William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, 1981-1997
William S Burroughs, McCrary and S Clay Wilson on front porch 1927 Learnard Ave, Lawrence, Ks. This was taking when WSB was recovering from heart surgery...I cant remember the year. He was always glad to see Wilson who visited Lawrence when he came back to visit his parents in Nebraska. Photo McCrary
In mid-August 1997, on a hot summer night, William Burroughs lay dead in a open casket on the stage of Liberty Hall. The place was packed. The hipsters were out in full force for what would be a memorial service/wake. There were a few notables from NYC but most of the crowd was local. They knew William, or knew of William, or had seen William while he lived in Lawrence. They came to say goodbye.
The memorial was pretty awful. The after-party was a couple blocks south at a local college punk music bar and had more energy than the memorial. So it was that Lawrence said goodbye to Burroughs after his 15 years as resident famous old guy. And by the way, 15 years in one place was a very long time for Burroughs, longer than he lived in London, or Tangier, or Paris, or NYC or Mexico. His choice, believe me.
The next day William was loaded in a hearse and driven to St. Louis, Missouri where he is now buried in the family death plot. RIP. Truth be told, he was buried like all good Egyptian Kings with certain goodies necessary to make it in the afterlife…loaded ’38 revolver, couple joints, a silver dollar, a bindle of heroin and wearing a Moroccan vest given to him by his buddy Brion Gysin. Patti Smith leaned over the open grave and sang the ditty, if memory serves, ”Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?"
There were tears….some real, some crocodile. And then the gravediggers kind of shuffled forward, hoping the bunch of hippies would get the fuck out of the way. No-one moved. Apparently, few survivors in St. Louis stick around to see the newly-departed covered up in Mississippi riverbank funk. We did.
So that is what happened after William died. I cannot tell you what happened when he died, because I wasn’t there. Someone will tell you what happened because, based on what I have read and heard, there were as many as two dozen people in and out of the [hospital] room.
William came to Lawrence because he didn’t want to live in New York anymore. Too loud, too expensive, too much hassle. My opinion. James Grauerholz , William’s longtime friend, short-time lover, adopted son and caregiver--an all-around loving guy--also ‘influenced’ William's move to Kansas. That took a lot of moxie and Grauerholz deserves credit.
Lot of folks, especially in NYC, seemed peeved that William was ‘forced’ out of Manhattan. Their loss I guess. No one to hang on to anymore. Boo fucking hoo. But William might have gone to Santa Fe or Boulder. He didn’t. Didn’t go to San Francisco either, or Portland. Or St. Louis. Who knows why. Maybe because he knew fewer people in Lawrence. Fact is, I don’t think William knew more than two or three people in Lawrence when he moved here.
Of course, moving to Kansas didn’t stop people from searching William out. They did from day one until today, 16 years after his death…some still come. To look at whatever might be left.
Dead William is not (as is usually the case), as big a draw as William alive. After all, you can get a lot more from a living guy than from a dead one. Not many artists ‘collaborate’ with dead people, or not many musicians get dead guys to “perform” on their new CDs with dead guys pictured on the cover. It seemed to this observer that very few people--Allen Ginsberg, George Condo, Udo Breger and a couple others--came with the intent to be with William and spend time with William and not feel the need to leave with something from William, in one way or another. All the bad music and bad art created with William’s name attached didn’t make it any better, that’s for sure.
The women who came to Lawrence to see William did it because they wanted to. Several very well-respected scholars and biographers came. Writers like Kathy Acker and Patti Smith came. Lauren Hutton came. Anne Waldman came. And, of course, the uninvited and unwanted and unwashed came and knocked on the door and came in.
William was always gracious with the visitors. He listened to their tales of woe or whatever, and listened to the bad music or poetry. He took the time to look at the ugly, violent, half-assed art, and sent the visitors on their way. What I recall is that after visits by famous singers or sculptors or record producers or such…he never talked about it much.
He would tell me if he had a call from Tim Leary or Whitley Strieber. He would tell me if he had a card from Paul Bowles. The others…who knew? I mean, he went to KC one day to be in a film with U2. He had the limo and the entourage and all the rest. I didn’t go. He didn’t talk about it. Later, in a journal, he made a one-sentence comment about “the group called Me Two." He preferred to be left alone, and he was.
So, alone, and what to do? Well, cats do fill the time if you have six or eight (there never were “dozens of wild cats running in and out of house” as I read somewhere on line). I am the guy who held a sobbing William S. Burroughs in his arms as we left sweet, sweet Spooner at the vet’s office to be put to sleep. William loved his cats…all of 'em. From Calico Jane to Ginger to Fletch and all the rest.
