An alternative news and ideas channel on art, science, culture, politics and the environment, by freelance journalist, magazine editor and author John May.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
ARCHIVE: MEETING WITH BURROUGHS AT THE CHELSEA
This is the first publication of a [slightly amended] piece that was commissioned by the Sunday Times for publication on October 3rd, 1982. The story was 'spiked'. The internet links have been added as an exercise in what I'm calling 'expanded journalism.' The original text for this piece was typed on flimsy paper on a IBM golfball typewriter.
"We're in for a bad time," says William Burroughs in his slow drawl, giving one of his unnerving dry laughs. He's sitting in an armchair next to an old roll-top desk on a small private balcony above the snooker room and bar at the Chelsea Arts Club in London.
Neatly dressed in suit and tie with a fairisle jumper of bloodless shades of brown and grey, he's never still. He tweaks his trousers, pulling specks of imaginary dirt from the seams, constantly changing his position, his mouth twitching in a series of grimaces which [appear to] signal disgust, irritation, impatience and anger at the alien world he finds himself in. Polite but distant, he has hard eyes and the ability to appear as if he's not really there.
He's in Britain to give a series of readings from his latest as yet unpublished work ' The Place of Dead Roads,' which begins as a Western but is basically about outer space. The way he croaks the title springs images of catus, mesas and dried-up river beds instantly to mind.
An enormous cultural revolution has taken place since Burroughs sprang to notoriety with 'The Naked Lunch', still a wellspring of inspiration and he is now considered by many to be America's greatest living writer, an accolade he finds "gratifying." Such dry understatement suits a man whose life and work have become legendary and whose influence can be traced throughout post-war culture.
William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5th, 1914 in St Louis, Missouri. Grandson of the man who invented the hydraulic device on which the adding machine is based, he and his brother Mortimer grew up in comfotable circumstances. His father owned and ran a glass business, his mother a gift and art shop; she once wrote a book on flower arranging for the Coca-Cola Company.
A shy and awkward boy who always felt alien, he was sure he wanted to be a writer from the age of eight because "writers were rich and famous." His first literary essay was called 'Autobiography of a Wolf.'
At the age of 15, he was sent to Los Alamos Ranch School where he discovered gay sex, writers like Gide and Wilde, and petty crime before heading for Harvard, where he majored in English literature " for lack of interest in any other subject."
He visited Europe in the 1930s, studied psychology and married to get his wife Ilse out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Back in the US, he held down a variety of colourful jobs (including private detective and cockroach exterminator, and became the mentor and companion of Beat writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, with whom he experimented with a wide variety of drugs.
On September 7th, 1951, while living in Mexico City, he accidentally shot and killed his second wife Joan Vollmer, while attempting a William Tell-style stunt. Although he spent some time in jail, his lawyer managed to get him out and he left for Tangiers. Here he became heavily addicted to injectable methadone, necessitating a 10-day apomorphine cure by Dr Dent in London. (Keith Richard recently took the same cure with the late Dr Dent's assistant Smitty).
During the Sixties, Burroughs was in and out of London but had no contact with the 'Swinging London' scene. In fact he began to have less and less contact with the outside world at all and became a virtual recluse. It was old friend Allen Ginsberg who came to London in 1973 and arranged for him to give a course of lectures on writing at the City College of New York. His spirits and reputation revived, Burroughs has said: 'If you're still there after the fear, then you've got courage, baby, that's all. If you're not, then you're dead.'
Until recently he lived in the Bunker, a converted YMCA locker room in New York's Bowery district but has now moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he intends to stay. "The days of the expatriate writer are over", he claims. Here he plays with guns (he thinks the gun control lobby are 'nuts') and steadily adds to the impressive and strange body of work he has produced over the last thirty years.
Genet and Beckett are the writers he most admires, along with Conrad who, like Burroughs, didn't begin writing until he was 35.
But it's Denton Welch, an obscure writer and "original punk", that Burroughs rates as the "single greatest influence on my work." He immortalised him as Audrey Carson in his novel 'The Wild Boys.'
[Welch was knocked off his bike by a car at the age of 20 and factured his spine. According to Wikipedia: 'Although he was not paralyzed, he suffered severe pain and complications, including spinal tuberculosis.' This led to his untimely death in 1948 at the age of 35. He wrote three novels, 200,000 words of Journals, some sixty short stories and a large number of poems. He was also a prolific artist.
Burroughs biographer Ted Nelson comments: 'Burroughs identified with Denton Welch, thinking of him almost as an alter ego, and memorising passages of his books. Both Burroughs and Welch had become writers as the result of a terrible accident.']
[This photo is taken from 'Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer' (Penguin Books. 1986) by Michael De-la-Noy, his longtime companion.]
Burroughs says: "If I have any politics, I'm definately an elitist. Very few people are good at anything. Politics seems to be the one area in which stupidity and ignorance are brazenly advanced as qualifications for office. It's very much a political convention in America.'
Precision is important in the world of William Burroughs. He hates imprecision in language and claims that, if he hadn't gone into writing he would have worked in medicine or as a CIA agent. The challenge for him is "the fact of doing something that demands you be there all the way."
This willingness to boldly step outside society's established rules and social mores has led him in strange pathways. His major themes encompass time travel, dreams and hallucinations, ritual murder and piracy, alien life and Mayan culture, gay boys and psychic science, viruses and weaponry, junk and addiction, conspiracy and control.
He sits at the centre of a vast web of connections, transmuting and experimenting wiuth language and with himself, drawing together scattered influences from all branches of art and science. "I think science and technology are a very considerable major influence on my work and I feel it would be a good thing. If writers became more scientific and scientists more imaginative. There shouldn't be this dichtomy here at all which, in point of fact, doesn't exist."
William Burroughs is a cat-man who likes wild dogs, who believes biological warfare is probable and that space is the only place where we have a future. He is the real thing.
Footnotes to this story:
1. The interview actually took place on September 28th, confirmed by the date in the signed copy of 'Junky' [above]. The original tape was burnt to a crisp in an office fire but fortunately there is a more or less complete written transcript by Tanya Seton in the files. Just debating whether to put up the whole interview on this blog. Here is an extract from the start:
JM: I was interested in this thing that John Calder wrote in his introduction to 'A William Burroughs Reader' [Picador, 1982] about the influence of T.S. Eliot on you, your fascination with his work and the fact that you'd been born in the same town as him. [Calder wrote: 'T.S. Eliot was teaching at Harvard at the time and Burroughs' fascination with the poet, who was to influence his style, method and subject matter, stems from those years.' See Calder's Obituary of Burroughs.
WB: I was very impressed with 'The Waste Land.' He was a very, very great poet and that, in a sense, was an early cut-up, very successful. I never met him personally.
JM: Didn't he teach you at Harvard?
WB: He gave a seminar at Harvard. I heard him talk once - a very good speaker.
[Nelson writes: T.S. Eliot gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that year [1932/33], one of which Billy attended. It was on the Romantic poets, whose excesses Eliot found deplorable...Although disgreeing with his thesis, Billy found Eliot's talk humorous and well presented. Eliot gave weekly teas which Billy passed up. having heard that they were awkward affairs, with noone knowing what to say, while Eliot was polite and donnish.'
JM: Did his ideas on writing influence you in any way ?
WB: I wouldn't say so, just the writing itself. What were his ideas on writing ?
JM: I'm not sure but 'The Waste Land'....
WB: That was terrifically important - not only significant but also intrinsically beautiful piece of work. I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.
2. In The Archive are two letters, both dated 10 May 1983. One was to Roger Ely, one of the organisers of the Final Academy (see below). It was sent with an edited partial transcript of my interview. The second was to Burroughs in Kansas: '
Last October when you were in London, I came to interview you for the Sunday Times. I enjoyed our meeting and I wrote what I considered to be a reasonable piece, I was met with dumb excuses as to why they wouldn't use it (the usual sad story at that paper) and the piece never appeared.
Happily, through the B2 people - Roger Ely - I have written up the interview in a different form, for publication as part of a book to be published in Europe. (Further details I do not know but it sounded good at the time)
For your own interest/archives I am enclosing a copy. Hope this letter finds you in good health and that the writing continues to continue.
I never got a response. The book never happened as far as I am aware.
3. Burroughs was in England for an event called The Final Academy. I went to launch party which I believe was at the B2 Gallery, Wapping Wall, London E1. Here is an account by Paul Tickeil in The Face [No.29, September 1982]:
'Whether you like William Burroughs or not is an irrelevance: he's simply there, a cultural presence, a massive influence not just on the prose of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties but on over two decades of performance art, experimental film and music, and pop culture - the Beats to Bowie to punk and beyond.
