The book 'Women of the Beat Generation' has some good material on her, especially an account of her confrontation with sexism in San Francisco's poetry crowd in 1957. Anyway ... when it rains it pours, but I'd like to mandate that no more legendary Beat or otherwise worthy counter-cultural figures shall die in the next couple of years. I plan to spend 1998 writing about lots of great new creative literary activities, and *not* looking back. Happy New Year everybody!
It took me a while to figure out how to memorialize William S. Burroughs.
There's something about Burroughs that makes words seem ridiculous, especially trite sentimental words about death. This is the writer, after all, who'd coined the phrase "Language is a virus." When Burroughs' fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg died a few months earlier, the emotional response flowed easily, as Ginsberg's own literary style was warm and highly personal. With Burroughs it would be more tricky.
I had gathered a few pieces that I wanted to work with. The first was the transcript of a telephone interview conducted by poet and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, which Lee had sent me along with three surprisingly great photos he'd taken when visiting Burroughs at his home in Kansas. The second two were short tributes I'd solicited from two writers who'd known Burroughs personally, Robert Creeley and Carolyn Cassady -- not because the pairing of these two people had any special significance in the life of Burroughs, but mainly because I happened to know both their e-mail addresses. Carolyn Cassady's reply was extremely curt and not very complimentary to Burroughs, but I considered her point of view as valid as any other, and it did not seem unfitting that there should be some divisiveness within a memorial to this highly controversial personality.
The fourth piece is, I think, the most remarkable: a personal account of the Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired after-death ceremony, a bardo, conducted by Burroughs' closest friends and partners shortly after his death. This was written by Patricia Elliott, who'd been Burroughs' close friend, and who originally posted it to the BEAT-L internet mailing list.
Unsure how to make these pieces fit together, I finally decided to follow Burroughs' own example and give up on trying to
reconcile the individual parts. Burroughs had found meaning in the "cut-up" style of writing, in which sentences and paragraphs from various sources are spliced together intuitively but not logically, often revealing hidden meanings within. Getting into the spirit, I took inspiration from his title "Naked Lunch" and Ginsberg's related title "Reality Sandwiches" and decided to call this whole project "Sliced Bardo". That's it, and here it is.
As James Grauerholz says in the final section, facing the fire: Let's burn it.
"Give the director a serpent deflector
a mudrat detector, a ribbon reflector
a cushion convector, a picture of nectar
a viral dissector, a hormone collector
what ever you do, take care of your shoes"
-- Phish, "Cavern"
"If I don't explain what you want to know
You can tell me all about it at the next Bardo"
-- David Bowie, "Quicksand"
Many thanks to Lee Ranaldo, Robert Creeley, Carolyn Cassady and Patricia Elliott.
Bardo in Kansas by Patricia Elliott
Patricia Elliott, a friend of William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, posted many heartfelt accounts of his last days and the days that followed his death to the BEAT-L, an internet mailing list where she is often a lively part of the conversation. (If you'd like to know how to join this list, visit this page).
I was tempted to include all of Patricia's posts here, but decided instead that this description of a Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired death ceremony had special power and was best left to stand alone. Burroughs was a writer who thrived on contradiction, and so I particularly liked the idea of a Buddhist death ceremony for a man whose strong skepticism and libertarianism did not make him a natural Buddhist in life. (Example: In a letter to Jack Kerouac, who was deeply involved with Eastern philosophy for most of his later life, Burroughs once wrote: "A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration.")
The energy and humor of clashing ideas has always been at the heart of Burroughs' art. In that spirit, here's a scene from the final act of his life story.
-- Levi AsherAll week long I didn't want to go. I felt swept with anxiety and decided about 7 times I wouldn't go. James [Grauerholz], who never calls me, called me around 1 PM and said he was just checking in to make sure I knew to come. Bob, John Myers, Lena and I drove out to Wayne Propst's farm for the bardo around six. Wayne was a close and dear friend to William and an old and dear friend to me. Wayne is a mad scientist, ingenious with all things mechanical. I made a pasta salad and John Myers took a six pack.
Wayne and his family live on lush riverfront land, lots of outbuildings, scene of hundreds of experiments and gatherings. William really never missed Wayne's parties. Lena heard at school from a friend, who was also going to the bardo, that Wayne might blow something up. The excitement builds when Wayne is involved. Wayne has an old farm house, many outbuildings, trees, giant warm barn. His property runs along the Kansas River (we call it the Kaw River). Beautiful kaw valley bottoms.
The bardo is staged to be in front of the barn, in a small pasture. The big barn doors open to the pasture, flooding light from one space into another. In the middle of the pasture there was a massive dome-shaped heavy wire cage with a wire doorway. Inside were lumber, fireworks, pictures, and pages and pages of things that people brought and were bringing. I guess there were a hundred and fifty people. I knew a hundred of them, wide varieties of different folks, overwhelming for me. Actually exchanged cards with some kid that does a Burrough's site. Perfect weather, light breeze, around 60 degrees.
Around dusk, standing in front of the barn, Wayne spoke (on a nice speaker system), then introduced James Grauerholz. Now it is getting dark. James reads a farewell to William's soul letter from David Ohle, first by lighter -- of course at one point you heard a little sound from James, when it got hot, and then someone brought up a kerosene lantern from the barn, and James then read a note from Giorno. Then James said a few things and explained some of the Egyptian and Tibetan Buddhistic relationships in the ceremony, tying in the significance of William's writings in his book "The Western Lands".
Wayne goes to the dome and lights the fire. It was glorious, it grew, it swirled, popped, pulsed, danced. The cage was a dome about 12 feet high and 20 feet across. Things like pictures, posters, objects d'art, and many many papers were laid on the lumber, but things and paper also hung suspended from the cage. Once the fire flowered came Williams voice, reading from "Western Lands". It was perfect, I swear the fire danced with his voice. The Cheshire cat had his smile but William's voice was the most evocative voice. I got up and went nearer the fire, strode around the fire, circled it three times. Most people sat in chairs and on benches in a large semi circle, music, flames, love. I stood up with James and Bill Hatke, the sparks flew wild. In the crowd was William's dentist, Charley Kincaid, (he had been one of the pallbearers at the Liberty Hall service), and he is the wildest, funniest man, with a wonderful good soul. That guy can distract you from a root canal with his wit. Fred Aldridge sat in one chair, He shot with William weekly for ten years or more. Fred is a tall skinny redhead. I've known him for 30 years. I introduced William to Fred. William was like a father to Fred's soul. Fred is a talented musician and artist, driven always to some elegant perfection. There were the New York suits standing in the barn. They seemed to be having a remarkably good time, the most relaxed I had ever seen the suits. In the crowd are such a variety of people that I am stunned but recognize that these were all people that William had built a relationship with over the 16 years he had made Lawrence his home. William loved persons rather than people, and he loved fun. It was a fun and a sober sight to see the embers chasing to the sky and think that's William's soul flying to the western lands.
I feel when William first died, his spirit was there in the room with his body. It was comforting. Then I felt his spirit whirling around the world, I almost know he went to Tangiers for a moment. I feel he is gone. We have lots to do now.
Two additional notes: Sue Brossau (David Ohles' wife) mentioned that the fire cage was one that Wayne and William had made for a bardo they'd held for Allen Ginsberg.
For a little illumination, here is, approximately, James Grauerholz's remarks at William's Bardo Burn, 9/20/97
Why are we here?
Each and every one of us has a different answer to that question, and we can meditate on those reasons while we take part in this event tonight.
It has something to do with our hosts, Wayne and Carol, and I know we all thank them for making this gathering possible.
It has something to do with Lawrence, our community - not the "metropolis" of Lawrence, frankly - but the community that we found when we came here, however many years ago we came here ... the community that we built here, over the years that we have been here ... the community that we share, now, while we are still here.
And it has something to do with William Burroughs. William lived here for sixteen years, longer than he lived in any other place in his life.
Every time William went out in the town, he always ran into friends; he had friends here, everywhere he went.
And every time he travelled far away, he always came home to Lawrence.
Lawrence was William's home, his final home. He lived here, he lived well here, and he died here.
And we all miss him very much.
Now, I don't know how many of us are Buddhists, and I'm pretty sure there are no more than one or two ancient Egyptians here tonight, but I'd like to say a few words about their belief systems concerning life, and death, and life after death.
The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls - as William's voice will be explaining for us, in a moment ... three of those souls split, at the moment of the death, the other four remain with the subject, to take their chances with him in the Land of the Dead. But first he or she must cross the Duad, the River of Shit, all the filth and hatred and despair of all human history -- then, on the other side, lay down the body, the Sekhu, the Remains, and journey through the Land of the Dead, encountering souls from your own life who have gone before - through a thousand challenges and trials, you try to make your way to the Western Lands ...
The Buddhist belief (I can't do this justice right now, but this is basically it) is that your soul, more or less, is reborn again and again, into new lives. Ideally, you would not be reborn, but escape the wheel and of death and rebirth, into nirvana; but the highest enlightened ones consciously vow to be reborn as many times as it takes for all sentient beings to become enlightened, they sacrifice their opening to nirvana - that is the boddhisattva vow.
The idea is that after physical death, the soul wanders through a spirit region known as the Bardo, re-living past experiences, facing images left over from other lives, other karma - and then, usually after about seven weeks, is re-born - attracted to a male and female coupling, and born again, to suffer again.
We are gathered here tonight to perform a ceremony that is ancient and universal - the burning of objects and images associated with the departed, to symbolize the dissolution of the physical body and its intermixture with all other elements - for example, Native Americans, it was pointed out to me tonight, burn the dead person's belongings immediately after death ...
Now if I haven't waited too late and I can still read this, I'm going to read you some short remarks sent here by David Ohle, and by John Giorno:
First, from David Ohle:
"Sendoff Message to the Soul of Bill
Well now, Bill. They say you've done your Bardo time, and now your SOUL is fixing to head off somewhere.
But look here, baby. We're gonna miss that creaky old soft machine you've been walking around in these eight score and three. We got used to it, you know. Those wise and witty things it said. And wrote. And it must have pumped fifteen tons of lead into the world.
I don't know about souls, my dear. But if you have one (and I know you believed you did), then let's give it the giddyup 'n' go. Shoo! Everybody say it, "Shoo! Giddyup! Git on, Bill's soul!"
And take care crossin' that River of Shit.
Sorry I ain't there today, my dear, but I figure when you're talking soul travel, what the fuck is a few thousand miles? I'm looking toward Kansas right now. I see something."
And this from John Giorno, and I'll try to approximate his delivery:
to fill the world,
you have accomplished
and great bliss,
and the vast empty
of Primordially pure
I mean, in the larger sense ... William had a very definite answer to that question:
We are Here to Go.
Okay, let's burn it.
Carolyn Cassady was another person I wrote to asking for memories of Burroughs. I wasn't aware that she felt this way about him, but I appreciated her truthful response, refusing to be sentimental in the days after Burroughs' death.
The photo of Burrough's collection of canes and walking sticks is by Lee Ranaldo.
-- Levi Asher
Trouble is, I don't feel like any "tribute" to BB. As I wrote, he didn't want to know me nor I him. He represented all that I think negative and counter-productive, if not downright destructive in human life and the antithesis of what I believe we should all be about. I felt somewhat better about him when the TV interviewer asked him if there was anything in his life he regretted. Bill's reply was "Are you kidding? Everything!" I wanted to say, well, duh--I coulda told you so. "Wise men learn from the experience of others; fools from their own". I know, there's this theory that in order to appreciate the heights, you have to know the depths, but I don't agree. I have much to learn, but I don't think his way would be rewarding. So, sorry, Levi ...
Back to Sliced Bardo
A few days after William S. Burroughs died, I sent poet Robert Creeley an email asking if he had any memories of Burroughs to share. He sent this back the next day.
The photo of Burroughs' famous orgone box, inspired by the Orgone Energy Accumulator designed by alternative psychologist Wilhelm Reich, is by Lee Ranaldo.
-- Levi Asher
Here's a brief sense of what I quickly remember apropos Bill Burroughs. I can't now recall just who had told me -- like peripheral gossip -- but sometime in the early '50s I heard of someone who'd written a 1000 plus page ms with the only objective action being a neon sign going off/on over a store one could see (in the novel) across the street, etc, and of someone else who had killed his wife acidentally, attempting to shoot a glass off her head with gun he said later characteristically undershot. That was Kerouac and Bill Burroughs respectively, though for a time I reversed them not yet knowing either. In SF in the mid-fifties, and meeting (though he said we'd met briefly in '49) Allen, he gave me the Yage ms to read, which fascinated me -- and you'll know I printed "from Naked Lunch, Book III" in the Black Mountain Review No. 7 (last issue with Allen a contributing editor and stuff from Jack, Edward Marshall's great poem "Leave the Word Alone." Cubby Selby, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, Mike McClure, Joel Oppenheimer, WC Williams, Ed Dorn, Edward Dahlberg, Zukofsky, Denise Levertov -- etc.) I was also fellow contributor for the Big Table business -- and I remember writing a statement in support when Naked Lunch was to be published by Grove.
We didn't meet, however, untl some years later, must have been at least the mid-sixties, when he was living in London and I was there for something or other, and John and Bettina Calder had a party variously honoring various writers, particularly Burroughs. We were both John's "authors" at that point and I was staying with the Calders. Alex Trocchi was a good friend and he too was much involved. Anyhow I remember making the classic gauche comment when we're introduced, saying I was stunned with the pleasure of being able to say how much I respected his work etc etc, and then stumbling on to ask whether or not he was thinking to stay in London, etc etc -- to all of which he replied briefly, dryly, yes, no -- etc. In confusion I grabbed Ed Dorn who was there, and pulled him over to introduce him. Instantly Burroughs brightened, asking Ed about a recent piece of Ed's in the Paris Review -- and how he'd managed the montage, etc. In short, this was work and had substance -- not just banal social blather.
Thankfully I saw him again quite frequently over the years, and got past my school boy admiration (though never entirely). Anyhow we'd meet most frequently on the road and I liked his droll humor and clarity, call it, always. One time after a talk at Naropa wherein he had recounted his experiences with a device he'd assembled permitting one to track by thought "traces" or manifests of the physical entiry itself (he said he'd found one of his cats who'd got lost), he was bemused that none of the young had asked afterwards how to actually make the device, despite he had emphasized that all the necessary components could be got at any place like Radio Shack. Where's their curiosity, was the question. Another time, when mutual friends were sitting around him in sad depression over fact of an impending death much affecting him, as I came in, I am convinced he looked up and winked at me -- certainly a communication, like they say.
I've always thought of him as a literalist, as I think I was -- saying what he felt, understood, recognized, respected, abhorred, in very literal terms, including the fantasies. Thinking of an early common interest in Korzybski, the non-Aristotelian sense of "meaning" and syntax, his use of cut-up was very practical and effective. It broke the classic "order" or narative as simply a "cause and effect,""historically" ordered sequence. I'd already connected with Celine, for example, and Burroughs was the solid next step.
I'd get occasional Xmas cards I am sure James Grauerholz helped get in the mail -- I am grateful Bill Burroughs knew I cared, like they say. He was the impeccable "lone telegraph operator," as he put it. He got a lot done for us all.
2. "The Beat Generation In New York" is a really enjoyable and well-researched historical sweep through New York City in search of Beat relics and places. The book is by Bill Morgan, who worked very closely with Allen Ginsberg in recent years, and as Morgan was preparing this book I had the pleasure of following him on one of the walking tours documented in this book. He speaks with authority, and this book captures it well. It was published by City Lights, and you can find it on their list of recent releases. Janine Pommy Vega's captivating new book "Tracking The Serpent," a beat-informed geographical memoir chronicling her journeys to faraway places, can also be found on this page.
3. Al Aronowitz is in the house. Calling himself "The Blacklisted Journalist", this feisty counterculture-oriented former New York Post reporter has fallen out of favor with one establishment after another, and is now bypassing them all and trying to reach the world directly through his ever-growing website. His beat legacy is awesome -- apparently he is the person who introduced Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and the Beatles to each other. His observations on Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, Joyce Johnson, etc. are raw and densely woven with personal rivalries ("I was on Allen's shit list when he died ...") but they're good reading, and that's what counts.
4. A star-studded crowd of Kerouac readers, including Willem Defoe, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Maggie Estep, Lee Ranaldo, Doug Brinkley, Todd Colby, Ann Douglas, David Amram and many others, will be pondering the recently released "Some of the Dharma" (see below) at St. Mark's Church Poetry Project on Dec 3rd. Should be good. But please don't forsake your friendly neighborhood internet hacks for these admittedly more impressive lineups -- the night before, on Dec 2nd, I'll be participating in a reading of web writers to celebrate my own recently published anthology Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web. It's at the Manhattan Internet Lounge at 678 Broadway near 4th Street, and if you can make it I promise you a unique evening. Hope to see some of you at both events!
August 3, 1997
I just heard the news that Burroughs died. I was about to start creating a page with all the pertinent details and facts, but then I realized that news sites like CNN are already doing this, as well as a number of excellent independently maintained sites, like Malcolm's, Luke's and Critter's.
So rather than rehash the news, I'd rather say something personal about the man who just died. But I feel somehow at a loss for words. William S. Burroughs was a porcupine-skinned writer, not always easy to like. Sometimes l liked him a lot, sometimes I didn't. Ultimately, though, I believe there was more kindness and compassion inside this complicated writer's soul than he ever let show through.
If I had to pick a favorite thing he ever wrote, it might be this exquisitely executed excerpt from 'Naked Lunch'. But actually I think it'd be an essay I found reprinted in his book 'The Adding Machine,' called 'My Own Business,' in which he explains the principles he lived by. Here's the beginning of the essay. I admire these words like crazy.
From My Own Business By William S. Burroughs
Brion Gysin, Stewart Gordon, and I were sitting in front of a little Spanish cafe in Tangier when this middle-aged Spaniard walked by, and we all gasped: 'My God, that's a harmless-looking person!' I'd noticed him around town, and spotted him as a real M.O.B.ist: which is nothing special, just minds his own business of staying alive and thinks that what other people do is other people's business.
The old hop-smoking rod-riding underworld has a name for it: 'a member of the Johnson family.' Wouldn't rush to the law if he smelled hop in the hall, doesn't care what fags in the back room are doing, stands by his word. Good man to do business with. They are found in all walks of life. The cop who slipped me a joint in a New Orleans jail, for instance. Or when I was pushing junk in New York back in 1948, the hotel clerk who stopped me in the lobby: 'I don't know how to say this, but there is something wrong about the people who come to your room.' (Something wrong is putting it softly; ratty junkies with no socks, dressed in three boosted suits puffing out, carrying radios torn from the living car, trailing wires like entrails. 'This isn't a hock shop!' I scream. 'Get this shit out of here!' Regaining my composure I say severely, 'You are lowering the entire tone of my establishment.) 'So I just wanted to warn you to be careful and tell those people to watch what they say over the phone ... if someone else had been at the switchboard ...'
And a hotel clerk in Tunis; I handed him some money to put in the safe. He put the money away and looked at me: 'You do not need a receipt Monsieur.' I looked at him and saw that he was a Johnson, and knew that I didn't need a receipt.
Yes, this world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: 'Some people are shits, darling.' I was never able to forget it.
Mexican druggist throwing a script back at me: 'We do not serve dope fiends.' It's like Mr. Anslinger said: 'The laws must express society's disapproval of the addict.'
Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can't mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a smallpox virus has ...
Place of death: Lawrence, Kansas
Time of death: 6:50 pm, August 2, 1997
Cause of death: Heart attack, approximately one day before his death
My Burroughs Page
Ron Whitehead's Interview With Burroughs
Malcolm Humes' InterNetWebZone
Luke Kelly's Burroughs Site
WSB at Chris Ritter's Bohemian Ink
R.U. Sirius's article at Wired
Steve Silberman's article at Wired
WSB at The Mining Company