by Legs McNeil – Photos by Jim Tynan
For a few years, back in the late 1980’s when I was covering the wars in El Salvador and Northern Ireland, I was lucky enough to work with a fantastic photographer, Jim Tynan, who had already been to both places, as well as other horrifying hotspots. Jim was my kind of photographer; a guy owed him money in a dope deal gone wrong back in college, so Jim took the guy’s camera instead and developed a real eye for taking pictures. Jim’s photo of one of the Mothers of the Disappeared in El Salvador was featured on the cover of The Christian Science Monitor, a great newspaper back in the day, and Jim’s photo captured the unending grief of a peasant women who didn’t know where her husband was, but feared the worst.
“She gave me the shot,” Jim told me modestly, but people were always providing him great photos to capture, probably because of the empathy in his eyes.
Jim and I were always going somewhere, either on assignment for Spin or Details, or just checking out different scenes for ourselves. He was also one of the funniest guys I’ve had the pleasure to know, and when we weren’t fighting, we were usually rolling around on the floor, belly laughing. I always wanted to write about our exploits, but Jim had a serious girlfriend at the time, who later became his wife, and I didn’t want to fuck up his relationship for the sake of the story. It was one of the few times I censored myself, but Jim was worth it, he always got the shot, and his photos made my writing better than it was.
One of the last pieces I did for Spin was this one on William Burroughs, who I had been friends with since 1975, as well as James Grauerholz, Burroughs’s guy who did all the annoying business, marketing and press stuff, as well as editing William’s manuscripts. James Grauerholz had been with William for so many years, it was almost as if he were part of him. And James could read William’s moods so expertly, that he knew just when to provide William in a private audience with the hundreds of visitors that came to Lawrence, Kansas each year to chat with Burroughs.
James also knew when William needed to relax, which usually meant going out to the Stone House, just outside of town, and indulging in some target practice, one of Burroughs favorite past times. It was here that Jim Tynan captured these spectacular photos, and I found myself getting jealous of Jim, because Grauerholz and Burroughs always seemed to enjoy the company of rugged, street-wise guys like Jim Tynan more than me.
And also because Jim was a better shot.
I hope you enjoy this piece….
– Legs McNeil, June 1st, 2017
“Do you remember the alien abductions of Betty and Barney Hill?” William S. Burroughs asked me as we sat in the living room of his small suburban ranch house in Lawrence, Kansas.
Burroughs was sitting at the table by the wall, legs crossed, hunched over in his chair. His long, bony fingers played with a box of stick matches as he puffed on a Players Navy Cut nonfilter cigarette and nursed a tall glass of Coca-Cola and vodka. I sat in a chair across from him, not really concentrating on the conversation, but listening, watching, and soaking up the atmosphere of being with the man who started it all.
Burroughs looked up from the box of stick matches, his face pale and gaunt, like a mortician with a hangover, and his eyes asked if we remembered those alien abductions? I quickly nodded back, and he continued.
“The most interesting thing to me was that the aliens found out Barney had false teeth. They said to Betty, ‘Well, how come his teeth come out if yours don’t?’ And she tried to explain to them that people break down with time and age. They had never heard of this…” Burroughs paused, then snorted to himself, his thin lips turning up a slight wicked grin.
Even though I had known Burroughs since 1975, I still found being in his presence unnerving. No, it wasn’t that sneer of his that made you feel like you were sharing a laugh with the Grim Reaper himself. No, it wasn’t his ghostly looks or his piercing intensity. No, it wasn’t any of that stuff, but The Voice!
It’s a deep crackly thing that enunciates every syllable with an evil distinction. And after all this time, I’ve still never heard anything like it. It’s a kind of Midwestern drawl, mixed with equal parts professorial rattle, sarcastic howl, and agonizing moan. It’s the type of voice that, even when it’s making small talk, is so filled with the gravel of hard roads traveled that I always expect everything that comes out of it to be of monumental importance. Like the voice of God. Or the Devil.
“Time,” Burroughs finally revealed, “is a human invention!” Then he snickered again, satisfied by figuring it all out. But as I sat across from the 77-year old Master of Human Depravity, I kept thinking, How bizarre! How totally fucking weird!
