Bonnie Bremser’s road book For Love of Ray gives a harrowing account of the effects of poverty on travellers. Poverty seems a necessary part of the authentic road experience, since it involves exile from mundane existence and steady income. Like Jack Kerouac’s mythic progenitors Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the duo around which the story revolves are penniless drifters on the road in Mexico. But Ray and Bonnie Bremser were newly married with a child, and so the text allows insight into their bohemian marriage. This article focuses on how the Beat path runs for the woman in the relationship, with differences becoming apparent when Bonnie begins to work as a prostitute in order to remedy their poverty. Continue Reading…
Archives For drugs
By Adrien Clerc
The story of the making of Taking Tiger Mountain is one of the strangest a movie-goer could possibly hear. It all started in the mid-seventies, when two friends, Kent Smith (director) and Bill Paxton (not-famous-yet actor) decided to make a film together, loosely based on the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty. They shot enough silent, black and white images in Tangier and Wales to make a full-length film, but hit a dead-end when it came to editing, and sold the footage to a friend, Tom Huckabee, who was still an aspiring filmmaker. Huckabee decided to leave the kidnapping story behind, and to think over the whole meaning of the images to make a conspiracy sci-fi movie. Huckabee’s Taking Tiger Mountain would be set in the apocalyptic world of Burroughs’ Blade Runner: a movie, and follow Billy, a young time-bomb assassin. Yes, it sounds crazy, and yes, it is.
In the following interview director Tom Huckabee goes back on the process that led to the making of the first feature with a Burroughs’ writing credit, and talks about feminism, LSD, Burroughs, and the future of sci-fi movies.
Hi Tom. Maybe we can start with the most simple intersection point… What interested you in Burroughs’ work?
The value of Burroughs to me was that he was on the fringe between acceptable and non-acceptable, that he was an explorer of dangerous worlds. There was a vicarious, transgressive thrill to his work in subject and form… the ideas were fun to think about because they expanded your mind, made the world larger, but just like acid, which was fun for eight hours, you didn’t want to stay there. My actual philosophy comfort zone is more with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tim Leary, William Faulkner, Hermann Hesse. I was never into opiates or boys, or noir, for that matter.
The idea you had – not to make an adaptation, but a movie set in the world of a Burroughs’ novel – is very interesting. Did it come to your mind before you saw Smith’s footage, or afterwards?
I saw Smith’s footage first in 1975. I may have heard of Burroughs back then but hadn’t read anything. In ‘76 I enrolled at UT Austin and probably started reading Burroughs then. I got the footage in ‘79 and looked at everything and logged it. There was 10 hours of silent non-sync 35mm techniscope, and its corresponding anamorphic work print. I started building scenes using the script they had which was loosely based on the J. Paul Getty kidnapping. There was no sci-fi element, no assassination, no prostitution, no feminism, or brainwashing. It was a dream film about a young American waking up on a train – with amnesia, maybe – who wanders into a Welsh town, meets a lot of people, has adventures, bad dreams, and then gets killed on the beach, or does he?
Once I had assembled all their footage into what seemed like a narrative flow, I started thinking about what the story could be. I didn’t like their story much, it was too languid for me, disconnected, but mostly they had only shot half of it and I knew I couldn’t go back to Wales. I’d been reading Burroughs and a lot of other avant-garde, transgressive, and erotic literature. Story of the Eye was a big influence. I started reading The Job. I got the idea that he was an assassin… and maybe the idea to set it in the future.
Other people were putting in their two cents and this mysterious guy named Ray Layton, who behaved like a cult leader, but only had one follower, and I think he paid her, was hanging around doing avant-garde theatre. He had the idea to make it about feminist terrorists brainwashing Billy…. and the prostitution camps. I don’t know who came up with the idea that he was a draft dodger.
I discovered Blade Runner and realized it was exactly the right kind of world, happening in America, while our events were unfolding in Wales. I lucked into finding a backer who promised $30,000, and that’s when it got real. I remembered seeing another short film that Kent and Bill had made; a thinly veiled homoerotic portrait of Bill, called D’Artagnan. I thought it could be used to represent Billy’s brainwashing. By then I’d acquired the MKUltra transcripts and was heavily into The Job.
It took at least a year to write the script to conform to the footage, which by the way was 60 minutes. I knew I needed 75 min. minimum for it to be a feature. So I built five minutes of dream sequences out of outtakes, including one where I threw the film in the air and put it together as it came down – cheating a lot.
I should mention that I was fairly regularly during this time, maybe once every one or two months, on acid, mushrooms, and baby woodrose seeds… this, added with all the experimental film I was seeing, and avant-garde and erotic and left wing and feminist political literature I was reading, kept my mind open to outré thematic and formal tropes… so, say, if a scene wasn’t working I could always run it upside down and backwards… Also by then I was thoroughly versed in MKUltra brainwashing, psychic warfare, so in that respect I think I was getting a lot of that independently from Burroughs, maybe from the same source he was getting it.
Then I wrote the opening scene and shot it… and started dubbing in dialogue. I forgot to mention Woody Allen’s Tiger Lilly as an influence. First I hired a lip reader to tell me what the characters were saying and many of them were speaking Welsh.
And you found a way to get in touch with Burroughs?
In 1980, the bass player of my band, The Huns, had an out of town visitor, Adam Somebody, who said he knew Burroughs. By then I knew I wanted the material from Blade Runner and what I would do with it. Adam said he would ask him about it and that part of it went down super easy after James Grauerholz got involved.
How did you become aware of the making of Ridley Scott’s, Blade Runner?
I was the one who alerted Burroughs that Blade Runner was the official title of Scott’s film… I was killing time in a book store where Burroughs was signing books, looking at movie magazines, when I came across a big spread on Blade Runner in Cinemafantastique.
We had just an hour before we finished watching Taking Tiger Mountain on a Steenbeck flatbed [editor], fast-forwarding through most of it but slowing down for the sex scenes, signed contracts… I think I handed them a check for $100.00 and we walked across the street together to the signing…
They had made no mention that the same book I was adapting, Blade Runner, might be used in some way, if just the title, for the basis of a mega budget sci-fi by the genius who had brought us the most popular film among punk rockers like myself: Alien. My jaw dropped… I walked it over to James [Grauerholz] and his jaw dropped. It heralded to them that there might be hope for them in Hollywood, after all. James didn’t appear at all worried at being ripped off. There had been talk about them using the name, and a price already discussed: $5000.00, which at the time seemed like a good deal to them.
That’s an amazing story! I’m a big fan of Alien too – in fact it was one of the first movies that got me interested in cinema. It’s one of these films that make the screen it is using bigger, larger; it creates a new dimension of space. I saw Blade Runnera few years ago when it was reissued for the big screen, and some of it is amazing, but I was a bit disappointed – and still am – by the fact that the narrative is very, very conventional. What do you think of Blade Runner?
I totally agree about Blade Runner. Too bad it doesn’t have just 10 percent of Burroughs, and I don’t think Harrison Ford is that good in it. Sean Young and Daryl Hannah are fabulous – and Rutger Hauer, the evil ruler, and the toy maker… in fact all the supporting characters are great, but Ford is just Han Solo. It would have been fun to see Christopher Walken in that role.
I had dinner with Ridley Scott and Bill Paxton one night to pitch a story idea of mine… I can’t remember if we even mentioned Taking Tiger Mountain-Blade Runner, probably not, for fear it could have derailed the pitch, which he didn’t buy, although his girlfriend thought he should. I’ve recently submitted my most recent script, a four hour mini-series about Timothy Leary to his production company, we’ll see!
Fingers’ crossed! Do you know if Burroughs and Grauerholz knew Scott’s movie wouldn’t revolve at all around the topics of his book?
I think they knew the script was based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? I think James had even read the script. I never saw the director’s cut, is it better? That sounds better to me… as the problem, like you say, was the conventional nature of the plot, which probably wasn’t helped by the pedestrian narration.
Yes the director’s cut is way better than the original one. I wondered about something, watching Taking Tiger Mountain. Were you aware, at the time, of Burroughs’ work with Antony Balch, movies like Towers Open Fire or The Cut-Ups?
I haven’t heard of either of those films.
Ok. Were you influenced by any other movies or filmmakers then, or were you just trying to create your own path?
Influences were all over the place since I was working with acquired footage and making it tell a story that it was not designed to tell. Things that spring to mind are Alphaville by Godard, everything by Kenneth Anger, every post-apocalyptic film that had come out by then, El Topo, The Prisoner TV series…. Maya Deren. Stan Brakhage. Buster Keaton. Stanley Kubrick movies. DušanMakavejev, Twilight Zone…. the young David Lynch. Truffaut, Passolini, Antonioni, Roger Corman, In the Realm of the Senses…. Robert Altman… John Boorman, especially Zardoz… Bruce Conner! Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow! Persona!
And outside cinema? Your movie seems to be heavily influenced by music.
Oh, yes, my tastes were punk rock… Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Talking Heads, but also the poetry of Jim Morrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cale, David Bowie and Brian Eno – in fact the film was already named Taking Tiger Mountain before I or Kent Smith had heard of Brian Eno.
The other influences were from books, arts and drugs, Burroughs’ complete oeuvre but especially The Job, LSD, Xerox art, Yoko Ono, psychological theory, Antonin Artaud’s, Theatre of Cruelty. Otto Muehl. Hunter Thompson. Minimalist art like Carl Andre, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol. Rimbaud, the Book of Revelations, Foucault… Jean Genet, Rothko… Man Ray and Duchamp… Cocteau! Eisenstein! Buñuel! Conspiracy Theory, Cattle Mutilations and The Anarchist Cookbook.
I was drawing on every avant-garde thing I’d ever known to try to make a horse race out of the footage Bill and Kent had shot in Wales… using every trick in the micro-budget, experimental, minimalist, transgressive handbook. It had its admirers back then, more now, but probably the best review I ever got was from Burroughs, saying, “I think ya got somethin’ there, kid.” That’s all he ever said about it that I know of.
I think he was right, you had something – the only problem was, I guess, that the “thing” it was. It’s not an easy-to-sell product. It’s interesting that you mention The Job. The makers of Decoderalso said it was Electronic Revolution that was the major inspiration behind their work, not the “fictions.” You were interested in the control theories that Burroughs developed; the power of the image and sound combination in mind-control?
Yes, of course, and Clockwork Orange was a big influence too, and the Kennedy assassination, Burroughs’ interest in Hassan-i Sabbah, which still interests me… sound frequencies that can make you vomit and whatnot.
Speaking of Hassan-i Sabbah, the way the woman’s group controls the mind of the character is directly taken from the old man of the mountain’s legend, isn’t it?
Well, actually, I think that’s a merger of Hassan-i Sabbah, the SCUM Manifesto, Manchurian Candidate, and MKUltra documents.
I love the idea of a cross-over between the SCUM manifesto and Hassan-i Sabbah! By the way, as you said you were influenced by The Job, were you interested in Burroughs’ views on women, the idea that they might came from another planet, that we should build two distinct societies, male and female…
I thought it was myopic and bigoted… stereotyping a whole gender, to me, was worse than stereotyping a race or religion. It stank of elitism, fascism… unenlightened… I saw it as a flaw in his character. So, maybe that’s something that is interesting about Taking Tiger Mountain, that it was equally influenced by Valerie Solanas, a militant man-hater, and also Burroughs, the polar opposite… something to offend everyone! I was pretty influenced by feminist thought, took a class in feminist art and literature, was sympathetic toward Valerie Solanas… About Burroughs, I was conflicted about the shooting of his wife, to say the least… I barely remember any female characters from his stories. When it comes to women, I’m much closer to Timothy Leary’s views than Burroughs’.
What about the homosexual undertones of the movie?
The homosexuality of Taking Tiger Mountain – in that it dovetails so nicely with the other Burroughsesque themes – was a happy accident courtesy of Kent. It dawns on me now how perfectly the feminist brainwashing group fits in with Burroughs’ views about women trying to control men. By then I was also thoroughly enmeshed in punk rock and its intellectual preoccupations. Genesis P. Orridge… situationism… ReSearch Magazine… The Clash…. turmoil in London, and all that went in the stew. It’s interesting to me that Orridge actually became a woman like Billy does at one point. The band that did my soundtrack, Radio Free Europe, was Texas’ answer to Throbbing Gristle.
You’ve said in your eulogy for William S. Burroughs that there will probably be Hollywood movies made from Junkie or The Wild Boys. Do you still think it’s a strong possibility?
Junkie, for sure….Wild Boys, yeah, it could happen. James Franco, the likely producer… he seems to be the patron of all things outré and literary at the moment.
Taking Tiger Mountainhasn’t been easy to see, to say the least, during all these years. Do you plan on releasing it?
I don’t know. There’s a young Turk in Dallas who says he’s going to pay to have a digital negative struck from the original techniscope which would mean that the film would look a lot better than it did on 35mm… He could use some encouragement, too, that he’s not the only one interested.
One of our readers, Devin Fahey, recently posted a link to the Beatdom FB page. The link was to a provocatively titled article in Bitch magazine, “A Great Artist Kills His Wife—Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in His History.”
The article itself is partly a response to reviews of Barry Miles’ excellent biography, Call Me Burroughs – a much-needed update on the life and times of one of America’s most controversial writers. The author, Leela Ginelle, argues that these reviews cite Burroughs 1951 killing of Joan Vollmer Adams as the most important event in the author’s life, while also pointing out that Miles calls the incident “clearly an accident” and that Burroughs and his fans have made it part of the author’s personal mythology.
Or, at the very least, something insignificant in the light of his literary contributions.
Now there is something to this. Ginelle is correct in pointing out that we overlook domestic violence in our male heroes. Indeed, we overlook flaws in many historical heroes. And were we to attack Burroughs alone, his late-60s misogyny is probably – in my opinion – the greater target.
Ginelle says that we need to “reevaluate” the incident. Well, the importance of Miles’ book – and my own, from last year – is that Burroughs legacy is being constantly reevaluated. The killing of Joan Vollmer Adams, however, is something that has been studied over and over. She goes on to suggest that Burroughs’ killing of his wife was a part of his apparently on-going domestic violence, and that we overlook this because he is “cool.”
Burroughs never shied away from his culpability in the killing of Joan, although legally he was let-off. He may have helped turn it into part of his mythology, but that’s more due to his lack of promoting the incident. For years it was too painful to discuss, and even later on it troubled him immensely. Besides, to suggest that it was cold-blooded murder is irresponsible.
There are many aspects to the case. For one thing, no one really knows what happened. Joan appears to have possessed a death-wish. She seems to have goaded Bill into playing William Tell. Does that let him off? No. It was still a stupid thing to do, an unnecessary risk. If she didn’t, then she agreed to it. It was a game, a party-trick, and thus an accident. He lived the rest of his life with the agony of having accidentally killed the woman he loved.
To suggest that his books don’t deserve their fame due to this event is absurd. Literature is literature, regardless. If Burroughs had killed her on purpose, out of spite, in a genuine act of domestic violence, it would still not detract from the artistic merit of his work, although it would certainly make him a less likable character – and he already had his flaws.
It’s an old argument. Should we value the work of a monster the same as the work of a saint? What people like Ginelle fail to observe is that there are no monsters or saints. There are a humans and there are – sorry, Bill, I know you always said the opposite – accidents. Look back through history. Our greats were full of flaws. That applies equally to men and women. To suggest that their flaws render their gifts meaningless is ignorant at best.
Now, as for Joan…
Is she a sidenote? Yes, sadly. By all accounts, Joan was a phenomenal intellect, a pivotal character in the formation of one of the 20th century’s most important literary movements, and a fascinating person deserving of more attention. But was she consigned to sidenote status because she was a woman? Did it happen because she was killed by her husband in an event that led him to literary glory?
Joan Vollmer Adams, brilliant though she was, did write great books. Like Burroughs, she got into drugs and went too far too many times. She was a free spirit, an embodiment of Beat. There are many male figures who remain sidenotes in Beat history, but we don’t ask why – it’s because they didn’t have the same output as Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. It’s not sexism, it’s just that to be a great writer, you have to, y’know, write stuff… and great stuff at that.
But unlike Burroughs, she did not become a great writer or artist. Had she written novels that changed the culture and law of the Western World, perhaps she might have had dozens of books written about her life. But she didn’t, and I don’t think that her untimely death made that so.
Perhaps it was sexism. Perhaps the male-dominated culture of the day made her feel she couldn’t write a book… But I doubt it. Joan was headstrong. She was a tough, independent, ferociously intelligent woman that did whatever the fuck she wanted, and unfortunately she went too far. If she wanted to write a book and publish it, she would’ve done, and the hell with anyone that got in her way. Her life is what Burroughs’ life could easily have been. He was unpopular, gay, an addict. He had his problems – more of them than most people will ever fortunately know – but for whatever confluence of reasons, his problems developed into literature, and Joan’s into self-destruction (and I’m talking about her physical and mental state prior to the shooting).
By all accounts she “deteriorated.” I note a trace of sexism in the biographies when they talk about her beauty fading. But in all aspects she was falling apart. Before her death she was a shadow of herself. She had fallen apart. She wanted to die. Perhaps had history gone differently – had the bullet taken a different flight – she may have lived to create, but we’ll never know. If she had shown no inclination until that point, it seems unlikely. Life was tougher on the female Beats. The movement was about freedom, and while the men had to fight for theirs, the women had a much greater struggle. But some people are artists, and others muses. It has nothing to do with gender, but in this case it was Bill who was to be the artist, and Joan the muse.
Ginelle is correct in observing societal forgiveness of “great men,” particularly in their treatment of women. For one rarely noted example, I would cite Hunter S. Thompson. His fanbase is similar in some regard to Burroughs’, and as such their is little condemnation of their sexist attitudes. But I think that in this case, Ginelle is arguing a silly point. Joan’s death was an accident, and it contributed to the rise of William S. Burroughs, the writer, but it was not an intentional act of domestic violence which consigned her to obscurity, and which is forgotten and forgiven by all.
So let’s cut it with the sensationalist headlines (clickbait, I believe is the new word) and meaningless criticism. If you have a feminist website and want to go after Bill, there’s plenty of material there to criticize. No need for this sort of trash.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is now generally considered a work of fiction. It is the work for which Hunter S Thompson is best known, for which he receives the greatest praise and parody, and about which the most debate exists. It’s the book that inspired a generation of wannabe Gonzo writers, sent idiots armed with quotations to hassle Thompson wherever he went, and made the author a public enemy and the biographer of modern America. It was his On the Road. None of his other books contained such excess, madness and brilliance. He incriminates himself, sends each and every reader into shock and fits of uncontrollable laughter, and sums up the death of hope for the American Dream as eloquently as any great writer.
It bugged Thompson to see idiotic kids running about in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes from long holders, pushing their poor imitations on MySpace forums and quoting passages from FLLV about bats and drugs… Suspiciously, only the quotes used in that unfairly derided movie starring Johnny Depp… It’s the book that hardcore Thompson fans pretend is their least favourite of his, but which was deservedly the book that earned Thompson his place in the canon of Twentieth Century American literature.
The creation of the book came with Thompson’s attempt to write an expose on the death of Ruben Salazar. In order to interview his source, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the two escaped the racially heated tension of Los Angeles and went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. The job was meant to be a simple process of writing copy to accompany a series of photos, but Thompson began writing notes for a book about the death of the American Dream. The Salazar piece was written for Rolling Stone, while Thompson wrote the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in his spare time. Sports Illustrated ‘aggressively rejected’ Thompson’s article on the Mint 400, which by the time he submitted it, had spiralled to ten times the desired word count.
The best way to understand the book is to read Thompson’s Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, as published in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Here Thompson describes his views on the book, stating the result was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.’ However, this doesn’t mean that Thompson necessarily viewed the book as a failure, but rather that he envisioned the literary genre of Gonzo, set out its principles, and then failed to achieved what he’d set out to accomplish. He wanted to record events exactly in his notebook, and then publish the notebook, much like he claimed to have done with the ‘Kentucky Derby’ piece. However, he ended up editing and writing frantically, and the result was the book.
The statement that the book was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism’ implies that he intended the book as purely journalistic, but that it failed. Whether it failed as journalism or as his particular and intended form of journalism is unclear. However, he precedes the statement of Gonzo failure with musings about Faulkner’s notion of good fiction being more true than journalism. Thompson argues that both fiction and journalism are ‘artificial categories’, and then gives up trying to explain, resorting to an explanation of his own hybrid theory of Gonzo. Certainly, the mention of Faulkner’s idea is a suggestion that perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a novel than a work of journalism, but that given the subject of the novel was the end of the drug decade and the American Dream, then the loosely autobiographical nature of the text qualifies the novel to a status of accurate depiction more appropriate and comprehensive than any work of pure journalism could have achieved.
So there we have the story of a journalist failing to report his story, written by a journalist failing to report his story, with the result being a novel more accurate than any journalism, and taking into account, and beautifully describing the state of the era and the death of an idea…
So then Thompson accurately described a generation, a time, an event, and a host of ideas. But the book itself was about the story of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo, based on Thompson and Acosta, going to Vegas to cover the Mint 400. How much of their bizarre and illegal actions actually occurred?
Certainly, the framework of the book was invented during Thompson’s rewriting of the original notes that he believed would be published raw and unedited as his intended version of Gonzo. Whereas he wanted everything as it happened, jotted down and accurate, he later resorted to changing the chronology of the events, having over a month of action crammed into a few days. For example, the race and the narcotic convention took place over a month apart, with the Mint 400 starting on Sunday 20th March, 1970, and the convention on 25th April. However, certain truths do hold up to scrutiny, as Debbie Reynolds indeed played the Desert Inn the weekend of the race. And his description of the topless dancers at the Circus Circus holds up to historical study, too. Thompson later stated, in his Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O’Rourke, that time in the novel was unclear and insignificant, and that moving the two events closer together really didn’t matter.
It’s very possible that Thompson invented much of the action and dialogue in the book, as any novelist would, to convey the ideas he wanted to convey and to entertain the reader. Two drug-addled maniacs on the loose in a city of people as depraved and ignorant as the maniacs certainly sets an interesting premise for an indictment of Las Vegas, and of modern American greed and affluence. At the same time Thompson was having his characters live out the dying days of the hippy generation, when drug use was widespread, and by having his characters embody the hedonistic madness, he could pass comment on the death of the sixties idealism.
Yet knowing what Thompson was like as man, it’s hard to believe everything that happened was fictional. Indeed, Thompson himself has never claimed the work to be entirely factual, but it was always a given that he used language to make things sound a little more exciting. He was notorious for showing off and getting in trouble, and while he probably created many of the incidents as foregrounding for the espousing of ideas, it’s unlikely that much was created solely in his head. In the BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, he says: Raoul Duke ‘was a vehicle for quotations nobody else would say… that was me really talking.’