He also loved the raccoons that came in through the cat door to look for food in the kitchen cabinets. He gave them his leftovers and took the time to borrow a Have A Heart trap from the Humane Society. I answered the phone one morning at the office--it was William:
“Jim, we got a huge raccoon in the trap. This thing is very, very dangerous. Come over now and we will take it to Mary’s Lake for release.”
And we did.
If you read the opening paragraph of Burroughs’ The Western Lands, there it is: the old writer living in a boxcar on the river bank. And then you see it in the empty field, out by the Wakarusa River, on the road to Lone Star Lake. The boxcar is there, sitting empty, sinking slowly into the river bank. Nothing is real. Everything is permitted.
William didn’t live in that box car but he did live in a Sears & Roebuck pre-fab bungalow that came on a train from Chicago. And he did have a cabin at Lone Star Lake, couple rooms with an outhouse. Full of mouse shit and pot smoke. A crumbly dock and a very small rowboat. A place to spend some time. Take a friend out in the rowboat.
“This is how you do it, Allen. Stand up like they do in Venice, look where you’re going.”
From the dock someone mentioned…”We could any moment see the last two members of the Beat Generation go overboard into the lake.“ And, of course, neither William nor Ginsberg were wearing life jackets….each with a huge smile though. I guess that counts.
William did three things to excess while he lived in Lawrence: drank a lot of vodka and Coke, smoked a lot of pot, and created a fuck-all amount of art.
William loved to paint and, for a while, he painted everything he could get his hands on. Most on paper, many on canvas, on plywood scraps from construction sites, and on doors (including a beautiful graffiti triptych from a mid-century, accordion-type garage door), and windows and cedar shingles and tin and metal and old signs and chairs and asphalt roofing shingles. He bought scrapbooks and blank books and 3x5 inch cards and painted them all, and he painted the boxes they came in (yes he did, and they are in the archives).
He painted all the file folders he could get from the office plus just plain paper. He made targets, drew or painted them…cops or sheriffs or men from outer space. My favorites were a Bounty Hunter that S. Clay Wilson drew as a target and a Buddha drawn by Ginsberg…both then filled with bullet holes, signed and dated by the ‘artists’ and filed away in the archives.
It is not my opinion that William painted so much because he was bored…he wasn’t. Was he obsessed? I think not. He was, as he wrote somewhere, “curious to see what emerged from the painting”. For instance, I arrive at his house once at 4pm with dinner groceries. Knock and go in.
He is in the spare bedroom/studio…the bed covered with paintings, one on an easel.
“Look, Jim, look at this!”
He is jabbing the picture, his nose an inch from the paper, a joint burning in the ashtray.
“Jim, do you see it? That is a dead-on image of Billy the Kid.”
And maybe it was indeed. Did he take it all that seriously? I don’t think so. How can you, when you paint on paper and file folders and windows (glass and frame), cutting up male porn mags and making collages with flying monkeys? No, not that seriously, I think. He said he could not draw: ”I cannot draw a table.” Sometimes folks showed up with their art and wanted William to “add something." Like I said, it didn’t make it any better whatever William did.
There were the trips to the methadone clinic with TP , going to Marty the barber , and to Sue and David’s for Thanksgiving Day potluck , or to Wayne and Carol’s  for the bardo burnings for Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg. Or just to the store for cat food, the pawn shop for ammo and a chat, the surplus store for a new fatigue jacket or cap (dress like the locals and become “the invisible man”). The vet and the doctor too. Life is like that.
WSB (far left seated with cap on), unknown persons, WSB's good friend George Kaull (they were same age, Kaull was a Libertarian and local bad ass sculptor), McCrary far right. Others are member of a local band.....this was hottest summer day of year 106 degrees. We were out shooting in rural Leavenworth County. We were not well hydrated but somewhat baked. The shooting was good. We all survived. All rights reserved McCrary
And then the shooting trips. Usually the trips would begin with a phone call: “Let’s go shooting.” So it was arranged. William would call his close friend and peer, George Kaull. George was about William’s age, lived alone over across the Kansas River and always carried a loaded pistol in his pocket. George was a Libertarian and sculptor, a retired iron worker who helped build many of the bridges in Northeast Kansas, a retired honcho of the local ACLU and a beloved, elder trouble-maker in and around Lawrence.
George and William liked one another, and they loved to shoot. Targets. Not hunt; no, not hunt. So it was: William, George and a few others in a van with a sack of vodka and coke, bag of grass, backpack full of guns and ammo. Had we ever been stopped, who knows what? We all, I think, believed that a good cop would take a long look in the van and not want to get involved. Never did get stopped.
Maybe we went to Fred’s house or somewhere else. Shoot a while. Targets. Not from very far away.
“Most always it is very close….very close. Not like the western movies….one end of the block to the other,” William used to say. And didn’t he know from experience? He missed once in his life, missed badly down in old Mexico. I think he spent the rest of his life trying to improve his aim. And it don’t matter what others think about that whole deal. Period.
