Thursday, December 15, 2011

Living With Burroughs

The following originally appeared in e*I*21, Volume 4, Number 4, August 2005 in slightly different form.

by Stephen J. Gertz

For one year I lived with the grandmaster of Beat literature, William S. Burroughs. I remember it well. It was 2002. Burroughs died in 1997. Though I have paranormal experiences from time to time (generally confined to sexual encounters) this was not one of them. Although….

If the soul of an author resides within their text, their spirit haunts the manifestation of the text, the physical object that is the book itself. Handling and, I dare say, fondling the book can evoke the jinn within; the book as an Aladdin's lamp, the essence of a writer summoned forth with a caress.

I've had Marie Antoinette in my hands: I handled a set of beautifully bound volumes in full crimson morocco leather with elaborate gilt decoration and ornamentation with the armorial device of Antoinette; her copy, and I experienced an olfactory hallucination, her scent in my nostrils. I spent an afternoon with Mark Twain, examining and cataloging a copy of his A Dog's Tale with a particularly intimate and poignant inscription written in his hand. I felt he was at my side, whispering in my ear; we shared a cigar.

I've had many similar experiences but none more dramatic than the year I was surrounded by arguably the finest private collection of William Burroughs material in the world. Joe Zinnato, a friend and book dealer, had amassed the collection over a 30-year period but was now seeking capital to expand his holdings in another area of literary interest. We made a deal whereby Dailey Rare Books of Los Angeles, the rare book sanctuary I once called home, would represent the collection's sale, an amalgamation of original manuscripts with corrections in Burroughs' hand; letters, scribbled scraps; the overwhelming majority of Burroughs' titles and editions found in Maynard & Miles' bibliography, many signed; over 150 magazines with Burroughs' contributions, all quite rare, many signed, with additional articles/stories of interest from other notable writers, including Charles Bukowski; Burroughs contributions to other books and anthologies; a great deal of ephemera including autograph post- and greeting cards, a boxful of private snapshots and more formal photographs all but one never published; LP records, videos, reel-to-reel and cassette tapes featuring Burroughs; original cover art by frequent collaborator, Brion Gysin; artwork by the literary artist himself; and a sheaf of letters from Paul Bowles to a third party discussing Burroughs, Tangier, Maurice Girodias, and more.

I was surrounded by eighteen boxes representing not just the man's work but his life. And Burroughs' presence was palpable; El Hombre Invisible, the nickname bestowed upon him due to his tall, gaunt, ashen, spectral appearance - he looked like a hip undertaker; his life, indeed, a hip if painful undertaking - was in attendance. Like a kid in a candy store, I was in nirvana, Burroughs at my side as I examined each piece.

It isn't often that one has the opportunity to track a literary creation from conception, drafts, layouts, printing, publication and sales but here it was: the archive to Burroughs' TIME, one of his better "cut-ups."

Though Dadaist Tristan Tzara had experimented with the form, taking established text, deconstructing it by scissoring it into pieces and reassembling the scraps into a literary collage, it was Burroughs who fully explored and exploited the idea, one that began when artist and Burroughs' friend and frequent collaborator, Brion Gysin, accidentally cut through a newspaper he was using as under pad for an art piece he was cropping with a razor-knife. It was a natural extension to what Burroughs had done with Naked Lunch, which was written in pieces, scraps and shards of text over time, then typed into manuscript. The manuscript was then deliberately shuffled like a deck of cards; the text requiring a few shuffles before Girodias finally accepted it for publication. The shuffles were never random; this was not a chaotic, chance editorial exercise but rather the willful reorganization of text toward a determined, ordered end.

And so here was the original issue of Time magazine Burroughs used with all the spaces where text had been cut-out; a 26-page signed, typed manuscript with corrections in his hand; another draft, a 14-page typed manuscript with autograph corrections; an 11-page typed manuscript/collage with title page; a 12-page photo-negative of the prior item with extra drawings and highlighting by Joe Brainard; a 32-page small mock-up of the book in ink by Brainard; the cover as prepared by Burroughs with art by Gysin; the publisher's ledger/account book with production costs, orders to whom and how many; and over 100 pieces of mail concerning ordering and publication, including the copyright certificate, and the complete list of where copies of the 1-10 edition and 1-100 edition were sold, providing a remarkable insight into the marketing of the book.

