Burroughs’ vision, birthed in the Midwest during the Great Depression and brought to maturity by the Beat Generation, was provocative, transgressive and hysterical but, most importantly for us today, prophetic. Performance artist Billy Hough offers a unique perspective on the author of Naked Lunch, Junkie, Queer, Soft Machine, The Wild Boys and Nova Express
The recent publication of William S. Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual only adds to the mythology and curiosity surrounding one of America’s most interesting and provocative writers. His famously banned 1959 novel Naked Lunch is widely known, but seldom read (at least seldom finished). Transgressive and difficult, hysterical and hopeless, the Burroughs canon is daunting and inviting in equal measure. Burroughs, who died in 1997 at age 83, warned us of an America deep in the throes of an opioid epidemic, foresaw a “deep state” using “political correctness” and “language policing” as a means of controlling the general population, feared a population of undereducated decadent consumers fed only a steady diet of ‘fake news,’ and saw America’s future leaders as narcissists interested only in power and wealth. If there were a perfect time to delve into the work of this brilliant and complicated writer, then perhaps that time is now.
The following is a bit of context about Williams S. Burroughs’ life and where he (possibly) came from. It is also a completely biased attempt at separating an imperfect man from his nearly perfect gift. Primarily, I hope, it will also offer some ideas on how and where to begin with his terrifying yet gratifying, often impenetrable, hugely rewarding collection of deeply fucked up books.
Part One: How Hustlers Hustle
Art history since the Renaissance has been simplified into a series of ‘Movements,’ many of which begin with a single innovator working tirelessly in a basement somewhere. These rebels generate material that usually has nothing in common with the popular taste of the time. The work is nearly always ignored (if it’s lucky enough to escape the equally likely fate of being hated, protested and destroyed). With any luck, a small band of peers see the work’s value and (not unlike the early Christian disciples) carry the message as far and wide as they can.
This is what Paul Verlaine did with Rimbaud’s despised (in its day) poetry, sacrificing his own career to bring his ex-lover’s message to the future. By 1942, fifty-two years after his death, Rimbaud was being read aloud to young Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac by their de-facto mentor, the older William Seward Burroughs. The long-dead child poet (Rimbaud completed his major work and abandoned writing at the age of 17) was in the process of being fully canonized by this trio—Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Mr. B.—the famous ‘founders’ of the Beat Generation (America’s own dangerous poets).
Twenty-five years after those benzedrine-fueled poetry readings in NYC, Arthur Rimbaud’s work would fatefully land in the lap of a young Patti Smith in her parents’ New Jersey home. It was through Patti’s music that I first found Rimbaud, and there is at least one person reading this who is hearing of him for the first time. Possibly one of you will recognize his name in a used bookstore next weekend and the cycle will continue.
Part Two: What Becomes a Legend Most
Most people in the punk scene, rock & rollers, followers of the literary or cinematic avant-garde have surely heard the name William S. Burroughs. His books were neither sold, nor in our library at the University of Southern Mississippi in the 1990’s. Yet, even there, Burroughs was ‘in the ether.’ He was brilliant in Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy, and collaborated on songs with Kurt Cobain (“The Priest They Called Him”) and Laurie Anderson (“Mister Heartbreak”). He read amazing examples of his work on two brilliant albums produced by Hal Wilner, and his most famous novel Naked Lunch was turned into a film by David Cronenberg.
His name alone is shorthand for: heroin, street cool, intellectual bad boys, artistic experimentation, and most remarkably: unapologetic drug use and gay sexual desire (which in the 1950’s was dangerous and unheard of). He was politically paranoid due to a keen sense of history and an acute ability to spot early indicators of fascist tendencies more quickly than anyone this side of Hannah Arendt. At the time, his political warnings were viewed as satire—the musings of a crazed ‘Henny Penny’ for the East Village mainliners. However, because so much of what he warned of has come to pass, he is now regarded as less of an alarmist and more of a prophet.
