Burroughs (1914-97) was the king of the beat generation
and the godfather of punk rock. He was the author
of more than fifty books. Junky is
a classic, autobiographical account of life as a
heroin addict in the United States during the Second
World War. Naked Lunch, published
in 1962 in America, was a key text of the beat generation,
with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and
Allen Ginsberg's Howl. In 1991, David
Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch introduced
Burroughs and his writing to a whole new generation.
Burroughs' importance goes well beyond writing.
He was the man who had the original vision of the
"love generation" of the 1960s. He was
also a major figure of inspiration for many rock
stars. He was on the cover of the Beatles' masterpiece
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and
counted the Rolling Stones among his acquaintances.
In fact, the first discussions about filming Naked
Lunch were introduced by Mick Jagger,
who, in 1972, considered playing Burroughs' alter
ego, Inspector Lee of the Nova Police. The Soft
Machine and Steely Dan were two of the many rock
groups who took their names from his books; Burroughs
was the inventor of the phrase "heavy metal";
Bob Dylan invited him to go on his 1975 Rolling
Thunder tour. Burroughs' influence was also spread
by films-he starred in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore
Cowboy and played lesser roles in ten
other films. In the 1990s he collaborated with various
musicians, ranging from John Cale to Kurt Cobain,
on CDS of his readings.
the time he left the planet, following his closest
friend Allen Ginsberg by four months, he had been
the king of the underground for twenty-five years.
William Burroughs' face is as deeply etched into
the minds of those who knew him and his work as
the faces of our presidents are on Mount Rushmore.
Burroughs always operated from the center of an
entourage of mostly younger men who worked with
him in one capacity or another. In my time, the
group consisted of his amanuensis and manager, James
Grauerholz; the poet and performer John Giorno,
who produced CDS of Burroughs' readings, including
the boxed set Best of William Burroughs
from Giorno Poetry Systems, released in 1998, shortly
after Burroughs' death; and Stewart Meyer, a street
kid from Brooklyn, Burroughs' glorified chauffeur
and best pupil. Meyer's first novel, The Lotus
Crew, written under Burroughs' tutelage,
became a classic in its own time. The film director
Howard Brookner, who shot a documentary about Burroughs
over a period of five years during which they became
close friends, also was included. Apart from Giorno,
these were men in their late twenties. The oldest
member of the group, the celebrated biographer Ted
Morgan, became Burroughs' official biographer in
the 1980s. I was the sixth man on the team.
Burroughs would return to New York from a trip abroad
or from somewhere else in the United States, Stewart
Meyer would get hold of a big, comfortable American
car, and we would pick Burroughs up at the airport
and drive him to the Bunker. Driving in from Kennedy
at night with Stew at the wheel, William in the
front seat, myself, James Grauerholz and John Giorno
in the back, smoking pot, drinking vodka, was like
being in a magic nightclub. The car purred like
a contented cat, Burroughs talked in a mottled voice
that sounded like a cross between the older Katharine
Hepburn and FDR, about his journey and the news,
and everything would suddenly be extra brilliant,
intelligent and kind.
always said he was not a gregarious person and did
not like parties, but from what I could see there
was a nearly constant party going on around him,
at least in the evenings. The great thing about
going to the Bunker—his starkly lit, three-room,
white-on-white windowless cavern of a space at 222
Bowery, in the bowels of that grimy necropolis the
Lower East Side—was that Burroughs and Grauerholz
had created one of the very few real literary salons
in New York. Ninety percent of the time I visited
in the evening, there were at least two other people,
and sometimes there were four or five. The majority
of the guests drank vodka and smoked pot, and there
was a lot of laughter and acting out. Bill would
suddenly transform himself into one of his characters
and talk in an accent. Over dinner he would hold
court, telling stories or coming up with dry comments.
If anybody had a good story about one of his favorite
topics—guns, drugs and writing—he would
say, "Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!" with
gleeful, adolescent enthusiasm. He was not distant.
