William S. Burroughs, Ian Sommerville & Michael Portman
by Matthew Levi Stevens
A chapter from The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs, by Matthew Levi Stevens (forthcoming from Mandrake of Oxford, Autumn 2014.)
The magical theory of history: the magical universe presupposes that nothing happens unless someone or some power, some living entity wills it to happen. There are no coincidences and no accidents.1
Mikey Portman, Ian Sommerville, and William Burroughs, photograph taken at the residence of Christopher Gibbs, Cheyne Walk, London 1966 [photographer unknown, from Henry W. & Albert A. Berg Collection.]
Meanwhile, back at The Beat Hotel. . .
Curses, mirror-gazing, spells and trances, and the non-chemical expansion of awareness made possible through Cut-ups, Flicker, and Playback — all would be diligently explored with Bill’s new acolytes and lovers: the Cambridge mathematician, Ian Sommerville (“the Technical Sergeant”), who would facilitate the Dreamachine and tape-recorder experiments, and spoilt rich-kid jailbait, Mikey Portman (“the Medium”) — who, despite his bad habits, good looks, money and youth (or, perhaps, even because of them) would eventually drive Burroughs to distraction.
These two Lost Boys were each, in their way, vital to the collaborations being undertaken by Burroughs and Gysin in the 1960s, and how they sought to extend their “Third Mind” to others. Indeed, the Acknowledgment for Burroughs’ 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded, gives notice of the importance of this new spirit of collaboration:
The sections entitled in a strange bed and the black fruit were written in collaboration with Mr. Michael Portman of London. Mr. Ian Sommerville of London pointed out the use and significance of spliced tape and all the other tape recorder experiments suggested in this book. The film experiments I owe to Mr. Antony Balch of Balch Films, London. The closing message is by Brion Gysin.2
Born 3rd June 1940, Ian Sommerville was a brilliant young man from a working-class background in Darlington, in the North of England, whom a scholarship had enabled to go to Cambridge to study Mathematics. During the Summer Holidays, he had gone to Paris and found part-time work in the Mistral bookshop, where a chance recommendation from Harold Norse (“this kid likes older guys”3) had led, inadvertently, to what would perhaps be the love of Burroughs’ life. Gysin later said of Sommerville:
Ian Sommerville was a mathematics scholar at Jesus, Cambridge, just over in Paris for the holidays. He was skinny and quick as an alleycat with bristly red hair that stuck up all over in pre-punk style. He was crisper than cornflakes and sharp as a tack. He crackled and snapped with static electricity and panicked at the idea of rain on his hair.4
The characters Technical Tilly and The Subliminal Kid in Burroughs’ 1960s cut-up novels are based on Sommerville, and he gets a further credit in the Foreword Note to Nova Express:
The section called “This Horrible Case” was written in collaboration with Mr. Ian Sommerville, a mathematician — Mr. Sommerville also contributed the technical notes in the section called “Chinese Laundry”.5
Many years later, Ian would be the basis for the character of the photographer, Tom Dark, in The Place of Dead Roads, and he would appear regularly in the various dreams recorded in the final works, My Education and Last Words.
