Monday, July 30, 2007
A day in the life of William S. Burroughs in his final years could go like this: Wake up early. Take daily dose of methadone and heart medications. Go back to bed. Get back up, normalized, after the methadone has kicked in. Put on a robe. Drink hot tea with milk and sugar and eat breakfast: a soft-boiled egg and toast. After a couple of hours, bathe and get dressed. Smoke a joint, read, write, paint. At 3:30 p.m. call it quits. Vodka Cokes until dinner, served by 6 or 7:30 p.m. at the latest. Go to bed early.
From the diary of a six-year-old boy at the American School in Tangier Morocco: "I get up at 8:30. I eat my breakfast. Then I go to the job."
When asked what he meant by the job he said, "school of course." - epigram to Burroughs' "The Job," 1969
If Burroughs had a MySpace page, he might list as his interests: Cats. UFOs. Lemurs. Guns. Martial arts. Space travel. William Quantrill. Viruses. Current events.
"And he loved the 'Weekly World News,' that tabloid paper that's in the supermarket," says Jim McCrary, a friend and assistant to Burroughs for about 10 years. "And he'd read anything about crop circles or aliens or drugs."
A house in east Lawrence, Kan., U.S.A.- Timeworn bookshelves preserved as the man had them anchor the home of William Burroughs Communications.
This one contains among many other books:
¢ "The Journals of Denton Welch," the English writer whom Burroughs listed as a chief influence
¢ "The Process" by Brion Gysin, the dear friend who introduced him to the cut-up method
¢ "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift
¢ "White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985" by Allen Ginsberg
¢ a 17-volume set of Joseph Conrad books
¢ "Guinness Book of World Records," 1992 edition
¢ "Contact" by Carl Sagan
¢ books entitled "A History of Witchcraft," "Quantrill and His Civil War Guerillas," and "Cats Incredible!"
¢ foreign-language versions of his own work.The farrago sitting atop the bookshelf includes the small skull of an unknown animal and a plaque engraved with one of Burroughs' favorite aphorisms:
"It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live." Twenty-two of his canes rest together in a corner near the fireplace, along with a small whip and a long green tube labeled "BLOWGUN SURVIVAL WEAPON."
Out back of this house, rain is falling on the steel roof covering the back porch and James Grauerholz is lighting a cigarette.
"This is the compound," he says, facing his own house catty-corner from the office; he rents out a few more houses on this block as well as Burroughs' former home on Learnard Avenue.
More than half of Grauerholz's life has been spent tending to all things Burroughs following his 1974 move to New York at 21.
"I served him because it was in my heart and it was my destiny," he says. "Nobody is ever gonna look under "G's" in the list of famous names to find me. They're gonna look under "B" and that's where they're gonna find me."
He oversees Burroughs' work as his heir and legally adopted son. Burroughs adopted him as an adult in 1985, mainly for inheritance-tax purposes.
"The other reason was in recognition of the fact that I was like a son to him," he says. "We were partners. Really in a way we were more like a marriage than father and son. I don't mean the connubial bliss part, the marriage bed and all that. Well, I did sleep with him for several weeks at the very beginning of our friendship. But his welfare was my welfare and vice versa."
Not surprisingly, there actually are several William S. Burroughs MySpace pages (for example, this one and this one), created by God knows who. One of the latest comments on one of them is from a guy called The Vision Decision from Indio, Calif. He writes:
" Shit, Bill. They're all dead now. But I'm not, and you signed one of your books to me. I'm writing a book about you writing a book and autographing it to me. I'm as cheap and obvious as you, now, Bill. Miss you. Come to a book signing, ghost motherfucker. And:Thanks for introducing me to morphine. I owe thee:Robert"
eminence grise (French): a confidential agent; especially: one exercising unsuspected or unofficial power-Merriam-Webster
"It means a person whose presence projects a kind of an aura without necessarily being in the forefront of the picture," Grauerholz says. "People knew that Burroughs was here. : He was like a cherished old gink.
"Lawrence also has a tradition of a cast of eccentrics that drift around town. I think he fit into that a little bit. A typical day of cruising around town if you were pretty mobile and knew all the characters on that scene could include, 'Oh, I saw the Blue Lady today : the Peppermint Man : the Tractor Dwarf.' : One of the people you might have a sighting of would be Burroughs."
