William S. Burroughs – Junkie Vagabond

William S. Burroughs – no other name rings so loudly in the annals of extraordinary literary vagabonds of the 20th century. While his friend, Jack Kerouac may have found greater acclaim among stoned poets and hitch-hikers, it is Burroughs who was the true vagabond, though one with a trust fund to help him fund his movement and addictions.

Born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs lived to the age of 83 and died August 2nd, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas. He was a founder of the ‘Beat’ movement and a giant in 20th century American popular culture. Even if you’ve never heard of Burroughs – you’ve seen him or been exposed to his work. If you don’t believe me – ask yourself if you’ve ever seen the cover of the Beatles album – Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – Burroughs is on it.

Burroughs and the BeatlesBurroughs influence affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. His 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays had nothing less than a profound effect on pop culture.. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

He was born to a wealthy family and left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University where he studied English and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. It was being turned down by the US Navy during World War II that led him to begin experimenting with the drugs that became such a key part of his life. He dropped out and became an addict and later befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The three of them were the basis of the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation which in turn led to the age of the Hippies.

Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a work fraught with controversy that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.

Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” because of his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War,” while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.”

Europe
burroughs in LondonHe traveled to Europe after Harvard, which proved a window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. It was there, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazi government.

Burroughs married her, in Croatia, against the wishes of his parents, to allow her to gain a visa to the United States. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs.

He deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger, right at the knuckle, to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story “The Finger.” Yes, Burroughs was most definitely a queer.

Paris and the ‘Beat Hotel’
Beat Hotel ParisBurroughs moved into a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1959 when Naked Lunch was still looking for a publisher since Tangier, Morocco with its easy access to drugs, small groups of homosexuals, growing political unrest and odd collection of criminals became increasingly unhealthy for Burroughs.

In Paris, he met with Ginsberg and talked with Olympia Press. In so doing, he left a brewing legal problem, which eventually transferred itself to Paris. Paul Lund, a former British career criminal and cigarette smuggler whom Burroughs met in Tangier, was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France. Lund gave up Burroughs and some evidence implicated Burroughs in the possible importation into France of narcotics. Once again, the man faced criminal charges, this time in Paris for conspiracy to import opiates, when the Moroccan authorities forwarded their investigation to French officials. Yet it was under this impending threat of criminal sanction that Maurice Girodias published Naked Lunch, and it was helpful in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence, as a literary career, according to Ted Morgan, is a respected profession in France.

The ‘Beat Hotel’ was a typical European-style rooming house hotel, with common toilets on every floor, and a small place for personal cooking in the room. Life there was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who lived in the attic room. This shabby, inexpensive hotel was populated by Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for several months after Naked Lunch first appeared. Burroughs used the $3,000 advance from Grove Press to buy drugs.

The London years
Beat hotel TangierBurroughs left Paris for London in 1966 to take the cure again with Dr. Dent, a well-known English medical doctor who spearheaded a painless heroin withdrawal treatment using an electronic box affixed to the patient’s temple. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would take this same cure over a decade later from Dr. Dent’s nurse, Smitty.

Burroughs ended up working out of London for six years, traveling back to the United States on several occasions, including one time escorting his son to Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison after the younger Burroughs had been convicted of prescription fraud in Florida.
Burroughs took a large advance from Playboy to write an article about his trip back to St. Louis that was eventually published in The Paris Review, after Burroughs refused to alter the style for Playboy’s publishers.

In 1968 Burroughs joined Jean Genet, John Sack, and Terry Southern in covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. Southern and Burroughs, who had first become acquainted in London, would remain lifelong friends and collaborators. In 1972, Burroughs and Southern unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen in conjunction with legendary insane American game show producer Chuck Barris.

In the 1960s Burroughs joined and left the Church of Scientology. In talking about the experience, he claimed that the techniques and philosophy of Scientology helped him and that he felt that further study into Scientology would produce great results. He was skeptical of the organization itself, and felt that it fostered an environment that did not accept critical discussion.

Mexico and South America
Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana’s Angola state prison. Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge’s statute of limitations. Burroughs also attended classes at the Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish as well as “Mexican picture writing” (codices) and the Mayan language with R. H. Barlow.

In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release him.

Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial.

After leaving Mexico, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called yagé, which promised the user telepathy. A book, composed of letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, was published in 1963 by City Lights Books.

In music, film and television
Burroughs not only appears on the cover of The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but has many more musical connections. Burroughs participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage, and Philip Glass) and You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He is featured in a spoken word piece entitled “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s album Mister Heartbreak. In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson’s 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave, and made a cameo appearance in it. He also recites the lyrics of R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten” for a special version of the song on the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files soundtrack.

In 1990, Island Records released Dead City Radio, a collection of readings set to a broad range of musical compositions. It was produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, with musical accompaniment from John Cale, Donald Fagen, Lenny Pickett, Chris Stein, Sonic Youth, and others. The remastered edition of Sonic Youth’s album Goo includes a longer version of “Dr. Benway’s House,” which had appeared, in shorter form, on Dead City Radio.

In 1992 he recorded “Quick Fix” with Ministry, which appeared on their single for “Just One Fix.” The single featured cover art by Burroughs and a remix of the song dubbed the “W.S.B. mix.” Burroughs also made an appearance in the video for “Just One Fix.” The same year he also recorded the EP The “Priest” They Called Him; Burroughs reads the short story of the same name, while Kurt Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortion. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is featured on the cover as the titular “Priest.” In 1992 Burroughs worked with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, with the duo providing musical background and accompaniment to Burroughs’s spoken readings from several of his books.

Burroughs appears near the end of U2’s music video “Last Night on Earth”, pushing a shopping cart with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of his eyes.

In 2000, Spring Heel Jack released the album Oddities, on which appears the band’s remix of Material’s Road to the Western Lands, featuring Burroughs, which had originally appeared on the remix album Seven Souls.

Numerous bands have found their names in Burroughs’s work. The most widely known of these is Steely Dan, a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch.Also from Naked Lunch came the names The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust. The novel Nova Express inspired the names of Grant Hart’s post-Hüsker Dü band Nova Mob, as well as Australian 1960s R&B band Nova Express. British band Soft Machine took its moniker from the Burroughs novel of the same name, as did protopunk band Dead Fingers Talk, from Hull, England; their only album was titled Storm the Reality Studios, after a quote from Nova Express. Alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a Burroughs character. Thin White Rope took their name from Burroughs’s euphemism for ejaculation.The American extreme metal band Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky took their name from the 1989 text “Apocalypse”, in which Burroughs describes “art and creative expression taking a literal and physical form.”

Burroughs played Opium Jones in the 1966 Conrad Rooks cult film Chappaqua, which also featured cameo roles by Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, and others. In 1968, an abbreviated—77 minutes as opposed to the original’s 104 minutes—version of Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan was released, subtitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version, produced by Anthony Balch, featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by Burroughs. He also appeared alongside Brion Gysin in a number of short films in the 1960s directed by Balch. Jack Sargeant’s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema details Burroughs film work at length, covering his collaborations with Balch and Burroughs’ theories of film.

Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz. He gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on November 7, 1981, in an episode hosted by Lauren Hutton.

Burroughs subsequently made cameo appearances in a number of other films and videos, such as David Blair’s Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder by Klaus Maeck. He played an aging junkie priest in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. He also appears briefly at the beginning of Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (based on the Tom Robbins novel), in which he is seen crossing a city street; as the noise of the city rises around him he pauses in the middle of the intersection and speaks the single word “ominous”. Van Sant’s short film “Thanksgiving Prayer” features Burroughs reading the poem “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” from Tornado Alley, intercut with a collage of black and white images.

A documentary titled Burroughs, directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues. Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories “A Junky’s Christmas” and “Ah Pook is Here” were used on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated films.

Filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen used footage of Burroughs taken during a 1983 tour of Scandinavia in the documentary Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road. A 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, was made for Independent Lens on PBS.

As a fictional character
Burroughs was fictionalized in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road as “Old Bull Lee.” He also makes an appearance in J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical 1991 novel The Kindness of Women. In the 2004 novel Move Under Ground, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Neal Cassady team up to defeat Cthulhu.

Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and is described as a person devoid of anger, passion, indignation, hope, or any other recognizable human emotion. He is presented as a polar opposite of Allen Ginsberg, as Ginsberg believed in everything and Burroughs believed in nothing. Wilson would recount in his Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth having interviewed both Burroughs and Ginsberg for Playboy the day the riots began as well as his experiences with Shea during the riots, providing some detail on the creation of the fictional sequence.

Can there be a more iconic vagabond of the 20th century than William Seward Burroughs?

Places I’ve Lived #13 – London, England

London, EnglandI’ve spent a fair amount of time in London – but the only time I lived there was a brief stint at the end of 1998. I showed up at the invitation of my friend Danny, who had been my assistant and rowdy drinking companion while working on John Sayles film LIMBO in Juneau, Alaska. I went to the UK on a whim and without any planning – my adventures were many – I was captured and enslaved by a gang of Irish Gypsies as I hitched along the motorway near Rugby – they forced me to break up pavement and concrete for about a week before I made a daring escape – but that is another story. I illegally rode the rails all the way to Scotland, met a beautiful girl in Drumnadrochit along the shores of the Loch Ness, and visited the ancestral home of my grandmother’s clan on the Isle of Skye – the McCleod Castle – where I left one of her scarves as a memento and took some flowers from the garden which I dried in my journal. But none of that is what I’m writing about right now.

Groucho Club, LondonWhen I got back to London, I was even more out of money than I had been when I arrived. Danny and I quickly drank away the rest of my reserves and he allowed me to move into his parents house with him – they were surprised, but also agreed. His mother, finding out I was a writer hired me as a casting assistant. She was a powerful redheaded woman who usually had a phone to each ear. She had me read scripts and scour through casting books to find the actors who fit the parts. I got to work on Angela’s Ashes and several other films in this way, but without getting anywhere near the set. She took me to prestigious lunches and tried to introduce me to the right people. At the famous Groucho Club, Jude Law and I began doing shots and it ended with him passing out and me getting kicked out!

It was an amazing period to be in London – a few notable concerts were Billy Bragg and Depeche Mode (the Singles Tour). I was too young and stupid to realize the access I was being granted to the rich, famous, wealthy, and powerful. Ultimately, I wasted the opportunities that were shoved at me.

London EnglandStill, it was a fun and exciting time – but I was drinking far too much and not saving anything. A few friends I’d made in the  exhilarating worlds of London cinema, publishing, art, and music began fucking around with heroin and that was always the place where I’d drawn the line – I was fine with the underground bar scene and pretty much everything else – but needles going into arms was in my red zone – and honestly, if you weren’t a full part of the party, nobody wanted to party with you. It was time for me to leave.

Instead of heading to France and across Europe, I opted to go back to Bellingham, back to radio, back to the life I’d left behind. I hadn’t yet learned that you can never go back. I did alright back in Bellingham, but as I wrote before -eventually, I needed to leave so I went to the nearest major metropolitan area. I landed in Seattle.

London, England

London, EnglandLondon is the largest city in England and the United Kingdom. It is one of the most important cities in the world. It has a population of about 9 million people. It is a center of fashion, literature, film, art, food, and much much more.  There’s not much that can be said about London that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I spent the night sleeping on a bench in Regent’s Park one night and was woke up in the morning by a flock of ducks. I used to spend a good deal of time in the British Museum and exploring the rare book shops nearby. The Tate Modern is a must go-to and the scary haunted Tower Bridge experience under the Tower Bridge is a hair raising experience. The weather isn’t fantastic most of the time, but you don’t need to be outside in London – there is an abundance of indoor activities. Also, we’re humans so we can dress for any weather. At the time, London still had a terrible reputation for both the food and the weather. I was there at the height of the ‘Essex Girl’ phenomenon – which despite the negatives that time has heaped upon her – was something that I am very glad I did not miss.

Sleeping with Ghosts – London’s Georgian House Hotel

Back in 2012, I was in London, England for the World Travel Market. At the time I was fortunate to be doing a lot of international travel to places like Egypt, Spain, and the Balkans. I determined that I wasn’t going to stay anywhere that wasn’t extraordinary in some way. I found some incredible places – a houseboat on the Thames, an incredibly luxurious hotel with a 007 theme, and a Victorian era house converted into a hotel that is reliably reported as being haunted. For that one, I have to give credit to my friend Matthew, who made the recommendation for me. I’ve heard that since that time, Georgian House has turned into a Harry Potter themed hotel! I may have to go back.

I’m very happy to re-share the story of the Georgian House Hotel.

Haunted Hospitality at an incredibly good price!

Georgian HouseThe building that houses the Georgian House Hotel dates back to the mid 19th century and has a certain elegant and timeless feel to it. I would imagine it was haunted even if I didn’t know it only because all of old London feels like a scary old horror film to me. Don’t misunderstand me though – it’s lovely and well maintained.

Since I was there at one of the busier times of the year, most hotels were charging a minimum of a few hundred GBP per night for a room, but I was extremely surprised to find that I could stay at Georgian House for just 69 GBP per night for a room that didn’t have a toilet ensuite. It had a sink, coffee service, TV, internet, and a very comfy bed, but the toilet and shower were two steps out the door across the hallway.  Incredibly convenient even if I had to open my door and the price – magnificent.

My favorite part of the Georgian House Hotel? The breakfast. While there is a buffet, the breakfast menu is cooked to order. Eggs Benedict, salmon and cream cheese bagel – yeah – that’s my kind of place.

Georgian HouseI was lucky to come back after an open house and got to drink champagne with the staff and owner, Serena one night. They told stories about the ghosts and I got to learn that the building had been in Serena’s family for a long time.

As for the ghosts…the house  is haunted by several ghosts, including that of an unknown man who has been seen in one the basement staff rooms.  Serena said that the staffer woke with the man sitting on the end of her bed but then he got up and walked out. The staffer came down asking who had come in her room the night before but found out that she had the only key and the door was locked.

Whether or not this is the same ghostly figure that has been seen in the kitchen and one of the top floor bedrooms (#11 if you dare) is unknown.

Georgian HouseSuffice it to say he, or they, are harmless spirits who are more than content to appear for a few fleeting moments and then be gone as they go about  their business. Serena has no idea who they might be since the houses were formerly apartments and they no longer have the records for who lived there.

The ghosts of two children have also been seen flitting about the upper floors. They first appeared when a guest on the next floor down came to reception to complain about the noisy children playing above him. On that night, there were no guests on the top floor!  On another occasion Serena says that she spoke to them when they appeared and assured them that they were welcome to visit on the upper floors only. Sadly, they didn’t show while I was there.  I would have liked to have seen them.

This is a lovely old hotel in central London, not too far from Queen Charlotte Station and a nice walk away from many of the major sites. In addition to the basic rooms on the top floor, there doubles with ensuite, and apartments for families. I highly recommend this lovely old hotel – ghosts and all.

To book a room, you can visit http://www.georgianhousehotel.co.uk/. Tell them Vago sent you to see the ghosts.

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