Not because of what Burroughs was saying. Talking to him was always out there, around the next corner. But since he always based his arguments on the weirdest sources, even if you weren’t focusing on the point, there was always plenty of fascinating shit to go off on, to drift beyond the parameters of reason.
So it wasn’t his talk of alien abduction that sounded the alarm. It wasn’t what he was saying, but where he was saying it.
Outside you could hear the lawn mower engines wailing from distant lawns. Across the street, in the driveway of one of the ranch houses, elderly women with white frosted hair and extra-large J.C. Penney outfits were unloading dishes of macaroni salad and Jell-O molds from the tailgate of a red and white and blue striped jeep. And just beyond these ranch houses lay the massive fields – “amber waves of grain.” Ah yes, the heartland. The entire place was just throbbing with normalcy.
And I couldn’t help but wonder if the good, churchgoing, red-blooded, normal Americans just beyond the front porch knew they were living next door to the Devil himself.
For more than any other man, dead or alive, William S. Burroughs is the one responsible for introducing deviancy into the mainstream of American culture. As author of Junky, Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, and Cities of the Red Night, to name a few, this is the man who is grandfather to the hippies and godfather to the punks, the guy who inspired Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady to push it to the limit, the homosexual and avowed misogynist who accidentally shot and killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell, the writer who became a member of the American Academy of Art and Letters, the lifelong junkie who shot up in squalid hotel rooms around the world and in the process managed to snag a Commander de l’Ordre Arts et Lettres from the French government for writing about it.
And you just knew that if the good citizens in the neighborhood had any idea of who was living next door, they would run for the hills. If, that is, the good neighbors ever found a moment to steal away from Wheel of Fortune to pick up one of his books. But since Americans have forgotten how to read, that wasn’t going to happen; Burroughs remains safe from the God-fearing folks. But maybe not his fans. The previous evening two radical gay bikers, members of Homocorp, showed up on psychedelic motorcycles and black leather jackets to have a word with their idol.
“I had just come back from shooting (targets),” Burroughs laughed. “I was out shooting, and I pulled in the driveway and there were these psychedelic motorcycles there. I looked around, and there were these two guys sitting across the road. They were wearing all sorts of handcuffs on their black leather jackets. And I said, ‘Are you waiting for me?’
“They said yes. They wanted an interview. It was just like a page out of The Wild Boys.”
James Grauerholz, a lanky blond-haired man in his late 30’s, came out of the kitchen and nodded as he heard the story. “There is a slight problem with that sort of thing though.”
As Burroughs’s personal adjutant for 18 years, Grauerholz has seen Burroughs grow from obscure legend to movie star since taking on Burroughs’s business affairs in 1974. Today he runs William Burroughs Communications, located in downtown Lawrence, where he keeps track of Burroughs’s paintings (his abstract expressionist works, complete with shotgun blasts, are shown throughout Europe), new releases of Burroughs’s latest spoken-word records (Dead City Radio, produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Kyon, featuring Donald Fagen, and the Material album Seven Souls produced by Bill Laswell for Virgin Records), film offers, and the 20 books that have been published in 14 languages.
“William can’t just jump on the back of psychedelic motorcycles and cruise the streets. These kids always say, ‘Hey come on, let’s go party!’ and William has to say, ‘Hey, I just got home, I’m about to have dinner with my cats.’”
Burroughs and I erupted with laughter. Then he took the opportunity to slip into his bedroom and returned clutching a handgun from his large collection.
“It’s a derringer!” he beamed with all the pride of a kid with his first BB gun. Only the gun was so small it looked like an ornament off a charm bracelet or a key chain.
“It’s a derringer in the sense that it’s got five shots in there. And it shoots the bullets that killed Bobby Kennedy. It’s a deadly weapon. Look at it! Isn’t it cute?”