Ian Sommerville would also play a key role as the Third Mind’s very own “systems advisor” after a startling visionary experience Gysin had in the back of a bus in December 1958. As he recorded in his diary:
Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?6
When Burroughs later read The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter, he made the connection with his friend’s strange visionary experience immediately. Walter, an American-born British neurophysiologist, had been researching the effect of controlled flicker on states of consciousness via the use of precisely calibrated stroboscopes, and with the help of early EEG equipment had put forward a model of varying brainwave frequencies corresponding to different states of consciousness. Apparently a flicker rate of 8-to-13 cycles a second induced what Walter dubbed “alpha rhythms” — which “predominantly originate . . . during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes” and, interestingly, also during REM sleep (i.e. during dreaming.) Obviously Brion had experienced a spontaneously-occurring flicker experience, no doubt caused by the exact rhythm of the sunlight flickering through the trees as the bus drove past, thought Burroughs. Walter himself had actually suggested the possible evolutionary impact of something similar in an uncharacteristically poetic flight of speculation in his book:
Oddly enough it is not in the city, but in the jungle conditions, sunlight shining through the forest, that we run the greatest risk of flicker-fits. Perhaps in this way, with their slowly swelling brains and their enhanced liability to break-downs of this sort, our arboreal cousins, struck by the setting sun in the midst of a jungle caper, may have fallen from perch to plain, sadder but wiser apes.7
New Year, 1960, and Burroughs sent Gysin a postcard proclaiming “Blitzkrieg the citadel of enlightenment!”8 The question was, though, how to reliably reproduce the flicker effect? The answer came from their young friend, Ian Sommerville, who had also read Walter’s book, and, after returning to his studies at Cambridge, had written:
I have made a simple flicker machine; a slotted cardboard cylinder which turns on a gramophone at 78 rpm with a light bulb inside. You look at it with your eyes shut and the flicker plays over the eyelids. Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colours on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of colour are pounding to get in.9
As Gysin would later remark of Sommerville:
He was an extraordinary technician, had obviously ever since childhood been the sort of boy who can fix things, or make things, or mend things, or invent things.10
Gysin, inevitably, was quick to promote both the Dreamachine and his discovery of it — going so far as to register a patent, Procedure and apparatus for the production of artistic visual sensations, for his “invention”11 (although many later felt that the credit really should have gone to Sommerville.) Ever the charismatic raconteur and self-mythologizer, Gysin would spin a web of wonder about “his” flicker device, writing that:
The Dreamachine may bring about a change of consciousness inasmuch as it throws back the limits of the visible world . . . This, surely, approaches the vision of which the mystics have spoken.
He would also create a suitably esoteric and esteemed pedigree, telling interviewers:
One knows of cases — in French history, Catherine de Medici for example, had Nostradamus sitting up on the top of a tower . . . and he used to sit up there and with the fingers of his hands spread like this would flicker his fingers over his closed eyes, and would interpret his visions in a way which were of influence to her in regard to her political powers . . . they were like instructions from a higher power . . . Peter the Great also had somebody who sat on the top of a tower and flickered his fingers like that across his closed eyelids.12
Of course, it was too good to be true. For all that the “cosmonauts of inner space” of the Beat Hotel thought that the Dreamachine could be “the drugless turn-on of the 60s”13 illuminating the world for the price of a light-bulb, it was never really going to have the kind of mass appeal they might have hoped for. It is fair to say that the device’s undoubtedly impressive effects have intrigued a number of Burroughs-and-Gysin-inspired alternative rock musicians, such as Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Kid ‘Congo’ Powers (the Dreamachine was included to great effect in the video for his single, Conjure Man14) Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, and DJ Spooky. Marianne Faithfull — who would meet Gysin for tea in Mayfair during her “lost years” and would later get to know Burroughs when Allen Ginsberg arranged for her to teach songwriting at Naropa — recalled her first impressions of the Dreamachine, and her answer gives some sense of the associations that probably stopped the device from catching on commercially:
I remember going to an exhibition of Brion Gysin, and there was the Dreamachine . . . I mean I knew it was really special ‘cos I think I was tripping . . . Only a magical creature could think up something like that — it is like a wonderful idealistic idea, but you know it’s never gonna fly.15
The other main addition to Burroughs’ new circle at the Beat Hotel, and one who would become both a close personal friend and important creative collaborator, was the filmmaker Antony Balch. According to Gysin:
Burroughs and I were forever saying we ought to be making movies but we had no contacts at all until I met Antony Balch at a party given just across our narrow alley. . . His mother worked in the movies and Antony grew up looking like a movie star but he wanted to make movies, produce them, direct them and distribute them . . . He made money by distribution which he spent on making three experimental shorts with us: Towers Open Fire, The Cut Ups and Bill & Tony. He then made a soft porn picture and a horror to get his hand in at a commercial film in the hopes of making Naked Lunch out of my screenplay. It was not to be.16
The Third Mind collective around William Burroughs at the Beat Hotel was now complete with Brion Gysin, Antony Balch, and the addition of Ian Sommerville and Michael Portman. Allen Ginsberg, perhaps somewhat resentful of being displaced in his old friend-and-lover’s affections, later wrote:
Bill’s all hung up with 18 yr. old spoiled brat English Lord who looks like a pale-faced Rimbaud but is a smart creep . . . Bill got some kind of awful relation with him and the kid bugs everyone so intimacy with Bill is limited and Bill absentminded all the time . . .17
Burroughs’ first biographer, Ted Morgan, would describe Portman thus:
. . . with the pouty lips and mischievous eyes of the Caravaggio Bacchus, the kind of face in which youthful self-indulgence is already tinged with decay.18
Michael Portman was young, good-looking, and infatuated with Burroughs — copying everything about him, from his preference for mint tea, Arab-style, and how he walked, to the way he took a fix — and at first Burroughs was flattered, writing to Brion Gysin:
Miguel [Michael] Portman’s beauty produce an aphrodisiac result. It’s the principal of the thing you understand. If I could just get that guide alone.19
This last was a reference to the fact that, as well as his other, more obvious, attractions, young Portman was also highly suggestible, and prone to trancelike states. If Ian Sommerville was the Third Mind’s Technical Sergeant, then Mikey was its Medium:
A much more beautiful and shining replica has materialised himself at 25 Lillie Road [Burroughs’ London address at the time] . . . Name Michael Portman . . . Turns into a Tangier guide straight away and said: “Me llama Meester. Que quires?”20
The letters also give some insight into how relations between the Agents of The Third Mind, emerging at that time as it was in anonymous, cheap furnished rooms and hotels in London, Paris and Tangier, and the correspondence between them, was by no means without its conflicts or tensions. Two years later, still in the Empress Hotel and having established an uneasy accommodation with his two young amigos, a letter to Gysin includes this telling query: “Some staff difficulties between Ian and Mikey — Ian is one head I can’t walk in — Can you?”21
Although there was an initial honeymoon period with his new amigo, Michael Portman, in which Burroughs found the boy’s youth, looks, and admiration an obvious turn-on, the simple truth is that Mikey was an accident waiting to happen. His father, Lord Portman, had died suddenly when Mikey was still only a boy of 12, his widowed mother sought comfort in the arms of a younger Greek playboy lover, and it was left to the family solicitor, Lord Goodman, to dole out a not insubstantial allowance to the troubled teen. Hurt, confused, and doubtless feeling abandoned all round, Mikey acted out by being lazy, spoilt through and through, and unreliable. The poet and actor Heathcote Williams, who was associate editor of the literary journal Transatlantic Review when he met and befriended Burroughs in 1963, gives a characteristic snapshot in a recent reminiscence:
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.22
Mikey was also the main basis for the addict and virus carrier “Genial” in The Ticket That Exploded.
Ian Sommerville could not stand Portman, feeling he had wilfully squandered all the opportunities his background, education, and family wealth had afforded him. Although Mikey had sought a kind of queer father figure in Burroughs, his true sexual preference was in black rough trade. Before long, the honeymoon was over and the letters become a catalogue of paranoia, poltergeist disturbances, possession, and suspected psychic attack. During what would later become known as the “Psychedelic Summer,” when Harvard professor and emerging psychedelic guru Timothy Leary descended on Tangier with a batch of powerful new psychedelics to try out on the Beat expats, a West Indian boyfriend of Mikey’s famously remarked: “Oh Mikey, it is terrible what is going on. Here there is spirits fighting . . . all the time spirits fighting!”23
It is alleged that in 1961 Portman assisted Burroughs and Gysin in an act of ceremonial magic as they attempted to perform the legendary Abra-Melin Working in an hotel in Marrakesh — although one has to wonder at this: conducted properly, the Abra-Melin is, in effect, a full-scale “magical retreat” — complete with complex devotions, fasting, and increasingly rigorous rituals, building in intensity over a six-month period, and as such aimed exclusively at the solo practitioner — so it is hard to imagine just how it would be adapted to a group working, even if one wanted to. In addition, although an integral part of the Abra-Melin procedure is the systematic conjuring and binding of demons — so that in the end the aspirant is suitably empowered and purified as to be able to attain to “the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” — at no point does it involve the conjuring or “channelling” of spirits, so it is unclear quite what use a medium would be . . .