The scope of this achievement should be represented in a forthcoming festival/event, The Final Academy. One of its organisers Roger Ely hopes that, by using artists who've been inspired by Burroughs' work, the affair will move beyond backward-looking homage to a vital assessment of future cultural developments.
Although, then, the meat of four evenings at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton (Sept 29 & 30, Oct 1 & 2) will be readings by the man himself and longtime friends and collaborators Brion Gysin and John Giorno, there'll also be contributions from Jeft Nuttall, performance artists like Paul Burwell, and groups like 23 Skidoo and Cabaret Voltaire. There'll also be the first outing of Genesis P-Orridge's Psychic TV, not to mention films by the late Anthony Balch.
Footage which Balch shot in Tangiers, New York, and London (Burroughs lived off Piccadilly in the early Seventies) will be shown continuously at the B2 gallery in Wapping (Sept 27 to Oct 24) as a further component of The Final Academy. Video installations will be accompanied by Gysin's Dream Machine kinetic sculpture, all sorts of visual material, manuscripts and first editions etc. The exhibition will also be accompanied by a 60-page catalogue - the contributors ranging from poet and academic Eric Mottram to Face writer Jon Savage.
The Final Academy has been largely financed by publishers and plenty of material is being released to coincide with it, including Victor Bockris' With William Burroughs: A Report From The Bunker (Hutchinson) and The William Burroughs Reader (Picador) edited and introduced by John Calder, whose own company has done so much to promote the writer. Ely is sure that the whole event will shake off any shackles of artiness and turn into a substantive engagement with many of the themes in Burroughs' work and those that take their cue from him.
See also: Denise Murray. Vox 13, October 1982
Have discovered in the Archive the original press release for this event.
4. There is amusing story connected with this interview. On that day, arriving slightly ahead of time, I decided to sink a pint in the pub at the end of the road for some dutch courage, if nothing else. While I sayt there reviewing my questions, a friend of mine journalist Mick Brown swung in the bar with a worried look on his face and ordered himself a pint. When he sptted me he came over looking like a man in trouble. What's wrong, I said. Seems his interview with Burroughs was a disaster. Burroughs had stolidly refused to answer questions or responded in monosyllables and Mick had a big assignment for The Guardian and had no idea what he was going to do. This, as you can imagine, made me slightly nervous about the prospect ahead. The irony of this was that Mick, being the consummate pro that he is, managed to fashion and excellent piece which ran over three-quarters of a broadsheet page in The Guardian soon afterwards. My interview went like a dream but my story got spiked.
5. Note to young journalists: Rereading this piece all these years later, there's three fatal flaws about it. The ideal interview profile piece manages to blend three elements: biographical back story, as much original quotes as possible (this is what makes your piece exclusive) both melded together with enough mis-en-scene material to make you feel that you were in the room. This piece fails on all of these counts. The facts are not all correct (see below), there are very few original quotes and a lot of the ones that are used are too short. If you're going to quote, concentrate on complete sentences rather than one or two words in quotes. Apart from the opening para, there is no sense of atmosphere. For me it was a singular and magic experience but I didn't manage to communicate that on the page. I was 32 at the time and still learning.
6. Spent sometime checking facts with Ted Morgan's hefty biography 'Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William Burroughs,' written in 1988 and first published in the UK in 1991 [The Bodley Head]. According to Matthew Levi Stevens: 'Ted Morgan' is the pen-name of one Comte St. Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont - a Yale educated, Pulitzer Prize winning son of a French nobleman who fought with the Resistance in WWII, later becoming a diplomat. Apparently he was a fixture of the expat community in Tangier - I think a friend of John Hopkins, of 'Tangier Diaries' fame - and through him met William & Brion Gysin. He'd previously written a biography of Winston Churchill, apparently well regarded.'
a) Burroughs was named William Seward Burroughs II to distinguish him from his grandfather of the same name (1857-1898). Seward was the name of Lincoln's far-sighted Secrtary of State, says Nelson, who bought Alaska from the Russians. W.S. Burroughs was the father of the adding machine as a whole.
See: Nelson and also Michael Hancock's 'Burroughs Adding Machine Company: Glimpses into the Past History - 1857-1953
b) Burroughs spent 13 days in jail over the accidental shooting of Joan. He spent the next two years wandering through Mexico and Columbia before arriving in Tangier in 1954 on or around his 40th birthday.
Struggles with the Ugly Spirit by James Campbell (August 4, 1997)
The Last European Interview with William Burroughs by Philippe Mikriammos (pub. Spring 1984. Originally conducted 4 July 1974)
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