By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner
Barry Miles describes the life of an eternal adolescent in Call Me Burroughs. William Seward Burroughs never seems to grow up in Miles’ well researched and fascinating biography of a twentieth century iconoclast. Burroughs lives a life of debauchery. With spoon fed income from family wealth, Burroughs lives on the fringes of society; observing and recording his experience.
Burroughs attends prep school, studies English literature, and graduates from Harvard University in 1936. In the course of his life, Burroughs dives into homo-erotic adventure, drugs, petty crime, murder, and art to become a symbol of American’ counter culture. Counted among his friends and frenemies are a who’s who of the arts’ world. With literature, music, and visual art– Burroughs manages to titillate his audience, and procreate change in perception and understanding of male sexuality and the creative process.
At times, Miles’ biography shows Burroughs as a symbol of his time; more than creator of change. Burroughs has street credibility with the 1950’s beat generation because of his education and aberrant life style. His parent’s subsidization allows him to cultivate friendships with a wide circle of outcasts like Allen Ginsberg, Lucian Carr, and Jack Kerouac. These
well-educated and aspiring writers were poor but dedicated to experiencing all the world has to offer. They welcomed Burroughs’ money; drug relationship, and sexual promiscuity.
Burroughs is married twice in his life. He marries his first wife to help her escape Hitler’s terror in Europe. They divorce several years later but remain friends through the end of her life. His second wife, Joan Vollmer, is murdered by Burroughs in 1951. He served one year in prison for culpable homicide. The incident is recorded as a “William Tell” accident caused by Burroughs errant shot at a glass perched on Joan’s head.
Burroughs and Joan were drunk at the time of the accident. Miles explains that Burroughs considers that accident a turning point in his life. Joan’s death convinces Burroughs there is evil in the world and that an ugly spirit existence directed the bullet that killed his wife. Burroughs fervently believes the only way of expelling that evil spirit is by writing; i.e. by exposing the spirits nature to deprive it of its evil intent (similar to the theory of Freudian psychiatric treatment).
In the 1960’s, Burroughs’ beat generation reputation licenses his credibility for entry into the psychedelic drug culture. Though Burroughs met and lectured with Timothy Leary, he felt Leary represented the worst of what the drug culture represents; i.e. unscientific, recreational use of drugs. Burroughs believes in drug use as a way of broadening understanding of the world with scientific research that measures pharmacological effects and efficacy.
Drugs play an eminent role in Burroughs’ immersion in counter-culture movements. Though Burroughs insists there is a scientific way of pursuing drug use, he fully acknowledges the ugliness of drug addiction. Miles reports some of Burroughs’ horrible experiences with drugs; his addictions and recoveries. Miles notes Burroughs’ recurrent efforts to stay clean. Those efforts never succeed in Burroughs’ long life.
The 1960s widen Burroughs’ experience in the world. He meets Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville. Gysin is educated at the Sorbonne. He is a painter, writer, sound poet, and performance artist that becomes a mentor, or at least muse, for Burroughs’ imagination. Gysin perfects the cut-up technique of writing and art that Burroughs adopts as a part of his education. Burroughs and Gysin patent a dream machine with the intent of offering a psychedelic experience without drugs. The venture is a failure but remains a life-long bond in their friendship.
Gysin encourages Burroughs to expand the cut-up technique in his writing. Burroughs writes the Naked Lunch in the cut-up technique with vignettes that are cut and pasted into a ribald story of Burroughs’ life in Tangier.
When Gysin dies, Burroughs begins painting with the cut-up technique and successfully sells his paintings for more money than Gysin made in his life time. Burroughs acknowledges the personal debt he owes to Gysin’s mentorship.
Ian Sommerville becomes Burroughs’ companion and lover in the 1960s. Sommerville is an electronics technician and computer programmer. He collaborates with Burroughs to produce films and recordings. Sommerville becomes a contact which leads to a sound studio financed by Paul McCarthy in London. McCarthy and Burroughs meet in this apartment studio where McCarthy works on versions of the song Eleanor Rigby. Unfortunately, according to Miles, the recordings are lost in a fire.
Burroughs reaches the pinnacle of his iconic reputation in the 1970s when he returns to the United States. He begins a reading tour that spreads his fame across the nation. He associates with New York cultural players like Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Susan Sontag. He makes his residence, called the bunker, a meeting place for interviews and performances. Burroughs works on screen plays for adaptation of his earlier written books. He participates in panel discussions with people like Timothy Leary. He is a performance artist at concerts featuring The B-52’s, Suicide, Phillip Glass; etc.
The 1970’s high riding is brought down by the death of his only son, Billy (from Burroughs’ marriage to Joan Vollmer) in 1981. The proximate cause is cirrhosis of the liver. Once again, Burroughs becomes addicted. He leaves New York and takes residence in Lawrence, Kansas in 1981 until his death in 1997. Ironically, this attempt to escape public notoriety leads to greater fame and fortune. Naked Lunch is adapted into a full length feature film. Burroughs’ experimentation with cut-up painting results in art exhibitions around the world.
Listening to Barry Miles’ smartly researched and narrated biography, a listener sees Burroughs, in one sense, as a parasite of society. Burroughs is an eternal adolescent that lives off his parents until they die. He adjusts his life style to continue getting the hedonistic most out of life without working. He observes without being; he reports without doing. Burroughs does nothing in life that benefits anyone but himself. In another sense, Burroughs is an icon of change in society; i.e. a representative of the sex’, drugs’, and arts’ revolutions of the twentieth century.