One of the twentieth century’s greatest and most misunderstood writers, William Burroughs attracted a new wave of fame and notoriety in the mid-1970s, when he returned to live in New York after many years of living in exile abroad. Here, Burroughs moved into an old YMCA on The Bowery which became known as The Bunker, where he would entertain a revolving cast of the art, music and literary world.
Shot on location at The Bunker, Burroughs Reloaded is a new book of photos from the era, featuring figures such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, and Allen Ginsberg alongside William Burroughs.
Created by writer, photographer and close-friend Victor Bockris (famed for his excellent biographies of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and of course William Burroughs), Burroughs Reloaded also features new writing on Burroughs from Bockris, while providing a candid look at one of the most fascinating eras in the history of the New York underground.
As a primary member of the Beat Generation Burroughs proved himself as a major influence in the literary world, as a polymath he cemented it in cultural history, delving into multiple fields: literature; art; photography and various multi-media collaborations.
His chaotic, drug-infused lifestyle is well documented; his heroin addiction, alcohol excesses and his penchant for guns – which led him to shooting his second wife in a drunken game of William Tell – fewer know about his foray into the art world. Take his processes, where unusual instruments, mushrooms and plungers included, were used to apply paint. Or that Burroughs was also known to create abstract compositions by placing spray paint cans in front of blank surfaces, then shooting at the cans with a shotgun.
Here we talk to Victor about his new book and his time with Burroughs.
Robert Greer: Reading about your relationship with Burroughs, I had heard that when he met you, he pretended not to know of the existence of the Russian writer Solzhenitsyn, because he thought that you might be a CIA agent. Is this true? How did your meeting him come about?
Victor Bockris: Well at the time, in 1974, Burroughs had just returned to New York to live after 25 years of self-imposed exile outside America. Of course, this was a big thing, and it was also at the time that President Nixon was about to resign. It was as if Burroughs had returned to take the throne of moral authority Nixon had abdicated and indeed there was a really big cultural change in the country after Nixon’s removal. A time when artists became the moral adjudicators of the world. I was working with a partner called Andrew Wylie, and one night Wylie called me from Max’s Kansas City to tell me that William Burroughs was there, so I rushed down and there he was — sitting in a booth, looking exactly like the William Burroughs we saw in photographs.
We approached him and asked if we could arrange an interview with him, and so we ended up going to his downtown loft on Franklin Street. At the time, we used to dress in Brooks Brothers suits and carried briefcases, a little bit like Gilbert & George. We did an interview with him in his rooms, but the transcript was unusable, every answer was “no, no, yes, no”. We were truly shocked. It turned out that he had not answered our questions because he thought we were CIA agents. This was not as surprising as it may sound because on previous attempts to return to the US Burroughs had been harassed by the narcotics police. Furthermore, Andrew Wylie, in particular, was a Boston Brahmin who looked very much like a CIA agent. In the end, a mutual friend convinced Burroughs that we were not agents but in fact big fans, and so we did a second interview in my apartment over a big dinner which was one of the best interviews we ever did.
” …I tape recorded a series of dinner parties with several guests at a time, ranging from Terry Southern and Susan Sontag to Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and many other lively talkers.”
Robert: Is that what led to your previous book about Burroughs – William Burroughs: Reports From The Bunker?
Victor: To some extent. After a while I simply realised that the best way to interview Burroughs was over cocktails or dinner because, whereas in the day he was quite formal, in the evenings he was much more relaxed and humorous. So for the text of the book I tape recorded a series of dinner parties with several guests at a time, ranging from Terry Southern and Susan Sontag to Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and many other lively talkers. Then I carefully transcribed them and noticed certain subjects like sex kept coming up, so I cut the transcripts up by subjects and organised them into chapters. I added photographs and the final result was a portrait in the round of Burroughs via conversations recorded during his New York period from 1974-1980, when he was writing the first novel in his American trilogy, Cities of the Red Night. The best thing about the book is that reading it gives you a sense of the tone of his voice and his sense of humour, which can really open Burroughs’ work up to someone who might previously have found it difficult to access. Anyway that was my aim.
Robert: It’s interesting what you say about the tone of his voice because I’ve found listening to him read his own work pretty crucial to getting a feel for it. I feel like in the cultural perception of Burroughs there is an impression of this very cold, dour misanthrope, but in the photos from the new book there is a real warmth that comes not just from him but from all these very famous charismatic people – Debbie Harry, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others – who seem very comfortable and at ease.
Victor: You are right. Burroughs had this public image of being very distant, so the main thing that I wanted to do was to show this other warmer side of Burroughs. And yes he enjoyed meeting all those people and understood who they were. In my book of photographs, Burroughs Reloaded, there’s also a movement throughout the book, at the beginning you see him in New York pulling together The Grey Gentlemen, all these counterculture artists to symbolically fight the nova criminals in the subways, and then towards the third part of the book when he moves to Kansas, we see William really changing at that point and moving on to new fields.
“…William Burroughs was literally writing in August of 1997 when he died. He was sitting at his table writing, “Love? What is it? The most natural painkiller what there is. Love.””
Robert: The photos have a candid spontaneous nature about them, which seems unusual because there are so many famous people there together. Is that a fair reflection of what life in the bunker was like? The impression that I get is this feeling of a literary salon, and I was wondering if that’s a fair reflection.
Victor: Well the literary salon is a little exaggerated by the level of celebrity. Burroughs did host a literary salon at The Bunker, but most of the time the people who visited were among his closest friends in his inner circle. Each of them filled a function in his life. But as the years went on after the initial publication of With William Burroughs, in 1981, Bill did become a lot better known and more and more well-known people came to visit him in his house in Kansas. However, the whole point of his life was to be able to get to the desk at a certain time in the morning and write. He enjoyed stimulating conversation, but he lived a quiet life really. He was completely focused on his calling. He was addicted to writing. I mean William Burroughs was literally writing in August of 1997 when he died. He was sitting at his table writing, “Love? What is it? The most natural painkiller what there is. Love.”
Robert:That’s amazing. With regards to what you were saying about Burroughs’ view towards people, I was asking a few people if they had any Burroughs-related questions that they wanted to ask, and somebody suggested asking what Burroughs’ view of humanity was. At the time I thought this would be kind of unanswerable, but now perhaps not. What would you say?
Victor: It’s a good question! Burroughs’ view of humanity was that we had ruined the planet. He wanted to get off the planet, he felt we had to get into space or perish. In the mythology Burroughs’ created he was Inspector Lee – his mother’s name – of The Nova Police, who policed the world of the super criminals and corrupt leaders of control. His books like Nova Express and The Wild Boys focus on with these themes. William was very informed, and I think quite realistic about the reality that faced the world.
He was born in 1914, at the beginning of World War 1, and he lived a life that touched on several of the major turning points in the history of the twentieth century. He understood, for example, that the Americans dropped the bomb on Japan in 1945 not because they needed to do it, but to advertise their own strength. He deeply understood a great deal of what was happening and so he had a grim outlook, but he was not a grim person and he did not dislike people. He didn’t like going to big parties, he preferred conversations among small groups, but he certainly didn’t dislike people – throughout his life Bill enjoyed people a lot. He enjoyed a life in which his books freed millions of people to live real – as opposed to television – life.