Iain has kindly donated to the website an unedited (“raw state” in his own words) taster from his new book “American Smoke”.
‘Dream Science’, an account of a 1995 visit to William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, is taken from ‘American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light’, which will be published by Hamish Hamilton in November, 2013.
He was spending as much time now in the Land of the Dead as in Lawrence, Kansas. It was my impression that Burroughs chose this place in order to make that transition smoother; the twinned locations in the end were impossible to separate. Going out for eggs over easy, bacon, toast, coffee – and getting it, his order filled with a smile and a replenished cup – confirmed the fact that he was not yet in hell. In the dreams of beat hotels, bunkers with too many doors, trains like trains in Hitchcock movies (silver-smooth with back projection lakes and snowy mountains), there were no breakfasts. It became an obsession: to score. To score even a cup of cold water with a shredded lettuce leaf floating in it. There are fast-food concessions in the Land of the Dead – of course there are – but they don’t have anything you can eat. Sullen waitresses ignore the impatient old man in the grey suit.
Burroughs dreams about packing. He’s always cramming a suitcase with weapons he knows will be confiscated at the border by the same two officials; one paunchy, with gold teeth and a limp moustache, and the other in a white shirt and black tie; lean, mean, an ugly veneer of civilisation. Charlton Heston in A Touch of Evil firing a cigarillo for that glinting shark’s bite mouth. The Orson Welles film, a Mexico of the mind fabricated out of Venice Beach, California, is one of the most accurate precursors of the Land of the Dead where Burroughs finds himself as soon as he nods off. My Education is a travel journal of expeditions in company with his suicided boys and Egyptian cats who can walk through walls. His relatives are waiting, his mother sometimes lodges at his side. He can smell her powder.
Apart from an interest in alien abduction (he pays a visit to Whitley Strieber, author of Breakthrough), and sexual encounters of the third kind, Burroughs was most concerned with proving that the dogmas of science were meaningless or totally misguided. He couldn’t accept that nothing moved faster than the speed of light. He spoke of clicking a switch fifteen years ago and seeing lights come on in an unvisited room: today. Changing sets is a simple matter, he explained: Morocco, Martinique, Manchester, context is everything. The taste of a cigarette will do it, even a photograph of the cigarette, visible traces of rent boy saliva. One line from a book by Joseph Conrad will import, or predict, meteorological conditions. You can read yourself into a storm. But you can’t, when you’re asleep, conjure up a decent plate of ham and eggs. The dead are starving, but they can’t eat.
‘I have seen weather magic,’ Burroughs said. ‘I have even performed it. I stopped rain in Seattle.’
Time is a politician’s conceit. The reach of language, uncensored downloads from the third mind, is absolute: prophecy is never more than a statement of the obvious. Among the dream records Burroughs transcribes from ‘scraps of paper and index cards and pages typed with one hand’ are pre-vision/future vision footage of ‘air crashes’. That feeling of being enclosed, trapped in the seat. Over Manhattan. ‘Very real.’ Then they land on the street.
He’s packing again. He has to escape. He thinks of: ‘St Louis or anywhere west of New York’. Plague city. Hot dust. American smoke. Image falling, word falling. Can’t breathe without scorching the lungs. ‘There is something terribly wrong here, some imminent disaster hangs in the air like a haze.’ Get out of town, fast. If two men are following you, there must be an unseen third. Burroughs uses Wichita as the excuse, he’s booked for a reading. As usual, he rehearses. His young assistants make the timings. ‘James says he was proud of me.’ On the road back to Lawrence in the ambulance: fridge, shower, toilet, bunk. Desolate country, burnt grass to sky for miles. Not a house. A few straggly trees, mulberry no doubt. The writer sits at his table, typing with one hand.
Suddenly, I’m hungry. It must be the Burroughs effect. We’re entering his force field. Serpentine brain waves push out from a photovoltaic scanner, a radio mast. We must not arrive one minute early on Learnard Avenue. (Lear again: nothing comes of nothing.) We pull in at the EZ Food Store, a service station that doesn’t serve. The woman at the till stares open-mouthed at these black-suit Euro aliens. I feel like a funeral director who has rung the bell before the sheet has been pulled over the patient. She spoons gritty pink goo from a tub. Shoppers pick up their gun magazines and cases of root beer. If you are granted access to the washroom, you are given a key attached by a chain to a wooden ball. The thickest turd I have ever seen, a steaming green truncheon, is curled around the crusted bowl like a dead python.
I buy a street plan and pass it to Pavel. Who dates it, notes the price ($ 2.25), before hiding this latest horror deep inside his black satchel. The folded map, published in Wichita, has a Mormon graphic: a many-spoked yellow sunburst over a temple-mall called Lied Center. We don’t need maps. From this point, the car navigates itself.
We park across the street from the red weatherboard house with the neat white balcony. The most perverse writer in America has come to rest in a dappled Douglas Sirk avenue, where nothing moves. In our dark-windowed hired car, I pictured us as the two characters from Don Siegel’s film of The Killers, the odd-couple hitmen, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager. And that becomes the motif of my memory tape. We are not implicated in the complex weave of personal relationships in the ever-expanding Burroughs biography. We are accidental bureaucrats, hirelings in town for an afternoon to do a job. Get the shot. Steal the quote.
But Burroughs is far too canny, too long in the game. Pale sunlight across the table where he sits, waiting for the hour when he will take his first drink. Nothing to be said that had not been said a thousand times before. He talks property prices in Boulder and Lawrence. He reminisces about meeting Samuel Beckett in Berlin. Beckett stared at the wall. He had nothing to offer, beyond acknowledging that, yes, William Burroughs was indeed a writer.
The voice never rises above a gravel whisper. Time-travel has drained the man of superfluous social energy. There will be no more readings in Wichita, no more film cameos. He can’t understand why every city he has visited in the last few years, when he comes to describe it, turns into Seattle. If there is an interview to be done, he’ll manage it on the telephone. The red house is the closing set. The Toronto trip, to promote David Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch, was a mistake. Nice hotel, no sleep. Excruciating pain, radiating down the left arm and up to the jaw. Popping nitro pills. ‘No way to detach yourself since there is no place to detach yourself to.’
On the occasional table, I notice a copy of Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest. I’d forgotten how Burroughs wrote about taking a fancy to the cocky young buck in the author photograph on the wrapper of The Judgement of Paris, back in 1952. ‘A nice clean Ivy League boy.’ They spent a session drinking together in the San Remo. This was before Kerouac’s one-night stand with Vidal in the Chelsea Hotel; which was fictionalised, in different registers, by both men. Norman Mailer, reading everything in lurid post-Hemingway psychosexual terms, said that when Vidal ‘removed the steel from Jack’s sphincter’, he buggered him into a vortex of booze and self-pity from which he would never escape.
Even in the dream journals, Corso appears with his hand out. Burroughs complains of being tracked by bounty hunters. ‘What am I worth? Gregory always wants to borrow money.’ I pass over the letter Corso gave me in New York.
Burroughs slashes the envelope with a ceramic knife. ‘Best there is. Cost me a hundred dollars.’ He scans Corso’s message, snorts again. Flicks the letter across the table.
We get the standard heritage tour: the shotgun Nagual paintings with demon faces, and the books, which are mostly science fiction, serial killers, UFO reports. Along with unsolicited gifts left, pristinine, on the shelf. Burroughs keeps a King James Bible close at hand: ‘for the language’. He re-reads: Hemingway (‘good on death’), Greene, Conrad. Denton Welch above all. And books with hard information.
A large ginger cat is sleeping on her master’s sun-spotted single bed. Outside there is a feline cemetery with headstones, names and dates. Tasty snacks are prepared for the OAs (the outside animals): raccoons, possums, feral cats. Who do not stay outside, but who infiltrate the kitchen. If Bill gets up in the night, numerous rank and furry things press against his thin legs. He rescues wounded rats. And tolerates visits from Dean Ripa, the snake man, who has been known to set a king cobra, a gaboon viper and a fer-de-lance loose in the living room. Sacks of Tidy Cat deodorant power are required to combat the fetid reek of the cat litter. All of these creatures, like Lawrence itself, like America, are dying. Becoming projections, Ariels and Calibans of the Mid-West. ‘Not even a rat left behind,’ Burroughs says. ‘That’s my religion. Read Beckett. You identify and kill alter egos to get to the bottom: the unnameable, the abyss. Silence.’
He set a mirror in the goldfish pond to catch his ally. Weed cataracting a silver eye. Razored cloud-strip bandages. The rain stick is broken and his magic is done. He pokes his cane among sluggish fish, stirs the leaf-thick muck. And talks about the time drunken Indians came over the fence from the Native American college. Guns are in the basement. There is a feathered wand in the bedroom.
