Cabell McLean was born in 1952, a descendant of the visionary American writer James Branch Cabell (author of Jurgen), for whom he was named. After attending the University of Virginia, he first met William S. Burroughs when he attended Naropa College as a grad student in the late 1970s. He came to the attention of the poet, Larry Fagin, who told him: “Where you need to be is with William. You’re writing stories here, not poetry. Bill’s the one you should be talking to.” Anne Waldman and Michael Brownstein gave similar advice: “Go see Bill.” He decided to attend one of Bill’s classes before making up his mind about approaching him. This is his story.
The class was given about halfway through the short summer term. Although I had seen many images of William, I have to say I was unprepared for the real thing when I went to his class. I was completely taken aback by the ancient power that emanated from him. William in person is something entirely different from his image. You can’t say that about everyone, but it was certainly true of Bill. He simply amazed me, and I found myself almost speechless – a most unusual state for me, I can assure you! I had the overwhelming impression of ancient wisdom. I realize now that I was seeing the sheer weight of the Ugly Spirit on him. The spirit he had carried for so long, the spirit that he had been trying to write his way out of since his wife Joan’s death.
I was hardly conscious of what he said during the class. I was too involved in watching his face, listening to the sound of his voice. I felt I was absorbing his words as one does the rays of the sun. When the hour was over, I realised that I had hardly taken any notes, and had spent the entire class just watching him. From what I can recall of the class, it was an informative discussion of Bill’s efforts at writing screenplays.
He spoke in a low and monotonous voice primarily about Dutch Schultz, talking about the origins of the idea, about the process of turning the raw idea into visual scenes, and how the piece had been reworked many times. He talked about the problems of turning any piece of writing into a film. As a cautionary tale, he told an hilarious story about the doomed efforts to make Junky into a movie starring Dennis Hopper, and with Terry Southern doing the screenplay. “Of course with the dubious Baron de Luc de Sterne de Rothschild, my dears, as our financial backer, the project sank quickly under the weight of numerous coke binges.”
He talked at length about the cut-up technique, going over the history of its development from Brion Gysin to himself, its position among other stream of consciousness styles, its relation to the visual media, and so forth. Then he said something that struck me as remarkable. He said that he felt he had more or less exhausted all the possibilities of the various cut-up techniques. I thought I detected hints that he might be on the verge of a new approach to his writing, and it made me intensely curious to know more. I found him to be altogether a learned and careful scholar of his own works and writing techniques.
Some days later, I began to seriously consider approaching him. I felt it was important for me to meet him, though I didn’t really fully understand why at the time. I had come back to my place after classes, a few blocks from the school, and Richard, with whom I shared the house, was already there. I said something about wanting to go meet Bill soon. Of course, he immediately started kidding me about it, saying I’d never go. It was early afternoon, and we were drinking tequila. The more we drank, the more he prodded me. Finally, stone drunk, I stood up, weaving, and slurred out. “Awright, dammit! I’ll go, and right now, by God!” It was probably ten at night by then, but I got my portfolio and staggered out to Bill’s apartment and knocked on the door.
He opened it almost at once, looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Oh, it’s you!” I could tell he remembered me from class. I was unsure what to do next, but then he stood aside and said, “Well, come on in.” He offered me a drink (just what I needed!) and I took it. He was drinking vodka, and poured a tumbler nearly full, topped it off with tonic, and pushed it across the kitchen table to me where I sat. I told him I’d come to show him my work. He accepted this and opened my portfolio. My heart sank as he flipped through my carefully typed stories about the criminals and drug addicts I had known, each page receiving but a cursory glance before being flipped over and forgotten. He went through the entire collection of some twenty stories in less than two minutes!
“Is that it?” he asked. I just sat there stunned, saying nothing.
“Very nice,” he said, and I could tell he thought no such thing. I supposed they seemed terribly amateurish, and I was completely humiliated. I was already thinking about the best way to get out of there politely when he said, “Let’s go out on the porch.”
He stepped out onto the small, railed porch through the glass door and looked out over into the Varsity Apartments courtyard. In spite of the hour, most of the apartments were active and the courtyard was brightly lit. Across the way, we watched a young boy, perhaps fifteen, naked but for a swimsuit, climbing up the inner walls of the courtyard. “That’s Beade, Spence’s kid,” Bill murmured to me as we watched the youthful body pull and stretch up the wall. “Like a little monkey he is. Climbs all over the walls out here all the time. I never know when he’s going to climb right up and stick his head through the window to say hi.” I had to admit the boy was beautiful, and said so. Bill smiled at me in a way I came to know well later, the smile of a vaudeville showman, the smile of a gombeen man, and said, “Young boys do need it special!” He laughed and put a large, heavy hand on my shoulder, and suddenly I knew everything was going to be alright.
We spent the rest of that night talking and drinking. We talked about everything under the sun. I told him about my short life, and he told me about his youth in St. Louis and at the Los Alamos Boy’s Ranch. Much later, sometime just before dawn, we went to sleep, him in his bed downstairs and me in the next room.
The next morning I got up, made breakfast, and we talked some more. He told me that he had a companion named Steven Lowe, who I would meet. Steve had been hanging around with Bill for several years, and I could see that they loved each other. But Steve’s life had begun to change lately, and he had things he needed to do. He was telling me, in his way, that Steve was not going to be around as much as he used to be, and that there was a vacancy, a place for me, if I wanted it. I told him I did. I told him I would be proud to be his companion and helper, and that all I wanted from him was to learn from him, to learn the craft of writing from a master craftsman, however he was able to teach me. He thought this was a good arrangement, and we agreed I would stay. I stayed with him for a total of five years.
Cabell McLean left William S. Burroughs in 1983 to pursue his own career, although the two remained life-long friends and were in contact until William’s own death in 1997. Cabell would himself pass away 1st December 2004, due to complications from Hepatitis C and HIV, age 52.
Despite repeated offers to give paid interviews about their relationship, Cabell was always very reluctant to trade on his association with Burroughs. The only time he spoke about it in public was at Stockholm Spoken Word Festival in 1999. It is from a transcript of that interview that this text has been prepared, and we are grateful to his partner Eric K. Lerner for agreeing to its publication.
Eric is presently working with Matthew Levi Stevens to compile a small collection that will serve as an introduction to the life & work of Cabell McLean, to be made available via WhollyBooks Autumn 2013.
The photo of Cabell is by Kirila Faeh.