“Ah yeah, sure Bill…”
“And it’s real conceivable. Five shots. Shoots the bullets that killed Bobby Kennedy. It can go through a two-by-four and keep on going. Costs about a hundred and forty-five…”
“Nice, real nice. So how was it working and being in Drugstore Cowboy?” I asked, changing the subject. Burroughs’s Hollywood debut at 75, as the junkie priest opposite Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch in the film about a drug-addict couple in the 60’s, was a smash success. As Roger Ebert said, “With his skull shining through his eyes and his dry voice and his laugh like a smoker’s cough, Burroughs creates a perfect moment.” After 76 years, William S. Burroughs was finally a bankable Hollywood commodity.
“Well, the way they had it written, I said, ‘This is completely inaccurate.’ So my good friend Gus Van Sant, the director, said, ‘Well, go ahead and rewrite the part.’ So James changed the whole thing, and I put a polish on it. We really rewrote the part, and Gus accepted our rewrite. But it was much longer than what you see in the film. I had a story in there that they deleted. It was about some junkies in a jail cell that conceal some junk and some needles, and they start cooking up in a tin cup.”
“We’re you surprised with all your good reviews?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that I stole the show. It was just a part that I felt I could do, that’s all. That’s the first thing, can I do it? Can I do a good job? If I can’t, I don’t want to do it.”
“Yeah, well, as a result I heard they asked you to be on Twin Peaks?”
“But they never called back. I said, find out what they want me to do, but they never called back, so what the hell? But what I really enjoyed was my collaboration with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson. They came to me with the opera The Black Rider, based on an old German folk legend, and I said immediately that this was the Devil’s bargain! The story is about this guy who wants to marry the forester’s daughter, but he has to prove he can shoot first before the forester will let him marry his daughter. And of course this guy can’t hit anything so the Devil tells him, ‘I got these magic bullets that always hit.’ Well, the more you use the magic bullets the less you can get along without them. It’s just like heroin. That comparison worked very well. Step right up, hell under the shell! Tom Waits picked right up on that. Yeah, the first one’s always free!
“Tom wrote the songs; I wrote the libretto, which is the text of the story, which had to be translated into German. And Robert Wilson, the director who did Einstein on the Beach, directed it.”
“Would you like to collaborate with Waits and Wilson again?”
“Yes,” Burroughs stated very definitely. “Yes, I even sent Bob a possible script that I’d like to try. It’s Paradise Lost by Milton. And if you remember Paradise Lost, all the devils are thrown down into hell, which I equated with Hiroshima. I wanted to put up Hiroshima footage and have these devils slowly rise up out of Hiroshima, and then they become aliens, the flying-saucer people. It’s just a sketch. Bob is interested in it, but I don’t know. I’d certainly like to work on the idea.”
His eyes were alive with the thoughts of the damned transcending into their rightful place – UFOs. The psychic paradise.
“Remember Lucifer’s big scene in Paradise Lost? ‘Wake! Arise or be forever fallen!’ And slow-ow-ow-ly the demons pick themselves up and rise out of Hiroshima and become the aliens!” I didn’t know if we were going to get to it, but the purpose of my visit was to talk to Burroughs about David Cronenberg’s screen adaptation of his 20th-centruy nightmare masterpiece, Naked Lunch, the last book ever to be banned in the United States, the book of which Norman Mailer said, testifying before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in 1965, “There is a sense in Naked Lunch of the destruction of soul, which is more intense than any I have encountered in any other modern novel. It is a vision of how mankind would act if man was totally divorced from eternity…Nowhere, as in Naked Lunch’s collection of monsters, bald-mad geniuses, cripples, mountebanks, criminals, perverts, and putrefying beasts is there such a modern panoply of the vanities of the human will, of the excesses of evil which occur when the idea of personal or intellectual power reigns superior to the compassions of the flesh.”
Yeah, I was here to talk about that modern panoply, and how Cronenberg was going about translating it into Hollywood’s megabucks. But Burroughs wasn’t cooperating, preferring to dance from subject to subject, landing on whatever interested him. But what did I expect?
This was the guy after all who had written a few of his books – Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, as well as Naked Lunch – using his infamous “cut-up method,” a process whereby Burroughs would take a pair of scissors to his original manuscripts, newspaper headlines, forged prescriptions, whatever was lying around, chop them up, mix ‘em around, and paste them down in some conscious poetic truth.
