Interview with Victor Bockris on William BurroughsTags: Andy Warhol, Victor Bockris, William Burroughs
By Dave Teeuwen
Why did you write a book about Burroughs? He’s not nearly as glamorous or popular as most of your other subjects, or was he?
At the time I started to write the book, January 1979, William Burroughs was one of the most glamorous and hip people in New York. We were deep in heroic chic. But, much more importantly, I set out to write a mythology for the counterculture. And my guide was to first tackle those legendary leaders of the whole thing like Burroughs, Warhol, and Keith Richards, going back to the beginning of the sixties, whose heavy metal images had too long obscured their real personalities.
The bottom line was even simpler. I was Burroughs’ aide during the three-day Nova Convention celebrating his life and career in December 1978. I was struck by how many of the young men who asked me to get Bill to sign their books were shaking so hard they could hardly hold them. When I urged them to approach him themselves, they fled in sheer fear. I understood this because the first time I had dinner with William, I fainted.
Anyway, my perception was that after operating from behind their oracle like monosyllabic responses, dark glasses and bluer than ice cool, these icons would be far better appreciated and much more widely received if they revealed the very funny, romantic, and empathetic sides of their personalities. William Burroughs was the sweetest guy I ever met. He was so sensitive to the blows of life he could hardly stand it. As he admitted to me in our last interview, “I am so emotional that sometimes I can’t stand the intensity. Oh, my God. Then they ask me if I ever cry? I say, ‘Holy shit, probably two days ago.’ I’m very subject to fits of violent weeping, for very good reasons.”
Looking back from the present and knowing the William Burroughs of his days in Lawrence, it is almost strange to think of an icy unapproachable man. The stories of the many random visitors showing up at his house unexpected are numerous. Did he change over time in New York City, or was he really initially that stern in regards to his fans?
Holy shit! What are we dealing with here, time travel? Are you really telling me that you are so annealed to your Lawrence Burroughs that you have completely lost touch with Burroughs’ initial image as an icy unapproachable alien? Burroughs’ entrance onto the world stage took place at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in August 1962, where he famously said, “I am not an entertainer.” Burroughs’ carefully constructed image in his books, interviews, photographs, films, and rare public appearances in the 1960s never let his audience relax or get to know him. Comments, like “Love is a con put down by the female sex,” mirrored his alter ego Inspector Lee’s attitudes. With his banker’s drag, pale enigmatic blue-lipped face, and uncomfortable aristocratic distance, Burroughs faded into the boardroom portraits of his faceless ancestors. He was a sheep-killing dog. He did not want to be recognized.
In this composition of negatives, he was similar to Warhol. Back then this was not so much a pose as a defence. The leading, ground-breaking artists of the counterculture were taking on the most powerful establishment of all time: the FBI, Time/Life, CIA, the military industrial complex, the syndicates and cartels of the earth. It took the establishment thirty years to stop them by incorporating all art forms. The terrible thing is that we so recoil from history in America that we have even ignored our own history. The counterculture was the only global movement of a non-military people to campaign effectively for peace. It is currently being studiously written out of history by the Department of Education, and I have not heard a single word of protest. Man, you should have seen them kicking the great satirist Terry Southern. Where is Lenny Bruce now that we need him? Burroughs’ career is counted out in transformations. There is no one Burroughs.
What did Burroughs mean to New York in the 1970s?
Burroughs returned to New York in 1974, after twenty-five years of self-imposed exile from America. At that time he was burned out by too many isolated years in London and did not even think he could continue to write fiction. Most of his American fans thought he was dead. Nobody recognized him on the street.
Shortly after he arrived Allen Ginsberg introduced Burroughs to a young man from Kansas. James Grauerholz would be Burroughs’ amanuensis for the next twenty-three years. The first effective thing James did was quickly set up some readings. As soon as Burroughs started to give public readings of his work in New York and beyond, a brush fire was lit. Apart from that great record Call Me Burroughs recorded in Paris around 1964-1965, his voice had rarely been heard. And Bill was a great reader of his writing, with perfect timing and the delivery of a stand-up comedian.
