Burroughs and Me
Walking down Columbus to find a port of entry
“…any number of little details or a special spot of color makes the port of entry and then the entire picture will suddenly become a three-dimensional frieze …”
(William S. Burroughs)
I am remembering the cover photo on, “The Place of Dead Roads,” in the window of City Lights, the iconic San Francisco bookstore owned by the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
It is on Columbus at Broadway. Broadway always feels to me like a favorite hangout for rats. A come to cheeses experience. Down the street is the financial district, and to the south, Chinatown, encroaching now on The Italians in North Beach, who teach the less social world how to dine well and at their leisure. Between Columbus and Broadway there’s Grant Avenue, their love child. A couple of the bars can get rowdy. I recall reading about a guy getting stabbed in the heart outside one of them. Just a flick of the wrist, the knife point on target. According to witnesses it looked almost playful, death appearing as if by magic.
The picture on Place of Dead Roads turned out to be a vintage photo from the Colorado Historical Society. There are fourteen boys in the picture, nearly naked Native Americans except for one, who is fully dressed, a sandy haired cowboy with his hat on the back of his head.
Dead roads are the familiar path through a wood, up stairs to a flat, the roads you once took often, but not anymore.
I wrote a song about it, Dead Road Depot.
“Now those roads are so far gone that track’s a prehistoric bone
of a beast that used to be alive, but the days of dead roads do arrive.
Those roads they’re made of iron and steel and of a wound that never heals
and of a depot restaurant where we’d meet in the parking lot.
We’d arrive in separate cars and meet each other at the bar
pretending that we just dropped in, weren’t we the stars on the silver screen?
So come to the station, come on down, it’s in an older part of town,
come and dine with me again where we got ourselves a station but we got no train.”
I’d read Naked Lunch twenty years earlier, but I didn’t remember much about it. I knew about Burroughs but didn’t associate with him because he was a nasty old fucker. He didn’t just fuck a boy, he immortalized how it smelled and tasted.
He shot heroin. He shot his wife. Other than that he seemed okay.
The book changed my life, so that I viewed him in a different perspective. He was described by society in their terms, but he lived outside society, as an outlaw, not because he was a criminal, but because he had the opportunity to live in radical freedom and he took it. He moved to Mexico to have it and later, Tangier. It was the death of Joan Volmer by his hand that sealed him into the underworld.
I began to see that if he was not outside the culture, in this radical freedom zone, he could not have known what he knew. What he knew was at the cutting edge. He was the intellectual architect of the Beats, who served as a cultural counterpoint to people like Harry Anslinger and Cutis LeMay; there is never an end to the list of criminals in high places. Against this flow of ignorance and sadism stand a few brave people, voluntarily carrying and protecting the live and glowing coals of the intellectual counter culture.
My interest was primarily in the last three novels Burroughs wrote, The Western Lands trilogy: Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands.
It was the discovery of Burroughs at a more mature level, knowing his last novel was the highest evolution of his thinking, that possessed me for a time. I was marking passages and going back to them over and over. He was on the hero’s journey into the deepest part of the psyche, the collective shadow, the rejected part of the western psyche. This is such a difficult task for a man to set for himself that it only occurs to those who can tolerate taking on and transforming the rejected energies. Whether there was a man named Jesus who did this or not, the process is known. The lost shadow of the community is transformed through suffering, driving an evolutionary process of evolution from instinctual to psychological, or abstract, levels.
By finding a port of entry into Burroughs’ process I saw a bigger picture. This was a man who sought radical freedom for the simplest of reasons: he had the opportunity. He got enough money to live on without having to work, and he had a core identity strong enough to survive being dissolved and reconstituted.
He had the means and he had the intellect. This is the part that’s hard to talk about, because it has no relationship to morality, but the argument is always moral. The unconscious is amoral, as becomes obvious in the study of dreams. If somebody tells you a dream that comes from morality they are lying. It is the direct energy before it has been tampered with. That’s why it’s the royal road to the unconscious.
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death,” he wrote in the introduction to a 1985 edition of his novel Queer. “I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”
The conscious mind can’t hold anything for long, but the unconscious can take elements of a larger picture over years, or decades, until it trusts the conscious mind to know about it. These are patterns which actually determine what happens and why. Judging them by the community morality is expected and cannot be escaped, but it is a facade over them so that we feel like we control them. The truth is that they control us. The story of Burroughs and Volmer is not a morality tale, it is a pattern in the deep psyche by which what has been lost is brought back to the surface. It is the philosopher’s stone.
I became immersed in The Western Lands and so was connected to Burroughs when he was dying. I did not know he was dying, but had a dream at the time of his departure. It reframed a lot of things for me. He was in an army barracks, wearing a t-shirt and boxers. Outside there was a big military transport truck with a driver. He said, “I don’t need a driver. I can drive myself.” The importance of what I was absorbing from him became more clear. He was unashamedly focused on immortality through evolutionary processes. That is necessary to pilot one’s own spaceship. Everything proceeds from intention, and his intention was to reach the Western Lands
The relationship keeps opening out. I am understanding more about radical freedom, and why it is the enemy of any dogmatic system. I am understanding what Burroughs meant when he wrote that we can lose any number of times, but they can lose just once.
“We’re not fighting for a scrap of sharecropper immortality with the strings hanging off it like Mafioso spaghetti. We want the whole tamale. The Johnsons are taking over the Western Lands. We built it with our brains and our hands. We paid for it with our blood and our lives. It’s ours and we’re going to take it. And we are not applying in triplicate to the Immortality Control Board. Anybody gets in our way we will get our communal back against a rock or a tree and fight the way a raccoon will fight a fucking dog.”
― William S. Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads