A reviewer of his new book has just called Burroughs a dirty old man. This tickles him no end. `I wish I was a dirtier old man,' he says
Saturday 23 September 1995
Burroughs built this Orgone Accumulator in his garden, according to Reich's principles, soon after he moved into the little one-story wooden house in the midwestern university town of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1981. Burroughs has used similar Accumulators since his drug-infused sojourn in Tangier in the 1950s. Einstein once examined an Accumulator and could find "no discernible effects". But what would he know? "I could have a piece of Einstein's brain any time I wanted," Burroughs boasted later, referring to his doctor friend nearby who actually does possess the dead scientist's mighty organ in a box, carving off pieces for the curious collector.
Outside the Accumulator, an unholy choir of mating cicadas were raising a deafening chorus in the infernal 100 degree heat. I'd seen them swarming in foetid clouds the evening before when I arrived in Lawrence, sloughing their skins as if summoned by the Lord of the Flies.
William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, is Republican America's worst nightmare, still alive and healthy and lucid aged 81 after a lifetime spent ingesting and injecting every hard drug known to science. He's the antithesis of the American dream - born into WASP wealth, of preacher stock with a small industrial fortune behind him, Burroughs careered downwards into criminality and baseness. He left a country everyone else was trying to get into. He consorted with seedy foreigners and decadent Englishmen. Worst of all he wrote homosexual experimental novels when everyone else thought Hemingway was the only way for an American to write. Always a dissenting voice, from the 1950s he was one of the first to be insistent that Emersonian wholesomeness was no longer part of the American psyche. In his view America's innocence was destroyed by the creation of the atom bomb, developed, by odd coincidence, at Burroughs's alma mater Los Alamos when requisitioned by the Manhattan Project.
Through a slit in the Accumulator door I could see the garage where Burroughs did most of his "Nagual" and "shotgun" artwork in the 1980s. Later, in his spare bedroom, he showed me an abstract. "See my demon face there," he observed, proud as a father with his family snaps. "There's his hair, his arm, his big mouth." These demon faces often turn up in his artworks. Since his exorcism in 1992 he sees them more clearly. He took part in a ceremony where a Sioux shaman grappled with Burroughs's resident "Ugly Spirit" in a sweat-lodge session witnessed by Allen Ginsberg. It was this spirit who, it seems, possessed Burroughs in 1951, in the infamous shooting incident in Mexico, when he accidentally shot his wife Joan in a public bar.
On the window of his garage I could see a crooked smiley face drawn into the painted-out windows. I recognised it from a photograph shown me by James Grauerholz, Burroughs's secretary, former lover and faithful friend for 21 years. In the photograph beside Grauerholz and the crooked smiley face stands Michael Emerton, who committed suicide in November 1992. Emerton had been one of the tight-knit band of old souls and dystopians recruited by Grauerholz to look after Burroughs's daily needs and business affairs (there are currently four on the payroll). The effect of his death on the Burroughs set-up was nearly catastrophic. Burroughs himself was devastated (and dedicates his dream-book to the dead boy). Emerton had brought out a playful, childlike side to him. He'd hoped he'd not see any more violent deaths in his time; his life has been full of them.
A year after Emerton's gunshot suicide Kurt Cobain pulled the same stunt. Some fingers pointed to his visit to Burroughs six months earlier. They had talked one long autumn afternoon in 1993 during the final Nirvana tour. One of the last music projects Cobain ever did was a guitar accompaniment to Burroughs reading "The Priest they Called him".
A rumour flew around that Cobain had been experimenting with the Burroughs / Gysin Dream Machine for 72 hours continuously before his death. Those gazing at the stroboscopic machine can induce a mild trance-like effect. Grauerholz scorns the idea. "I saw a press release from `Friends Understanding Kurt' - doesn't that spell F.U.K. as in prank, as in hoax?" said Grauerholz, who despite calling the Dream Machine "glorified flicker" has refused to grant the patent to a manufacturer.
Feeling a little claustrophobic in the Accumulator, I let myself out and went over to where Burroughs was throwing fish-food. "I'm here babies," Burroughs cooed at the fish who were blowing him bubble-kisses. I mentioned that Grauerholz had suggested he try to use his rain-stick to change the weather from a heat-wave. Burroughs was keen on the idea and immediately went into the house to get it.
A little later he was shouting, "Someone took it", and rooting around in an umbrella stand by the front door. There was no rain-stick, only umbrellas and knobkerries and a jet-black Samurai sword, a gift from Blondie guitarist Chris Stein. To soothe him I suggested we talk about poltergeists in his bedroom. I followed him in. There's a skull crucifix above where he sleeps and a wolf counterpane on the bed. We discussed futurity and then Burroughs asked (as old people do) who was recently dead. I mentioned Lord Goodman, who once helped him with visa problems. "He had a nice black young manservant," recalled Burroughs fondly.
A reviewer of his new Book of Dreams had just called Burroughs a "dirty old man". This tickled Burroughs 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."
In some ways Burroughs has reverted to his upbringing: far from being some sinister and intimidating figure, he turns out to be a very dry and amusing St Louis gent with a tendency for mild mischief. But there's also the air about him of St Jerome contemplative in his study, or Albertus Magnus scrying for spirits.
Burroughs's bookshelves are lined with medical murder books and dozens of trashy accounts of possessions and hauntings and alien abductions. He's always been an enthusiast of the supernatural, a facet of him subsumed by his more famous preoccupations with drugs and pistols. "I used to be afraid of ghosts, but now I love 'em."
I ask him whether he's had any demon lovers. "I'm not promiscuous," he says primly. "Only three." What about casting spells? "Curses and spells are attempts to convey the effect of a virus through words." So is the virus a psychic entity? "According to shamanistic tradition, there's a spirit for everything - so there will be an overall spirit for the virus. It's notable that the virus gains access to the body when the patient is unconscious or semi-conscious. The virus operates on the margin of consciousness." Is he a black magician? "Sometimes black. Sometimes white, I'm a grey magician." The efficacy of his spells is a matter of record (he closed down a London cafe in a few weeks in the 1970s).
I had noticed a Bible beside his typewriter, King James, which he reads "for the prose". When he was 16 he seriously considered becoming a priest. "I've always believed in God and the possibility of life after death, but as something that must be fought for, like everything else. I can relate much more to a dedicated cassock than to an atheist. Atheists bore me."
He's delighted to discover that the original story of The Exorcist was based on an incident in St Louis - his hometown. It concerned a boy, not a girl, as in the film. "Boys bring up uneasy spectres of homosexuality. The boy was always pulling out his cock with idiot laughter." How common is possession? "To some extent practically everyone is possessed. Ever dropped a plate or spilled a drink? It's very interesting to recall what you were thinking when you had a so-called accident."
Recently he was invited by the present owner of his childhood home in Pershing Road, St Louis, to come and stay. Burroughs approached the encounter with the past more as a parapsychologist than the lost child of the psychological practices he scorns. "I expected everything to happen, ectoplasm everywhere. But in truth there was nothing." It was in this house he was sexually molested by his nursemaid Mary Evans and her lover when he was only four years old, although he has never been able fully to access the memory.
While we talked Burroughs's cats skitted back and forth like witches' familiars, and he looked on their behaviour indulgently. Cats, he claims, have taught him "how to love". He says fond things to them like "You disgust me with your ravenous greed" and "I have other things to do than to cater for your whims". Every now and then he jumps up to scatter Tidy Cat deodorant powder on the cat litter. His late-blossoming interest in cute animals may baffle his surly teenage fans more interested in mainlining than Tidy Cat. Yet it's true: Burroughs just adores fluffy lemurs and fluffy cats. The only law he agrees with is for the protection of mammals, and he boycotts products from companies involved with animal testing.
He's still looking to the stars for an escape from man's depredations and cruelties, man's laws and the exhausted frontiers of experience he once explored. In 1989 he struck up a friendship with Whitley Streiber, author of several best-sellers professing direct experience with alien beings. Burroughs has spent several afternoons wandering Streiber's 100- acre wooded estate looking for alien action. But there were no visitations. Later Burroughs was informed by Streiber that the aliens had not appeared as they were already familiar with William Burroughs.
Burroughs is at his happiest when talking about guns. He follows drug enforcement practices with disgust, but no longer indulges himself in the "meat of the black aquatic millipede" (or any other hallucinogenic insect). He has nine pistols and usually slips one in his pocket if visiting Kansas City. He often goes out to the countryside to do target practice. "I believe in bearing arms," he says. "Probably going to need 'em the way things are going." However, when I mentioned the Colorado bombers and the libertarian gunslingers, who I thought might appeal to him, he admitted, "I don't quite pick up on the mentality."
Brad is cooking up some polenta and buffalo sausages and Burroughs is liberal with the vodka and Coca-Cola. Brad tells me that in a previous life I had dealings with an occultist of his recognisance. He has encountered me in several visions over the years. Then James Grauerholz comes in the door and joins us. He's trying to persuade Burroughs to come and see the Larry Clark film, Kids. "Gotta watch those little bastards," growls Burroughs, gimlet-eyed. "Shoot one of your own wild boys?" exclaims Grauerholz, mock- incredulous. "Don't you remember Beckett?" continues Burroughs, "He killed all his alter-egos and that gets to the bottom of the unnameable." "You do that in the final grand-guignol scene of Cities of the Red Night," says Grauerholz. "Everything is permitted because of this," says Burroughs finally, relishing the thought of the death of his alter-egos. "These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air," Burroughs suddenly declaims, "into thin air, even so in the great globe itself and leave not even a rat behind. That's my religion. Just about."
And so, with Prospero's farewell speech (or Burroughs's half-remembered version of it) ringing in my ears, I returned to the Eldridge Hotel to ponder my day with L'hombre Invisible, the Commissioner of Sewers, Vox Monstrorum, the "grandpa from hell". Has he bade farewell to his books and broken his rain-stick? I think not. He's still restless and questing for new frontiers.
Perhaps mankind really will develop into "pure cartilage, like a shark" for more efficient space travel. Perhaps we will become monosexual space buccaneers, with cutlasses at the ready, multi-dimensional beings with cat-intelligences on the way to the coldest and the hottest stars in the galaxy, bearing not Bach preludes like the Voyager Probe but jazzed-up pornography and magical songs of mind-tripping dissent.
Serpent's Tail publishes Burroughs's `Ghost of a Chance' on 12 October. Picador has just published `My Education: A Book of Dreams'. Metro Tartan issues the video `Chappaqua', a film by Conrad Brooks with William Burroughs, on 2 October. Three Burroughs videos are available from Visionary (01253 712453)
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Engineer pictured fixing plane's engine with 'duct tape' by concerned EasyJet passenger
- 2 Two-year-old says goodbye to bin man best friend
- 3 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 4 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 5 Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Bob Dylan: How the Isle of Wight festival managed to steal the voice of a generation from Woodstock
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Star Wars 7: Andy Serkis character revealed as Supreme Leader Snoke
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote