James Grauerholz met budding filmmaker Howard Brookner at Phebe's Bar & Grill in Manhattan during the Great Blizzard of 1976. Brookner lived around the corner from the Bunker and he and Grauerholz soon became fast friends, working on film-writing projects.
In 1978, Burroughs was preparing a return to New York City from Boulder, Colorado, where Bill Burroughs Jr. had been hospitalized. "I had talked Howard into covering the upcoming Nova Convention in September," Grauerholz remembers. "He and I and Jim Jarmusch, who was doing sound, went to Boulder to film William leaving for New York. During the coverage of the Nova Convention, William and Howard became great personal friends."
Their friendship led to close collaboration on Brookner's insightful 1983 documentary film, Burroughs: the Movie, and to Brookner's 1987 feature film, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Howard Brookner died of AIDS at age 34 in 1989.
In the 1990s, Howard's nephew, Aaron, took up the family filmmaking mantle. That story is told below. "Aaron's resemblance to Howard is truly eerie," says Grauerholz. "They even sound alike."
On February 5, 2014, during a wailing blizzard, Aaron Brookner and his film crew visited the Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas.
- B100: A brief history of Aaron Brookner.
- Brookner: I grew up in Greenwich Village. Howard Brookner, my uncle, started my interest in movies from an early age, showing me how to use a video camera and taking me to the set of his last movie, Bloodhounds of Broadway. A year after Howard's death from AIDS in 1989, my father moved us to New Jersey.
I majored in film at Vassar College. For a senior documentary class I made a short doc on the Federation of Black Cowboys - a group of black cowboys in Brooklyn who have a ranch, do rodeos and ride through the city streets promoting the history of America's black cowboys. One in three cowboys in the Old West was black but they were never represented. This group was trying to correct it.
The writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, What Makes Sammy Run?), had seen The Black Cowboys at a festival and really liked it. He was 91, we got along well and I started making a film on his life inspired, obviously, by Howard's first film on William Burroughs.
Schulberg was covering fights in Las Vegas, co-writing a Joe Louis/Max Schmeling script with Spike Lee and touring France with a newly adapted version of one of his lesser-known novels, Sanctuary V. I started traveling with him, filming him, interviewing him and many of his contemporaries like Patricia Neal, Tony Curtis, Christopher Plummer and Arthur Laurents. I interviewed Eva Marie Saint and met Karl Malden. The film came crashing down when Schulberg died at age 95.
I had been making music videos and experimental work and then a low-budget fiction feature shot in London called The Silver Goat which we put out in 2012 as an app. We wanted to explore alternate modes of distribution. The app has been downloaded in twenty-four different countries and was a top entertainment seller in the UK and the Czech Republic.
Having made my first feature film I started thinking more about Howard, wondering about his films and where they had gone. Especially his Burroughs film, Burroughs: the Movie, which I had only ever seen on VHS and, in recent years, in low-resolution on YouTube. It had been such an influence on me, watching it hundreds of times through high school. I wanted to see it properly and wanted others too as well. Also, I wanted my uncle Howard's name not to be forgotten so I set out to bring back his work.
- B100: A brief history of your project to date.
- Brookner: My film started when Sara Driver and I started talking about Burroughs: the Movie. She was a great friend of Howard's; they were at film school together at NYU. All the elements to Sara's first film, an adaptation of Paul Bowles' You Are Not I, had been destroyed in a flood. Then a pristine print was miraculously discovered in Tangier after Paul Bowles' death. She was able to make a new HD master from it and show it again, release it, and know that it existed properly! I set out to do the same for the Burroughs movie, looking for the negative.
In my search I connected with James Grauerholz; Sara, of course, and also her partner Jim Jarmusch (who did sound on Burroughs: the Movie); the writer Brad Gooch (Howard's longtime partner); and, to an extent, John Giorno.
