I’m pretty sure that I first ran into David Carr sometime in 1986, when we were both guests on Brian Lambert’s cable-access TV show. We were talking about some political difficulties St. Paul Mayor George Latimer may or may not have been facing at the time, and I recall being pretty impressed by how much street-level intelligence Carr displayed. He was not shy about dishing the dirt on players I didn’t even know existed. I was the editor of City Pages at the time and Carr was, I believe, a staff writer for the Twin Cities Reader, our nemesis. The Reader is long gone now, the victim of a 1997 acquisition by Village Voice Media, which turned the local alternative media scene on its head. At least, that’s how I remember it.
But memory can be a tricky thing, as Carr notes in his riveting new memoir, The Night of the Gun (Simon & Schuster), which attempts to deconstruct his 1980s-era exploits as a top-flight Twin Cities journalist and demented local drug addict. A media columnist for The New York Times, Carr recalls those years as a meandering series of stupid decisions and mindless excesses interspersed with episodes of cruelty and horror; he says he embarked on this quest to recapture a tortured past with the impression that he was never that bad of a guy.
But, in interviews with abused lovers, wronged friends, perplexed colleagues, amused drug traffickers, and dozens of innocent bystanders, Carr learns — 20 years or more after the fact — that the reality of his drug-addled years was often frighteningly at odds with his sunnier recollections. The night he beat up his best friend in the parking lot of The Cabooze and later showed up at his apartment threatening to pound him some more was something of a blur, Carr concedes. He was pretty drunk. But, he was certain that the gun that appeared as part of the scene at his buddy’s door was not in his possession. “I am not a gun guy,” he writes.
Upon further review, however, he learns that he did, in fact, own a pistol. And he most likely did, in fact, wave it in his best friend’s face that night. “Memories are like that,” Carr writes. “They live between synapses and the people who hold them. Memories, even epic ones, are perishable from their very formation even in people who don’t soak their brains in mood-altering chemicals.”
A Hopkins High School pothead and party animal who describes his affinity for debauchery as a quest to “not miss anything” in life, Carr subsequently descends into cocaine addiction, at one point spending months in a North Minneapolis house doing nothing but shooting coke and listening to an endless loop of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
The birth of his twin daughters in 1988 (their mother was smoking crack when her water broke) and his diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma offer Carr a lesson in personal responsibility and mortality, and they spark a stumbling path toward sobriety and ultimate redemption, but he rightfully shies away from redemptive clichés. Sober now for more than three years, Carr understands how precious and fragile his life has become.
Small Pond, Big Fish
In his classic tale of 1980s drug culture, Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney describes a shallow young magazine writer in New York who snorts coke in restroom stalls and finds salvation only in the pursuit of pleasure. This could be David Carr in 1986, I suppose, except for a couple of things: He was a real journalist and he lived in Minneapolis.
In the early 1980s, the city of Minneapolis launched a tourism promotion campaign that attempted to re-brand our little prairie burg as the “Minne-apple” — we can be a really cosmopolitan city, the marketers seemed to be saying, if only we were more assertive about it. It was a comically wrong-headed initiative that did nothing more than shine a brighter-than-necessary spotlight on our collective lack of self-esteem.
And it went nowhere, of course, because Minneapolis is not a little New York. It is a mid-sized Midwestern city with several appealing amenities — not the least of which is its residents’ mostly hardwired prairie humility. For those who want to grow into big fish, it was then — and is today — your classic “small pond.”
That was especially true of aspiring young “alternative” journalists like David Carr. Once you were accepted into the club as a freelancer or — dream of dreams — a staffer at one of the two local alternative weeklies, you were plugged into the local pop culture scene in a way no one else was. You’d get tickets for the best shows at First Avenue or the Entry, hook up on a regular basis with cool people at the CC Club who actually knew your name, and generally have access to everything you needed to be considered hip. Plus, you were putting out a weekly whose mission was to expose greed and hypocrisy and right all that was wrong in our little corner of the world. All this, and a paycheck every couple of weeks that almost covered your rent.
It was into this rarified air that Carr plunged after he left a bad restaurant job in search of meaning — or at least better parties. And though he’d never taken a journalism class and had spent most of his life avoiding anything related to the printed word, he found that his natural curiosity about things could be translated into pretty decent reporting skills. And being a reporter — even one who was drunk or high most of the time — allowed him to rub elbows with celebrities (such as they are here), occasionally break some news, get some attention, go to all the coolest parties, and still feel pretty good about yourself in the morning.
You didn’t have to be high or narcissistic back then to feel good about working six days a week, every week (as we did at City Pages) for three or four hundred bucks. It was kind of an exclusive fraternity. But Carr was probably the only one among us who treated it like a part-time job, the only one who spent as much time cultivating his drug sources as his news sources. But there was a payoff we weren’t able to secure: He became a really big fish in our little backwater.
Comedian Tom Arnold was a buddy — before and after Roseanne — as were a host of other more-or-less household names in the entertainment and political worlds. The fat kid from Hopkins was a pretty big deal.
Go East, Young Man
By the time I left City Pages in 1989, a number of my colleagues and friends had already migrated east to New York. Some of them astonished me by actually finding real jobs; others scuffled about until something good happened. Most of those who left are still there, which also surprises me.
Carr, too, eventually found his way to New York. And it’s a real possibility that city humbled him just enough to save his life.
In the 13 years since Carr moved to the East Coast, first to D.C. to edit the alternative weekly City Paper, and eventually to the Big Apple itself, where he worked for Kurt Anderson’s doomed Inside.com and freelanced for the Atlantic Monthly and New York magazines before earning his current gig at the Times, he admits to falling off the wagon occasionally, but he’s mostly stayed out of trouble.
He testifies in no uncertain terms to the power of AA, and his devotion to his wife and kids is compelling, but it’s striking to me, at least, to learn how small Carr feels in D.C. and New York. By any definition you want to use, this guy is a major player on the national media scene these days, and yet his sense of importance, the way he describes his own stature, is as if he’d shrunken to a tenth of the man he was when he lived here.
That wouldn’t surprise me if it were anyone else, but Carr at his peak (or nadir, if you prefer) was indestructible, a sort of anti-hero with 19 lives who so dominated those around him that it was quite impossible to imagine a situation in which he would not survive and prosper — at least by his own definition.
But New York is a big city and just to survive requires a certain focus. It’s oddly just, Carr notes. “If you are good at what you do, work hard, and don’t back down, you can make a place to stand on the island.”
But you’re never going to be The Guy like Carr was The Guy here in the ’80s. “I may or may not have been a rube, but I didn’t know anyone or anything,” he recalls of his arrival in NYC. And when he interviews for a job at the Times, he utters words that nobody who knew Carr here has probably ever heard him say: “I was more interested in fitting in than sticking out.”
That’s not to say he didn’t screw up now and again. He frequently tumbled off the wagon during out-of-town reporting trips and at one point describes himself as a quiet suburban drunk. But coke scared him and he clung to his job by drawing “a bold white line around it — if I felt a bit overmatched at the Times sober, I was toast as an active drunk.”
You can argue whether it was New York or his daughters or his devotion to his craft that keeps Carr alive these days, but one thing is indisputable: The guy is still a helluva reporter — even when he’s exploring his own terrifying past.
This article first appeared in MOQ, fall 2008. To see what else is in that issue, most of which will not appear on the Web, please click on the cover image in the upper left of our home page.