Naked Interview: Conversations with William S. Burroughs
By Ron Whitehead
Friday, July 12, 1996 07:03 pm
William S. Burroughs is one of the greatest writers of our times. His talent has brought him fame, and along with it, many burdens. Daily, Burroughs is swamped with fan mail, unexpected visitors and interview requests. And if that wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, strange rumors have begun circulating about him. Burroughs, who rarely grants interviews, speaks with Ron Whitehead in an attempt to counter the public’s false speculation about him.
“His Swiftian vision of a processed, pre-pakeaged life, of a kind of elctro-chemical totalitarianism, often evokes the black laughter of hilarious horror.”
“Burroughs is the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift.”
“The only American writer possessed by genius.”
“Burroughs shakes the reader as a dog shakes a rat.”
“An integrity beyond corruption…Burroughs convinces us he has seen things beyond description.”
“One of the most dazzling magicians of our time.”
—John Rechy, “The Ticket is Exploding”
“With suffering comes humility and with it in the end, wisdom.”
At 82, William Seward Burroughs II, El Hombre Invisible, Literary Outlaw, Commandeur de l’Ordre de Arts et des Lettres, is rapidly becoming the most respected, highly regarded writer in America, in the world.
“All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it – Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word!…Kuboaa…of tremendous linguistic significance. The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark.”
Burroughs? No. Knut Hamsun. In 1890, with the publication of “Hunger,” the first purely psychological novel(yes I’m ready to argue), Hamsun turned the literary world upside-down and spun it around. In 1959, 69 years after Hamsun’s breakthrough, with the release of “Naked Lunch,” William S. Burroughs, explorer in the most real mythological sense, whose search for The Word has, does and will take him anywhere outside and inside himself, did what only a small handful of “literari” have achieved in the history of writing: He forever redirected the course of literature in a way that permanently altered language, culture and seeing.
So, what the hell is Old Bull Lee up to? Retired and enjoying good health, does he rest on his arse? No. He is busy working his arts off, dreaming, seeing, reading and representing new and old visions on paper, canvas, vinyl,tape, disk, CD-Rom, your brain and mine.
Dream long and dream hard enough
You will come to know
Dreaming can make it so
—William S. Burroughs
But rumors abound: He’s kept tied to his bed and forced to use a chamber pot; he still takes heroin; he moved to central America (USA) because land was cheap and he knows it’s about to become beachfront property since East and West coasts willbe falling into oceans any day now; he’s dead; he shoots obsessed, fatal-attraction European midnight visitors with a shotgun.
Come on people. Wake up. Sober down. William Burroughs is harassed day and night by folks from around the world showing up, without invitation, notice or warning, banging on doors and windows, camping in his yard, trying to get a glimpse of the legend.
The man is 82. Let’s show respect for his privacy as we do for his work, as we would expect and demand given the good fortune of being in his position. He receives requests every day for interviews, visits, readings, recordings and films. He does what he can, and always, always in the friendliest manner. (And no, he hasn’t shot or threatened anyone.)
William’s latest books include “My Education: A Book of Dreams” and “Ghost of Chance.” Recent audiowork includes “Naked Lunch,”"X-Files CD,” plus, he is now in studio recording “Junky” and enjoying it so much he may go right into “Queer.”
Two historic Burroughs events are taking place this summer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (you can contact them at 212-857-6522) is premiering the exhibition “Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts” on July 16 through October 6. The event, curated by Robert Sobieszek, is the first-ever retrospective surveying Burroughs’ career, with 153 works, beginning with his 1960s and early 1970s photocollages, scrapbooks, and his collaborations with Brion Gysin on photomontage “cut-ups.” The exhibition will also include Burroughs’ later shotgun art and recent abstract painting, and will explore how his work has influenced today’s cultural landscape, resulting in the absorption of his ideas and routines into newer art, advertising and current popular culture.
The second event is The New Orleans Voices Without Restraint INSOMNIACATHON at the Contemporary Arts Center and The Howlin’ Wolf Club, the largest Beat gathering of the year, where Mayor Mark Morial, James Grauerholz, Doug Brinkley, and others will speak with Burroughs over the phone. (For more information contact Ron Whitehead at 502-568-4956.)
Yes, the ticket is exploding. The walls of the literary world, the world of culture, are crumbling, and through the gaping holes strides the drawling wordslinger with an attitude, William Seward Burroughs II.
William S. Burroughs: Hello?
Ron Whitehead: William?
Whitehead: Ron Whitehead.
WSB: Well, well, Ron Whitehead.
Whitehead: How the hell are you?
