A week before a 100th birthday concert for William S. Burroughs, Barry Miles, author of the new biography Call Me Burroughs, dropped by The Strand to talk about his time with the Beat legend, starting in 1964 when Miles asked him to contribute to an anthology. The Strand has kindly posted the entire discussion online — without even cutting it up and rearranging it! Below are some interesting little morsels about the Invisible Man.
1. He might’ve been a sharp dresser, but he was a sloppy writer.
“Bill was quite proud of his role as a writer and yet he was sloppy, I guess, in the end. I think once the ideas were down on paper that was almost enough for him. When he was writing Naked Lunch, for instance, apparently the paper would come straight out of the carriage onto the floor, in Tangier, and the wind would blow it out into the garden and the cats would shit on it. Eventually, every few days, he’d gather all these manuscripts up and someone like Paul Bowles would come over and Bill would read aloud from it.”
2. Naked Lunch was composed from two or three years worth of letters to Allen Ginsberg.
“There was a whole team of people that put that together. Kerouac came over to do some of the typing, Ginsberg worked with him editing it and Alan Ansen came in from Greece. And then the one after that, Soft Machine, Burroughs wrote it with a lot of help from Ian Sommerville and people like that. And then he left the manuscript in completely unfinished form and shot off to Tangier just before Ginsberg arrived in Paris to see him. So Allen put it together without Billy even being there, with the aid of Brion Gysin. And then Gysin designed a dust wrapper for it and Allen wrote the blurb and it was a real collaboration — a Beat Generation collaboration.”
3. He didn’t much like the police.
“While Allen Ginsberg was preaching peace and meditation, Bill was saying things like, ‘The only way I would like to give a flower to a policeman is in a flower pot from a high window.'”
4. There’s no need to read his books from start to finish.
“You shouldn’t try to look for a story there, there’s no narrative or anything. You just dip in and out. If you just approach it as a prose poem it’s fine, but it’s just if you’re looking for the bourgeois novel or some kind of narrative you’re not going to find it. Not in any of his books, really, since Junkie and Queer.”
5. He was a bit of a shape-shifter.
“He changed like a chameleon in each city that he lived in, and he was almost a different person as well: depending on the group of friends he was with he would take on some of their political ideas — I don’t think he necessarily believed them, but he would fit right in and share the same kind of humor and the same kind of jokes, the same outrageous opinions… When he was in Tangier he was in an entirely expat gay set, he saw hardly anyone else. In London he moved in a much more aristocratic sort of area — he lived next to the queen, virtually. He was in St. James, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. His hats and shoes were all handmade. He lived like a lord there.”
6. He once crushed it on Saturday Night Live.
Lauren Hutton introduced him as the greatest living writer in America.
7. The original version of Naked Lunch contains some minor snafus.
“When we revised it at one point I had asked Bill whether the repetitions in Naked Lunch were intentional and he said no, it was a pure accident — the same sections had been typed up twice and sent to the typesetter and they weren’t intended to be repeated.”
8. Even though he appeared in a U2 video, he was more about Viennese waltzes.
“The only area that he really was unsure about, I think, is the rock and roll thing. There was one time when he first got to New York, he was quite broke, actually, and he was trying to make money writing for Crawdaddy and one of the things he did was they commissioned him to interview Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, so he want to a Led Zep concert and, I mean, absolutely hated it and had nothing, really, to say to Jimmy Page. But they found a mutual interest in magic. It’s a very interesting interview, actually. And again, David Bowie interviewed him for Rolling Stone, which is a very interesting thing. But again, Bill couldn’t talk about Bowie or music because it wasn’t his scene at all. But all these people kept coming. Bill’s personal taste in music stopped when he stopped being a youth, really — he liked Viennese waltzes and the hot fives and hot sevens of Louis Armstrong and early Lester Young and stuff like that. Prewar, all of it. And Moroccan music.”
9. There’s a fun story behind Richard Avedon’s portrait of him.
“Avedon sat him down and I think it was on the roof of either his studio or maybe it was on the roof of the Chelsea, I’m not sure, and it was a hot day and Bill was quite uncomfortable and starting to sweat and it was only after he got really uncomfortable that he’d take a couple of pictures. He didn’t even shoot a whole roll, he just did five or six and there it is. And it really captures him — he’s got that slightly grumpy, slightly irritated side to him.”
10. He was weirded out by Kurt Cobain.
“Cobain was on tour and he came to, I suppose, Kansas City and his roadie drove him over to meet Bill. And Bill found him quite disturbed, actually. He just said, ‘There’s something wrong with that boy — he’s always frowning.’ Of course he had never heard Nirvana or anything, so…”
11. Way before Cobain was a fan, Paul McCartney was.
Which explains why he’s on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
12. He believed in the magical universe.
“When he was a child he had a number of experiences of having visions and he saw little green reindeer in the park and all kinds of stuff like that. Instead of thinking he’d grow out of it he nurtured it and always kept it. Particularly when he was in Morocco, he got very interested in the magical practices of the Berbers and all the rest of it. And he was always open to any kind of, well, I wouldn’t say supernatural ideas, but he toyed around with all of that.”