He was with us, even though most of us were forty
years younger than he was. Like Andy Warhol's Factory,
the Bunker was hermetic and individual, and it ran
on the same principles of love and tension.
up a paradise!" Allen Ginsberg once
exhorted me. Burroughs succeeded in dreaming up
his paradise. From the publication of Naked Lunch
in Paris in 1959, for the rest of his life, ending
in 1997, he was an American Graham Greene for the
space age. He was always sending back reports from
battle fronts or other exotic locales. He was always
writing, always traveling, always "on assignment."
March 1979, having spent five years in Burroughs'
service full time, James Grauerholz took a sabbatical,
moving himself and the Burroughs archives to Lawrence,
Kansas, where he envisioned Burroughs spending the
balance of his life in a more tranquil setting.
I never even considered taking over his job, and
would not have been able to do it anyway, but the
fact was, Bill was lonely, and he achieved his best
relationships in creative collaboration.
1979 to 1981, I had the privilege of working with
William Burroughs (aged sixty-five to sixty-seven)
editing two books: my portrait With William Burroughs:
A Report from the Bunker (St. Martins,
1996), and his selected essays, The Adding Machine
(Arcade, 1996). At the same time, Burroughs was
finishing his long-awaited novel, Cities of the
Red Night (Holt, 1981), which would inaugurate
a whole new person and period in his career, opening
the doors to sixteen highly productive, positive
years (1981-97) writing, painting, acting, performing,
recording. Consequently, I suppose I am one of the
ten to twelve people who ever got close enough to
Bill professionally to see into his writing center.
When I gave him the manuscript of With William
Burroughs (75 percent of which was taped
dialogue of conversations between Burroughs and
fifteen other celebrities), he not only corrected
the sometimes atrocious writing, he added a handful
of precious inserts.
on With William Burroughs was fun.
Working on The Adding Machine, which
we originally called Light Reading for Light
Years, was inspiring. I'll never forget
the first day I sat down at the conference table
in the Bunker with Bill at the head and a stack
of papers between us. I looked up, and he gave me
the most enchanting smile I had ever seen from him.
It was not a smile of humor or a smile of seduction
or a chemically induced smile. Once, when I first
got to know Burroughs out in Boulder, Colorado,
he had started smiling at me across the table at
dinner when we were both quite drunk. I couldn't
understand what the strange smiles meant, but later
I realized he had been coming on to me. This wasn't
like that at all. It was the smile of collaboration.
I think one of the reasons Burroughs and I got along
as well as we did was because we shared a boarding-school
background. In that context, he was the
headmaster and I was the head boy. This was a relationship
we both cherished. My work entailed collecting a
number of fugitive pieces of which he did not have
copies, typing up material that was being transformed
from a speech into an essay, tape-recording inserts
and cutting in the results. We worked hard over
a three-month period, meeting once a week, collecting
some forty essays.
the end of the first day of work, I poured drinks
while William smoked a joint provided by Stew, who
was cooking some dinner on the stove. I walked up
and down, passing William's chair as I went, picking
up and returning the joint as we kicked back and
forth ideas for a title. It didn't take us ten minutes
to hit on it, that's how cued in we were. I kept
saying, "It's light reading... light reading..."
over and over again, until finally, giving me that
wonderful smile again, Bill chimed in, "for
light years. Light Reading for Light Years."
Stew was applauding from the stove. That was the
book's working title. Later it was changed to The
Adding Machine, which is an equally good
title, but a little more earthbound than I think
William's writing is.
you put 100 percent of yourself into something,
as William put himself into writing, you become
somebody other than the person you were when you
started. You become a writer, in the sense that
a doctor is a doctor. When he gets into the operation,
he knows what to do. When William got into one of
his books, he knew what to do. He imagined a way
of living that he tried to pass on in his books,
and he tried to live it as closely as he could.
He had been an inveterate traveler all of his life.