Everyone wanted to see the movie come back, everyone helped me on my search. It turned up all sorts of things like Howard's home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of his other films, video diaries, short films, writings, audio tapes, tons of photos and the missing film prints from his second feature documentary on Robert Wilson. Along the way, the stories that came from those who knew my uncle were full of life, adventure, and humor. His story began taking shape cinematically in my mind.
I found a really chilling letter he wrote to his parents to be read after his death, telling them he had AIDS, that he was dying and would die, but that he didn't want them to let it ruin their lives because, while it was short, Howard had done exactly what he wanted with his life. He went as far as he could go and in the end felt content. He wrote that if he lived on it was in our hearts and memories and the films he made. I was very pleased when this actually started happening.
The biggest discovery occurred when I was able to retrieve Howard's archive which had been stored in the Bunker for 30 years. These were some 200 cans and boxes of outtakes that didn't make his 90-minute cut---but they were beyond outtakes. They were an incredible documentation of a place and time, downtown NYC from 1978-1983, as seen through the world of William Burroughs.
In the raw material you get the source of the tone of the movie, intimate and playful and comfortable to watch. The source is Howard directing the movie. You can see him slating, or Jarmusch, hear his questions, his dialogues with William when the camera is still rolling though they aren't "on." James Grauerholz is always there. It feels like a real family.
In a storage container belonging to Brad Gooch, I found an audiocassette interview of Howard by Ted Morgan. Morgan asks Howard about the last shot of his film, where William and James Grauerholz are sitting on the back porch in Lawrence, and William in the back yard, and why he ended the film there. Howard said it was his intention to go back and continue the film in two more chapters: William's life in Lawrence; and William's funeral. Howard didn't get a chance to do this, of course.
For the Burroughs centenary I was shooting in St. Louis and Lawrence, picking up the story for 2014. Some very interesting things happened. There's a lot of magic going on right now, fittingly, in this centenary year, which is also the year Howard would have turned 60. I still have plenty to go through but I've begun assembling some of the material, hoping to translate some of this magic into the cut.
- B100: Describe a magic moment.
- Brookner: Last week I got into a cab in NYC with my film crew. The driver asked us what we were shooting. I said a documentary about Howard Brookner and William Burroughs. He knew Burroughs and we started talking about him.
He called Burroughs an activist through his art. Turned out the driver was a native New Yorker who had been into the downtown poetry scene in the late 1970s. In 1978 he attended the Nova Convention. At this point he started to look familiar to me. I photographed him, then compared the image later to that of a teenager in the audience of the Nova Convention from Howard's movie. Just a cutaway, but one Howard used obviously because the guy looks super-engaged. Sure enough--same nose, same eyes, same expression---it was the driver! This cutaway is even in the trailer we just made for the film.
Had I gotten to the corner of Center Street and Kenmare one minute later or one minute sooner I'd never know this guy existed. Instead, an overlap in time and a conversation about Burroughs and the Nova Convention started my day. Everything is pre-recorded except the pre-recordings indeed.
Part Two, coming soon.
Interview by Tom King
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.
The Burroughs Guy: An interview with James Grauerholz by Tom King
James Grauerholz is heir and executor of the estate of William S. Burroughs-maestro of the Beats, writer of "Naked Lunch," international queer, academic junkie, wife-shooter, Harvard graduate, an undeniably American artist. Grauerholz lived 30 years with Burroughs. Street Level joins Grauerholz in a booth at Pachamama's for a moseying reminiscence of Burroughs and the Beats...
A brief history of James Grauerholz...
Grauerholz: I'm a Kansas boy from Coffeyville. Came here to KU in the late '60s, went off to New York in the early '70s. Began working with William Burroughs in 1974 and continued until he passed away in '97. Came back to Lawrence in 1979 and here you find me now.
You were responsible for bringing William Burroughs to Lawrence.
(laughs) Responsible? Am I to credit or to blame? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I left New York because I'm not down with glamour-the whole phenomenon of celebrity and fame, and how distorting that is to the famous individual's life. And even though I have some responsibility-or credit, or blame-for helping make William more famous, I got fed up with how delusional people become with their mental image of Burroughs, someone that they have to talk to.
What did you do to enhance Burroughs' fame?
Again, I don't know how much credit I can take. When he came back to the United States in January 1974 : he had pretty much been in London for 14 years or so.
When he got back to New York, he was in the category of: "Oh, him? Is he still alive?" Burroughs' fame was not recent in 1974. Only a few people really noticed that he had come back. He came back to do a semester's residency at CCNY (City College of New York)-Allen Ginsberg fixed him up with this appointment. It was a bit of money-which he needed-and it was a bit of work, and engagement with younger people, and so forth. It was also a getaway from London. I guess Allen had decided, in his opinion, that William's life in London was kind of a dead-end. William was drinking a lot, and he was preoccupied with Piccadilly Circus-they're called Dilly Boys, you know: hustlers. I mean, he had relationships too, but:
He was partying hard.
He was. It sounds funny to say about William Burroughs, but he was a disciplined person. He did work hard to write every day. But sometimes he was working too hard, and the writing wasn't : it became formulaic. He himself thought he was in a dead-end.
Here's a story you might like: When I met William, I had been given his number to make a dinner date by Allen Ginsberg-I had just arrived in New York, in February 1974. I had met Allen a year before on a visit to New York. I had written fan letters to each of them back in '72 from here in Lawrence. So Allen said: "Burroughs is here [in New York]." And I didn't even know it when I headed to New York. I was 21 at the time. I was excited to meet him. Ginsberg knew that I was a fan of Burroughs foremost of all the Beats and that I was a self-educated scholar of the Beats and their writings, and their lives. So I went over to meet William, and, when you look back on it, everything started up very quickly. We went out to dinner and had drinks. I visited again with him in a few days. And it was in a couple of weeks or less that he invited me to stay with him in the loft at 452 Broadway that he was subletting from the late painter Michael Balog. It was a huge loft. : So it turned out that I became William Burroughs' roommate. And we were very close-that was my domicile for a couple of months. Here are two anecdotes:
City College is way up in Washington Heights-Upper West Side. And to get there on the subway William had to get up at o'dark-thirty. Of course, he drank every night. He drank chilled Dewar's scotch and chilled soda-no ice. So I would sleep in, of course. Actually, I was working-I don't remember how many days a week-at Gotham Book Mart. Andreas Brown had hired me, just one of many young cataloguer types that Andy Brown helped. But I would sleep in when I could and I remember William coming back from Washington Heights and saying: "I feel like bitching you out, because here you're sleeping while I have to get up and get my ass out of here at six in the morning." Then he added: "But I realize I'm the one whose job it is, not you."
And the other anecdote is:
He once told me that he thought his : how did he put it? I'd like to get it right : He thought his talent was gone; he couldn't write another real book.
To you, who were the Beats?
Ginsberg, [Jack] Kerouac and Burroughs, not necessarily in that order. The friendships they formed, and the circle that coalesced around them at Columbia in '43, '44 and '45-during World War II-was a serendipitous combination of social backgrounds, of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They self-consciously intended to start a school, or a movement, or a literary wave.
Why are they called Beats? "We are the Beat Generation"-Kerouac was the one who popularized that, though John Clellon Holmes was probably one who shares credit in coming up with it. Herbert Huncke, the junkie raconteur, probably was the pathway of that expression into their circle. It's a street expression: "Man, I'm really beat"; or "A guy walked in with a beat bennie"-which means his overcoat is really worn out; or "He beat me for my change"-which means he took the money and went into the place to see the dealer and went out the back door of that hotel, never to be seen again. Or beat as in "beat down"-there are acres of speculation about what it means and where it comes from. And then, of course, Kerouac famously ex post facto comes in and says: "Well, it's beat like 'beatitude.' It's beatified, it's a beatification."
