Transcript

546:

Burroughs 101
Transcript

Originally aired 01.30.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/546

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I've never been interested in William Burroughs. You know who this is? Beat writer, author of Junkie and Naked Lunch. To me, it's like he was somebody glorifying and fetishizing heroin. He was into grand pronouncements, like--

William Burroughs

Nobody seems to ask the question what words actually are and exactly their relationship to the human nervous system.

Ira Glass

He just wasn't my thing. I didn't see what the big deal was. His ideas didn't seem interesting. I knew there were lots of really smart people who love him. I did not get it.

And then I heard this radio documentary about him. And there's no other way to say this. I got it. I saw why people go nuts for him. The documentary was made last year to commemorate Burroughs' 100th birthday, commissioned by BBC Radio.

And first of all, the sheer craft of this documentary was just a thing to behold-- finding people who knew Burroughs, and sorting through archival sound, and has this beautiful structure. But what really won me over is that it is not reverential about Burroughs. It thoroughly explains why he is such a mythic revered figure. But it doesn't buy into the myth.

And they do this totally untraditional kind of narration where the rock star, Iggy Pop, who is apparently a huge Burroughs fan, both narrates the show and comments on the narration that the show producer has written to the show producer all through the show. I have never heard anything like it. It's one of the best hours of radio I heard last year, and one of the most original.

Burroughs' 101st birthday is this week. And to commemorate it, I'm going to play you this documentary. OK? It's going to happen right now. So from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And without further delay, I hand this over to producer Colin McNulty and his presenter. They're Brits. That's the word they use presenter, for the narrator. His presenter, Iggy Pop. Heads up, there are some impolite words in here and one racist term. If you're listening to this by podcast or over the internet, you will be hearing these words without beeps.

And we've also included a few full sentences here with sexual content that had to be cut from the American broadcast of the episode. If you are somebody who prefers a less explicit version of the show-- maybe you have kids wandering in and out as you listen-- you can get that at our website, thisamericanlife.org. British radio, as you're about to hear, is more permissive than American radio when it comes to sexual content. Though they did begin their broadcast of the show with their version of a listener advisory, not like ours at all.

Act One. Burroughs, Part One.

Iggy Pop

A warning. The following program contains references to homosexuality, drug use, sex with aliens, violence, and kitty cats. What did you expect?

[LAUGHS]

[KNOCKING]

Colin Mcnulty

Iggy.

Iggy Pop

Hey, how you doing?

Colin Mcnulty

Good, how you doing?

Iggy Pop

You were casing the joint.

Colin Mcnulty

I was, sorry.

Iggy Pop

Not at all.

Colin Mcnulty

I was afraid I'd get lost.

Iggy Pop

Well, and you were going to be punctual, right?

Colin Mcnulty

Yeah, exactly.

Iggy Pop

Sit down, please, for a little bit.

Colin Mcnulty

OK, cool. What are we doing?

Iggy Pop

This is William Burroughs' 100th birthday, and we are taking a look at his life, his times, and his work. I didn't write this stuff, but I'm willing to present. All right?

Colin Mcnulty

That's fine, man.

Iggy Pop

I will really hope you put that line in there.

Colin Mcnulty

I didn't write this stuff.

Iggy Pop

I'm not that close to the take of BBC4 or this whole thing. I'm going to be honest with you. Presenter? To me, I feel like I should have a little hat. Hey, ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for star time? Ready to rumble. I could do those voices. At this particular time, we'd like to introduce the star of the show, Colin McNulty. All right, let's go.

Colin Mcnulty

Let's do it.

Iggy Pop

You ready?

Colin Mcnulty

I'm ready.

Iggy Pop

Now I've met William Burroughs once, and have been inspired by him, but I am not an expert on Burroughs, unlike this guy.

Oliver Harris

I'm Oliver Harris. I'm a professor of American literature. I'm the author and editor of 10 books on or about William Burroughs. The strange thing is that a million people who never heard of William Burroughs can sing lines from The Ticket That Exploded, and that's because Burroughs' book is where Iggy Pop found the raw materials of Lust for Life.

It's where Johnny Ann comes from, along with those hypnotizing chickens and the flesh gimmick and the strip tease and the torture film. Pop responded to the way Burroughs was working back in the 1960s in a kind of montage way that we now take for granted in a digital era, but Burroughs was pioneering it.

Iggy Pop

This is coming out of some Lust for Life, all right. He's not just in my music. Burroughs is everywhere. He's in Dylan's Tombstone Blues. He's on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's two rows behind Paul, right next to Marilyn Monroe.

He inspired band names like the Soft Machine, a great band, and Steely Dan, which is named after a strap-on dildo in Naked Lunch. I didn't know that. The world was introduced to the phrase "heavy metal" in the book Nova Express.

He worked with Kurt Cobain on a spoken word track, The Priest, They Called Him. Fight tuberculosis, folks. As Lou Reed said, without William, there is nothing.

William Burroughs

I am writing for people who are interested in exploring unexplored psychic areas.

Iggy Pop

This month, it has been 100 years since the birth of William Seward Burroughs II. By the time he died, the man left behind a humongous body of work. Bear with us. It's going to get weird. There will be drugs, sex, violence, aliens, the beats, of course, Tangiers, Paris, New York, and cats.

