A 1995 Voyage To The Kansas Home Of William S. Burroughs
There were too many distractions in my dorm room. I lived in a corner suite, which meant we had more square footage than the other cinderblock walled pads and it was therefore an entertainment lounge for the rest of the guys in my hall. My room often transformed into a daytime VHS porn fest, a Madden NFL marathon with the Sega Genesis, or a bong hit session with towels lining the bottom of the door and exhaled breaths through fabric softner sheets.
So, I often went to study at the campus library. My sanctuary was on the second floor near the literature section, which had minimal foot traffic. I’d sit in a tiny cubicle and read chapters of textbooks, hoping to cram in facts for exams, and then ultimately peruse the modern poetry section for mental breaks. It amazed me that some of these books were never checked out of the library ever, not even once. Their pages were stiff and unwilling to lay flat, published poets yet to leave the building. These books excited me, quick bursts of inspiring stories from minds of the recent past, their thin colorful spines lined up for the taking. I would make Xerox copies of my favorite poems and form collections, stapled together. I cherished these writings more than the T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats books that I had to buy for poetry classes.
Around this time, I was reading a lot of the widely renown Beat Generation authors, particularly Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, LeRoi Jones, and William S. Burroughs. One particular book, The Portable Beat Reader, tied them all together, giving me a taste of various styles, and allowed me to branch off and read others.
Burroughs struck a chord with me more than any other, an odd mythical writer that lived in a heroin haze that I would never know about. I barely smoked weed, let alone engaged in hallucinogens or junk. But his stories and novels were set in a satiric dark world that enticed me, based primarily on his vivid dreams, all triggered by what he called the Ugly Spirit. This haunting was brought on soon before the accidental manslaughter of his wife, and was the sole force that made him write. In his words: “I have had no choice except to write my way out.” I felt a similar need with writing upon the aftermath of a breakup.
I read whatever Burroughs books and interviews I could get my hands on, always excited to see new photos of him in his typical Brooks Brothers suit and fedora, the elder leader of the Beats ready to dish out quips on the impracticalities of nations and religion.
For decades, it was Burroughs that seemed continually tapped into pop culture, with his ’81 appearance on Saturday Night Live that held NBC hostage with his spoken words, his ’75 interview of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, his roles in films like Drugstore Cowboy, his spoken word albums with Kurt Cobain and Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprocy, a music video with the electro thrash band Ministry, as well as teaming up with Tom Waits on The Black Rider, and even a commercial for Nike. An athletic apparel company and a junk addict?! He was incessantly crossing all boundaries, and, at 81-years-old, still pumping out novels with a recent release called Ghost Of Chance.
I started out with Burroughs’ most popular novel, Naked Lunch, and and then watched the film version which I didn’t care for. Then I read the more prose-like Junkie and delved into his many cut-up books. Teamed with English artist Brion Gysin, Burroughs would literally cut up stories written on paper into four pieces, jumble them, and reorganize the prose. Some of these novels just gave me an absolute headache, and I teetered on labeling them dung and banishing Burroughs work from my life. But it was quite bad ass when you think of it, leaving the literary world grasping for clarity, meanwhile later gaining it subconsciously, pieced back together.
My buddy Zane, a thin effervescing hardcore music enthusiast, was getting into Burroughs a bit as well, after I had tossed some books his way. Reciprocally, he got me into some of his favorite abrasive bands, like Inside Out and Bad Brains. A lot of mid-90s college was an exchange of culture and we put intense trust in recommendations, often by placing a book or CD in your hand and walking away. Zane had a writing assignment and needed to interview a local Kutztown, PA celebrity. But he wanted to go further. He wanted to interview Burroughs. His professor was cool with it, as long as he could pull it off.
I just couldn’t fathom it happening. I figured there was a slim chance for a phone interview perhaps. But Zane had amazingly pulled off securing an in-person interview at Burroughs’ home — and I was invited to come along! It just took a couple phone calls and a fax.
Zane had reached out to James Grauerholz, manager of Burroughs Communications, and set a date: November 1st, 1995, just one week away. All that we had to do was meet James at a coffee shop called The Burgeouis Pig in Lawrence, Kansas… just 1137 miles west of where we were standing that crisp autumn day on the sidewalk across from Camillo’s Pizzeria in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. It seemed that I didn’t even see Zane as he told me about the interview. The autumn sun was low and blasting the crimson and golden leaf hues into our faces like an assortment of lasers. Zane was a runner and sported bleached spiky hairs. He was pure vim and vigor.
