February 5, 1914– William Seward Burroughs II:
“A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on.”
Drugs, gay sex, foreign lands, trouble with authority and then writing it all down: chapter headers for my memoir Jockstraps & Vicodin? No, these are the major themes in the life and works of William S. Burroughs.
In 1988, I had acting work in a little film titled Drugstore Cowboy. Everyone on the set, from director Gus Van Sant to the prop-master, seemed to be overwhelmed at being in the presence of Burroughs. He gave a really terrific performance as a frail junkie priest who turned Matt Dillon‘s character, Bob, on to drugs when he was still an altar boy. Oh, yeah. Burroughs, with his natty style, gravelly voice and sardonic delivery, packs a mighty impression in his short time on screen in this film. I didn’t have a scene with him, plus I was too intimidated to chat him up. But, I appreciate the fact that I can drop the phrase: “Yes, I did a film with William S. Burroughs.”
Burroughs, heir to an adding-machine fortune, was Harvard educated and dressed like a conservative preacher. He was expelled from his New Mexico boarding school for taking drugs and keeping a diary of his sexploits with other boys.
He became famous, before any of his noted peers, for all the things you were supposed to keep secret in the 1950s: he was gay, he was a junkie, he shot his wife. Burroughs was indeed a scandalous personality, but his literary works: Naked Lunch (1959), Queer (1985), and Junkie (1953) are important landmarks of American Literature. He wrote in what he referred to as “cut-up writing”, a montage technique. Burroughs was a huge influence on everyone from the Beatniks to the Punks, from rockers to poets to performance artists, and he added to our lexicon, the terms: Heavy Metal, Blade Runner, Soft Machine, and Steely Dan.
He was member of the American drug culture when there really wasn’t such a thing, and he really did shoot his wife. While living in Mexico in 1951, he was drunk and playing a game of “William Tell” by balancing a glass on the head of his wife, Joan Vollmer, declaring that he could shoot it off with a gun. He missed, hitting her in the head. Vollmer died almost instantly. Burroughs later wrote:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death. It brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
He claimed that the wrestling with guilt and his self-loathing fueled his creativity. This all makes me a bit uncomfortable about being a fan of his work.
The Beat movement was centered in NYC and San Francisco, but Burroughs liked to travel. While living in Chicago, where he worked as an exterminator and a private detective, he became friends with Lucien Carr, who would introduce him to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The much younger Kerouac and Ginsberg were attracted to Burroughs unconventional, acerbic wit and his underworld cred.
He spent extended time living in Mexico, South America, NYC, Rome, and eventually Morocco, where he lived in a gay brothel. While in Morocco, and under the influence of a new set of drugs, he began to write in earnest. Inspired by gay writer Paul Bowles, he spent the next four years in Tangier ingesting a variety of drugs and writing more than five books, including the on-linear, paranoid, hallucinatory, darkly comic, violent and sexually graphic, Naked Lunch. When Naked Lunch was published, it was judged as obscene. The USPS would not allow it to be sent in the mail. Finally, in 1966, after hearing testimony from Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer and Ginsberg, the Massachusetts State Supreme Court judged the work to have social merit.
Burroughs became a literary celebrity. He is placed right next to Marilyn Monroe on the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (1967). Most of his works were banned in the USA for years. It wasn’t until 1984 that Viking Press dared to publish Queer (written 3 decades earlier), and then they published six more of Burroughs’ books. Check out David Cronenberg’s warped and dreamy movie version of Naked Lunch (1991), a novel I never thought was filmable, with Peter Weller and Judy Davis. It very nearly accomplishes the book’s goal of “extinguishing all rational thought.”
Burroughs’ persona was dry & dour. His public voice was a monotone nasal deadpan. Of all the artists of the Beat Generation, none was as idolized by the Punks and then the Hipsters, as Burroughs. Some of this was because of his style. Ginsberg wore long hair and Hippie clothing, and Kerouac epitomized the rolled shirtsleeves and work boots of American blue-collar masculinity, but Burroughs wore dark flannel suits, thin ties and wide brimmed hats. Kerouac described him as:
“…inscrutable, because he was ordinary looking, like a shy bank clerk with a patrician thin lipped cold blue-lipped face.”
While living abroad in Tangiers, London and Paris, he was often mistaken for a CIA agent.
There is a funny and ironic anecdote in Patti Smith‘s terrific memoir, Just Kids, my favorite book of 2010. Smith tells of meeting Burroughs for the first time at an automat in NYC where he treated her to a meal mistaking her for a pretty boy.
Near the end of his life, besides that cool role in Drugstore Cowboy, Burroughs collaborated with Laurie Anderson, Michael Stipe and Kurt Cobain. He appeared in a U2 video. He starred in ads for The Gap and Nike. In his 80s, he had gone from being an obscure underground author to a cultural icon.
In Kill Your Darlings (2014) starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Carr, young William Burroughs is played to perfection by Ben Foster. He is portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland in the car trip film Beat (2000).
“In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or die of boredom.”
Burroughs lived his final years in Lawrence, Kansas, with his special friend and legally adopted son James Grauerholz, and 12 cats. He left this world in August 1997, taken by a heart attack.
“What is death? A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.”