George Laughead: Malcolm, you knew William Burroughs before he came back to the USA in the 1970s - a much younger Bill, and still living with Brion Gysin - can you tell us about the daily life of William during his days in London? How he found you?
Malcolm McNeill: Bill was 56 when I first met him - on Duke Street in 1970 - I was 23. We’d been working on the magazine Cyclops together and after it folded he called to suggest we finally meet one another. It was the start of a long friendship. The last time I saw him was at the Robert Berman Gallery in Los Angeles, in 1996.
He lived in two different apartments at the Duke Street building; the first with Brion, the other with his odd partner John Brady. I visited him many times in both while we were working on Ah Puch is Here. Brion was around some times, but since the visits were mostly work related, he tended to chat for a while then make himself scarce. Even when they were both there, one thing that struck me was that the place was always silent. No radio, no TV and certainly no record player. Just me, and Bill holding forth in his jacket and tie.
GL: William Burroughs’ and your comic series The Unspeakable Mr. Hart is really great stuff, new to me - not well known. How did William and you start that? Why haven’t we heard much about it before?
MM: I started Cyclops during my last semester of art school in 1970, with International Times editor Graham Keen. Keen convinced Bill to contribute a strip and The Unspeakable Mr. Hart was the result. He’d shown him the artwork of the available artists and Bill had apparently pointed at mine and said "I’ll work with this guy."
The Unspeakable Mr.Hart: Cyclops #4, text by William Burroughs; art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1970
I didn’t know anything about him at the time, hadn’t read anything he’d written and didn’t even know what he looked like. Keen handed me a couple of paragraphs of text each month and I did my best to figure out what it meant. There was no interaction between us at all. I asked Keen if I could talk to Bill, but for some reason it never happened. It was a surreal arrangement. The comic folded after only four months - which was a pity because whatever it was I was doing, I felt like I was getting better at it. Despite its short life, it is significant that it’s not mentioned in the official WSB press kit, particularly since he also collaborated with illustrators Bob Gale and Steve Lawson on other word/image projects. Completed or not, this work represented a distinct area of experimentation during his later London period. Plus The Unspeakable Mr. Hart subsequently developed into Ah Puch is Here which was an unprecedented, full-blown word/image novel.
GL: Since you were a non-gay, non-beat crowd artist at the time, how did you ‘fit’ into the London Burroughs’ scene? Was that tough?
MM: It was rare that there were other people at Duke Street when we were working, but when it happened, they were invariably gay guys- Anthony Balch, Ian Sommerville, Michael Portman etc. It was a novel situation, but then everything about Bill was new. Their reactions to an obviously straight guy in their midst ranged from vague indifference to mild hostility. Since these encounters were brief, it wasn’t really ‘tough’ as such. Being around Bill by contrast was a breeze. He was always a gent. From his mannerisms he didn’t come across as gay at all. But then again, drawing hard-ons, going to movies to admire hard-ons and talking about them all afternoon couldn’t help but introduce a little tension. He came on to me a couple of times. Both times when he was well lit. Saying “no” to the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’ wasn’t easy given what was at stake, but he took it OK and Ah Puch kept moving along.
GL: Was Ian Sommerville still around William when you knew him in London? Seems like John Brady was also one of William’s boyfriends during that period. What were those relationships like, if you know?
MM: Ian was around, though like I said, I rarely saw him. It wasn’t so much that these guys were gay, but the fact that they were older and had a lot more experience with Bill than I did, simply made it a bit awkward. Ian was also a smart computer-head which, for a twenty three year old art kid back then was difficult to get in-sync with. I remember him in Bills’ rickety elevator one time, dismissing my questions with: "It’s all about zeroes and ones my dear!"
John Brady - the "Sailor" as he described himself - was a whole other story. He hardly talked at all. It just wasn’t his forte. The place always felt dull and claustrophobic when he was around and he usually left when I showed up. Bill once remarked that "sex wasn’t a time for laughter." I’d wondered what that kind of sex might be like. Johnny the Sailor seemed to offer a clue.
"A tornado of vigilantes sweeps up from the bible belt" (The image the FBI called "Frightening") from Ah Puch Is Here art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1975
GL: Your artwork with William for Ah Puch Is Here is not well known - was not published in the 1970s - how did that collaboration between Burroughs and you work? His text, your art - was it an on-going creation, or what?
MM: Once Cyclops folded I figured that was it. But then Keen called and told me to expect an important phone call. That afternoon, for the first time, I heard the remarkable voice of Mr. William S. Burroughs. "I want to meet the guy who knows how to draw me" he said and insisted we meet. Given that I didn’t really know what I’d been doing for the past four months, it was an odd statement. As it happened though, he was being literal.
The character I’d designed for The Unspeakable Mr. Hart did look uncannily like a younger version of Bill. Sufficiently alike enough to make him want to call me. The fact that I’d drawn him without knowing what he looked like, (if I had, I would hardly have drawn him as the villain) introduced a galvanizing element to our working relationship which would continue to grow over the next ten years: images and words going back and forth and manifesting odd, temporal, real life anomalies. The most significant of which would occur years after Bill was gone. Given that Ah Puch is Here was a consideration of various aspects of death, this anomaly was significant enough to convince me to write an account of the process that led to it. This is the reason why, after all this time, the website of the artwork has finally appeared.
Bill and I decided on a full length word/image novel almost immediately. At the time he had written only eleven pages of text - still titled The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. Then after a trip to the British Museum, we ordered a copy of the Dresden Codex and the book began for real. It was re-named Ah Puch is Here after the Mayan Death God and much of the eleven pages were discarded. It was a daunting prospect, not the least because I also had to try and understand who Bill was. In the first meeting he’d introduced me to the Reactive Mind, Reichs’ Orgone theories, Randolph Hearst, "Nigger Killing" sheriffs, Mugwumps, the CIA, the Algebra of Need and a whole lot of other stuff I knew next to nothing about. I knew right away I was in at the deep-end, but of what, I had no idea. In time I realized I’d even got that wrong. ‘Deep’ in conventional space/time orientation implies that there’s some kind of bottom!
In a sense, not knowing anything about Bill was my greatest asset. If I’d had any inkling, I would have been intimidated to say the least. On the other hand, I had to devise a methodology for creating a book form that really had no precedent and hadn’t yet been written: some pages of text, some of image and some of image and text combined. Bill Burroughs’ text at that! And finally there was absolutely no money at all to do it. Some would come, about a year later and then it was only enough for a few months sustained work. Somehow however the project managed to move forward and we persevered on and off for over seven years. It brought me to San Francisco in 1974 and then New York in 1975, where it was finally abandoned two years later (eleven pages were in fact published in Rush magazine in late 1976). Considering the emotional and creative investment involved, failure was a difficult thing to reconcile. I stuck all the artwork in a flat-file and essentially did my best to forget about it. It stayed there for almost thirty years.
"Day is Done" from National Screw Magazine; text by William Burroughs, art work by Malcolm McNeill, © 1977
GL: Since those days, you’ve done much other art - including Emmy award winning television work and film work. Did you stay in touch later with William? Did your work with him effect your later art? And, in light of the 10th anniversary of his death in August 1997, what were your thoughts on hearing that news?
MM: Bill gave me his loft on Franklin Street in ’76 when he moved to the Bunker. Naturally I continued to see him and even illustrated other texts. When he moved to Kansas, the good old days of just stopping by for a visit necessarily came to an end. I was also a first time new parent in 1979, which created a whole other set of priorities (Bill did volunteer himself as my sons’ Godfather before he left).
Ah Puch Is Here was the formative creative experience of my life without question, beginning as it did at the end of art-school. And having Bill as a one-on-one mentor for all those years was a unique privilege. I gained insights into his personal life and working methods which could only occur during a collaboration such as Ah Puch and they fundamentally influenced my own sense of word and image making. The underlying design of the book had been a continuous panorama. One that, like the Mayan Codices, could be ‘folded’ and viewed conventionally page-by-page or holistically as a single image. Working on random areas of this overall strip, rather than sequentially, encouraged a non-linear time methodology corresponding to the time-travel motif in the book.
In combination with Bills’ uncanny prescience as a writer, the result was an ongoing series of real-life temporal quirks that were unique in my experience and these seemed to vindicate his convictions regarding the inherent magical quality of word and image. It clearly demonstrated their combined ability to "make it happen." It was the aspect of Bill that impressed itself on me most and the one that continues to really effect me still. Seven years after he’d gone, one such event - and unquestionably a most remarkable event at that prompted me to dig up the artwork again and produce a written account of the time I’d spent with him. As far as his anniversary is concerned, Bill and "Ah Puch" are integral to my world view. A means to a means as it were, not an end. As I hope my book shows, They are always Here.