It was like that faded lettering on the window of that abandoned storefront church I had passed just over the Kansas-Missouri border that blurred together to read, CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD: THE PILLAR GROUND OF PURCHASED BLOOD.
You knew what it meant even when it made no sense. And that’s what William S. Burroughs has dedicated his life to – putting himself so far out there over the edge that the only voices out there are the howls of madness. The hideous monsters of the human psyche. A place that few men or women have dared to travel.
William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, into the upper-middle-class home of Mortimer and Laura Lee Burroughs, where he should have had “forty million reasons not to write.” His paternal grandfather, William S. Burroughs I, for whom he had been named, was the inventor of the first adding machine, a partner in the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. But William, Sr., proved a better inventor than a businessman, and at the time of his death in 1898 left Mortimer only 485 shares of the company compared to his partners 16,380. By 1920, the company had grown to assets worth $430 million, and the Burroughs family trust convinced Mortimer to sell his shares back to the company until nothing was left.
If the invention of the adding machine weren’t enough of a legacy to ensure that the Burroughs name would live forever in the annals of modern corporate America, William, Jr., had an uncle on his mother’s side, a Mr. Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who also made a contribution that revolutionized the way America does business. Only this tool was far more sinister than an adding machine, and one that William, Jr., would spend his entire life, consciously or unconsciously, trying to rectify.
“Ivy Lee started the idea of press releases; he invented modern corporate public relations.” Burroughs sat over his customary afternoon vodka and soda, happy and relaxed and ready to remember the past. We had just returned from a morning of target practice at the Stoneyard, a weathered old gray barn outside Lawrence where weekly Burroughs fulfills his need to drill holes in things with big guns. “Ivy Lee said, ‘They’ll come to us, and we’ll control the information.’ He turned the tables on the press. He was a real evil genius, there’s no doubt about that.”
“Ivy Lee was dying of a brain tumor at the time he was working for the Nazis. The last time I saw him, he said to me, ‘I just saw Hitler and he told me, “I have nothing against the Jews!”’”
Hired by John D. Rockefeller to improve the family name after the infamous Ludlow massacre, where Rockefeller sent in the troops to quell his striking Colorado coal miners, Ivy Lee came up with the idea of sending Rockefeller into the mines to talk to his miners, hang out with them looking like he cared. It was Ivy’s idea that as long as you looked like you were caring, you could get away with murder.
It was also Ivy’s idea for John D. Rockefeller, Sr., to hand out dimes to the poor, and the whole concept of the Rockefeller Foundation. But then Ivy Lee fell on the public relations disaster of the century. He was hired by the Nazis just before World War II to make their image “acceptable.”
“Ivy Lee was dying of a brain tumor at the time he was working for the Nazis. The last time I saw him, he said to me, ‘I just saw Hitler and he told me, “I have nothing against the Jews!”’”
Burroughs sipped on his drink, grimacing at the thought of one of his relatives helping to invent the Big Lie.
“Ivy Lee hated me on sight,” Burroughs snickered, “He was part of that whole class of people that I was brought up with in St. Louis. And they all took one look at me and said, no!”
As a teenager in the uptight hypocritical world of 1920’s St. Louis, Burroughs, already aware of his homosexuality, felt like the ultimate outsider. He discovered the book You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black about the thieving world of a turn-of-the-century western criminal family and decided the life of a criminal was his calling. Writing in the introduction to the reprint of Jack Black’s autobiography, Burroughs said, “I first read You Can’t Win in 1926, in an edition bound in red cardboard. Stultified and confined by middle-class St. Louis mores, I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming houses, pool parlors, cat houses, and opium dens; of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles. I learned about the Johnson family of good bums and thieves, with a code of conduct that made more sense to me than the arbitrary, hypocritical rules that were being taken for granted as being right by my peers…”
After a stint at a boys school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was later appropriated by the Army, which built the first atomic bomb on the same site, Burroughs bummed around the country trying to make his mark in the underworld before becoming a fence for stolen goods in New York City. And it was there he discovered morphine Syrettes; his drug addiction was off and running.