There are, in fact, various recorded practices that have come down from the magic of antiquity that do make use of children or youths to channel spirits — for instance, in the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of texts gathering material ranging from the 2nd Century B.C. to the 5th Century A.D., which stand in relation to the Western magical tradition in much the same way as the Dead Sea Scrolls do to Christianity. A number of the spells given in these Papyri instruct the would-be magician to “make use of a boy” in acts of divination — in other words, employ a young, pre-pubescent male as a medium. The boys in question “should be uncorrupt, pure,”24 and the nature of this purity is made quite clear: “You should bring a pure youth who has not yet gone with a woman.25
Such young boys were chosen quite specifically to assist as mediums, particularly when a form of scrying was involved, as it was believed that their purity and absence of sexual desire or experience allowed them clearer perception of the spirit realms. Although it seems highly likely that Michael Portman, avowedly homosexual from a young age, had indeed “not yet gone with a woman” it is a stretch to imagine him as “uncorrupt” or “pure.”
Both of these Lost Boys would come to unfortunate ends: Mikey Portman, as a member of the British aristocracy and the younger brother of Viscount Portman, had never wanted for money — but, more lethally, had never been asked or expected to do anything with his life. After realising his homosexuality at a young age, then becoming the first fully-fledged Burroughs groupie, it was perhaps inevitable that he would succumb to a lifetime of alcoholism and drug-addiction. Later, he would also develop a fanatical fixation with “the Wickedest Man in the World” and self-styled “Great Beast 666,” occultist Aleister Crowley, and when I became friends with Brion Gysin’s companion and collaborator Terry Wilson in 1980s London, he told me that when he visited Portman for the last time, he was scourging himself with a studded leather belt — crying out “Victory to Aleister Crowley!”26 — his decorators not so much as batting an eyelid.
Mikey lived a short, pointless, fast, dissolute life, spiralling repeatedly between detox, short-lived recovery, and all-too-predictable relapse. He died of a heart attack on the 15th of November, 1983.
He was only 39.
Ian Sommerville, on the other hand, was a young man of considerable intelligence and ability, who was more than a match for Burroughs — and probably also genuinely loved him. Things only really became estranged between them as a result of Burroughs’ fascination with Scientology, which Ian just had no time for at all: “When he fixes me with that Operating Thetan stare I just can’t stand it . . . I can’t get out of the room fast enough.”27
Right from the start of their relationship, there had been a kind of slippery psychic symbiosis: the opening gambit on Burroughs’ part had been to recruit Sommerville to help nurse him through detox, supervising a course of apomorphine as part of the cure for a codeine habit he had picked up. It is reported that the poet Harold Norse called by to see how Burroughs was doing, and when the door was answered by Sommerville, tall, skinny and stripped to the waist, Norse addressed him as “Bill” — then immediately apologising that he had mistaken Ian for his friend. Sommerville replied: “Everybody does. I’m a replica.” Although Sommerville turned out to be a strict but supportive nurse, efficiently doling out the precisely timed and calibrated regime of apomorphine shots, it was quite the baptism of fire for the young man, dealing with the agonies of his new friend’s withdrawal, and clearly had a profound impact on him:
“I can’t tell you what it’s been like, man, it’s been fucking unbelievable . . . I never want to go through this again, man. Hallucinations, convulsions, freakouts, the edge of insanity. I had to hang on to my sanity by my fingernails, and they’re bitten down to the moons. But it’s worth it, man, Bill’s getting better.”28
