Frontlines

Catching up with Burroughs

Brian Freeman January 29 1979
Frontlines

Catching up with Burroughs

Brian Freeman January 29 1979

Catching up with Burroughs

Frontlines

The setting is Toronto. The setting is New York City. Onstage a lean grey man in a grey-brown synthetic suit is sitting at a small wooden desk in a hard pool of light, reading from books, magazines and pages of manuscript. As he reads, he shuffles through them—apparently impatient with their order.

He speaks in flat, Midwestern accents, now like a butcher’s saw ripping through bone, now like a hard place, reciting little dramatic fragments, acting all the parts. Satirical, ribald, obscene, flashing his inimitable “sheepkilling dog” smile, he is like some apostate priest railing at the church.

It’s William S. Burroughs onstage, arguably the most influential American writer now living and suddenly, after two decades of underground notoriety, at age 64, something of a Pop Star. Dennis Hopper wants to make a movie based on his 1953 novel, Junkie] Burroughs and Terry Southern have already worked on a script. On the lecture circuit, Burroughs’ audiences are growing; he drew a full house when he passed through Toronto in November, and packed out New York’s Entermedia Theatre during the three-day Nova Convention in December. Burroughs’ “act” is simplicity itself; he reads from his writing, and then answers questions from the audience. It is as if his fans had bought a ticket to watch that increasingly rare spectacle, a live act of thought.

Anthony Burgess has called Burroughs “one of the small body of writers who are willing to look at Hell and report what they see .. . the first original since Joyce!” Norman Mailer called him, “The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Newsweek went all out: “the Martin Luther of hipsterism,

welding his decree on the silicon door of the solar system.” Nevertheless, his profits remain distinctly bohemian: total royalties for his controversial novel, The Naked Lunch, now in its 27th printing, are in the neighborhood of $10,000.

The majority of his audience is young enough to be his grandchildren. He did not even start writing until he was 35— which is older than most of his fans. He’s a relic, a precursor. As the putative spiritual father of the so-called Beat Generation, he has somehow outlived many of his sons (Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady being two).

Perhaps half of those who come to hear Burroughs read know anything about the ’50s beyond the Fonz. They know nothing of the McCarthy witchhunts, nothing of the censorship, the stifling piety, the hypocrisy against which the Beat battle lines were drawn. They’re mostly too young to know, and not even likely to be readers, as the progeny of a post-literate culture.

But the last book they may have read, before turning up the stereo—the book university students used to read with truant delight, shoving aside piles of Jacobean dramas—was The Naked Lunch, whose long-delayed American publication in 1962 was like an early beachhead in the war against the censorship laws. Now, eight of Burroughs’ novels are being brought out in new, large paperback printings, and there is another work awaiting publication, an 18th-century pirate romance called Cities of the Red Night. And, only 16 years after the first publishing contract was signed (a Burroughsian gestation period is a leisurely thing), The Third Mind is finally in the bookstores—a sort of Burroughs primer, co-written by his collaborator, the British-born, Alberta-raised painter, Brion Gysin. It was Gysin’s seminal observation that “writing was 50 years behind painting” that led to the vertiginous cut-up/fold-in techniques which became a Burroughs hallmark, and which, not incidentally, made much of his writing inaccessible to the literal-minded.

In a cut-up, two pages of unrelated writing are scissored and spliced together, creating a word collage. It’s a technique that duplicates what Burroughs figures is going on all the time; when you read a column of newspaper you are subliminally reading the columns on either side . “All writing is in fact cut-ups,” Burroughs says.

However, Burroughs’ new audience is anything but literal-minded. Burroughs is as New Wave as Devo, as post-punk as Patti Smith. Punk is the Beat Generation revisited (only this time the black leotards have runs in them), and Burroughs has come out of his windowless New York loft in the Bowery (called “the Bunker”) to sign on as tour guide.

At the last Burroughs gathering, his old publishers were there to launch what was described as a concerted campaign to “get Bill the Nobel Prize.” On hand were Gysin, Allen Ginsberg, dancer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, Timothy Leary, Frank Zappa, poet Ed Sanders and Patti Smith. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the MC announced, “the Doctor is here.” And William Seward Burroughs, grandson of the adding-machine man, former Harvard scholar, former morphine addict, former Texas marijuana farmer, former private eye, former exterminator, and permanent explorer (“It is necessary to travel; it is not necessary to live”) shyly schlepped onstage, to wild applause, and read. Brian Freeman