RURAL JEFFERSON COUNTY, KAN., U.S.A. - It's morning and the day is warming. Fred Aldrich-looking like a park ranger in his mustache, cowboy boots and tan stetson hat-hikes through the tall, wet grass of his 10-acre property. The historical tour is beginning.
"A friend of mine said that William Burroughs had moved to Lawrence and wanted to do some shooting, and would it be OK if he came out here?" he says. "And I scarcely knew his name at the time. I said, 'Sure, why not?' "
Here, down a bank thick with undergrowth, is the creek. Burroughs once climbed down there with George Kaull-a local retired boilermaker whom Burroughs affectionately called "the old man"-and placed a mirror in water. One of them had read a Carlos Castaneda book that claimed if you place a mirror at the bottom of a creek, you will discover your "ally," or something to that effect.
"He started coming out here on the weekends," Aldrich says, "and that became an almost weekly event when the weather was nice for years and years and years. : I would keep the drinks flowing and the hors d'oeuvres coming and I became a spectator and ultimately a close friend of William's."
Here is the old shack near the pond where Burroughs would write-"on Walden Pond," he'd say. Here is the adjoining stone wall where, unbeknownst to Aldrich, Burroughs would set up targets and shoot. "Needless to say, bullets were coming back." West of the cottage is the open space was where the sanctioned shooting took place.
"It was miraculous that no one ever did get shot in all those events," he says. "In fact, years later when I was cutting an elm tree out in that field there, I discovered a bullet lodged in a branch, which would've been probably 40, 50 feet up in the air-one of the very upper branches of this old elm tree. So I know for a fact that one of 'em got away, but fortunately didn't do any damage."
Inside Aldrich's house-a 40-by-80-foot tan steel building-on this particular couch cushion, Burroughs would ingest vodka Cokes and expound upon his ideas to varied company.
"William's friends defined the word 'gamut,'" Aldrich says. "He had friends everything from rock stars to Hollywood directors to flaming faggots to ordinary, everyday people. : He would sit there and basically hold court."
Karl Gridley, local historian and friend of Burroughs: "I think of Burroughs in a continuum, in a lot of ways, of those early days of Lawrence in the 1850s when it was an abolitionist stronghold. (There was) a lot of idealism : just a lot of turmoil. It made Lawrence into a kind of a place where ideas and themes are always being questioned and challenged and tested.
"That's what Lawrence has been ever since. I think William fit into that continuum of making Lawrence a place that's a little bit off balance, a little bit against the grain of not only Kansas but what the rest of the nation wants in terms of complacency."
From a 1995 article appearing in the United Kingdom's The Independent newspaper: "A reviewer of his new Book of Dreams had just called Burroughs a 'dirty old man.' This tickled Burroughs to no end.
"'I wish I was a dirtier old man,' he chuckled. 'I'm ashamed to go 24 hours without thinking about sex. It's alarming. It really is.' " Grauerholz says there are two things you need to understand when delving into Burroughs' sex life in Lawrence.
"First of all, anybody who has a regular habit or maintenance routine of opiates of any kind, whether it's street dope, which he did not get here-he was just on the legal, medical dope-but any opiates, like methadone, radically suppress sexual drive:
"When he came here (sex) wasn't his preoccupation. I think that maybe there were a couple of times where some attractive, admiring, good-hearted younger men whom he sort of knew visited here."
In one of these sexual encounters, Mark Ewert, a 17-year-old at the time by his account, stayed a couple of nights, had sex with Burroughs and wrote an article for nerve.com called "A Boy For Burroughs" (republished here courtesy Mark Ewert).
"I have to say that as far as Mark's thing of detailing for the world exactly what happened sexually between him and William, I don't really fault him for that," Grauerholz says. "It was exactly the kind of thing that Allen Ginsberg would have done."
Burroughs became re-addicted to street heroin in the late 1970s and Grauerholz left for Lawrence in 1979.
"Homey don't play that, you know?" he says.
"If he was gonna turn his life really to shit in a way that I was powerless to effect, I wanted to have another life of my own started. But he came around. Some dear friends took him to a doctor : and he got on the methadone maintenance program, which he remained on from I think August 1980 until the end of his life." (Methadone is a drug used to treat heroin and morphine addiction. It satisfies cravings for the opiate with minimal side effects. )
Until the day he died, Burroughs believed strongly in the harmlessness, enjoyability and usefulness of marijuana.
