King of the Underground
The magic world of William Burroughs
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly August 1999


William 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.

But 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.

By 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.

William 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.

Whenever 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.

Burroughs 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.

"Dream 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."

In 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.

From 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.

Working 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.

At 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.

When 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.

Grauerholz 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 more outrageous."

Like 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.

According 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."

As 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.

As 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.

By 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, priceless statements.

For 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.

Despite 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.

I 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.

I 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."

Burroughs 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.

Cities 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.

We 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.

He 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.

I 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.

Read 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 twenty-first century."

"And 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:

There is not a breathing of the common wind
that will forget thee;
Thy friends are exaltations, agonies and love,
And man's unconquerable mind.