The cats are tapping the old man for psychic sap, milking him, stalking through rubbled dreams of the coming Land of the Dead. On subsequent US visits – to Bastrop in Texas and Phoenix, Arizona – I learned about the fellowship of those internal exiles, the hardcore writers: Michael Moorcock, Jim Sallis. Like Burroughs, they kept cats and guns (Mike’s was a replica). Cats infiltrate mystery fiction: men with coffee habits, ex-drinkers, post-traumatic spooks solving crimes the hard way. Moorcock uses cats like a scarf, like Peter Sellers in The Wrong Box; their claws scratch runes into his easy chair.
Burroughs measures out his day between methadone hits, calls to the vet, and the ever-earlier hour for that first tumbler of vodka and Coke. Once the slow drinking starts, it doesn’t stop. Early to bed. When he eats – knowing there is nothing on offer in the Land of the Dead, that border country of extinguished volcanoes and limp cock sex – he snorts an extra hit of sea salt, like snuff, between every bite. As if he is preparing himself for a return to the sea.
The orgone accumulator looks like an outdoor privy. ‘Watch out for the Black Widow spiders,’ he says. We pose for the ritual shot. Burroughs slips his left arm around Pavel. With that smooth face, disconnected smile, and buzz-cut hair, Coen reminds Bill of a medical orderly. A keeper of liquids. In a few years, Burroughs will fade from the photograph. There will be two strange men standing, yards apart, around a scarecrow absence on a patch of Kansas grass.
Back inside, books inscribed, drinks poured, Burroughs comes to the revelation. He doesn’t write anymore. He paints, shoots cans. He collects his prescription from Kansas City. The last set worth recording was a landfill dump on the Kaw River, outside Topeka. Debris, cottonwoods, wild turkeys. Burroughs sat, unmoving, through the afternoon. He recognised an opening for his get-out novel, The Western Lands. ‘Gradually, as he wrote, a disgust for his words accumulated until it choked him and he could no longer bear to look at his words on a piece of paper.’
A sweat lodge ceremony with a Sioux medicine man revealed, and then exorcised, the ugly spirit that had oppressed him for so many years; a spirit in the form of a winged Vietnam War helmet. A spirit representing the karma of American materialism and invasion guilt. A spirit smelling of chicken-fried steak and napalm. This spirit was the curse laid down at the moment when he shot and killed Joan Vollmer in Mexico City in 1951. A curse that could only be ameliorated by dedicating his life to writing, taking the dictation of the old ones. And now the job was done.
The way was clear to the western lands, a dream cinema without horizons, space that contracts to a single point of light but never ends. ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion,’ Burroughs said, ‘that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. There is no way out.’
He stared into the abyss and the abyss stared right back. Michael Emerton, a curly-headed carer, boyfriend of James Grauerholz, one of the business managers of the Burroughs estate, shot himself in November 1994. Burroughs was very fond of the boy and made him then dedicatee of My Education. With Emerton at the wheel, there had been a high-speed crash in a BMW two months earlier. The driver lost control. The vehicle aquaplaned, bounced off a crash barrier and skidded across the turnpike. Burroughs got out, unscathed, leaning on his cane: ‘I need an ambulance.’
Youths appeared all the time, wanting to see or touch the old man in the red house. Some were taken on to help with domestic duties or to run necessary errands. Most were photographed. Many had adolescent problems or projects to discuss with the junk-fed sage. Quantities of opiates were ingested, regular hits of dope; Kansas evenings softened with vodka and Coke. George Laughead arrived from Dodge City, trailing a high school senior called Daniel Diaz. The boy’s mother had threatened her son’s life on two occasions.
‘Shoot the bitch and write a book. That’s what I did.’
The Burroughs sentence from a vodka session in Lawrence, posted on a local website, was soon notorious. It had the kind of subterranean afterburn I found when, searching for traces of Pavel Coen, I played the Beat DVD I found in the Croydon charity pit.
The replay of a double-death memoir was hypnotic. Much truer to source than Cronenberg’s respectfully overimagined account of Naked Lunch or any of the implausible translations from Kerouac into Hollywood. A palpable lack of budget pared Gary Walkow’s film down into rigorous close-ups, brown rooms with low ceilings, a script made from quotations. And postcards from Mexico: an empty road, a river, the distant volcano.