Getting back to Thompson’s own explanation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s again hard to take anything as definite truth. The piece was written some six months after writing Fear and Loathing, and that was back in the days before fame and the security of being respected. Thompson’s credentials then relied on his talent, his intelligence, and his bad-boy reputation. It was the insanity that sold the copies, and the genius that got the reviews. Yet those were dangerous times, and admitting entirely to the actions contained within the book would have been foolish. He never denied nor fully owned up to what allegedly happened in Vegas. What he writes is about having fun in Las Vegas, suggesting strongly that he did do all the things Raoul Duke did, without directly reference any specific action. However, he then states ‘Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.’ This suggests either that the work was so obviously fictional and barely based on any form of truth that it would be idiotic call it journalism, or, more likely, that it would be foolish to own up to the realities of the text, but that Thompson didn’t mind implying that what happened accurately depicted.
Even twenty-five years on, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson is coy with his explanations of ‘the Vegas book.’ ‘”A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorised as “sociology.” As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.’
Certainly he sought some infamy after writing the text, first chastising the editors of Sports Illustrated for passing up his piece, telling them they had ‘set in motion a fantastic mushroom… When you see the fireball, remember that it was all your fault.’ Then he told the story of his rejection, repeatedly calling it ‘aggressive’ and changing the alleged desired word count and the number he supposedly sent the editors.
Thompson then sent his manuscript to Tom Wolfe, telling him it was largely written in ‘an all-night drink/drugs frenzy’ and later edited together in a hotel. Thompson then informed Silberman that he was not on drugs while writing anything to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that the book was rather ‘a very conscious effort to simulate drug freakout… I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.’ This is perhaps the most telling and convincing explanation of the composition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it allows us to combine the knowledge that we have of Thompson – that he was a crazed drug fiend and a professional and intelligent writer. He was professional enough to produce a book drawing upon his drug experiences as a front for exploring the Death of the American Dream, a theme he had been trying to write a book about for years. In the end, the chaos of the story became significant in itself, and one must wonder whether Thompson deliberately created or recounted the madness as a reflection upon society, or the loss of any meaning in that still-chased fantasy. Bruce-Novoa, claiming that Thompson’s work was essentially fiction, stated, ‘Gonzo fiction becomes a metaphor for the chaos of the American dream… [it] is fiction at work to produce that “truer reality” Faulkner sought.’ John Hellmann thought similarly of the comedy of the book: ‘The exposure of American values as self deceptions, has so long been typical of modern American literature, the search for those ideals can no longer be taken seriously.’ In other words, perhaps Thompson wrote his ridiculous parodies and comedies as a mockery, not necessarily on a person or group of people, but rather of the American Dream and American values.
Drugs certainly are what gained Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its notoriety. Those who know nothing of his work are aware of the book and the film and all the illegal substances. Yet only Thompson and Acosta knew the truth behind the story in regards drugs. We can pick apart names and places and dates, but the drugs are something different, and we are pretty much reliant upon later interviews with Thompson to gain and insight into how much of it was true.
In one sense, it’s all true, in as much as the book is about Thompson looking at the world around him, with a head full of drugs. His perceptions may have included hallucinations, but he recorded them as accurately as he could, and in that sense, what he saw was reflected in the book. He may have used comedy and exaggeration, but he wrote about what he saw and thought.
But did he take what he said he took, and does it matter? No, it probably doesn’t matter because he used drugs as a device. Indeed, they were instrumental in the creation of the book, but also a literary tool. Thompson claimed drug logic took him from LA to Las Vegas, propelled the story as one long act of drug logic, and then helped and hindered him in writing the manuscript. They provided the plot and the style of narrative. They acted as a view to the counterculture, and as a way of highlighting the nature of the non-drug taking world.
The important thing in Hunter’s life, actually, is seeing that great country… go down the drain. The drugs play a part in it, it’s only another way of twisting the mental image… Maybe he needed something to speed himself up, to keep going, I mean in a way as a kind of dedication, just in order to see what he wanted to see.
If we are to believe that Thompson and Acosta took massive quantities of various substances during their trip, which we should, then that brings us to the question of whether or not Thompson accurately reflected upon the experience. He told O’Rourke, in the Rolling Stone interview, that remembering and adequately describing a drug experience was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
This interview, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’ allows us perhaps the reliable source of information about book from the author, as so much time had elapsed since its publication that Thompson really had nothing to prove. He was established and successful, and had nothing to hide nor gain in revealing the truth. Whereas in the ‘Jacket Copy’ piece, he wished to boost his reputation, but also had to avoid bringing the wrath of the law upon himself and Acosta, here Thompson discusses the circumstances of its conception without such motivation.
When discussing how much was true and how much was fabricated, Thompson mentions ‘imaginary alligators’. Obviously such things were hallucinations, but they were, as O’Rourke comments, ‘real imaginary.’ That is to say, what Thompson saw may not actually have been there, but he saw them nonetheless, and wrote about them. Therefore he accurately and truthfully recorded a trip. His thoughts were wild and absurd, but he really did think them.
The actual physical drugs, as mentioned earlier, probably existed, but we must consider how much Thompson exaggerated or hid, and how important this is to the text. If he exaggerated for theatrical or comical effect, and the drugs were merely a device, then it’s not that important, but would certainly push the labelling of the book closer to the fiction category. But it’s hard to say for sure what exactly was consumed.
The book famously begins with unrepentant drug use, and soon sees the description of the drugs allegedly consumed throughout:
We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Thompson follows this description with the claim that all of it was collected in one night of furious driving around Los Angeles. Knowing Thompson through his work and the testimony of those that knew him, it’s easy to believe that he could have owned and consumed all of this, but it’s harder to believe that it was all gathered in one night. This claim sounds more like a method of setting up the story – an early introduction to the carnage and depravity. Whether it’s true or not, we know from reading this that the protagonists are heavy drug users, and in some kind of rush.
Thompson liked to set himself as a device within his writing, whether as a pillar of relative normality in Hell’s Angels or a lost and confused reporter in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it seems that he took a role similar to that of ‘The Kentucky Derby’ and added more drugs to reflect upon the world around him and the death of something that had for a long time been mired in drug talk. The drugs worked for him, and although he may not have advocated them to others, they were an essential component of his greatest book.
One of his most famous drug references was the passage in Fear and Loathing with adrenochrome. To see the importance of Thompson’s description upon the history of the drug, and the relative lack of knowledge surrounding it, one must simple Google it. There is very little known about the substance, and it remains uncontrolled in the United States. According to Terry Gilliam, director of the movie, adrenocrome was an invention by Thompson, and consequently both the book and movie portray a fictional drug. However, unknown to Gilliam, but presumably known to Thompson, the drug exists. Its effects, however, are known, and the method of its production is fictionalised in both the book and the movie. For a start, adrenochrone is produced not through the extraction of a human pineal gland, but rather through the oxidation of epinephrine. The effects of adrenochrome are also debated, as some scientists believe it to be hallucinogenic and others don’t. Perhaps Thompson heard of the drug through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
 Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador: London, 1979) p. 114
 F. Andrew Taylor, The City: In Search of Thompson’s Vegas, from vegas.com, 1997
 O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone, November, 1996
 Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood
 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt p. 116
 O’Rourke, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone
 Back of ’72 book
 Bruce-Novoa, J., ‘Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail’ MELUS 6.4 (1979) p. 43
 Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody’ p. 82
 Steadman talking in Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood
 ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’
 Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
 Gilliam, T., ‘Director’s Commentary’, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
 MacCarthy, Chim, Ind. Paris 55,435(1946)
Is this a punk flick? Maybe a beat-punk film? Celluloid where punk and beat meet? Characters are beat, get beaten, there’s a beat hotel, but a punk by any name is still a punk.
Drugstore Cowboy is a great little American movie set in 1971 with a soundtrack highlighting Desmond Dekker & The Aces “The Israelites,” jammin’ Jamaican beat. A perfect cast features a knockout cameo by William S. Burroughs playing a bony old junkie priest. Perhaps something about Burroughs the man can be gleaned from his film role. “That stuff’s for squares,” and coming from Bill, it’s brilliant and hilarious.
