Best Underground/Under-the-Ground Writer - 2000
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs lived an amazing 83 years, by all accounts retaining his mental sharpness to the end -- no mean feat, considering the well-self-documented assaults he subjected himself to. Although he published his last novel, The Western Lands, in 1987 (on its final page: "The Old Writer had come to the end of words, to the end of what can be done with words"), his last 10 years were extremely productive. His distinctive paintings were celebrated internationally; 1996 saw the publication of a sumptuous catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum's Burroughs retrospective, Ports of Entry. With veteran producer Hal Willner, he made new recordings of his work with music. He collaborated with Tom Waits on the libretto for The Black Rider, Robert Wilson's postmodern opera. He made a memorable appearance in Gus Van Sant Jr.'s Drugstore Cowboy. He spent time nurturing his late-blooming love of cats.
And still there were books: The Cat Inside, My Education: A Book of Dreams, Interzone, Selected Letters. Two significant posthumous books were edited and introduced by Burroughs' companion, friend and manager, James Grauerholz. Burroughs approved the manuscript of Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader shortly before his death (at more than 500 pages, this collection represents only about 10 percent of the writer's published work). And earlier this year, the moving, meditative Last Words: The Final Journals was released. The tireless efforts of Grauerholz -- who first teamed with Burroughs in 1974 and today continues as literary executor -- allowed Burroughs to shed his "underground" status; they brought him undreamed-of exposure, increasing peace of mind and, eventually, the luxury of time.
Burroughs' literary star began its steady ascension in 1959 with the publication of Naked Lunch (finally judged "not obscene" in a landmark Boston trial), followed by The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express -- a trilogy of sorts in which he experimented with the "cut-up" method of composition-by-juxtaposition that he'd learned from his best friend, painter/writer Brion Gysin.
The Nova Convention in 1978 -- a three-day celebration of Burroughs' work, held in New York City -- featured participants Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, John Cage and others. The event announced to a larger world that Burroughs' time was coming. When Burroughs showed up on Saturday Night Live in 1981, it was his final public appearance as a New Yorker. Soon he would be off to Lawrence -- the calm base of operations during the most celebrated years of Burroughs' public life.
1981 was also notable for Cities of the Red Night, the first volume of his final trilogy (along with The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands) -- a last masterwork. A reading tour brought him to St. Louis for the first time in 16 years. Left Bank Books sponsored his memorable performance at Duff's on the day John Hinckley had made his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. In addition to reading from his new novel featuring Clem Snide, hard- boiled detective and "private asshole," Burroughs also read his "When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President?" ("At birth certainly and perhaps before.... My political ambitions were simply of a humbler and less conspicuous caliber. I hoped at one time to become commissioner of sewers for St. Louis County -- three hundred dollars a month, with every possibility of getting one's shitty paws deep into a slush fund."). Burroughs' ambling, Midwestern tonality (think Missouri farmer meets W.C. Fields) was perfectly suited to his style of delivery: dry, laconic, understated. His performance underscored one of his work's most underappreciated characteristics: It's as funny as it is harrowing.
Two mornings later I was granted a generous two-hour interview with Burroughs in his room on the 12th floor of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. We talked about time travel, lemurs, biological mutations, weaponry, underwear and outer space. A bountiful room-service breakfast was wheeled in: fruit juices, bacon and eggs, pastries, endless coffee. Burroughs meandered around the room in his gray three-piece suit, and the cane he carried seemed like an easy extension of the man; nothing about him was strictly for show. He answered questions graciously. He appeared to enjoy the talking -- a far cry from any image of a taciturn hombre invisible, as he was called in Tangier. All the while an enormous color television flashed images on the screen; the only soundtrack was our own conversation, unconnected to those pictures. Burroughs thrived on such juxtaposition: local coffee hustler Dana Brown and his Safari Flakes/the alleged abduction, by flying saucer, of two fishermen in Mississippi. Eventually Grauerholz persuaded Burroughs to sit at the table, but even there he was content with just his cigarettes. His most pressing question for me: "Have you been to the zoo lately to look at those lemurs?" (And on one of his subsequent trips to town, we went together ... but that's another story.)
From that room, Burroughs claimed he could see the roof of his old childhood home on Pershing ("It used to be Berlin, but they changed it to Pershing during the war"). Eventually his family moved to Price Road in St. Louis County. Burroughs attended Community School and John Burroughs (positively no relation). Those were the days of his immersion in the pulp fiction of the time: detective stories, Westerns, early science fiction -- seminal influences on his own fiction throughout his later writing life. His earliest known surviving piece is a short essay published in the John Burroughs Review in 1929, when he was 15. "Personal Magnetism" demonstrates his interest in sensational powers and the element of control -- one of Burroughs' lifelong magnificent obsessions. After receiving by mail a copy of a book promising ways "to control others at a glance," the 15-year-old Burroughs wrote: "Did I find out how ...? I certainly did, but never had the nerve to try. Here is how it is done: I must look my victim squarely in the eye, say in a low, severe voice, 'I am talking and you must listen,' then, intensify my gaze and say, 'You cannot escape me.'"
After Burroughs left St. Louis in the 1930s, he did a lot of traveling and relocating -- both geographically and psychically. He lived in Cambridge, where he attended Harvard; Vienna, where he briefly studied medicine; NYC, where as a young man he first met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; Mexico City ("beautiful, clean air is what I remember ... of course, now it's one of the most polluted cities in the world"); Paris (the infamous Beat Hotel on Rue Git-le-Coeur); Tangier; London. Then back to NYC, this time the Lower East Side, his nearly windowless ex-locker-room digs with concrete floor, walls and ceiling affectionately known as the Bunker. And then, last, to Lawrence -- his least likely and yet most fortuitous relocation: the 1929 two-bedroom cottage built from a Sears & Roebuck kit.
1996 saw the deaths of Burroughs' old writer-friends Terry Southern, Herbert Huncke and Timothy Leary. In April 1997, the death of his close friend Ginsberg hit especially hard. And four months later, the unthinkable occurred. Burroughs' last journal entry, three days before he died:
"Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
Burroughs once wrote to Kerouac: "I'm apparently some kind of agent from another planet, but I haven't got my orders decoded yet." He spent a lifetime of writing trying to elucidate the things that made the rest of us only human.
The story has it that actor Johnny Depp paid something like $15,000 to the Kerouac estate for one of Jack's coats. Me? I was given the sweater that wouldn't fit into William Burroughs' travel bag. "Do you have any use for this?" he asked at the end of our interview. What, exactly, was I supposed to say? Nearly 20 years later, I have no idea where that sweater is ("Hey, step right up an getcher Beat collectibles! Who'll start the bidding?" eBay, oh boy, oy vey ...). But I do know precisely where to find each of my three dozen Burroughs books -- novels, essays, those outrageous riffs and routines. Yes, Burroughs has been dead for more than three years, but I've got the body of his work at my place ... and it's alive! (And, FYI: There's more Burroughs back in print than ever, so go.)
In "Remembering Jack Kerouac," Burroughs wrote: "Many people who call themselves writers and have their names in books are not writers and they can't write, like a bullfighter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there, or he can't write about it. And going there, he risks being gored."
One of Burroughs' heartfelt claims: We are here to go. For him it was always worth the risk, and he lived -- for a good long while, at least -- to tell about it. Want to honor this edgy teller of tales -- sometimes cautionary, sometimes visionary -- who spent a lifetime mapping out the territory of the quintessential Survivor? Instead of wearing his face on a T-shirt, read the work.
-- David Clewell