If Brion Gysin had not existed, it probably would have been necessary to invent him, as the saying goes. Pre-eminent multimedia psychedelic shaman of the latter-half of the Twentieth Century, Gysin was something of a jack-of-all-trades: Artist, Calligrapher, Entrepreneur, Kinetic Sculptor, Novelist, Performance Artist, Photographer, Poet, Raconteur, Restaurateur, and Traveller in This-and-Other Worlds. Brion did it All. And even a brief list of the names he crossed paths with sounds like a veritable Who’s Who: Laurie Anderson, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Paul Bowles, Ira Cohen, Ornette Coleman, Max Ernst, Marianne Faithfull, Leonor Fini, Jean Genet, Keith Haring, Billie Holliday, Brian Jones, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gore Vidal – and, of course, his long-term friend and collaborator, William Burroughs – are among the friends, fellow-travellers and sometimes collaborators that have spoken of their admiration for the Man and his Work. As his biographer, John Geiger, wrote:
Archives For brion gysin
In 1959, the painter, Brion Gysin, “accidentally” cut through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley Knife and changed the future of writing. William S. Burroughs, who would popularize this “cut-up method” would prefer to say that Gysin “cut into the future,” but regardless of semantics – “art is merely a three letter word, my dear” – that which was done could not be undone. Burroughs worked to hone the technique from purely haphazard to a careful, almost scientific, process wherein cut-ups acted as inspiration. Though it had, arguably, been done before by the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, the cut-up method became Burroughs’ obsession during the 1960s, spilling out of his prose and into the wider culture. Continue Reading…
Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.
Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.
I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.
I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”
I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.
Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.
The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.
I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.
“To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words. Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.
Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.
The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.
Blue first Burroughs walk?
— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.
I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.
I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.
A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.
Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.
Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.
Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so. The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.
The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).
“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.
As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.
I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.
Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”
One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.
I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said. “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.” Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.
So in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).
I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”
Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.
1959 was an important year in Beat Generation history. It was the year that William S. Burroughs published Naked Lunch from Paris’ Beat Hotel, that the Beats were first profiled in Life magazine, and the year the MGM released a sensationalist cinematic nightmare called The Beat Generation. In the previous three years, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had shattered the notion that young people must conform to strict social codes, and paved the way for further decades of rebellion, growth, and acceptance. The Beat movement was in full-swing and these once literary wannabes were now idols to an entire generation. But they were not stuffy and unreachable; they were literary bad boys in the vein of Rimbaud.
In 1959 Ginsberg was looking forward with visions of a new American voice, Kerouac was awkwardly attempting to live his life in the startling media spotlight, and Burroughs was overseas, a decade into his long exile from the United States. Back home, and even in newspapers around the world, they were known derisively as the “beatniks.” At a time when calling someone a Communist was about the greatest insult that could be uttered, Herb Caen had added “-nik” to Kerouac’s “Beat,” and suddenly what started as a literary movement was now tabloid fodder. The Beats were vilified as detrimental to the morality of the nation’s youth, and as such they were used as subject matter for Hollywood’s spectacularly vapid output.
In the coming years, the image of the Beatnik as a finger-snapping poseur or a drug-addled maniac would persist, yet in the world of reality – located far from Hollywood on any map – the Beats continued to develop upon their own ideas and literature. They continued to write, to read their poems aloud, to explore new avenues in publishing and in creating art. They even dabbled – to varying degrees – in filmmaking. One such example was Pull My Daisy, a short film that aimed to incorporate the sort of spontaneous, free-form, jazz-inspired principals that governed the Beats’ written work. Directed by photographer, Robert Frank, and painter, Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy began filming began on 2nd January and it premiered 11th November.
The film was based upon the third act of Jack Kerouac’s play, The Beat Generation, and it was supposed to share the same name, with Kerouac having coined the term about a decade earlier. However, in true Hollywood style, MGM had capitalized on the movement and copyrighted the title, leaving the filmmakers to choose the title of a poem that was collaboratively written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in 1949. It didn’t hurt that the phrase “pull my daisy” was loaded with sexual innuendo, either.
The poem from which the movie took its title was written in the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist tradition, wherein various artists would take turns to add to a piece of work – whether a poem or painting or anything else. This fit in rather well with the spontaneous prose method and best “first thought best thought” notion that influenced the Beats, and was most noticeably espoused by Kerouac. Part of the poem is included below:
Rob my locker
lick my rocks
leap my cock in school
Rack my lacks
lark my looks
jump right up my hole
Whore my door
beat my door
eat my snake of fool
Craze my hair
bare my poor
asshole shorn of wool
The purpose of this method of composition, later used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in their Cut-up Method, as well as numerous other artists before and after the Beats, was to create a more accurate picture of reality by not over-thinking, and perhaps, as Burroughs often claimed, to cut to the truth that your mind would otherwise hide.
Indeed, the film is best known for being narrated by Kerouac, who again supposedly improvised his lines rather than reading from script or memory. Critics have compared his reading to that of someone in a “trance,” furthering his reputation as a mystical and near mythical artist, while others have noted that he sounded exhausted and that he had lost his youthful playfulness. The film, as mentioned above, was adapted from his play, The Beat Generation, and yet he seems to spontaneously riff the lines rather than reading his pre-written dialogue. There is no sound, and Kerouac speaks the lines for each character, regardless of gender, and narrates everything seemingly as it happens, in his inimitable scat-style.
Come on, Milo. Here comes sweet Milo, beautiful Milo.
Da da da da da.
And they’re going dada da da dada da da da… Let’s go. ‘sgo. ‘sgo.
Listening to him speak, it’s as though he was watching the movie for the first time, just saying the things that came into his head, even if just filler. There are very few periods of silence, and so Kerouac – who does not appear on screen at any stage – dominates the film simply through his voice. This is an attempt to continue Kerouac’s sketching style of writing, wherein he would attempt to note down everything that was going on around him. As such, the camera frequently pans back and forth, attempting to catch all the action as it transpires, rather than take it moment by moment, focusing on one character or one action.
For these reasons, Pull My Daisy, unlike The Beat Generation, was lauded by critics for many years. Like the poem from which it took its name, Pull My Daisy was considered a masterpiece of ad-libbed, off-the-cuff acting and narration. In the movie, key members of the Beat Generation including Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, goof around, even smoking a joint at one stage. There are fewer hijinks than one might have imagined, and although the Beat characters’ antics result in comedy and farce, the action is toned down. Still, the legend goes that the actors simply did what they felt – being themselves, essentially – while Frank and Leslie recorded it all.
Yet Pull My Daisy, while certainly a Beat movie, and truer to the Beat ethos than the sensationalist attempts in 1959 and later years, was not as spontaneous as it was claimed to be. Nine years later, in 1968, Leslie revealed to the Village Voice that the movie was thoroughly scripted, with the implication being that the apparent improvisation was due to a lack of acting ability on the part of Ginsberg and the others. Later, both directors admitted that the movie had not – as was previously claimed – been shot in Leslie’s apartment, but had instead been filmed on a professional film set with a budget of $15,000. While not a large sum of money for a movie, it shows that the film was not quite what it appeared to be. Ultimately, while it had been implied that the film was just the poets goofing around as themselves, with hip artists filming and the hottest novelist around narrating, essentially gaining the best filmed record of the Beat Generation as it naturally existed, instead it was a carefully constructed piece of fiction. Many hours of film were shot and edited down into the twenty-eight minute film. Additionally, and most shockingly to fans of the movie, Kerouac’s lines had been recorded as many as four times as Amram tinkled on the piano and the movie played silently in front of him. While this is hardly a great crime, it certainly detracts from the movie’s reputation and Kerouac’s supposed adherence to spontaneous prose, and his depiction as the literary jazzman.
In the end, though, it is important to acknowledge that despite Kerouac’s advocacy of spontaneous prose – or even Burroughs’ automatic writing and routines, which are referenced in the film – the Beats were guilty of editing. Burroughs’ nearly unreadable texts were endlessly composed, Kerouac’s famous writing sessions that would end in a publishable book were often edited over many years, and Ginsberg, who tended to differ, only occasionally dabbled in unrevised poetry. It should be, therefore, no great surprise that Pull My Daisy – though it may appear to be entirely unrehearsed – was an answer to their critics. It was a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the notion of the Beats as unrestrained literary bad boys, and to hold their hands up and say that they are not ashamed, for this is their life and it how they wish to live. They considered themselves the Rimbauds of their age, and wanted the world to know. We should be thankful that it is this movie, and not the numerous Hollywood cash-ins, that is preserved, remembered, and freely disseminated online more than fifty years later.
 MGM would release The Beat Generation in 1959, the same year as Pull my Daisy. The movie was not based on any work by any Beat author, but rather was a sensationalist attempt to cash in on the Beat fad.
 The poem itself was set to music by legendary composer and Beat figure, David Amram. However, Ginsberg and Kerouac were reportedly displeased that when the lyrics were sung by Anita Ellis, certain words had been changed.
Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs continues to inspire and intrigue. In addition to “The Work,” since his death in 1997 we have seen further biographies, celebrations, collections of letters, and critical studies, as well as restored and even previously unpublished texts. There has been reassessment and re-examination of various aspects of the life and work, starting with Burroughs and Homosexuality in Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, Burroughs and Literature in Michael Stevens’ The Road to Interpose (an encyclopaedic study of “reading Burroughs’ reading” that is surely essential to fan and scholar alike); and more recently, Mayfair Burroughs in the introduction to Graham Masterton’s Rules of Duel.
New discoveries, examinations and re-evaluations continue as we approach the centenary of his birth next year in 2014. Recently we have had “Graphic Novel” Burroughs in Malcolm Mc Neill’s candid memoir Observed While Falling and now Burroughs Occult & Cult in my own humble effort, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs and David S. Wills’ masterful Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult.” You could be forgiven for thinking that no turn had been left un-stoned, so to speak. That almost everybody who had ever known or even met William S. Burroughs had been interviewed, or else written about it. That there wasn’t much left to say about Uncle Bill that we didn’t know already.
Well, think again…
Keen-eyed Burroughs enthusiasts may well be aware of the proliferation of blurbs and endorsements from the Great Man for the work of others – usually friends whom he was expressing a genuine appreciation for. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the Introduction that Burroughs wrote in 1971 for the novel Williams Mix by C. J. Bradbury Robinson; a novel that Burroughs himself helped to place with Maurice Girodias and The Olympia Press, who had of course, brought Naked Lunch to print. A publisher’s proof of the book was prepared, and it was included in a press-release of forthcoming titles:
In an age of permissiveness few sexual acts retain the power to shock equal to assaults on children. And yet, in the hands of a writer as skilled as C. J. Bradbury Robinson, this subject takes on an entirely new perspective. With delicacy and sympathetic understanding, Robinson takes us into the minds of both assailant and victim. This is a novel that will stand as a significant social document that will take readers beyond their prejudices and force them to face up to a question that deserves serious consideration…
Even though it proceeds in glowing terms, placing Bradbury Robinson and his writing in the same exalted company as Beckett, Burroughs, Genet, Miller and Nabokov, and promises a “Hardbound. 1972 release” it was not to be: The Olympia Press was struggling under financial pressure and lawsuits brought by the Church of Scientology, and there was no money for new titles. A subsequent attempt to publish the book by Cecil Woolf also failed when a printer refused to produce the edition on moral grounds, and so Williams Mix was lost to literary limbo.
For a contemporary audience, perhaps the most troubling consideration is that the central concern of Williams Mix is an unabashed examination of paederasty. Named after the 1958 composition for pre-recorded magnetic tapes by John Cage (but also with a sly nod to Burroughs, of course) Williams Mix is superbly written, strange, poetic and philosophical by turn, obsessed with the music of language, mournful, lyrical, haunted, surprisingly funny in places, and I would even go as far as to say beautiful – but there is no getting away from the fact that this is a book whose literary engine is fuelled by the pleasures and pains of sexual desire for 10 to 12 year old boys, in much the same way that Burroughs’ own work is driven by an obsession with addiction and Control.
So who was C. J. Bradbury Robinson, and how had Burroughs’ support for this celebration of paederasty come about? The fact that he had helped to place the book with his own former publisher, the length of the text he wrote for the Introduction (in the region of 1,100 words, by far the longest such “endorsement”) – even that he later mentions his “English friend” Bradbury Robinson in The Retreat Diaries – show that this was personal; but for all Robinson’s experimentation with form and use of stream-of-consciousness, this was no Beat peer or fellow-champion of the Cut-Up Method.
In 1967 Christopher Bradbury Robinson was a young Cambridge graduate working as Head of the English Department at a Home Counties prep school. From there he submitted the first draft of his novel, Minor Incidents, to Calder & Boyars, on account of their reputation as champions of the avant-garde. The book so impressed C&B’s editor, Dulan Barber, that over the next eighteen months, in addition to occasional meetings, he sent Robinson several considered, perceptive letters entirely devoted to literary criticism, offering detailed advice as the author twice rewrote the novel, the third and final version being so convincing that Barber advised John Calder to “publish and be damned”. In due course, however, Calder & Boyars regretfully declined, as they felt publication of the book would take them straight back to court – an experience they were in no hurry to repeat after the recent cost to them of defending Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Robinson doubts any publisher today would read beyond the first sentence of the original Minor Incidents, and stresses that Dulan Barber, far from querying the novel’s theme, addressed himself solely to matters literary. This was just what Robinson wanted, as it counterpointed his many discussions with William S. Burroughs, which were also mostly concerned with the art of writing.
Feeling the book should be published, even if not by them, Calder & Boyars, with the author’s permission, sent it to Greenleaf Classics, purveyors of gay pulp in California. Robinson, meanwhile, as a way of staying in touch, offered to become a publisher’s reader for Calder & Boyars. Two quite unexpected outcomes emerged from these arrangements: Greenleaf accepted Minor Incidents, amusingly admitting that, the novel being a work of literature, it was unlike anything else on their list! They recognised too that their American readers wouldn’t see the pun artfully hidden in Minor Incidents and therefore recommended instead the title by which the novel has ever since been known: A Crocodile of Choirboys. This, they thought, had more of a ‘bite’ and would give the novel a better chance of selling. In addition, Greenleaf designed for the book its own unique cover, quite different to their customary format. Events proved them right as the title sold thousands of copies, taking everyone by surprise. This was perhaps just as well, for Robinson as a publisher’s reader, was paid by Calder & Boyars solely in books; he could take his pick of their new publications. Once a fortnight he would travel up to London from the school where he was teaching in order to deliver his reader’s reports and collect fresh typescripts. Eighteen months earlier however, as an aspiring author, Robinson had been invited to one of Calder’s parties.
Writing now, Bradbury Robinson says that he wouldn’t have gone at all if it wasn’t for the possibility that Burroughs might show up, which eventually he did:
Not a sign of him when I arrived – I talked for a while to Ann Quin and others – then a stir and there was WSB! I had a feeling he wouldn’t spend much time at this party and, sure enough, after twenty minutes he left. I followed him down the stairs; in the hall stopped him and asked him whether I could ask a question. Burroughs looked me up and down, asked if I’d had supper yet – I said No – he said Come and have dinner with me then – next I knew we were in a taxi and then sitting opposite one another over a dinner table in St James’s.
At the end of the meal, Robinson asked Burroughs for his phone number, and if they could meet again next time he came up to London – and so began a series of visits that lasted until Robinson moved to North Africa in 1971. Sometimes Burroughs would ring him at the school where he was teaching: “Occasionally the Headmaster would enter my classroom and say: There’s a call for you, Christopher. It’s William Burroughs… Or: William Burroughs on the line for you, Christopher… The boys would immediately sit up straight in their desks and, in awed voices tinged with irony, chorus: WIL-LIAM BUR-ROUGHS!”
Once or twice a month he would take the run up to town, call on Burroughs, and they would talk and drink and talk together, usually just the two of them, and often long into the night. Right from the very beginning, Robinson was struck by the combination of Burroughs’ courageous examination of everything, relentless questioning, and completely open-minded, non-judgemental consideration of whatever he turned his attention to. Though Burroughs had already read versions of Minor Incidents in typescript, indeed recommending the novel to Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press and Richard Seaver at Grove Press, nonetheless it was with some trepidation Robinson handed his friend the 1970 Phenix Publishers PR283,
Greenleaf Classics, A Crocodile of Choirboys. He remembers: “On my next visit I asked him what he thought of it. Unhesitatingly he replied You’re a writer! When I looked less than pleased, Burroughs said, Don’t be disappointed – those are the exact words Beckett said to me – You’re a writer!”
The two writers bonded over their shared love of literature, but they also enjoyed frank and far-ranging discussions about the many-and-various forms of sexuality expressing the full range of the human condition. Robinson recalls Burroughs looking at Piccolo and other “boy porn” magazines, openly on sale in London at that time (1969) – indeed, from shops in Brewer Street, the location of the offices of Calder & Boyars! Burroughs would comment on them as if he were reviewing an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, discussing the photographs in terms of lighting, camera angles, the attractiveness of the models, all discussed purely aesthetically. This anecdote makes it clear Burroughs found nothing reprehensible about the photographs, and therefore nothing reprehensible about paederasty – quite the opposite, in fact. Robinson writes: “It’s obvious Burroughs was extremely interested in these magazines, as one would be if one were a student of human sexuality – which Burroughs was… Let’s not forget Burroughs respected Freud for his detached examination of sexuality, and agreed with Freud no wall divides the mad from the sane or the so-called normal from the so-called perverse…”
The vast majority of their conversations, however, were on the subject of writing, their favourite writers, and the avant-garde and writing techniques. They would return again and again to the alchemy of writing – its music, even: “Burroughs would pull from his typewriter the page he was currently working on (Dutch Schultz or Port of Saints), hand it to me and say, Musical enough for you, Brad? And we would examine the writing as a musical score.”
