A Reminiscence of William Burroughs and a Poem for Joan Vollmer
by Oliver Ray
It was the early 1990s, NYC, and I was about 21 when I first met old William. There was a friend of mine who knew Ginsberg and brought me down to his apartment on East 12th St, across from the old church and the supposedly haunted vacant lot. Soon after that, Allen invited me to Burroughs’ opening at the Gagosian Gallery. Needless to say, I was elated; that incredible distance between my idols and myself had been bridged and seemed to affirm all the dreams I had of being a great poet myself someday. We went up to the show and looked at Bill’s work and then to a party at Larry Gagosian’s house, a party where I was surrounded by folks like Burroughs, Earl McGrath, etc — all these major dudes (don’t think there was one woman there), most of whose histories I didn’t know, all mingling beneath Jackson Pollock’s last painting and huge, beautiful Franz Klines. It was in the midst of all this Allen introduced me to a fellow named Raymond Foye.
Raymond and I hit it off pretty well and the next day my unemployed self was employed at Hanuman Books, Francesco Clemente and Raymond’s small press operated out of the eighth floor of the Chelsea Hotel. Raymond got me a room and paid me a generous weekly wage as assistant editor. A lot of the job entailed keeping the little books organized, filling phone orders, going to the P.O. and doing other odd jobs that related to Raymond’s work with Gagosian and his stable of artists. It must have been shortly after the Gagosian show that we set up a table for William at Astor Place books (I think that’s what it was called) and I sat with him for a few hours as he signed, gentlemen he was, countless books of the people lined up around the corner to spend a moment with him. Later, Raymond invited me to come along to a party that curator Diego Cortez threw for William at his townhouse. William and I sat for a long time smoking and hanging out on this red crushed-velvet sofa. William liked my cigarettes– Craven A’s– because they had a black cat on the box. I think we sat there for most of the party. The thing about hanging out with William was I could never understand a word he said. We would talk, but I was only able to hear about five percent of what he was saying. He spoke softly and the words tumbled out in a mumble. It was kind of maddening — I wanted to communicate but could never really respond.
Out in Lawrence, when I was playing in Patti Smith’s band, we visited William at his house a couple of times. Every time I saw him I would introduce myself as if it were the first time we were meeting. He would get annoyed and tell me he remembered me. That has always meant a lot to me. Patti, Lenny Kaye, and I played songs for William and his friends in his living room, while William sat at the table there smoking and sipping his vodka and coke out of a 7/11 Big Gulp container. He never showed me his guns, but he did tell me that he liked some of my grandfather‘s books, The Secret Life of Plants and A Spy in Rome. I thought it was cool that he was familiar with them.
Patti loved William. I was fortunate to visit the Bunker on the Bowery and hear from her a lot of beautiful tales of her times with William and Brion Gysin, who were, apparently, true comrades. When we went to the second Nova Convention to perform, I suggested to Patti she read from William’s beautiful introduction to Queer. It was the only place I’d ever read him talk about Joan Vollmer. That was a moving experience for all there, I believe, and through her reading it seemed she was able to liberate a ghost that had haunted him for a long time. One can only imagine the kind of pain and guilt he sustained after accidentally killing Joan in Mexico City. Inside his epic and dark sense of humor was a tender man, a man who suffered the imprisonment of humanity in the cells of the Nova Criminals, the plight of our age. When he died and we stood around the hole where he was laid, it felt like a hole opened up in the space around us, a hole that his large presence left behind; it felt like we could step through it and rise to some higher place; it felt like he left us that gift.
Just the other day I was thinking about Joan Vollmer. I can’t remember why. I thought about her place with Edie Kerouac-Parker on the Upper West Side when all these folks were kids, before they existed in the form they do now. It struck me that this young Barnard rebel from a well-to-do family had been a den mother to these guys, that she had given them a space to be who they would become. And on her journey into the strange domesticity of their partnership, through Texas and New Orleans, and finally to Mexico City, that romantic and pitiless place, she had, despite her troubles, ennobled herself.
“There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.” — George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan
We cannot know her legendary head
or the petals of skull she gave
for his viral words
to earth that does not pity —
what smoke drifts from her mouth
imbued by distant inspirations
inhaled into the hungry lungs
of foetal beatitudes.
There are in the end no words
able to carry us far enough
from the tiny spaces we inhabit
but one — and William will
Oliver Ray grew up in NYC and worked for Hanuman Books in the early nineties. He played and wrote songs in Patti Smith’s band from 1995-2005. He lives in Tucson, AZ with his wife Susan and their daughter, Olivia, where they run a micro coffee roastery on the south side of town. His band, Saint Maybe, is about to release its first album. He is also finishing up a collection of poems titled Ever After.