Burroughs, like Rimbaud, is equally iconic for both his work and his persona. He represents a certain kind of iconic ‘outlaw’: a perfect mix of dangerous living and intellectual cool. But Burroughs’ coolness was hard won, as it came after a long period of alienation and other-ness (as is often the case.) He was a man who slept with men (though our modern ideas of being ‘out’ or living a ‘gay lifestyle’ would be unrecognizable to him), and his own theories about homosexuality in general (and his own sexuality in particular) were revolutionary. He was also hopelessly addicted to heroin for much of his life, and, again, our modern idea of addiction contradicts much of the accepted science of his time. Burroughs, in fact, was an early labeler of addiction as a sickness at a time when very little research was being done about junkies (because they were a form of low-life, a societal burden).
His life was, from the beginning, a study in contradictions. The scion of loving and distant parents in St. Louis, his schoolboy reputation swung between cruel, arresting aloofness, and easily wounded sensitivity. Also key is that young William was a rich kid (from the “Burroughs Adding Machine” fortune) who received a monthly allowance of $200 from his parents throughout his life (minus a few periods where he was being ‘punished,’ usually for legal infractions involving narcotics). He was already experimenting with the underground gay and art scenes in New York as early as 1935. He and Richard Stark would drive down to New York from Harvard on the weekends and hang out with hustlers in dark bars. After graduating in 1936, he moved to Europe (including a stint in medical school in Austria) and married Ilsa Klapper, a Jewish woman running from the encroaching Nazis who needed an American husband.
Back in St. Louis, under the eyes and on the payroll of his worried parents, he worked for a time as an exterminator (which would generate much material later) and he famously cut off a segment of his little finger to ‘impress’ a man he was obsessed with. He finally moved to New York with his St. Louis friends, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer in 1943.
And now the 32-year-old Burroughs lands in New York, meets and moves in with Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer, meets Ginsberg through Kerouac, and the band, as they say, ‘gets together.’
Part Three: The Beat Goes On
To cut to the chase: Burroughs is famous for being a Beat. The beatnik writers were America’s answer to the European existentialists—the ‘life has no meaning’ school of philosophy that grew up in direct response to the atrocities and devastation of WW1 (the first war with airplanes, bombs and machine guns—weapons which could now kill large groups of people from such a distance you couldn’t see who you were killing.) These atrocities came fast on the heels of Darwin (“we’re apes”), Freud (“we’re fucked up, anally obsessed apes”), Marx (“we cannot be trusted on our own”), and Nietzsche (“God is dead”).
Understandably, existentialism poses the very serious and still unanswered questions: “What if there is no plan? What if Man has no purpose? What if all of life is simply absurd?” Early-20th-century artists explored these terrifying new ideas by creating art that attempted to illustrate the meaninglessness and chaos implied by “a life without purpose.” Thus, Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, stream-of-consciousness and Theater of the Absurd developed to try to reflect this new reality. These young writers and painters also searched for ‘meaning’ in sex, drugs and occultism—areas previously ‘off-limits’ to well-reared boys and girls.
In 1944, Kerouac (age 22) and Ginsberg (age 18) idolized this older intellectual (Burroughs was 32) who regaled them nightly with tales of hustlers and heroin (which he was beginning to marinate in, his somewhat recent introduction to which is usually credited to Herbert Huncke—a hustler who himself became a lauded and important Beat writer). It was also at this apartment Burroughs met, and fell in love with, Joan Vollmer. Joan, who remains critically undervalued, was unanimously considered the sharpest of all these brainiac junkies who would create the ‘mission statement’ of the Beats. Burroughs fell in love with Joan and soon moved in with her and her young daughter, Julie. Burroughs taste for men was never a secret between the two of them, but Joan not only accepted it, she would tell anyone within earshot that “William may be a fag, but he’s as good as a pimp in bed.” The ‘proof’ of this is the birth of their son together, William Jr., in 1947.