Walkow’s Beat was my passport to the Land of the Dead. A slim plastic wallet with a pixilated portrait of a man in a hat, who looked about as much like Burroughs as I do.
The actors, none of whom resemble their originals, sleepwalk with listless conviction, repeating lines they appear to have received under a general anaesthetic. Keifer Sutherland makes a pass at that cryogenic Burroughs voice of world-weary cynicism, hot ash in the throat: a man who has come back from the abyss with grumbling haemorrhoids. The tapeworm of raw meat sex stays at the bottom of the Mescal bottle, untasted. Too much human flesh at the end of the fork.
Here is a narrative framed between the formal austerity of Bresson and the rum psychosis of Jim Thompson. Lucien Carr, the blond boy of New York, stabs and kills his stalking predator, Dave Kammerer. A paradox frames my sense of America: impossible spaces, claustrophobic cabins. Kammerer is actively on Carr’s tail (rubbing him with cash money, booze), while Burroughs, implicated in every action, plays witness and confessor.
Two deaths. Kammerer as he tries to mount Carr. And Joan Vollmer, the glass on her head, challenging Burroughs to accept his fate and become a writer.
‘Do they have ruins in Guatemala?’
‘It’s all ruins.’
Sutherland’s pastiched Burroughs likes a drink, but he’s not Malcolm Lowry. He suffers the same tick, the compulsion to find the right word. ‘Did you see the flock of vultures?’ But is flock the best collective noun? Bevy, covey, flight, gaggle, brood, hatch, litter, shoal, swarm? Like Lowry he is on the Mexican bus with the chickens and the people.
Burroughs, his boyfriend (a version of Lewis Marker, with whom he visited Ecuador in search of the hallucinogenic drug yage), Joan Vollmer: eternal triangle. Vollmer, Carr, Burroughs: ‘Too bad you’re not a man.’ Ginsberg, Burroughs, Vollmer: dry hump. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady: poetry. Cassady, Kerouac, Carolyn Cassady: confession. And on. And on. Until one of them strikes out for Mexico. Walkow’s budget version has the mathematics of catastrophe absolutely pat. Maya plus Los Alamos. The pyramid of black smoke.
‘No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican kills someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend.’
The miracle of Beat is Courtney Love who is nothing like the febrile Joan (who had two small children and was too smart to write). Love is embedded in her performance, emboldened by sofa lips, harvest of hair, the supreme physicality. At moments she looks like a shire horse in scarlet lipstick and a wig. She’s better than Kim Novak in Vertigo – where awkwardness of performance reaps dividends.
‘Lucien can write a song about anything.’
‘Why don’t you write us a volcano song?’
Walkow references everything from Malcolm Lowry to Billy Wilder: ‘nobody’s perfect’. Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, visited Burroughs in Lawrence. There were rumours that he spent his last seventy-two hours staring into the flicker and strobe of a Burroughs/Gysin dream machine. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Seattle.
Beyond the dust of the Mexican road, as the Ginsberg actor and the Carr actor carry Courtney Love towards the cone of the distant volcano, is the shadiest, coolest river. They strip, plunge, drift. Love vanishes. She is sitting in her damp underwear in a wood. All the good Westerns have a version of this scene. Peckinpah liked nothing more than crossing the border; a respite in a green place, before red death.
That was it, I thought. Walkow had summarised it for me, broken the complexities down. I couldn’t imagine where this DVD came from or why it could be found in Croydon for £1.50. And then the name rang a muffled bell. Alongside the director/performer Andrew Kötting (who had the look of Lowry and a major swimming habit), I was invited to talk about our project of taking a swan pedalo from Hastings to Hackney. We were in Trinity Buoy Wharf at the mouth of the River Lea, the precise point at which, months later, when a budget had been secured, I would come ashore, quitting the swan before she completed her voyage by disappearing into the tunnel in Islington. The swan reminded me of somebody: Courtney Love. White lady of destruction, shredder of myths.
After the event, a man approached. He knew my work and said that, if I were willing, he’d like to present me with a DVD. It was a film he made in 1995, a version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I remember sending this person a note of thanks and I tracked the email down.
At first I found the shift from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century California disorientating, but all that soon settles. Sometimes limited means (budget) does create a useful tension. It was good to meet at the river’s edge.
The man’s name was Gary Walkow.
Photos by Iain Sinclair (Lawrence, Kansas. November 1995). Finessed by Anonymous Bosch. (St Leonards, East Sussex, 2013).