WSB: How what?
Whitehead: How are you?
WSB: Well, I’m fine, thank you.
Whitehead: As you recall, I produced your “Published in Heaven: Remembering Jack Kerouac poster and chapbook,” plus I sent you my “Calling the Toads” poem & I’m right now producing the William S. Burroughs/Sonic Youth 7″ vinyl recording for our audio series.
WSB: Oh, of course, yes, yes.
Whitehead: I just received letters from Rene in Amsterdam. He says that after my reading at the Meer den Woorden Festival in Goes, Holland he started having dreams in which you and I taught him how to save the world. I’m forwarding the letters to you.
WSB: How old is he? I think I remember him. What does he look like?
Whitehead: Early 20s. Blond. Handsome. Friendly. Intelligent. Knows the history of the Beats inside out. He writes from a mental hospital in Amsterdam.
WSB: Hmm. Not sure. Perhaps.
Whitehead: Reason I’m calling is that Doug Brinkley has asked me to produce an event in New Orleans in August. It will be the largest Beat gathering of the year. RANT for the literary renaissance and The Majic Bus will present the event, called Voices Without Restraint: 48-Hour Non-Stop Music & Poetry INSOMNIACATHON. As part of the event, we’ll hold a City of New Orleans Presentation Ceremony, dedicating to you the historic marker which will be erected at your Algiers home, which was made famous by Jack Kerouac in “On the Road.” And we’d like to have a live phone conversation with you during the presentation.
WSB: Why certainly. Yes, yes. I’m honored.
Whitehead: Good. Just a few questions.
WSB: Fine. Shoot.
Whitehead: Why did you decide to settle in Algiers, which at that time was home to various military bases, rather than in one of the traditional bohemian neighborhoods?
WSB: Yes. Because it was a hell of a lot cheaper. Real estate there was the cheapest. I got that house for $7,000 something.
Whitehead: Any memories of different New Orleans neighborhoods you visited, music, riding the ferry?
WSB: The Quarter, strange plays…Didn’t get around too much.
Whitehead: The New Orleans Police have come under attack recently — imagine that — for corruption. A cop hired executioners to kill a woman who signed a brutality complaint against him. Louisiana police cars have “So no one will have to fear” inscribed on their sides. Do you have any observations about the New Orleans police, about the illegal search of your home there, or the firearms they confiscated?
WSB: No. They never laid a finger on me, as far as any brutality goes. They did lead me to believe that one of them was a federal agent when he wasn’t. He was a city cop. So there was an illegal search. But I didn’t know it at the time. The next day, I was arrested. There was someone with me I hardly knew. He was just introduced to me. He had one joint on him. He’d thrown out larger amounts but still had one, and they found it right away. Then the next day they went in and took my car and I never got it back, though I wasn’t convicted of anything. See, they can confiscate your property even though you’re not convicted of anything. And that’s really scary sinister.
Whitehead: Both our political parties are looking like a bird with two right wings.
Whitehead: The police are gaining more powers daily as our personal freedoms are disappearing.
WSB: See, that’s what I say. The whole drug war is nothing but a pretext to increase police power and personnel, and that, of course, is dead wrong. So many created imagined drug offenses.
Whitehead: New Orleans has North America’s largest magic community. In recent years you’ve spoken bluntly about your interest in magic. In New Orleans did you encounter magic in any form?
WSB: No, I didn’t.
Whitehead: There may be irony in having a literary marker commemorate your Algiers home, a place where you lived briefly, perhaps unhappily. Did you produce any writing there?
WSB: Oh yes, quite a bit. And I wouldn’t say I was particularly unhappy there.
Whitehead: So it wasn’t all that bad?
WSB: No, it wasn’t. Not at all.
Whitehead: Jack Kerouac devoted a large section of “On the Road,” on the New Orleans visit.
WSB: Oh well, Kerouac was writing fiction. What he did when he wrote about me…he made me out with Russian Countesses and Swiss accounts and other things I didn’t have or didn’t happen and so on. Yet…some truth, some fiction.
Whitehead: You have dramatically influenced music, literature, film, art, advertising and culture in general. Are you intrigued by that influence? How did you first become conscious of other people’s perception of you as icon?
WSB: Well, slowly of course. Over time. Reading the paper, magazines, journals, that sort of thing.
Whitehead: The request for interviews becomes absurd after a while. This is the first and last one I intend to do. I feel uncomfortable in the position of interviewer.
WSB: Yes, it becomes absurd because interviewers generally ask the same questions, say the same things.