In 1979 when I started having dinner with him several nights a week, Burroughs was the worshipped King of the Beats and Godfather of Punk as well as King of the Underground. He was definitely one of the coolest people in the city. I think the fact that he had never sold out, and had come back to seize his throne at the same time that great yahoo Nixon fell from his, was a true and irresistible story. Plus William loved his life and had lived it to the hilt ever since the breakthrough with Naked Lunch in ’59. By the publication of his new novel, Cities of the Red Night, in 1981, Burroughs read to ten million people on Saturday Night Live, kicking off the Red Night reading tour of the nation. You also have to bear in mind that in Europe and Japan he was considered the greatest writer in the world. Even now who has gone past Burroughs?
The Godfather of Punk moniker was already branded on Burroughs by the time he was in living in New York City because you refer to it in your book With William Burroughs, and of course he flatly denied any association with the punks, just as he denied being associated with the Beats. Nonetheless, he was adopted as a Godfather by the punk movement of that time, whether he liked it or not. Did Burroughs care that much about this need people had to associate themselves with him?
He became the Godfather of Punk in approximately 1977. Bill was not consistent in interviews. He was ambivalent about these associations. On the one hand he rejected the concept of the hero and role model as a Hollywood trap. On the other hand he did not want to reject the very people he had in part written into being. He had a real affection for artists who took risks to push a shared agenda. The Beat-Punk Axis formed under the umbrella of a shared reaction to World War II. He claimed he wrote a letter of support to the Sex Pistols on the release of God Save The Queen. He had written his own version, “Bugger the Queen,” two years earlier. On a parallel track, he remained best friends with Ginsberg till his death in ’97. He was equally loyal to Kerouac and Corso. In his final journals he describes the experience of being applauded on stage before a U2 concert as some kind of mass hug. He appreciated his fans. He was consistent in his great, battered Viking heart.
This fits into an image I have of Burroughs as someone not ignorant enough to pass up good press because he had lived through so much want and poverty. In 1957 he’s cleaning blood off a very old, dirty shirt sleeve, saving up a reserve of smack in the lapel. In 1997 he’s the most respected artist in the Western World, pushing a cart through a U2 video. He seems like he just wanted to be liked, sometimes. And the desire to be liked was important to him, even when he pushed it aside and wanted it called respect instead. Do you think he ever really “sold out,” as they say?
I do not think William Burroughs ever sold out! The idea is preposterous. He was sometimes paranoid about the press in America. (See my crazed flip out in the 1990 Kansas interview regarding this). In fact when I first interviewed him in 1974 I was working with a partner, we wore Brooks Brothers suits and bowties. In 90 minutes he answered monosyllabically and denied knowing who Solzhenitsyn was!! It turned out he thought we were from the C.I.A. But that is not as strange as it sounds when you consider that the last time he tried to move back to New York in 1965, Huncke told Bill that he had been asked by the police to set him up for a bust. As William said, a paranoid is a man in possession of the facts.
You’d have to walk in his shoes before you start accusing William Burroughs of selling out. Hell, the very fact that he didn’t sell out, didn’t go over to Madison Avenue to drink coca-cola and make it! is why he liberated generations to live real life instead of the antiseptic heirloom life of the cardboard dead. People need to be reminded that we learned how to live from William Burroughs and Andy Warhol and all the heroes of the counterculture who dedicated their lives to their callings and lived alone.
I want to try to clear up once and for all the idea that William was manipulated into anything. This is the man who told me, it only takes one man to stand up against this tissue of lies and horseshit… clearly referring to himself. Bill Burroughs was one tough hombre. He changed the world. However, he was also your classic artist who wants to be left alone to dream his dreams and write his books. He wouldn’t remember to eat if you didn’t put a plate in front of him. And there was a side of Bill which remained adolescent and innocent. He was also vulnerable in love, because he was so passionately emotional and had such a poor self image. These conditions led him at times to be overly impressed by one friend’s opinions. There was a period in the 1960s in which he was almost totally under the influence of Brion Gysin. If Gysin didn’t like Warhol, Bill didn’t like Warhol. If Gysin told him to wear tight trousers and Beatle boots, Bill wore tight trousers and Beatle boots, despite making a spectacle of himself.
