some people I knew casually died that way. A fair amount of overdose, but OD is generally more of a lethal issue when it comes to heroin people than people who do coke, and I did do some heroin but I never was hooked on it. [It’s] very much just a luck thing. I don’t assign spiritual value to it. I don’t feel like God was watching over me, or anything like that. I think I just got lucky.
You’ve written that you can’t remember those days terribly well. What reporting skills did you have to use to investigate your own story?
Yeah, I remember some of it—but who knows if it was true or not? You have these hazy memories and you try to apply the leverage of reporting to try to either make them come true or turn up false. In stuff where I couldn’t absolutely nail it down I hired a couple private investigators—that didn’t go very well—and then I hired this really good reporter, Don Jacobson, to come behind me and he did a really good job. And then, of course, I videotaped 60 interviews with other people.
Are there things they told you about yourself that you’re disturbed to know?
Sure, yeah. I mean, I had a certain image of myself as a fairly nice guy who just sort of got a little jammed up with drugs but otherwise made his merry way. But I created a lot of mayhem and misery as I went. Certain people wouldn’t talk to me. A woman I was married to when I was young didn’t want to talk to me—that was a loss to the book. She would’ve been an excellent source; she has a great memory and is a really fair person, but she wanted no part of it.
The Night of the Gun deals in excess but it conducts a clinical, almost artistic evaluation of it.
That’s part of what I was looking for. I didn’t really want to do a book that was full of pathos or anything like it. I don’t think anybody should feel bad for that guy in the book: Whatever hand he got struck by was his own. I do believe in the disease concept of addiction, and that it’s not a moral weakness, but there are plenty of ways of being a drunk and drug addict that don’t involve creating a lot of mayhem in other people’s lives. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished since—I’ve raised a family and run newspapers and had good jobs and married well and all that stuff, but that doesn’t change the fact that back then, when I thought I was a barrel of monkeys to be around, I was probably more like a bag of hammers.
Do you see yourself in some ways as a different entity than you were back then? You talk about “That Guy” in the book. Do you see him as you or someone who is so ruled by substances it’s a different person?
I feel pretty different. I was riding my bike in a park the other day and these guys got into this throw-down, some kind of road-rage thing, and the one older guy was up out of his car screaming his lungs out and ready to kill this guy for whatever he did, and I thought, “You know what? I used to be that guy.” I am so far away from that; I haven’t been in any kind of physical confrontation with anybody in 20 years, and there just isn’t anything that’s gonna get me into the business of assaulting another person to make a point. I’m just not that way anymore. Apart from the fact I’m old and slow and probably would get my ass kicked. That doesn’t stop some guys.
When you were a junkie you were a reporter for the Twin Cities Reader. Is there something about alt weeklies that attracts sketchy personalities?
Well, historically I think there’s been room for more idiosyncrasies and less sort of corporate requirements in terms of being in the chair and dressing a certain way. As long as the work is done, they don’t care so much about the other stuff. A lot of who was coming into weeklies when I was getting in the business, like early ’80s, was a combination of Hunter Thompson, inspired by his stylistic excesses, and the whole Tom Wolfe long-narrative heaves—that was really who served as exemplars, and I think I took some of the lifestyle stuff a little too seriously. I covered city council meetings in a bowling shirt and visor sunglasses—and I don’t care who it is, that’s not a good look on anybody. I don’t know why I chose to do that.
Tom Wolfe couldn’t have helped.
Yeah, although you gotta say, stylistically he chose a more elegant path. Although those white pants—he actually now buckles them just below his nipples, which is not quite as chic as it used to be.
You’ve been covering one of the strangest beats in journalism right now: the “end of newspapers” beat. Do newspapers deserve to die at this point? Did we earn it?
[Long pause.] Noooo…I do think there was a time from 1995 to 2000, when it was obvious significant disruptive changes were going to be coming into our business and it behooved us to start moving aggressively on other models and investing some of those profits…. Both the alt weeklies and daily papers by virtue of their own little mini-monopolies had margins in the mid-teens to mid-20s; some of that money should have gone in the building of a bridge to the future. [In] that part of it, I think the newspapers deserve part of what they have coming. But anytime there’s significant disruptive change, really good businesses and really good people are gonna get hurt. I don’t view newspapers as out of touch with their audiences—if you look at the audience figures for newspapers, they’ve never had more and bigger audiences. What I don’t understand is there’s all these like, “collapsetarians” who want everything to burn down—and why? What for? I understand platforms will shift and ways of storytelling will shift, but especially so much of the blogosphere is just rooting for MSM to fall to earth. And I’m thinking to myself, “Well then, you’re going to have to make some phone calls and find out what’s going on, rather than just annotating my work.”
Do you ever feel like you’re living a bizarrely charmed life? You’re on the red carpet talking to Kate Winslet, and 25 years ago you were doing coke in Minneapolis.
Some of that was with famous people, too. Part of what happens is every once in a while I’ll get in a situation…if you look in the last year I’ve been to Bonnaroo, I went to the Democratic National Convention, I was at South by Southwest for the interactive part, I went to the Golden Globes, I just did all of this wonderful, cool stuff. That part of it feels really charmed. I never really felt I was that much different than the men and women I worked with, but I was always a little bit more frantic about journalism and a little more frantic about work than most of them were. I don’t really lead a very balanced life, so it was equal parts charm and sort of mania. Not that much different from addiction. That sort of allowed me to get to this spot. I just did a story this week about these people who are doing a website after they got laid off from their jobs, and I had no trouble understanding them because it’s like, do you want to be involved in this caper every day or do you want to wake up and go to work? It’s not really that hard of a choice. That’s why people hang onto the journalism jobs the way that they do. We went through a 5 percent pay cut and nobody I know that I work with even blinked, it’s just like, that’s fine, no big deal. There’s a feeling, in New York at least, that a certain kind of era is ending. Part of being a reporter in New York is you end up going to parties and eating food that is certainly above your station in life, and that part of it is maybe going away, but the activity of it…the main course is still there. You just go and find people more interesting than you are and write down what they say. The activity of it I’ve always found to be really joyous and wonderful. That’s why the book tour is a little weird because it’s exactly the opposite, like I’m supposed to be the interesting person and the polarity of the situation is reversed. I always feel that some terrible mistake has been made; I’m more interested in the people that come up to the table afterward and what kind of stories they have than whatever story I’m going to tell them. I take the business of performing and entertaining very, very seriously, and prepare a bunch, but I still feel like a little bit of a fraud.
So, your Oscar poll this year? I’m the guy who won.
You fucker! What was your big get? You didn’t get Foreign, did you? They’re lengthening the Oscar season next year, and we’ll see about the old Carpetbagger [Carr’s Hollywood blog, carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com] because the idea of a longer Oscar season makes me want to vomit.
SEE IT: David Carr answers questions at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, June 12. Free. He will be interviewed on Live Wire! at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 234-9694. 8 pm Saturday, June 13. $20