Bob (Matt Dillon), the dope fiend leader of his “crew” shoots straight when he says right at the start, “We played a game we couldn’t win,” but speaking of the prescription drugs he and his gang go to riskier and more and more dangerous lengths to steal “as long as it lasted, life was beautiful.”
Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
so that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.
And that’s what this family of junkie thieves does: their lives revolve about scoring dope, nothing else matters, get up, get dope, get high, get up, get dope, get high.
Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.
Aah, many are the darkly comic moments, particularly one with a beefy neighbor armed with a shotgun, and pearls from Bob’s mother and the drug counselor lady.
Crossroading, on the road, through tidy suburbs, sad cities, and the wide open spaces of the Pacific Northwest, Bob, his dissatisfied wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), Rick (James Le Cros), his mild-mannered partner, and young Nadine (Heather Graham), a hapless wannabe druggie, scrap with cops as they rob pharmacies and a hospital. These adults posed as children, want to play, play, play, but it’s play with big time consequences. Things get out of control when they have a corpse on their hands, and that’s when Bob decides it’s time to clean up, and finally concludes that the boredom of a straight life is not so bad.
After a storm there must be a calm.
They catch me in the farm. You sound the alarm.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.
But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac
The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.
It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.
But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.
As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.
Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.
His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.
The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.
When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.
Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.
Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.
Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.
Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.
Burroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.
With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.
Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.
At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.
When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.
In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.
It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low. Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.
The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.
Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.
Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”
Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.
By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.
The notion of Burroughs as a farmer – even an inept one – may not sit right with readers of his work, or those familiar with the history of the Beats. Yet before he was William S. Burroughs the writer, he was Billy Burroughs the farmer, and this period in his life – although largely overlooked by biographers – greatly impacted his literary output. When you look closely at his work, the short period he spent as a farmer in the late 1940s keeps cropping up, and yet it is glossed over in the biographies as though of little consequence. But Burroughs considered his time in Texas as some of the happiest days of his life, and during this period he developed the routines and heard the stories that made some of his best work. Even in his most famous work, Naked Lunch, the landscape of Texas is described with allusions to his own crossings back and forth in search of pharmaceuticals, and of course in Junky there are numerous references.
Burroughs grew up in St. Louis, and whilst he talked often of its red-light districts and skid rows, he also enjoyed the parks and the gardens, and especially going duck-shooting with his father. He enjoyed hiking and fishing, too, but he was not naturally suited to the outdoors. He was in many respects a spoiled child, disliked by other adults, and considered weak and pathetic. He was sent by his parents to the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, where the school song went, “Far away and high on the mesa’s crest/ Here’s the life all of us love the best!” and the boys learned camping, hunting, and fishing. Burroughs later claimed to have gained nothing from the experience except a hatred of horses, and especially hated that the school frowned upon reading as something “for sissies”, but it’s likely his life-long love of guns began here, and maybe even his interest in self-reliance.
At age thirteen, Burroughs read autobiography of Jack Black, You Can’t Win, and was captivated. “I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seeding rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat house and opium dens,” he said. From then on, it seems, Burroughs’ interests lay firmly within city limits, and for many years that’s where he remained.
The Beat Generation was in the early days an urban movement, set in New York City, among the neon lights and the fast paced life of the city. It played out in and around Columbia University between 1944 and 1946, with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs at the centre, alongside a cast that included – at various times – Joan Vollmer, Edie Parker, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and Hal Chase. Burroughs delved further into the criminal underworld than his Beat friends, exploring Times Square at night and planning to rob banks, living out his Jack Black fantasies. He fancied himself as a bit of an outlaw, with the government and society as his enemies. Later, Kerouac attempted to find solace in the mountains and forests of California with Gary Snyder, and Ginsberg sought serenity in nature throughout his life, but Burroughs has always been viewed differently. Less interested in nature than the supernatural, it’s easier to picture him in some seedy drug den than in the great outdoors, and as such his best writing explores the landscape of cities rather than mountains or forests.
In April 1946, the members of the Beat Generation began to move apart. Burroughs was arrested because of a forged prescription for Dilaudid and briefly imprisoned before his father bailed him out. His case was tried in June, and the judge gave him the worst sentence he could think of for an over-privileged young first offender: “Young man, I am going to send you home to St. Louis for the summer.”
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs ran into Kells Elvins, with whom he’d written “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” years earlier. Together they dreamt up wild get-quick-rich schemes, before eventually settling on the idea of citrus and cotton farming. Elvins already owned twenty acres of citrus grove by this point, having inherited the land from his father, but he was what is known as a “gentleman farmer” – he owned the land, watched the profits, and left the work in the hands of his immigrant laborers (known commonly as “wetbacks” or “wets”). At harvest time he had around two hundred workers picking what Burroughs’ claimed was $50,000-$60,000 worth of grapefruit. Burroughs’ parents were of the opinion that life as a farmer would be altogether more wholesome than letting him run around the city, and in June 1946 gave him the money for his fifty acres down in Pharr, Texas. “Fifty of the finest acres in the valley,” he called it, referring to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
During World War II, in an effort to keep the troops fed and clothed, the US government had pumped money into agriculture, particularly in areas like South Texas, where so called “Magic Valleys” allowed for year-round farming. The result was a boom in the industry, with men flocking to the land in order to make a quick buck. These were men like Burroughs and Elvins, who really knew little about farming, but were drawn to this macho pursuit, and the idea of sitting back on the ranch, shooting the shit as their men did the dirty work. Unfortunately for Burroughs, the war had ended before he made his move. Demand decreased and operating costs rose.
Later, in Mexico, Burroughs wrote his first novel, Junky. In it he speaks harshly of Pharr and the scams that brought “marks” like him to invest their money in what turned out to be a desert:
During the Twenties, real estate operators brought trainloads of prospects down to the valley and let them pick grapefruit right off the trees and eat it. One of these pioneer promoters is said to have constructed a large artificial lake and sold plots all around it… As soon as the last sale closed, he turned off the water and disappeared with his lake, leaving the prospects sitting there in a desert.
In 1987 he was telling a similar story in his novel, The Western Lands.
For Burroughs, this was no forced exile, and he certainly didn’t think he was the sort to be scammed. He always had a strong individualist mentality. In true Beat style, he disliked conventional society and the rules that it tried to force upon him. He wanted independence and self-sufficiency in his own private Wild West, where he could live by his own laws and not fear arrest for doing the things he loved (he returned to Pharr twice after drug busts). Rob Johnson, in his book, The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas, suggests that Burroughs was also interested in creating his own socio-economic system that, in spite of his overtly conservative views at the time (not to mention his scorn for Ginsberg’s political leanings), appeared startling socialist.
Joan, meanwhile, was stuck in Bellevue, back in New York, having suffered a breakdown. Leaving Elvins in charge of the farm for the first, but certainly not the last, time, Burroughs enacted some brilliant timing by arriving in New York on October 31st, just before her release, and whisked her off to his new farm. En route, they later claimed, their child was conceived.
Farming, however, was not Burroughs’ forte, and for a while he convinced himself that he could become a wildcatter and drill for oil on his land (which inspired the famous “oilman” routine in Queer). But although he took it seriously and attempted to study farming as he had done with numerous other subjects during his life, nothing ever went well for him. Still, to his credit, during his short time in Pharr, it seems Burroughs remained somewhat interested in the running of operations, even if the hard work was done by his immigrant Mexican laborers.
The farmer did all the actual work. Evans (Elvins’s name in Junky) and I would drive around every few days to see how the cotton was looking… There was no point in looking at the cotton since neither of us knew the first thing about it.