On the subject of how to turn “the base metal of prose into the gold of poetry” and comparing and contrasting favourite writers who had perhaps achieved something of this, Burroughs would bring up his beloved Denton Welch and Jean Genet, and Robinson would counter with Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Samuel Beckett. Although Robinson notes Burroughs’ obvious admiration for Beckett – an enthusiasm they both shared – he also comments on his doubt that Burroughs had actually read that much by him, and almost certainly had not seen a production of Waiting For Godot. He also observes: “Come to think of it, his flat was marked by an astonishing absence of books.” On the subject of Genet, Robinson adds:
WSB once said to me that ‘Genet does things with words you would not think could be done with words’… WSB at his best achieves the same astonishing aesthetic: there are lines – whole paragraphs even – which are so moving, so beautiful, one thinks an angel must have written them – not this dope fiend in suit and tie smiling at one across the table!
Speaking of the dope-fiend-in-suit-and-tie, Robinson is quite clear that because he personally had no interest in either drugs or The Beats, he believes Burroughs found his approach very refreshing, and that what appealed most to Burroughs was that Robinson was interested in him only as a writer. He is also clear about the fact that his friendship with Burroughs occurred at a time when the “glamorous myth” of the “icon of cool” had not yet completely taken over — a development which he agrees Burroughs colluded with, to the later detriment of his standing as a serious writer. Looking back now he marvels at the candid access he was fortunate enough to enjoy:
As we conversed about writing – about what one could do with words, about what words did to one – I gradually became aware how nervous Burroughs was about his own talent and about his literary reputation; in fact, how humble he was about his writing – which is perhaps why this Master (as I viewed him then) was so willing to help a Novice (as I viewed myself).
During their many hundreds of hours in conversation together, Bradbury Robinson found himself able to observe from close up the pursuit of that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” and witness first hand as Burroughs brought that same unflinching honesty and scrutiny to bear on his own life and work:
Late one Saturday evening, after we’d drunk most of a bottle and as I was preparing to leave, Burroughs coiled his fingers tightly around my wrist, pulled me towards him and asked me this memorable question: I’m not a one-book writer, am I? I will be remembered for more than Naked Lunch, won’t I? I wouldn’t say he was near to tears, but he was certainly very upset. I told him what I thought then and still think now is the truth: You’ll be remembered for the trilogy: Naked Lunch / The Soft Machine / The Ticket That Exploded… And as you know I think The Soft Machine is the best of the three – and then I quoted a few lines to him from memory: ‘sad train whistles cross a distant sky blue magic of all movies’… Slowly his fingers around my wrist relaxed and he escorted me to the door, one arm around my shoulders.
Robinson also got to see a more human side to El Hombre Invisible:
He lived, if not an austere, at least a simple life – apart, that is, from his St James’s apartment (when I knew him) and his Savile Row suits and handmade shoes from Lobb in Jermyn Street. I always referred to him as the best-dressed man in London. Flawlessly courteous too – and kind. I remember walking down Piccadilly with him and being astonished when he dropped a five pound note into the hat of an unemployed man playing the violin. Burroughs must have guessed what I was thinking, for he commented: ‘No matter how poor one is, Brad, there are always others poorer…’
Most of Bradbury Robinson’s visits to Burroughs were undisturbed by even so much as a telephone call, but he never felt that the older writer was lacking for company:“He once said to me: I’m never alone, Brad – I have my characters… And one could sense they were there in the room…”
He did have occasion to meet some of his other friends and visitors, however. Apart from a rather fraught visit from Billy Jr. (clearly desperate for money), visits from Allen Ginsberg, and “toward the end, once or twice some ghastly rent boy from Piccadilly,” the other main encounter he remembers is with Brion Gysin. Initially Robinson knew only of Gysin as the artist responsible for the paintings hanging on the walls of Burroughs’ flat, and the painter himself was wary until Burroughs broke the ice with “Brad thinks your paintings are a meeting of East and West, specifically Japanese calligraphy and Paul Klee.” After this Gysin was friendly and civilized, and Robinson discussed his interest in visiting Switzerland to live with Benedictine Monks (mentioned in The Retreat Diaries – included in The Burroughs File anthology from City Lights. At the urging of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs goes on one of the Retreats of Chögyam Trungpa. Considering Tibetan Buddhism and the tonal and nagual of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, he writes “I was thinking about Bradbury Robinson, an English friend who was then going in for Mystical Christianity” – and it is implied that he is one of the test-subjects that Burroughs will try to contact via astral projection, or at least visit in a dream.)
As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Robinson had been invited to visit the community at the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in North Yorkshire, where he met Father Aelred Graham (England’s leading authority on Zen Buddhism, and author of Zen Catholicism) and the then Abbot, Basil Hume, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Thinking Robinson might have a vocation, the Abbot suggested he might like to spend a while living with the monks of a Benedictine Abbey in the Swiss Alps, as he knew they were short of someone to teach English in their school. As Gysin had himself been taught by Benedictine Monks at Downside School in Somerset, he could understand Robinson’s interest.
Bradbury Robinson relates an amusing anecdote from this time which demonstrates both how aware Burroughs was of his younger friend’s spiritual interests, and yet at the same time at ease with the notion of paederasty:
Not long after meeting Gysin, when we were again on our own, Burroughs, knowing of my interest in the possible overlap between Christian Mysticism and Zen Buddhism, suggested I investigate Tibetan Buddhism, even visit a Tibetan monastery. Isn’t it rather cold in Tibet? I observed. Burroughs knew I didn’t much care for the cold. His lips twitched with delight, as if I had fallen into a hole he had carefully dug. Oh, you needn’t worry about the cold, Brad! Being a visitor from the West you’ll be taken good care of. At night the monastery will pack little boy novices all around and on top of you to keep you warm. A duvet of boys. You’ll be snug as a bug in a rug! Burroughs sipped his whisky and then we laughed simultaneously.
In spring 1971, Robinson wrote an essay on Samuel Beckett, which was published by The Cambridge Quarterly. He then wrote a follow-up, A Way With Words: The Theme of Silence in William S. Burroughs, in which he considered the work of his friend, with a particular emphasis on The Soft Machine, an examination of Silence in the work of both Burroughs and Beckett, and of course sexuality. The Cambridge Quarterly however refused to publish it, on the grounds that, “We don’t think William Burroughs matters very much” – but Robinson himself was under no illusions about the matter: “What they meant was they didn’t want any ‘porn’ fouling their pristine pages!” Regrettably, the essay has never yet been published – despite the fact that Burroughs himself gave it high praise, saying he preferred it over Eric Mottram’s The Algebra of Need (which he dismissed as “work typical of an academic”) and signing a copy of The Soft Machine with the dedication “For Bradbury Robinson, With all best wishes and appreciation for one of the very few intelligent critical essays on my writing, William S. Burroughs.”
A Way With Words… is indeed a fine piece of work and something of a lost gem where Burroughs Literary Criticism is concerned. Oliver Harris has written that it is: “…really interesting and insightful, a pleasure to read. Had it been published in, say, 1970, it would have had no rival other than Tony Tanner’s very good piece (in his book City of Words).”
Bradbury Robinson examines the trilogy of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, wherein the problem of communication is central, and makes an intriguing comparison between William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett: “Mr Beckett’s purpose is to say again and again that there is nothing to say; Mr Burroughs’ purpose to speak words again and again until words lose their meaning, human beings their desire to talk.”
Referencing George Steiner’s 1967 essay Silence and the Poet, Robinson describes the possible limits of Poetry – as expressed in Rimbaud and Hölderlin – but refutes the notion that “the inhumanity of this century, the bestiality of Man, has undermined language to the point where the only decent response is silence” and goes on to consider Direct Action, Ionesco and the Zen Masters, before stating: “What is so striking about Mr. Beckett and Mr Burroughs, so new, is that the song they sing is of the silence. That is their difference and this the paradox.”
There follows a detailed consideration of Burroughs’ tape-recorder experiments, a comparison with Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” our understanding of Space & Time, Eliot’s Four Quartets and Paul Tillich on the Crucifixion; then a consideration of sex that ranges from Freud’s polymorphous perversity via Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, to the paederasty of Andre Gide, Michel Tournier, and Tony Duvert, with Robinson asserting:“Despite appearances to the contrary, sexuality is as taboo today as it ever was – hence the fascination.”
