Keep your eye on the front sight and keep firing. Interview with William Burroughs's in-house photographer, Jon Blumb: Lawrence, Kansas, 2013 by Tom King
Keep your eye on the front sight and keep firing.........
Interview by Tom King, with William Burroughs Communications' almost official photographer, Jon Blumb in Lawrence, Kansas, 2013.
If the Burroughs estate has an official photographer it is Jon Blumb. When particular documentation was called for, Blumb was usually James Grauerholz's first call. Blumb's essay on Burroughs is included below.
Blumb: I knew William for 10 years. Our first meeting was in 1986 when I came over to pick up paintings to be photographed. I had been recommended by mutual friends and had worked on many exhibition catalogs. Burroughs was showing his visual art so much those days.
The first assignment? A stack of art. He wanted me to take detail shots from several works on paper which he would use for collages. We worked in the backyard.
I knew he liked photography but I didn't realize how involved he was with it personally, throughout his life. He took a lot of pictures. We related on that level and we both enjoyed firearms and shooting targets.
The portraits I made were usually candid, no set-up. I didn't want to overstay my welcome. Occasionally there was a formal situation or a recording or video session.
This photo was taken in September 1992 in the Red House recording studio in downtown Lawrence. It was eventually used in the packaging of Cronenburg's Naked Lunch DVD set.
William was recording several of his crime stories for a music video for the band Ministry. The lighting and video crews had constructed an intimate setting but there was so much activity that I had only a brief window of perfect focus. William was usually at ease in these situations. He was so much like one of his own story characters when he did readings. He became the disembodied voice of control on the radio.
William was sitting on the stage of the Kansas Union auditorium [University of Kansas] in November, 1996. It was an art symposium held in conjunction with his show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Ports of Entry, 1996]. Ginsberg was there too.
I think this is a humorous picture. William was out for an important event but something else was tugging at him, maybe Happy Hour. He kept rummaging in his security bag, a little gym or bowling bag he always had with him on his outings. No-one was sure what he kept in there but there was probably weed and some vodka and Coke.
1994. The ACP was a 45-caliber Automatic Colt Pistol, government issue, made for WWII by Remington Rand. This gun was one of William's favorites. The picture was taken out in the bottomlands between Lawrence and Eudora, close to the Wakarusa river. His pistol was unique. During WWII, the U.S. Army needed so many pistols that they farmed out manufacturing to any machine-making companies, including typewriter-makers. William always used ear protection and glasses when he was shooting. He was good about that. He always remembered exactly what he paid for a gun. He shot with many guns but his ethic was consistent: "Keep your eye on the front sight and keep firing."
July 1993. Steven Lowe bought the house at the northeast corner of 19th & Learnard. William often worked on his art there. Junky's Christmas was shot in that house. William was pretty obsessed about his visual art. He wouldn't have produced so much if he didn't enjoy it. Part of it was his enjoyment of working with his art materials: paint, ink, pencils, offbeat tools and different kinds of paper and canvases. He wasn't an art snob--he used anything to project his vision.
James Grauerholz was Williams' manager and caretaker. He was William's diplomat, best friend and biggest benefactor, a true gentleman. I worked well with James, we shared perspective and we both loved and respected William. Collaborating with James has always been an easy pleasure.
James made sure that William had what he needed to thrive and be happy.
This picture was taken in May 1995 at the second iteration of Red House when they moved to West 31 Street. William had just finished reading from Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Everything went very well, we went outside for some portrait shots. At some point, I asked James to join in.
August 1997. A memento mori. The guy on the left is Fred Aldrich, one of William's dear friends. He had on those federal agent sunglasses and I thought the scene was highly ironic so I took a shot. Later I thought, "I have to print that one." This was taken during the evening visitation at the funeral home before the ceremony at Liberty Hall. The next day everybody drove to Bellefontaine in St. Louis for the internment.
Hell, Man, I’m not gonna shoot ‘em ‘way out there!
The first time I set up a shooting range for William Burroughs, I went out to the farm early and set up targets on a board, an improvised table, and lawn chairs. When I brought William to the spot later that afternoon, he sized up the distance, commenting, "Hell, Man, I'm not gonna shoot ‘em ‘way out there! Move ‘em up closer—most gunfights are just across a room!"
He enjoyed shooting a full array of firearms from .38, .357 magnum, 9mm, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 long Colt, and .454 Casull. The more energy expended and recoil produced, the better! William liked to see and feel the results of his endeavors, from being physically pushed back by a firearm to examining the targets and touching the holes with his fingers, as if he had an intuitive system of scoring targets in which he merely had to touch the holes while his mind tallied up the scores.
That magnum theme came to be familiar in my dealings with William Burroughs. While the range might have been close, the content was large-bore. His gusto extended into his writing and art, as well. William always enjoyed art and photography, and had been active in both. When called upon to photograph new art works, I was amazed at the volume of paintings he would make in a week. They were not simply a pastime, but a serious obsession.
I met William while photographing his art. Having specialized in photography of fine art for years, it was a different scene to observe as William exhibited, published, and sold a large volume of his art. The reviews and attention came from a different audience, not the mainstream art establishment. Writers, editors, and musicians were interested. Collectors were buying William's art. It was entertaining to see artists' and critics' jealous reactions to William's notoriety. Soon I was invited to photograph him at voice and video recording sessions. I knew I was lucky to have access to photograph William without formality, and we enjoyed shooting together.
William often enjoyed speaking in the vernacular, skillfully using poor grammar to drive home a point or a mood, just like his tough-guy characters. Being present at recording sessions was an enjoyable benefit of my work. It was a rare chance to hear him use his theatrical voice to interpret the written word.
William lived unpretentiously and had many friends. Lawrence residents were flattered that he had chosen to live among them, and returned the favor by giving him generous amounts of privacy and respect. The week of his death, a few reporters showed up in town trying to dig up stories, but ended up frustrated by the treatment they were given by reticent Lawrence residents.
It seemed to many friends that William would live indefinitely, partly because he had outlived many of his contemporaries. When he died in August of 1997, it was a shock to his friends who were used to his energetic personality. It was natural for me to document in photographs his funeral and the final journey to his family's cemetery plot in St. Louis. Many of his friends were in a prolonged state of mourning, and I deliberately did not publish the funeral photos immediately. Now I feel that it is appropriate to show these photographs from the end of William's life.
William's death reminded me of the painful fact that people and opportunities will not be available forever. We must enjoy them now, while the time is ripe and the chance is at hand.
William was a collector of experiences, ideas, books, and weapons. He was an innovator with a creative, visual mind. To him, life was a fascinating journey. William identified with the spirit of the following quotation, attributed to Plutarch in 56 B.C.:
“It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.”
- Jon Blumb December 2004
100 years ago today, William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Times have changed but his ideas and influence continue to shape our world. In a talk last weekend, James Grauerholz described William's message as "having a verrry long fuse". As we experience government espionage, environmental destruction, the fight for media control, a very real Nova Mob and those who OCCUPY the streets in protest, Burroughs' work gives myriad insight. So let's celebrate the man and his legacy by reading/viewing/listening to his works. Here's a few to get started. Happy birthday, William!
What do I have to say?
You have been lied to, exploited, cut off from your birthright.
"Sons of shame and sorrow,
will you cheer tomorrow?
Sons of toil and danger,
--and bow down to the Alien Grays?
(who don't know emotion, we'll help them to know it.)
Can we ever look each other in the face?
I am willing. Are you?
Give me the answer to a question, I tell what the question was.
Nobody but a fool wants to know what the secret of the universe is.
Or thinks that he could understand it
One thing: It is not out there, dead, to be discovered--but out there alive, to be created.
So many minds I can look into. Sample, feel, experience.
I want to know the all, from conception to death. The final Comedie Humaine.
"Counsellors and all that shit."
"You crazy or something, walk around alone?"
"It ain't bothering you is it?"
William S. Burroughs
Journal Entry, May 26, 1997
Last Words, Grove Press 2000
"I am attempting to create a new mythology for the space age. I feel that old mythologies are definitely broken down and not adequate at the present time. In this mythology, I have Nova conspiracies, Nova police, Nova criminals. I do definitely have heroes and villains with respect to overall intentions with regard to this planet."
-WSB in a 1964 interview
"I tell you nothing could get through that blockade. . . nothing
. . . but here it is . . . the White Cat."
A radiant cat glowing with a pitiless white light,
light on secret files and ops,
light on directives and memos, light everywhere.
No corner of darkness left.
Power shrivels and turns to dust in the light.
excerpt from The Western Lands, Viking Penguin 1987
Willam S. Burroughs, Ghost Escape, Paint and Shotgun Blasts on Plywood, 1982
Image Copyright Estate of William S. Burroughs
He was drifting throughs space, wafted by currents of glowing gases -- Myriads of floating forms passed in front of him some familiar and others alien -- For a moment he was back in the brown canals of Mars in the grip of a giant clam, which takes a week to satisfy its consuming sex habit and spits out its unfortunate victim covered with its discharge like a gelatinous pearl on the dry red sands --
Thousands of voices muttered out of the darkness, twittering creatures pulling and tugging at him and dancing their way leaping from soaring black heights into deep blue chasms trailing the neon ghost writing of Saturn through vast wells of empty space -- From an enormous distance he heard the golden hunting horns of the Aeons and he was free of a body traveling in the echoing shell of sound as herds of mystic animals galloped through dripping primeval forests, pursued by the silver hunters in chariots of bone and vine --
from The Ticket That Exploded, new edition coming in March from Grove Press
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