by Charles Gatewood
Adapted from Dirty Old Man, a Memoir
In January 1972, Rolling Stone magazine sent Robert Palmer (writer) and yours truly (photographer) from New York to London to do a feature story on William S. Burroughs. The iconic Beat writer greeted us warmly, and showed us into his modest two-room flat on Duke Street, St. James, near Piccadilly. He was was a tall, thin man with a sad face — long nose, thin lips, steely blue-gray eyes. Impeccably dressed in slacks, turtleneck, and tweed sport coat, Burroughs looked a hundred percent straight. Maybe that’s why the world’s most notorious literary outlaw was called El Hombre Invisible.
Jack Kerouac called William Burroughs “the most intelligent man in America.” Norman Mailer described Burroughs as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Wildly experimental, Burroughs sought to discover “intersection points” where words, characters, images and dreams met to reveal important new meanings. “A writer,” said Burroughs, “is an artist with antennae tuned into certain cosmic wavelengths.”
William Burroughs came from a distinguished St. Louis family and attended America’s finest schools. After graduating from Harvard, he showed a strong affinity for junkie, queer, and criminal subcultures. His epic misadventures ultimately led Burroughs to believe he was “possessed by an ugly spirit.”
In 1951, at an apartment above the Bounty Bar in Mexico City, Burroughs shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, while playing a drunken game of William Tell. After spending two weeks in a Mexican jail, Burroughs made bail and fled the country. His subsequent visits to the Amazon in search of the psychoactive drug yage attracted interest from Allen Ginsberg and other “astronauts of inner space.”
In 1954, Burroughs moved to Tangier, an international free zone and a refuge for criminals and drug smugglers. He took a room in the Hotel Muniria adjoining a male brothel, stayed stoned on Eukodol (a synthetic opioid), indulged himself with Moroccan boys, and subsequently wrote the comic nightmares that became the book Naked Lunch.
Burroughs moved to London in 1965. Despite the success of Junky (over 100,000 copies were sold) and the notoriety of Naked Lunch (banned in Boston), Burroughs was not especially well known in America. His “cut-up” novels — including The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded — were non-linear in structure and difficult to understand. Bob Palmer hoped our Rolling Stone story would “give Burroughs the mainstream exposure he deserved.”
Our first surprise was Burroughs’ modest one-bedroom apartment. The walls were almost bare, and the place looked way too neat and clean. The only hint of weirdness was the life-size cut-out of Mick Jagger standing next to a Uher tape recorder (and the faint smell of hash smoke perfuming the room).
Burroughs and Palmer hit it off. Bob was a true-believer and long-time Burroughs fan. His interview questions were sharp, witty, and insightful. A pipe of hash was passed. Hssssssp. The hashish electrified my brain, big-time. Everything seemed so magical, so enchanted. I couldn’t believe I was in London, on assignment for Rolling Stone with one of America’s hippest journalists, smoking hash with Old Bull Lee. It was fucking awesome.
Bob Palmer began by asking music questions. Did William invent the term Heavy Metal? (Yes). Did Steely Dan ask permission to name their band after the sex machine in Naked Lunch? (No.) What about the band Soft Machine? Did they ask to use the name? (Yes.) What kind of music did Burroughs most enjoy? (Old-time jazz, 1930s “reefer songs” like “When I Get Low I Get High”), and Moroccan trance music.
Burroughs chain-smoked English Oval cigarettes as he talked about misogyny (“Love is a virus — a con put down by the female sex” ), infra-sound used for crowd control (“Everyone in Yankee Stadium would shit his seat”), and the evils of money (“Money eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty and creativity.”).
What was the best drug? (“Cannabis, no question. I have a Doctor Feelgood who writes me scripts for tincture of cannabis — for my paranoia, heh heh”). What about LSD? (“Horrible stuff. I had two nightmare trips. I find mescaline and yage much more interesting.”) William also feared that LSD might be used by the establishment to control antisocial behavior. He showed us a passage in Nova Express:
Listen: Their Garden of Delights is a terminal sewer… Their Immortality Cosmic Consciousness and Love is second-run grade-B shit… flush their drug kicks down the drain — They are poisoning and monopolizing the hallucinogenic drugs — learn to make it without any chemical corn.
We were joined by Brion Gysin, William’s close friend and long-time collaborator. Brion was a handsome, energetic man with wise blue eyes and curly reddish hair. He wore a Moroccan skullcap, a striped wool djellaba, and embroidered slippers. Very cool guy.
Bob told me that Gysin, an artistic prodigy, had exhibited with the French Surrealists at the tender age of nineteen. Brion’s friends included many international superstars — Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Billie Holiday, Jackson Pollock, Charles Henri Ford, Barbara Hutton, Sylvia Beach, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, and more. Brion Gysin knew everyone.
In 1950, Brion went to Tangier to visit writer Paul Bowles — and stayed 23 years. In 1954, he opened a restaurant called 1001 Nights and invited the Master Musicians of Jajouka (“the world’s first psychedelic rock-and-roll band”) to be the house orchestra. Visitors could experience deep-trance music that Brion traced back to the Rites of Pan (which later led to the Roman festival Lupercalia.)
“I went to Morocco for magic,” said Brion, “and stayed for the music. There are many mystical brotherhoods in Morocco, and they can truly possess you. You hear your music, you fall in line. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
At five o’clock, Dewars Scotch was served — chilled, no ice. Burroughs became more relaxed after a few drinks. “Brion Gysin,” he said, “is the only man I truly respect. Our collaborations have been amazing. Outstanding, really.”
“We met in Tangier,” said Brion. “We weren’t friends at first. Bill was all junked out, and very cranky. He called me ‘a paranoid bitch on wheels.'”
“Oh Brion,” scoffed Bill.
Brion puffed more hash, and said, “It was in 1958, at the Beat Hotel in Paris, that we recognized each other as creative soulmates.”
Brion showed us the layout boards of The Third Mind, their unpublished collaborative book. Using tape recordings, photo montage, film clips, flicker machines, crystal balls, lie detectors, and other vision-inducing gizmos, they had channeled True Magick, making important third-mind discoveries in a process they called “psychic symbiosis.” The illustrated book was a stunning montage of words and pictures, including fold-ins, cut-ups, news items, dream fragments, and a selection of Gysin’s permutated poems, like “Junk is No Good Baby,” “Kick That Habit, Man,” and “Rub Out the Word.”
“This book is such a sad story, said William. “So much creative work down the drain.”
“We had a publishing deal with Grove Press,” said Brion. “But Grove dropped the book because of the permission and production requirements. It was just too expensive to print.” (A smaller version of The Third Mind, with fewer illustrations, was published by Viking Press in 1978).
Our chat turned to mugwumps, talking assholes, and giant centipedes. Gysin said he had finished a screenplay of Naked Lunch and was showing it around. “The shooting script is finalized and budgeted. Eartha Kitt has agreed to play the purple-ass baboon, and Mick Jagger said he might play Burroughs. Can you imagine?”
In his dry midwestern drawl, Burroughs told tales of wild boys, pornographic lynchings, and unspeakable nightmares involving soul-sucking freaks and monstrous insects. As more vodka loosened his tongue, Burroughs described a party trick he’d once seen performed by artist Jean Cocteau.
“Cocteau would strip naked, lie down, get hard, and ejaculate without touching himself.”
“How did he do it?” asked Bob Palmer.
“Thought power,” said William. “I’ve done it myself, but never at parties. I do it in my orgone accumulator.”
I didn’t know if I believed William. He was quite drunk now, slurring his words, staring at my crotch. The Old Lizard King might be off hard drugs and living in a tidy London flat, but he was still a pervy old con. The truth well told.
The next day, William looked pale and shaky. At a Chinese restaurant, he chain-smoked English Ovals while eating his fried rice. After lunch, we went to see Ian Sommerville, a Cambridge University mathematics student who was Burroughs’ boyfriend during most of the 1960s. Ian was a slender intellectual in his late twenties, who lived in an opulent Kensington Square flat filled with tasteful oil paintings and beautiful antiques.
After serving tea and cakes, Ian showed us Brion Gysin’s flicker device. The “Dream Machine” was a three-foot slotted cardboard cylinder, spinning on a phonographic turntable with a 100-watt bulb inside.
“The Dream Machine is revolutionary,” said Brion. “It’s the first art object ever made to be looked at with your eyes closed. At 78 rpm, it produces 8 to 13 stroboscopic flickers per second. The flashes of light synch with alpha rhythms in your brain. The Dream Machine has really changed my seeing. I see dream images — kaleidoscopic colors, glowing jewels, pulsing lights. I see patterns, grids, zig-zags, spirals. Sometimes tiny elves appear, and ‘little folk’ dance by. It’s quite a unique experience. Would you like to try it?”
I sat down, closed my eyes. The Dream Machine spun flick-flick-flick patterns of light on my eyelids. Before long, geometric shapes throbbed in my brain. I saw shining stars, dancing patterns, shifting balls of energy.
“You’re looking at the raw material of creation,” said Brion. “Awesome, isn’t it?”
You want the truth? I saw flashing patterns, yes. I saw bright colors too, especially hemoglobin red and psychedelic purple. And when I opened my eyes, everything looked fresh and new. But I did not experience any soul-shaking transcendental peaks, or meet my Maker face-to-face. I did not see the raw material of creation, or encounter any of the “little folk.” I wanted to see the raw material of creation, believe me. The Dream Machine gave me a fascinating peek at a world “beyond the veil.” It also gave me a headache.
The next day, Brion told us he was the guy who gave Alice B. Toklas her famous recipe for hashish fudge. That amazing claim alone was enough to give Brion Gysin a permanent seat in the Hipster Hall of Fame.
“Brion’s a prankster,” said Burroughs. “That majoun fudge — it really fucked Gertrude up. Fucked her up good. Now, Brion’s pulling pranks on me. He’s got me cutting up my text, rearranging the words. He also got me hooked on Scientology, nasty man. Should I thank Brion — or should I kill him? Let’s ask the E-meter.”
William gripped the hollow steel cylinders of a Scientology E-meter. Burroughs called the contraption “a cross between a lie detector and a mind-reading device.” After turning on the E-meter and taking several deep breaths, Burroughs began asking himself questions.
“Am I me?”
The needle fell.
“Am I that I am?”
The needle reached a neutral position and stayed. “A floating needle,” said William. “Excellent.”
When I asked to photograph Burroughs using the E-meter, he said sure. I posed him in profile against soft window light — a very fine shot. When I asked to take some straight-on portraits, William began to look uncomfortable. I asked him to sit at a table near the window, and shot a quick roll of black-and-white portraits. Burroughs seemed very relieved when I finished.
On the last day of our visit, I showed William Burroughs my Sidetripping bookdummy. He liked my bizarre photos, especially the naked “St. Sebastian” boy being led away by uniformed cops at Mardi Gras. He also liked my photo of a drunk fraternity boy pissing on Bourbon Street. “Wild boys,” said William. “Fine work.”
I knew Burroughs believed in verbal sorcery and the power of word-magic. Certain word combinations could be deadly, he said. Words had power. Words could kill.
“I want to make photographs that kill,” I told him.
“When Sidetripping is published,” said Burroughs, “viewers will die, for sure.”
My palms got all sweaty. “Would you write an introduction to the book?”
“Why certainly,” said William. “I’ll be delighted.”
Oh my! William S. Burroughs would introduce my book! Never mind that I didn’t have a publisher — I would certainly find one now!
In April, 1972, Burroughs sent me his three-page introduction to Sidetripping. I read the text with great excitement. It began splendidly, with a sly carny come-on:
Step right up for the greatest show on earth. The biologic show. Any being you ever imagined in your wildest and dirtiest dreams is here and yours for a price. The biologic price you understand money has no value here…
After quoting from New Scientist magazine (a piece about brain research), Burroughs continued:
Charles Gatewood the sidetripping photographer takes what the walker didn’t quite see, something or somebody he may have looked quickly away from and the photo reminds him of something deja vu back in front of his eyes.
Burroughs went on to compare photographers to thieves — a nice touch. He also told how a writer named Dunne in his 1924 book An Experiment With Time found that some incidents in his dreams referred to future time:
Point is he discovered that his dream referred not to the dream itself but to the account and photos in newspaper.
This was a cool observation — I’ve experienced pre-cognitive dreams too, many times.
William’s comments about my photo of a gallery crowd watching a woman masturbate were also dead-on:
What do the expressions on the faces of the spectators express? Substitute a car wreck, an epileptic convulsion, a lynching and the expressions would be equally appropriate…
Other parts of William’s text were more problematic. To accompany my photo of a sad-faced man holding a smile-face balloon, William quoted a long passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yikes. Was this a copyright issue? There were other problems too. Describing my photo of a dead-eyed leather boy with clothespins on his nipples, Burroughs wrote:
Is he a slave or victim who might turn up as a body in some Houston sex murder?
Oh dear. I didn’t have a single model release. Was this libel, slander, invasion of privacy — or all of the above?
Sidetripping ends with a frat boy pissing in the street as his drunken friends watch:
Look at the boy’s face. Smiling in the ruins. Dying? So what? We shall overcome. Ambiguous familiar in his face death child with a wide grin ambiguous familiar. AH POOK PISSED HERE.
What kind of ending was that? And who the hell was Ah Pook?
I really couldn’t criticize William’s text — could I? After all, he’d written it as a courtesy, for free. It was all I had. It would have to do.
I cut the Burroughs text into sections, and plugged the text into my Sidetripping book dummy. There were gaps, for sure, plus that weird ending — but the surreal text did bounce off my raw photos in some powerful ways. At any rate, William Burroughs’ name now graced the cover of my book, and that was a big step forward.
It took two more years to find a publisher. Most editors who saw Sidetripping were fascinated — but no one would publish such a strange book. Photography books were expensive to produce, and Sidetripping was loaded with potential legal problems.
“Thanks for showing us your work,” they would say, “and good luck. You have a good eye.”
A good eye, my ass — who would publish my book?
In October, 1974, good fortune smiled. After my book was rejected by over thirty publishers, Richard Kasak, owner of Strawberry Hill Books, agreed to publish it. Joy!
Kasak didn’t care so much about model releases — most of the photos were taken in public and had “redeeming social value.” Kasak considered it an important book, and agreed to print the pictures in quality duotone. He did have one request: Could I ask William for more text so we could run his words throughout the book?
“I’ll ask him,” I said.
Burroughs was living in Manhattan now, renting a spacious loft at 77 Franklin street. The loft was neat, clean, and toasty-warm. I saw a rocking chair by the window, an orgone box in the corner, a pile of manuscripts on the kitchen counter. Nice digs.
William wore a single-breasted blazer, pressed slacks, and polished leather boots — and he seemed in good health. He was thrilled to hear I’d found a publisher, but not so happy to hear I wanted more text.
“I’m pretty busy right now…”
“I can get you a thousand bucks,” I said. “All we need is a few more pages, and permission to use a few short sections from Exterminator!, Ticket That Exploded, and Wild Boys.”
“That sounds all right,” said William. “Have your publisher call me.”
I danced out the door, and flew down the rickety wooden stairs. Hooray!!!
Sidetripping was printed in August, 1975, by Metropolitan Printing, just a few blocks from my Chelsea loft. They did a fantastic job — the reproductions looked even better than my prints. Excellent!
The publication of Sidetripping changed my life, big-time. The Village Voice:
Sidetripping is for today what Robert Frank’s The Americans was for the fifties — a satirical, hard-hitting, uncannily perceptive profile.
The New York Times:
Gatewood’s world is freakish, earthy, blunt, erotic — most of all, terribly and beautifully alive.
Cornell Capa offered me a teaching job at the International Center of Photography, critic Bill Pierce called Sidetripping “One of the best 100 photography books ever printed,” and filmmaker Mark Jury wrote, offering a documentary film deal. Wow!
Last Gasp Publishing has printed a new expanded edition of Sidetripping, and first editions can be found online.
In 2011, I am producing a deluxe William Burroughs book with Dana Dana Dana editions in San Francisco. It will be a handmade artist’s book containing all the best photos from our 1972 shoot, plus previously unpublished photos of William Buroughs with Jimmy Page in 1975. The book will be similar to A Complete Unknown, my limited edition artist’s book about Bob Dylan. Only 23 copies of Burroughs will be produced. You can check out ACompleteUnknown.com to see the format and reserve your copy.