Whitehead: Recently you’ve been barraged with interview requests, especially in relation to the deaths of Timothy Leary and Jan Kerouac.
WSB: Yes, of course I knew Leary, but barely knew, didn’t really know Jan. James knew her, was friends with her, but I didn’t.
Whitehead: Hunter S. Thompson, who I like so much, is, like me, from Louisville and you’re from just up the road in St. Louis. I recently visited Hunter at his home in Colorado. Hunter said he thought he was a pretty good shot until he went shooting with you.
WSB: I’ll put it like this: Some days you’re good and some you aren’t.
Whitehead: You must have been good that day. Hunter was real impressed.
WSB: Well, he gave me a great pistol.
Whitehead: Like Hunter, some people would say that you’re a Southern gentleman with a world literary reputation, but both you and Hunter have escaped the Southern-writer label. Any comments?
WSB: I escaped the label because I didn’t and don’t write about the South.
Whitehead: Do you have a personal favorite of your own readings? I know you’ve been in the studio recording “Junky.”
WSB: No, I don’t have any special favorite.
Whitehead: Other than Brion Gysin, is there anyone you miss the most?
WSB: When you get to be my age there are more and more people you have known that you miss. Brion, Antony Balch, Ian Summerville are ones I think of right away I was quite close to.
Whitehead: Diane di Prima is underrated, underappreciated in the world. Her autobiography will be released by Viking Penguin in April ’97. I hope she’ll finally receive credit that’s long overdue.
WSB: Yes, I hope so too.
Whitehead: You’ve had much to say about Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, was an anarchist who devoted his life work to undermining and deconstructing the dominant paradigm of patriarchy in government, religion, family and literature. I’m doing research asking The Beats what influence James Joyce had, if any, on their writing. How do you feel about Joyce?
WSB: Well he’s great, a very great writer. Any modern writer is bound to be influenced by Joyce. Of course, by Beckett as well.
Whitehead: I had a long conversation with Allen Ginsberg about Bob Dylan. Allen talked about his personal feelings towards Dylan and also about Dylan’s work. Allen said he felt like Dylan would be remembered long after The Beats and he added reasons why. This is a strong statement, especially coming from Allen Ginsberg. Do you have any comments on this?
WSB: No, I don’t. Not in any cursory way. Of course, I’ve listened to and know his music and met him a couple of times, but I don’t have any strong statements to make.
Whitehead: John Giorno is giving me an out-take from The Best of Bill CD box set he’s producing. As part of White Fields Press’ Published in Heaven series, I’m producing a 7″ vinyl recording with you on one side and Sonic Youth on the other. Lee Ranaldo has stopped by to visit you. How much are you able to keep up with music today?
WSB: Some much more than others. I’ve worked with and am very good friends with Patti Smith and Jim Carroll.
Whitehead: How do you feel about this historic marker?
WSB: Fine. Fine. It’s an honor like the French Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Commander of Arts and Letters. Commander of Arts and Letters.
CALLING THE TOADS
Calling the toads
Calling the toads
We shall come rejoicing
Calling the toads
one step out the door off the step
goin down swingin
in a peyote amphetamine benzedrine
I’m five years old I am the messenger holdin
William Burroughs’ Bill Burroughs’
Old Bull Lee’s hand
holdin Bill’s hand on some lonely
and we’re hummin we’re hummin
we’re hummin in tones
we’re hummin in tones
callin the toads
oh yeah we’re callin the toads
Bill’s eyes twinklin glitterin
a devilish grin crackin the corners
of his mouth and I’m lookin him
right smack in the eyes
deep in the eyes I’m readin
his heroined heart yes I’m readin his old heart
but it ain’t the story I expected
as we move this way and that
raisin and lowerin out heads our voices
callin the toads
and here they come
marchin high and low from
under the steps from under
the shrooms of the front yard
from round the corner of the house
fallin from the trees
rainin down here come the toads
all sizes and shapes all swingin
and swayin and dancin that
magic Burroughs Beat
yes here come the toads singin
and swayin and swingin their hips
now standin all round us
hundreds thousands of toads
eyes bulgin tongues stickin out hard
dancin a strange happy vulgar rhythmed
dance for Burroughs and me
yes Burroughs yes Burroughs
yes Burroughs I see his heart
and I know his secret
a secret no one has discovered
til now but I’ll never tell
never reveal as I witness
this sacred scene this holy ceremony
this universal song and dance
I witness through the eyes the heart
of William S. Burroughs
King of the Toads
Calling the toads
Calling the toads
We shall come rejoicing
Calling the toads
Copyright (c) 2013 Ron Whitehead