by Heathcote Williams
I first met William Burroughs in 1963. I was working for the now-defunct literary magazine Transatlantic Review and we were planning to publish a piece of his called “The Beginning is also the End.” I’d proposed doing a drawing of Burroughs for the cover and the editor of TR had agreed, and so I went round to see him in a tiny hotel room in Princes Square, Bayswater, which I gathered Alex Trocchi had found for him.
Trocchi put his head round the corner at some stage to check that the room was okay. I remember Trocchi saying that “you couldn’t go far wrong here, Bill, not on three pounds a week.” This was what the hotel cost, its being more like a run-down rooming house than a hotel.
Bill had come to England from Tangier principally to take a heroin cure which he had set great store by. The cure had been devised by a Dr. John Yerbury Dent of the British Journal of Addiction and consisted of apomorphine, which was apparently morphine boiled in hydrochloric acid. “It works as a total body emetic,” Bill explained. “If you have even the remotest whiff of heroin your whole body throws up.”
He insisted that Dr. Dent’s formula was working, although I couldn’t help noticing that he seemed keen on a cough mixture called Breathe-Eezee which contained morphine, and I’m not sure that he wasn’t also taking Collis Brown, a popular cure-all, which in those days used to have morphine in it as well.
I did the drawing, which was published along with Bill’s story, and from then on saw quite a bit of him. He invited me to see Fellini’s “Eight and a Half” at what was then the International Cinema in Westbourne Grove. He was silent for a good while afterwards and then halfway up Queensway turned and said drily with his expressionless Buster Keaton face, “Yep, those Italians really know what life is about.”
He was interested in how you could make maps of the human personality and gave me a copy of something called The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a sinister way for corporate America to keep tabs on employees, and he also kindly lent me a book on Mayan Civilization — a subject that was of particular interest to him as he explained that the Mayans had had a calendar which prescribed what everyone should feel on certain days. “Makes things much simpler. If you know that somebody coming towards you has been ordered to be in a good mood that day by the Mayan priests’ calendar, well, then they’re less likely to kill you.”
Later I’d usually see him in the company of his then boyfriend and collaborator Ian Sommerville. I remember them talking about Allen Ginsberg once and both expressing some reservations about Ginsberg’s newfound role as a leader of the Alternative Society, in the light of his being crowned King of the May by students in Prague.
“The peace and love slop bucket” was how Bill cynically described the 1960s mood-swing, and Ian chimed in with “You can’t smoke Allen Ginsberg.” It was a slightly unsettling moment. I think I’d naively assumed that the Beats were all of one mind about the state of things. Beatific perhaps, but Bill could be quite vitriolic although mostly with good reason. He singled out Truman Capote, for example, for especial excoriation. “That little albino dwarf,” he’d call him, doing a passable imitation of Capote’s high-pitched voice.
What concerned Bill was that in Truman Capote’s book about the two Kansas murderers In Cold Blood (then a succès d’estime) Capote had not campaigned for a reprieve (as Bill felt he was in a position to), but instead had let both of his protagonists die because “this would, as far as Capote was concerned, make for a better story. Totally reprehensible,” Burroughs said, adding: “You gotta look after your characters. Particularly if you’ve inveigled your way into Death Row and fucked one of them.” (It was being claimed that Capote had had an affair with one of the killers, Perry Smith.)
Bill was later to move into another slightly more comfortable hotel in Earls Court run by two elderly queens with wigs, and I remember turning up there once at the same time as James Baldwin had come to visit. They both evidently had a pretty unqualified admiration of each other’s work, and I recall that during the afternoon Bill announced that the Paris Review had invited him to do an interview. “That’s great, Bill,” Baldwin said, evidently pleased for him (they had known each other well in Paris). “No, no it’s not,” Bill snapped. “Have you seen the mortality rate amongst Paris Review interviewees?” And with that he produced a copy of the current issue and, not entirely tongue in cheek, read out a long list of the Paris Review fatalities. From the masthead. He added the word “dead” after each one, implying that the Paris Review had done for them.
“See that? Ezra Pound? Dead. Eliot? Dead. Hemingway? Dead. Faulkner? Dead. …” And so on. He produced an eerily long list by way of confirming these apprehensions.
Nonetheless he must have overcome such superstition because, a little while later in 1965, he relented and gave them an interview. Seeing him again after the interview came out I remarked that I was pleased to see that he’d survived the Paris Review curse.
“Oh yes, I did,” he said, then added with a lugubrious chuckle, “but the interviewer didn’t. The interviewer was called Conrad Knickerbocker and he recently threw himself from a block of flats in St. Louis.” He accompanied the words with an odd pursing twitch of the lips that I often noticed. It was a kind of mild tic which would indicate a certain pleasure in an otherwise immobile and unsmiling face — in this case it belied a voluntary or involuntary appreciation of the macabre.
Bill had an unusual belief in the significance of numbers and also in coincidences, which he had a kind of nose for.
I was in a cab with him once going down the Brompton Road when he announced that the number 23 was “the death number.” I expressed surprise, if not disbelief, but my reaction was shortly to be transformed into astonishment when he pointed out a shop front that we were just passing and then said emphatically. “See that? Kenyon’s the Undertakers … now tell me the street number.” Sure enough it was 239 Brompton Road. There was a distinct 2 and a 3 in the funeral parlour’s street sign.
Then Bill leant forward and asked me to tell him what my phone number was. I was living in the Transatlantic Review office at the time and it was KNI (Knightsbridge) 2389. 2 and 3 again. This was all said in the most deadpan, matter-of-fact way — nothing of the drumrolling of some stagey mind reader. Lastly he asked, “How old are you Heathcote?” I took a moment to answer “23.”
He concluded by saying, “Watch out for 23.” It was bewildering.
I politely agreed to watch out for the number 23 and ever since I have indeed noticed that 23 does seem to have an uncanny habit of cropping up with some doom-laden association or other, although I can’t say that my awareness of this has ever seriously affected my behaviour. (It was quite a chilling moment though I’ve never felt the need to adjust my fate numerologically — my being more or less innumerate or dyscalculate may have been a factor.) However, some less occult advice of his has done. It’s an adage he was fond of repeating: “Anything that can be done chemically can be done by other means.” I’ve found that to be enduringly useful as well as wise.
I think Bill found London bleak. He once said with cold sarcasm, on being asked at UK Customs his reason for visiting Britain, “Number One the food. Number Two the weather.” And he remarked scathingly to a friend, Martin Wilkinson, “You think your country’s problems are going to be solved by your moth-eaten Queen?” It was true, though, that he was no great fan of his own country either (“You stupid, vulgar, greedy, ugly American death sucker” being a favoured misanthropic imprecation directed towards his unfortunate compatriots.) But nonetheless, despite a seeming indifference to the UK, he stayed on in London for quite some while after Dr. Dent’s cure, primarily, I think, because he was getting published here: first of all quite humbly in the hand-duplicated pages of Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag and then in the earliest issues of International Times (IT) with some regularity, and also in Mayfair magazine, a kind of English Playboy, which ran a series of articles of his exposing Scientology.
Thanks to a change in his fortunes, he moved to Duke Street in St James, Piccadilly, around the corner from Fortnum and Mason, the royal grocers. His collaborator, Brion Gysin, was hoping that their Dream Machine was going to make their fortune as a drug-free psychedelic that could be marketed by some big corporation, and consequently they had one installed there for visitors to sample its hypnotic flickering. There were, unfortunately, no takers.
When I went round to Duke Street it often seemed that Burroughs attracted a coterie of characters very much like those whom he was satirizing in his work. One fictional character of his, for example, called the “Intolerable Kid” — a nightmarish creature of total appetite — sprang to life in the form of Mikey Portman, an epicene, voracious youth with a large mouth who would consume anything within reach and quickly turn the whole of the Duke Street flat into his ashtray and needle depository.
Even though Burroughs had renounced drugs and was an expert analyst of the iniquities of the drug pyramid and its cruel chain of exploitation and metabolic enslavement, he seemed to hold an allure for junkies who were drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet. It was if he’d given their unfortunate predicament some glamour, or gravitas even, even though he himself was contemptuous in many ways of the stoned hedonism of ’60s culture. “Nothing worse,” he’d groan disparagingly, “than going into a room full of giggling tea-heads.”
He left London for New York because of some difficulties with VAT, according to John Calder his publisher. I saw him there briefly at the Dial-a-poem recordings — an installation organized by John Giorno at the Museum of Modern Art. The idea was that anyone entering the museum would be confronted by a row of telephones in the foyer. They could pick up a phone and listen to a poem. This seemingly innocuous installation had the distinction of being closed down by the FBI. John Giorno had invited a radical mix to take part in the project, including Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, as well as Timothy Leary, and Bill Burroughs. I recorded a diatribe for it called “I will not pay taxes until …” (e.g. ‘I will not pay taxes until the Ministry of Defense is floodlit from the inside with cement”).
A mother taking her son to the museum apparently got it into her head that one of the poems she or her son had heard contained instructions for making a bomb — it was at a time when New Yorkers were scared of the Weathermen’s incendiary campaign — and she duly rang the police. The FBI paid a visit and despite there being no evidence of any bomb-making poems the museum caved in and there would be no more Dial-a-Poem. Those participating thought it absurd, but to Bill, who was convinced that the FBI would have listened attentively to all of the poems, it showed how powerful language could be as an instrument of subversion.
I saw Bill once again before he disappeared to take up permanent residence in Lawrence, Kansas. After a visit to his publisher John Calder, back in England, he came round with Ian Sommerville to the flat I was living in in Ledbury Road in North Ken. During the evening I explained that I’d felt a bit guilty about not having returned his Mayan book for such a long time. He held his hand up as I proffered it, blocking the book’s passage, and said simply, “You’ve earned it, Heathcote.” So I kept it.
I last saw Bill in London when he came over for an event called The Final Academy which took place in the Charing Cross venue Heaven. Derek Jarman was to film it and Bill was the star attraction as uncrowned King of the Underground. He read a riveting piece about mummification and the Pharoahs’ alchemical methods of securing their reincarnation amongst the celestial bodies, and how only the rich and undeserving Egyptian elite could afford the expensive and elaborate preparations that would enable them to rise from the dead.
At John Giorno’s invitation I read a piece called “Jumping Jesus” about Jesus’ sex life. Afterwards we repaired to the Green Room. Bill graciously asked after Joe McCrindle, the editor of Transatlantic Review and a few mutual friends and he kindly drew a piece he’d read recently about Denton Welch to my attention. He always liked Welch’s work very much, and then he was led away by his protective amanuensis James Grauerholz.
Bill had always seemed well preserved even when terminally abusing his body (he’d sometimes insist that he never got a cold when using heroin), and I can remember the three of us, Ian, Bill, and myself once sauntering through Ennismore Gardens where Transatlantic Review was published and when we passed under some scaffolding Bill suddenly reached up and pulled himself up, urging us to do likewise in a spur of the moment demonstration of physicality. He did a number of pull-ups with considerable dexterity and unexpected strength.
But now, at Heaven, he suddenly seemed to have aged. He was using a stick, and he was holding himself upright with difficulty, and in August 1997 el hombre invisible, as the Mexican street kids used to call him when he lived there, died.
Bill Burroughs has now entered the region of total invisibility, and yet he’s highly visible, achieving cult status as the hippest person that ever lived although oddly, during this, his centenary year and given the current mythologizing of one of the most complex characters of the 20th and 21st centuries, I’ve found that I mostly remember his kindness. His last written words were, after all, “love is the most natural pain killer there is.” And he’d firmly declare his belief that love was the only way to resolve conflict; a message that certainly bears repetition. His last spoken words were reputedly. “I’ll be right back.” Not quite the words of an out-and-out dystopian nihilist and, in 1961, he’d given an indication that he believed it. When Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso interviewed him for The Journal for the Protection of All Beings (published by City Lights Books), Allen Ginsberg asked him: “What is death?” Burroughs replied: “A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.”