JAMES Grauerholz, amanuensis of the late great William S.Burroughs, responded enthusiastically to my interview request but without completely saying yes or no. I was glad we were talking. Maybe I really would end up writing a screenplay about Burroughs’s son’s life as a magpie finding holy objects in Denver dumpsters, like I wanted to do. He didn’t seem to remember our previous conversation when I was writing that book on Denver Beat connections in 2014. I took no offense—no doubt, he gets approached by people all the time—and it felt good to be received so warmly.
The Beat Generation’s discernable influence on U.S. culture seemed to extinguish itself with the passing out of fashion of the 1960s “Love Generation” which followed its liberated example. I was one of several young Beat fans in 1990s Denver, where poet and storyteller Edwin Forrest Ward hosted the open mic poetry reading at Marilyn Megenity’s Mercury Café at 21st and California Streets north of downtown for decades. Ed has since retired from hosting anything at the Mercury, which was purchased a couple of years ago. He’s a living example of Denver’s connection to the Beats, having known most of them in his time, including William Burroughs, Jr., who predicted Ward’s wife’s pregnancy before she knew about it herself
The elder Burroughs never appreciated the classification “Beat” for himself. He considered the movement as a “worldwide cultural phenomenon.” WSB Sr. was, arguably, every bit as influential on their collective spirit as Neal Cassady, in a more cerebral, less emotive way. By contrast, Old Bull’s son Billy seemed born to wear the mantle of countercultural infamy in a near-literal sense, as exemplified by his two finished works, Speed and Kentucky Ham. A third book, Cursed from Birth, The Short Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr, edited by Motorman author David Ohle at the invitation of Billy’s father, is far more of a compilation of after-effects in a sense angled to best demonstrate his progressive mental deterioration than a serious literary production. That said, it is by no means to be taken lightly.
Billy Burroughs had contracted to write a third novel called Prakriti Junction (prakriti being—in Vedanta—the prime material energy of which all matter is composed), but his death from liver transplant failure due to heavy drinking came too suddenly for him to finish it. Cursed From Birth consists of his notes on that unfinished project spliced together with selections from his published works and post-mortem after-effects like disjointed correspondence with his father—by turns enraged and chummily respectful—plus commentary from witnesses of his tragic decline and demise at 34. Near the end of his life, Billy spent a lot of time in Boulder and Denver, at one point tentatively giving lectures at the Kerouac School, drinking heavily despite the transplanted liver, which he’d begun referring to as “my new wife,” having learned its donor had been a woman named Virginia whose brain had died around the same as his first liver’s failure.
“As for rejection, there was very little difficulty. I immediately began to feel and say that Virginia and I had grown very attached to each other and were working out compromises. I could smoke and cuss if I let her brush my teeth—she took control of my left hand. I thought of it as a marriage of sorts. These were the beginnings of something so strange the doctors didn’t even want to discuss it.” (Cursed From Birth, 119)
Though written in full consciousness of his own impending death—liver transplant recipients under ideal conditions were given six or seven years to live at the time of its creation—Prakriti Junction, as presented in Cursed from Birth, retains Billy’s characteristic witty tang, if especially mordant.
“I live in a one-room apartment in Denver now (two blocks from hospital where rhey piece people together from parts of other people and make the party of the second part a coffin for the party of the first part). The plumbing is backing up and there’s a terrible odor. The kitchen is small and I have on the stove a small frying pan half full of canned ravioli. In the clean bathroom sits a flowerpot containing an upright twig of dried blue flowers and from the ceiling hangs an empty snuff tin on a string—strictly Zen.” (Cursed From Birth, 125)
Billy Burroughs’ reputation as a writer is unfortunately eclipsed by the extent of his father’s fame as the author of Naked Lunch. After William Burroughs Sr. shot his wife, Billy was sent to live with his grandparents in Florida and separated from his father—except in written form—for most of his formative years. After becoming addicted to speed as a teen in the late 1960s, he went to Lexington, KY for rehab, then to Alaska as part of an experimental school’s therapeutic expedition, surely one of his life’s landmarks, where he took time off from explorative self-destruction to develop survival skills and the ability to hold his own in dramatic natural extremes.
Billy’s first book, Speed, about the lead-up to this voluntary incarceration, is a smartly-worded, extremely readable novel about life on the edge written from the horse’s mouth. Billy embarks on a hallucinatory voyage from his grandparents’ mansion in Florida to bomb around New York City like a drug-addicted Holden Caulfield in search of higher stakes. Kentucky Ham is great in places too, picking up from Billy’s return to Florida and covering his time in rehab and his trip to Alaska. It begins really well but suffers slightly from the imposition of a diary-entries style toward the end. Irrevocably imprinted by the allegedly accidental shooting of his mother by his father during a drunken game of William Tell—according to Billy, in his presence, though Burroughs Sr. denied it—Billy’s relationship with his father was by turns loving, hateful, respectful, afraid, sad, and so forth, as might be expected. This is evident in many passages from his books, like the following from Cursed from Birth:
I went to see my father for four hours. We had a fine Chinese dinner. I asked him, “What if, at a point, the pressure gets to be too much?” I was desperate. He smiled a little somehow, and said: “Well, heh heh, some of us make it and some of us don’t.” When we got back to his place he went to bed early because he had a plane to catch the next day, and I don’t see the old flub for another year. I had hoped we would spend most of the afternoon just strolling the Mall and taking in the sights—but before I hardly wiped the sleep from my eyes, Allen and I loaded up the trunk of the car and he was gone. (133)
Says editor David Ohle, “[Cursed From Birth] is faithful to Billy’s writing in that, except for normal editing procedures, it is Billy’s writing. It’s just not Prakriti Junction. Still, I think it represents his thought and feelings and sufferings in the last part of his life when he was too sick to write anything as disciplined as a novel, or even an autobiography.” (www.realitystudio.org)
Billy’s was the first story I came across as a Beat fan that felt current. Then I discovered Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver and the works of Jim Carroll, who united the Beat scene with punk, both also more contemporary links in the chain. But Billy’s story had a Denver connection and to this aspiring writer in Denver, that felt inspiring. Reading the opening paragraph of Speed, which he’d just purchased at the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, aged fifteen or sixteen, I recognized its excellence immediately:
“For ten years, I lived on a street lined with royal palm trees at the north end of Palm Beachwhere the houses get smaller and some of them have no servants. For nine years, our house had been just as manicured as the next, but when my grandfather died, we let the roof get a little grey and the two banyans in the back yard took each other in their arms and, weeping, filled with spider webs.” (Speed, 1)
Cursed from Birth is different from the books he wrote, having been compiled by others with the apparent aim of emphasizing the tragic nature of Billy’s life. Ed Ward remembers some beautiful poetry written by Billy during his time in Denver, none of which appears herein. It could be the papers were lost or discarded by Billy himself, who had a habit of losing important papers, including checks, moments after receiving them. Says Ohle, “In short, it’s a much better book, and more representative of Billy in his last days than the poorly-written and unfinished Prakriti Junction (60 pgs, half bad poems) that I found at Ohio State,” (www.realitystudio.org).
Billy’s Denver experience was primarily a solitary one. He wrote a number of letters to people and organizations he felt might provide an escape from a state he considered to be “not much of a picnic,” including the writer Charles Bukowski, at the time famous because of his poetry, the World Spiritual Association, an outpost of Spiritualism in Cassadega, Florida. Neither responded, and Billy began to consider himself perhaps fatally cursed.
Ken Kesey offered to host Billy at his Oregon farm in support of his recovery from a liver transplant. This time it was Billy who pulled out, fearing he might “freak out” Kesey, who struck him as genuinely normal and sound-minded compared to himself. Around this time, he developed the habit of dumpster diving, still popular among Denver drop-outs and creatives, though in Billy’s case it seemed to have greater occult meaning akin to following a trail of magic trinkets through an urban wasteland. Said Anne Waldman of her friend’s son’s scavenging, “Billy came in and put things on the walls, pictures he cut out of magazines and newspapers. He brought in found objects, talismans. Lots of Tchothchkes and things he found in the trash . . . He had no heritage or heirlooms . . . They were emblematic signals and signs from a world that meant something.” (Cursed from Birth, 175)
I have a vision of Billy as a sort of post-normal magpie collecting holy junk in a workmanlike way, sorting through cast-off bits in search of scraps of used-up lives, forming a gigantic existential collage to cover all the walls and ceilings and floors of his cheap apartment as a logical extension of his father’s cut-up writing about his own life and the lives of others.
As I was rooting through a bin with my metal rooting rod, an old lady came out of her house with bags containing, among other things, a fine, fine jacket, a sweater, and a pair of wearable shoes. She said, “I’m sure someone will find these” (meaning me). She smiled and walked away. I said, “You know something; you’re an awfully nice person.” As I was leaving, she said, “Would you like to come in for a minute?” I said, “No ma’am (shuffle, shuffle) I makes it a practice to don’t never impose.” (Cursed from Birth, 136)
Billy kept drinking after his transplant, going against the recommendations of doctors and the nest efforts of friends and family. James Grauerholz played the role of zen co-pilot and elder brother figure during the part of this period that took place in Boulder. He says,
I remember walking with Billy in downtown Boulder after we’d had some bad scenes with him . . . he kept tending toward either Pete’s Tavern or the Liquor Mart. He says, “Come on, man. I’ll just get a six-pack. I’ll just get a quart. It’s not gonna hurt me, man.” And I was doing 5this weird sort of satyagraha routine of being on the other side of him, so when he would want to make a turn, I would be standing in his way . . . Finally he flags down these hippies walking by and says, “This guy is messing with me, man. He won’t let me go where I want to go. He’s got no right.” . . . I just gave up and let him go. And he would always buy malt liquor that was fortified. It had grain alcohol added to it. Rotgot stuff. About twenty percent. (Cursed from Birth, 161)
Burroughs Jr. made periodic contact with the Denver literary and bohemian scenes through the auspices of his godfather, Allen Ginsberg, which aspect of his admittedly largely tragic existence receives little notice in Cursed from Birth. Here’s part of a reading he gave at Naropa Institute (now University) in 1979.
In a piece called “Billy Burroughs’ Prediction”, Ward recounts an encounter with a seemingly remarkably well-socialized Billy and his godfather, Allen Ginsberg, in Larry Lake’s Bowery Books on Old South Pearl and the development of their acquaintance—“Over the course of the next year or so I pursue a friendship with the creature that is Billy Burroughs. I say creature, because not unlike Frankenstein, Billy B, he’s come back from the dead. Another’s liver keeps him alive, that of a woman named Virginia whose brain failed at about the same time that Billy’s original liver did.” Ward recounts the “junkie’s intuition” which led Billy to bond with fellow reader/writer/junkie Larry Lake, and the decidedly eerie way he discerned Ed’s wife Marcia’s pregnancy at his 33rd birthday party, when no one else, not even she, had any clue:
Billy sighs, smiles, and rephrases his request. “When are you going to tell us about the baby?”
Somewhat alarmed, yet with a mixture of naughty delight and hopeful anticipation, while simultaneously defensive, Marcia soundly refutes the thrust of Billy’s innuendo. “I most certainly am not pregnant.”
Billy sighs again, smiles again, and adds, “Ah yes, so you think, but nonetheless, you are. I would never kid about something like this. Being pregnant is not funny. Believe me. You are going to have a baby.”
(from Billy Burroughs’ Prediction, by Edwin Forrest Ward)
Billy’s grandmother Laura Lee Burroughs was known to be on speaking terms with spirits, and Burroughs Sr. was a lucid spokesman for the benefits of astral travel, so the prescience he displayed on this occasion may well have been hereditary. His apartment at 765 So. Colorado Boulevard Billy lived in was Number 16, which, ironically adds back to 7, symbolizing Victory in the Tree of Life. The Oxford Arms has since been replaced by a Trader Joe’s in a sort of third party redemption of that piece of earth, undoubtedly a place of great suffering for Billy, who was an excellent writer as yet inadequately esteemed, in my opinion. Billy was cremated. Hs ashes are buried at Marpa Point outside Boulder, and I have yet to make a pilgrimage, but I sometimes say a little vow when the bus goes past that Trader Joe’s on Colorado to know change is more than presence.
James Grauerholz sent me the link to an interview with him in anticipation of a possible collaboration of some kind, and I misconstrued some of the nomenclature, whereupon Grauerholz said he thought I was 18 or 19, made all these unfounded assumptions as if I were still the star-struck Beats fan. I told Grauerholz I wouldn’t want to be a professional anyway like some kinda snot-nosed punk when he called me a “rank amateur”, even quoted him Blake—“Mine is not to reason and compare,” remembering later having heard him say in that interview he’d sent that Burroughs quoted classics all the time with his mind full of cut-ups. I wasn’t imitating WSB on purpose when I did that, it just happened. We worked it out in a few more emails. James Grauerholz apologized for mis-rating my age and said he couldn’t do the interview because he was saving all the time he had left alive at age 68 for his work. I guess such calculations must occur to everyone eventually, but I still feel like a babyface blowing bubbles on the primrose path of late middle age. I don’t mean to waste your time, Infinity. Just can’t seem to stop. None of James Grauerholz’s assumptions was as unfounded as my own assumption I could off-handedly mention wanting to write a screenplay on Burroughs Jr.’s life as magpie someday without putting him on his guard Well, I certainly didn’t want to mishandle anyone’s memory, a special concern of Grauerholz’s after, no doubt, being approached by untold numbers wanting to do this and that with the vaunted elder Burroughs’s estate since his death in 1997. To me, it was more an archetypal vision, Billy finding magic in those dumpsters like a magpie going after shiny stuff.