If you guessed that Waldman, a preeminent poet prone to fiery performances, read/chanted from Burroughs’s work while Moore (with his brother Gene also on guitar) did his best impression of a guitarist high on “black meat,” you’re correct.
But first the several dozen people in attendance got a nice surprise: the Sonic Youth axeman interviewed Waldman about her 25 years of friendship with Burroughs — starting with their first encounter in the early ’70s, when she sat next to him at a party and felt self-conscious about her outfit.
As Waldman recalled, they spoke about The Job, a book of interviews that had just been published, in which Burroughs opines that women are “a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.”
Which raised the question: did Burroughs hate women? “I don’t feel he was ever misogynist toward women, in my experience,” Waldman said, later adding, “I think there’s a misanthropic quality in some of the writing. But not misogynistic.” Of course, there were those who felt otherwise: Waldman had to talk radical feminist Andrea Dworkin out of boycotting one of his readings with signs and water bombs.
“When he arrived in the ’70s there was a lot of frisson in the downtown community,” Waldman said of Burroughs’s move from Tangier to “The Bunker” at 222 Bowery, and his gig as a creative writing teacher at CUNY. “It was a big deal.”
When Moore moved to the city in 1976, Burroughs was “fairly active in the scene below 14th Street,” giving readings at the Mudd Club when it opened. His style was “suit and tie and hat and reading behind his desk in a monotone,” said Moore — but “he was basically this incredible rock and roll energy.”
Waldman agreed, recalling a packed reading at St. Mark’s Church (she directed the Poetry Project there) during which “people felt the vibratory quality of his voice.”
Talk soon turned to the Nova Convention, and Moore, who recently started a publishing imprint, revealed that he’s helping put together a tome of James Hamilton’s photos from the 1978 conference celebrating Burroughs’s work.
The convention’s big ticket was a performance at which Keith Richards was thought to be appearing (the Rolling Stones song “Undercover of the Night” was heavily influenced by Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night). “I was very excited to see Keith Richards on the same stage as Frank Zappa and Patti Smith,” Moore recalled – but the Stones guitarist was a no-show.
Patti Smith did, however, read her poem for Jim Morrison, Waldman read “Skin Meat Bones,” and then there was East Village poet Eileen Myles’s performance, a William Tell reenactment that riffed on the shooting death of Burroughs’s wife. “They went backstage after that and they were completely ostracized, they were persona non grata,” Waldman said.
The shooting of Joan Vollmer, she later added, “wasn’t something you could discuss directly” – even if you found it as “haunting” as she did.
Burroughs eventually became a teacher at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School, which Waldman co-founded. There, he’d tell his students to read Conrad, Gatsby and Korzybski’s writings on general semantics. He conducted strictly lectures (“heaven forbid – sitting around workshopping with William Burroughs?” Waldman joked) that touched on “tracking consciousness,” taking walks and “looking for words in landscapes,” phanopoeia, channeling dreams, and working with past and present imagery.
At one point, Naropa’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa, invited Burroughs on a Buddhist retreat. He declined because he wouldn’t be allowed to bring any writing instruments, Waldman recalled.
Finally, talk turned to Burroughs’s later years in Lawrence, Kansas. That’s where he gave Waldman her first shooting lesson (a “strange and weird” affair involving a .22) and where Thurston Moore visited him while on tour in the early ’90s. “He had gun magazines all over his house and basically he just wanted to talk about handguns,” Moore recalled. When Moore asked Burroughs if he owned a Beretta, he disparaged it as a “ladies handbag gun” and said, “I like guns that shoot and knifes that cut.” And that was the end of the conversation.
Burroughs died in August of 1997, just a few months after Allen Ginsberg. During the memorial service, he wore a Moroccan vest and mourners left joints in his open casket, Waldman recalled.
Throughout the conversation, Waldman kept marveling at how Burroughs anticipated so much of contemporary society, including developments in genetic research, “cyborgization” (the military’s use of cyborg sharks, for instance) and personal cameras and recorders being let loose in crowds. (The Stone, by the way, doesn’t allow audio or video recording, hence the lack of photos accompanying this piece.) She described Guantanamo, Halliburton, Abu Graib as “so Burroughsian.”
For more memories of the man, check out the WSB 100 website, featuring by John Waters, James Grauerholz and others. The NYC events continue through the end of the month.