Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Sliced Bardo: William Burroughs I-View by Lee Ranaldo

By Levi Asher on Friday, November 21, 1997 07:16 pm


9 April 1997
by Lee Ranaldo


In April 1997 I had the chance to connect via telephone with William Burroughs to ask him some questions about Morocco and the years he spent in Tanger. Having traveled there a few times myself recently, I was curious about the Maroc of the forties and fifties, when Tanger was classified an "International Zone" and the laws were famously lax. We spoke for about half an hour that afternoon;I got the impression William wasn't really up for much more than that; he was alert but sounding a bit weary.

It wasn't until some months later in a Kaatskill Mountain cabin that I dug out the cassette tape to transcribe. I spent the better part of that afternoon trying to decipher his gravelly drawl, and pondering his life's journey. On two occasions Sonic Youth had the opportunity to visit him at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, where he took great pleasure in showing us jewel-encrusted knives, gun catalogues, his beloved cats, and the Orgone box out back which he'd built himself, between the pond and garden. Two days later on August 2 I heard of his death. I felt I had just been conversing with him. Barely three months separated his death from that of his lifelong friend Allen Ginsberg.

This man, who spoke of language as a virus, had become subliminal, a skewed organism, rooting under the cultural skin of our time. Imagine a world un-cut-up, without his bone-dry timing, without The Soft Machine or Dr. Benway. Imagine how much vital, challenging work from the last few decades, in so many fields, might not exist without him.

Later in the month, when the New Yorker published his final journal entries, it was clear that he could see the end coming. And what was he left with? Here is his final entry, day before he died: "Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller. What there is. LOVE." Those are the thoughts he leapt off with. Even before the words make sense, that voice is digging in. Listen to him speak yr mind, find rock power writ in his pages, let yr fingernails be left uncleaned.
LR 10/97


(loud dial tone and faint "hello, hello?"
silence
touch tone phone tones
ringing 5 or 6 times)

WSB: eh, Hello?
LR: Is this William?
WSB: Yeah.
LR: Hi William, this is Lee Ranaldo in New York City.
WSB: Yeah.
LR: How are ya?
WSB: Oh, okay.
LR: Well you sound pretty good.

(static)

LR: Okay, I wanted to talk to you, for just a few minutes this afternoon, about Morocco, if you would.
WSB: Just a moment, I gotta get my drink.
LR: Okay.

(25 sec silence)

WSB: OK.
LR: Okay, first off, William, I'd like to say that I was very sad to hear about Allen, I know you guys have been friends for the longest time.
WSB: Yes. Yes, well he knew, he knew it. He faced it.
LR: It seems like he faced it in a very dignified way, actually.
WSB: Yep, he told me, "I thought I'd be terrified but I'm not at all"
LR: He did?
WSB: Yes, "I'm exhilarated!" he said.
LR: Well, I suppose if anyone had the right, uh, frame about them to go out that way, it was probably him. I was hoping to get one more visit in with him before he passed on, but that was not meant to be. I'm sure a lot of people felt the same. When was the last time you saw him?
WSB: Los Angeles. At my show there.

LR: I wanted to talk to you about Morocco a little bit. I've recently been to the country, a few times, and done some exploring, and I know you spent quite a bit of time in Tanger. I just wanted to pick yr brain about that a little bit. You went to Tanger for the first time in 1953, 1954?
WSB: Nineteen-fifty-four, I believe.
LR: How did you end up in Morocco? What was it about the place that drew you there? I mean, today there are a lot of different romantic associations with the coast of North Africa.
WSB: There were a lot more then than there are now, I can tell you that. You'll notice more subdivisions now, as it's modernized and is no longer cheap. For one thing, it was very cheap then. Yeah, man, I lived like a king for $200 a month.
LR: Did it have the same sort of appeal, then, that Berlin had in the sixties and seventies, an international zone of sorts?
WSB: Pretty much so. It was an anything goes place, and that's another plus.
LR: And that was pretty available knowledge, when you went there?
WSB: Oh sure.
LR: Had you known Paul Bowles, or known about him, before you went there?
WSB: I'd read his books. I didn't know him.
LR: Did you meet him fairly quickly after you were there?
WSB: Mmm, I'd been there for some time, I'd met him very slightly. Later we became quite good friends, but that was some years afterwards.
LR: Do you enjoy his writing?
WSB: Very much, very much. Very particular style, particularly in the end of Let It Come Down, that's terrific, terrific, and The Sheltering Sky is almost a perfect novel. The end of that, oh man, that quote: "At the end of the Arab quarter the car stopped; it was the end of the line." great!
LR: Did you know Jane (Bowles)?
WSB: Oh yes, quite well.
LR: What'd you think of her?
WSB: Oh she was incredible
LR: I've heard incredible things about her, she lived quite an interesting life herself, although I guess in general women in Morocco were very much invisible, in a certain way. Native women, at least.
WSB: It's a very complicated situation, very complex, and I don't pretend to know much about it. Jane Bowles was sort of known for her strange behavior. In New York they invited her to some party where all these powerful ladies were, and they asked her, "Mrs. Bowles, what do you think of all this?", and she said "Oh" and fell to the floor in quite a genuine faint. That was her answer!

LR: Did you pretty much exist within an expatriate community there, or did you have a lot of contact with the local people? Was is easy to have contact?
WSB: The local people, umm, I don't speak a fuckin' word of Arabic, but I speak a little Spanish, y'know, they all spoke Spanish in the Northern Zone. My relations were mostly with the Spanish. Spanish boys. And, of course, otherwise in the expatriate side.
LR: Right, but you didn't frequent the Barbara Hutton crowd?
WSB: Nooo.
LR: There was a description, in Barry Miles book (El Hombre Invisible), where he said that you felt very lonely and cut off, being isolated in this corner of North Africa.
WSB: It wasn't being in a corner of North Africa that made it so, it was the fact that I hadn't made many friends there.
LR: Was that a strange time for you? Living there without really knowing anyone?
WSB: Not particularly, I've visited many places alone, many times.
LR: Do you think that the general tenor of life in Morocco influenced the way you were writing at that point? The daily life coming out in some of the routines?
WSB: Probably. The more I was in that surrounding the more I liked it. More and more. Yeah, it was cheap, and then, I met this guy Dave Ulmer (?), who was Barnaby Bliss (his nom de plume). He was at work writing society columns for the Tanger paper, an English (language) paper, the Morocco Courier, run by an old expatriate named Byrd, William Byrd, an old Paris expat. [Ulmer/Bliss, a character of some unsavory repute, supposedly introduced WSB to Tanger's young boy homo-sex scene, and also, more importantly, to Paul Bowles]
LR: Did you do much traveling around Morocco while you were there, or did you pretty much just stick in Tanger?
WSB: I'm ashamed to say, not much. I went to Fes, I went to Marrakech, and passed through Casablanca, some other places there, I forget the names of the coastal towns, and I've been to Jajouka!
LR: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that, I'm friendly with Bachir Attar, and the last time we were there I went to Jajouka as well. I saw your inscriptions in his big scrapbook, and heard some stories.
WSB: Yeah.
LR: How did you end up there?
WSB: Through Brion Gysin, more or less.
LR: What did you make of the music?
WSB: Great, great. I loved it. Magic, it really has a magical quality that you can't find anymore, anywhere. It's dying out everywhere, that quality.
LR: It still seems to be in evidence when they play today, I don't know if you've heard them recently.
WSB: Not recently, but I've heard the recordings, some of the recordings. Ornette Coleman made some, you know. I was there when he made those.
LR: Excuse me?
WSB: I was there.
LR: You were there when he made those (Dancing in Your Head) recordings?
WSB: That's right.
LR: Oh, gee, wasn't that in the 70's? I didn't know you were there when those recordings were happening.
WSB: Yeah, it was, '72, I think.
LR: Are you still in touch with Bachir?
WSB: No, not really.
LR: You were in touch with his father, I suppose.
WSB: Yes, I knew the old man, sure, I remember him. He was the leader of the group back then.
LR: How many musicians would you say were in the group back then?
WSB: Oh, I don't know, it would vary, I'd say about 12, 15.
LR: That's about how many there are today as well. What about at the 1001 Nights (Gysin's restaurant in Tanger), were the Jajouka musicians playing in there?
WSB: Well, various musicians. They had dancing boys in there, too. But I didn't know Brion too well, I was only there a couple of times. I didn't know him then. I became friendly with him in Paris, later.
LR: Were you involved much with the music there, in Morocco, in Tanger? Did it make any strong impression on you?
WSB: Well, I like the Moroccan music very much, the music is omnipresent. I'd be sitting at my desk and hear it outside. It was all around you.

LR: I'd like to hear your impressions of the kif smoking there, and the majoun.
WSB: Sure. Well, the kif smoking was, y'know, anywhere and everywhere. There were no laws.
LR: They sort of smoke it the way people have a drink here, as a social relaxant?
WSB: Well, not exactly the same way. In the first place, it's pretty much confined to men, though I suppose the women get to smoke on their own. But anyway, of course majoun is just a candy made from kif,the kif, you see, is mixed with tobacco.
LR: Right.
WSB: I can't smoke it.
LR: Nope.
WSB: So I'd always get those boys with the tobacco, I'd tell 'em: 'I don't want the tobacco in it.' So I rolled my own, and made my own majoun. It's just a candy, it's pretty much like a Christmas pudding, any sort of candy works good, fudge or whatever.
LR: And how did you find it? Was the high pretty pleasing?
WSB: Very very very much. It was stronger than pot.
LR: Were you smoking a lot of that, or taking a lot of that, when you were writing some of the routines?
WSB: Yeah, sure. It helped me a lot.