In our preparations for the trip, we were immediately screwed. Zane didn’t have a car. I had one, a phlegm colored ’86 Ford Escort wagon, but it was still in the shop and waiting on parts after I fed the engine the wrong oil additive. I didn’t have any dough to to fix my car either, so my parents spotted the repairs. They were quite expensive, so asking to borrow my Mom’s new Toyota Corolla to drive almost halfway across the country just wasn’t in the cards.
Not many friends of ours had cars, and a rental car or public transportation just seemed too steep. But there was a guy that was living in my basement, against my wishes, and he had a plan to get us to Burroughs. His name was Derek.
I was now sharing a mint green four bedroom Cape Cod rental with three girls. I really shouldn’t have been there to begin with. I used to date one of them, so it was awkward at times, as she often sneaked into my room at night after too many lagers and vice versa. But these girls, all named Rachel, saved me from being homeless when I couldn’t find an off campus place to live and time had dwindled to days before classes started. They were just so loving and ridiculously nice.
Originally, before the three Rachels came along, I was supposed to live with this hippy girl that I called the Patchouli Beast, and her friend Cory. A couple days before I was supposed to move in, I joined them in their living room to celebrate being new roomies. I was big into cheap Evan Williams whiskey at the time and had quite a bit. They offered their living room couch as a place for me to crash.
When I awoke, I felt great and decided to make breakfast for the Patchouli Beast and Cory. I ran out and bought ingredients for omelettes and was soon awakening them to the smells of sizzling bacon and coffee. When the Beast came to the oven, I smiled at her and she replied, “What the FUCK is wrong with you?!!” I quickly found out that I had walked up to her attic bedroom in the middle of the night, danced for a bit, urinated in the middle of her floor, and then moseyed back down to the couch. With that, I was banished from moving in. If her boyfriend, an offensive lineman for the football team, happened to have slept over that night, I would have been knocked out, possibly killed by tumbling down the stairs. I got lucky.
And amazingly, knowing this whiskey blackout story, the three Rachels took me into their home for a fresh start. They were literary waitresses, sexy in their own unique way, and void of any sorority girl perfume laced high pitched overbearance. If they wore makeup, it was subtle earth tones. Their clothes were gems from thrift stores.
Derek and his Bob Dylan fro was two months deep and not paying any rent. He also had a thing for at least two of the Rachels, as well as their friends. It was all obvious to my buddies as. He was a hog in shit heaven. His makeshift basement space transformed into a real bedroom, with bed sheets as walls, and a songwriting area for his guitar and voice. I went from coming home to hearing him jam in the basement to walking in on a full-on drum circle, and the Rachels were loving it.
Part of me was jealous, because I didn’t know how to sing or play an instrument. But at the time I was getting a taste of the real world with my first office job, trying to sell life insurance to elderly people by cold calling them at dinner time. Many of the people I was trying to reach were deceased, leaving me to have to explain to an uptight widow who I was. It’s safe to say I was bit uptight at the time. I had to wear a tie AND tuck my shirt in.
Sometimes I’d come home and the Rachels would have some meal ready for me, or Derek would shove a freshly rolled joint at my face to loosen me up, so it wasn’t all that bad. My with conversations with Derek were usually laced with grass, discussions on the multiple ways to cook potatoes, and we never got much beyond that. We’d watch Caddyshack or Pink Floyd: Live in Pompeii for the ninth time, but I don’t think we had much of an interest in learning more about each other.
Derek’s best friend, BJ, was starting to be a common fixture in our home as well. He went everywhere with his black labrador retriever, red fleece vest, big black beard, round glasses, and a glazed face just like an early Tommy Chong. He came from money but insisted on building a tree fort to live in somewhere near the Crystal Cave woods. This was a project that he constantly chatted up, although he was often found on our couch for the most part.
The Derek and BJ duo was a bong hit force to be reckon with, a billowing cloud of foot stomping G chord happiness and cigarette smoke, and yes, they were our key to getting to Billy Burroughs.
BJ had a used Buick Roadmaster wagon, the kind with the faux wood trim, and they were gung-ho to take us. According to the deal with James, only two people could go into the house to visit Burroughs. Derek and BJ were cool with letting Zane and I be the sole visitors, and were satisfied being sightseeing chauffeurs. As long as Zane and I payed for the gas and fast food stops, they were fine dropping us off.
Our plan was to leave roughly 24-hours from the interview time. The journey was about 19 hours, so we figured that would give us adequate leeway. Early on Halloween morning, Zane and I climbed into the back seats while Derek rode shotgun. Halloween was the ultimate party day in Kutztown, as they had a parade at night that oozed down Main Street with house parties galore, but this trip was trumping it all.
The Rachels waved at us goodbye after giving us kisses on our cheeks and a frame that held multiple photos of them. Derek positioned the frame on the dashboard so that we could all look at them. I found it a bit odd, but my focus was already on trying to avoid the wet dog smell emanating from the rear section of the wagon. BJ’s pooch stayed with the girls.
The ride instantly turned into a fun mini-bachelor party on wheels. We smoked cigars, joked around heavily, ate Taco Bell, cranked everything from Beastie Boys to Beethoven, discussed tits, and sipped on whiskey. We were all ditching classes. On this particular day, I had two media classes with a professor that I adored, named Eileen. I felt uber confident in her class and was always raising my hand to not only answer the questions but add a sarcastic side joke that made her chuckle. She was extremely sensitive and had cancelled classes twice in the past: once because she heard her sister was getting a divorce and another time hours after the O.J. Simpson verdict was read and she was in teary disbelief. I had left her an email, explaining that I was very sick and wouldn’t be in class.
Somewhere in West Virginia, we tried to visit an ex-flame of Derek’s, hoping for a nice meal, but she wasn’t home. Was this the reason he truly wanted to go on this trip? The moon glared at us like an enormous Certs mint in the sky, tingling our senses with peppermint precision. The roads were a skeleton connecting the states. I grew antsy.
In Lexington, Kentucky, Derek used a payphone and called up on old friend. We met him at his house where we sat and shared a joint and got super high. The walls were lined with numerous family member photos and they all smiled down at us. His friend had a slow southern accent that I wasn’t used to, but it was relaxing, and I felt that I was going to pass out.
After about an hour or so, it was back on the road. BJ was insistent on driving the whole way to Kansas. He needed the windows open though to stay awake, so I covered up with blankets and tried to get some sleep. The excitement kept me up though. I’d nod out for five minutes at a time and wake up to see the back of BJ’s head and the white lines passing by to the sound of the ferocious engine steady at 75 MPH.
By sunrise, we were passing through St. Louis. I glanced to my right and saw the gleaming Gateway Arch and knew we were getting close. After spotting over two dozen McDonald’s golden arches on the road, this was a nice surprise. Now, with about an hour left to go, BJ handed the wheel to me. He was mentally exhausted and I was glad to be doing something to stimulate my senses.
We arrived in Lawrence a bit early and decided to hang out in the University of Kansas library to go over our interview notes. Zane had a series of questions scribbled on paper as well as a tape recorder to record the audio. I wanted to video tape it, but James had let us know that Burroughs wasn’t up for that. I was mentally exhausted and tried to take a nap in one of the cubicles but it didn’t work.
So, it was coffee time and off to the Burgeouis Pig, a bright red building with a gold logo. James arrived like clockwork and seemed to size us up a bit. I began to get nervous about whether to trust this guy or not. He looked like an aging hippy, but with shirt tucked and a shaved face, with unruly sideburns. I mean, it was well known from Burroughs’ writings that he enjoyed young white boys back in his days in Tangier, Morocco. But that was back in the 60s, I thought. There’s no way James would tie us up with rope after slipping Rufinol in our coffees, I convinced myself. Sleepless paranoia zapped by caffeine was making me dodgy. James explained in his low relaxed voice that Burroughs would have picked us up himself, but that he doesn’t drive anymore, or at least nobody lets him.
Our gang hopped back into the Buick Roadmaster and followed James through some outskirt suburban section that was heavily wooded. We stopped at a small bungalow of red siding. “This is it,” James said, while getting out of his car and slamming the door shut. Zane and I got out of the car. We told Derek and BJ to swing by in an hour, which was the length of the interview granted to us. Just one hour.