I have not been able to read Time magazine since without reflexively juxtaposing text:

"J-Lo and Ben split over Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Martha Stewart Living With Alzheimer's Disease in the Sudan where civil war fought with box-office bomb Gigli poisoned well-water taints the oases bottom line Kofi Annan Lincoln's secret lover on Martha's 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets during K-Mart Blue-Light Special Forces operations in Afghanistan to flush Osama from movie theaters in Darfur where children are starving for entertainment the whole family can enjoy without retribution from death squads Martha claims ‘innocent!’”

There's an 8x10 black and white photograph of Burroughs in Paris standing on rue Git-le-Coeur outside of the most famous fleabag-flophouse in literary history, the nameless joint otherwise known as The Beat Hotel by its eccentric guests, whom John De St Jorre in his history of the Olympia Press, Venus Bound (1996), characterized as "a colorful collection of painters and prostitutes, jazz musicians and petty criminals, poets and hustlers, writers and junkies." Whoosh! I’m carried away on a magic carpet to my spiritual home; I've a room down the hall from Burroughs, picking goatee'd hipster lice in berets out of my hair while Burroughs, in the communal latrine, curses in his deadpan-ironic nasal monotone that octopus tentacles are strangling his bowels, that he'd give Jesus a blowjob for a decent shit, his cuckoo ca-ca clock clamorin' for constipation's end.

Another: Burroughs and Gysin superimposed over a section of Notre Dame cathedral taking their place as the stoned saints of Beat amongst the saints in stone bas-relief that adorn its façade.

And another, perhaps the most succinctly defining image of Burroughs ever, he at a construction site standing in front of a large sign: "DANGER."

I open the box of snapshots - over 60 color photos, many taken by Burroughs' bibliographer and friend, Barry Miles - and I'm immersed in Burroughs private life in Tangier as no other who didn't know him personally or view these photographs could be: WSB in a red bathing suit sunning himself on the roof of his apartment building--a startling image as he is almost always seen in his uniform: dark suit, white shirt and tie; Burroughs comfortably sitting between two of his Moroccan boy-toys, youngsters in full Arab drag with crossed swords in their belts, and Burroughs’s jinn whispers in my ear: "those junior janissaries of jism had Damascus steel in their shorts and lips made for mouthfuls of phallic mirth"; Burroughs sitting in front of his typewriter, caught in the act with Gysin standing at his side; and many, many others. I'm embarrassed yet thrilled by the intimacy; I'm a fly-on-the-wall spying into WSB's quotidian life.

I want to dive into the boxes of books but simple physics prevents me from jack-knifing into the library, so I take them out individually: a pristine copy of a first edition Naked Lunch in very fine dust jacket. Few realize that many of Girodias' Traveller's Companion paperbacks with their simple, uniformly designed printed green wrappers, were issued with djs. I pass my hand over the stylishly designed dj and, to my surprise and annoyance, Jack Kerouac shows up, dripping 100-proof ectoplasm. The guy needs to be seriously squeegeed. He’s a bloated, bleary wreck.

“What brings you here, Jack-o?” Bill politely asks.

“Stakin’ my claim, Bill, just stakin’ my claim.”

Apparently hung-over from a drinking session with Mom in the afterlife and desperate to shore-up his  literary reputation, he starts riffing on his importance in the literary canon.

"On the Road is the archetype American novel, the quest for bountiful horizons, the car as modern-day horse galloping into flaming sunsets that never sink into the night, toward frontiers unfettered by geography, a road trip of the mind traveled on the double-laned mystic highway boundless and beautiful and fueled by Benzedrine; an American classic that captures - and continues to do so - the optimistic, fundamental American yearning for adventure, redemption and home that is just over the next hill if we have the courage to drive fast and forward. Hell, it so captured the American imagination that an early '60s T.V. show was based on it, Route 66 starring George Maharis and Martin Milner with a theme by Henry Mancini. Whad'ya think, Bill?"

"I'll let 'Unfortunately Straight Steve-arino' answer, ol' Jack." He gave me the nod.

