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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