When I saw him on a weekly basis between 1979 and
1981, he was constantly coming and going from Europe
or the West Coast on reading tours, lecture tours
and publicity tours, and he was always collecting
impressions and information from his travels that
would find their way in time into his work. Burroughs
devoured life. "It is necessary to travel,"
he said, "it is not necessary to live,"
meaning that a life without travel of the spiritual,
psychic, intellectual kind is not worth living.
had arranged Burroughs' social life so well that
even when he was away it ran like clockwork. Burroughs
rarely called people. People called him. I became
the arranger of a lot of dinner parties for him.
"Victor Bockris moved in with his 'come-see-the-bear-dance'
routine," Ted Morgan wrote in Literary Outlaw:
The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (Henry
Holt, 1988). "Victor brought around celebrities
to meet Burroughs, acting as introducer, go-between
and master of ceremonies. John Giorno provided the
bread, and Victor the circuses. He would call and
say, 'I'll be over at six with some corned beef
and Bianca Jagger.' It was in a sense a useful function
to fulfill, for Burroughs was entertained, and Victor
became to some extent the arranger of his social
life. On the other hand, Burroughs was expected
to perform at Victor's evenings, and to be ever
a lot of Morgan's unfortunate book, this is not
at all true. First of all, neither Bill nor I was
an aficionado of "corned beef." Second,
I never took Bianca Jagger to the Bunker. In fact,
this whole statement is a fabrication. Burroughs
didn't have to act crazy at all, he had to act straight,
because he was further out than any of his counterparts.
to Burroughs' biographer Barry Miles (El Hombre
Invisible), "Burroughs' very high
profile in the late seventies was caused, to a great
extent, by a book project undertaken by writer Victor
Bockris, who arranged a succession of dinner parties
in New York, from 1979 until 1980, at which famous
people would dine with Burroughs," Miles wrote.
"These included Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry,
Lou Reed, Joe Strummer, Susan Sontag, Christopher
Isherwood, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams and
Mick Jagger. Bockris tape-recorded the conversations
and published transcripts of the tapes in dozens
of magazines, from sex sheets like National Screw
and Chic through mimeographed literary
magazines to glossies such as The New Review
in London. This encouraged gossip columnists to
mention Burroughs. As the seventies progressed,
squibs and stories began appearing in magazines
such as Oui, High Times
and Andy Warhol's Interview. It had
been a long time coming, but finally Burroughs was
an all-American celebrity."
a conversationalist, Burroughs was dexterous. He
could and did quote lines from Shakespeare and other
writers. Lord Chesterfield's letter rejecting a
loan request was a favorite piece; he had it by
heart. He also had a quality I've noticed in other
artists (primarily Warhol), of mirroring his interlocutor.
With Susan Sontag, he would discuss the ins and
outs of the New York literary scene; with Terry
Southern, he would discuss drugs; with Andy Warhol,
he would discuss sex. He wasn't one of those people
who always had to be in charge of the subject, or
insisted on his voice being the only voice. Bill
had an encyclopedic knowledge that sounds almost
old fashioned today, mixed with an intelligence
that came before specialization locked everybody
into separate cubicles.
a writer, Burroughs lived with a big label on his
back that he could not remove which read, wife-killing-homosexual-drug-addict-communist-pervert.
Consequently, the majority of people thought of
him—and many still do—as a freak. But
this was not the Burroughs I knew. He was not a
wife killer. He shot his wife by accident, and never
a day went by for the rest of his life that he did
not think of Joan. He wasn't a violent man. He wept
bitterly and often because of the terrible circumstances
and events of his life. He was not a drug addict
for most of the time that I knew him. He had that
relapse in 1979-80, but before and after that he
was clean of heroin. He was not a communist. He
wasn't a pervert. He had a romantic soul but, like
so many artists of his ilk, found himself married
to his work. His books were his real children.
this time of his life—he was sixty-five—Bill
was helplessly addicted to writing. If he could
not write, he felt bad, and it got worse day by
day. But most days he did write. In fact, apart
from taking care of the essentials, that was all
he did. As a result, Burroughs knew his song well
before he started singing. The great thing about
his writing for me is that I can turn it on like
I can turn on a Stones album and hit the street
ten minutes later pumped. Page eleven from Nova
Express (Grove, 1964) (see illustration)
is one of my favorite pieces by William Burroughs.