It was in 1943 that Burroughs made friends with two former Columbia University students who were also looking to break out of the confines of America’s “numbing dizziness”: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
“We couldn’t figure out what his secret mystery was,” Ginsberg has said of his and Kerouac’s first meeting with Burroughs. “From Burroughs we got our whole conception of some spiritual crisis in the West and the possibility of decline instead of infinite American Progress – the idea of an apocalyptical historical change.”
As Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were poised to change American literature forever, Burroughs took to the task of psychoanalyzing his charges to free them of their inhibitions. Free them to conquer American literature with their genius.
“It was a joke,” Burroughs said, making a face. “I think psychoanalysis is nonsense at this point. At the time, I thought there was something to it. But as time went on, I saw less and less. I think people are only too anxious to talk about their me, their individuality. What comes in from the outside is much more interesting. The whole dichotomy of inner and outer reality is a basic error of western thinking. It’s not inner reality or out reality, it’s one continuum of the whole organism in relationship to its total environment.”
But as “explorers of the night,” Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were courting the darkness of the soul as well as the brilliance, and they soon encountered the realities of what that meant when disaster struck within their intimate circle.
Lucien Carr and David Kammerer had been friends of Burroughs from St. Louis and, at Columbia, introduced Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to one another. Though Carr and Kammerer were not lovers, Kammerer was obsessed with Carr, forever trying to get the younger boy into his bed. After a night of drinking in the West End Café, a hipster’s hangout across the street from Columbia University, David Kammerer again professed his love to Lucien Carr in Riverside Park, attempting to seduce Carr. An argument ensued and Carr stabbed Kammerer to death, dumping his body in the Hudson River.
Since Carr had come first to Burroughs, then to Kerouac, for advice immediately after the killing, the two were picked up by the police as accomplices to murder after Carr finally turned himself in.
Mortimer bailed Burroughs out of jail, but Kerouac wasn’t so lucky. He had to marry his girlfriend in order to get her family to come up with the bail money.
Once the two were safely out of jail, Kerouac and Burroughs collaborated on an unpublished novel about Kammerer’s murder, writing alternate chapters and titling the book And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a line Burroughs stole from a radio announcer reporting on a fire at a traveling circus.
But besides fueling their creativity, the murder unleashed a Pandora’s box of vices on the trio. Burroughs began rolling drunks to pay for his junk habit, Kerouac discovered Benzedrene and became a speed freak, and Ginsberg made headlines after being a passenger in a stolen car smashup. Allen got away from the scene okay but the police discovered his notebooks in the stolen vehicle, and were more horrified with his odes to homosexual love than his involvement in grand theft.
Though Burroughs was also a homosexual, Allen Ginsberg was the one who thought Burroughs might get along with Kerouac’s Benzedrene buddy, Joan Vollmer, and arranged a meeting. Indeed, Burroughs found a kindred soul in Vollmer, hitting it off so well that they became lovers and moved in together.
Vollmer was devoted to Burroughs, who, though he cared for her, became incapable of showing her any affection, preferring to spend his days pursuing heroin until he was arrested for possession and sent back to St. Louis.
From there Burroughs moved to Texas, bought some land, and tried his hand of farming until he discovered that back in New York Vollmer’s Benzedrene addiction had gotten so serious that she was locked up in the psycho ward at Bellevue after the cops had found her wandering around Times Square in a fit of paranoid delusions.
Burroughs returned to New York and rescued Vollmer, bringing her back to the farm in Texas with him where she became his common-law wife and bore him a son, Billy, Jr. After Burroughs’s marijuana crop proved unsmokable, the family moved to just outside New Orleans. There it was the same as Texas, both of them drifting deeper and deeper into their addictions, hers to speed, his to junk, while struggling to survive. Burroughs was arrested again for heroin possession, and they fled to Mexico to wait out the five-year statute of limitations on the crime of heroin possession.
In Mexico, Burroughs took to spending his days copping junk and his nights buying boy prostitutes, while Vollmer, unable to find her Benzedrene, went through a painful speed withdrawal and turned to alcohol. On the night of September 6, 1951, Burroughs turned to Vollmer at a party and said, “Well, I guess it’s time for our William Tell act!” She played right along with him, though they had never played the William Tell act before, and placed her empty glass on top of her head. Burroughs whipped out a .380-caliber automatic pistol and fired one shot. The gun shot low and the bullet hit her on the side of the head, killing her instantly.
