Shooting Joan Burroughs
by George Laughead
[Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs at home in Lawrence, KS, during 1997. From Beat Fools: James Grauerholz and Me--40 Years of Weirdness. It all started when I was James Grauerholz's teacher in Fall 1970. He was a freshman student in my "Electronic Media and Society" class, the first at the University of Kansas to use a William Burroughs book (Nova Express, 1965) as required reading. James Grauerholz went on to become William's boy. It has been confusing ever since. William Burroughs died August 2, 1997.]
"Do you believe in UFOs?" William S. Burroughs asked.
The effect of vodka & Cokes, while already being stoned from the joint I rolled at William's request - "I'm old - my thumbs don't work" - made William Burroughs' voice, that most famous low-growling voice, hard to understand.
We had been talking in William's bedroom while I worked, sitting at his one-drawer wood desk, looking out at the backyard fishpond and his Reichian orgone box. The nervousness of being around William increased due to his reading out loud from Mario Puzo's The Last Don.
"He wanted blood. He cut the guy to pieces. He cut off his cock and nuts and breasts.... He enjoys doing it and that is very dangerous for the Family...."
"That's power," William stated, then read on. From William Burroughs' mouth, Puzo is fucking alarming.
Pointing to a painting on his bedroom wall, he asked, "Do you know who that is?" The photograph, in the center of William's painting, was of Samuel Beckett.
"Yes. What a writer," William said.
"Did you ever meet him?" I asked.
"No, never did." Odd that when William woke-up each day, he looked at Beckett, hanging over piled-up books. I noticed that the Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac was on top. So much history in one corner.*
And books everywhere, cases of books, piles of books. William's bookshelves, each by a comfortable reading chair, held a range of subjects and authors. The dining/TV room books seemed to focus on the mystical, in addition to many versions of William's and his friends' works and biographies.
Budge's books The Mummy and Ancient Egypt, were on top with a carved coconut monkey, small gargoyles, potions in bottles, a cat-type skull, and a small stuffed alligator. The other books included the Allen Ginsberg biography Dharma Lion, a German-version of William's Cities of the Red Night, his My Education, Naked Lunch and others, in different languages, Samuel Beckett's and Joseph Conrad's biographies, Dr. Timothy Leary's The Game of Life, and Victor Bockris' Lou Reed biography. Books on guns and knife magazines and more books.
Back to the question about spacemen. "What?" I nervously asked, now sitting at his small dining table.
"U F Os," Burroughs yelled. "U F Os. Do you believe in UFOs? I do."
It was March 26, 1997. James Grauerholz, Burroughs' secretary and editor, was in the kitchen with Daniel Diaz, cooking dinner. Before I could answer with clichés about spacemen, Dan joined us at the small dining table. He had moved to my house to finish high school, leaving an abusive parent in St. Louis - a mother that had tried to kill him twice. William and he talked about what he had been through.
We were in William Burroughs' small two-bedroom red cottage on Learnard Ave. in Lawrence, Kansas, a university town that James Grauerholz had moved William years earlier, in 1981. I had been an instructor at the University of Kansas, and met James when he was my student in the fall of 1970, a freshman from Coffeyville, Kansas. I used Burroughs' Nova Express as a required text, perhaps the first college class to do so. James moved to New York in 1974 and started his long relationship with William.
As James continued cooking the green beans and steaks, adding to the conversation from the kitchen, William repeatedly filled our drinks. He was in an odd mood, having just found out that week how sick his close friend Beat poet Allen Ginsberg had become; Allen died two weeks later, on April 5, 1997.
We had spent a long time with William as he fed his many fish, in two ponds behind and beside his house. His Reichian 'orgone' box was also behind the house. Sitting in it for a while, I truly felt nothing, but the view was unique - William had painted faces on the garage windows facing the circular opening in the box door.
"SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK! THAT'S WHAT I DID," William Burroughs suddenly shouted, standing up fast.
"Did he just say what I think?" I quietly asked Dan and James.
"Yes!" Dan said.
James Grauerholz had a strange look on his face - "It's so out of character," he quickly added. Not out of character to readers of William Burroughs, I thought. (Nor to Joan Vollmer Burroughs.)
Later that year, on the 4th of July, James invited me over to William's for dinner and fireworks. We watched the Mars Rover landing, passed a pipe and drank some loza brandy that I had brought back that day from Sarajevo, along with homemade Balkan baklava.
William ate the baklava fast, with delight, although Tom "TP" Peschio talked him out of immediately drinking my 100 proof brandy gift, along with his vodka & Cokes. After all, he was 83. Although it was to be his last month on earth - we didn't know that night.
William looked over the many pictures I had taken of the war damage in Sarajevo and Dubrovnik. He started remembering Dubrovnik and the woman that he had married there in 1937. It was a marriage arranged for her to get out of Nazi-held Europe. A divorce occurred before William began the ill-fated relationship with Joan Vollmer Burroughs, the relationship that ended with her death in the infamous "William Tell" shooting in Mexico City.
"Shoot the bitch and write a book. That's what I did." That still echoes. Later, Grauerholz denied even hearing the statement, not that I ever gave a damn whether it was murder or not.*
William Burroughs being a murderer might keep him out of the "Western Cannon" of literature. This was not something William probably cared about, as far as I knew. How could a true Beat care about that? James Grauerholz, Burroughs' adopted son, having inherited all of Burroughs' copyrights, works hard to move him into the respectable column of writers. Reformed. Cleaned-up. New image. And you don't get into the "Western Cannon" if you murder your wife.
But William Burroughs' time, his history, is in the past - he is already a classic writer, with much of the shock-value gone. He was truly a genius and a gentleman.
That 4th of July night, after fireworks in his backyard, William walked me to the front door in his ritual for saying goodbye to visitors.
"When I visit next," I said, "I'll bring you Bosnian food."
"That would be nice," he quietly said.
William Burroughs stood on his porch and waved good-bye as I got into my van and started to drive away to James Grauerholz's house to stay the night. I honked my horn once - again, part of the ritual. He stood hunched over, a little old man. He waved and waved.
It would be the last time I would see William alive. It was a great 4th of July. Thankful that I knew him, I don't care if William murdered Joan Vollmer Burroughs or not.
"There are no accidents," William Burroughs wrote. "There are no accidents."
Beats In Kansas: Shooting Joan Burroughs