There are many legends around these days. In 1944, Lucien Carr killed his old St. Louis admirer David Kammerer, as a result of the latter’s increasingly obsessive attention. Burroughs and Kerouac both ran afoul of the New York authorities for helping Carr after the fact. Burroughs got popped again for narcotics in 1946, and during his ‘off the radar’ stint back home at his parents’ house, Joan, lonely and detoxing off speed, ended up in Bellevue Hospital. Burroughs sped back to New York upon hearing the news, got Joan out of the mental hospital, and proposed marriage to her that night. (They were never legally wed due to Burroughs’ earlier marriage. Though he eventually divorced Ilsa, Bill and Joan’s marriage was never fully legalized.) After a failed adventure in Texas, and to avoid jail yet again (this time in New Orleans), Bill, Joan, and their two children moved to Mexico in 1950.
Ginsberg and Carr visited the unhappy household in Mexico and found a terrifying scene: Burroughs’ sexual appetite had circled back to the roughneck youths of his past. This left Joan distraught, alone, and the two children all but ignored in the home and (according to Ginsberg) in an “almost feral state.” The difficulty in finding a steady Benzedrine supply meant that Joan was binging on speed when it was around, and going cold turkey when it was not, certainly not an easy road. Her drinking (as well as Bill’s) had created a thoroughly unstable household (and resulted in a terrifying car ride that frightened Ginsberg so badly he was uncharacteristically anxious to leave the home of his old friends) so the following story is both believable and terrible. Hence the legend:
Ginsberg and Carr had departed, though there were two other guests in the house. Bill had recently returned from a fruitless adventure following a young man into South America. All four adults were drunk, the children were…nobody knows. Bill, a gun enthusiast, was handling a favorite gun on the couch. Joan walked in to the room, stood against a door, placed her glass atop her head, and dryly cajoled Burroughs with “It’s time for our ‘William Tell routine’.” This reference to the old Germanic folk tale about the famous archer who was able to shoot an apple off the top of his son’s head had apparently never been mentioned by her before, and the two certainly had no ‘routine.’ This did not stop Burroughs from playing along; he casually lifted his gun and fired a single shot. The glass fell and crashed to the floor, followed by Joan who had been killed by a single shot to the head.
The death of Joan Vollmer is not easy. I have friends who claim that her shooting by Burroughs (though by witness accounts a drunken ‘accident’) is primarily a ‘salacious tidbit’ in the biography of yet another famous white man. This I cannot argue with. There is a more recent school of thought that Burroughs must be rejected completely for being a ‘murderer’ and for shooting his wife, regardless of his explanation of it, or how great his books may be. Both of these reactions (either giving Joan’s death no value beyond being a creepy story in a cool guy’s bio, or by assuming that the action itself vilifies the man beyond any redemption) seem to me a bit extreme, as both sides seem to find him either ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ without having the benefit of an investigation or a trial (which was underway with Burroughs’ cooperation in Mexico, before his lawyer disappeared, and Burroughs went on the lam to England). I cannot defend him, though I do choose to believe him. If you do not, I will not debate you nor disagree with your own assessment, as there can be no further light on this upsetting night with all the players long dead.
Part Four: Interzone
In the haze after Joan’s death, and his exit from Mexico, Burroughs began to write in earnest. His first two projects were a collaboration with Kerouac in 1945—And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (published 2008)—based on Carr’s murder of Kammerer, and (by Burroughs’ reckoning) a tepid and unsuccessful half-draft of what would become Queer (published 1985). In 1953, he wrote a lucid, if lurid, account of life as an addict called Junkie for Ginsberg, who was acting as his literary agent. The cheap paperback, published as one half of an old Ace ‘double’ (two short pulpy books published together) is now worth $2,000 online—if you want a crappy one with no signature.
The game begins in earnest with Burroughs in Morocco, where he had gone to follow both the person and example of Paul Bowles—the married, gay composer and author of The Sheltering Sky (which Burroughs called “The most terrifying novel I’ve ever read.” I don’t disagree). In Tangier, completely stoned and living with immense guilt and despair, Burroughs began the “Word Hoard,” the many hundreds of pages of scenes, routines, dialogue exchanges, fantastical short stories, political satire, political screed, and graphic sexual scenarios. Legend has it that from this “Word Hoard” came Naked Lunch, Interzone, and the bulk of original material spanning Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. Modern scholars dispute much of this, primarily because there was less material than originally thought, and Naked Lunch’s extraction would have left little of equal value behind, but since Burroughs himself created the ‘legend,’ and I am no scholar, believe what you want.
The undisputed story of Naked Lunch’s creation is the best. In 1956, Ginsberg publishes Howl, a long-form poem that heralded the beginning of much of what would become—and is still considered—‘cool.’ Initially banned for its description of homosexuality and drug use, it became the Ur-text of the Beats, and the granddaddy of Dylan’s lyrics, Paul Morrissey’s films for Warhol, and a new fascination with ‘the underworld’ that has captivated college kids ever since. The next year, 1957, roommate #2 (Kerouac) publishes a follow-up to his unsuccessful first novel. This new novel, which made many publishers nervous for its depiction of homosexuality and drug use (see a trend?), and which featured barely disguised versions of Burroughs and Ginsberg, was called On the Road. 1957 is also the year Kerouac and Ginsberg travelled to Tangier to find Burroughs, check on him, and stay long enough to take the towering stack of disparate pages, and collate them into what would become Naked Lunch in 1959. (The title comes from Kerouac, who coined “naked lunch” to describe the moment when “one sees exactly what is on the end of his fork.”)
If both Howl and On the Road caused a stir, Naked Lunch created a tsunami. The last great “Banned in Boston” scandal of the long list of banned books in that most Catholic of cities, the book was shocking because of its (anybody wanna guess?) homosexual content and drug use. It was also written in a non-linear style, a ‘composite’ as much as a narrative, and was both breathtakingly fresh, and exceedingly difficult.
Part Five: Can We Get to the Fucking Punk Shit Already?
Okay. From there, Burroughs spends most of the 1960’s in London, now a darling of the avant-garde, and a beloved and ‘serious’ author on the literary landscape. The previously mentioned “Cut-Up Trilogy” (Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express) form a loose mythos around the “Nova Mob” and their nefarious political scheming to take over the world. He also cleaned up, due to the Apomorphine treatment, met Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel in Paris, began the “cut-up” method in earnest (including its use, less than assumed, in the “Cut-Up Trilogy” that bears its name). If you are interested in pursuing this era in greater detail, I highly recommend two biographies: Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw, and Barry Miles Call Me Burroughs, both fascinating.
Okay, the punk shit. Fast like the Ramones: 1974. Burroughs was broke. Ginsberg got him a teaching position in NYC. Burroughs finds “the Bunker” on the Lower East Side. He meets his angel, James Grauerholz, an ambitious and literary 21-year-old. Grauerholz organizes reading tours. By 1976, Burroughs is living full-time in NYC. He is finally considered ‘royalty’ by the youngsters in the midst of creating the downtown ‘scene’ of the early-1970’s.
The “un-banning” of Naked Lunch in 1966 coincided with a changing of laws and mores around the ideas of sex and drugs. Paul Morrissey’s films: Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), featured a mostly-naked Joe Dallesandro hustling his way through drag queens and junkies, Deep Throat brought porn into legitimate society, and Hair, a musical about drugs, was on Broadway with a cast that finished Act One completely nude. And if Dylan’s lyrics had taken a page from Howl (and they had), Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground had taken a page out of Burroughs. The song ‘Heroin’ took explicit lyric-writing to previous undreamed of heights, and maybe most shockingly, adopted a non-judgmental, ‘matter-of-fact’ approach to its description of getting high. And in much the same way that Eno claimed, “Only 500 people bought the first Velvet Underground record, but every one of them started a band,” Burroughs’ books were not bestsellers, but their influence in the burgeoning New York punk scene was far-reaching.