"All you say is true," I began, "and On the Road certainly spawned a T.V. show but it was also responsible for every single piece-of-shit 'buddy' road movie ever made since to its eternal shame. What's more, methinks you a little too enamored by the sound of your own voice in print; you're the Thomas Wolfe of the Beat Generation, verbose 'til the reader wants to scream and I have bad news for you: like Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again. Your writing’s a combination of speed and Ex-Lax, projectile diarrhea of the mind. You weren't really a member of the Beat Generation, you were the prior generation’s last gasp, stuck in an idealized version of a bygone America, your Pre-WWII childhood tethering you unmercifully as you tried to break free of it and your mother.

"Billy-boy, in contrast, shucked all that. He rejected that America of down-home constipated consciousness, that childish yearning for a past that never was, that prolix, 19th century reminiscent novelistic style of yours out of time and out of gas for the Atomic Age. True, Naked Lunch is for many the anti-meal but so is James Joyce, for God's sake. As far as Naked Lunch never being adapted for television, that is all to it's credit. And while Cronenberg imaginatively adapted it for film, Naked Lunch has spawned not one idiotic movie after another as On the Road has. Billiam turned 20th century writing on its ear by sodomizing straight narrative up the Yazoo. Naked Lunch is not an American novel much less an American classic. It is, however, to its glory, a classic of world literature, transcending American parochialism to speak to the transnational, universal consciousness of the trickster renegade within us all that seeks to break the boundaries of the internal landscape. On the Road is petroleum-fueled metal on wheels, a hip bumper-car that ultimately crashes into the walls of East and West Coast; Naked Lunch is a nuclear age powered rocket puncturing the sky, shooting into space to another world.

"You say you influenced pop-culture. True, but that was close to 60 years ago. Naked Lunch, as all great art--and the book is a work of art--though it made an immediate impact amongst the cognoscenti, had a delayed influence upon popular culture. Decades after its publication it would inspire the Punk movement, David Bowie, Kathy Acker, Philip K. Dick, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and many others; a who’s who list of poets, artists, novelists, filmmakers, etc. In 1972, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their new group Steely Dan, thereby becoming the first group, musical or otherwise, to be named after a dildo. Not just any dildo but the most famous dildo in all of world literature, Burroughs' keister-pleaser in Naked Lunch, and I chuckle every time I hear Steely Dan on the radio, wondering if station management has any awareness that their disc jockeys are announcing a song by the great dildo band, Fagen's lyrics archetypal examples of Burroughs' Dada-Dante-esque world.

"No one can read your Visions of Cody in its complete, posthumously issued edition without experiencing, to one degree or another, drooping eyelids. One may get nightmares, one may even experience nausea but no one, no way no how, can ever fall asleep reading Naked Lunch.

"But most of all, Jack, you commit the unpardonable sin of absolute humorlessness or at best humor without a trace of tangy, social bite. WSB's work, in contrast, overflows with tartly ironic, acid wit; this guy could do stand-up - certainly not in a typical Vegas lounge but in a nice, seedy roadhouse joint in purgatory, The Infernal Komedy Klub where over-the-top Dadaesque ironic burlesque routines are appreciated.

"I rest Bill's case."

"A little rough on ol' Jack, weren't you, Steve-o?" Burroughs dryly commented.

"He's dead, he can take it," I coolly replied. “The nerve of this uninvited juice-head, horning in on my literary séance!” I turned to Kerouac. “Hit the road, Jack.”

I swear I caught Kerouac posing in his mother's Maidenform bra swilling Jack Daniels before dematerializing in a puffy huff back to wherever he's now calling home.


Now another: one of only 90 copies of the giant, enclosed in custom wood portfolio edition of Seven Deadly Sins with 7 woodblock silkscreen prints 45 x 31 inches on white 2-ply museum board each signed and numbered, a few of which Joe had archivally mounted and framed. I've got them standing upright on the floor and the effect is as if Burroughs had a mini-cam implanted backward in his forehead and I'm watching streaming, screaming video of Bill's brain at work. I've got so much of this stuff around me, have become so well acquainted with Burroughs that we're now on a first name basis.

Christ! Here's a beautiful copy of the British "Digit" paperback edition of Junkie, a book that comes on the market about once every ten years and now fetches upward of $5K depending upon condition, an almost mythic edition that few have actually seen, the first U.S. edition "double Ace book" paperback almost common by comparison. Joe has wisely enclosed both editions in plastic sleeves; my salivary glands are in overdrive.

