David Carr’s Enduring Great Caper

(Photo: Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times)

If you paid close attention to the many facets along the breadth of David Carr’s career, you’d have heard the word “caper” more than a few times. During a conversation with Bloomberg last year about the future of media, he referred to journalism as “a little bit of a caper.” Earlier, at the end of his breathtaking memoir Night of the Gun, which explored in vivid detail and with a journalist’s eye his descent into crack addiction in the 1980s, he described most of life itself that way, writing, “We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.” Carr admitted that having risen from such a dark place to become quite possibly the most respected and singularly insightful media writer of his generation, he was able to be grateful in a way others might never understand or appreciate. “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” he proclaimed.

That life ended suddenly on Thursday night, when David Carr collapsed in the New York Times newsroom. He was 58 years old. To say that journalism has lost a very bright light — journalism not as a business but as a noble and eminently human endeavor — would be the grossest of understatements. Carr was of a very specific and iconoclastic breed of journalist, the kind that’s becoming an increasingly rare commodity among newsrooms. He was an unconventional guy who, even as his life was spiraling out of control, somehow never lost the childlike curiosity and wonder that led him to always be examining the world around him. As the paper that employed him for the last thirteen years says, “His plain-spoken style was sometimes blunt, and searingly honest about himself. The effect was both folksy and sophisticated, a voice from a shrewd and well-informed skeptic.” Carr’s regular Monday column, “The Media Equation,” was essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how the media worked and sometimes didn’t; he had a seemingly supersensory grasp of the subject and was one of the first to proclaim the cultural authority of the new media revolution, all while never being the least bit pompous or patronizing.

It’s impossible for me to write about David Carr without getting personal, because despite only a couple of friendly interactions between us, I felt an undeniable kinship with him. I’ll never be the writer or thinker he was, but we shared a common history of drug addiction, we each hit our own horrific rock-bottom, and we both somehow managed to crawl our way back to lives we could be grateful for. The incredible thing about Carr and maybe what made him such an old school archetype in the Hunter Thompson vein — the signature on his e-mails was a Thompson quote: “Call on God, but row away from the rocks” — was that even when he was at his worst, smoking crack with the people he was reporting on, his writing hardly suffered. For the most part I was able to keep it together as my heroin addiction completely enveloped me and pulled me under, but all I really had to do most of the time was stack stories in a TV show. I wasn’t required to be imaginative or insightful, merely robotic. Throw in a couple flashes of genuine creativity and put my hands on my hips a lot so people thought I knew what the fuck I was doing and I could fool almost anyone. But Carr was an actual journalist, writing for a paper in Minneapolis as he was getting blind drunk, doing handfuls of drugs and getting arrested seemingly every couple of days. I have no idea how he did it. The addict’s capacity for rationalizing any kind of atrocious behavior I understand completely — the ability to write and write and write while completely obliterated I never will.

Both David Carr and I turned our experiences as addicts into books, with his being a brilliantly clinical reassessment of the time he lost. Night of the Gun is written from a reporter’s perspective, as Carr retraces the various stations of the addict and interviews people who were alongside him as he slid further and further down. He attempts to either validate or refute his memories years after the fact in an effort to get to the truth of what happened to him and who he was. It’s an extraordinary journey and a grim but surprisingly playful way of going about writing an addiction memoir. It takes balls of steel to write something like that, to truly revisit a part of your life you’d just as soon forget completely but what needs to exist to make you more appreciate your rise from the ashes. Emotionally, writing the book I did about my own addiction and the attempt to redeem myself in the aftermath of 9/11 was often devastating. But I only returned to that place in my mind; I didn’t actually catalog my actions and physically go back and face the people those actions impacted. I hope the book I wrote turned out to be a fair and accurate account of that time period in my life; Carr made sure it was for his, which took infinitely more courage given that facing your past literally rather than figuratively is the most frightening thing imaginable for a drug addict.

“I could be drunk tomorrow or shooting dope even as you read this, but the chances of that are low as long as I make a daily decision to embrace who I really am and then be satisfied with that at the end of the day,” David Carr once wrote, issuing what could very well be the official addict mantra for how to navigate the world. It was the fact that he experienced so much darkness and insanity, both personal, in how he lived, and in the stories he chose to cover, that made him the kind of journalist he was. If he’d come up through the world doing everything he was supposed to and hadn’t seen what he had and done what he did, maybe he wouldn’t have had the balls to tell some tough-talking douchebag from Vice, essentially, to shut the fuck up during an interview. If he hadn’t lost and gained so much throughout his life, maybe he wouldn’t have been able to pass along the fruits of all that experience to his friends and colleagues when they, too, were going through crises in their own lives. Carr, like all of us, was the sum of what he lived and in his case, he lived roughly, madly and with an unabashed joy few of us will ever be able to truly know. It was the joy of having survived and maybe, just maybe, having gotten a little bit of wisdom out of it for his troubles.

I always wonder if I’m going to go like David Carr. If one day I’m just going to keel over and that’ll be it. I’ve certainly earned it. If I’m lucky, though, I’ll be able to say that I lived even a little like Carr did. He believed life is just one big caper — and he was right.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.