This tendency led years later to attacks on James Grauerholz for manipulating or controlling Burroughs, which I find disturbing. These attacks came in part as a result of Burroughs leading a larger life, complicated by his post-’83 financial success and painting career. And from his greatly increased fame. It was James’ job to handle all the offers and requests that poured in equally from businessmen and old friends. As Bill got into his later seventies, he was less inclined to travel and more aware of using what time he had left to finish his work. Thus when James had to admonish some of Morgan’s missteps in Literary Outlaw, he earned the writer’s life-long hate. When James had to turn down this invitation or that deal, he earned the resentment of the people he refused. If an old friend couldn’t get through to Bill, James was blamed with cutting them off. And this small army of second-rate losers found in sharing and expanding their complaints some comfort. What seems inexcusable to me is that when these same people, who claimed they cared so much for Bill, caterwauled about how his life was completely manipulated, they seemed not to recognize how much that would have hurt the man they claimed to adore. Revealing the underbelly of their shallow and small-minded aims.
Nobody is perfect. Life isn’t a magazine. But James Grauerholz dedicated his life to Bill. And gave him twenty-three years of the most splendid, productive, and enjoyable life imaginable which, coming at the end of an often deeply painful life, seemed like a much deserved magic prize for what Burroughs gave the world. Those years would not have been possible without James, and they were not always easy for him. In the long run these rumors will float away like dirt erased by rain. And we’ll get the real story of Bill and James, one of the great examples of an amanuensis rising to the needs of his subject and easing his way to depart. Bill never dipped into old age; he never looked down; he only continued to rise. How many people can you say that about? His life, which seemed so long to be cursed, was finally blessed. Let it be blessed. He was after all a Saint.
In With William Burroughs I get the impression he was something like an event that people attended — “Oh, have you been to see Burroughs? No? Oh, you just have to go!” — rather than a writer. It is such a contrast to his life in London. Is this what it was like?
This perception is the fault of my book. I remember when it came out I was visiting Ginsberg who opined it was a trifle chic. I laughed and said, “Évidemment, Monsieur.” I love that book because it was truly a labor of love and, you know, since its publication in the States in 1981, it has been translated into eight different languages, and the 1996 edition remains available here. Plus it is truly a unique book. Nobody has ever used that form of cutting up and re-assembling interview tapes to create a series of fictitious dinners to draw a portrait in the round. But I always thought that once you learned the ropes, writing is largely a matter of character. Each time I write a book I am ferocious in protecting what I’m doing and getting it done. Later, there is always room for the realization that you could have done it better. So what? There is no point in rethinking a war. It’s like rethinking sex for Christ’s sake! Should I have done it this way? If only I had…
How is it a mistake? These famous people coming in and out of his house at all hours really were doing that. Was William really more of a recluse than the book presents or was he really constantly entertaining and meeting people?
Oh dear oh dear, no, they were not coming in and out of his house! William met Mick Jagger perhaps three times in the 1960s. Once thereafter in 1980. He liked Andy, but after the three meetings I set up, he only saw him on two brief visits to the Factory in the mid eighties. William much preferred and really thrived on a quiet inner circle social life. This dates back to the forties. Meeting at his place for drinks, dinner and conversation, interspersed with boy-scout weapons practices. Spot of fun! It was a boarding school existence, with Bill as the headmaster. He did not like to go out unless it was to small dinner parties in restaurants or friends’ apartments, or for special meetings. His life revolved around the Great Work he had been blessed to deliver. He husbanded his time to its daily demands. I wrote the Bunker book with the express purpose of popularizing the humorous raconteur side of Bill, to get his work more widely read for its humor than its apocalyptic overview. But now I wonder. Maybe in the same way Ted Morgan was the wrong man to write his biography, I was the wrong man to write his portrait. I don’t know how he put up with me after I gave him this image to drag around for the rest of his life!
Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs, Literary Outlaw, refers to the large heroin scene in New York City at the time and how it affected Burroughs’ work. In your book you also refer to a lot of heroin in Burroughs’ neighborhood around the Bunker. What was the impact of heroin to the artistic community?
Devastating. Let’s get some background straight. This was the Persian heroin the C.I.A had paid the Shah of Iran to block from distribution. When Khomeini took over in Tehran in ’79, it was released straight into the USA among other places to poison several levels of the U.S. population. (It is a damn effective tool). Up until ’77, I never saw heroin in N.Y. You had to go to Harlem if you wanted to score, just like Lou Reed said. In late 1978-1979, a heroin supermarket opened up on several blocks directly across from Burroughs’ building at 222 Bowery. They used to sell a bag called Dr. Nova.
