The legend of William S. Burroughs, the original cult figure of the Beat movement, is far overshadowed by the reality that was the man. February 5, 2014 is the centennial of his birth. To mark the occasion, biographer Barry Miles, a friend of Burroughs’ in the 1960s, has penned the first biography of Burroughs in almost a quarter-century, and the first ever written encompassing the entirety of Burroughs’ life. Call Me Burroughs: A Life chronicles, in vivid detail, his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri; the pre-WWII Harvard gay scene; the birth of the Beat movement at Columbia University; his travels through Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Tangier; the underground punk scene in London; his life in Lawrence, Kansas; and his legacy.
The impact of William S. Burroughs—the novelist, memoirist, artist, poet, actor, and photographer—cannot be understated. Here, Miles shares some rare photographs and astounding anecdotes of Burroughs with some of his famous friends—including when he thought Sting was a cop, prognosticated Kurt Cobain’s death, dissed Mick Jagger, and worked with director David Cronenberg on the film of Naked Lunch.
Sting, William Burroughs, and Andy Summers at Burroughs’ 70th birthday at the Limelight
Dozens of celebrities were invited to the party given for Burroughs’ 70th birthday in February 1984 at Limelight in New York. The guest list included Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Allen Ginsberg. At one point, Burroughs sidled up to a friend and murmured, “I don’t know if you’re carrying, but someone told me that those two guys over there are cops.” He nodded across the room to where Sting and Andy Summers of the Police were seated, drinking champagne.
William Burroughs in Front of “Danger” sign
In 1992, Burroughs recorded a text, The “Priest” They Called Him; he sent to Kurt Cobain, who overdubbed a guitar. “I’ve collaborated with one of my only Idols William Burroughs and I couldn’t feel cooler,” Cobain wrote. They met a year later, and as Cobain drove away, Burroughs commented, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.” After Cobain’s death, Burroughs recalled, “The thing I remember about him is the deathly grey complexion of his cheeks. It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.”
Mick Jagger, Burroughs, and Andy Warhol at one of Victor Bockris’s dinners at The Bunker, c. 1980
William Burroughs had problems with the Rolling Stones. He left a private concert early to avoid the rush, and they were offended; Burroughs commented, “I don’t like their music. I don’t like rock ‘n’ roll at all!” He attended a celebrity party they gave but said, “I didn’t have a good time at all. I hate parties.” He was invited to Mick Jagger’s wedding, but said, “I’m not gregarious, I don’t want to be involved in a massive thing like that.”
Jagger was offended. Asked to cover the Stones’ 1972 American tour, Burroughs turned it down. Unsurprisingly, Jagger turned down the lead in Naked Lunch that same year.
Steely Dan concert poster illustration/design by Joe Castro
When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were looking for a name for their new band in 1972, they turned to their bookshelves. Opening a copy of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, they found a reference to a strap-on dildo named “Steely Dan III from Yokohama” and knew they had their name. Burroughs also named a whole genre of rock music when John Kay of Steppenwolf used the phrase “heavy metal thunder” in the song “Born To Be Wild.” A reference to the “Heavy Metal Kid” in Burroughs’ 1962 novel The Soft Machine, it was taken up as the collective name for hard rock.
William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin
In 1965, Paul McCartney set up an experimental recording studio in Ringo’s old flat, with Burroughs’ boyfriend Ian Sommerville to run it. Paul: “William did some little cut-ups and we did some crazy tape recordings in the basement.” Burroughs: “The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Ian recorded his rehearsals, so I saw the song taking shape. I could see he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and prepossessing.” Paul was sufficiently impressed to put him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
William Burroughs in front of the Beat Hotel
When Victor Bockris took Lou Reed over to William Burroughs’ loft on the Bowery for dinner, Lou asked Bill about Jack Kerouac, wondering what had made him change. In the ’60s, Kerouac had become a right-wing Republican and supported the Vietnam War. Burroughs told him, “He didn’t change that much, Lou. He was always like that. First, there was a young guy sitting in front of television in a tee shirt drinking beer with his mother; then, there was an older, fatter person sitting in front of television in a tee shirt drinking beer with his mother.”
Fred Aldrich, Burroughs, and David Cronenberg shooting at Fred’s farm
Since 1982, filmmaker David Cronenberg had been working up his idea to film Naked Lunch and looking for backing. At the 1984 Toronto Film Festival, he met the English producer Jeremy Thomas from the Recorded Picture Company. Thomas was interested, but little happened. That winter, James Grauerholz and Jeremy Thomas came up with the idea of all going to Tangier for “location scouting.”
In January 1985, long before a proper script was agreed upon, Burroughs and James met David Cronenberg, Jeremy Thomas, and his associate Hercules Bellville in Tangier, where Thomas congratulated Bill and James on their success in finally getting Cronenberg out of Canada to focus on the project. They put up at the El Minzah. Bill had not been in Tangier since 1972 and hardly recognized the place. Cronenberg had not previously been there and received enough lasting impressions to want to use Tangier as a set, but ended up recreating Tangier in Canada due to the beginning of Desert Storm.
Barry Miles is the author of many seminal books on popular culture, including the authorized biography of Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now; Allen Ginsberg: A Biography; William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible; Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats; and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. He also co-edited the Restored Text edition ofNaked Lunch. Miles was born in Cirencester, England and will be touring the United States for the upcoming centennial celebrating the life of William S. Burroughs.