Later, this “psychic fusion” had other consequences, turning the relationship into something of a see-sawing power-struggle. The poet and photographer Ira Cohen would report a particular incident that he was witness to, during a visit to Tangier: he was standing talking with Ian at the bottom of the hill in front of the Hotel Muniria, when all of a sudden Burroughs appeared at the top of the hill. Cohen did nothing to indicate Burroughs’s presence to Sommerville, who had his back to the hill and could not have seen his lover’s arrival anyway, when suddenly, still in mid-conversation, Ian began walking backwards up the hill to where Burroughs was standing, as if being pulled by a magnet, or reeled in.29
When Burroughs had considered returning to the States in the mid-1960s, Ian had felt abandoned, and perhaps not unsurprisingly had made what he probably thought of as a fresh start with a young man nearer his own age, from his hometown of Darlington in the North of England, Alan Watson. Even though Burroughs had returned to London — and shortly thereafter he, Sommerville, and Watson, had lived together in a somewhat strained ménage at Duke Street — it had been the end as far as the potential for any future relationship between the two was concerned. Unsure how to try and reclaim what might well have been the love of his life, Burroughs felt powerless, and, to his eternal regret, let Sommerville slip away — and although they would remain friends and even occasional lovers, it was over. Due to his ability with mathematics, after some confusion and uncertainty, Ian was able to pursue a career-path that took him into the newly emerging world of computers:
He was a very talented young man. I mean he understood things that I could just grasp, like probability theory and floating equations, physics. It all came naturally . . . Then he got into computer programming.30
He relocated to Bath, in the West of England, where for a while he would share a house with John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis (a book about ley-lines, among other things, described by Professor Ronald Hutton as “almost the founding document of the modern earth mysteries movement.”31)
Shortly after Burroughs had relocated to the USA in 1974, he received a telegram from Ian in respect of his 60th birthday on 5th February, which read: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LOTS OF LOVE. LOTS OF PROMISE. NO REALISATION.”
Later that day Burroughs received a second message, this time from Antony Balch: it seems that on his way back from sending the telegram, Ian — who had only recently passed his driving-test, and bought himself a car — had been hit by a drunk-driver, and killed instantly.
He was barely 36.
It was typical of the mindset and world view under which Burroughs and Gysin were operating that they considered both their young amigos to have been the victims of curses at one point or another.
Always weak-willed and self-indulgent, Mikey’s heroin use all-too-predictably escalated, until he was juggling alcoholism, detox, and drugs at an alarming rate. Still a firm believer in the apomorphine treatment, Burroughs of course had wanted to take Mikey to register with Dr. Dent — but found himself opposed by Portman’s godfather, Lord Goodman, who instead wanted the boy treated by a friend of his, Lady Isabella Frankau. At the time, Dr. Frankau was considered to be offering a discreet and enlightened treatment option from her exclusive Harley Street practice, but the simple truth is that she was a “writing doctor” — only too happy to give out Private prescriptions for heroin, methadone or morphine to her wealthy clients. Understandably, she was opposed to any alternative, such as Dr. Dent and his apomorphine treatment, as the last thing she wanted was for prospective patients to be cured — and for a while Burroughs was unwittingly drawn into a battle-of-wills with Frankau, it seemed over the very soul of poor hapless Mikey Portman.
For all that he was wilful and stubborn, Portman could also be curiously passive, suggestible, and easily lead. Indeed, it was a key part of what had attracted and interested Burroughs in the first place, Mikey’s potential as a “medium” — but now his apparent lack of clearly-defined identity caused Burroughs to worry that the young man was at risk of possession. This came to a head on one occasion when Lady Frankau attempted what would nowadays be called an “intervention” where Portman was concerned, showing up announcing that she had arranged for him to be admitted to a sanitarium for “emergency treatment” — although Burroughs had little doubt it was just a ploy to get Mikey away from him and Dr. Dent, and enrol him on the equally addictive methadone program. One of Burroughs’ newly-emerging superstitions at that time was that a cold sore could be a “point of entry” for hostile possessing forces, maybe even The Ugly Spirit: Mikey had just such a cold sore on his lip, and shortly after the confrontation with Frankau, Burroughs was convinced he saw something like a silvery light slip off of Mikey’s shoulder and hit him in the chest: “I not only felt it, I saw it, it was something slid off his shoulder like silver, silver light. You could see it very clearly.”32
Whatever it was, it gave him a sudden sense of the “dying feeling”, and causing him to pass out. When he came round, he knew that he had been hit by a curse that Lady Frankau had placed on Mikey.
With regard to Ian, Burroughs was even more convinced that he had been cursed, and that it had very definitely caused Ian’s death. Sommerville had been a confirmed homosexual until quite recently, when, for the first time in his still-young life, he had slept with a woman. A Dutch girl, Susan Janssen, who had been visiting Ian in Bath, made a definite play to seduce him, and was successful: the only problem was that her regular boyfriend, Bill Levy — an American, living in Amsterdam, where he edited a counter-culture magazine called The Fanatic — developed a terrible grudge against Sommerville as a result. Levy would “dedicate” an issue of The Fanatic to Ian, featuring an article Electric Ian: Portrait of a Humanoid — A Tawdry Brief Life, in which he heaped scorn, ridicule, and personal insult against him, stating that he was an “electric-razor queen who shaves his genitals” with a deformed penis, and that he had been Burroughs’ “kept lover” with a “fascination with rough trade.”33 To add insult to injury, Levy included quotes from the likes of Burroughs, the poet Heathcote Williams — and even Susan Janssen — taken out of context in such a way as to make it seem they were all belittling him. When Burroughs later found out that Ian had just heard about the magazine and its content on the same day he was involved in the accident that killed him, he was totally convinced that Levy had cursed him, and was responsible for his death.
Both Ian and Mikey would continue to appear in Burroughs’ dreams — and thus his writings — for the rest of his life.
3rd June 1941 — 5th February 1976
1945 ? — 15th November 1983
1. “The magical theory of history . . .” — WSB, The Place of Dead Roads (Viking, 1983.)
2. “The sections entitled in a strange bed and the black fruit were written in collaboration with Mr. Michael Portman of London. . .” — WSB, Acknowledgment, The Ticket That Exploded (Olympia, 1962.)
3. “this kid likes older guys” — Harold Norse, as reported by Norse during interview with Ted Morgan for the latter’s biography of WSB, Literary Outlaw (Pimlico, 1991.)
4. “Ian Sommerville was a mathematics scholar at Jesus, Cambridge, just over in Paris for the holidays.” — Brion Gysin, ‘Collaborators’, in The Final Academy: Statements of a Kind (The Final Academy, 1982.)
5. “The section called ‘This Horrible Case’ was written in collaboration with Mr. Ian Sommerville, a mathematician . . .” — WSB, Foreword Note, Nova Express (Grove, 1964.)
6. “Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles.” — Brion Gysin, diary entry, 21st December 1958. Quoted in Brion Gysin & Terry Wilson, Here To Go: Planet R101 (RE/Search, 1982.)
7. “Oddly enough it is . . . sadder but wiser apes.” — W. Grey Walter, The Living Brain (Duckworth, 1953; Penguin, 1961.)
8. “Blitzkrieg the citadel of enlightenment!” — WSB, New Year 1960, quoted in Brion Gysin, ‘Cut-ups: A Project for Disastrous Success’ (1964), which originally appeared in the Evergreen Review and later in Brion Gysin Let The Mice In. Collected in Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, ed. Jason Weiss (Wesleyan University Press, 2001.)
9. “I have made a simple flicker machine . . .” — Ian Sommerville, 15th February 1960, as quoted in Brion Gysin, ‘Dream Machine’ [sic], Olympia magazine No.2 (Olympia Press, 1962.) Included in Flickers of the Dreamachine, ed. Paul Cecil (Codex, 1996.)
10. “He was an extraordinary technician . . .” — Brion Gysin, interviewed by Terry Wilson, ‘Control . . . Control?’, in Here To Go: Planet R101 (RE/Search, 1982.)
11. According to Brion Gysin: “I made a ‘machine’ from his ensuing description and added to it an interior cylinder covered with the type of painting I have developed in the three years since my first flicker experience. The result, eyes open or closed, warranted taking out patent, and on July 18, 1961 I received brevet no. P.V.868, 281” — in ‘Dream Machine’ [sic], Olympia magazine No.2 (Olympia Press, 1962.) Included in Flickers of the Dreamachine, ed. Paul Cecil (Codex, 1996.)
12. “The Dreamachine . . . one knows . . . closed eyelids . . .” — Brion Gysin, interviewed by Jon Savage, date unknown. Transcript included in RE/Search issue 4/5, credited “From a forthcoming book of interviews with Brion Gysin, edited by Genesis P-Orridge. In Paris, Jon Savage asked the questions . . .” (RE/Search, 1982.)
13. “the drugless turn-on of the 1960s” — Jon Savage, aforementioned interview with Brion Gysin, RE/Search issue 4/5 (RE/Search, 1982.)
14. Conjure Man by Kid ‘Congo’ Powers and The Pink Monkey Birds (In The Red, 2013) — incidentally, the promo video was shot by Aaron Brookner, nephew of Howard: director of the seminal 1983 documentary, Burroughs: The Movie.
15. “I remember going . . . Only a magical . . . never gonna fly . . .” — Marianne Faithfull, interviewed for Nik Sheehan’s documentary, FLicKeR (2008.)
16. “Burroughs and I were forever saying we ought to be making movies . . .” — Brion Gysin, ‘Collaborators’, in The Final Academy: Statements of a Kind (TFA, 1982.)
17. “Bill’s all hung up with 18 yr. old spoiled brat English Lord . . .” — Allen Ginsberg, letter to Lucien Carr, 28th July 1961. Quoted in various biographies.
18. “. . . with the pouty lips and mischievous eyes of the Caravaggio Bacchus . . .” — Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (Pimlico, 1991.)
19. “Miguel [Michael] Portman’s beauty produce an aphrodisiac result . . .” — WSB, letter to Brion Gysin, 7th October 1960, included in Rub Out The Words: Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, ed. Bill Morgan (Penguin Classics, 2012.)
20. “A much more beautiful and shining replica has materialised himself . . .” — WSB, letter to Brion Gysin, 1st October 1960, included in Rub Out The Words: Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, ed. Bill Morgan (Penguin Classics, 2012.) The pidgin Spanish translates as something like “You called Meester [Mister.] What do you want?”
21. “Some staff difficulties . . .” — WSB, letter to Brion Gysin, 9th April 1962, included in Rub Out The Words: Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, ed. Bill Morgan (Penguin Classics, 2012.)
22. “When I went round to Duke Street . . .” — Heathcote Williams, ‘Burroughs in London’, HYPERLINK “https://realitystudio.org/biography/burroughs-in-london/” https://realitystudio.org/biography/burroughs-in-london/ February 2014. Also cross-posted to Jan Herman’s blog, Straight Up.
23. “Mikey, it is terrible what is going on . . .” — as reported by Terry Wilson, in conversation with the author, Summer 1988. Compare with WSB, to Ted Morgan, as reported in Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve, 2014.)
24. “make use of a boy . . . uncorrupt, pure” — PGM VII.540-78, The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation, ed. Hans Dieter Betz (University of Chicago Press, 1986.)
25. “You should bring a pure youth who has not yet gone with a woman.” — PDM xiv.68, The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation, ed. Hans Dieter Betz (University of Chicago Press, 1986.)
26. “Victory to Aleister Crowley!” — Michael Portman, as reported by Terry Wilson, in conversation with the author, London, Summer 1988.
27. “When he fixes me with that Operating Thetan stare I just can’t stand it . . .” — Ian Sommerville, as reported in Barry Miles, El Hombre Invisible (Virgin, 1992.)
28. “Everybody does . . . I can’t tell . . . Bill’s getting better” — Ian Sommerville, in conversation with Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel, Paris, 1959, as reported by Norse during interview with Ted Morgan for the latter’s WSB biography, Literary Outlaw (Pimlico, 1991.)
29. “He was standing . . . lover’s arrival . . . reeled in . . .” — Ira Cohen, as reported by Terry Wilson, in conversation with the author, London, Summer 1988.
30. “He was a very talented young man . . .” — WSB, Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel (Atlantic Books, 2001.)
31. “almost the founding document of the modern earth mysteries movement.” — Professor Ronald Hutton, Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: their nature and legacy (Blackwell, 1995.)
32. “I not only felt it, I saw it . . . dying feeling” — WSB, Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve, 2014.)
33. “electric-razor queen . . . rough trade” — Bill Levy, ‘Electric Ian’, quoted in Phil Baker’s William S. Burroughs, in the ‘Critical Lives’ series (Reaktion Books, 2010.)
The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs by Matthew Levi Stevens is scheduled for publication by Mandrake of Oxford, Autumn 2014, RRP £12.99.
6 thoughts on “The Lost Boys”
Terrific piece! And I’ve never seen that photo of Burroughs before. I’m really looking forward to reading the book.
Correction: BTW. Ian Sommerville suicided himself 5 February 1976, on William Burroughs’ 62nd (not 60th) birthday, having never seen The Fanatic which was was published in Amsterdam on 5 February 1976. Anyone so out of touch with crucial dates and unable to do elementary arithmetic most likely is simply wrong about everything else. Sloppy work. What a laff. No magic here.
-William ‘Bill’ Levy
Bill Levy, one error surely doesn’t render the rest of the piece unworthy?
Is anyone else having problems with not getting the illustrations in posts here? (just my OS possibly?)
I look forward to the whole book, have only skimread this exceprt
John Geiger, in his life of Brion Gysin “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” , says Gysin thought perhaps suicide had occured because Sommerville was upset when Gysin told him of the Fanatic article in a telephone call the day before. This is also documented in ‘Literary Outlaw’.(How Gysin knew of the article prior to its official publication date is not mentioned but it is doubtful the magazine was so swathed in embargoed secrecy that the story could not have already done a few rounds.) The fatal crash in Morgan’s account involved another car so distraction was more likely to be the cause than a suicidal intent. Wikipedia cites Geiger’s p90 in Chapel of Extreme Experience, that it was “a single-car accident due to inexperience.” Since this comment pre-dates his “Life of Gysin” it may well be that the letters he footnotes in the later book gave him more perspective on the tragedy.
And a tragedy it certainly was. Not helped in its contemplation by Ugly-Spirited remarks. (Geiger himself uses the term mean-spirited when talking about the Fanatic article.)
BTW: Everything is Nothing, Truth is Permitted.
Nice post JP.
“…And The Grey Gentlemen always leave their card.”
Susan Janssen was by no means the first woman that Ian had sex with, despite Bill Levy’s claim to the contrary. Ian had several woman friends with whom he had sexual relations in Tangier in 1964, and had a sexual relationship with Panna Grady in 1967 in London – she claimed he was very good in bed – and Felicity Mason once told me that although she had not had sex with him, she knew of several other woman who had.
Brion told me that he had described the article to Ian over the telephone and had read parts of it to him. How he saw it the day before publication I don’t know but there was no reason for Brion to make this up. Burroughs was convinced that Bill Levy was responsible for Ian’s death, and the very mention of Levy’s name provoked a quite extreme reaction in him.