"He did smoke it routinely," Grauerholz says. "He associated it very much with his writing and painting."
When Grauerholz met Burroughs, his drink was chilled soda water and Dewar's scotch with no ice.
"He would say, 'I never take a drink before 6 o'clock,' " he says. "But after I lived with him for a week or two I realized, that may be so, but he also was never without a drink after 6 o'clock."
At some point his drink became vodka and Coca-Cola.
"Frankly, he had a weakness for just coming home with a big two-liter of Viaka or Popov," he says. "Garbage, in other words. : And his drinking hour crept up from 6 o'clock when I first met him. By degrees it went to 5 o'clock, at some point it was 4:30, then it was 4, and finally it became 3:30 in the afternoon. :
"In a way, he was on a flywheel of opiate maintenance, cannabis maintenance, tobacco maintenance (before his 1991 triple bypass heart surgery, after which he quit smoking), caffeine maintenance and ethanol maintenance. He wasn't like a vegan or drug-free or anything like this. On the other hand, he did live to 83."
Every month, like 3-D clockwork, Fred Aldrich is reminded of Burroughs' legacy by a woman he doesn't know named Yoko.
The plan was hatched after a couple of drinks one day when he said, "William, we ought to do a William Burroughs T-shirt." Soon Aldrich was working on two T-shirt designs and had commissioned a local artist for a third. He asked Burroughs what the shirts should say.
"And without a moment's hesitation," Aldrich recalls, "he said, 'Will he have 3D in time?' Now, where that came from, I don't know."
Then Aldrich had the idea for Burroughs to blast the shirts with a gun and sign them. Sometimes Burroughs would add things like, "Vive la France! Bastille Day!" Aldrich placed ads in publications such as Rolling Stone and Wired, and orders came in from all over the world. One of the customers was a woman from Tokyo named Yoko.
"She ordered some shirts and she started sending letters," he says. "I have a stack of them today. She's still sending them. One of them, I remember William was sitting here and I read him the letter from Yoko-it said, 'Dear Mr. Burroughs, How are you? I am fine.' In rather pigeon English.
"This gal continues to call at least once a month. And this is what, 12 years later, 11 years later, something like that? She continues to call from Tokyo. I can't understand a word she says. In the beginning she says, 'Ahlo Fred, this is Yoko,' with that kind of guttural pronunciation. At the end she says, 'Dank you for listening to me.' Everything else in-between is generally unintelligible, so I just let her do her thing."
It's not hard to run into people in this town with Burroughs stories, even if just small ones.
After an interview with Karl Gridley at the Bourgeois Pig, the woman seated behind him says she's sorry to eavesdrop, but she lived two doors down from Burroughs for about three years.
The woman, Ann Jesse, says she didn't see much of him, but sometimes she and her kids would lounge in his backyard hammock.
Rarely, if ever, did Burroughs discuss his most infamous deed-killing his wife in a William Tell stunt. The incident happened 30 years before he moved to Lawrence.
"Over the 23 years that our lives were joined, and all the time we spent talking, there were times when he and I talked about it, but it wasn't something that he particularly wanted to bring up," Grauerholz says.
"He certainly didn't indulge in telling the stories, or one of the stories. : There's more than one."
"The Death of Joan Vollmer: What Really Happened?"
First published on lawrence.com, "The Death of Joan Vollmer" meticulously explores the history surrounding Burroughs' shooting and killing his wife, Joan. Download the full document (1.9MB PDF)In 5 parts:Download pages 1-14 (274K PDF)Download pages 15-28 (576K PDF)Download pages 29-42 (594K PDF)Download pages 43-56 (548K PDF)Download pages 57-70 (187K PDF)
Burroughs killed Joan Vollmer in Mexico City in 1951 when he missed the glass she'd placed atop her head, sending a bullet into her forehead. Mexican authorities ruled it an accident and he spent little time in jail.
Burroughs wrote in his 1985 introduction to "Queer":
" I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."
Burroughs' friend Patricia Elliott says he spoke with her about his wife's personality and even gave her little things that belonged to her (she won't say what). "They made him sad," she says, "but he didn't want to throw them away."
"I never asked him too much about the accident," she says. "One time he said that my humor was as fast as hers, and when he talked about her I was kind of pointed to talk about her rather than the incident, because I was interested in what she was like. It seems like she was kind of irrational but real smart and that there were real emotions involved."
Elliott once took Burroughs for a day trip to Champney's, an overgrown landfill her folks owned along the Kaw River outside of Topeka.
A dump. Prime material, at least for Burroughs.
"There was this bend in the river, there was certain debris, there was big cottonwoods, there was wild turkeys, there was critters, it was pretty, it was ugly, it was all that," she says. ": He wouldn't leave it. We were there for like three hours, walking across every foot of it.
": About half a year later I got a book from him called 'The Western Lands.' And I open up the book-the entire first four pages is that scene. He was sitting there putting something together, and happily I had kept my big mouth shut and let him alone to just do what he wanted, which is probably why I got along with William."
4 p.m., Friday, Aug. 1, 1997.
Tom Peschio, a friend and assistant to Burroughs, arrived at his house to cook dinner. He discovered the Old Man in his chair by the bedroom window having chest pains. He tried to keep him cool until the paramedics arrived.
"I was scared," Peschio says. "He was not scared. He said something as they were loading him in the back (of the ambulance). And I wish that I could remember what he said. I can't remember his exact words, but it was something like, 'It's OK, I'll be right back.' I think he just said it to reassure me, which was weird that he'd reassure me."
Burroughs died the next day at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The cause was a heart attack. He was 83.
Burroughs had upwards of five cats gallivanting around his house at times.
"His day revolved around the cats," says Peschio, who took care of the cats after he died. "You know, coming and going and this one can't be here with this one and this one's gonna eat this one's food and this one's gotta go to the vet and this one's missing:
"Those were the inside animals. And then there were what was called the 'OAs,' the outside animals, which was like raccoons and possums and stray cats. Every night he'd have us take a plate of food and put it out here for the OAs.
"But inevitably what happens is the OAs start going into the kitchen. And so in the middle of the night he'd come in there and there'd be two or three raccoons in there. He loved the excitement. He'd shove 'em out the door with his cane."
At night the kitchen had to be raccoon-proofed, with canes placed across cabinet handles to keep the critters from stealing too much food. Sometimes he'd put out Havahart traps to catch the raccoons and free them into the wild.
Only once was Burroughs inspired to attend a Douglas County Commission meeting, McCrary says. The commission was considering an issue involving the Humane Society and Burroughs wanted to say the shelter should adopt a no-kill policy.
"He often wished he could have started a no-kill cat sanctuary," he says.Many of the Burroughs moments filling the collective memory of his Lawrence friends are the type of oddball anecdotes typically reserved for funny old relatives.
Marty Olson, his barber, remembers that he'd put an insane amount of salt on his food, salting sometimes between every bite.
Bill Rich, his personal assistant for three years and close friend for 17 years, recalls that before Burroughs decided to start driving again he tried to ride a bicycle, thinking that's one thing you never forget. He gave up after one disastrous try and got a car, which he wasn't much better at operating.
Jim McCrary remembers how excited he'd get for Halloween. He'd carve pumpkins, put on a scary mask and wait by the door with a bowl of candy, even though not many kids came down his street.
"He's like the great, kind of crazy uncle I never had," he says.
William S. Burroughs Jr., "Billy," was 4 years old when his father killed his mother. He was raised by his paternal grandparents and saw his father, whom he idolized, only on infrequent visits. He tried living with him for a while in Tangier, Morocco, at the age of 14. In an article Billy wrote later for Esquire, he described this as a wild time in which his father, consumed by opiates and writing, bought him a pipe and introduced him to drugs.
He describes Burroughs, though far from responsible, as a thoughtful man who did the best he could under the circumstances. He said he "made the wisest choice available" in sending him to live with his grandparents. He remembered his father in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death:
"Bill was looking straight into the abyss. The rock he'd built upon was rattling and crumbling and echoing down from beneath his feet and he was pale and thin. I was his main concern ... but over the yearning and pain that he felt for me hung something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper.
The Burroughs Curse. I don't know when it was first visited upon us, but I felt it then and the chug, snicker, snicker painted a very lasting picture."
Burroughs later described the time spent with his son as "strained and off-key, the right thing said at the wrong time, the wrong thing said at the right time, and all too often, the wrongest thing said and done at the wrongest possible time."