LR: The place where you spent a lot of your time there (in Tanger), the Muniria (the famed "Villa Delirium")?
WSB: The Hotel Muniria, yes.
LR: Was it a hotel or a boarding house?
WSB: It was a hotel.
LR: That's where you wrote a lot of the routines that became Naked Lunch?
WSB: Quite a few of them, yes.
LR: And is that where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky, those guys, came to visit you?
WSB: I was living there at that time, yes. They didn't, there wasn't a place in the Muniria, but they found various cheap places around very near there.
LR: I heard Kerouac had nightmares from typing up your stuff at that time.
WSB: (pauses) Well, he said.
LR: Was he the first one to actually sit down and type a bunch of that stuff up?
WSB: No, he was by no means the first. Alan Ansen did a lot of typing, and of course Allen Ginsberg. I don't know who was first but it wasn't Jack.
LR: Those guys came and went pretty quickly, compared with the amount of time you spent in Morocco, I guess they weren't as enamored of the place.
WSB: Well they were settled somewhere else. Now for example, Jack didn't like any place outside of America, he hated Tanger.
LR: I wonder why?
WSB: He hated Paris because they couldn't understand his French.
LR: His French was a Canadian dialect.
WSB: Those French Canadians got themselves into a language ghetto. Even the French people don't speak their language! Anyway, he'd been to Mexico quite a lot, more than many other places. He liked it there fairly well.
LR: But he didn't like it very much in Tanger?
WSB: No no, not at all.

LR: Was Tanger a violent place then?
WSB: It was never a violent place that I know of, never! Good God, I walked around in Tanger at all hours of the day and night, never any trouble. There's this idea that you go into the native quarter you immediately get stabbed (laughs) it's nonsense!
LR: Well, people do bring back those stories now and again.
WSB: Well, occasionally it happens, but it is much less dangerous that certain areas of New York, my God!
LR: If you can navigate the streets of New York you're in pretty good stead just about anywhere, I guess.
WSB: Yeah, that's right, you're much safer in Tanger than in New York.

LR: Were there many travelers or tourists in Morocco at that time?
WSB: Not many at all. It was nice. In the summer of course you had sometimes quite a few Scandinavians, Germans(laughs). Brian Howard said about the Swedes, I think it was: 'You're all ugly, you're all queer, and none of you have any money!'
LR: There was another quote in Miles' book, you saying that you'd "never seen so many people in one place without any money or the prospect of any money."
WSB: You certainly could live cheaply there, yes.
LR: Did Americans have to register with the police to live there?
WSB: Of course not, nothing, they had to do nothing. Well, they put in various regulations in town, you had to get a card. By the time we got our goddamn cards and stood in line and had to take all that crap, I had to get one of those in France, too, well, anyway, by that time they had another idea (laughs), so your card that you had acquired was worthless.

LR: When was the last time you were back in Morocco?
WSB: When in the hell was it? I went there with, the last time I went with Jeremy Thomas and David Cronenberg, apropos of possibly getting some shots, y'know.
LR: Oh, for the movie (Naked Lunch)?
WSB: Yeah, for the sets. Well, we just were there a couple of days. It had changed, not incredibly but considerably. There's been a lot of building up, a lot of sort of sub-divisions, it's gotten more westernized. There used to be a lot of good restaurants there, now there's only one, and that's in the Hotel Minza. These people I was with were saying 'Oh show me to a little place in the native quarter where the food is good.' and I said: 'There aren't no such places! Right here in your best food in Morocco, or in Tanger anyway, right in the Hotel Minza!' Well, they went out and they ate in an awful, greasy Spanish restaurant. After that they believed me!
LR: (laughs) They had to find out the hard way.

LR: Okay William, I think that that's gonna be good, that about covers the subjects I'd wanted to get at you with, on there.
WSB: Well fine.
LR: I appreciate your talking to me, it's a great pleasure to talk to you.
WSB: Well, it's my pleasure too.
LR: Okay, I hope to get another chance to come out and say hello to you out there in Lawrence.
WSB: That'd be fine.
LR: Y'know, I have one last question for you, is that, uh, typewriter still growing out in your garden?
WSB: (puzzled) What typewriter?
LR: Last time we were out there to visit, you had a typewriter growing in your garden amongst all the plants and things.
WSB: Oh, just one I threw away I guess.
LR: Yeah, it was a very beautiful image there, with the weeds coming up through the keys.
WSB: (laughs) I guess so, I don't remember the typewriter, I've gone through so many typewriters, wear 'em out and throw 'em away.
LR: Do you generally write with a computer these days?
WSB: I have no idea how to do it. No, I don't.
LR: Typewriter or longhand?
WSB: Typewriter or longhand, yes. These modern inventions! James [Grauerholz] has one, but I just don't.
LR: Okay, well listen William, I thank you very much. Please tell both Jim and James thanks for their help as well.
WSB: I certainly will.
LR: Okay, you take care.
WSB: You too.
LR: Bye bye.
WSB: Bye bye.


(The photo at the top of the page is by Lee Ranaldo. A slightly earlier version of this interview can be found at Mike McCullough's excellent website, specifically here.)

On to Part Two

Back to Sliced Bardo


This article is part of the Sliced Bardo series. The next post in the series is Sliced Bardo: On Burroughs by Robert Creeley.


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