Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I have a theory that if you dig deep enough, take the time to ask the right questions, and do diligent research, everybody is interesting. It is my spin on Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes. I guess I see the silver lining in the gray flannel suit. Take David Solomon. Solomon was an editor at Esquire, Metronome, and Playboy in the 1950s and 1960s, and I recently bought a very small archive of his papers relating to William Burroughs. The documents deal with Burroughs’ projects for those magazines and for some related anthologies. Given my obsession with magazine appearances, they were interesting enough for me to shell out the cash. A little more digging and a bit more research into Solomon make the papers even more valuable to me and I hope to others. I planned on writing a completely different essay utilizing this material, but that will have to wait. In researching Solomon, I took a trip and got sidetracked into the weird and that is always a fun place to go. Hop on the bus if you care to.
Born in 1925 in California, Solomon came of age at the same time as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady. Unlike the Beats, Solomon served in World War II and suffered tremendous loss. His two brothers were killed in bombing runs over Germany, and like Private Ryan, Solomon was pulled from the front lines as the only surviving son in his family. Solomon was discharged in 1946 and took advantage of the GI Bill to attend college. He received a BA from Washington Square College of New York University, but his real education was earned in combat in Europe, in the jazz clubs of New York, in the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village, and in the drug culture of Washington Square. Attempting to come to terms with the Bomb, traumatized by their war experience, and fascinated with African-American and drug culture, young men like Solomon became the hipsters and White Negroes represented by the early Beats and belatedly described by Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay in Dissent.
Solomon married and had two children, but he remained in the Village, refusing to move out to the Levittowns that sprang up like mushrooms around New York City. By the mid-1950s, Solomon was an assistant editor at Esquire. His tenure there lasted until 1960, and he left just before the magazine’s renaissance under the editorial leadership of Harold Hayes who beat out such young lions as Clay Felker and Ralph Ginzburg for the position. Hayes, Felker, and Ginzburg would change mainstream magazine publishing and challenge the rules of the game in the 1960s. Solomon lacked their editorial genius but, in his own way, he would make his mark on the profession by incorporating his hipster sensibility into the mainstream press. Solomon was the White Negro as editor.
While at Esquire, Solomon contacted Aldous Huxley about revising Huxley’s “The History of Tension” article in light of another piece, “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds,” which Huxley had published in The Saturday Evening Post. The Esquire essay was to have been titled “The Coming Defeat of Tension” and would have reflected Huxley’s belief that “present and yet to be developed pharmacological agents will bring about a religious and ethical revolution.” Huxley’s writings on drugs, notably The Doors of Perception, were read as sacred texts for psychedelic adventurers of the 1960s. It was while researching Huxley that Solomon became an early psychedelic enthusiast. The revised article never appeared in Esquire, but Solomon took Huxley as his guru and soldiered on in a hands-on exploration of psychedelics and their history. In time, Solomon’s knowledge of drugs and drug culture became legendary.
In 1960, Solomon became editor of Metronome, a mainstream jazz magazine. Solomon was a friend of Dizzy Gillespie, a regular at jazz clubs, and, of course, was well-versed in jazz’s druggy elements, particularly marijuana and heroin. Under Solomon’s direction, Metronome made a play to be hip, and his interest in drugs filtered into the magazine. Here is where William Burroughs comes in. It always struck me as odd that in May and August of 1961, Burroughs appeared in Metronome. Learning about Solomon, it all became clear. Naturally, Solomon was a big fan of Burroughs’ writing, and throughout the 1960s, Solomon attempted to get Burroughs published in his mainstream ventures. In May of 1961, Burroughs contributed “No Bueno,” a selection from the just published Soft Machine, to Metronome. Burroughs received $50. The selection was presented as an anti-drug piece showing the horrors of heroin use — which, in jazz circles, had become a plague that destroyed the lives of Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and numerous others. Miles Davis and John Coltrane temporarily kicked heroin habits in the late 1950s and entered into a period of incredible creativity. In August 1961, Burroughs contributed “This Is the Time of the Assassins,” a Hassan I Sabbah inspired piece. No doubt, Solomon was well-versed in the hashish cult of Sabbah.
While Burroughs was featured in a 1959 issue of Life (including a photograph) and appeared in the January 1960 issue of Mademoiselle, Metronome provided the first appearance of Burroughs’ fiction in a mainstream publication. Thus, in the summer of 1961, Burroughs’ fiction hit the newsstand. This was the Burroughs of Soft Machine and the cut-up (even if the selections were less jarring than usual), not Naked Lunch or Junkie. I suspect that readers of Metronome would have been left shaking their heads and muttering “No Bueno.” Burroughs’ writing clearly stands out in the magazine.
This was the height of the Cold War, and the psychedelic 1960s had yet to emerge from the decade of Miltown. Solomon’s editorial on The Jazz Gap in the May 1961 issue makes this clear. The editorial refers to the alleged missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States that placed the world on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Solomon assured his readers that the United States was the leader of the jazz world. However, with the USSR entering the field, the gap was threatening to narrow. As a result, Metronome assigned a Soviet correspondent to cover this new jazz scene. Solomon did not last long as editor of Metronome. Printing Burroughs probably had a role in his departure. Burroughs wrote to Solomon on January 27, 1962, “When I was in New York I tried to reach you through Metronome — Long purged pause — Mr. Solomon isn’t with us anymore — ”
In the mid-1960s, Solomon latched on as literary editor for Playboy, and he thought of William Burroughs as a potential contributor. Burroughs and Solomon traded various ideas for contributing to the magazine. Burroughs suggested his old stand-bys: words of advice to young writers or his experiences as a drug addict. The fee would be $250 “turn-down guarantee” with $1500 payable if the article was accepted. The proposal was rejected by A.C. Spectorsky, Playboy‘s publisher. It was back to the drawing board. In late 1964, Burroughs planned on returning to the United States after a decade of exile. Burroughs hoped to travel to St. Louis, his place of birth; why not, Burroughs suggested, write a piece about his impressions on his return home? Solomon pitched the idea as follows: “I strongly advise that we assign Burroughs. The return of the outcast, the reformed junky lately turned literary genius, to lay down a ‘smog of nostalgia’ on his grimy hometown is enough to make me want to meet him in St. Louis.” Burroughs’ proposed title: “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The idea was accepted by Playboy and Burroughs got to work.
I suppose Solomon had less control over the content in Playboy than in Metronome. Playboy received Burroughs’ article, later entitled “St. Louis Return,” and could not make heads or tails of it. As advertised the article contains much nostalgia but little of the hip, yet safely consumerist, take on sex, politics, or lifestyle endorsed by Hugh Hefner. Instead the piece was largely a statement of the cut-up technique in the cut-up style. The piece was mostly veiled literary discussion, not about lifestyle or life story. Burroughs’ contribution was rejected and never appeared in Playboy.
Yet Playboy‘s loss was the Paris Review‘s gain. “St. Louis Return” appeared in 1965 in Issue 35 of the Paris Review along with an interview of Burroughs by Conrad Knickerbocker for the Art of Fiction section. In my opinion it is not an exaggeration to consider this magazine appearance one of the most important of Burroughs’ career. To this day, the interview remains one of Burroughs’ most detailed and thoughtful statements on his personal history and literary techniques. In addition, the inclusion of images from Burroughs’ St. Louis Journals gave a rare glimpse into the kind of visual-textual work Burroughs was doing at the time. The Paris Review presented Burroughs as a major writer and theorist, not a popular culture figure. For a piece such as “St. Louis Return,” the Paris Review proved the ideal venue.
This treatment of Burroughs was a masterpiece of editorship. This is indicative of the work published during Tom Clark’s tenure as poetry editor. The Burroughs material benefitted from a strong editorial hand and vision coupled with the right venue — both of which Solomon lacked. As we will see, Solomon would soon find his niche and succeed as a salesman of drug culture on multiple levels. On the other hand, Clark was a young poet, who became poetry editor in the mid-1960s, and completely revitalized the Review, making it a major outlet for new poetry. He did this by including his friends — Ted Berrigan and other New York poets — as well as incorporating these poets’ heroes: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. Issue 35 includes Robin Blaser, Ed Dorn, Ron Padgett, Tom Pickard, and Aram Saroyan — cutting-edge choices to be sure. The issue also features an interview with Dizzy Gillespie. It is as if Solomon edited a little mag. For me, the period of Clark’s editorship was the high-water mark of the Paris Review.
While Solomon was largely unsuccessful in magazine publishing, his serious and evangelical take on drugs proved perfect for mainstream book publishers. From 1964 to 1975, Solomon edited a series of anthologies that provided intellectual, philosophical, medical, and historical takes on various drugs from LSD to marijuana to cocaine. The titles include LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug (1964), The Marijuana Papers (1966), Drugs and Sexuality (1973) and The Coca Leaf and Cocaine Papers (1975). He created a forum of educated and academic discussion for much mythologized subjects. For a public fascinated but largely uneducated about drugs, these anthologies proved irresistible and became best sellers. The books were available, in some cases, in both hardcover and paperback. They highlight Solomon’s skill in marketing psychedelics and drug culture to mainstream audiences.
Burroughs no doubt appreciated the cash. In a February 5, 1962 letter on Avon stationery, Solomon writes Burroughs proposing an anthology in order to get Burroughs some money. Quite possibly the resulting anthology was the one on LSD. Burroughs got paid $100 for reprint rights to “Points of Distinction Between Sedative and Consciousness Expanding Drugs” for the LSD anthology eventually published by Putnam. Avon was part of the book division of The Hearst Corporation, acquired by Hearst in 1959. Avon made its name publishing comic books and pulp paperbacks. The imprint was far from literary and dealt strictly with topics with mass appeal. Solomon was something of a hipster spy. Solomon writes, “Working for Hearst a morbid kick…unless I learn to turn on with formaldehyde, I’m cooked.” The letter is redacted, and I like to think the “informal postal exchange” referred to a drug exchange with Allen Ginsberg undertaken in the belly of the publishing beast.
Huxley was the guiding light of the LSD anthology and the book is dedicated to him: “guru extraordinaire, whose words first beckoned me through the doors of perception.” Timothy Leary wrote the introduction. It is a serious treatment of LSD with the table of contents loaded with MDs and PhDs. Burroughs stands out with his lack of an advanced degree, but he belongs. He was a Master Addict of Dangerous Drugs, after all. The anthology was aimed to introduce philosophical and medical evidence in support of the benefits of LSD at a time when the drug was coming under fire by the police, government, and mainstream media. The last paragraph to Solomon’s editor’s note could have served as a Bill of Rights for a psychedelic nation: “Moreover, I believe that the astonishing human brain is man’s most inalienable possession, his intellectual birthright. No person or institution has the moral right to muffle or inhibit its development. No social authority can successfully arrogate unto itself the right to dictate and fix the levels of consciousness to which men aspire, whether those states are induced pharmacologically or otherwise. Die gedanken sind frei.”
In 1966, Solomon and his family moved to Mallorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean that was dominated by the presence of Robert Graves. Graves’s literary career roughly paralleled that of Aldous Huxley. Both were British modernists who later in life transformed into psychedelic pioneers. Graves became particularly fascinated with mushroom cults, and such interests filtered into his increasingly mystical worldview, developed in Food For Centaurs (1960) and elsewhere. Solomon insinuated himself into the literary and drug culture of Mallorca but just as quickly found himself on the wrong end of the law. Forced to leave the island, Solomon moved to England and settled in the intellectual confines of Cambridge, which was in throes of the psychedelic revolution. Given his vast knowledge of drugs and England’s cultural climate at the time, Solomon, like Huxley and Graves, found himself considered a guru, a position he came to relish.
At this point, Solomon’s interest in drugs reached a new, and ultimately disastrous, level. Like many proponents of psychedelics, Solomon was well situated to become involved in drug manufacturing and trafficking. Timothy Leary followed a similar path. For example, Leary’s International Foundation for Internal Freedom became aligned with The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Billy Hitchcock, a young heir to a vast fortune and a believer in Leary’s philosophies, financed Leary’s LSD headquarters in Millbrook, a place of introspection and self-discovery. But the potential for profit was too great for Hitchcock and others to ignore and what started as a spiritual exploration mutated into a money-making enterprise and a criminal organization. Eventually, Hitchcock became the financier for much of the LSD underground.
Solomon, along with two refugees from Millbrook, came up with the idea of liquefying the active ingredient of marijuana, THC, in order to allow mass distribution and easier transportation. At the time (1968), THC was legal in Great Britain. Perhaps Solomon’s ambition was to spread the drug in order to advance the psychedelic revolution, but his associates were less idealistic. Eventually, Solomon’s utopian vision would prove susceptible to corruption as well.
In Cambridge, a circle developed around Solomon and drugs that had wide-ranging influence on intellectuals’ reception of psychedelics and on the illicit LSD trade. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Francis Crick was briefly involved with Solomon’s social scene. Crick, who developed the concept of the DNA double helix, came up with his revolutionary idea after an LSD trip. Solomon searched around Cambridge for a chemist with the scientific knowledge he required for the THC project and met Dick Kemp through Crick. Kemp was drawn to Solomon’s circle because of Crick’s presence. Crick convinced Kemp of LSD’s value to society.
Like Augustus Owsley and Tim Scully before him, Kemp bought into the idea of a psychedelic revolution and became a drug chemist on an international scale. The ability to liquefy THC eluded Solomon and Kemp, but Solomon with his drug connections was able to acquire large quantities of Ergotamine Tartrate, which is the base material for the manufacture of LSD. Thus Solomon was no longer just a drug enthusiast; he was a major player in an international drug enterprise.
Yet Solomon remained something of a schlemiel. As in his career as a magazine editor, his ideas and his ambition overreached his abilities. Solomon may have been well-versed in drug knowledge and culture, he may have talked the talk, but he could not walk the walk. He was clearly out of his league in the area of drug manufacture. The LSD whose production he oversaw was usually of poor quality and often cut into diluted doses. In one case, Solomon attempted to create his own LSD capsules and succeeded in dosing himself with 1000 mics of acid, which left him with the trip of his life and bedridden for nearly a week. Solomon was far from a criminal mastermind.
Solomon’s drug partners realized his incompetence and attempted to distance themselves from him. In addition, Solomon bragged of his involvement in the ring to anyone who would listen. The path to eventual disaster was well paved and Solomon raced downhill to his fate. Despite Solomon’s lack of street smarts, he was well connected with drug suppliers. Unfortunately for his drug associates, Solomon was a necessary evil.
For the full story of the development and unraveling of this drug ring, see the book by Stewart Tendler and David May. To make a long story short, the dominoes began to fall as members of the ring were arrested on unrelated drug and smuggling charges and the extent of its activities became clear. Gerry Thomas, a partner of Solomon’s in the THC scheme, was arrested in Canada and due to a feud with Solomon supplied the information that led to the investigation of The Micro Dot Gang, which included the British LSD group co-founded by Solomon and The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Once again, Solomon proved the weak link in the drug ring.
Inspector Dick Lee, a figure straight out of a William Burroughs novel, spearheaded Operation Julie to take down the LSD empire. Lee’s organization was the culmination of over a decade of harassment and demonization of the LSD counterculture. Operation Julie demonstrated the possibilities of international police cooperation, adequate funding, fully developed informant and undercover networks, and hi-tech surveillance. Narcs and wire/phone tapping were standard courses of business for this beefed up, and increasingly, well-funded police bureaucracy. The blueprint for the War on Drugs in the 1980s was set into action. The policies of fear, misinformation, and intolerance pursued by the government and police created a poisonous atmosphere ripe for generating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a great example of the importance of set and setting. In part, such policies changed what began as an exploration of freedom, peace, and love into a culture of paranoia and violence. The Weathermen, Charles Manson, and Altamont also demonstrate this shift. On another level, the LSD trade mutated from a loose community of psychedelic idealists to an international network of psychedelic capitalists. This is indicative of a similar evolution in the counterculture generally, both in the 1960s where the counterculture quickly became co-opted by the consumer culture, and in the neoconservative revolution of the 1980s, where yesteryear’s hippies became the Me Decade’s Gordon Geckos. To a certain extent, David Solomon can be viewed as a case study in such trends.
Eventually Solomon was arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail. In 1980 in the International Times, Allen Ginsberg wrote an article on Solomon. This was the Frivolous Summer Issue that also featured articles on American Indian genocide, Baader Meinhof, and the Cannabis Conference. IT appeared in fits and starts over the coming years, but the Frivolous Summer tabloid was effectively the swan song for this long-running underground paper that began during the Summer of Love in 1966. The incarceration of Solomon and his LSD cohorts likewise signaled the end of an era. Reagan and Thatcher were soon in office and the idealism and accomplishments of the 1960s, already disillusioned and crumbling, were demonized and dismantled even further. Solomon served a partial sentence until 1983 when he returned to New York City and the jazz clubs where he had received his first tastes of the drug culture that would eventually consume and destroy him.
Solomon died in April 2007 at the age of 81. His obituary in The Villager passed over his role in Operation Julie and instead focused on his editorial work with Esquire, Metronome. and Playboy. Yet Solomon’s role in the British LSD Group proves more interesting and important than his editorial work. Like the rise and fall of Timothy Leary, the story of David Solomon shows how the seductive power of the psychedelic revolution and the intrusive fear tactics of governmental and police bureaucracies can corrupt an idealistic vision of a better, freer world into a nightmare of criminal activity fueled by paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and blind ambition. Solomon, like Leary, traded his dreams of a new society for power and wealth. At their cores, both men were feckless squares who just wanted to be accepted by a community and culture they were fascinated with but were really outside of. The desire to Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out was mainly a need to Fit In. In this effort, they got wrapped up in forces beyond their imagination and control.
The psychedelic revolution was, and is, an inspired act of hubris. Even gurus such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, and David Solomon had trouble harnessing their power. Ultimately such drugs are stronger than humans, and a society based on psychedelic exploration and widespread permissiveness seems to me doomed to failure. We are a Faustian species, but we cannot handle psychedelics’ truths. Possibly the weak link is more than an atmosphere of misconceptions and mishandled policy but is instead actually written into our DNA. We are not gods; we cannot feed on ambrosia. In his exploration of such drugs, David Solomon, like many of the true believers of the psychedelic era, bit off much more than he could chew.