Yet Billy tried to follow his path, becoming addicted to drugs, drinking heavily and writing about his experiences in two books, "Speed" and "Kentucky Ham." Lacking his father's luck in longevity, he led a troubled life before dying at 33 of liver failure.
Adventure in Burroughsland reached its peak when the snake hunter arrived on his annual trip from Africa, venomous snakes in tow.
It started in the mid-'80s when Dean Ripa endeared himself to Burroughs like all good fans do: with a threatening letter.
"I wrote him a letter I think from Africa-I don't know how I got his address-and offered to send him a gaboon viper," says Ripa, who now operates Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington, N.C.
"In fact, I told him if I didn't hear from him I was gonna send him the gaboon viper. That's a very venomous snake from Africa. So he responded quickly 'cause he did not want to receive the gaboon viper."
From then until Burroughs' death, Ripa would swing into town and crash at his place for a few days, hunting for copperheads and rattlesnakes and bringing deadly African snakes to sell in the region.
In Burroughs' living room he'd set loose snakes such as the king cobra, the gaboon viper and the fer-de-lance (South America's most deadly snake).
"He was fascinated," Ripa says. "Of course, he was ready to run out of the room. I warned them that when we let the king cobra out-when I dumped him out on the couch-be prepared to run."
Ripa once left a box of copperheads and rattlesnakes on Burroughs' back porch, dropping in a mouse before he went out.
"When I came back he had put his hand into the cage, either to grab the mouse and move it over where the snake could get it or to take the mouse out, I don't know which," he says. "The snake struck and just missed him by a hair. It might have actually brushed his hand. At his age, that would have been very bad. So he was nearly killed on one of my trips by rattlesnakes."
"Shoot the bitch and write a book! That's what I did."
Of all the Burroughs quotes zagging through cyberspace, this has gotta be one of the most shocking. Posted on several random sites (including Burroughs' wikiquote page), it was recorded by Burroughs' friend George Laughead.
Laughead was on one of his semi-frequent visits from Dodge City, hanging with Burroughs a few months before the Old Man would die.
He'd brought with him Daniel Diaz, a high school senior Laughead says he'd taken in after the boy's mother tried to kill him twice. Diaz was telling Burroughs about his mother:
"And I think his discussion of that kind of piqued William's natural interests in both violence and teenage guys," Laughead says. "He pretty well blurted that out as I quoted it."
"Shoot the bitch and write a book! That's what I did."
Laughead (who met Burroughs through a long friendship with Grauerholz) wrote up a story of the incident and posted it on his Beats in Kansas site. The rest is history.
"No matter what we want to think about 'The Great Accident,' as it was called : it lingered," he says. "It was always present; in all the significant Burroughs interviews it would seem to come up. I just felt like, finally, he blurted out what he really wanted to say.
"And I don't think he would object to it being quoted. It's so Burroughsesque that it's gonna be one of the remnant quotes over the years, I suppose."
Three-piece suit, fedora, cane and all, Burroughs arrived at Roger Shimomura's house for a dinner party. Stone-faced and daunting, he was exactly as Shimomura had pictured him. But the moment he spied Shimomura's cat, he was on his knees purring kitty gibberish.
"He became this entirely different person," says Shimomura, eminent local artist and KU professor emeritus. "You know, in this suit, rolling around the floor playing with my cat. He seemed far more interested in that than anybody that was at the dinner, or the food or anything else."
BURROUGHS CAT CEMETERY, LAWRENCE, KAN., U.S.A. - Beside the red Burroughs house on Learnard Avenue, a headstone.
B. Feb. 1980
D. 10 Feb. 1994
Ruski is one of 10 cats buried in this ground most hallowed in the world of Burroughs.
"When you're that old, all your friends are dead or dying," Peschio says. "Seemed like somebody was always calling-somebody had died. Michael (Emerton, Grauerholz' boyfriend to whom Burroughs dedicated "My Education: A Book of Dreams") dies, and Allen Ginsberg dies and Tim Leary dies. When I met him Brion Gysin died just about that time:
"The cat cemetery, I think, was a big deal to him because it just reminded him of everybody he knew."
For 10 years Burroughs' own grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis has gone unmarked in a 20-by-20-foot family plot purchased in 1896 by his grandfather, inventor of the adding machine.
On Aug. 5, Grauerholz plans to unveil a granite marker at the foot of the grave, along with benches for visitors. Â»