I open the boxes of magazines with WSB contributions, the overwhelming majority signed. I've never told Joe but I took all of them out of their meticulously organized order within the boxes and rolled in them: one of 50 copies of the offprint to Burroughs' Letter From A Master Drug Addict to Dangerous Drugs; a copy of Big Table; Floating Bear; City Lights Journal; Cleft1, 2:4-7; Bulletin From Nothing; Insect Trust Gazette; Fruit Cup; Gay Sunshine; and hundreds more, including the rare Marijuana Newsletter 1:1,3.

Oh, my God! A 33-page original typed manuscript of his annotations to the catalog of the Burroughs archive in Lawrence, Kansas - his hometown - containing inked corrections in his hand.

A Xerox typed manuscript of Port of Saints presented to Richard Aaron (Am Here Books) by Burroughs; unique because Burroughs never kept the original manuscript. Aaron provided a sworn, signed statement of provenance and circumstance to Joe. I'm looking the manuscript over and I realize that this is so radically different than the published edition that it constitutes an original unpublished manuscript. I’m one of maybe ten people in the world to have seen and read it.

There's a cryptic autograph scrawl of Burroughs' on Pennsylvania Railroad letterhead that reads: "At Prie Ricard [sic?] rooming with Indian boy - deformed genitals on the other (Gerard) - I was, perhaps, coming down with jaundice - any one can see suffering. Does he think I dislike him? Some one has come for the laundry. I can hardly drag myself around. Then I might put out the dog and the [?] that vowed to bite our [?] where we lay."

A Letter to the Editor of After Dark Magazine on Burroughs' letterhead that sets the record straight, as it were: "Correction: William Burroughs is not going straight [heterosexual]. He knows it. Wouldn't You?"

I'm touched by a Christmas card with a short, warm inscription signed "Bill”; odd evidence that Burroughs, for all his radical, kaleidoscopic prose and messenger from the underbelly persona, is at heart a nice, thoughtfully tender guy from the Midwest. 

An autograph postcard to a publisher passes through my hands.

Dig this: Veteran Sirens, a 17-1/2x23" painting by Bill. It's advanced primitive fingerpainting, and most would say, "I coulda done that," but they didn't. Burroughs did.

Lookit! R. Crumb's Meet The Beats poster #2, one of five copies lettered A-E and signed by WSB. Listen! Original master 7" and 5" reel-to-reel tapes of Burroughs' audio collages, etc., including the master for the Call Me Burroughs LP; Bill's master audio cut-up of Dutch Schultz & Young Queer; Bill reciting Willie The Rat; the master of Bill reciting The Last Words of Hassan Sabha; much more to listen to - my ears are ringing - not the least of which is a tape of Burroughs singing (!) medleys of Marrakesh music; he makes Yoko Ono sound like Barbra Streisand in comparison, and must be heard to be believed but believe it, I heard him.

I reach back into a box and take out The Cat Inside, one of eighteen copies signed by Bill and Brion Gysin out of a total edition of 133 copies, and printed on fine Crisbrook paper, the entire book produced and published by the legendary Grenfell Press in 1986, the last collaboration between Burroughs and Gysin and certainly Burroughs' most sentimentally affecting work, written at a time when his personal and artistic maelstrom had somewhat settled and he could delight in the simple comfort of feline companionship and relate to the feline soul. Yet Burroughs was always--and remains, even after his death--the hippest cat on the scene. Bill's jinn leans over to me and whispers these words from the text, which can stand as a Beat Manifesto: "We are the cats inside. We are the cats who cannot walk alone, and for us there is only one place."

For Burroughs, that place, wherever it might have been in his head when he penned those lines, is in the literary firmament, his outlaw star burning through our polluted atmosphere to illuminate the post-modern human condition which may not be pretty but in the right light - Bill's light - can be seen in all its painfully dissonant beauty.


The bust pushed the big money into hiding, and institutions cried poverty. I couldn't sell the collection even at a dramatic discount to $225K. I packed it all back into the boxes, those corrugated cardboards filled with Aladdin's lamps. Joe has been selling the collection piecemeal over the last couple of years, and I often wonder if some lucky someone has taken any one of the items into their hands and lovingly rubbed it, thus releasing Bill's jinn for another one-on-one with El Hombre Invisible.

Special thanks to Joe Zinnato; all Burroughs-related photography courtesy Joe Zinnato Collection, now, alas, broken-up and sold.

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