James opened the wrought iron gated yard fence and let us pass through. The lawn was strewn with leaves. It looked as if leaves were never raked. A sidewalk with a few carved pumpkins, that were caving in, led to a front bare porch. James knocked on the door and entered. Zane and I followed. “Willllllll-iam…Willllllll-iam…” James sang as we stood in a dim lit living room. “The boys from Kutztown are here.”
The living room had a large oriental rug with a couple sofas. There was a mini Muppets style drum set sitting in the middle. Several rifles hung from racks on the wall. From a distance, I heard Burroughs making struggling noises and pictured him slowly rising from a lounge chair. We followed James to the dining room where the stench of marijuana and opium hit my senses. I never spelled such a potent mix before. Burroughs drew near from a dark smoky room. He was clad in blue jeans and a blue denim button down shirt, as well as a jean jacket. He looked like an 81-year-old Gap commercial, atypical of his snazzy suits he seemed to wear in all his press photos.
We shook hands with Burroughs and gave him the bottle of crappy Italian wine we had picked up. James took the wine into the kitchen. Burroughs said he was drinking vodka and Pepsi, and asked if we wanted anything to drink. We stuck with glasses of water and sat at the dining room table with Burroughs. James roamed around the downstairs, listening yet looking around a lot, unable to relax fully. He eventually sat in the corner of the room, facing us.
Zane soon had his tape recorder going and was shuffling through his list of questions. Burroughs looked on, appearing more nervous than us. He kept fidgeting with a napkin and clanking his glass of booze against the table. He’d also put his drink down and rub his hands together. And when there was the briefest of silences, he’d blurt out “Questions! Questions!” At one point he exclaimed, “Come on, when I was your age I could do better than this!”
Our questions were answered within about twenty minutes, so we had to make up many more on the spot. We discovered that on Halloween, he only had three trick or treaters arrive. And at night they featured Burroughs reading Edgar Allen Poe stories on the University of Kansas radio air waves. On his recent spoken word album with Kurt Cobain, we found out that he didn’t even really collaborate with Kurt. His words were recorded first and then Kurt went to town with the distorted guitar rhythms over top of it. He had met Kurt only once, when Nirvana was in Kansas City. “I’ve never been tempted to kill myself,” Burroughs said about Cobain’s recent suicide.
On and on we discovered…how Outbreak was his favorite recent film, that William Gibson was his recommended author to read, that he went target shooting once a week, that he had six cats, that he had done speed balls six times in his life, that he didn’t play the drum set in the living room much, that his favorite music was 1930s Moroccan jazz, that Allen Ginsburg sat in our seats just a few days prior to us, that he wasn’t one for politics and had only voted once for some local Lawrence situation.
We discovered that one third of Burroughs’ prose came from his dreams, that he was an extremely light sleeper, and that he could tell which cat woke him up by just the meows and breath the cat made.
His explanation of art: “No artist is ever remotely satisfied with anything he does. Artists attempt the impossible. They try to recreate life.”
Computers were a blind spot to Burroughs’ life, and he didn’t have time for them. He preferred to use his typewriter and he just whacked it when it got stuck. He didn’t even use a word processor. On why he chose us to interview him? He picked interviews based on the letters he received, so Zane must have really charmed the guy.
“I wasn’t in it,” Burroughs said about his cameo appearances in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.
“You weren’t?” I asked, although certain that he was.
“…Yes, you were, William,” James chimed in. “Remember? In New York City?”
On heroin: “Some people like it, some people don’t. Thin people will enjoy it more than fat people and will create a greater need for it.”
On why he decided to do Nike commercials: “There is something known as money.”
On the afterlife: “Of course. I believe in God. I always have.”
On God: “I’m unable to put it into words.”
Big advice for us: “Avoid fuck-ups. Everything that they have anything to do with will turn into a disaster. Good things and bad things come in streaks. Act accordingly.”
On the nightly news: “You take away the sex and the violence, and what do you have? Advertisements.”
The interview really never was an interview. It was just a few guys sitting around and talking about whatever came out, a conversation of ideas and thoughts. Sure, it was a bit awkward in the first twenty minutes or so, but the next twenty minutes were loosened up and fun and then a BANG BANG BANG at the door.
Burroughs perched up looking a bit frightened and James darted towards the door. I looked over and saw BJ’s beard leaning against the screen door, peering in like a little boy, with Derek beside him. They were twenty whole fucking minutes early, I thought. And now we had to wrap it up.
“Oh, that’s our ride,” I said, standing up, waving to them. They entered and stood at the doorway. We walked with Burroughs over to them and said goodbye to Burroughs as BJ and Derek said their quick hellos. I can tell they were stoned. It made sense that having four of us over was unfair on the old man. I felt we had deceived him.
There’s not much that you can say to an 81-year-old established author that is leagues smarter than you. We wished him the best of luck with the rest of his life. And amid the scuffling of clomping shoes and the rattling of papers and the putting on of thick wool coats I heard him mutter something about how we have a long way to go, that we were still very young, and that we didn’t have to take it easy yet. I’m not exactly sure what he said, but I knew what he was hinting at.
Burroughs stood at the doorway and waved until we were in the car and driving away. We made a u-turn after Burroughs was back in the house to take some photos of his house while motoring by. I was seething with anger over how the stoner brothers had depleted our time with Burroughs by twenty whole minutes, which could have gone even longer, but it wasn’t worth getting too upset over. We were stuck with each other for a long ride home.
Before heading back to Kutztown, we decided to stay in Lawrence and enjoy a day there, crash somewhere together, and wake up fresh and renewed for the drive. We all fit right into the Lawrence college lifestyle and roamed around the campus together. But I think it only took an hour for Zane and I to completely lose Derek and BJ. They just disappeared like a couple of dogs chasing a rabbit and we had no idea where to even begin our search. We decided to remain put by a statue in the middle of campus where we had last seen them, but it didn’t pan out.
This was the age before cell phones, and royally screwing your friends was a lot easier.
I needed a drink. Zane and I were both pissed and cursing out the duo with our pacing strides toward a bar. We picked up a six-pack and got a room at some cheap motel. We didn’t even know where BJ last parked the car. After three beers and some cable TV, I was feeling fine and let the tension melt away. Worst case scenario, we’d have to use our credit cards to fly back to Kutztown or Reading, I thought.
We awoke the next day to a phone call. It was them. They had called the cheap area motels and asked for our names. Thank god, I thought. They ended up chasing some girls and passed out in someone’s living room. They knocked on our door and I let them in. They looked haggard. We were all just speechless, staring at news on the TV and not looking at each other, watching BJ’s cigarette smoke cascade the tension.
Well, at least we had the audio tape, I thought on the long backseat trip home. I imagined Zane making a CD out of it and releasing it to all of our friends. But on listening to it, all that we had was hiss and banging noises of our water glasses hitting the table. We hadn’t tested the microphone, the tape recorder, the settings — any of it. You could hear Burroughs a bit, but hardly make out any words. I should have used my video tape recorder with the lens cap on, I thought. The microphone on that device was sensitive and picked up conversations effortlessly.
I had everything Burroughs said fresh in my head and started to scrawl his answers down on a notepad.
When I got home I quickly wrote up an article about the trip for my “Mutterings” column in the weekly university newspaper. One of the Rachels was Editor-In-Chief at the newspaper and she told me that I had just a few hours to get it printed out. I hopped on my Brother word processor and started typing away, staring at the black mini screen with orange lit text. The final piece was filled with spelling and grammatical errors, but I didn’t care as it paralleled the whole ill-prepared journey. I collapsed on my bed and slept for a good ten hours until one of the Rachels woke me up to tell me I had a phone call. Our community landline phone was in the kitchen. I ambled down the stairs and was suddenly talking to a subdued Professor Eileen. “Hi, Syd… Are you still feeling ill like you did yesterday?” I figured she was being nice and I explained that I was still a bit woozy. She started to cry. “Why are you lying to me?! Why do you have to like? I’m reading about Burroughs now in the newspaper! All you had to do was ask, Syd!” I hung up the phone, surprised that Professor Eileen even read the rag and wondering if the broken trust would lead to an F grade.
But then I remembered Zane could have just interviewed the owner of the Mr. Food grocery store and discussed the struggles of stocking canned soup. Or, he could’ve interviewed the owner of Sal’s Pizzeria and got tidbits of knowledge on how he perfected his barely edible pies. Instead, we had an amazing story. We were 21-years-old, getting fucked over, aching to get fucked up, and slowly learning to avoid fuck-ups.