The Pope of Avant Garde
By Tom Huckabee
The Pope of Avant Gardeby Tom Huckabee
AUGUST 18, 1997: Just got the word that Burroughs died. A fine fellow, despite his nihilistic veneer. I spent the afternoon of his 70th birthday with him. Spoke about guns, hunting, and whether or not I should tell my mother I took LSD. In college, I published a little book of poems, Cheap Picture/Pink Poems, one of which went like this:
WILLIAM BURROUGHS IS DEAD
He is not alive.
A couple of months later while rehearsing with the Huns at Studio A on the UT campus, a handsome young writer named Adam Block dropped by to visit our bass player, Joel.
I was in the middle of editing my film Taking Tiger Mountain and was fantasizing about contacting William Burroughs to contribute narration. Specifically, I wanted to use an excerpt from his novelette Bladerunner which was eerily similar to my film's plot. Adam said he knew him and would be happy to put us in touch. In fact he would be meeting Burroughs in Santa Fe the following week. I gave him a script and, at the last minute, a copy of Pink Poems.
Adam called a few days later with good news. Despite the fact that he was offended by my poem, William was amenable to me using pieces from Bladerunner. I was required only to make a formal request to his secretary, James Grauerholz. I was embarrassed, flabbergasted, and filled with anxiety. How stupid of me to have sent the poem! Of course he would be offended. What was I thinking? Flabbergasted, because he was such a hero to me... and by how easy it had been to reach him. And worried that Grauerholz would turn out to be a prick, and somehow queer the deal.
The latter turned out to be totally unwarranted. Grauerholz was courteous, expedient, and excited. He was in the middle of launching a major comeback for Burroughs, which included a tour of punk clubs. I guess he saw my participation as drummer in the Huns as a certain validation. All we had to do was arrive at a price. I proposed $250 plus one (or was it one-half?) point ownership in the film. Done.
James wanted to know if I wanted Burroughs to record the narration himself and, like an idiot, I declined (because it didn't make sense for the scene).
A couple of months later the two of them came to Austin on a book signing tour of Cities of the Red Night. I met them at a book store near the Varsity Theatre. William, dapper in a wool suit, sweater, and Earth Shoes, seemed old and frail. He carried a cane. I bought every title by him that they had in the store and had them autographed: "To Mom, Williams S. Burroughs." Each signature was small but carefully rendered cursive. I wondered at the time if he had read about Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon because his autograph was not readable.
James was tall, fit, and blonde, wearing a blue blazer and jeans. His short hair neatly parted. There was something slightly unformed in his face. He was like an overgrown boy, pretending to be an adult, albeit with impeccable breeding. He made a lot of eye contact, and spoke as if he was letting me in on privileged secrets. I liked him.
I remember thinking it was a strange ritual: All these fans lining up for a brief audience with the pope of avant garde. Each one had a little something prepared to say to his eminence. An awkward speech or attempt at humor. Burroughs was gracious through it all. Didn't seem bored, no more bored than a priest giving absolution, which is what it was.
Meanwhile, passing the time until we could talk, I perused the magazine rack and came upon an issue of Cinema Fantastique with a cover headline about a movie called Bladerunner going into production. I showed it to Grauerholz, who was almost as surprised as I was. It turned out that they had been approached about the name, but no deal had been struck. (I found out later Burroughs got $5000 -- I think -- for the use of the name. In retrospect, I think my deal was more fair.)
All the books signed, Burroughs donned his hat and cane and we walked across the street to the big rusting box on campus which housed the film school. We packed into my tiny cubicle in order to view the rough cut of Tiger Mountain on a 35mm Steenbeck. I was nervous, because even though we had a verbal agreement, we had not signed a contract or exchanged money. This was to be the moment, if Burroughs would stay or blow.
They didn't have time to sit through all 80 minutes, so I fast-forwarded, slowing mainly -- at Grauerholz's request -- at the sex scenes. Anything that touched on the homoerotic was run at extra slow motion. Burroughs sat patiently for about 30 minutes, not saying a word. Only "hmmm-hmmm," like a doctor. At the end he muttered through his teeth: "I think you've got somethin' there, kid." He nodded at James, he nodded at me. I breathed a sigh of relief and presented the contract. He signed as carefully as he'd done the books earlier. I handed William S. Burroughs a check for $250.
They had to get on to another meeting but suggested that I meet them later at their hotel. Somehow, it came out that it was William's 70th birthday. On the way to meet them, I bought a $25 bottle of wine from Steven Harding.
When I arrived, Grauerholz was opening William's mail -- lots of it -- and reading it to him. They were almost all come-ons of one form or another. Requests of William. He granted each and every one, even the one from the woman from Eastern Europe who wanted copies of all his books that were still in print. "Did she send any money?" asked William. "No," said James. "Well, what kind of idiot expects to get something for nothing...! Oh, go ahead and send them."
I got the idea that Burroughs was living his life as a penitent, each little good deed somehow paid penance for some great sin committed earlier in life. I remember thinking: "This man shot his wife between the eyes"; if he wants to go to heaven, he's got a lot cut out for him.
After every piece of mail was opened and dealt with, James announced that he was going to leave us alone for a while and walked out of the room, shutting the door. I felt very nervous, sitting there with my idol, a notorious pedophile. (Not that I was a boy, but to a 70-year-old, I figured I qualified.) Our first attempts at conversation were awkward, as I obsessed about what I'd do if he made a pass. But I was determined not to waste the opportunity. After finding him reticent to discuss anything about himself or his work, he actually offered up a subject, which I was versed in: firearms. He was fascinated by my experiences hunting live game, because his was limited to paper targets (his wife notwithstanding). In fact, I kept thinking I was going to blurt out something about his wife.
The subject drifted into drugs. I asked him how he liked LSD. He said that he didn't. He shook a bit as he talked about the unpleasant "electric" feeling that it gave him. What kind of drugs did he still take? "Marijuana, and the occasional shot of heroin," he said with an impish smile.
I told him that I was debating whether or not to tell my born-again Christian mother that I had taken acid. I thought it might be a bridge towards discussing spiritual matters with her. He advised against it, and I took it to heart. I mean, if William Burroughs deemed me worthy to receive his advice (on his 70th birthday, no less), damn if I wasn't going to follow it.
About an hour later, Grauerholz walked in with Ed Ward, who was scheduled for an interview. I asked if I could stay, but James suggested, politely, that it would be best if I didn't. They would see me later at the reading.
The auditorium was packed. Burroughs read briefly from his new book and then took questions. Someone asked him how he managed to survive all those years without a job. He mumbled something about living frugally. Like an asshole, I raised my hand and reminded him that wasn't he the scion of the Burroughs Typewriter fortune, that didn't he get a monthly royalty check of some kind all of his life? There was a slight groan from the audience and the stink-eye from Ed Ward. Burroughs was, indeed, annoyed by the question, though he answered it, attempting to play down his measly stipend: $100 a month. The crowd was sufficiently placated but the damage was done. I had accused William Burroughs of being a bourgeois dilettante, and he had copped to it like an act of contrition.
Despite my gaffe, Grauerholz invited me to Burroughs' birthday party to be held at an English professor's house. I dropped by my apartment to pick up my roommate Hunter, who had only recently lived out one of his two life-long fantasies, to be crucified, like Jesus, (at a Huns concert.) His other fantasy was to meet his favorite writer: William Burroughs. Since he had introduced me to Burrough's writing, I'd promised to introduce him to the source. When I got to the apartment, Hunter's friend Craig, a real nut-job, was hanging out and insisted on coming along.
I remember seeing William only briefly at the party, gurmed by a mob of English Lit students. He propped himself against the wall and held them at bay with his cane. I realized that this, indeed, was what the stick was for; he never used it for walking.
Craig got plastered and reportedly offered himself to Burroughs. Hunter thanked me profusely, saying it would be just fine if he died now, since he'd met William S. Burroughs. (He did die about five years later from AIDS that he contracted that winter.)
I saw Burroughs only a couple more times -- at Timothy Leary's parties --and never talked to him again. He always acknowledged my presence, but I could never think of anything to say. Grauerholz and I became friends. It was a true tribute to Burroughs' inherent goodness that he hired someone as convivial as James to run his affairs. (Someone told me that Grauerholz had hitchhiked from Kansas to NYC when he was 19, intent on meeting Allen Ginsberg. After a brief affair, Ginsberg passed him to Burroughs, who made him his secretary.)
Anyway, I could never tell if it was Grauerholz who had taken it upon himself to orchestrate the second coming of Burroughs in the 1980s, marked by maximum accessibility -- and culminating in Lauren Hutton introducing him on Saturday Night Live as "America's greatest living writer" --or if he was merely acting on Burroughs orders. Either way, they were a sort of populist centaur, James being the young, muscular equine body supporting William's wise, wizened head.
It was a unique symbiotic relationship, somewhat analogous to Diaghiliev and Nijinsky, only backwards. If Burroughs made Grauerholz into a player, Grauerholz made Burroughs into a superstar. James was a combination press agent, body guard, procurer, companion, editor, manager, entrepreneur. It was Grauerholz who marketed him to punk rockers, booked him on Saturday Night Live, brokered the Nike ads and film deals. It was also Grauerholz that kept Burroughs from becoming old hat. He understood Burrough's place in pop culture better than anybody. It was since he respected him so much that he was able to exploit him so thoroughly. If somebody tells you they knew Burroughs, most likely what they really mean is they knew Grauerholz.
I've always wondered what James would do when Burroughs passed on. It sort of chokes me up now thinking about it. I suppose he'll open a museum in Lawrence (there's plenty of stuff, as Burroughs was as much a painter as a writer); administer the Burroughs estate, establish the Burroughs Institute, hand out grants in Burroughs' name, like a whacked-out Getty Museum. (Maybe it will grow large enough to replace the floundering NEA, and someday get sued for rejecting work for being too conventional.) I suppose he'll preside over the Hollywood productions of Junkie, Queer, and The Wild Boys. There will certainly be a biopic and an A&E documentary (though it won't be as good as the one made in the early Eighties called Burroughs.) Or maybe he'll become a writer himself, keep the flame burning another way.
It occurs to me that Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Leary all died this year. (I'm proud to have met them all.) None of them were religious men, certainly not in any traditional sense. Between them, they broke all of Yahweh's 10 commandments, not to mention the other 623. If Paskal's Wager proves to providential, and a fundamentalist Judeo/Christian/Islamic God exists, none of them have a chance, though, I can't imagine they'd qualify at the other place, either, being such certifiably decent souls. If there's at least as much justice in heaven as on earth, they'll be sitting at the back of the class -- throwing spitballs, smarting off, and nodding out. But getting straight A's.
As always, paving the way for the rest of us.
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