From the offset, Burroughs found that his own private Wild West was not really as free from the law as he’d imagined. For a start, the border patrol was beginning to step up activities against illegal laborers, and even deported some of Burroughs’ workers. He didn’t like the government telling him what he could and couldn’t do, and was even more enraged when they tried to dictate what crops he could grow. He was convinced that the government was doing the bidding of “big holders” – industrial farmers with a thousand acres or more – who were trying to squash the little guy. Ever concerned about systems of control, Burroughs worried about being a “mark” and about being conned and manipulated by powerful forces. In Junky, he wrote:
The Big Holders are the house, and the small farmers are the players. The player goes broke if he keeps on playing, and the farmer has to pay or lose to the Government by default. The Big Holders own all the Valley banks, and when the farmer goes broke the bank takes over. Soon the Big Holders will own the Valley.
In a letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs explained this point, naming the “Benson Brothers” as the local Big Holders. “They just sit, and slowly the Valley falls into their hands,” he wrote, evidently unaware of the irony that he himself was mostly a wealthy, absentee landlord. “They are the financial beneficiaries of the U.S. wetback policy.” By this, Burroughs meant that small sharecroppers could only afford to stay in business by using immigrant labor, and that by deporting or regulating this workforce, small-time farmers would go bankrupt.
He found life in the valley somewhat depressing, and he referred to it in a letter to Kerouac as “the valley of heat and boredom”. Joan was unhappy, too. She loathed the local country club crowd and probably yearned for even more seclusion that their middle-of-nowhere property provided. (Years later, in their biographies, Barry Miles and Ted Morgan both failed to place Pharr on a map, somehow placing it in East Texas, despite acknowledging its proximity to the border.)
Burroughs empathized with the artist John Haughton Allen, who said of the area, “The best way to see the Southwest is through the bottom of a glass.” He and Elvins would drink heavily. The people who knew him during this period of his life knew him as an alcoholic, primarily. Burroughs’ friends were equally eccentric and all seemingly shared his passion for guns and drink. His stories from that period are wild, to say the least.
Most people, though, seemed to view Burroughs from a distance. They thought him odd. “Retarded” is one description that Johnson was given in an interview with some Pharr citizens. These citizens remember a Burroughs that matches well with the image of Kerouac’s Old Bull Lee – of an anti-social but occasionally enthusiastic oddball.
A major benefit of life in the Valley for Burroughs was its proximity to Mexico, where he had access to boys. None of his neighbours appeared aware of his sexuality, but he made occasional trips to Reynosa, a border town, where he was outed and became known as Willie El Puta – or Willie the Queer. Despite this indignation, he was captivated by Mexico for such freedoms that were tolerated more than in America.
One problem that Burroughs faced in Pharr was that his visions for a farm didn’t stop with citrus and cotton. Although in the beginning he was writing letters to Ginsberg that claimed he would make ten thousand dollars mailing oranges around the United States as gift baskets, what he really wanted were vast fields of opium poppies and marijuana. Unfortunately, “the Valley” wasn’t in fact a valley, and the land was as flat as could be, with everyone able to see what he was growing. So in December 1949, only six months after arriving in the Valley, and only a month after arriving with Joan, Burroughs left Elvins in charge of the farm and moved to East Texas, on Winters Bayou, between Coldspring and New Waverley, 50 miles northeast of Houston. “Man, are we ever in Hicksville,” he wrote of the property which was at least a mile from the nearest road.
Its seclusion was bliss for Burroughs, who by some accounts couldn’t even get his jeep near the cabin and had to walk quite a distance. They were surrounded by trees – mostly hardwoods – and swamps. There were a lot of snakes and scorpions but the family could bathe and fish, with huge catfish inhabiting the swamps. The landscape pleased Burroughs, and reminded him of his Missouri childhood. Even Joan was somewhat happy out in the middle of nowhere, and was glad to be away from the snooty types they knew in Pharr. Burroughs described it:
It was heavy timber. Oak and persimmon, not too much pine. The kind of country that starts in Southern Missouri and goes all the way down to east Texas. There were raccoons and foxes and squirrels and armadillos.
Here, Burroughs had ninety-nine (or ninety-seven, depending on the source) acres of land, where he did indeed have the required privacy to grow what he wished. Not much grew in that red soil, including the opium poppies, but the marijuana worked out. Burroughs lived out his new life as a gentleman farmer quite happily, with Joan and her daughter Julie, and even Herbert Huncke living with them, running errands such as Benzedrine trips to Houston. Burroughs got himself a small hound dog, and patrolled his land with it at his heel, cutting wood and shooting things. There was, in fact, so much gunfire on the property that his neighbours believed the area to be a gangster hideout.
Burroughs also spent a lot of time at the local general store, which was – and still is – owned by the Ellisor family. Andrew and Arch Ellisor would stand around telling stories, which Burroughs greatly enjoyed. A number of odd little background stories in his books came from old men in Texas, and these ones eventually became significant in the creation of The Place of Dead Roads. Of course, in this novel the character of Arch was loosely based upon Arch Ellisor.
On July 21st 1947, Joan gave birth to Burroughs’ only son, William Seward Burroughs III, who was born addicted to Benzedrine, and had a difficult life from the beginning. He was just another part of the odd and ever-intoxicated Burroughs family.
Even as a farmer, Burroughs rarely went without his trademark suit and tie. He woke late, gathered his mail and the papers, and spent his days on the porch of their weather-beaten little cabin, reading stories to his disinterested wife. Joan for the most part tended to the children and made the food, whilst also famously scraping lizards off a tree with a rake. Huncke seemed to be the only one doing much work, as in addition to fetching drugs and alcohol from nearby towns, he also took the role of groundskeeper.
They all drank heavily and seemed to be continually high. They constantly had to search further afield for drugs and alcohol as they “burned down” their local supplies and managed to drink an entire county dry. Sometimes they had to go as far as Houston to score anything at all. Although Burroughs seemed to go through similar troubles wherever he lived, these particular adventures found their way into Naked Lunch.
Burroughs seemed genuinely happy during these years. Moreover, he appeared to take farming seriously. J.G. Ballard once wrote that Burroughs was “one of the least likely people ever to worry about a carrot crop,” but his letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg were always full of excited updates over the status of his lettuces and peas. He seemed always convinced about being on the edge of great riches. These details, however, are usually followed by stories of minor disasters like the weather (the Magic Valley that he was sold appears to have been a myth; winter freezes killed a lot of his produce) and unusual market fluctuations.
Back on his Pharr farm, the work was still being carried out by “wetback” workers, who toiled in awful conditions. Ginsberg let Burroughs know that he didn’t approve of the low wages these workers earned, who he believed should be guaranteed a minimum wage, and Burroughs himself seemed distressed by the labor brokers, one of whom claimed to have shot dead two wetbacks. In letters, though, Burroughs claims to have shared some of his wealth with the workers, causing suspicion among neighboring farmers. Still, Burroughs noted that he was ethically in a more dubious position than when dealing heroin in New York:
In short, my ethical position, now that I’m a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk. Now, as then, I violate the law, but my present violations are condoned by a corrupt government.
On August 30th 1947, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady arrived in New Waverly, having hitchhiked from New York. Ginsberg was enraged by the fact that Burroughs hadn’t prepared even a bed for them to sleep in, but helped Huncke, who’d offered to take apart the furniture in his own room to build a large bed for the two visitors to share.
Despite problems between Ginsberg and Cassady, and the shock of arriving to find nothing prepared, their stay was fairly pleasant. Cassady helped Burroughs fence-in the property and they all had long talks and walked endlessly in the woods. Eventually Cassady – who was tired of Ginsberg’s physical and emotional demands – convinced Allen to leave, and stayed on to help Burroughs with the pot harvest.