So we’re all out in some country place, shooting and then marking the targets…the date, the gun, the ammo. Go inside for a drink. Steady the hand. Little pot. Cheese and crackers, maybe a little caviar. Then back out to shoot some more, wearing ear protection and keeping an eye on each other. One day, someone scared up a snake and yelled out, “Here comes a snake!”
William put down the gun and tottered towards the kid shouting, “For Christ’s sake, don’t hurt it! Don’t hurt it!”
So it was. Good times spent.
But most of the time William was home. He did travel but not often. He went to Wichita and Kansas City. He went to NYC when Paul Bowles came to have an operation late in each of their lives. I was a fly on that wall; honored for that to have happened. William made it clear he wanted to see Paul when he heard he was coming to the States. We went.
William stayed at the Bunker on Bowery, Giorno the host. Went uptown to the hotel Bowles was in. When the two of them sat down and talked, everyone leaning forward to listen, well…..fuck sake, it was two old, old men who had been friends forever talking like……not two famous writers….but two old, old men who had been friends for a long time. Illness, death, memories, places and those they knew in common. What the fuck else is there? I think they both knew what the future held. They asked each other how they were and what they felt. One asked the other about some long lost Arab friend. Some hotel in Spain. It was a beautiful thing to see.
Photo of me (sitting on arm of chair) and William S Burroughs and Paul Bowles in NYC hotel room I think 1990. WSB and I travelled from Kansas and Bowles was in NY to hear some of his music performed at Lincoln Center and also to have a hip operation. It was one of the high points in my life to be with those two guys. Photo probably by fellow named Brad Kahler who also came from Kansas. He worked helping out with William for a while.
So…..home alone to paint and feed the cats and clean the guns and look out the window. To write a journal. A letter or two. Read the paper, the magazines--Scientific American, Cat Journal, Crop Circles of South America Illustrated--and read the pulp novels. He liked “bad nurse novels,” he called them…the RN that killed all his patients etc. Conrad, too, and the Weekly World News and anything about weird, deadly sea creatures (the blue octopus), and anything about lemurs. Maybe the history of Lawrence and William Quantrill . Picture books of tornados.
There were always books, magazines, articles cut out and filed away…underlined and commented on. Who knew why or what for? He did maybe but he wasn’t talking. People took a lot of pictures and movies and videos of all this and there are hours and hours and hours of William doing, well, nothing. Funny how that looks. He could be writing the best novel ever in his head and look like he was doing nothing more than picking hairs off his bedspread. It is all recorded: an old man, alone with a favorite cat and a friend to keep him company, another friend to fix his supper, talk about the latest nonsense. The occasional interview from some East Coast journalist:
“What do you think about cloning, Mr. Burroughs?”
“Anything that pisses off the Christians is okay with me," William responded. "Why not cloning? Can’t make homosap any worse than he already is!”
He left his last thoughts in his journals and we can read that in his last published book . He left his paintings and we can see them occasionally. He left his books and objects collected by him and others from around the globe. He left films and videos and photographs…some he made, and some by others. He left quite a few friends in Lawrence, Kansas. What he found in Lawrence was a comfortable place where he was allowed to be himself, to live quietly and gracefully.
And he did.
Jim McCrary first came to Lawrence in 1965 to attend the University of Kansas. He left Kansas and lived New York City, San Francisco and northern California, returning to Lawrence in 1990. He worked as the office manager for William Burroughs Communications from 1990 to 2001. During that time he saw Burroughs just about every day for one reason or another. McCrary has published a dozen books of poetry and his poems have been featured in print magazines, online publications, 'zines and broadsides. You could look him up.
-  Liberty Hall, 642 Massachusetts Street, was built as an opera house in 1907 and is now used as a movie and music venue in downtown Lawrence.
-  Tom Peschio, notable Lawrence musician and longtime William Burroughs Communications staffer, was Burroughs' caretaker, collaborator and close friend.
-  Marty Olson is a well-known Lawrence artist and proprietor of Do's Deluxe salon. "I met William just before he moved here. James brought him in. I cut his hair every couple of months and we always had great chats. I cooked dinners for him too."
-  Burroughs often joined Sue Brousseau and David Ohle for holiday celebrations.
-  Wayne Propst and Carol Schmitt live on a small farm north of Lawrence where they host bardo burns for departed friends.
-  "William Clarke Quantrill (July 31, 1837 – June 6, 1865) was a Confederate guerrilla leader during the American Civil War. After leading a Confederate bushwhacker unit along the Missouri-Kansas border in the early 1860s, which included the infamous raid and sacking of Lawrence, Kansas in 1863." - Wikipedia
-  Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, 2000.
Annotated by Tom King.
All articles, interviews and stories are featured with permission from respective authors.
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