I had never been interested in heroin because I would never stick a needle in myself. However, when it became widely known that you could snort it just like cocaine, many people who had never considered taking heroin started using it. In light of feeling that everything they had been told about drugs by the authorities was totally inaccurate. They said marijuana was addictive. Marijuana was not addictive. Maybe heroin was not addictive either. Junkie was a favorite among our generation, but how deeply had anybody read it? The great, unspanked class of ’79 had to find out for themselves. In the uptight insecure underground, H was the perfect drug to stop you from committing suicide. And punk was the first ultra cool movement that made using heroin chic. Heroin Chic on the cover of the Soho Weekly News opened the gates. Soon it replaced cocaine as the cool drug to bring to a party. We are all so sick with our delight in hearing about people who destroyed themselves with drugs. About the prettiest little girls who fouled their perfect bodies with their minds. What is that about? And what did William Burroughs have to do with it?
You make the reality of the New York punk scene seem like a bunch of insecure suburban kids what come to the city and tried to live up to the stories in Rolling Stone and Creem and Crawdaddy. Was that what it was? Or was it the first time the middle-class kids suddenly saw that there was an option between pop music and respectability?
No no no no no!!! First of all I love the punks, particularly that first generation, Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, David Byrne, Patti Smith, Richard Hell etc. who are all neo-beats really. I mean rock-n-roll never changes; you just speed it up. Keith Richards speeded up Chuck Berry to produce the Stones. Steve Jones speeded up Chuck Berry to produce the sound of the Pistols. What I love most deeply about punk is that it was the first rock movement to treat girls equally with boys. There are many great girls in punk. They were new. After all rock is a feminine thing. It is based on girls. It’s just that rock journalists in their own hang-ups about wanting to be rock stars continue to deny the existence of females in rock books. The only people I would ever interview in a rock book would be THE GIRLS.
And on that note I would just like to say that Bill seemed to dig the punk girls I was involved with when I was writing his book. You can see their audacious faces in the photographs. I do think there’s something to say about punk being more of a movement of personalities than, say, glam rock. But that’s a positive thing. A positive hinge. Punk was about doing everything you were not supposed to do. In line with the English poet William Blake, BREAK ALL THE RULES. Looking back now, this feels like a lone trumpet call across a battlefield, the field of the cloth of gold, but it certainly was not a lost battle. WE WON. PUNK STANDS. PUNK WILL NEVER GO AWAY. Like real life it sticks.
Was Morgan’s account of William’s drug use at the time how it appeared to you? Was it really interfering with his work? I know you’ve said in other articles you’ve written that not all Morgan’s biography is completely accurate?
Morgan was particularly inaccurate on this subject, about which he knew nothing. So much of that book reeks of his prejudices it’s disgusting! The fact is William had severe writer’s block at several times while writing Cities of the Red Night. What one did not want to say at the time, but is made quite clear in the magnificent diaries of Stewart Meyer, probably the single most accurate account of the Bunker years 1979-1983, was that Burroughs was plagued by so many problems then — from poverty, through the death of his son and unrequited love, to writer’s block — that without heroin the book might never have been completed. In fact for the rest of his life, Bill never wrote without the parallel effects of methadone. And when you look at how much work he produced between 1983-1997, you begin to see that opiates released the best in him. For good reason. Burroughs was extremely self-critical. Heroin cuts out the self-critical track and puts you inside a warm cocoon in which you can carry out your desired work with a clear mind.
I want to add this about the relationship between the great addicts, like Cocteau, Burroughs, Keith Richards, and their influence on their followers’ drug habits. First, no writer in the sixties and seventies made it clearer how horrifying and deeply destructive heroin is than Burroughs. Yet, in a strange translation that deserves attention, even his more perceptive readers appear to have taken his use as permission for their own. This is a troubling example of an increasingly common trait, in which the fan is more affected by the artist’s image than his work. And we all know no world artist can maintain control of his image. It differs country by country. William Burroughs and Keith Richards were undoubtedly the coolest guys in New York in the late 1970s. But if you want to immerse yourself in “Sympathy for the Devil” or Naked Lunch, you have to have a strong constitution and mind; otherwise you are as sure to flip out as if you read that book of horrors, the Bible. Lou Reed put it well when he said in defence of Andy Warhol, “the Factory was not a mental hospital.” Don’t you know that you can get run over by a car, or a girl for that matter, anytime you walk out of the house? Now, who you gonna blame? Ghostbusters?
