Frank Rynne interviews Oliver Harris in advance of the European Beat Studies Network's Third Annual Conference which takes place in Tangier, Morocco, 16-19 November 2014.
Terry Wilson introduced me to Oliver Harris in August 1993 just after the publication of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 which, he edited and introduced, had been published. A second volume of Burroughs’s letters has since emerged, but Oliver Harris’s work set a bar fairly untouchable when it comes to annotation and detail. Oliver Harris is now Professor of American Literature at Keele University and the president of the European Beat Studies Network.
In 2009 he and Ian MacFadyen organised the Naked Lunch@50 events in Paris which included a conference, musical events and the unveiling of a plaque on the former Beat Hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur commemorating former residents Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ian Sommerville and William S. Burroughs. It was Beat Hotel that Gysin and Sommerville made the first Dreamachine and Burroughs finished Naked Lunch.
On 16th November 2014 the third annual EBSN Conference kicks off in Tangier with a three day series of papers and musical events.
A separate event which I am organising with The Master Musicians of Joujouka in advance of the conference is Boujeloud for Burroughs 100 in the village of Joujouka/Jajouka where the Master Musicians introduced WSB to Boujeloud his Great God Pan and the “panic music” and rituals which feature in The Ticket That Exploded published in 1962.
In advance of the conference I asked Oliver a few questions about his life in the Burroughs world and academia.
Frank Rynne: When did you first get interested in William Burroughs's writing?
Oliver Harris: My interest in Burroughs dates back to the Manchester music scene of the early 1970s when I was a kid brother hanging around with various bands. The coolest people always referenced Burroughs, and Chris C.P. Lee, (the brains behind the comedy satire band Alberto y lost trios paranoias) gave me a couple of home-made cassettes of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch and Nova Express. They blew my head off. I didn't know what to make of it, but I knew I wanted to know.
FR: When you were studying at university was your interest in Burroughs encouraged or frowned upon?
OH: I read English Lit at Oxford in the early 1980s, when Burroughs was just not on the radar for most academics. I decided I would rather stay on and do a PhD than get a job, and planned to research the poetry and politics of Shelley. Everyone seemed happy with the idea, but I got cold feet at the thought of spending my life in dusty archives poring over the manuscripts of dead writers. So I asked my Professor what he thought of Burroughs. The answer was so categorical - No, no, no! - that I realized he could square the circle of my ambivalence towards academia. I realized that if I did a PhD I would actually be paid to go to the US and meet him. So, although nobody in Oxford wanted anything to do with it, I went ahead...
FR: When we first met your volume of Burroughs’s letters 1946-1959 had just been published, how did that project come about?
OH: Yes, that was 1993 and my luck back then was unbelievable. A matter of timing. You see, because nobody took Burroughs seriously from a scholarly point of view, I had the field to myself. I had collected a great deal of archival material (ironically, working with manuscripts after all...) in trips to the US, including unpublished letters. I built my thesis out of these materials and when it was done sent it off to James in Lawrence, Kansas for his OK. He wrote straight back inviting me to edit a volume of letters. I suppose my work was rigorous and original - and yet, I really knew very little. So James took a gamble, and I worked incredibly hard to reward his trust in me. In a sense, I've been doing that ever since.
FR: There are many independent scholars working on Burroughs who tend to feel that the academic approach is either alien or too academic. Would it be fair to say that this view has some merits despite the potential of throwing the baby out with the bath water?
OH: Academia is in a mess, but there's still something to say for it. My position keeps me in touch with new generations of young people, so I have a very clear sense of how, for example, they respond to Burroughs. And the stability of my job allows me to take on research projects that aren't commercially viable. And while much academic work is written for too small an audience, I've been fortunate to apply scholarly rigor to work that reaches a real readership.
FR: What are your abiding memories of WSB?
OH: I was humbled by his generosity when we first met, in November 1984. He gave me his time and took me seriously. I was also astonished to find myself emotionally moved by a man so routinely described as somehow inhuman. But my strongest memories are details: the way he pursed his lips when smoking a joint; the way he called to his cats; his smile.
FR: You researched Burroughs in Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch. Can you share some anecdotes regarding the people who helped you and the places, people and scenes that it led you to?
OH: I visited Tangier for several years in the 1980s and early '90s, mainly wondering around the medina trying to make a map of it. I went to see Paul Bowles a couple of times, and out there met up with Ira Cohen and Terry Wilson. I had a letter from Heinemann (who were going to publish a novel I was working on) and used it shamelessly to get introductions to all sorts of interesting people, like Gavin Lambert, who shared their memories of Tangier. For a week or so I went around the city with Iain Finlayson, a charming man who was writing a literary biography of Tangier. He had a terrible stammer--really terrible--and it was hilarious to see how he turned it to his advantage when interviewing people. They were so embarrassed for him that they talked and talked and talked....
FR: The European Beat Studies Network is now holding its third annual conference in Tangier from 16-19 Nov. How did the Network get established and what is the philosophy that drives the organisation?
OH: The Network was an idea really hatched by a Beat Studies colleague, Polina Mackay, in 2010. She's come to the events I helped organise in Paris for the 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch --which were wonderful - and saw the need to bring people together in the field; she said I would make a good figurehead to do that. Unfortunately, I like to be hands on with everything I do, so the Network has turned into quite a lot of work for me, but the idea is a great one. Across Europe there's so much interest in the Beats--broadly defined--and the EBSN has a mission to put them in touch with one another. I'm especially keen to break down the usual academic groupings and the Anglo-American divide from non-English speakers, although the barriers are so longstanding it's not easy. It's also hard because the EBSN is free and open to all. No fees - but also no income, so it's literally a labour of love.
FR: As a professor of American Literature you add an academic respectability to Burroughs. What are the issues re Burroughs that students raise or highlight?
OH: The most refreshing aspect of being a Professor of American Literature is every year to absolutely scandalize at least one student who picks up Naked Lunch and can't believe they can actually study it. Like, wow...
FR: Why is Burroughs's work so important to modern academics?
OH: Burroughs remains a barometer, so in some ways he's quite divisive. In a sense, nothing has changed: if you don't dig him, you're a square (and of course most people are squares!). But Burroughs is important to such a wide range of people for such different angles - Burroughs the writer, the photographer, the collage artist, the performer, the drug addict. In what other field would I be contacted by a Professor of Neurology with an interest in Burroughs (working on the treatment of Alzheimer's using Apomorphine)?
FR: Do you think Burroughs's work is as important as say Chaucer or Shakespeare or is it in another category.
OH: I think Burroughs brings the categories into question. I don't mean there aren't any--that everything is on one level--but I do definitely think that one of the great challenges of his work is due to its baffling fusion of the brilliant and the highly dubious...
FR: In this centenary year Burroughs is remembered with global events and conferences. Do you think his work will be remembered in 100 years?
OH: Remembering Burroughs is important, but I think the mission of the centenary has really been to show that his work can no more be remembered than forgotten because it's still happening. Although you can look back on his work in its historical context, the work itself seems so contemporary, so alive, so urgent - and so unlike anything else.
FR: James Grauerholz has taken Burroughs into many new areas; in the 1970s he stabilized his career and also effected his move to Kansas. The move from New York, many people were unhappy with. Do you think people misjudge James Grauerholz and negate Burroughs having free will?
OH: James was given a terrible press for years, but the people with axes to grind should have put themselves in his shoes and thought again. I've known James now for 30 years and although you couldn't find two people more different in so many ways, we share a passion for Burroughs that makes me feel like he's my brother.
FR: What is the most important Burroughs novel in your opinion and why?
OH: The question makes me laugh, because I would almost certainly answer it with whatever book I last worked on. So right now, I'd say: Nova Express.
FR: Do you think Burroughs should be on high school and secondary school curriculums?
OH: Burroughs is not for everybody. But those for whom he is intended, will find him one way or another.
FR: What would Burroughs make of the world today with the USA fighting Islamic militants as though they were the Axis powers of WWII?
OH: To be frank, the opinions of Burroughs the man don't especially interest me. I've always felt that his work was where his originality and terrible genius thrived.
The European Beat Studies Networks Third Annual Conference takes place at Hotel Chellah, Tangier, 16-19 November 2014. (Editor's note: The EBSN site is down for maintenance you will find a PDF of the draft program below for download).
The Master Musicians of Joujouka host Boujeloud for Burroughs 100 on 15 November in their village in the Ahl Srif Mountains. They will also be holding their 8th Annual Festival in the village 5-7 June 2015 :
Frank Rynne is a co-founder of the Burroughs 100 online network and manages the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
(Editors note: For more on Naked Lunch@50 see http://barrymiles.co.uk/journal/ and http://nakedlunch.org/).
The Draft program for the ESBN Conference is Below as a PDF
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
Like a lot of this prior to email and texting business…this one starts with a phone call from Woody Creek, Colorado into Burroughs Communications office in Lawrence, KS.
NOTES FROM WBC - Watching a Grown Man Cry… HST visits WSB. Gonzo Goat Fuck.
By Jim McCrary
Coulda been mid 1990’s. And it was either Hunter or his ‘assistant’ whose name might have been Laura. The question was, “Would it be a good time to visit Bill Burroughs?” That was not an unusual request at the office. Lots of folks wanted to visit WSB and some of them actually took time to call and ask questions. Most all of them were deflected with the reply that Mr. Burroughs was too busy at the moment to have visitors. Truth be told he had enough visitors whom he wanted to see to keep him occupied.
So………..HST…..wanted to come visit. He would have to drive over since he wanted to bring lots of guns and ammo to share. How long would the drive be? 10 hours maybe….all on I70 interstate. Get on….get off. Get a room at the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence. I think he and William talked it over on the phone. William was fine with all that…..and since Dr. Thompson was asking only for some time together….it seemed to William that it would be a good thing. And, in the end it was. Indeed.
So the date was set and off they went. Down the hill from Owl Farm and into the flatland of western Kansas. We expected them to call in a couple of days when they got to town. Nothing happening for a while. Then finally a call: "We haven’t left yet. Had to clear some things up, maybe leave Friday." The call came on Friday. "We're gonna leave Monday." And they did.
And I think four days later…”We're here at the Eldridge. Car broke down somewhere west of Salina. Dry county. Garage didn’t have the part. Paid a fortune for grease monkey to go get the part. Luckily had enough booze and coke to survive. Awful place. Stopped in Salina to watch Final Four playoffs. More later.”
(The story later told and I cannot do justice…believe me…Hunter stops in Junction City to watch a ball game at sports bar after getting car repaired and replacing booze stash. He watches the game in usual style and interacts with off-duty army personnel from nearby base. Ready to head out, he reaches for the keys on the bar….not there. “Where the motherfuck are my keys, you redneck assholes???” says Dr. Thompson. Says the barkeep…”I have them, sir, and you are in no condition to drive. Sir.” Imagine that…..dear reader…..just for a moment imagine that. As is often said in such stories…cooler heads prevailed…things were ‘settled’ and off they went. Who drove? Don’t know.)
That evening I went to Eldridge Hotel to pick them up. As I approached the desk to ask the room number, the concierge looked up and pointed at the elevator and mumbled 402. He looked exhausted.
When the door opened to the room a blast of hot steam escaped into the hallway. The assistant had the shower running full blast with hot water to steam out the wrinkles of a dress. His Gonzoness had the basketball game on full blast and all surfaces in the room were covered with dishes of food, drink and papers scattered around. He had obviously wound up the staff of the hotel and spent the morning moving from one room to another and had finally settled down. For the moment.
We spoke about the schedule for next couple days. Tonight, dinner at a local restaurant and then a short visit with Bill. Tomorrow a full day at the range, shooting. Dinner at Williams house. Drive back to Colorado. What could go wrong with that?
It took a while to get them out of the hotel room. We walked a bit around downtown Lawrence. It was pretty quiet. Thompson asked me where his old buddy and fellow sportswriter George Kimball hung out when he lived in Lawrence. I pointed out some of the spots where he used to hang, including the bridge where Kimball threw bricks of marijuana into the river during a press conference when he (and HST in Colorado), was running for office.
We finally settled at a patio table at an Italian place near William's home. It didn’t take long for the servers to figure out who they were serving and a never-ending group of them grazed around the table asking if we needed anything. Thompson was most happy to suggest something new that was needed. In the midst of all that he somehow managed to let slip off his lap a Skoll tin half-full of exceptional cocaine onto the concrete floor. I immediately joined him under the table in a valiant attempt to help clean up the mess best we could using the doubled v credit card method. Quickly done and actually applauded by one of the co-ed servers. Food flying around and across the table, pitchers of margaritas floating past…the evening continued.
We left soon enough and managed the final few blocks to Williams’s house. And then something amazing happened. Dr. Thompson switched gears. The minute he walked into the house his demeanor, his energy, his self became as quiet and attentive as a student before the master. Hmmm.
Well, there was the smoke and drink of course. The ur and not ur. The this and that. The how are you and all that. Yes. All that. And there they were. Across the table from one another. Mumble this and mumble that. Quiet. Then done. William had announced that it was his bedtime…and that was accepted by the company. As was his habit, William stepped out onto his front porch and waved a goodbye.
I went home and I do believe that Dr. Thompson continued his evening over a fresh batch of coke at the offices of the local alt newspaper after leaving the Burroughs residence. Later reports from friends indicated that the Doctor held forth for quite a while in the office above the Bottleneck club. As he was.
The big day arrived. And it would be fuck all. Another goat fuck for sure. The entourage grew and grew. Usually it was William and his old buddy George Kaull, a fellow geezer libertarian and crack shot. The two of them…some pot, some vodka and coke, some ‘snacks’ and a sack full of guns and ammo. Go out shoot, have a drink and smoke to steady the hand, shoot some more. Eat some cheese and crackers or whatnot. Have a drink and smoke. Shoot some more.
However, this time with HST it was lots more action. A video camera was unloaded and Miss Thing was told by Hunter to set up halfway between the targets and the shooters. William stopped that at once. No way would the young lady film beyond the firing line…which, by the way, moved around as the day progressed.
And there were others with aims to make or shots to take…some friends and handlers and who knows by now. Hunter was wound up and after the first round of shots from William and George with their favorite pistols and someone shooting a shotgun…Hunter announced the big surprise he had talked about since his arrival…the gift he had brought for William.
He pulled out a large wooden box that had an American flag embossed on the walnut. Opened it up and there in purple velvet lay a Freedom Arms, one-of-a-kind, 454-caliber pistol with all the goodies. A marker on the box proclaimed this was one of a hundred, if memory serves. And by the way, a 454-caliber gun has a hole in the end of the barrel the size of your big toe. The gun was admired and passed around. Hunter dug into the back of his transport for the ammo and then dug some more and then some more and then starting howling and throwing shit on the ground.
“Motherfucker….mothergoddamfucker shit my ass!!!!!!!!! WHERE THE FUCK IS THE AMMO!!!” Well, it wasn’t there. Gonzo was fucked and sat slumped on the tailgate looking a lot like he was ready to break into tears.
And then a friend of Bill's who was a shooter and a hunter and a photographer and a local says: “Well shit, I'll just run over to Topeka and get some 454.”
“They won’t have any, you stupid fuck,” Hunter said.
“Oh,” the guy said, ” I do believe they will.” And off he went and in the time it takes to empty a handy 44 Colt or a 38 S&W snubbie or a vodka and coke….he was back and the fun began.
Hunter was happy and pleased with himself and loaded up the 454 and handed it to WSB who looked it over, walked a bit closer to the target, hoisted it up and pulled the trigger. Motherfuck indeed. It did back him up at least five feet and when the smoke cleared there was a rivulet of blood tricking down Williams thumb and wrist. “Son of a bitch bit me,” said William giggling. He loved it. And shot it again and passed it around. Hunter was happy. Again. He had brought the old man a gift and the old man thanked him. The afternoon wore on in the noise and smoke and crash of lead into wooden targets and Kansas dirt clods turned to atoms.
(Aside to Johnny Depp or anyone who might know or has Thompson’s archives and/or belongings. Somewhere there should be a video tape of this trip. I once asked HST biographer Doug Brinkley to poke around for it but he never had any luck. Too bad.)
And that is that. The day ended with drinks and food at William's but I don’t remember. Hunter did hire a couple guys to drive his car back to Woody Creek. He and the friend flew from Kansas City back home.
I don’t know if that was the only or the last time those two were together. It was good time spent. Both would agree. Well spent. Indeed.
That was then.
[Jim McCrary lives in Lawrence, KS and worked at William Burroughs Communications for a decade beginning early 1990s. Misses the old man to this day. Every day.]
John Waters is an American film director, screenwriter, author, visual artist, musicologist and comedian. His many credits include 19 films, nine books and a retrospective of his artwork at the New Museum in 2004. Once reviled for his transgressive and hilarious 1970s cult films--Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living (the Trash Trilogy)--several of Waters' later films achieved significant mainstream success, with Hairspray (1988) and Cry Baby (1990) adapted to hit Broadway musicals.
Waters frequently socialized with William S. Burroughs during the Bunker years in the Seventies. Burroughs, "The Pope of Dope," dubbed Waters "The Pope of Trash," a moniker he wears with pride to this day. Waters is featured in the 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.
On February 20, 2014, Waters brought his one-man stage show, This Filthy World, to the Lawrence Arts Center (LAC), part of a series of events related to the exhibition William S. Burroughs.Creative Observer, opening January 17, 2014.
The interview was conducted on October 23, 2013 by Ben Ahlvers, LAC Exhibitions Director, and Tom King. Recorded by Marlo Angel.
John Waters: I'm no authority on William Burroughs but I can tell you what I know.
I grew up loving William Burroughs. The first thing I wanted to be was a beatnik so what's the first book you have to read? Junky, basically. I can't remember if I read Junky or Naked Lunch first. I was real young, in junior high. I liked William way more than Allen Ginsberg--I wasn't much of a hippie, I was more of a yippie.
I met Burroughs at his place in New York, in the Bunker. I loved going there, he had these great social events. William Burroughs always looked like he was 100 years old. He would serve warm vodka in washed-out peanut butter jars. No ice. I always snuck a look at his bedroom. I saw him also at the 930 Club where I played a lot. He took me to crazy parties in New York sometimes, parties with really strange people. He was always very nice to me and I think James Grauerholz had a lot to do with that.
He branded himself; he always had that look. He kept one look his whole life, which is very important to do. He was gay and a junkie and didn't look the parts. I never thought he was politically incorrect: he wasn't racist, he wasn't homophobic. He had that signature voice--he should have done animation voice in Hollywood. I also love the fact that he obsessively went for Scientology at first. And then turned against it.
LAC: Did Burroughs inform your work?
Waters: Wouldn't you say the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos has something to do with Naked Lunch? When I first read him I knew that he was in a secret world, a pervert that wasn't upset about it. He was a proud pervert. Very old school, way before gay liberation, even though he ways always out. He scared gay people because they were so square then and he was so cool. But everyone liked him in a weird way. I mean, did anyone ever give William Burroughs shit for being gay? I can hardly imagine him getting gay-bashed.
LAC: What are your thoughts on his artwork?
Waters: Well, its tough. As you know, the art world hates celebrities that do art. They are incredibly suspicious of it. I saw his artwork way later. I love the idea of drawing with guns, thats so William Burroughs. I'm surprised he didn't use needles. He was doing all the things that were in his novels but on canvases in an art gallery. It seemed like a logical extension of what he always did.
LAC: Where do you think Burroughs' work fits into the art world today?
Waters: I'm not sure. He certainly has a stronger place in literature than he does in the art world. I think a lot of people in the art world don't even know about Burroughs' art, to be honest. So I think its great you're doing this show. Maybe a lot of people that only know his books will discover his art. The centenary is the perfect time to bring out work that people don't know. The only time I ever saw his artwork was at the show in Los Angeles [Ports of Entry, 1996, LACMA] . It was a huge show. I don't remember the critical reaction but I always thought Burroughs was beyond criticism. Does he care? Actually, you care more as you get older but you get better at pretending you care less.
LAC: Why does Burroughs matter culturally, in the big picture?
Waters: He matters culturally because he lasted six or seven decades. He stayed true to himself--he started as a beatnik and he ended as a beatnik. An incredible, eccentric character who looked normal. He never changed for anybody, never answered his critics, and continued to be avant-garde--a word that most people feel is a dirty word today.
LAC: One of the things I learned from this project is that Burroughs was making visual art all along the way and not really talking about it or showing it.
Waters: So he always was and we just didn't know it? I'm trying to remember seeing his art when I was in the Bunker but I was usually just looking at him. I was just so excited to be there.
LAC: How old were you then?
Waters: In the 70s, and I was born in 1946. I wasn't a kid. But he was such a part of my life when I was a kid, when I was forming who I was going to be, that he was definitely a hero.
LAC: Did you find him prescient or prophetic about modern society?
Waters: I don't know if he'd like those descriptions. I think he was a salesman. He was the Exterminator. He was the one that came at you with a formed literary vision that no-one had ever seen before. And he did not suffer fools. He didn't answer his critics and he didn't give in to trying to be commercial. Naked Lunch is commercial in spite of itself.
LAC: Why do you think he became a counter-culture hero in the Seventies?
Waters: Because he was so original. Everybody read his books, especially when you're a young kid trying to rebel. I wasn't reading Salinger, I was reading Jean Genet and William Burroughs. As a young gay man, I thought, "Finally, a gay man who isn't square." That was very influential, to realize that there really was a Bohemia. Didn't matter if it was gay or straight, I just wanted to be in Bohemia because I lived in Lutherville, Maryland then. Burroughs was my imaginary friend.
LAC: You wrote a book about contemporary art...
Waters: I wrote one a while ago called Art: A Sex Book. And I just finished my new book, Carsick, because I hitch-hiked by myself across America last year. I got stuck in Bonner Springs [Kansas]. It was the very worst place of my entire trip, a nightmare. I waited 10 hours there without getting a ride. Finally, a nice guy who worked at the Lawrence Wal-Mart picked me up.
LAC: The talk we've got you scheduled for at LAC is on February 20th, 2014. It's being billed as This Filthy World but any Burroughs insights like these would be well-received.
Waters: I'll work it in. I look forward to coming to William Burroughs' place. Its like a pilgrimage.
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
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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