Around Christmas of 1943, they all have met-and I'll spare you the begats and how they actually connected-but they met from three different worlds. Ginsberg was 17, from Paterson, New Jersey, and Jewish-an intellectual with strong labor-lawyer, socialist leanings: his Communist mother Naomi Ginsberg, and so forth. Kerouac was from Lowell, Massachusetts. He was Catholic, of French-Canadian extraction, and his early literary influences would certainly include Thomas Wolfe-that would be the kind of thing he was trying to do. Ginsberg was 17, Jack was 21 and William was about to turn 30, in February 1944. He was considerably older. ...
Burroughs invented what became known as the Beats. He was the main vector of what went into that-and I don't mean to minimize the contributions of Kerouac and Ginsberg, or any of the wider circle of arguably Beat-termed people. But William had a classical education: he was a graduate of Harvard, he'd done graduate studies in Vienna-well, that was kind of laughable-in medicine, and at Harvard in anthropology, and at Columbia in psychology. He brought to the table the left-handed path in Western letters and philosophy. He brought the Voltaire, the Jonathan Swift, the Petronius Arbiter-The Satyricon-Thomas Nashe-The Unfortunate Traveller-and, of course, Shakespeare by the yard.
Burroughs studied under Kittredge and Lowe at Harvard, major scholars of Shakespeare and Chaucer. He brought this left-handed path: satire and : sort of like the book of Ecclesiastes-it stands out from all the other books in the Bible because it basically says: "You know all that stuff about human nature being basically good, or at least perfectible? Hogwash." Human nature, apparently-at least on the record-is wicked and contemptibly stupid. And that's amusing, in a bitter way-what later was called black humor.
In what ways did the Beats influence or impact American letters?
Let me say first that I have a little problem with the concept of "the Beats." They really are so different in the end. They were only grouped together by factors like their own deliberate self-legendarization-they were legends in their own minds. They had the vanity and the grandiosity of youth. Immortality, ambition-they weren't aware of the limitations of life. American letters at the time were in the condition where any change would be in the direction of freedom-any change.
Were you a fan of Burroughs' writing, initially?
I stumbled across "Naked Lunch" at the age of 14. And it wasn't the first bitingly satirical, black-humorish thing I had read, but it was far and away the best. I loved it. It changed my life. I knew it was changing my life as I read it.
Later in life, Burroughs became a kind of patron saint to a certain breed of rock and roller: Patti Smith, Michael Stipe:
There was a time when Burroughs was just Burroughs. The time when that changes is November 1959, when Life Magazine comes out with their article about the Beats, which they called "The Only Rebellion Around"-a rather dismissive, snotty, but sensational and kind of intriguing article about Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, but also others, very important, who'll have to forgive me for not mentioning them, as there are too many.
And then once he was Burroughs, this icon began to be built up around him. That's a collaborative creation, and it remains so. Who Burroughs was becomes a projection. Kerouac puts a Burroughs character in his books, under different names-that's his take on William. Ginsberg-not so much in his poems but in general-talks about Burroughs and promotes Burroughs. He was Burroughs' agent; he got him his first book deal for "Junkie." And I would have to say that, in a way, Burroughs starts to play into his own legend at some point-maybe not until the early '60s in London. How self-conscious it was, I don't know, I wasn't there. :
The Swingin' '60s. The youth culture was strongly related to bands, and the bands were not, by and large, what we think of as '60s bands from a U.S. point of view. A lot of it was coming out of Cambridge where you had sound experiment composers. Even McCartney used to attend concerts by Karlheinz Stockhausen. McCartney was interested in found music, in John Cage and Robert Wyatt's Soft Machine-which was named after an early '60s Burroughs novel. They were coming from prog rock avant la letter-before it had that name-and also psychedelic, before it had that name. It was trippy; Pink Floyd was trippy. So there was a music scene, and Burroughs was on the scene, and he was photogenic. His writing was influential and he was considered, as the saying goes, "mad, bad and dangerous to know."
All of which was exciting and alluring. He began to be a name check, actually-by the same token that a lot of people say they love "Naked Lunch" but, really, they didn't actually read it-which is fine with me, by the way. There's a new edition out, people. You can buy it and not read it, too. Pick it up.
The point is good. If you professed a certain kind of cool, you had to bring up Burroughs.
It was a name check. The perfect example of this is the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." There's the collage with the 150 little faces of people, and William is one of the prominent ones. And there are a lot of relevant people - Terry Southern comes to mind. [William] brought a lot of ideas. And let's not leave out a very, very important part of this-both as to the icon of Burroughs' persona and the façade, the concept, the edifice of Burroughs' work and what was in it, what it stood for, and the music scene in Europe, particularly London, at this time-and that is Brion Gysin.
Who was a dear friend of Burroughs.
Well, yes-he became a dear friend. Gysin was two years younger. Burroughs met Gysin in Tangier in 1954, when he first got to Morocco. Their encounters were few and mediated mostly by their mutual friend, Paul Bowles. They weren't that fond of each other. They were suspicious and dismissive of each other. But then it came to pass that Gysin and Burroughs were both in Paris in early 1958 and they became fast friends. They both lived in the so-called Beat Hotel at 9 Rue Git-le-CÅur in Paris. August of 1959 is when "Naked Lunch" was published, suddenly. Years of writing were suddenly under pressure from the publisher, Maurice Girodias, and was put together into the final book and was printed.
Did it come out in the U.S. at that time?
No. It had to be smuggled in, until there were some cases filed [in court]. Banned in Boston -the famous Boston case on "Naked Lunch," which the customs office claimed was contraband because it was obscene. That didn't stand. The first American edition of "Naked Lunch" was technically published in 1962, three years later, though it wasn't actually distributed until 1966 because of the court cases. Barney Rosset and Grove Press fought the good fight, speaking of literary censorship.
But Brion Gysin is in London now, in the early 1960s. He's a very flamboyant character who knew everybody-in a way, a kind of Truman Capote: completely different height and appearance, vocal timbre and background, but the same kind of charisma. And also, a storyteller, a raconteur extraordinaire. Also, a very important person in this part of the music answer is Barry Miles, because Miles was involved with the International Times, an underground newspaper with the Indica Bookshop, which was also an art gallery-where Miles introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono, who was having a show there. Miles had a role with Paul McCartney's financing a recording studio for projects by Ian Sommerville, Burroughs' Cambridge student boyfriend at the time, whom he had met right after "Naked Lunch" came out.
But I started to mention November 1959 because the same day Burroughs gave his interview to the Life Magazine reporter, Gysin discovered, or re-discovered, the cut-up technique. Collage and the random factor, aleatory and chance operations have a long history. I can show you them in Swift and in Dodson-I mean Lewis Carroll-and, of course, Dada and surrealism.
When Gysin found it he thought it was a fantastic idea-chance operations in writing. It was a very pregnant idea. John Cage, Earl Brown, and Marcel Duchamp are a few who stand for chance operations in music and the arts. And those ideas were very, very influential-and are to this day. And they were a little bit branded by Burroughs and Gysin, but at some point the brand wears off. At some point these ideas that were branded, "That's a Burroughs," became associated with the artists in different fields who picked up on it, who adopted it :
As Burroughs receives this credit, he also receives the attention of a new generation of rebels in rock music.
So here he is in New York in 1974, 1975, and it dawns on people by degrees that Burroughs is there. And the cognoscenti are burning up the phone lines to each other: "Burroughs is here!" And people wanted to come see him and meet him. And he started giving readings.
I remember reading Victor Bockris' book, "With William Burroughs: Report from the Bunker," nearly 30 years ago. Bockris has taken some criticism not only for his style, but also for a certain amount of self-aggrandizement. The way he portrayed the Bunker was like the Factory updated.
Well, he would. First of all, Victor Bockris is a dear friend of mine. I'm very close to him. I'm well aware, and he's well aware, of exactly those viewpoints you characterized. It really goes back to Andy [Warhol]. Andy's concept was that everyone is famous and that the mundane could be celebrated-and also the idea that glamour is contagious, it just spreads.
It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek-we know Warhol. The people he called "superstars" were guttersnipes. No offense to the surviving ones who are friends of mine-I'm sorry, Gerry. They were speed freaks and hustlers, and Warhol said: "These are the beautiful people." Well, this was very different than Camelot, which was the background to the Warhol emergence. Bockris was not only a student of, but also resonated with, the Warholian outlook on fame. It wasn't jumped-up. It wasn't overweening to make these people legendary and famous. It was part of the game.
So sure, you read "Report from the Bunker" and you're going to get an impression that it was a constant world of superstars. And Victor's editing of his material was very creative, kind of a hash of slice-and-dice. Conversations would be assembled from different days and places-that's his license. But even if you just limit yourself to the edited material of Bockris, you're going to see a comical, Keystone Kops side of the whole thing, too.
A famous example is when Victor brought Mick Jagger over to meet William at the Bunker. As the saying goes, "alcohol was involved," for one thing, and Jagger was evidently paranoid about being asked to do something. And there was some bad blood. William may have exaggerated it in his own mind, but he always felt that he had offended the Rolling Stones people when he was invited to the wedding of Mick and Bianca in Gibraltar-where Burroughs had been many times. At that point, he was living in London, and they didn't offer him a ticket. Burroughs was offended-droit de seigneur, you know: "If they want me there, they should send me a ticket." But the flip side of that was, he was broke. Anyway, there was this history there-quite a little thesis, in fact, on the Burroughs-Jagger relationship. He puts Mick in his books. I'm not going to tell you where. He makes Mick a key figure in two of his most important books. It's an open secret, actually... [Note: the secret is revealed in the podcast version of this interview below].
Many writers perceive their substance of choice as a muse. Did you see any change in Burroughs' writing, before and after?
There are two things I could say about William's attitude towards drugs and his writing. One is that he was a great believer in the beneficial, salutary effects of cannabis, in all forms. He thought that it contributed-if not necessarily always to his writing and the process of composing-at least to the generation of ideas. He would say: "I'm blocked, I'm depressed : take a few hits and sit around, and I start to get all these great ideas." Of course, that's a set-up for some right-wing joke, like: "Great ideas, ha ha! In the light of day, it's a dog's breakfast." But he found that it promoted his non-categorical thinking. It broke down barriers of ideas in his imagination.
As far as opiates-junk, as he called it; dope-he would never have said that the effect of opiates was any kind of muse for him. He had a limited interest in, and knowledge of, the allure, the seduction and the mysterious profile of opiates, but he didn't romanticize it. Well, a little bit. His main thing about junk in his writing was that it turned out, in retrospect, that getting his first habit, and everything that followed, made his career-because it gave him his subject matter. It's only in retrospect that you can see that.
There will always be discussions of whether or not Burroughs is a literary genius of the 20th century.
I recently ran across a review of "The Yage Letters Redux," a new, restored version of "The Yage Letters," edited by Dr. Oliver Harris. I saw a review in The New Criterion that was so negative and dismissive and contemptuous and scathing, it was amusing to me. :
I'll tell you what you can do with the word "genius"-here's a first-person account: In 1974, I went to some of these classroom meetings at CCNY, a creative writing class. And one of the students asked him: "Mr. Burroughs, how does it feel to be a genius?" And he said: "You get used to it."
He didn't with any grandiosity think of himself as a genius, but he had a very solid idea of his own place. You can't take away Burroughs. Burroughs is : a name that will endure.
This interview appeared on Lawrence.com July 30, 2007 to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of William S. Burroughs on August 2, 1997. Tom King is a writer, gardener and the RESIDENT caretaker of the William Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas. Reproduced with the kind permission of Tom King.
Originally published July 30, 2007 on Lawrence.com a subsidiary of the Lawrence-Journal World http://www.lawrence.com/news/2007/jul/30/burroughs_guy/?burroughs_2007
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