Many of his pages are like this, individual pieces
of art that could be framed and hung on the wall,
me, after his intelligence, Bill's greatest
characteristic was his sense of humor. On at least
one occasion, we both fell into such an extreme
laughing jag over his story about a business man
evaporating in his Brooks Brothers suit that I thought
we were both going to die. Burroughs was one of
those lucky people, again like Warhol, with whom
he had so much in common, who had a life he thrived
on. He was really who he seemed to be--a vigorous
underground inspector of the governments and cartels
that had robbed the ground from unborn feet forever
and ruined the world as he had known it. At his
best, Burroughs was an acute satirist in the tradition
of Jonathan Swift. In a very real sense, Naked
Lunch is the Gulliver's Travels
of the twentieth century.
being in the front lines of creative writing for
the last forty years of his life, William was an
old-world gentleman who lived by a code of ethics
that has long since disappeared. He would never,
for example, have thought of bringing his problems
to my attention. During all the time I worked and
socialized with him, I was not aware that his son
was dying. I didn't understand the relationship
between Burroughs and Grauerholz, but I knew Burroughs
missed him very much and was lonely. I didn't know
how nervous he was about the reception of Cities
of the Red Night, or that he was broke.
And that under these burdens, Burroughs once again
became a heroin addict, and, according to Morgan,
the Bunker became a shooting gallery. I never saw
any needles, I never saw anybody injecting themselves.
I only mention this because, in retrospect, it astounds
me that Burroughs could have kept all this from
me when I thought I was one of his closer friends.
I know we shared a real affection for each other,
but I would never have dreamed of criticizing Burroughs
in any way. I could not see anything to criticize.
To me, he had perfected a kind of life that has
died with him.
remember the first night I ever had dinner with
William. We drank a lot of vodka and smoked a lot
of pot, then he pulled out of the closet a gun that
looked like an M16 and aimed it at the other end
of the loft. I felt flushed and so faint that I
ran to the bathroom and lay my spinning head on
the cool tile floor. I remember a great night in
Los Angeles on which James, Bill and I stayed up
until four a.m.
trying to come up with better titles for
a proposed film based on his novel Junky.
During our talks William drew ballpoint pen drawings
on some twenty pieces of white paper in between
saying, "God, I'm high!" Before I left,
he asked me if I thought they were of any interest.
I looked at them and sneered, "No, and you
should throw them all in the garbage right now,"
which he did. Six years later, after Bill's art
career took off, those drawings would have been
worth several thousand dollars.
remember once sitting opposite him in a living room
full of a million dollars' worth of somebody else's
art in Los Angeles and asking him whether he was
ever afraid. He stared at me and cried out, "Are
you mad? Like most people, I live in a continual
state of panic. We're threatened virtually every
second. The '90s are a very unfunny decade, a very
grim decade. Grim and nasty." I remember Bill
standing in the middle of his living room in Lawrence
with a joint in one hand and a vodka and Coke in
the other around midnight, when he was seventy-seven,
saying, "I think I'm one of the most important
people in this fucking world."
had that intensity of excitement around him almost
every time I saw him. To some extent, this was because
he heightened his own reality with drugs. And he
was capable of ingesting staggering quantities of
different drugs without showing any signs of debilitation.
I vividly recall one New Year's Eve party at John
Giorno's apartment (1979-80). Bill started the evening
with a couple of vodkas and joints. Then he took
some majoun (a pasty fudge with a marijuana base
that delivers the effect of smoking twenty joints
at once). After that, he took some heroin and cocaine—the
notorious speedball—all the time drinking,
eating and conversing with little sign of deterioration.