We'll play around with cut ups too, but that will be explained. We've trawled through Burroughs' work and the archives, particularly Burroughs, The Movie, a film directed by Howard Brookner, which is being rereleased later this year. We've also spoken to many people that have been permanently touched by William Burroughs.

John Waters

I'm looking at my little collection here. I have the book Queer by William Burroughs. And it's autographed, "To John Waters, with admiration and friendship, William Burroughs, November 3, 1985 at the Mary Boone gallery."

Iggy Pop

Exhibit A, director John Waters. Burroughs gave him a name that stuck, The Pope of Trash.

John Waters

Yes, I've been shamelessly milking that title, The Pope of Trash, for years. Matter of fact, as I'm sitting here, I'm wearing a long cloak to the floor and an imperial marjoram crown that says "The Pope of Trash" on it as we speak. But I grew up reading William Burroughs. I mean, I went to Catholic school and sat there and read Junkie, and the Christian brothers were so stupid, they had never heard of William Burroughs and thought, isn't it nice? He's reading. But they had no idea what I was reading.

He was a role model for all of us. We all grew up reading him. When we were in high school, when we were stuck in suburbia somewhere trying to get away, we read him, and he ignited our imaginations. He let us dare to try something that we had been told we should never do. He was a bad guardian angel that got us out of the house.

Iggy Pop

But besides the writing, Burroughs the man is legendary. His hobbies, his personality, the way he lived his life became mythic. He was conformist America's dark nemesis.

William Burroughs

The mugwump slips the noose over the boy's head and tightens the knot--

Iggy Pop

He wrote graphically about sex.

William Burroughs

Moves in behind the boy and shoves his cock up the boy's ass. He stands there, moving in circular gyrations.

Iggy Pop

He was openly gay.

William Burroughs

We are a precarious minority. We've got to fight for our lives. If they're opposed, the gay state, we're going to find him, track him down, and kill him.

John Waters

I think Burroughs was the first militant gay person really that would dare to say that. So even the other beatniks were scared of him, I think. I think William out-hipped all of them, really, because he was so alarming and so scary and so macabre.

William Burroughs

Well, I would use any weapons at my disposal in order to defend my premises.

Iggy Pop

Despite having shot his wife, Burroughs was obsessed with guns and weapons.

William Burroughs

You had a razor sharp, double edge knife. You could whip it out and cut someone's throat before he knew what was happening. I'm not anticipating any trouble, because I don't like violence.

Iggy Pop

And he was a heroin addict.

William Burroughs

The whole drug problem started when they made drugs illegal.

Reader

He slid the needle in. A red organ bloomed at the bottom of the dropper, watching the solution rush into the boy's veins, sucked by silent thirst of blood.

John Waters

I mean, he was everything. He took drugs. He was gay. He did things that no one dared mention, especially together, because gay people were kind of square then, the ones that people knew about. So he was a junkie gay person, which really caused a lot of trouble-- and unashamed.

Iggy Pop

The mythic Burroughs was an old man in a three piece suit with this nasal voice rising up like this, railing against the world with one hand on the typewriter and the other pushing a needle into his arm. I can do him pretty good.

Colin Mcnulty

Yeah, you do a damn good Burroughs impression.

John Waters

I only shot heroin once in my life, because I had to, in respect of William Burroughs. I mean, that's a terrible thing to say. But I did try it once. And you shouldn't because you can get hepatitis C from trying it just once. I don't have it, but I know people that do. William Burroughs was a bad influence on me. And I thank him for that.

Iggy Pop

But not everyone appreciates the Burroughs myth.

Oliver Harris

I don't just take the Burroughs myth with a pinch of salt. I view it as a unpleasant slug crawling across the lawn of literature. And I like to pour salt on it.

Iggy Pop

The writer, Will Self.

Colin Mcnulty

Do you like his stuff? You said you did.

Iggy Pop

I told you I did, yeah, yeah. Known smart ass.

Will Self

When I was at school, I got the English prize when I was 16. And I asked for a copy of The Naked Lunch. I used to have it with the sort of school coat of arms on a book plate in the front of it.

Colin Mcnulty

Having used heroin yourself--

Will Self

I think used is a bit of an understatement. I was a heroin addict on and off for pushing a quarter of a century. For myself, I find the whole Burroughs myth pretty repulsive, actually. Because I understand what happened to me. I was an addict in waiting. I got my form prize or my English prize at The Naked Lunch. And a year and a half later, I was sticking needles in my arm.

Colin Mcnulty

Was it that direct for you?

Will Self

Well, I'm not saying it made me do it. I'm saying that my attraction to Burroughs' work was very much to do with the mythos, and particularly to do with the mythos that surrounded him because of being a heroin addict. And that's the point about Burroughs, is that he exists. You could be lying in some pestilential piss-soaked squat in the bowels of the city listening to some moron totaled on drugs drooling on and talking about Burroughs, because Burroughs was their Leon Trotsky. He was their Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the Pope. I'd rather belong to the priesthood than be with the guy who was lying on the carpet drooling about-- that's all. That's all there is to it, though.

Iggy Pop

One day Burroughs found himself in the possession of some morphine syringes, and he tried junk for the first time.

Reader

Morphine hits the backs of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spinning wave of relaxation, slackening the muscles away from the bone so that you see the bloat without outlines.

William Burroughs

I became addicted to drugs before I'd written anything. And actually, my first book, Junkie, was simply an account of my experiences.

Iggy Pop

I think it was medicine for the dude. It's painful. It's painful to be a human being. I'm not even half anymore. I can't take it. I've never been more than half at one time.

Will Self

I think that his genius, in as much as he has any-- and you see it in ample evidence in Junkie-- is that he makes of the condition of the addict a synecdoche for the condition of everybody.

Iggy Pop

There are all sorts of things you can get out of this guy's books without having to be interested in whatever he thought about opiates.

Will Self

I think the way to read Junkie is not as a book about heroin addiction at all. It's a book about the condition of modern man that developed capitalistic societies.

Iggy Pop

William was on and off junk for the rest of his life. His addiction followed and pushed him everywhere. Flash forward to Burroughs living in his New York home, the bunker.

Victor Bockris

Yeah, I saw Bill take junk. It almost seemed like someone had put a junk supermarket right smack in the middle of the punk world to destroy them.

Iggy Pop

Writer and biographer, Victor Bockris.

Victor Bockris

Everyone had a copy of Junkie. They read them over and over again, but they didn't seem to get the real message of it because they seemed to think it was really cool to take heroin with William Burroughs.

James Grauerholz

Hi, there. Colin, are we going to tape?

Iggy Pop

James Grauerholz was Burroughs' friend and manager for over 20 years.

James Grauerholz

Every time we went to New York, I saw a slightly out of control scene. Running the bank accounts, I could see it flowing out of the ATM down the street from the bunker. He was looking for a pastoral retreat, and I was looking to lure him to it for his sake to get him away from all the young wannabe hipsters ringing the buzzer of the bunker, breaking out the baggies of dope, and saying, hey, I brought you a gift.

Victor Bockris

It was a very constructive move, and absolutely the right thing to do. At the time, of course, we were all really pissed off that Burroughs was leaving New York. But god, he thrived in Kansas. He really thrived out there.

James Grauerholz

I got him on methadone maintenance, and he remained on that until the end of his days, and it was very heightening for his productivity. And it needs to be difficult to see Burroughs, and it's not going to prevent people that deserve to see him from seeing him to make them come to Lawrence most times. After all, Voltaire lived 25 years in the tiny town of Ferney in Switzerland, and the crowned heads of Europe made their way to his estate.

Iggy Pop

We'll leave Burroughs on his methadone program in Kansas for now. OK, where next? Outer space. Space! Space!

Colin Mcnulty

That's good. Can you just say outer space?

Iggy Pop

Outer space.

William Burroughs

I am attempting to create a new mythology for the space age. I feel that the old mythologies are definitely broken down and are not adequate at the present time. The Nova mob, Sammy the butcher, green Tony.

Iggy Pop

This is the Nova trilogy, told as only Burroughs could tell it. It depicts a space age war between the Nova police, the good guys, and the Nova mob, a band of aliens from outer space who want to enslave human beings through the virus power.

William Burroughs

This is science fiction, but it is science fiction in terms of what is actually here now. I have Nova conspiracies, Nova police, Nova criminals. The virus power manifests itself in many ways, in the construction of nuclear weapons. This is war to extermination. In practically all the existing political systems, which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom. The Earth is a slave planet. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in Western countries. Are these the words of the all-powerful boards, syndicates, cartels of the Earth? You must learn who and what the enemy is, their weapons and methods of operation.

Iggy Pop

The alien enemy was in him.

William Burroughs

Like Burroughs, that proud American name. The enemy is in you. Proud of what, exactly? Play it all, play it all, play it all back. Pay it all, pay it all, pay it all back.

Iggy Pop

The key to Burroughs' obsession with power is in his own biography, his love/hate relationship with American culture, and his affluent Saint Louis upbringing.

Radio Host

But before we look ahead, let's turn backward for a moment to consider how all this began.

Iggy Pop

This might surprise you.

Radio Host

It began with this, the world's first practical adding machine. William Seward Burroughs invested 10 years of his brief life in its development.

Iggy Pop

William's namesake and grandfather invented the first mechanical adding machine. By 1920, the Burroughs Adding Machine company is worth over $400 million. Oliver Harris.

Oliver Harris

Both sides of his family tied Burroughs to pioneering capitalists in business and military computing, as the Burroughs adding machine, and also public relations. His uncle, Poison Ivy Lee, was a press agent for Rockefeller and for Standard Oil. He also supposedly was going to work for Hitler, so he was your classic press agent with no values and no morals.

Iggy Pop

That's Burroughs' ancestors, capitalists and spin doctors.

Oliver Harris

I think Burroughs reacted to that in his own work.

Iggy Pop

The type of people that would become his enemies.

William Burroughs

Are these the words of the all-powerful boards, syndicates, cartels of the Earth?

Oliver Harris

Burroughs put his privileged, haute bourgeois background, his classical education, to very good use by taking it back on itself. And that's really key to the work that came afterwards.

William Burroughs

I was born February 5, 1914 in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Iggy Pop

Like Burroughs, that proud American name.

William Burroughs

Now I never felt that I really belonged at all in the whole Saint Louis social structure. There was just something wrong there.

Iggy Pop

Well, you can't mention Burroughs without mentioning the other members of the holy trinity. Beep beep. On the drums, William Burroughs. On bass, Allen Ginsberg. On the trumpet, Jack Kerouac. I won't do that again. They were a group Burroughs fit in with, pretty much.

Colin Mcnulty

Basically, he was a man without a mission at age 29, 30, when he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They're portrayed as a merry band of artistic, smiling, laughing pranksters. They were all miserable. These guys 13 all the time. That's what I would say.

Iggy Pop

Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg formed a triangular friendship that would become the heart of an entire literary movement. Allen Ginsberg. I had matzah ball soup once with Allen Ginsberg.

Colin Mcnulty

Did you?

Allen Ginsberg

It was possible to be gay without having to be ashamed of it in that generation in that community. Burroughs was gay. I was gay. Kerouac was straight.

Iggy Pop

It was a tolerant extended New York family, hell bent on personal freedom.

Allen Ginsberg

We began experimenting-- myself, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Hunky and others with Benzedrine inhalers. And those were kind of interesting.

Iggy Pop

While Burroughs was wallowing in drugs and young men in Tangier, the rest of the Beat generation was in full swing.

Allen Ginsberg

There was no doubt about the Beat generation, at least the core of it, being a swinging group of new American men intent on joy.

Iggy Pop

Ginsberg's poem "Howl" was published in 1956.

Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

Iggy Pop

Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1957.

Jack Kerouac

All that road going. Think of Dean Moriarty. I even think of old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found. Think of Dean Moriarty. I think of Dean Moriarty.

[APPLAUSE]

Iggy Pop

Though Burroughs wouldn't consider himself a Beat writer, the three of them stuck together and supported each other's careers. By the late '50s, they were in Paris, keeping the bohemian theme going.

Jean-jacques Lebel

I was one of the very rare Frenchman that they knew because I'm half American and I speak English.

Iggy Pop

They met artist Jean-Jacques Lebel.

Jean-jacques Lebel

And I would take them around to North African bars, mostly to buy some hash and [INAUDIBLE].

Iggy Pop

Their base would become known as the Beat Hotel.

Jean-jacques Lebel

It was a sort of paradise and hell at the same time. It was definitely the cheapest hotel in Paris. It wasn't very clean. And there was only one phone. So when Madame Rachou, the lady who was running the place, had to call Brian, for instance, she went out into the street and said, Brian, telephone! And he would put on his pants and run down. It was wonderful.

David Delannet

I'm David Delannet. I co-manage the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris. What happened here is that very quickly, when this bookstore opened, it became a center for expatriates. They decided they'd do a reading here, especially for "Howl," in this room actually on the first floor of the bookstore, which is more like a lending library than a commercial space. And at the end of the reading, Burroughs did a reading of a work in progress, which was at the time the Naked Lunch.

William Burroughs

I just want to rub up against you and get fixed. Ugh, well, all right, but why can't you just get physical like a human?

Colin Mcnulty

Right, we're on sex.

Iggy Pop

Yeah. Naked Lunch oozes sex. Seems like a good time to get libidinal.

James Grauerholz

He didn't start life with any insecurity about whether his desires were legitimate.

Iggy Pop

James Grauerholz.

James Grauerholz

So I'm sure it came as a great shock to him when he realized that his interest in other boys sexually was a great horror and either a crime or a sin, an illness, or all three.

Iggy Pop

The spindly, sickly looking teenage Burroughs was sent to Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico.

William Burroughs

Where they later made the atom bomb. It seems so right, somehow, like the school song, far away and high on the mesa's crest. Here's the life that all of us love the best.

James Grauerholz

And in his diary, apparently, he entered his emotions and feelings and factual accounts of sexual contacts with at least one other boy at the ranch school. The boy with whom he had some involvement turned on him and outed him and pointed at him, and he became ostracized and black balled. He contacted his parents and got himself yanked out of school on some medical pretext within 48 hours. But his belongings didn't go home to Saint Louis with him. They had to be packed and shipped, including the diary.

William Burroughs

I used to turn cold, thinking maybe the boys are reading it aloud to each other. When the box finally arrived, I pried it open and threw everything out without even a glance at those appalling pages. That was to put me off writing for many years.

James Grauerholz

And he never really tried to write again until 1950.

Iggy Pop

After Harvard and medical school in Vienna, Burroughs ended up in New York and met his first boyfriend, who would loudly cheat on him while William listened through a thin wall. To retaliate, he cut off the top joint of his left little finger with poultry shears.

Marcus Ewert

I think on Wikipedia, they say I'm widely acknowledged to be the last lover of William Burroughs. But I'm not-- I'm not sure what scholarship that's based on.

Iggy Pop

In the late '80s, Burroughs met Marcus Ewert. He was 18. William was 74.

Marcus Ewert

So how much detail did you want?

Iggy Pop

Marcus met William in the bunker.

Marcus Ewert

So I arrived at the bunker. It's like 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. And William is showing me all these different things on his desk, like a scorpion and a paperweight and some old dented bullets that had some story attached to them. And then I was like, oh wait. He's nervous.

I think finally we sit on the edge of the bed. He's sitting about half a foot away from me, and we're not talking. It's very, very quiet. And then he moves his hand slowly onto my knee, and he takes the big leap.

And then I reach over and put my hand on his knee. I give his knee a little squeeze. And then I threw my arm around him and kind of pulled him into me, like come here, you little William Burroughs, you. So at the very end of this sexual experience, the very first one in the bunker, he came. And I think I came too. And he said, "Oh, that was great. That was the first time that's happened in years."

Iggy Pop

Marcus kept up the relationship in William's Kansas years.

Marcus Ewert

We're getting into bed, and I'm sticking my legs down under the covers. There's this bump that my legs feel. And I'm like, "Oh, what's this hard thing my legs are bumping against, William?" And he said, "Oh, that's the gun." I said, "Is it a loaded gun?" He said, "Of course it's loaded." You'd sleep with a lover with a loaded gun in your bed. That's kind of a metaphor waiting to happen.

William Burroughs

A hum of sex and commerce shakes the soul like a vast hive.

Iggy Pop

Naked Lunch. Yeah.

William Burroughs

I had been occluded from space time like an eel's ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Saragasso. The heat was on me from here on out, to a landlocked junk past where heroin is always $28 an ounce, and you can score for yen pox in the chink laundry of Sioux Falls.

Iggy Pop

A naked lunch, it sounds like a Gwyneth Paltrow cooking special.

Colin Mcnulty

I know.

Iggy Pop

Yes I'm having a wonderful naked lunch with my children named after vegetables, and we're all so-- everything's beautiful. Pass the money.

Eventually, the book was Burroughs' biggest success.

John Waters

Naked Lunch. What better title could that be? Could you go into a store and say, "Excuse me, do you have Naked Lunch?" No wonder it was a best seller.

Iggy Pop

In 1962, Naked Lunch was banned in Boston for obscenity, a decision that was reversed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in '66. It was the last literary censorship trial in the United States. John Waters.

John Waters

And it got banned. That always really helped. And because it was experimental in the real sense of the word, it was hallucinary.

William Burroughs

The brain, front, middle, and rear, must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix.

John Waters

You know, people hadn't had hallucinations yet. They hadn't taken drugs. So they read this, and it was like, wow.

William Burroughs

I give you my master work, the complete all-American deanxietized man.

John Waters

And it scared people, and it delighted people, and it was like no other book anybody had ever written. And that always works.

William Burroughs

The man wriggles. His flesh turns to a viscous, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mists, unveiling a monster black centipede.

Iggy Pop

Wait. We haven't even mentioned Joan yet. OK, it's time to talk about how Burroughs shot his wife.

Kathleen Gray

My name is Kathleen Gray. I met William in 1974, and I knew him for 23 years.

Iggy Pop

In the '70s, artist Kathleen Gray invited Burroughs to give a talk in New Mexico. She asked him a couple questions.

Kathleen Gray

What is your attitude towards women? And he said, "I killed the only woman I ever loved." We just stared at each other for possibly a full minute. Then he started to sob, and I just held him. And he was crying. And then he was whispering how much he loved her, how she'd actually saved his life on a couple of occasions. I don't know if there was ever an hour that went by without him thinking about it and his regret at what had happened.

Iggy Pop

In 1946, Burroughs met Joan Vollmer through Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg

Jack and I decided that Joan and Bill would make a great couple, that they were a match for each other, fit for each other, equally tuned and equally witty and equally intelligent, equally well read.

Iggy Pop

It wasn't uncommon for gay men to marry women then.

William Burroughs

One time, she said, "Well, you're supposed to be a faggot, but you're as good as a pimp in bed." Well, I thought this was nonsense, and I still do.

Iggy Pop

Joan was into Benzedrine. William was, of course, into heroin. In New York, he began dealing and stealing from drunks on the subway to finance his habit. Oliver Harris.

Oliver Harris

He went to Mexico City in late '49. It was the perfect place for Burroughs. He could be a queer. He could be a heroin addict. And it didn't matter because he could still flaunt the privileges of being an American abroad. And in a way, it did him a lot of good to unleash a dark side of him, which was crucial to his becoming a great writer.

Allen Ginsberg

Joan was not making it with Bill, and I was a little irritated with him. Bill had been off with a young friend.

William Burroughs

That day, I knew something awful was going to happen. I remember I was working down the street, and tears started just streaming down my face. Well, if that happens to you, watch out, baby.

Iggy Pop

The "something bad" happened at a party they went to that night. James Grauerholz.

James Grauerholz

It appears to me clear that Joan was teasing him or taunting him. And there's the boyfriend, secretly, known to Joan. And evidently, he said, "We're going to move to the deep jungle in South America. That way, I'll kick my habit." And she apparently said something like, "How will we survive?" "Oh, I'll shoot wild boars and game." And she said, "Oh, with your marksmanship, we'll starve to death." And he says, "Oh, well why don't we show the boys what kind of a shot old Bill really is?"

William Burroughs

Then I said to Joan, it's about time for our William Tell act. And she put a glass on her head. I fired the shot. The glass hadn't been touched. Joan started sliding down towards the floor. Then Marcus said-- walked over and took one look at her. He said, "Billy, your bullet just hit her forehead." I said, "Oh my god."

Man

Had you done the William Tell thing before?

William Burroughs

Never. Just an absolute piece of insanity.

Iggy Pop

When I first heard about it way back when, the cynical view, well of course, what a great place to do it. You get away with it down there. But upon reflection, I would say this. When you've been drinking, drugging, or doping, there's something that kicks in that involves a disregard for human life. Yes, there sure is.

He called it ugly spirit, or whatever. And so it may lead your hand in a bad way. Do I think that he was in any way consciously thinking at that moment, "Well, this is a good chance. Maybe I'll miss." No. No, no, no, no, no, no. Not this person.

Will Self has an opinion.

Will Self

Well, Burroughs murdered his wife. And that's not necessarily a fashionable or accepted view. When I wrote a new introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic of Junkie, I had a very close look at it again. I had a cold case investigation. And I simply do not think you can rule out the very strong possibility, or indeed likelihood, that there was some element of intentionality involved in him aiming a loaded gun at his wife's head when she had a shot glass on top of it, a gun that he knew to be inaccurate.

Either way, the apologists for Burroughs who say it was a dreadful accident and so forth are just like the apologists for Burroughs that there are in every area. And what we call apologists in the addiction world are enablers. And I think that enabling somebody to escape the reality of their homicidal actions is probably the worst kind of enabling you can engage in. Enabling his addiction is almost besides the point.

Iggy Pop

Burroughs wrote Queer while he was awaiting trial. In the introduction, he wrote, "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death. The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

James Grauerholz

When he talked about writing his way out of it, I think that in order for his recognition as a writer to exceed his notoriety as an uxoricide, he had to become a really good writer. That's what I mean by write his way out of it.

Will Self

Well, I'd rather have the woman than the books. I mean, I think that's-- the artistic defense only really cuts any ice with the kind of enablers.

Iggy Pop

All right. I'm going to take a break here. Take 5 or 10 minutes, and I'll be back. You can cut up the sentences or put them all together. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up project. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up project. Cut up. Cut up montage.

Colin Mcnulty

Iggy, what do you think? I don't know what that is.

Ira Glass

Cut ups after the break. Yes, you are still listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago. That is in a minute when our program continues.

Act Two. Burroughs, Part Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Burroughs 101. This week, the writer William Burroughs would've been 101 years old. He died in 1997 at the age of 83. We are marking the birthday with this great documentary made for BBC Radio Four a year ago on his 100th birthday. Iggy Pop narrates. We pick up with Cut Ups.

Colin Mcnulty

So can you tell me just what do you make of the cut up method?

Iggy Pop

How different is the cut up method really from what they used to call the magic eight ball? Do you know what that is? Or a Ouija board. It's a Ouija board for art people, is what it is. Language is a virus. Language is a virus. Virus is a language human scummery control is a virus.

Language control the virus. Language is a virus. Power and the things that we want to express using a language are not as interesting, as useful, or as dynamic as things that the language could say itself, if only you would let the language talk. The pretenses don't have much weight if you just give them a little push. But that was what I took the cut up to be, basically.

Jean-jacques Lebel

Brion Gysin was living with William Burroughs at the time in the Beat Hotel in Paris.

Iggy Pop

One way Burroughs would describe him as "the only man I ever respected."

Jean-jacques Lebel

It's while he was doing his artwork that he discovered the cut up.

Brion Gysin

It occurred because I had a number of sheets of newspaper, and I took a Stanley blade and cut through them, and little bits and pieces looked so amusing to me that I started jiggling them around as one would in a collage.

Jean-jacques Lebel

And he showed it to William Burroughs, and Burroughs immediately started using that technique.

Iggy Pop

Cut up. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up. Cut up created a new way of writing a novel. To help explain, we'll need a true Burroughs obsessive.

Ian Macfayden

When I see Naked Lunch in a charity shop or a junk shop on the shelf, I don't want it to be there on its own. I just want to bring it home to daddy.

Iggy Pop

Burroughsian, Ian MacFayden.

Ian Macfayden

The cut up books contain within themselves the descriptions of the methods of their own creation.

William Burroughs

This is a technique. And like any technique, it will of course be useful to some writers and not to others.

Ian Macfayden

What is produced is uncanny. You read through it. You read underneath it. You get the back of the mask.

William Burroughs

These colorless sheets are empty. You ever existed at all. Goodbye to William.

Ian Macfayden

He used the cut up technique as a way of examining the media.

William Burroughs

Then police keep all boardroom reports, and we are not allowed to proffer the disaster accounts.

Ian Macfayden

Discourses of the police, of government, of authority, but also the gibbering voice inside each of us.

William Burroughs

Oh my god, show them how ugly the ugly American can be.

Ian Macfayden

Which frustrated Burroughs throughout his life.

William Burroughs

Me, I am looking around. And the more I look, the less I like what I see.

Iggy Pop

Burroughs wrote The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express using cut up.

Oliver Harris

It's not just the writing which was well known.

Iggy Pop

Oliver Harris.

Oliver Harris

It was the photo montages, the tapes, the artwork. Rather than cut up being a dead end, it was incredibly-- it proliferated, overran expectations and possibilities.

William Burroughs

Now, here are some tapes which Brion made with all the technical facilities of the BBC in London. And they show, I think, what can be done with the human voice and one phrase.

Brion Gysin

All actors. Calling all-- calling all reactive agents. Calling all active agents re. Calling all active agents re. Calling all active re agents. Calling. All agents reactive. Calling all re agents active.

William Burroughs

I'm also working on a short film with Mr. Anthony Balch, Towers, Open Fire.

Tony

Who are you?

Bill

I'm Bill, who are you?

Tony

I'm Tony. Where are you, Bill?

Bill

In a 1920 movie, Tony. Where are you?

Tony

I'm in London.

Man

The total taste is here. Have a happy-- have a happ--

Bill

Is this machine recording? Is this machine recording? Is this machine recording?

