Back when I was a more careless young man in the mid-80’s, and having always a bit independent and defiant anyway, I strayed from my conservative upbringing enough to explore the punk rock scene of college town Norman, OK. Soon night clubbing and wild adventures became the norm, and my ex-wife Lori and I gave ourselves over to the life of reckless abandon.
I go through literate phases, and so decided that if I were going to indulge in the subculture that I had some reading to catch up with. I stuck my nose in the books of any writer with a reputation for rebellion, defiance, and the degenerate. Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, Hunter S. Thompson, and, of course, William S. Burroughs.
And it was at about this time that Lori and I moved to Kansas City, MO, where I was soon to hear that William Burroughs, the father of the beatniks and an influence on many subcultural movements to that point, lived just down the road in Lawrence, KS. I’d read enough essential Burroughs at the time to be both sufficiently intrigued and confused, a dangerous position for me to be in. Now Burroughs had a friend and business associate James Grauerholz, and I was able to get his phone number from Lawrence concert promoter Bill Rich. But my efforts to arrange a meeting with Burroughs came to no gain when I had to admit that I really had no good purpose, I was just another nobody that wanted to talk to him for a while.
So it wasn’t that entirely easy, and I pretty much resolved to forget it. But it was not much later than that that Lori, who was playing guitar in a girl group called PMS, returned from a gig at the Grand Emporium all excited one night and exclaimed “You’ll never guess who was at the show tonight!”
“Chris Stein from Blondie.”
“Yeah, and guess who he’s staying with.”
“William Burroughs. And Jenny and I are supposed to pick Chris up there to go to dinner this week.”
I was suddenly very interested in having dinner with Chris Stein from Blondie, and included myself in the date without hesitation. And so on that night Jenny, Lori, and I piled into the car and headed south. We found a small simple house in a little residential area and knocked on the door. And there he was.
Burroughs answered the door, turned and told Chris that his company had arrived, and wandered straight off into the back room. Chris was ready to go too soon for my liking, but Burroughs returned to see us out. And so as I passed him I just extended my hand and introduced myself, saying that I enjoyed his writings and had wanted to meet him. He just gave sort of a “Well, that’s nice” kind of reply as he shook my hand, and I, feeling somewhat stupid, must have resolved to just go ahead and say something stupid, which turned out to be “Well… I guess I’ve met you now,” as I shuffled out with the crowd to go to the restaurant.
It turned out that Chris Stein was interested in signing Jenny and Lori to Chrysalis records, a deal which never worked out. But that’s another story. All that mattered to me was this little detail: I had William Burroughs’ phone number. I waited around until about a week after Stein went back to New York before I used it. On the phone with him I reminded him of who I was, and by the end of the call I was to meet him on the afternoon of the next Monday.
I arrived just in time, having immediately gotten myself lost once inside of Lawrence, and he let me in. The interior of the house was as simple as the exterior. Not much besides furniture and books. He lived alone with about three cats, who he called his “beasts.” In his dining area was a very good painting, and I wish I knew the name of the artist to relate here, but he was apparently also a snake handler that Burroughs knew. The subject of the painting was a man in convulsions from Green Mambo snake poisoning. It was very dark and gray, realistic in style, with the words “Quin es” scribbled at the bottom, the last words of Billy the Kid just prior to being gunned down by Pat Garrett. It was a beautiful thing, and Burroughs, who had an interest in snakes, told me about Green Mambo poisoning. The poison is painless, you don’t realize that you’ve been bitten until your speech slurs, and next you pass out and die. The anti-venom for it is in Oklahoma, but Oklahoma has no Green Mambos, and you’re not going to make it there from anyplace that does before you’re a goner.
There had recently been a Rolling Stone article on him, and he showed me a knife that had been mentioned in the article. This knife folded up into a rectangular case about the size of a credit card. It had been given to him, I believe, by John Steinbeck, Jr. He mused that if you didn’t like your bill at the restaurant, you could casually pull this thing out of your credit card pouch and- poof- you’d have a dead waiter before he could even protest. He also showed me a magazine article on the proposed Biosphere Project in Arizona. This project was to build an enclosed atmosphere, intended to study the possibilities of maintaining life on another planet. He was interested in this project, and planned to visit it.
He had not been doing his painting for very long at this point, but I had already seen a reproduction in a magazine. He showed me the few that he had with him, largely abstract things which he had shot through with a shotgun. The shotgun holes were usually center to a splatter of color where he had shot through a bag of paint. Chris Stein, having been to my house, had already told him that I liked to paint.
At this time David Cronenberg was just talking about making a movie of “Naked Lunch,” and we talked about that. He said that people had talked about making a film of that for 15 years and nothing yet had come of it, and he didn’t see any way to convert it into a movie, although, if anyone could, it would be Cronenberg. And there were a few other topics such as Laurie Anderson, John Waters, and such other people as this. A little talk about snakes, and then he asked if I could take him to the grocery store.
I drove him to Dillon’s grocery, and recall him being very offended that people leave shopping carts all over the parking lot. So this old man and I gathered up the carts and rolled them to the curb. It didn’t take long for him to shop, and I believe that he bought more food for his cats than he did for himself.
When we returned to his place he said that he was out of time, and so I took my opportunity to ask him a final question. “If I brought you a painting would you shoot it for me?” He laughed at the idea, shrugged his shoulders, and said “Sure.”
That was my initial meeting with Burroughs. We didn’t discuss his writings directly, but it was all there: The Golliwog/ Green Mambo monster who can control you by invasion like poison or heroin, the violence, the Bryon Gysin “Here to Go” perspective of the future of mankind in space. It was all typical Burroughs, and that’s all that I really wanted exposure to.
At the time I was doing rather strange portraiture, that was my fixation, and my plan was to make a painting of Burroughs himself and have him shoot the background area. As I recall at this point I did not begin the painting immediately. Although he had agreed to shooting it I did not want to be presumptuous. I considered myself to have been fortunate enough already to have gotten to spend an afternoon with him.
A bit later Burroughs gave a reading at the university, a practice that he quit a few years later. In my opinion, anyone who has missed out on a Burroughs reading has missed out on one of the finer things of that period. Always funny, and delivered in that deadpan low pitched monotone, it was his readings that made one aware of the humor in many of his writings. Lori and I attended this event, and when he was done I approached him as he sat at a book signing table. He recognized me, and asked how my painting was going. At the end of a short exchange he invited me to come over any time I’d like.
Well, that was encouragement enough. I began my painting, and in the meantime went to visit him on another occasion. My friend Jon Mooneyham of Norman, OK had recently written an article on Burroughs for a little local paper called Facade. I took a copy of it with me to give to him.
When I arrived he was in the company of his young friend Michael. They had just returned from a walk along the river where they had discovered an active hobo community. Burroughs described the sunset there as “Not quite a Cezanne, but definitely a Monet.” We went on with small talk about everything from literature to 300 year old tortoises, and then, as the evening proceeded, he pulled the blinds and lit a joint. I recall thinking to myself, “This is probably the oldest guy that I’m ever going to get high with.”
It was at about that time that Grauerholz came along, and now comfortably under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Burroughs began to relate the wildest stories and descriptions of poisonous snakes. One snake “had a face like a shovel, and could bark like a small dog.” Another was so fast that it could “snatch a rat from right out of the air.” I laughed, trying to imagine what a rat would be doing in midair in the first place. But the most physical performance concerned a story about him being charged by a vicious dog while he was on a walk. Taking his large walking stick, he smacked the dog a good one before realizing that it was on a chain. It ended with “Oh well, it was a good lesson for him anyway.”
After all of this Burroughs began to talk to the other two about writing. I’d like to say that I held on to every word, but I didn’t. All I recall was his suggestion of putting two versions of the same story in parallel form, relating it to Minimal Expressionism in painting. Grauerholz replied that this had already been done by Kathy Acker and others. It wasn’t much later than this that I realized that they had other plans, and so I returned home.
My depiction of him in the painting was of him on his front porch, leaning upon his cane. Whenever a visitor left his house he would go to the front porch to see them off, and this was my personal impression of him which I related. To the left of the painting was a window, and it was that spot that I wanted to fill with a shotgun blast with yellow splatter. I finished it and mounted it to a wooden panel that would take the blast, and soon afterwards I contacted Burroughs for another visit.
Our discussion on that day included Hassan Sabbah, the old man of the mountains, who is commonly referred to in Burroughs writings as the master of control, but which I also had familiarity with through writings on secret societies. Other than that it was largely about strange mechanisms. The Wishing Machine, the e-meter of the Scientologists, Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator, and Bryon Gysin’s Dreamachine. My only experience with any of them had been with the Dreamachine. Mooneyham had made one from cardboard and an old turntable. And after we discussed this sort of thing for a while I told him that I wanted to show him some of my paintings. I brought some small ones in, and finished by showing him the one I’d done of him. He laughed, finding the skinny legs amusing, but when I said “I want you to shoot that one” I was crushed when he replied “I can’t do that. That’s a nice painting.”
I left there a bit disappointed, and wishing I had not mounted the thing on that heavy board. Anyway, there was nothing that I could do about it.
A bit later Burroughs gave me a call. He said that he’d done some experiments with shooting through magazine pages mounted to panels, and he liked the results. Therefore, he had decided, he would like to shoot my painting after all. I was elated. And so it was on Easter Sunday of ‘87 that he phoned and said he was in the mood to go shooting, and invited me along.
At his place we had to wait for Bill Rich to arrive. They had a shortage of shotgun shells, and, being Easter, there would be no place open to buy any. Therefore we stopped by the house of James Grauerholz on our way out of town, where I showed my painting to James, Michael, and some young girl that was there. We got our shells and went on to the Outhouse, a place outside of town, a small brick building, which, at the time, was a punk rock venue run by Bill Rich, I believe. They kept bails of hay there, which were used by Burroughs to lean panels against to accept the shot. He had a piece of his own to shoot, one of those 3-d postcards of the crucifixion that he had attached to a panel. He amused himself more than once by mumbling “I’m going to shoot Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.”
He shot this several times, once or twice with a splatter of paint. He had forgotten his staple gun, and so we had to beat nails into the panel with a rock we found to hold these baggies in place. Once he was happy with his project he offered to shoot mine, and so I pulled it from the trunk of my car. We beat a baggie of yellow paint onto the spot that I wanted shot, leaned it against the hay, and I stood back while the old guy put a hole right through it. He walked up to it, took a close look at the splatter he’d made, and said “It looks like an owl.”
We shot a few more things and I took a few photos, then we cleaned up our mess and I dropped him back at his place. Now I was happy. It had worked out just as I’d wanted.
I continued to see Burroughs on occasion afterwards, and gave him photos of the painting and all. But he got busy with things and I got busy with things, and before long I fell out of contact entirely.
Now I do not, in any of this, wish to come across as if I were ever a good friend of the man. Certainly I feel privileged enough to have had this experience. By the winter of ‘92, I believe it was, I had already been divorced for a few years when my new girlfriend and I went to see an exhibit of his “Seven Deadly Sins” paintings at the Writer’s Place in Kansas City. He arrived for a book signing and I took my place in line. When it came down to me I said “I’m hoping you’ll remember me.” He looked at me and said “How could I forget? And how’s the painting coming along?” A friend of mine had told me that she’d recently seen the name of his friend Michael listed in the obituaries, and so I offered him my condolences on Michael’s unfortunate passing, and went on my way.
I moved on to Chicago soon afterwards, and then back again and so on. Then one day I got a call from Jon Mooneyham in Norman, who was the first to inform me that Burroughs had died the day before, August 2 of 1997, at the age of 83.
“Portrait of William S. Burroughs” can be viewed in the 1980’s “Paintings” section.