What did Burroughs think of your decision to write a book about him? At the time you did it the book was probably the closest thing to a portrait done so far.
A few months after the book came out I was having dinner with Bill when I came across a response he made to an interviewer who asked about the book. “I could have done without it,” he replied. At first I was shocked, because I had brought people like Christopher Isherwood to the Bunker, and we had had fun during a lot of those taped dinners. But I also saw the humorous side. “Hey, man!” I remonstrated in fake shock, “what’s all this about then?” He grinned sheepishly, but before I left he gave me a small press book in which he had written something like, “to Victor Bockris, a friend through the vicissitudes of time.” There was a clique who resented the hell out of my activities with Burroughs. They formed the opinion I was leading him on, which says little for their opinion of William. They kept pointing out that I was not gay, as if that were some kind of betrayal. But… well these are long forgotten struggles and of little import now. Besides that was in another world and the boys are dead…
How many biographies are there? One real attempt. (Publishers often stamp biography on a portrait). The Morgan book was to my way of thinking a mistake. For several reasons: Ted Morgan did not understand William Burroughs. He’s a French Count, Comte St. Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont, who has written some very good books. But he had met Burroughs in France and Tangier in 1972, I believe. I encountered him at the Bunker on several occasions and he always looked like he had a brick up his ass sideways. He didn’t like the other people around the Bunker because they did not look up to him. And he only saw Bill formally. He couldn’t handle the homosexuality or the drugs, or the passion or the realism. He never hung out nights we came to at 6 a.m. wondering what the fuck happened, or had to be carted home by a sympathetic amigo. He was a stiff uptight, jaundiced motherfucker. The proof is that he never finds his or any voice in the book. He tries to write a lot of it in Bill’s voice, or worse still in Bill’s subconscious, and it was terrible. What a missed opportunity.
They chose Morgan because he had done Roosevelt and Churchill, and they thought it would put Bill in the right context! This was shortly after he had been accepted into the American Order of Arts and Letters, as you can tell by the very boring opening chapter. I mean, to open a biography of William Burroughs on his induction into this meaningless body would seem to me to indicate upfront just how very far the biographer is out to lunch! But, you see, being able to represent William Burroughs is an extremely heady experience. I am sure I would have turned into a complete asshole if I had ever been in Grauerholz’s position.
In Morgan’s defense, it was an authorized biography. He knew that Bill was going to read through it all and could vet certain things. And contractually he gave 25% of the advance and royalties to Burroughs for this dubious right. The whole thing stinks of an agent throwing his weight around and destroying the whole project before it got started. Morgan accepted all this bullshit because he thought if he wrote a biography of Burroughs, people would take him more seriously as a writer!!! And then too, few people understand the art of biography. It is a form as difficult and changeable as its subjects. I spent six torturous years writing the Warhol biography. Actually I offered to write the Burroughs bio, but that’s another story…
Victor Bockris at a party (with Burroughs, not pictured) in 1981. Photograph by Michael Heissman/Radar.
I know what you mean about the Morgan book. I found it hard to reconcile the man who rejected all groups with the man so proud of his inclusion in a group. That’s what I realized on this re-read of your book: you understood him more as a peer than subject. Why did they not choose you to write it? How much say did William have over things anyway?
I appreciate your reading of my book. At the time, 1983, I had no chops as a biographer, whereas Morgan had won the Pulitzer Prize and supposedly knew what he was doing. I had also only just published the Bunker book. The reason I tabled the notion was my agent, Andrew Wylie, was pushing me hard to do the Warhol bio and I just wanted to make it clear to Bill that I would rather have done Burroughs. In retrospect, I am really glad I did Warhol. Even though it almost killed me and took six years of my life, it made my name. Besides, biography is such a tough nut to crack. And on my first time around I would never have survived the authorized aspects of the Burroughs-Morgan deal. I should add that as a private in the Burroughs camp I agreed with it at the time. It is easy to say all these wise-sounding things in retrospect. We were all so young and naïve, including Billy Burroughs. I am currently working on a book called The Burroughs-Warhol Tapes, but that’s all I want to say about it.