Man

Johnson, addressing a meeting of editorial cartoonists of the White House, once held three maids at gunpoint and proceeded to ransack the apartment.

Oliver Harris

The cut up project was, in Burroughs' own terms, a disastrous success in the sense that it was impossible. But they have something which is ferocious about them, and yet very funny. They're experimental. They're obscene. They're political. They're spiritual, a great call to arms against the 1%, who, in his view, were screwing the planet.

Iggy Pop

With the '60s hippies transforming into '70s punks, the Burroughs effect multiplied.

Colin Mcnulty

Why do you think the punks found such an affinity for Burroughs?

Iggy Pop

There's this undercurrent of, all this shit is a bunch of shit. You people are a bunch of shit. I don't have to respect the shit out of your-- a disrespect.

David Bowie

This is the what I do cut ups. I don't know if it's like the way Brion Gysin does his or Burroughs does his. I don't know. But this is the way I do it.

Iggy Pop

David Bowie.

David Bowie

What I've used it for more than anything else is igniting anything that might be in my imagination. And you can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into.

Iggy Pop

Burroughs is now affecting everyone, all the big names. Musicians, artists, hipsters, they all love him. And for once, it's back home in America. That's my swift cover voice.

David Bowie

It was a wonderful time. Don't forget, we just got rid of Nixon.

Iggy Pop

New York City, 1974.

David Bowie

It was a whole rebirth of this sensibility because the Nixon administration had tried really hard and quite effectively to destroy the counterculture. And so Burroughs' return was almost seen as the king returns to take his throne now that the evil king has fallen. Burroughs was the king of the underground.

Iggy Pop

Victor Bockris was then a journalist and close associate of Andy Warhol and Burroughs.

Victor Bockris

I remember a great scene at the St. Mark's Poetry Project. Patti Smith on stage in '74 finishing a reading by saying, "Guess who moved back to New York? William Burroughs. Isn't that great?" And I thought at that moment, "How wonderful." Because this new, vibrant movement of punk is not going to try and kill its fathers, but it's going to actually welcome them and salute them on their way to their own success.

Iggy Pop

Not long after he settled in New York, William met the most important person in his late American career, James Grauerholz. James was 21. Burroughs was 60.

Allen Ginsberg

So James had come to offer his services to me as a secretary.

Iggy Pop

Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg

And I was hoping lover because he was kind of cute. He was 21, 20. And Bill had just come back, and I was worried about Bill getting straight. So I said, OK, if you want to be my secretary, the first thing to do is go down and see Burroughs.

James Grauerholz

I went up and met him. We had some drinks, and within a week or so, he invited me to move in with him. And I did roommate with him and sleep with him for about six weeks. And then I met someone closer to my own age whom I moved in with. I told William, if we can be friends, I think we can be friends for life. Little did I know.

Iggy Pop

James was William's manager for the rest of his life.

James Grauerholz

I was his reader, his audience, the person who couldn't wait to see what he had written, to go over it with him, to discuss it with him, to bring him more things to write the next part of it. I was the one who cared what he had spent the day doing.

Iggy Pop

Grauerholz organized public readings for Burroughs. The young punks crowded in to see their long lost crazy uncle. It all climaxed with the Nova Convention.

Woman

This is the Nova Convention. Welcome to the Nova Convention. This is a test.

Victor Bockris

The Nova Convention was a very important event in New York. It was the first time which was a public meeting where all the elements of the Beat punk generation came together.

Woman

LadiesFRANK and gentlemen, William Burroughs.

[APPLAUSE]

William Burroughs

This is the Space Age, and we are here to go. Only those who are willing to leave everything they've ever known in time need apply.

Victor Bockris

And the people who organized it tried to invite a number of artists from different mediums, such as Patti Smith. Keith Richards was supposed to be involved. Frank Zappa came to it. All sorts of people came.

William Burroughs

Just setting up for the great Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa

Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?

John Waters

William was one of the first people that ever branded himself, before there was such a word as that, by how he looked, how he talked, how he baited people. He was almost predictable in his macabre sense of humor. But it wasn't a lie. William really was like that. I mean, I think he was like that when nobody was there too. I don't think it was an act. But at the same time, he lent himself very well to fame.

Iggy Pop

In 1981, William appeared on Saturday Night Live, graciously introduced by the actress Lauren Hutton.

Lauren Hutton

I'm very pleased tonight to introduce a man who, in my opinion, is the greatest living writer in America. In his first television appearance ever, here is Mr. William Burroughs.

[APPLAUSE]

William Burroughs

Doctor Benway ships doctor drunkenly added two inches to a four inch incision with one stroke of his scalpel. "Perhaps the appendix is already out, doctor," the nurse said, peering dubiously over his shoulder. I saw a little scar. The appendix out? I'm taking the appendix out. What do you think I'm doing here? He lifts the abdominal wall and searches along the incision, dropping ashes from his cigarette.

Iggy Pop

100 million views, laughter, respect, a literary halo.

Colin Mcnulty

We're getting into the cat section. It's almost like, all right, we got to the point where Burroughs is at his height. It's almost like we should stop there, but we're not.

Iggy Pop

Oh, what haven't we covered yet? Hate. Cats.

Colin Mcnulty

Right. We're getting into the cat section now. And the good news is, it's the last section.

William Burroughs

Evidence indicates that cats were first tamed in Egypt. The Egyptians stored grain, which attracted rodents, which attracted cats. I postulate that cats started as psychic companions, as familiars, and have never deviated from this function.

Colin Mcnulty

Do you like cats?

Iggy Pop

I do like cats. I feed so many cats that I'm a little bit pissed off at them right now because I spend a lot of time and money feeding them all the time. What they do, the way they get me to feed them, and my wife too-- I feed them here and in the islands. They just come and stare at you.

William Burroughs

I find this desperate attempt to win a human protector deeply moving. The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.

Iggy Pop

He has this line where he just says, cats give you themselves.

Colin Mcnulty

Yeah, I have that bit in there.

Iggy Pop

That's a deep line. In one of his last books, The Cat Inside, William writes about some of the many cats he owned, like Ruskie, Ginger, and Calico. Burroughs' young lover Marcus visited him.

Marcus Ewert

I think he had at least six cats while I was there. And he had this one cat that would really pretty much hug you. It would stand up on your-- I've never seen a cat do this. If you're sitting on the sofa, it would stand up on its hind legs on your lap and put a paw, its front paws, one on either side of your head and just look right at you and press its head in close to you. It was the damnedest thing.

And William just loved his cats. I mean, he loved his cats so much. And I'm not trying to-- he loved people, too. But I think it was a much more scary and fraught and frightening thing for him.

Iggy Pop

Toward the end of his life, Burroughs became more concerned about the environment. It was like his childhood in Saint Louis was fading away, the old beautiful Midwestern America. William could feel the loss.

William Burroughs

The magical medium is being bulldozed away. No more green reindeer in Forest Park. The angels are leaving all of the alcoves everywhere as the forests fall to make way for motels and Hiltons and McDonald's. The whole magic universe is dying. The rain forests of Borneo and South America are going to make way for what?

Marcus Ewert

I think he was a deeply sad person, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply sad person. So I think William did have this deep, deep, deep skepticism about people being able to connect. And I think specifically, people being able to connect with him.

William Burroughs

There must have been a split between the cats who accepted domestication and those who did not.

James Grauerholz

One day, one of his closest friends, Tom Peschio, went to see him at dinnertime, and William was having a coughing fit and had been having chest pains. And within a few minutes, Tom had convinced him to let Tom call 9-1-1, and me. He went to the hospital. He was not conversing. And then they got him stabilized. His eyes were open. He seemed to hear. But he wasn't speaking.

William had made a no extraordinary measures instruction. In other words, I'm going to say do not resuscitate. And William simply took his last breath. And that is how he died.

Kathleen Gray

He was gentlemanly. He was an old school gentleman. He had manners. He loved to have friends around him. He loved to carry on. He loved to meet new people. He loved his fans. In the media, there is this other stereotypical presentation of who William Burroughs was, the guy in a three piece suit with a needle in his arm. But that's not the William I saw. That wasn't him. He was a very complex human.

Ian Macfayden

But none of this biographical stuff is of any interest apart from the actual writing. And what worries me in the centenary year is that everybody's talking about how they met Bill, and Bill said this, and Bill said that. Actually, no. I mean, people should really read the books.

Allen Ginsberg

He had this image, a kind of cold, blue, almost ray-like, almost alien image. And of course, he could be like that. He was like that in performances in public. It was his persona. But the real William Burroughs was just a wonderful gentleman and a great artist and a great friend. I miss him very much. I'm really glad to talk about him. It means a lot to me.

James Grauerholz

I miss him. I miss him. I miss him bad.

Allen Ginsberg

Just a wonderful gentleman.

Kathleen Gray

Gentleman.

Ian Macfayden

Centenary year.

James Grauerholz

I miss him.

Kathleen Gray

Human.

Victor Bockris

Means a lot to me.

James Grauerholz

William talks to me every day.

William Burroughs

Alien image.

James Grauerholz

I miss him.

Ian Macfayden

Read the books.

Kathleen Gray

Old school.

Victor Bockris

Persona.

Kathleen Gray

With a needle in his arm.

James Grauerholz

I miss him bad.

Colin Mcnulty

What do you think the last words of the program should be? What's your final sum up of Burroughs?

Iggy Pop

This wonderful American man of a certain generation did his best to shoulder the burden of intelligence and sensitivity and to deal with his pain. That's what I would say.

Colin Mcnulty

Thanks, Iggy.

Iggy Pop

All right, man. Awesome. As long as you're satisfied and--

Colin Mcnulty

I am, man.

Iggy Pop

I'm still in one piece, fair enough.

Colin Mcnulty

You laid down a lot of stuff there.

Iggy Pop

All right.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Burroughs 101 was presented by Iggy Pop. And when I say presented, I mean he narrated the show. The producer was Colin McNulty, executive producer Kevin Dawson. It was independently produced for BBC Radio Four by Whistle Down Productions. You can find out about other programs they've made at whistledown.net.

This American Life is produced by Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon, our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Elena Baker scouts stories for our show. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Co-founder. Thanks, co-founder.

William Burroughs

You're as good as a pimp in bed.

Ira Glass

Co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia.

William Burroughs

Pimp.

Ira Glass

Torey, thank you so much.

William Burroughs

In bed.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glack-- I'm Ira. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week. Back, back, back, back. Ira Glass. Stories. More. This American Life.

William Burroughs

In bed.