There follows a pretty shrewd criticism of the trilogy, comparing the avant-garde techniques to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pulling Burroughs up on a lot of what Robinson sees as self-indulgence and sloppiness, enthusing that his work would not be considered so “difficult” if:
…we recall certain writers whom he has always reminded me of – the verbal brilliance but ‘off the wall’ themes of Ezra Pound, for example, the Virginia Woolf of The Waves, the grotesqueries one meets in Dickens, the passion of Emily Brontë, the ‘madness’ of Christopher Smart, Jonathan Swift’s venom, even present in his gently humorous Directions to Servants, not forgetting, of course, Laurence Sterne…
And finally an appreciation of the “extraordinary fertility” of Burroughs’ imagination – how he “delights us with his wit” but also “distresses us with his stark despair” – but how, in the end, for Bradbury Robinson it is The Soft Machine that is most valuable:
…because it is, more or less, a continuous stream of poetry, which at times communicates moments of sadness (the emotion Mr Burroughs is best at evoking) so intense they make one ache with pain, grief-stricken, like the author, at remembered loss, and these moments are so intense, so sincere, so well-conveyed, they would alone convince me of the stature of Mr Burroughs.
Not surprisingly, Burroughs clearly appreciated the essay. When Robinson asked him to write an Introduction to his new novel, Williams Mix, even though he found the work difficult – even troubling in places – he was happy to oblige.
Williams Mix is a strange book – not least of all for its paederastic obsessions. Although shot through with some beautiful, quite poetic, descriptive passages – “The moon rose white, a circle of paper in the night sky, and hung there, riding the tendrils of the chaste and chasing clouds” – it mainly consists of repeating, overlapping, and intersecting narratives that the author describes as a “dish of voices” – disagreeing with Burroughs’ comparison of writing to film, insisting rather that it is more accurately like a radio play – with all the voices only really existing within the imagination of the narrator. A schoolboy, William, spins a yarn about a possible assault by an elderly tramp. The tramp too has a story to tell about his younger self as a patient of another William, Dr. Bearpark. That younger self too tells a story, principally about his relationship with his mother, and the different voices that the characters have internalised – from parents, teachers, and authority figures representing conformity and “normality” – all have their turn upon the stage, the various stories weaving in and out in a strange dance across Time and Memory, confirming and contradicting and sometimes even cancelling each other.
The narrator wants to Get Back to the prelapsarian state of the male child before the onset of puberty, a state depicted as both Silent and Timeless, before the damage that was done to him – the trauma of his Fall, which may-or-may-not have been sexual abuse by a paederast:
He had no desires, or none that he was aware of, and therefore nothing to assuage, appease, allay, alleviate, which is precisely what made him so desirable…
He had no desires, or none that he knew of, only the wish to be left alone, and, left alone, he would sit quietly, as he is now, doing nothing, and if only all people could be as enlightened as he is, sitting quietly, doing nothing, what a peaceful world it would be, paradise regained.
The terrible and cruel irony is that he can conceive of doing so only through sexual union with a boy of 10 or 11, an avatar of his own child Self, until he realises in the midst of an LSD-therapy session with the demonic and demented Dr. Bearpark (doing for psychiatry what Burroughs’ Dr. Benway did for the medical profession) that what he wants to do actually is go back in Time and possess his child Self so as, quite literally, to become him, again:
Time join me as a man to the schoolboy I loved time connect me as a boy to the man I wanted to love me then time splice in the voices of choristers photograph fulfilment fix it forever…
I tell you it does make sense: photographic past splice in with reality present gently slowly the years recede disappear vanish in an orgasm flash bulb of eternity now.
In his Introduction, Burroughs immediately singles out this notion of sex as a form of psychic time travel as key, a preoccupation that he was no stranger to himself:
If there is one thing you can say with computerized certainty about any sexual feeling it is this: it is a repetition of a previously experienced sexual feeling. Pleasure is the repetition of past pleasure. So someone who is attracted to small boys is simply attempting to travel back in time and re-experience his own past pleasure.
Although Burroughs’ own obsession was with an imaginary return to a heavily homoeroticised fantasy of adolescence, rather than the pre-pubescent boy, it is clear from his Introduction that the poetry of Robinson’s prose, with its mournful longing for lost youth, spoke to him:
Mr. Bradbury Robinson describes this as a book of voices. However the descriptive passages, that is, the pictorial passages give these voices life… ‘he looked at the grey clouds and thought of Summer when it was hot and the boys sat in cotton shorts and open necked shirts the heat seemed to make a sound like unseen wings and it was hard to stay awake… thoughts leapfrog through my mind searching the past…’ Searching for the boy left back there ‘playing marbles, flying aeroplanes, playing football, chasing each other…’
It isn’t hard to see how he would have also been fascinated with Robinson’s descriptions of the voices-in-our-heads – so close to his own preoccupations with Control, Language-as-Virus, and Possession – and his Introduction poses the question of just who exactly is talking to whom? “Mr Bradbury Robinson who is seemingly so rarefied and esoteric is actually saying something basic about the human condition… This book then is something for everybody to read not just those who may share Mr. Bradbury Robinson’s sexual interest in small boys. This book is the human impasse.”
After praising the descriptive powers of the writer, and what he sees as “the courage of desperation” in his work, Burroughs closes with an extraordinary consideration of what might actually happen if Bradbury Robinson’s Narrator could travel back in Time and meet his idealised 10-year-old Self: “What happens when they stand face to face? It looks like an old Western shoot down. The boy kills Bradbury Robinson so he can grow up. Or Bradbury Robinson kills the boy so he will never have to grow up.”
Burroughs himself clearly had a pronounced Romantic yearning for the idylls (real or imaginary) of his own lost adolescence, and undoubtedly this is behind much of the homo-eroticised “Boy’s Own” emphasis in his work (what Malcolm Mc Neill has described as “the tree-house” – a kind of liminal space of All Boys Together, where women are Not Welcome or even necessary.) Clearly a case can be made that his sexuality was to some extent stuck at the level of this pubescent boy, discovering his own body and the bodies of other boys, and thus the objects of his erotic engagement were youths: adolescents and young adults. This is more-or-less confirmed in a conversation Burroughs had with Andy Warhol and Andre Leon-Talley that was among those recorded by Victor Bockris for With William Burroughs: A Report From The Bunker:
Warhol: What kind of people do you like?
Burroughs: Young boys.
Leon-Talley: How young do you like them?
Burroughs: Oh, say from fourteen to twenty-five…
For the record, Bradbury Robinson insists that while Burroughs was most definitely not a paederast (Graham Caveney take note), he “delighted in challenging what we now call Political Correctness, especially with regard to sexual matters.”
In 1971 Robinson would go to live in North Africa, then after a year take up a teaching position in Saudi Arabia. Eventually he would make his way to Switzerland for two memorable years living the Benedictine life without actually becoming a monk. Burroughs himself returned definitively to the States in 1974, and although he later invited his friend “Brad” to go and stay with him at The Bunker, it was not to be. C. J. Bradbury Robinson would go on to become a practising Kleinian psychoanalyst, and Williams Mix would languish, while ironically his other novels would become sought-after collector’s items in the twilight world of literary erotica. In 2004 he began to revise the texts of his earlier works, eventually publishing at his own expense in a handsome edition substantial excerpts from A Crocodile of Choirboys (restored to Minor Incidents), the follow-up Young Thomas (about the love between a young Prep School English Teacher and the eponymous 11-year-old boy who is his favourite pupil) and Williams Mix, complete with its Introduction by William S. Burroughs. More than 40 years after they were originally written, they have at last seen “the dark of print” together, and are currently available from Out Now Press of London and Den Haag, or via www.amazon.co.uk.
In closing, I would like to say Thank You to Christopher Bradbury Robinson for his time, friendship, and the extensive correspondence in which he has challenged, inspired, provoked, and been so very generous with his memories regarding the man he calls his “friend and mentor” William S. Burroughs. I think the last word belongs to him:
My abiding impression of Burroughs is of an impeccably dressed wonderfully polite gentleman, a sort of Southern gentleman of the old school. He was also immensely generous with his time and very kind. His conversation was, by turns, witty, scathing, insightful, above all, funny. He was an original, a one-off, just as his prose is original. I have known quite a few eminent men, but no one quite like William Burroughs!
Author’s note: All quotations attributed to C. J. Bradbury Robinson in this article are taken either from correspondence or face-to-face interviews with the author, and are used with his express permission.
In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso.
The rent at the 42 roomed hotel cost as little as 10 francs a night with the cheapest rooms containing a single bed that had two sheets and a army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chairs, and three hooks. The rooms and hallways were dimly lit and the bedrooms had a small window facing the stairwell. The other rooms that were slightly more pleasant then the cheaper ones included such commodities as a telephone and a gas cooker, but the hotel owner, Madame Rachou, was very particular about who stayed. She didn’t mind if they were gay or in interracial relationships and she particularly liked the open-minded creative sorts – she even allowed artists and writers to pay in the form of manuscripts and artwork and she would allow inventive artists to paint and decorate their rooms how ever so they wished.
Other people that also stayed at the 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur residence were the likes of prostitutes, erratic poets, oddball French folks, pimps and also policemen (certain police officers even had a secret mistress that stayed in the hotel).
Despite the owner’s well-wishes and good nature, the hotel was still known as a “Class 13” – meaning it was bottom of the heap, just a pure sight of decrepitude and disrepair. A minor bonus that the hotel did offer was the privilege of hot water which was offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as a bath in the only bathtub that was situated on the ground floor. The ground floor close to the lobby and near the bar was where the Beat writers spent most of their time drinking, smoking, eating, and conversing while Madame Rouche prepared sandwiches for the police and the officers in turn would pay no attention to the scent of hashish that drifted around the bar area.
Rue Gît-Le-Coeur on left bank in the 50s was a lively happening place that bustled with bohemian students, destitute winos, and ladies of the night as the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and Fontaine Saint-Michel provided a fine view in the backdrop. As the narrow streets housed the homeless sleeping wherever they could, the hotel accommodation that surrounded the pathways sheltered writers, musicians, artists, and models that came from the nearby school of fine arts known as the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It wasn’t only hotels in the district of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur. The tiny medieval region also had a vast array of dusty book shops, antiques shops, art galleries, avant-garde publishing houses and small presses, art cafes as well as drug dealers dealing in broad daylight in the cafes.
In 1956 William S. Burroughs attempted to cure his drug addiction with the help of London physician John Dent. After completion of the treatment he moved to the Beat Hotel to join his friends. Burroughs moved under the recommendation of Allen Ginsberg as Ginsberg thought it would help his friend escape the heroin scene. At the hotel Burroughs began writing patchy, disconnected, and hallucinatory manuscripts that would later become apart of his novel Naked Lunch. Although Burroughs had the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac to edit the novel it too fell to the same ill-fate of Ginsberg’s Howl as it was called upon by the US obscenity trials in the 60s.
He was also introduced to the Dada art technique of cut-up writing by English born artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin as Gysin stumbled upon the style by pure accident when the pair wrote together in room number fifteen in the spring of 1958. Burroughs took this method one step further and began cutting up photographs and artwork. This cut-up technique, which could be said to have been invented by Tristan Tzara in the late 1920s, involved cutting sections of writing out of newspaper then putting then them back together in new and creative ways. Whilst staying at the hotel from 1959 to 1963 Harold Norse also experimented with the cut-up style whilst he penned his 280 page novel called The Beat Hotel.
Brion Gysin moved to Paris in 1934 where he studied the open course La Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne University, an academy that wasn’t too far from the Beat Hotel. His most famous creation at the hotel was in the early 1960s with fellow creator Ian Somerville called the Dream Machine. The creation which was the only piece of art that can be viewed with your eyes closed and is meant to stimulate the brain’s alpha patterns with rhythmic strobing light effects thus producing a natural high. The device is a large piece of cardboard with slits down the side and spun on a gramophone turntable. In the middle a light bulb hangs down to the centre creating a flicker effect as the machine spins. The pair had calculated it to flicker at fifteen flickers per second resulting in a type of hypnotic trance-like state. The device seemed to take off as people began to take notice and the creators were due to market their work as a representative turned up at the hotel, but as luck would have it the rep ended up breaking his leg in the hallway which ended with the creation never seeing the light of day.
As the years passed the beats were beginning to be noticed on the international scene as word spread across the globe that the wonderful, tiny, wild, and heavily neglected hotel in France was the place to be and from the years 1957 to 1963 Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Burroughs, Corso, and Sommerville were joined by other imaginative creators from England and Europe. The Beat Generation had officially taken over the Latin Quarter of Paris, creating a symbolic freedom of mind, a simple atmosphere where they could escape the troubles of their homelands in a place that was much more tolerant of anything written or in the visual arts. France in that time was way ahead of up-tight countries like England and America. Although the Beats couldn’t actually speak a word of French they did have in their group the French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel who they would use as their go-between. Label also introduced the group to the Partisan art community that included the likes of Marcel Duchamp and André Breton.
Great works of poetic art was also being produced at the hotel as Ginsberg started work on his second poem Kaddish and Gregory Corso created some of his most famous works whilst living in the hotel’s attic like his controversial piece called Bomb that was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
English photographer Harold Chapman spent a year living in the attic with Corso, documenting photo-by-photo the scene that was happening around him. According to Ginsberg Chapman didn’t speak to anyone for two years because he wanted to be invisible – transcribing the environment without him in it. Chapman came up with the idea of making a photographic book called My Paris whilst working as a waiter in Soho. After hitchhiking to Paris a friend told him that he must see this crazy hotel in the area and was later introduced to Ginsberg and Orlovsky, the rest was to be photographic history.
By the time the trial for Naked Lunch ended in the early 60s (resulting with the novel being made example of and prosecuted for being too obscene by the state of Massachusetts followed by other states in the US and the rest of the world) the Beat Hotel ceased to be as Madame Rachou retired in 1963. Harold Chapman was the last person to leave.
Nowadays the tramps that covered the streets of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur are gone, the prostitutes that hung around the wine bars have moved on, and those bohemian types have been replaced with camera-snapping American, English, and other Western world tourists that have now taken over the place. Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is now a tourist destination and the time of the beat generation has long since died a creative death. ‘Ci-Gît’ is an old expression found on French graves meaning ‘here lies’ and Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is said to signify ‘here lies the heart’, yet all that stands at once the heart of the beat movements Beat hotel (which this isn’t even the Beat hotel, the original Beat hotel has been closed for decades the one that it’s actually placed against use to be an apartment building) is a bronze plaque with the words: B. Gysin, N. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville and W. Burroughs scrawled across it like some gravestone reminder of what was once a artistic environment.
Charles Gatewood has not only been working for some of the world’s best publications for more than five decades, but his photos have given an intimate glance into the private lives of counterculture icons like Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. (One of his photos of Burroughs practicing with his E-meter appeared on the cover of recent Beatdom Books publication, Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.)
Starting this month, Gatewood’s photography is on display at the Robert Tat Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibition focuses on his earlier work, including the famous “Bob Dylan with Cigarette” photo that launched his career in 1966.
For more information, see the Robert Tat website.
Edited and with an Introduction by Bill Morgan.
At the point this second volume of his Collected Letters opens, William S. Burroughs has been living outside of the USA for the best part of a decade, now settled in the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, and his breakthrough novel Naked Lunch has just been published by the Olympia Press. He was just about to be profiled in Life magazine – the subject of a pained exchange with his outraged mother, Laura Lee Burroughs – and his newfound friend and collaborator Brion Gysin had just had the “happy accident” that led to the Cut-Ups, of which we will hear a great deal.
The first volume ended with a letter to Allen Ginsberg, and this new collection picks up literally where it left off, with a letter written to him the very next day (Oct 30, 1959). We are in fairly familiar territory here: giving thanks to Ginsberg for a supply of mescaline, catching up on gossip about mutual acquaintances, Gregory Corso and Jacques Stern, and an amusing anecdote about Henri Michaux.
So far so good, but things progress at an accelerating rate: the real story here is Burroughs coming of age as a writer, differentiating himself from his Beat peers, and finding his own voice.
Defending his work at the 1962 International Writer’s Conference on “The Future of the Novel,” critic Mary McCarthy said that one of the things that set Burroughs apart was his “aerial perspective,” and it has been argued that he belongs more with the writers and thinkers of the European avante garde tradition. Editor Bill Morgan describes in his Introduction how these letters give
…witness to an era in which Burroughs became the centre of a new coterie of creative people who were not related to the Beat Generation. With their assistance, Burroughs became an influential artistic and cultural leader whose reputation spread well beyond the literary world…
As well as old friends Alan Ansen, Paul Bowles, Corso, and Ginsberg, Burroughs’ new horizons expanded to include, amongst others, Antony Balch, Charles Henri Ford, Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Portman, Ian Somerville, Terry Southern, and Alex Trocchi. However, the single most important figure is without doubt Brion Gysin, who soon replaces Ginsberg as Burroughs’s most trusted collaborator and confidante (although never lover). On December 2nd, 1959, Burroughs writes to Allen “I have met my first master in Brion.” They quickly overcame previous rather cool impressions from Tangier, and plunged into the slippery psychic symbiosis of “The Third Mind.”
From famed medium Eileen Garret to Hassan ibn Sabbah, Old Man of the Mountains & Master of the Assassins, against a backdrop of ecstatic Moroccan trance music, curses, mirror-gazing, spells and trances, and the non-chemical expansion of awareness made possible through Cut-Ups, Flicker, and Playback, we follow Burroughs’ life as it unfolds during this eventful period. We also meet the Cambridge mathematician Ian Somerville (“the technical sergeant”), who facilitates the Dreamachine and tape-recorder experiments, and spoilt rich-kid jailbait Mikey Portman (“the medium”) – who despite his bad habits, good looks, money, and youth would eventually drive Burroughs to distraction.
All the usual obsessions and preoccupations are here: Cut-Ups loom large, as well as endless iteration of their possible applications; Drugs, of course – although sometimes as much against as for, as numerous letters promoting the apomorphine treatment for addiction attest; Film – both the experiments with Balch and various projected adaptations involving Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, and a former CIA hitman that all-too-predictably amount to nothing; and the strange dance with Scientology, deserving a book all of its own…
Also included are diplomatic appeals to his long-suffering mother, too-little-too-late attempts to reach out to his “cursed from birth” son, Billy Jnr., and endless struggles with publishers (mostly over money).
It is ironic that as his concerns became ever more internalised – and at times quite literally Occult – and the work he is producing is amongst his most “difficult,” that the model of “William Burroughs” as an icon of counterculture cool is born (his appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles being perhaps the ultimate endorsement). His engagement with experimental methods, non-literary forms, and the Underground Press seems strangely at odds with his recurring hope that the next project will be a commercial breakthrough: it is nothing short of hilarious when he reports, regarding The Wild Boys, that “Antony [Balch] swears it will be a best seller…”
There is plenty here to delight diehard fans, entertain the curious, and fuel further speculation. The engagement of Burroughs & Gysin, firstly with Scientology, and secondly with what they called “the Magical Universe,” are two topics clearly deserving of exploration. The fact that at the time of this writing, Tim Cummins in his Review for English newspaper The Independent characterises how “the two worked at the centre of a web of occult and artistic actions” (and the order of emphasis that he gives there) gives notice that the time is right for just such re-evaluation.
U.K. hardback edition, 490pp incl. 16pp b & w plates, first published 1st March 2012 by Penguin Classics. Buy it here.
This review was originally published in Beatdom #11.
by Matthew Levi Stevens
“According to Brion Gysin, I was an Apprentice to an Apprentice and I have never claimed otherwise. In my work I have always done absolutely what I wanted to do at the time. I have been fortunate and privileged to encounter and become friends with some incredible people.”
– Terry Wilson, Introduction to Perilous Passage
“The standardised explanation was published. I shall oppose it with heresy…”
– Charles Fort, cited at the beginning of Perilous Passage
I first met Terry Wilson 30 years ago, at the time of The Final Academy in 1982. I was something of a star-struck schoolboy who couldn’t quite believe his luck that here he was meeting William S Burroughs – and of course Terry was part of the entourage, along with manager James Grauerholz, poet John Giorno, and of course the living legend that was Brion Gysin. There was also Derek Jarman’s former boyfriend Howard Brookner, who was following the action everywhere with a camera, making his documentary Burroughs: The Movie – in much the same way that Victor Bockris had been the Court recorder at The Bunker, making With William Burroughs.
And the others are arriving, phantoms in the heat… Bedaya, imposing, resplendent with his new wave black belt guitarist Attar scowling in his wake… The Little Corporal, who has laid on this show, a shaven-headed mascara’d death dwarf in his army fatigues carrying his thermos flask filled with real English Typhoo Tea fresh from Tesco’s, Hackney, E8, giving the fish eye to Holz, his fellow entrepreneur, an enormous ageing blond boy-from-the-backwoods eyes glittering behind steel rims, disconcertingly alien and impossibly straight at the same time like at any moment he might whip out a sheaf of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets he strides quickly up to Whelme – ‘Good to see you. And I mean that most sincerely’ he intones, most sincerely – And, travelling in his wake, The Old Man, long, thin, bent, like an ancient cantankerous, infinitely ominous arrival from another galaxy.1
Terry was there in his capacity as Brion’s informal secretary, friend, collaborator, and “apprentice to an apprentice” (as Gysin himself had said), and would also be one of the performers on the bill. He was tall and thin, in a crumpled dark blue suit, pale face fading away behind a fringe of hair, and seemed nervous, shy: on the one hand in awe of Burroughs & Gysin (older gay men, established Writer and Artist, whom he had known since 1971) – and on the other wary of all the shaven-headed acolytes circling around event organisers Genesis P-Orridge and Psychic TV:
…the Final Entrepreneur. It was a great scam but it was rather too final for him. Dim as he is these days, his huge Crowleyesque peepers are still penetrating and liable to take a really good look around inside to see what there might be that he can make use of. Even dimmer, much younger flickering ephemeral figures hover around him with dead mongoloid mutant-like features and shaved heads, dispensable and fading in the last few days…2
I have already written elsewhere about the actual circumstances of meeting William for the first time, and there is also my review of The Final Academy itself (shortly to be reprinted). The only details I will add here concern Terry’s photo in the program, Statements Of A Kind, wherein an even younger Terry peers out from beneath a heavy fringe and William’s hat, a very English-looking flat cap, and is also wearing William’s clearly rain-spattered coat, standing next to a bed on the floor (Brion’s bed?) It was taken in Brion’s apartment at rue St Martin, Paris (opposite the Pompidou), by fellow neophyte Udo Breger in December 1980. He looks strangely like a young boy trying to look more ‘grown up’ than he really is – or even feels – by dressing up in his uncle’s borrowed costume. The accompanying text reads:
THIS IS the conclusion of ‘D’ Train, a very condensed novel of 23 pages using to some extent material left over from Dreams of Green Base. It is concerned essentially with out-of-the-body experience, the necessity of leaving the ‘D’ Train before it reaches its destination, and is addressed to Philippe Baumont.3
In David Darby’s interview with Terry (published as KA by Inkblot in 1986, and then later included in the reissued Perilous Passage), he says of Dreams of Green Base that…
It was a book for boys, written by a boy
…and there is a footnote that reads:
The original subtitle of Dreams of Green Base (inadvertently omitted by the publisher) was ‘The Ideal Book for Boys’. TW.
KA also includes the following exchanges:
I was in a strange, disconnected, almost catatonic state… and I was more or less simply recording dream experience, a period of which I remember very little, thankfully.
It sounds, and reads, almost schizoid.
More than almost I think.
Does it bug you now to be identified with the Burroughs circus?
No… the ‘circus’, well you have to get the show on the road… and keep it there…4
Then in 1985-6 I was visiting London more and more, gearing up for the inevitable move – still some lingering involvement with the circles around Genesis P-Orridge, Psychic TV and ‘Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth’, but mainly encouraged by my growing friendship with Geff Rushton & Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson of Coil. Through them I became friends with Derek Jarman – also met the Poet Jeremy Reed – Kathy Acker, who was living in London at the time – the Filipino Performance Artist and Kinetic Sculptor David Medalla – became friends with the former Music Journalist Sandy Robertson (who would write The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook) – and eventually ran into Terry again. We became friendly, and he introduced me to a number of people that he knew, like Bob Cobbing, George Dowden, of course Felicity Mason, and Portuguese Artist João Penalva. It seemed obvious that when I did move to London we would see more of each other.
Right from the start it is made clear that Terry feels that his friendship with William and Brion – and, most particularly, his time spent with Brion in Paris, working on what would become Here To Go: Planet R101 – was a kind of apprenticeship, even an initiation…
But initiation into what, exactly?
Following Gysin’s death, Wilson felt isolated and cut off, and Perilous Passage was a way out of loss and despair, a magical writing making contact possible with other initiates, other minds. Third Mind techniques, including cutting-up, systematic disorientation, out of the body experiences, and the use of drugs in the transformation of the self, are all evoked…5
From the end of 1987 through to 1989 we were in pretty much weekly contact: a phone-call at the start of the week, then either a rendezvous in the West End or towards the end of the week another phone-call, co-ordinating trips to various Launches & Openings, or else just hang out – usually with a visit to his ‘local’, a gay pub, The Champion in Notting Hill.
Lancaster Gate – Notting Hill – Portobello just round the corner – could be Powis Square, the ghost of Turner passing in a phantom Rolls. The white façade of the building dazzles in the sunlight and then the front door opens at my touch as if I am expected, but Who Is There? An old Conjuror’s trick: I am in for a very different ‘performance’ here, and there will be no calling Dr Burroughs for a shot –
Then I am IN, and everything turns negative: the floor trips me and pitches me forward like a ship on storm-tossed seas, into-down-along high-ceilinged narrow hallways (“the walls are closing in”) and upstairs, don’t stop until you get to the top – a black tunnel hung with luminous calligraphies that flicker with their own light.
At the top the Sorcerer’s Apprentice appears, a shadow detached from the wall by the open door. His face swims towards me, wreathed with heavy-scented blue smoke, and the limp handshake reminds me of trying to bring like poles of two magnets together. Beyond the threshold I hear Moroccan music, as shadows dance like firelight, tinged red-orange-yellow. The flickering room, breathing, heaving…
“Uh, hi – glad you could make it. Enter freely and of your own will, and all that!”
I walk through the door into another world…6
I soon discovered that Terry was very much a creature of habit, with a weekly routine of a trip in to the West End, when he would ‘do the rounds’ of the bookshops (Books Etc. and Foyles were particular favourites.) Then down Old Compton Street to Patiserie Valerie, which had apparently been Brion’s favourite: “a little slice of Paris in the West End of London.” He very rarely ate actual meals, but would enjoy tea and the excellent cakes, and endless rounds of toast. He would point out to me the Soho newsagent where William & Brion had bought the Herald Tribune, the bars that they had used…
Always trying to REMEMBER.
…I have had to attempt – been compelled by his example to attempt – to tell a truth that, like Brion, transcends so-called fact. “A deceit in service of the truth” in the words of the Amazonian shaman Don Juan Tuesta (as quoted by Cesar Calvo, The Three Halves of Ino Moxo). “Fact” is right where you are sitting now…
I have worked principally from what are called dreams of an experience, rather than from the seeming occurrence, itself, as it were. Such is the Process. I’m not presenting what “really happened,” “factually,” because I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know if anything “really” happened at all. Do you? 7
Then back home on the tube via Notting Hill Gate, to try and write in the late afternoon in his high-ceilinged first floor apartment – which was surprisingly bare, except for a reed mat in one corner, a sturdy bureau-cum-writing desk beneath the window, a number of Gysin calligraphies and water-colours lining the walls, and on the mantelpiece a dry leaf-husk by way of a whisk for flies (in the Moroccan style.) There was a surprisingly large kitchen – equally bare and hardly used, other than to occasionally make tea, or fetch an ashtray or corkscrew and glasses – a small windowless bathroom – and a tiny monk’s cell of a bedroom: just a bed and a wardrobe, with very little in the way of clothes. Very little in the way of possessions at all, actually – other than books by William and Brion, copies of his own (of course), and an incredible archive of letters, manuscripts, and photographs…
A treasure-house of memories.
Perilous Passage focuses for the most part on events as they developed just prior to and after Brion Gysin’s death.
Ian MacFadyen has vividly described and commented on the general situation as presented herein in one of his insightful, rarely published essays…
“Phony magicians and phantom intelligence agents move in on rue St Martin, on the track of psychic power, while ‘predatory hustlers’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ emerge from under the floorboards, eager to grab a good-sized chunk of a dying artist’s estate… [The apprentice’s] initiation demands both risky out-of-the-body experiences and hazardous dealings with ‘CREEPS’, the con artists of a malign conspiracy…” 8
Our friendship develops slowly, gently, over the sharing of those memories – what little store I have to offer myself – as Terry smokes joint after joint (“Smoked transcendence is accessible to all!”), always a most generous host even with what little he has – and on some level it almost begins to feel like an education, of sorts – the next link in the chain of The Third Mind, “an experiment which failed, but which is still going on” as Brion said. Anecdotes about The Old Man/William and Bedaya/Brion – “It all reads like sci-fi from here. Not very good sci-fi, but real enough at the time” 9– and sometimes what could almost be Cautionary Tales masquerading as gossip: Antony Balch in a business suit by day, out cruising in ‘Leather Man’ drag by night… and how the last time he visited poor ‘Lost Boy’ Mikey Portman, he was whipping himself with a studded leather belt, shouting “Victory to Aleister Crowley!”, all beneath the poker-faced gaze of his decorators…
I get the distinct impression that Terry is wary, to say the least, of those who actively identify as Occultists, the seeming ubiquity of post-Crowleyan Theory & Practice. At one point he cautions me about “the company of predatory ‘magical’ thinkers” – “What, ‘magick’ with a ‘k’?” I ask – “Yeh…” he sighs. This is perhaps inherited from Brion, who I think was pretty dismissive of Aleister Crowley as a “queen bee”, and the “drones” who are such eager followers (he was not impressed with Kenneth Anger’s ‘box of tricks’, when he met him in the 60s) Besides, he preferred an older, wilder ‘magic’, whose passing he still mourned:
It was almost closing time for Magical Morocco. Electronic mind control was moving in and the Djnoun forces would soon be in full retreat gems to be snapped up before they disappear forever. Spells and curses. Dance and trance. The Other Method was up for grabs.10
He likes to talk about Charles Fort – says that Burroughs was more aware of (and influenced by) him than he would admit. Reads Buchan, The Power House, draws some strange comfort from the famous lines “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.” For my part, I try to be helpful, copying tapes of Brion that I have from the archives of PTV and Coil – typing up articles – bringing books that we talk about, that he is interested in: the recent works by Castaneda (clearly a major influence) – books on Hassan-i Sabbāh and his Assassins – from the British Museum a copy of ‘The Dispute Between A Man And His Ba’ that William has recommended – also the wonderfully titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes – all of which feed into our discussions, and our writings. Usually I bring along a bottle of wine. He particularly likes French reds…
Why was someone like Bedaya surrounded by such awful people?
I don’t know anybody who isn’t surrounded by awful people…
Fear of being alone…11
He has almost finished the follow-up to ‘D’ Train, a novel about his apprenticeship to ‘Massa Bedaya’ that William has suggested he call “Perilous Passage” (after a WWII thriller about the French Resistance, that was made into a rather trashy film with Anthony Quinn, James Mason, and Malcolm MacDowell.) Terry also rather likes the idea of “The Nervous System”. He later has this to say about his three books, which he loosely conceives of as a trilogy:
In these accounts I am not so much trying to detail a teaching method, a virtual impossibility in the case of the allusive and elusive “Massa Bedaya” (Brion resolutely refused to “teach”, without ever ceasing to do so), but rather to describe the effects of what he called the Process on those concerned, most particularly myself. 12
Later I interview Terry – he wants to get his story down, and I will try and get it out. Down… and out. Hmm… Badly cut versions do later appear, in small fanzines mostly relating to the emerging ‘Chaos Magic’ scene. The irony is not lost on us.
My books are an account of my apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master practitioner: Brion Gysin. – I was, as I have written, an eager – wanting – volunteer on the shining path. Brion, legendary “avant garde” maestro, peerless painter/writer-inventor/mentor was an accomplished shaman.13
At one point he is invited to contribute to a compilation tape that will accompany yet another small magazine, and asks if I will help him make a Spoken Word recording. He reads (You Hear Me Now?) from the manuscript of what will become Perilous Passage, and I add sound effects of telephone crackle and interference, shortwave and static. He seems very pleased with the results, but I don’t know if it ever actually got used; certainly neither of us received a copy…
I have to take control of this goddamn situation Bedaya has left behind. No one else can do the job… My “allies” for the most part are devious, unreliable, or plain bone stupid. Sometimes all three. Bedaya’s legacy.14
(You Hear Me Now?) is a study in paranoia, intrigue, confusion – of purpose, place, persona – as an unnamed narrator, presumably ‘Toller Whelme’ from ‘D’ Train (who is ‘really’ Terry Wilson) gets an ominous phone call at 4 a.m. “A hoarse, whispering voice” – one ‘J’ (who is presumably ‘really’ James Kennedy McCann) – rings to say “I’ve seen Bedaya, I’ve talked to him…” (‘Bedaya’, who is ‘really’ Brion Gysin – even though he has presumably been dead for a while at this point.) Spy thriller exchanges about attempts on his life are mixed – no, Cut-Up – with the question “How do we escape from Time?” – the answer being “…Hassan I Sabbah’s programme…” The narrator comments: “Well… I think it’s still in operation… You know we intend to continue by means of the Third Mind…” Then ‘J’ asks about “the other J” (presumably ‘really’ James Grauerholz) – “You know he controls the Old Man…?” (‘really’ William S Burroughs) – and it is suggested that he works for the C.I.A. – and we are back where we started, in a midnight mystery pulp espionage escapade…
The plot couldn’t get any thicker if it tried.
I’d like to emphasis this point about the Third Mind – Bedaya wasn’t fooling around, talking about this marvellous thing forever. It was necessary to produce some actual physical product. Immediately we made contact he got right onto the job. In other words, words were necessary, but he controlled and channelled them.15
Inspired by a certain recurring detail in ‘D’ Train – and partly in response to the emerging ‘Acid House’ scene – I record Terry reading the line “The Body 24 Hours Is Frivolously Dancing” and cut-it-up over a House beat, complete with tape-loops of Jajouka and a TB303 bassline.
The New Year starts warmly, a copy of ‘D’ Train dedicated “For Matthew with all best wishes for 89 and forever”, but over the next couple of years things start to become strained. Former ‘psychick youths’ that I have introduced to Terry and personally vouched for let us down – let him down – take advantage of him, he feels (and don’t even get the quotes or spellings right, or give credit where credit is due!) His health deteriorates – people begin to avoid him, suspecting HIV or junk, although of course it is neither…
“Maybe to’ve opened ourselves up to all those dreadful spaces with all those drugs wasn’t such a good idea…” 16
I have begun a sort of ‘Third Mind’ collaboration of my own with a young friend – William sees early drafts, and generously comments that it is “Accurate and honest… Young boys need it special. They may even listen.” Unfortunately exactly the same words he had written to Terry with regard to ‘D’ Train. There is perhaps for the first time a sense of competition.
Walking by the side of a large body of water, the sun beating down on me, dazzling me. Not really sure where I am, things seem… through a heat-haze, the figure of a man coming towards me: tall and thin, just sort of drifting along as if his feet aren’t quite touching the ground. As he draws nearer I recognise the crumpled dark blue suit, pale face fading away behind a fringe of hair – it is Toller. His usually nervous, haunted looking face bears a more relaxed expression and he smiles, reaching out to shake hands (as ever, I am reminded of trying to bring like poles of two magnets together)
“Hello! Well fancy meeting you here!”
“You’re looking well… Where exactly is ‘here’?”
I study Toller’s face for clues. He looks a little flushed, like he’s been drinking, or maybe it’s just the heat.
The heat… I start losing track of what Toller is saying, his words drifting off as my head swims… suddenly I feel faint, like it’s all too hot and hazy and I can’t… faint voices in the distance, “watch me as I unwind in droplets and flashes of tomorrow” – like going under anaesthetic, or… confused memories of hospitals, dying – dreams and conversations I haven’t had yet. The last thing I hear him say is:
“How’s your young man coming along?”
(It is to be remembered that the Ka usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death, and is the same sex as the subject)
This morning a note arrives from Toller: he’s just got back after being in Paris and then going down to Milan with Vogue, where they stayed at the Lake Como resort. He says he has something for me, something that we will need to continue…
I decide to ring and tell him about my dream, and about what I have been seeing in the mirror.
“We have six thousand million years to travel but where will it take us?” he says, not really expecting an answer. “So the Old Man and I drew in the nets…” He talks in his sleep (someone has taught him how.)
“Last night I dreamt that there was this voice trying to write a book in my head. All I had to do was write down what it said, like taking dictation, but it was going too fast…”
Unlike me he seems to have little trouble remembering his dreams (someone has taught him how.) 17
He is diagnosed with M.E., but not everybody even accepts yet that it is a ‘real illness’. The press joke about this new ‘Yuppie Flu’, which doesn’t help. There are endless delays concerning Brion’s Will, his Estate – French red-tape – and in the meantime energy levels are at an all-time low, friends are scarce, money is tight…
There was a conspiracy to wipe out Bedaya and myself… Of course they intend to do everything they can to stop me getting any of that money. But the whole thing is part of a bigger scene – a big power battle, to neutralise and assimilate a lifetime of psychic power into three-dimensional financial manipulative areas.18
I have troubles of my own: relationships unravelling, projects that don’t materialise – for me too money is tight, and my health also begins to suffer… Terry leaves town to avoid the Notting Hill Carnival, begins to spend time with his parents in Southampton. His father cannot understand how as a writer with three books in print he has no money. Terry can hardly get out of bed, browses Buchan and Charles Fort, lets daytime TV wash over and through him… all the old movies. The grandfather who I grew up with has a stroke, I have to drop everything and try and help out. We lose touch…
Terry later said of this time:
“…I found myself in West End, in Southampton, and I just became extremely receptive, as if everything I read or heard or saw on T.V. was streaming right through me…” 19
In 1992 I hear about The ‘Here To Go’ Show in Dublin, and although I am with them in spirit, I am not in a position to go anywhere. For me, the ‘Perilous Passage’ is over – and, for Terry, despite the apparent promise of those years – the ‘Irish Connection’ – new adventures across Europe, reunited with Phillippe, trips to North Africa – and the whole ‘crazy wisdom’ that would inspire The Nervous System – the underworld patron and sponsor he had inherited from Brion, James Kennedy McCann, is finally arrested on Conspiracy & Drug-Trafficking charges in Dusseldorf while they are travelling together, leaving Terry quite literally high and dry…
He assured me that everything would be okay… “As long as you have the strength to survive this initiation…” 20
His next book would not come out until 2004.
So, eventually, the book with the 16 year gestation and 3 separate titles – Perilous Passage, The Nervous System and The Universe In Other Words – finally sees the light of day thanks to psychedelic environmentalists Synergetic Press of Santa Fe, New Mexico, but the first limited edition barely registers – nowhere stocks it, you can’t get it online, and there aren’t even any reviews. Is it too late for The Other Method? Has The Third Mind become occluded from the Time Space continuum? Having lost my old address books, I have no way of getting in touch with Terry again, and no longer know anybody that would know him, how he is, or how to get in touch with him…
“Wilson has described Cut Up as a form of ‘exorcism’. A narrative illusion is broken and the end result is intended as an act of magic…” – David Darby
Do you think of writing as an act of magic?
Well, I think it is.21
One has to wonder what it is exactly that Terry was seeking so desperately to exorcise… At times he seemed to be a haunted man, but a man haunted by that which he himself has conjured up – continually attempts to conjure up – until he is like some strange hybrid of slightly displaced Son-and-Heir & Post-Modern Mariner who cannot help but tell his tale – except it isn’t really ‘his’ tale, or at least not his alone: like the Professional Widow, the tale which Toller tells is more about someone else than it is himself – even in his absence, Massa Bedaya-Brahim-Brion Gysin is still the main subject of Terry’s writing. And in one very real sense his most recent book is – like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – one long love letter, except that it is addressed to a ghost. After surviving his Perilous Passage, experiencing The Nervous System, and even discovering The Universe In Other Words, Terry Wilson as ‘Toller Whelme’ concludes:
“I simply did not remember Brion in the usual sense. To do so – to really remember him – requires an enormous effort of recapitulation because what he taught is not accessible to ordinary consciousness. The only way to reach him is to follow him there. What on earth really happened to me? What techniques? Where is everybody? Who can say? Not me.” 22
Tellingly, the ‘Introduction Dreams of BG’ opens with the following, a clue perhaps:
“It is important to know that the world is held together by unresolved contradictions.” – Brion Gysin
And finally, Coming To Now, In Present Time:
There is a second edition, hopefully more readily available. There was a Launch at The October Gallery, there are Reviews online, and Ian MacFadyen (who writes an Introduction to this new edition, again from the good people at Synergetic Press) has worked pretty tirelessly to help get the ‘circus’ back on the road – including a lengthy, in-depth conversation with Terry, ‘Cutting Up For Real’, which is sure to become the definitive statement. It actually explains more about Gysin, his ‘Other Method’, and Terry’s adventures than any of his books manage to do, and should be read alongside them, perhaps as a kind of key. It opens with a reference to the end of my 1988 interview with Terry ‘Soul-to-Soul’, concerning Irish Coffee and “the beginning of a new age” – but for some reason un-credited – so for me at least something has come full circle here.
It seems fitting to close with the words of the Master himself, which is of course in a way where it all begins. In Brion Gysin’s novel The Process, during a pilgrimage across the Sahara in search of Initiation, his narrator comes to the following realisation:
I alone of all these Assassins had ever been foolish enough to conceive of happiness… There is no friendship: there is no love. The desert knows only allies and accomplices. The heart, here, is all in the very moment. Everything is bump and flow; meet and good-by. Only the Brotherhood of Assassins ensures ritual continuity, if that is what you want and some do; for the lesson our zikr teaches is this: There are no Brothers.23
1: from ‘Who Are They? (Time after Time)’, p.78 of ‘D’ Train, Grapheme, 1985
2: from ‘Crossing the Border’, p.40 of ‘D’ Train, Grapheme, 1985
3: from p.51 of The Final Academy: Statements Of A Kind, 1982
4: David Darby – KA: An interview with Terry Wilson, Inkblot, 1986
5: Ian MacFadyen – note to the reissue of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
6: Matthew Levi Stevens – Operation Rewrite, Synapse, 1989
7+8: from ‘Introduction Dreams of BG’, Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
9: William S Burroughs, The Western Lands, Viking Penguin Inc., 1987
10: from ‘The Man From Nowhere’, p.49 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
11: from ‘We Are Very Close’, pp.46-7 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
12+13: from ‘Introduction Dreams of BG’, Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
14: from ‘Fire’, p.39 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
15: from ‘I Am Here… (?)’, p.63 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
16: Brion Gysin to William S Burroughs, towards the end, rue St Martin, Paris
17: Matthew Levi Stevens & David Lengui – The Speed of Light, Synapse, 1988
18: from ‘I Am Here… (?)’, p.60 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
19: Ian MacFadyen – Terry Wilson: Cutting Up For Real, Reality Studio, 2012
20: from ‘St Lazare’, p.15 of Perilous Passage, Synergetic, 2012
21: Matthew Levi Stevens – Soul-to-Soul: talking to Terry Wilson, interview 1988
22: from‘The Nervous System’, 10% File Under Burroughs, Sub Rosa, 1996
23: Brion Gysin – The Process, Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1969