Neal drove Burroughs and the marijuana back to New York, where they struggled to sell it. Unfortunately, Burroughs knew nothing of how to cure marijuana and had mixed male and female plants, resulting in low-grade ditchweed. Eventually he managed to get $100 for the entire crop, and was glad to be rid of it. A few years later, he wrote in Junky, “Pushing weed looks good on paper, like fur farming or raising frogs.”
In New York, Burroughs picked up another junk habit, and spent January 1948 in rehab at Lexington, Kentucky. In May, believing that “Farm work is the best cure [for junk sickness],” Burroughs attempted to return to Pharr and purchased forty additional acres of farmland. On the way to Pharr, however, he and Joan were arrested somewhere between Pharr and New Waverly for having sex by the side of a road. “Things very uncool in Texas,” he wrote Kerouac. Burroughs had been drunk at the time and consequently lost his license. It was decided that the family would move out of “Hicksville” and take residence in New Orleans, selling the East Texas farm and keeping the one in South Texas (which was still being run by Elvins, or rather by the men that Elvins employed).
It was in New Orleans that the family was visited by Kerouac and Cassady, and forced to play host to Helen Hinckle, in days that were retold in On the Road. Burroughs later bemoaned the description of him and his home given by Kerouac in his classic road novel. When Kerouac visited, Burroughs was “living in a little house laid out like a railroad flat and raised up on the marshy lot by concrete blocks.” He didn’t even have a front yard. What Kerouac appeared to be describing was Burroughs’ farm in Pharr, a description presumably gleaned from their letters and from Cassady, who Burroughs claimed could exaggerate worse than Kerouac.
It was in New Orleans, too, that Burroughs got back on heroin, was arrested, and decided to flee from the United States. His dabbling Texas and Louisiana had informed him that true freedom could only lie south of the border. In April 1949 he returned once again to Pharr after trouble with the law, knowing that its proximity to the border would allow him a chance to escape should he need it. It was the frontier, America’s last Wild West, and yet it was not far enough for Burroughs. This time around he felt the Valley was hotter and duller than before, claiming that it was virtually free of “life force”. He sold his land to Kells Elvins and left in October. “What a relief to be rid of the U.S. for good and all,” he wrote Kerouac from Mexico City, “and to be in this fine free country.”
Although various sources claim that Burroughs was finished with farming from the moment he realized how much of a failure his marijuana crop had been, it appears that his interest had not entirely vanished, and certainly the memories were significant moments in his development. Burroughs planned to get into ranching in Mexico, but it turned out that this country lacked such freedom and he required a Mexican business partner. Still, he wrote to Ginsberg that if he managed to buy a ranch, it would bring him “unlimited opportunities.”
It was in Mexico City that he killed his wife and became a writer, and evidently farming and Texas were still on his mind during this period. There are numerous references littered throughout his first novel, Junky, indicating that Texas was not an unimportant phase between New York and Mexico, as seems to be suggested in most books about the Beats. Interestingly, a section describing South Texas was cut out of Junky because, according to Allen Ginsberg, “agricultural society was not germane to the funky harsh non-literary subject matter,” and only restored in the 1977 edition. Maybe farming wasn’t hip enough for his readers.
Later, in Peru, during his exploration of the South American jungle, Burroughs found himself decidedly turned off when stuck in a small farming town. ”Farming towns are awful,” he wrote Ginsberg. Yet he also wrote about his colonial fantasies: “You live like a king on a ranch while you are making $.” In Ecuador he yearned to live off the land once again, his fantasies of self-sufficiency and life as a farmer apparently overwhelming the reality of his failures.
Lee’s plans involved a river. He lived on the river and ran things to please himself. He grew his own weed and poppies and cocaine, and he had a young native boy for an all-purpose servant.
During his life, Burroughs developed passing interests in ecology and environmentalism that probably had their seed in those farming days, as he viewed the disappearance of the Wild West and difficult of maintaining isolation. He may not have spoken as clearly in favor of the environment as the likes of Gary Snyder, but throughout his body of work he clearly states that humans have ravaged the planet, and there is a definite sense that the cities and the influence of humanity are creeping outwards and consuming all that is natural. Ghost of Chance deals quite firmly with environmentalism and ecology, showing how people spread like a virus and destroy everything that they come in contact with. In it, a pirate, Captain Mission, “threatened to demonstrate for all to see that three hundred souls can coexist in relative harmony with each of their neighbors, and with the ecosphere of flora and fauna.” A humorous essay in The Adding Machine, called “The Great Glut”, jokingly attacks “ecologists, as well as Allen Ginsberg” for caring about the environment, before suggesting that all excrement and even human corpses be utilized as fertilizer. His descriptions of the vegetables that would result from such farming techniques mirror his earlier excitement about his own crops: “potatoes as big as watermelons, carrots six feet long, artichokes the size of washtubs.”
Burroughs remembered his time in Texas right into his final years. His last journal entries mention his days there, and his last ever story was about one of his neighbours in New Waverly, Arch Ellisor, who becomes a true Wild West character and flies in the face of the law, before shedding his skin and becoming Pan, god of the wild, and of nature, and of mountains and forests. Perhaps this story shows how much Burroughs came to romanticize his life in Texas near the end of his life.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
It’s been a hell of a year. Three great issues of Beatdom – covering sex, drugs, religion – and two fantastic novels. We hope that you’ve all had a brilliant 2011 and that you enjoy every minute of 2012 (until the Mayans rise from the dead and slaughter us all).
Words by Michael Hendrick; Illustration by Waylon Bacon
When considering the implications of the affects of drug use on the writing process, it is important to bear in mind that both William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary opined that there is no affect achieved by the use of drugs which cannot also be altered without the use of drugs, by the mind itself.
When considering the affect on the artistic and creative processes, we should examine the process without or before the introduction of mind-altering substances. The intent is not to be tricky or clever, rather to evoke specific feelings. Words describing color, texture, scent, mood and motion pinpoint emotional ‘cues’ in the reader. Linguistic genomes, these cues exist in a code which is ingrained onto vocabulary by history of usage. A writer reads this genome in much the same way a chemist looks at the Periodic Table.
Here we touch on the philosophy of Alchemy. The medieval belief and meaning of the word had to do with the transformation of base metals into gold. Carl Jung took this as a simile referring to human psychology and the transformation of self into a being of awareness, the transmogrified persona being the gold in the equation. The Philosopher’s Stone became the symbol for this power to transform. It is a Holy Grail of sorts. (Bob Dylan took on the role of Alchemist in the unreleased 1978 film Renaldo and Clara. The inherent alchemy in the music of Dylan led to a number of generational changes, some obviously, others with much more subtlety.) To possess the Philosopher’s Stone is to possess the power of Art and a portal into the Universal Mind. This is where the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as achived by Rimbaud and his ‘rational disordering of the senses’ through intoxicants.
If you buy the concept of writer/artist as alchemist, you can see that, in some cases, transferring emotions through images from one brain to another is the stuff of Art. It is also the manipulation of the hypothalamus, the brain center through which words create an altered state, a personal and shared dimension.
This type of work divines the writer from the Poet, the scribbler from the Artist. Some writers produce reams of words without a hint of emotional evocation. Recounting events is an important function but is not a job which aims to touch the spirit. They convey images but attempt no emotional connection. There is always a place for good non-fiction.
With the organic capacity to create an altered state in place, the introduction of drugs to the process could be boon or bane depending on the drug. Lenny Bruce famously shunned marijuana but used amphetamines extensively. “The reason I don’t smoke pot is because it facilitates ideas and heightens sensations and I got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot,” he once said.
We find it interesting to note that Ayn Rand shared Bruce’s proclivity for Dexedrine, which obviously helped her pump out such doorstopper-sized volumes as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. As diverse as they were, the ideas and feeling of both Bruce and Rand still serve as touchstones in today’s world of politics and entertainment media.