Drugs did not make Bill go away, when I knew him;
for the most part, they made him more present.
of the Red Night was edited by Dick
Seaver and published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston
in 1981. With William Burroughs was
edited by Jeanette Seaver and published by Seaver
Books at the same time. The Seavers invited William
and me to a dinner party to celebrate both books'
publication. The dinner was exquisitely cooked by
Jeanette Seaver, who was a cookbook writer and gourmet
cook. Other guests included William's agent and
his wife, my agent and his wife, and another editor.
The conversation at the round table, over a white
tablecloth and beautiful candles and wine glasses,
was a little stiff. I could see that Bill was crawling
up the wall by the time dessert came around, so
I tried to liven things up by lighting up a joint
I had brought with me for just such emergencies,
and passing it to him. In 1981, drug etiquette was
the reverse of what we have now. In those days,
it would have been virtually unthinkable for a sophisticated
host to ask William Burroughs, of all people in
the world, to desist from smoking that foul-smelling
illegal substance in the apartment, so nobody said
anything; but I was sure Dick and Jeanette were
seething. Smoke invades your space, creeping into
the curtains, where it sets up camp and stays. Suddenly,
Bill and I were falling over each other trying to
put on our coats and leave. It wasn't that we got
the fear, but rather as if we had received the stunned
realization that we were sitting with a bunch of
brick walls, and the longer we stayed, the harder
it was going to be to not laugh in their bricks,
so we split. The cab ride downtown was tense and
exhausting. I remember both of us mopping our brows
and leaning back. The food had been excellent, but
the conversation made it hard to digest.
pulled up outside a rundown apartment building on
East 13th Street, and I followed Bill inside, into
a railroad apartment on the ground floor. Suddenly
I felt as if I were in a scene from Bill's first
novel, Junky. The room was sparsely
furnished with a single naked lightbulb and a couple
of hardback chairs. It looked like it had been strip
mined. A glassy-eyed man had let us in. Before I
learned his name, he was in a huddle with Bill,
who passed something to him furtively; then he was
out the door.
must have come back in via the fire escape, because
it seemed no more than five minutes later when he
suddenly reappeared, breathless and shaking. He
and Bill both stripped off their jackets, rolled
up their sleeves and gave themselves a shot of heroin.
Bill relaxed, and I got a sort of contact high,
I guess, because I relaxed too. It was the first
time I had ever seen anybody do that, and I was
fascinated, the way a passing driver is fascinated
by a car crash.
think it's important to say that William
Burroughs did not mean to glamorize heroin or encourage
its use. He was in the vanguard of the revolution
of the '60s, in which drugs played a large part.
He tried to educate people about the deadly effects
of heroin, but because he was one of those curious
inventions of the post-World War II period, an artist
more famous for his image and ideas than for his
work, many people think he is, by example, giving
them permission to take heroin. Inasmuch as Burroughs'
credo was, "Nothing is true. Everything is
permitted," he is or was,
but that permission has to be seen in perspective
of how and when it was originally given. When Burroughs'
works hit the West like a series of time bombs and
ripped up the basic precepts of Western civilization
in the 1960s, the us-against-them conflict was so
intense that people were enormously affected by
Burroughs and his avant-garde writings, because
of his and their strength. At the time, overstatement
was often needed to make an impact.
now, twenty, thirty, forty years after they were
first published, Burroughs' works emerge, in the
recently published marvelous and mind-blowing Word
Virus: A William Burroughs Reader (Grove
Press, 1999), as just about perfectly on time: You
can read this book without fearing it will do you
any harm. On the contrary, a person who reads Word
Virus completely and really takes it
in will be way ahead of the game. For, as Ann Douglas
points out in her rocking introduction, "Burroughs'
ambition amounted to nothing less than an attempt
to uproot and transform Western concepts of personhood
and language, if not personhood and language themselves,
to produce a new emancipation proclamation for the
to what extent did he succeed?" Burroughs asked
himself in the final novel of his trilogy, Western
Lands. And he answered his own question:
"Even to envisage success on this scale is
a victory. A victory from which others may envision
further." And then he quoted this stanza: