Last year, Ralph Steadman persuaded William Burroughs to blow holes in his work with a shotgun. Peter Popham reports on an explosive collaboration
Click to follow
WITH HIS narrow wound of a mouth, his grey complexion and cruel, reptilian eyes, William S Burroughs has looked old for 40 years; like Samuel Beckett, it is hard to imagine a time when he was frisky. But now he really is old: the author of Junkie, Queer and Naked Lunch, recovered heroin addict, gun nut, fellow of the American Academy of Letters, Burroughs was 82 last month. In the video made of his encounter with Ralph Steadman last year, he is bent almost double, inching gingerly across the floor like a novice on skates.

When the journalist Duncan Fallowell met him 14 years ago, he wrote that Burroughs' "gait is a combination of shuffle and hop". Now the hop's all gone, only the shuffle remains. But menace will be the last thing that deserts him. The actor Robert Stephens, it is said, practically died flirting; Burroughs' final rictus will be a homicidal sneer. He moves with the help of a stick - but out of the handle he pulls a foot-long blade. God knows what he keeps in the tubing of his wheelchair.

So there is a certain correctness in the notion, conceived by Steadman, that a collaboration with Burroughs should take the form of Burroughs blowing holes in Steadman's work with his collection of guns. Burroughs readily fell in with the idea: the prints were made, featuring etchings of Burroughs' face either side of a target painted by Steadman; the holes were duly blown, details of firearms conscientiously noted, and finally signatures added - Steadman's lurching nervously from lower case to upper and back again, Burroughs' a neat, prim hand. Now the work, called Something New Has Been Added, is complete. The edition numbers 82 prints, one for each year of Burroughs' life.

Collaborations have been important in both men's work. Burroughs has even shared writing duties, potentially a more difficult challenge for an author than working with an artist. "My first literary collaboration was with Kells Evins in Nova Express [1964]," he tells me by fax from Kansas. "One writes one chapter then another writes another. It can be a very prickly situation. These collaborations are rare." Conrad too wrote novels with a collaborator, Burroughs reminds me - "but these are not among Conrad's best works. He once dedicated a book to 'a friendship that survived a collaboration'."

The more clearly complementary pairing of writer and artist has loomed large in both men's careers, however. Burroughs' closest friend for many years was the American painter Brion Gysin, who had studied as a teenager at the Sorbonne in the early 1930s. While in Paris, Gysin was taken under the wing of Andre Breton and the Surrealists - but later rather brutally expelled by them. He was never again to find a secure berth in the art world's favours. But after meeting Burroughs in Tangiers in 1953, the two embarked on a series of scrapbooks together which straddled fine art and imaginative prose. Burroughs, who invented the "cut-up" technique of randomising his work, was fond of saying that "fiction is 50 years behind painting". Working closely with Gysin, and later with others including Robert Rauschenberg and Keith Haring, allowed Burroughs to mitigate the loneliness of the long-distance avant-gardist.

In the late 1980s this life-long interest in visual art flared up in a series of surprisingly colourful, accessible and only-slightly-evening- classy paintings by Burroughs himself. Some consisted of painted plywood doors with jagged gunshot holes in them ... "The shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted into the layers of wood, releases the colours of the paints to splash out in unforeseen images and patterns," he wrote. It is also, perhaps not irrelevantly, just about the most violent thing you can do to a painted surface without incinerating it completely.

Collaboration also played a key part in the development of Ralph Steadman's art. Steadman was already a star of Private Eye magazine, with a distinctively grotesque cartooning style, when in 1970 an exploding marriage and associated misery catapulted him across to America. There, a short-lived but well- funded magazine called Scanlon teamed him with Hunter S Thompson, the madcap dope-fiend father of "gonzo journalism", to do a piece on the subject of the Kentucky Derby.

The tormented, hallucinogenic, scatalogical results inspired a new literary genre. It was a formative experience for the British artist. Steadman is as steady as his name - "we're chalk and cheese," he says of himself and Thompson - but under Thompson's influence, his art lurched into the frenzied depiction of ever more desperate states of fear and loathing. Thompson for his part used Steadman - who had never visited America before - as a sort of human camera obscura of innocence, through which to examine the sickness of his native red-neck country with a fresh eye.

"Hunter picked up very quickly that I was looking at things as a complete innocent abroad," Steadman says now. "He saw that he could interpret through me what he wanted to say: take me to a Southern wedding, point me in the direction of some idiot red-neck group and watch me react, like it was an experiment ..."

Steadman returned to the UK, where he had four young children, but his art has never been fully repatriated. "It's a problem, isn't it," he remarks, a touch pensively. "It's a bit too over the top for an English observation of things. If you take an American way of looking at things and apply it to England, it seems almost uncalled for ..."

The collaboration with Burroughs is a new way of nourishing his American roots. It was Steadman's idea. "I wanted to do a print with his express pleasure in mind," he says. He had met Burroughs only twice before, very briefly each time, but had long been a fan of his writing and also admired the shot-through doors which Burroughs exhibited in London in the 1980s. "My idea was that I make the print and he shoots the hell out of it and we sign it together."

Burroughs okayed the project, and the key meeting took place last May in Burroughs' clapboard house in the nondescript college town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he has lived for some 15 years. Meetings between celebrated artists must often be like this: swarms of assistants, acolytes, relatives, parasites, somebody taping the whole thing on video, another person with a Leica, flunkies tripping over each other. Burroughs, bent double as he is, retains a jerky, restless vigour, riffling through the prints Steadman has brought along, pulling revolvers out of his pocket and demonstrating the workings of the safety mechanisms, steadily chugging on a long beaker of vodka and Coke that is regularly replenished.

It's unreal to expect much of such a contrived event. But there is one moment of magic. Going through Steadman's prints, Burroughs suddenly stops, looks closer, squinting, then lifts one up and holds it at arm's length. "I love that, it's wonderful," he enthuses. It's a print entitled Nostalgia for the Future, inspired by one of his books, depicting people of the 21st century flying about in a dream-like state. "It looks so easy," Burroughs mutters, sounding almost tender, as he admires the figures flying about. "It should be possible."

Later that day they drive out to Burroughs' friend's place outside town, where he does his shooting. Burroughs, Steadman and his wife Anna and Burroughs' entourage take turns blazing away with .33s, .45s, pump-action shotguns and Saturday-night specials at a variety of targets. Steadman had provided a print of his own, depicting Shakespeare, as one of the targets. In his khaki pants and army hat, protectors strapped over his ears, Burroughs zaps it over and over again with his .45.

"Would you call that a good grouping?" Steadman asks diffidently, peering at the target, when silence has returned. "He's a dead man," Burroughs affirms.

! 'Something New...' is on show from Sat at the 1/1 Gallery, Denver, and the Barney Wycoff Gallery, Aspen, both in Colorado, USA. Burroughs' paintings are also on show at the October Gallery, W1 (0171 242 7367), to 30 March.