A CENTURY OF WILLIAM BURROUGHS: celebration @ city lights
There was a record of Moroccan trance music playing in the poetry room at City Lights. Acoustically it was astute, what with William Burroughs having lived in Morocco for many years. People had gathered to hear some Burroughs aficionados read his work on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Peter Maravelis lifted the needle off the record and gave a rundown of Burroughs’ life (1914 – 1997). He made the association that Burroughs came into his own around the time he accidentally killed his wife in 1951. Another writer who was no stranger to guns and drugs and alcohol was Hunter Thompson (1937 – 2005), but he was a better shot and never made the mistake of trying to shoot an apple off a woman’s head, especially if he felt conflicted about that gender. Burroughs preferred the company of men, and yet he married Joan Vollmer. He and Allen Ginsberg had an aversion to women (one reason he liked Morocco was the women were concealed in dark shrouds).
And yet, he was devastated by his wife’s death, saying years later he had lost one of the few friends he had. He also admitted that it was pivotal in his becoming a writer. The shadow of negligent homicide fell across his life, which had something to do with the grim visage of the man, though addiction and its brutal cures may have contributed to that. So did turning 15 and encountering the Great Depression, followed by World War II. That’s enough to make anyone a little pessimistic.
He had a son with Joan Vollmer, William S. Burroughs, Jr., who was about four at the time of her death. The son wrote a book called Cursed at Birth and drank himself to death at 33… further evidence of the gravity of the situation known as Williams Burroughs. The son was raised by well-off grandparents until he was an adolescent. Then he went to live with his father in Morocco, which was not a good idea. It was an atmosphere of stoned male prostitutes and he didn’t last long, particularly when one of his father’s friends tried to rape him.
I don’t think the life and times of a writer are irrelevant when looking at their writing. A writer’s reputation can become idealized over time. It reminds me of what Camille Paglia did for the reputation of Emily Dickinson in Sexual Personae, making a case for her having been a lesbian vampire and in the process making Emily more alive (even though she liked to go to funerals). I’m not saying that Burroughs’ writings should be handled with lead gloves, but I don’t want to underestimate the negative forces he was struggling with for many years, and which were instrumental in forging a formidable weltanschauung.
As Peter noted, he collaborated with people like Brian Gysin, Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, and Ginsberg. They sometimes lived in close quarters like the Beat Hotel in Paris, where they had a lot of time and smoke on their hands. (I met Corso in Paris in the mid-70’s when he was living in a cheap room with a New York junkie heiress. They were waiting for her to come into her inheritance. He had been doing heroin for ten years and not writing much.) A “third mind” emerges in a collaboration between two people. If they fall in love there is a sense that it is bigger than the both of them. When I’m playing guitar with a friend of mine on bass and improvising, it is like an invisible hand is guiding us. I used to smoke a joint with a girlfriend and we would write exquisite corpses, where you take turns on a folded piece of paper, not knowing what the other person wrote. When we unfolded the paper it was eerie when a common wavelength was revealed.
Burroughs thought that cut-ups were better than a séance for summoning the essence of a writer. (He also liked to paint by putting a spray-paint can in front of a canvas and blasting it with a shotgun.) He cut up poems by Rimbaud and rearranged the fragments. It reminds me of centuries ago when people looking for the soul would cut up a human being with knives (dead or alive), with mixed results. But there is more to it. When rearranging a writer’s words you interrupt the linear momentum, as well as the false authority, of print. The language hits you point-blank. Not sure if this works with music — cutting up and rearranging a concerto by Beethoven. You could cut up a Philip Glass piece, but who could tell the difference?
The first reader was Daphne Gottlieb. She read some Burroughs paragraph collages with her vocals in fast forward. Then she read a piece where she had cut up his writing herself. Her renditions were the most fragmentary prose of the evening.
Kevin Killian read from The Place of Dead Roads (1983). This is a later phase when Burroughs had adopted a more linear structure in his books.
Bucky Sinister, an alcoholic writer who has been to hell and back, read from Naked Lunch (1959) with a certain relish.
Jon Longhi read a scene (from Naked Lunch) involving a surgery gone awry. Burroughs likes to satirize the medical profession, and has a very dry sense of humor. Longhi mentioned that S. Clay Wilson knew Burroughs in Kansas. There was a funeral of someone Burroughs had known, but he didn’t show up. However, sitting in the back was a nun with a veil. It turned out it was him in funeral nun drag.
Jello Biafra said he learned about Burroughs “by osmosis,” through a friend of his who was all-Burroughs, all the time. He cut up a magazine on acid and it was a revelation with the words and phrases taken out of context, the articles blending with the ads. He said he never looked at a magazine the same again.
He read a long piece from The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985) on “The Limits of Control.” One of the more profound aspects of Burroughs’ writing is his cold-blooded awareness of who is in control in this country, how the general public is manipulated and controlled by the authorities, and why the government has to conceal its intentions. However, “overt fascism” is dangerous to the controllers, as it would blow their cover (that assessment may be dated as the authorities are less and less worried about showing the iron fist inside a democratic glove). There was reference to behavioral modification projects, and assassinations by post-hypnotic suggestion. “Words are the ultimate control machine.”
All of this talk about control reminded me of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), another homosexual writer who took hallucinogens and contemplated how we are controlled by others. I went to hear him give a talk at UC Berkeley in the early 1980’s. It was on the ancient notion of the care of the self. Other writers who come to mind: Marshall McLuhan, Gore Vidal, and J.G. Ballard, along with Wilhelm Reich (The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933)).
When it was Janey Smith’s turn, he went for a touch of the absurd. He had his collaborator, Dorothy Notrobot, a slender woman in a white lace dress, read a selection from Land of Terror by Edgar Rice Burroughs. She turned to page 100 and read whatever was there. Then she put the book down and put an apple on her head. Janey stood in the back of the room and said it was time for a William Tell moment. He raised a strong-looking slingshot, took aim, and fired at the apple on her head. He missed, knocking a picture of Diane diPrima askew. His second shot was even further off. His third shot hit her in the cheek and the apple fell on the floor. He was firing marshmallows, which is very close to firing blanks.
Mindy Bagdon, who is nearly 80, knew Burroughs. He read and talked so long that it warranted a discrete note from Peter. He mentioned The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (2012), written by a psychologist. According to the book, the most psychopathic people are CEO’s. Number six on the list are surgeons — something to do with their intense focus, which you want in a surgeon. There was reference to breaking the control lines, which sounds like cutting the strings of a marionette. “Man has no future…,” so he falls back on “the underground of his being.” I might take the “no future” routine more seriously if it hadn’t been around for centuries. It’s like the line about cocaine, “They tell me it will kill me, but they won’t say when….” I am beginning to wonder if there is no future because we live in an eternal present (which Allen Ginsberg liked to photograph).
People have to get beyond their conditioning and the repetition which supports it. Break with the past. Exterminator is not a novel (according to Burroughs), just some stories he threw together. The problem of fascism is when people come to desire their own control. There was an enormous boredom in the Midwest where Burroughs grew up and lived the last years of his life (doing heroin again). He stopped reading sci-fi because it wasn’t convincing. Writing needs a basic narrative structure most of the time, no substitute. I read something he said years ago and it stuck with me: there are no shortcuts in writing when it comes to a writer finding his or her voice. You pay your dues and take your chances with the muse.
He denied ever having had a trust fund from his wealthy family. It was “some nonsense Kerouac put out.” He was getting $200 a month for many years, which was enough to live on half a century ago. He said that art makes people aware of things they didn’t realize they knew. I wonder if that works with controlled demolition and collapsing towers.
V. Vale, the founder of RE/Search Publications, was the last speaker. He estimated he had spent a hundred hours with Burroughs over the years, having met him in 1978 when he interviewed him for Search and Destroy. I went to hear Burroughs in 1980 at Keystone Korner, a jazz club in North Beach. It was next to a police station, and Vale was at the same event. He considers Burroughs a prophet, and noted he was born in 1914. He said that was “possibly more significant than the launching of World War I” the same year, which I think was overdoing it a bit.
Some of Burroughs’ ideas that Vale touched on: in industrialized countries the revolutions tend to be fascist… the either/or thing doesn’t correspond to how the universe works… the invasion of privacy has been going on for thousands of years… what is required is a cultural revolution… man is externalizing himself with gadgets and will do anything for publicity… bureaucracy is inventing needs to justify its own existence… we need to fight the control process.
Jello interjected a quote, “If you ever do business with a Christian, get it in writing.”
Vale noted that Burroughs liked the early novels of Samuel Beckett, and that he himself would never have followed Burroughs if he only read Naked Lunch. It was an interview in the Evergreen Review entitled “The Job” (1969) that really impressed him.
A closing quote: “Boss, when you die I want to be buried in the same coffin as you.”
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).