Often, scribbled hallucinatory revelations turn out to be more hallucination than revelation and cryptic notes found the day after become nothing more than humorous puzzles for the writer to try to unscramble. There is no doubt that different drugs achieve various results on creative output. Then there is the distinction between work which results as a byproduct of a euphoric experience and the way it is interpreted by one who is not familiar with altered states. If the result of the creative work cannot be appreciated to the same extent by all savvy readers, it is useless puffery.
From personal experience, we relate the following and leave any judgement of merit with the reader…
In the Winter of 1980-81, a particular variation of LSD, called Vitamin Ohm, made the rounds in the Northeast United States. It was potent and cheap. At the time, I found myself employed by Holiday Inn. It doesn’t matter where the hotel existed, since they are all generic – or were at the time. As groundskeeper, my job only became busy after storms so I often helped the ‘convention set up crew’ move tables and chairs around in meeting rooms. The knowledge required for the task was simple.
There were three types of tables; the round tables came in one size, the long tables were either six or eight feet in length. We would receive a plan showing how many of each size table was needed, how many folding chairs went to each table and how they should be placed. The plans were given to us by a short, balding Italian man, obviously of retirement age, named ‘Ned’. Ned had a quirk. He started all conversations the same way. “Hey,” he would say, unerringly, “How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me…” This preface was never skipped.
Fetching tables and chairs, a mindless task, allowed a lot of space for the mind to roam. Most frequently the mind roamed to how much longer until it was until I could go home. The work was easy but the days were long. Nobody ever asked me any questions or gave me orders, except old Ned. Long before the Holiday Inn, the benefits of using LSD to make workdays pass more quickly were not unknown to me. Small doses, not enough to cause hilarity or deep intoxication, could make a day fly by. It usually only took a quarter of a dose to make this happen.
One late morning in January, facing an extra-long day, I took a bit more than my usual workaday dosage. About 45 minutes after ingestion, the acid hit my stomach, sending me to the men’s room to evacuate my bowels. Forcing out a stool while peaking on a hallucinogen is one of the purest ways to know the quality of a substance. Staring at the closed door of the toilet, little specks of color burst like a carnival of flashbulbs while the dead sound of the tiled walls led to the awareness that my breathing became the only noise heard…until the distinct sound of the door opening forced me to attention.
From the toilet, the stall door still did it’s rainbow tricks. Sitting with a wad of tissue in my hand, the solitude of my humming brain suddenly was encroached upon by the appearance of a bald, head with grey hair and male pattern baldness as it oddly poked through the eighteen-inch space between the privy floor and the door to my stall.
“Hey! How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me,” he said. This had never occurred in my life before. No person had ever visited me while on the public toilet, although a few perverts had tried in other public pissoirs. “I want you to go to Room 205 and help Larry set up. Stay with him today. Do you hear me?” How could I ignore him? Of course I heard him. It was just another of his rhetorical questions. “Sure, Ned,” I managed, “You bet!”
And like that he was gone to the sound of the door opening and closing. ‘Christ,” I said to myself, “was that a trip in itself or what?”
Larry, a meth-head who worked there for a long time before I did, also liked Vitamin Ohm and we would often trade meth for acid. He watched my back and, as the new guy, I appreciated it.
Finding him chatting up a waitress near the kitchen entrance, I told him Ned had sent me. “Okay,” Larry told me, “We have an easy day. Take a break and wait for me in 306. I’ll be there in a while.” The good thing about hotel jobs is that there are always some empty rooms to hide in and you are given a pass key to all rooms, as an employee. We could disappear for hours and not even go anywhere, so I went to 306, which was a small room, used only for meetings of twenty people or less. It was empty, with the exception of a long leather sofa, a round table and two chairs. On the table were some complimentary pens and sheets of Holiday Inn stationary.
Glad to have a break, I sat on the sofa while the walls undulated around me.
Suddenly words started forcing themselves into my head. They were coming from within…a poem! Looking around, the paper and pens presented themselves on the table so, taking a folding chair, I grabbed a pen and wrote this, in its entirety:
What is true as a razor?
Taut as a wire?
What born in the embers, endures in the fire?
What is painful as lightning?
Or the thunder that drums?
What is soft as a lullabye, barely hummed?
What beating, what driving, what pounding, what pushing?
What sleeping, what dying, what whispering, purring?
What trembles with fissures and threatens to quake?
What slips with the fog on the cool of the lake?
What is it the baby finds in its lungs?
What leaps in the heart of a deer as it runs?
What do I crave in the red of the night?
What burst from within at the moment I write?
Somewhat astounded that the words on the hotel letterhead were there, I reread them and smiled. Larry knocked twice (our signal) and opened the door. “I’ll be back down in a few minutes, just take a longer break, “he said. That was fine with me. Once he left, though, the feeling of the LSD still coursed through me, making my fingers tremble. My body felt strange. I could feel my pores. Most of all, I felt the drug in my stomach. A cigarette smoker at the time, I coughed to clear some phlegm from my throat. It was not a healthy feeling. It felt like there was a lunger, or a tumor on my lung. It gave me the creeps. Along with the creeps, more words came to me. I grabbed another piece of paper and sat down at the table and the words spilled out again, just like before, with no thought involved. I wrote…
It’s a very subtle sickness
That comes tugging at my sleeve.
It’s a whistle and a dry cough
In the wind.
It’s a cold chill with a twictch
It’s a gnawing from within.
It’s an echo in the evening
Which resounds from under eaves.
It’s a cool and frosty taste,
A lifetime born to waste.
It’s a nervous kind of feeling
And a sinking sort of grief.
It’s a red dog on my heels.
That’s exactly how it feels.
It’s a ghostly cloud of quiet and it offers me no peace.
This had never happened to me…not like this. I had written poems and songs that came to me all in one shot, the songs with melody intact, as I rode the bus or did some other activity which left my mind open to outside images. I had no explanation for it but this was the first time it had resulted in two distinctly different poems. One next to the other on the top of the table, I stared at them and wondered if they were any good or not.
Again, the door opened – this time without a knock. It took me by surprise but it was only Kenny, one of the Holiday Inn maintenance crew. “Hey, Larry said to tell you to wait here. He is on the way,” he said. Kenny was alright but he was a loser. He was saddled with a bunch of kids and a half-toothless wife but he still managed to have an attitude which annoyed me. He always wore clothes which carried the Harley Davidson emblem, even though he did not own a motorcycle. He had a wallet which attached to a chain that hung from his belt, like real bikers wore. I knew real bikers and they didn’t even wear as much Harley gear as Kenny did.
“Okay, Kenny,” I offered as he was pulling the door closed, “Thanks.”
Then, it rushed over me again. The motorcycle gear had sort of pissed me off.
Another sheet of paper, and the Muse slapped me again…
I wish I could say something
For your leather jacket clique
For the vomit in your greasy hair
And dangling chains that ‘clink’.
For the precious blood you love to see and your children born to hate
For the ignorance you brandish and your lusts which cannot wait.
Were yours upon a pole,
You’d pluck it down and smash it in
Your sweating, grinning hole!
This made me laugh. Just the last lines about ‘individuality’ made me laugh out loud. Good or bad, that line had to be a good one…or was it? Personally, I still kind of like it, upon last reading it. Larry appeared at the door and looked sheepish. I think he was fooling around with a waitress in a vacant room. It was time to set up the conference room, he told me.
I took my three sheets of stationary, put them one on top of the other, folded them and stuck them in the buttoned pocket of my brown Dickeys uniform shirt. Larry watched me but did not ask about the papers. He could tell my condition by the size of my pupils and had seen the writing on the three sheets. I had the impression he was surprised that I was able to spell my own name with such wide pupils. We stepped into the hallway and the door to Room 306 closed behind us. The next thing I remember was hearing, ‘Hey! Larry! How you doing? Come here. I want to tell you something. Now listen to me.”