The possibilities of William S. Burroughs

I was at a bar outside of an art gallery recently, making small talk with some guys that had just been shooed out of the closing gallery. It seemed that everyone around was an artist, except for these two guys; they were there to enjoy the music and the drinks. One pointed to the other and said, “This guy’s not an artist, but he keeps drawing this one old guy over and over again.”

“Let me see. Can you draw him right now?” I asked. And he quickly drew a gaunt-looking cartoon of an old man: spooky, wise and wicked, not long for the world, absolutely otherworldly.

“Man, you just drew a picture of William Burroughs,” I said.

“Who is William Burroughs?” he asked.

I have often made the mistake that most people are familiar with the notorious pioneer of the cut-up method, a process whereby words on a page are sliced, folded, cut, and rearranged to find a precient meaning in the text, and an advocate of the Reichian Orgone Box — a plywood tepee one sits beneath to cultivate greater orgasm. I tried to explain Burroughs: he was a writer; he was the godfather of the Beats; he shot his wife in the head in Mexico after feeling he had been possessed by a bad spirit.

He coined the terms “heavy metal,” “soft machine,” and “bladerunner.” Steely Dan named themselves after a dildo in his infamous Naked Lunch. He did a Nike commercial in the ’90s. He grew marijuana in Pharr, Texas. Oh, and that whole number 23 coincidence thing is attributed to him.

“So, I should read him then?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, as I often do before wondering if everyone really should.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, is the documentary I shall refer curious parties to in the future, instead of attempting to describe this pro-gun advocate, whose fiction seemed to predict both punk and cyberpunk culture. Recommending the books of William S. Burroughs might make enemies out of people I have just met.

The directorial debut of 25-year old Yony Leyser (available on DVD next month) goes a long way in humanizing this man who lived with an acute junk addiction for most of his life, cut off a finger to impress an early boyfriend, and wrote sardonic poetry about talking assholes (literal talking assholes — not some journalist asking questions about art in a bar outside a gallery).

The guy was not easy to like, but he had his admirers.

In this 74-minute documentary we get to hear from them, and the lovefest does seem a bit one-sided. Filmmaker-turned-musical-revivalist John Waters praises his audacity and wit. Rock goddess Patti Smith says she wanted to marry him. An old boyfriend talks about how the author of Junkie and Queer kept loaded weapons by the bed.

The amazing thing about this very entertaining flick is the diversity of voices that come together to celebrate all sides of a man who sometimes struck his admirers as cold, sad, manipulative, and unloving. He is depicted as somewhat responsible for the early death of his son. And he is shown as a man who might weep over what his cats would go through if he were to die in a nuclear war.

Actor Peter Weller, who narrates the film, and once portrayed a Burroughs-like character in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, talks about being berated by Burroughs on a press tour for not knowing that Percodan was junk. Laurie Anderson never thought much of his shotgun art; Iggy Pop shakes in imitative praise for the camera (and Burroughs); and transgender frontman of Psychic TV, Genesis P-Orridge, expresses his relief that Burroughs’ last written words were about love.

A Man Within reminds me a little of this tribute to Marshall McLuhan I saw once hosted by Tom Wolfe, an affectionate introduction to a very misunderstood man that tells you next to nothing about his work.

Alas, there just isn’t too much the film can do to express what happens in his books. The paranoid science fiction of the Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded, the erotic terrorism of The Wild Boys, and the cry for silence and peace in a world of nonsense gossip and hurt that is The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands.

I was a big fan of Burroughs in high school. I’d read Naked Lunch in class with a black bible case cover over the paperback so no one bugged me while I looked over my prayer book. Around this time — possibly because Burroughs was seeing a popular media resurgence (dudes like Kurt Cobain and Al Jourgensen of Ministry were recording music with him, and he’d had a cameo in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy) — Viking reissued a strange novella of his called The Cat Inside that dealt with the man’s love of cats and his ideas about control and fascism. I clipped out a snooty review of the tiny book from Marie Claire that marveled at the generosity of felines to tolerate this misogynist creep who seemed to have literally gotten away with murder.

A Man Within shows that Burroughs didn’t get away with much. He knew tragedy. He knew pain. He wrote about control and addiction. He sometimes acted like Archie Bunker, and he lived in a converted YMCA building that he called the “Bunker.” And, yes, A Man Within shows Burroughs being very nice to cats. •

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