After spending only 13 days in a Mexican jail for Joan’s accidental death, Burroughs pleaded guilty to criminal imprudence and was released on bail until his sentencing the following year. His son, Billy, Jr., was taken by Joan’s parents to live with Mortimer and Laura Lee, who moved to Palm Beach, Florida, and opened a gift shop. Alone and addicted, Burroughs decided to resume his search for the mysterious drug yage (pronounced YA-hay), which he had heard came from the jungles of South America.
“It’s an interesting drug, yage,” Burroughs said from the table as he lit another Players, exhaling a long blast of smoke that drifted close to him, bathing him in a ghostly shroud.
“It’s a blue drug; you take it only at night. Every medicine man has his own recipe. It was quite an experience. The first time I had a bad trip. I took too much.”
Writing to Allen Ginsberg in 1953, Burroughs detailed what happened when he finally located the mythical drug in the jungles of Colombia.
“I sat there waiting for results and almost immediately had the impulse to say, ‘That wasn’t enough, I need more.’ In two minutes a wave of dizziness swept over me, and the hut had began spinning. It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes. The hut took on an archaic far-Pacific look with Easter Island heads carved into the support posts. The assistant was lurking outside with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door…I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood. I vomited violently leaning against a tree and fell down on the ground in helpless misery. I felt numb as if I were covered in layers of cotton. I kept trying to break out of this numb dizziness. I was saying over and over, “All I want is out of here.”
Drawing on his Players, Burroughs states matter-of-factly, “The stuff is quite toxic. If I hadn’t puked my guts out, I would have been dead.”
Burroughs found yage the most powerful mind-bending drug he had ever taken, and after his experiences with it and the accidental shooting of his wife, he felt he had gone beyond the limits; the seeds of Naked Lunch were sown, and it was time to write it down.
Upon returning to New York, Burroughs learned that Ace Books had decided to publish his first effort, a You Can’t Win-styled manuscript of his continuing exploits as a heroin addict; the book was titled Junky and written under the pseudonym William Lee so as not to embarrass his family, who was still supporting him with a monthly stipend of two hundred dollars.
Taking up again with Ginsberg, Burroughs decided, much to the anguish of Ginsberg, that they were going to become lovers. At first Ginsberg accommodated Burroughs, loving him as a mentor and close friend, and not wanting to hurt Burroughs already severely damaged feelings. But Burroughs’s obsession and neediness were too much for Allen, and he finally exploded, rejecting Burroughs, who fled to Tangier and resumed his routine of scoring junk and paying boys for sex.
“Could you have written Naked Lunch on junk?” I asked him as we sat there smoking cigarettes.
“No, I don’t think so. I was coming off junk.”
“Was that the main reason you stopped, to write the book?”
“No. Not really,” Burroughs thought about it hard and long. “No. I had gotten to the point where I had a fairly heavy habit, and I had to stop.”
It was a two-year-long- process of cure and relapse involving sleep cures in Morocco and apomorphine treatments in London before Burroughs finally finished Naked Lunch in Tangier. Not long after, in February 1957, Jack Kerouac visited Burroughs, bringing with him the exciting news that Allen Ginsberg was becoming the rage with disenchanted college students across America through readings of his poem Howl, and Kerouac himself had signed a deal with Viking to publish a novel on one of his crazy cross-country road trips with Neal Cassady, to be titled On the Road.
It was all coming together. Hip had been born through the desperation of this wacky trinity of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and the world was waiting to embrace it. But unlike On the Road, published in late 1957, when it soared up the best-seller list making Jack Kerouac a hipster celebrity, Naked Lunch took nine years to find a publisher brave enough to put it out. And if On the Road was a celebration of the new existential hero and his quest for God, Naked Lunch was a descent into hell and a hard fuck in the ass for the Devil himself.
It only took Hollywood 29 years to start production.
“Are you pleased with David Cronenberg’s vision of Naked Lunch?” I asked him; the film had just gone into production in Toronto.
“I like it, yes,” Burroughs said thoughtfully. “I’ve read the script, but I can’t tell much from reading the script what it’s going to look like on the screen. Scripts aren’t meant to be read, after all; they’re meant to be put on the screen. But obviously it’s going to be a Cronenberg film.”
“Are you a fan of Cronenberg’s?”
“Yes, very much so. I didn’t want to write the script. I don’t find myself really confident to write movie scripts. Writers can write scripts that read beautifully but might not be worth putting on the screen because they’re too impractical; writers tend to write the script – rather than write it as a manual of instructions, which is what a script is. And in my case, I just don’t know enough about films to do that.
“The film project of Naked Lunch has a long, long history. Brion Gysin tried for years to get backing for the film. They thought they had backing at one point; then the next day they couldn’t get past the secretary. That’s the way it went. Nothing happens until it happens.”
It was time to go. But I still hadn’t found what I came looking for. Sure, the official version of why we were here was to get the lowdown on the film of Naked Lunch, but that wasn’t why I had come. I had come to find out if living so close to the madness, if being on a first-name basis with all your personal demons, if a life of hanging out over the abyss, had been, well, okay? Or was it just as damaging as trying to do it the normal way?
And since William Burroughs had led the way in every aspect of fucking your life up and getting through it, even triumphing, I thought he might have the answer.
Burroughs got up from the table and fed the cats in the kitchen while I packed up my gear. I went into the kitchen to thank him for being such a gracious host and he asked me if I wanted to see the garden.
I followed him down the back steps, past the orange box, past the garage filled with his canvases, and across the lawn to where the cherry tomatoes were ready for picking.
“Taste that. Isn’t it sweet?” he said picking one from the vine and handing it to me. We stood silent for a long while.
“Norman Mailer said I might be possessed by genius,” he started, catching me off guard. “Well, that’s the point. You don’t possess it. You aren’t a genius, but you’re lucky when you’re possessed by it. The more you’re thinking about your individuality, or your me, the less you’re going to be contacting anything of the slightest bit of interest.
“You become the tool. Exactly. Henry Miller said, “Who writes the great books? Not we who have our names on the covers.’ The writer is simply someone who has an antenna of which he tunes into certain currents. Of times, when he is lucky. A medium, as it were.
“You see, when I paint my self-will is not involved at all in the process. But in writing, you can’t help but see what’s in front of you. So you have to know what you’re doing, but your sense and characters come from God knows where!”
“How do you get out of your own way?” I asked as we stood looking over the garden, staring at the sunset. Burroughs was leaning on his cane, enjoying the serenity of it all.
“Well,” he started slowly, “It’s a matter of emptying yourself.”
I stood respectively in silence, waiting for Burroughs to collect his thoughts, knowing he usually traveled to some pretty far places to find them.
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“You know,” he started again, “Some of my dreams are so real, they are realer than my so-called waking life. Much realer. They have no connection with my waking life at all. The idea of waking up here never occurs to me. I have one recurring dream, which I call the Land of the Dead dream, where I’m in the Land of the Dead and everyone I see is dead. The only thing that bothers me about the Land of the Dead dream is that I can never get any breakfast. I try to get breakfast and the restaurant is closed. That’s typical of the Land of the Dead, no breakfast. And then just the other night I had a dream, a complicated dream where I was in a strange city that I had never seen before. And I found that I could levitate. I’ve had flying dreams and jumping off dreams, but in this one I was lighter than air. I could levitate and control speed and direction. But here’s the point, in this dream I was afraid I would wake up and find out this was just a dream and I couldn’t levitate. But not that I would wake up here, but in that city I’d never seen before, I was so very far away, from the very entire idea of Kansas…”
And as the sun set, I realized that the madness does take its toll, that facing the void and living to tell the tales of that horror leaves you forever altered. Yeah, going that far over the edge leaves you in a lonely, sad place where you are doomed to spend your time of dreaming of the next place, the next challenge, forever wanting more.
But very rarely ever being here now.
Then the sun was gone, and it was time to say goodbye.
© 1991 & 2017 Legs McNeil
Originally published in Spin, October 1991
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