The bands ‘Soft Machine’ and ‘Steely Dan’ took their names from Burroughs (the latter named after a dildo torn in half by a bull dyke in Naked Lunch). Burroughs’ “Bunker” began hosting both the old guard (Warhol, Capote, Tennessee Williams) and the new. The book With William Burroughs by Victor Bockris recounts endless recorded conversations in the Bunker with Patti Smith, Lou Reed, members of the Ramones, basically the entire Mount Olympus of early punk rock. Patti Smith Group’s 1975 debut Horses, closes with “Land,” a 10-minute explosion mixing old rock & roll lyrics with the story from “AJ’s Annual Party,” perhaps the most sexually graphic and upsetting ‘snuff’ scene in all of Naked Lunch.
In 1978, the ‘Nova Convention” was a celebration of Burroughs and his work in New York, featuring the B-52’s and Suicide. Burroughs’ readings had introduced the material to a whole new generation, but now through the lens of the man himself. Burroughs (like Tom Wolfe and Warhol) had a “look”—he was seldom seen out of a dark suit and fedora. It gave him an ageless, unchanging quality like John Cale describes in Songs For Drella, “If you dress older when you are not, as you really age you look the same.”
Burroughs also spoke in a reedy, Midwestern twang—a completely different voice than the one you hear when first reading the books themselves (though now it is impossible not to read every word of his oeuvre in his distinctive, contrasting rhythms). His live performances brought a sense of clarity to his writing, primarily through the humor he injected (or highlighted) in the work. Burroughs was always funny, but now—even reading some of the most upsetting and transgressive passages in American literature—he was a fucking scream! When he appeared on an early season of Saturday Night Live, the whole country got hep to it.
Part Six: Minutes to Go
Punk rockers of the future, I must leave you, and Mr. Burroughs, here. Over the course of this brief history, I have listed numerous books, poets, albums, and films—all of which are instrumental in the history of the scene you’re in (or you wouldn’t have clicked on this, let alone read this far). The hope is that after you read Please Kill Me and dig out the records, you might dig a little deeper on some of the kings and queens of ‘cool’ that predate the punk scene. Even after reading this, I predict you will find Burroughs referenced everywhere, even places you hadn’t noticed before.
If you want to try him for yourself, go to YouTube and find “Thanksgiving Prayer.” If you’re game for more, you can do worse than the Hal Wilner records Dead City Radio and Spare Ass Annie—hearing Burroughs read his own material is both a trip, and hugely instructive. If you’re ready to read, I recommend starting with The Wild Boys (1971) or Cities of the Red Night (1981), two later volumes that possess all of Burroughs’ characteristic qualities (gay sex, sci-fi, political conspiracy, dark humor) while retaining enough of a lucid story to pull yourself through. If you’re more interested in the man than the work, The Job, The Adding Machine, and Last Words are collected interviews, essays, and his final diary. (His last entry will make you cry, but finding that is up to you.) Alright Johnsons, we’re nearly done.
If you want more, let us know, and I’ll fill in the rest. But then, you have all you need to do that for yourself now. I’m pimping Burroughs here for one reason: he has given my own life a resonance and an artistic flavor I would simply not have had without him. I’d still have Joyce, Proust, Beckett, the Velvets, Fellini, David Lynch and Patti—but Burroughs is right there—in and out of it all. I will tell you that I tried heroin for the same reason Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain did: because Burroughs did it. (That’s actually admitted by Reed and Cobain and I’m admitting it here.) It’s kind of ironic that Burroughs explained heroin and addiction so viscerally in hopes it would scare people off—and it probably did. Maybe there were only a few of us who actually took his cautionary tales as an invitation. But then, each one of us started a band.