ACCEPTED MEDICAL FACTS:
THE WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS INTERVIEWS
By Jeffrey Morgan © 1997
Back in the mid-Seventies, when I was the Canadian Contributing Editor of CREEM Magazine, I twice had the opportunity of interviewing William S. Burroughs for America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine.
Two decades have passed since then but, as we all know, when you're logging an arduous night shift deep in the InterZone, time and space lose all rational meaning...
PART ONE: HEROIN (1978)
"I was around people who were using it. Then I started, you know, taking an occasional shot. It is, for most people, I think, a very pleasurable experience. After I'd had these experiences as an addict--I guess it was in 1950--I was living in Mexico City and someone suggested to me that I simply write up my experiences with heroin addiction, which I did. And that was my first book, Junkie."
Originally published in 1953 under the pseudonym "William Lee," Junkie is a harrowing document of William Burroughs' 14-year-old addiction to heroin--a document that still stands today, almost a quarter of a century later, as the definitive statement on the subject.
Whereas the original edition of Junkie contained a number of disclaimers by the publisher ("For the protection of the reader, we have inserted occasional parenthetical notes to indicate where the author clearly departs from accepted medical fact or makes unsubstantiated statements in an effort to justify his actions"), the recently reissued edition of Junkie by Penguin Books is devoid of any such pronouncements. In Toronto recently on a promotional book tour, Burroughs explained why: "The original edition had a number of disclaimers, a number of expurgations--they expurgated all the four letter words, and so on. So we decided to bring out an unexpurgated edition--as it originally was written.
In Junkie's preface, Burroughs writes, "I have never regretted my experience with drugs." Twenty-five years later, does he still hold the same view?
"Yes, I'll go along with that because it gave me...you see, a writer can profit from things that may be just unpleasant or boring to someone else because he uses those things subsequently as material for writing. And I would say that the experience I had with heroin as described in Junkie later led to my subsequent books like Naked Lunch, so I don't regret it.
"Incidentally, the damage to health from heroin addiction is minimal--no matter what the American Narcotics Department may say. If you read one of the early authorities like DeQuincey--for one thing, he would never have lived to be 72 unless he had taken opium because he had tuberculosis. And I think he would say the same as I say: that he wouldn't regret his experience with drugs."
Isn't this, however, in direct contradiction with another statement made in Junkie that "Junk causes permanent cellular alteration. Once a junkie, always a junkie. You can stop using junk, but you are never off the first habit"?
"I would question that statement now," admits Burroughs. "At that time, I had not taken the apomorphine cure--which was the way I finally got off junk--through Dr. Dent in London. And now, after that cure, I would question the statement whether there is permanent cellular alteration." What about the effects of heroin on the user's ability to cope with the normal day to day stress of living?
"Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. I've been in England where addicts obtained their heroin quite legally through doctors. Many of the addicts were lawyers, doctors, bank tellers, et cetera. So far as creative work goes, I say very definitively it can't be indicated--and I would never've been able to write Naked Lunch, for example, unless I'd been off heroin. But, so far as any kind of routine work goes, you can do it as well as someone who is not addicted.
"The context I was talking about when I wrote Junkie was in the 1940s when heroin was extremely illegal and under very heavy pressure from the American Narcotics Department. So you never knew from one day to the next whether or not you were able to get your necessary does of drugs or not. And that, of course, creates a tremendous feeling of insecurity and fear.
Addiction is a metabolic illness--a metabolic illness like alcoholism or diabetes, for that matter. It is also an illness that can be cured without too much difficulty."
Including in William Burroughs?
"Absolutely. I haven't used or been addicted to opiates for years..."
PART TWO: ROCK 'n' ROLL (1979)
With 1980 just a shot away, it seems as good a time as any for a cultural update from William S. Burroughs, the spiritual patriarch of rock 'n' roll.
Despite this honorary title, precious little--if any--information concerning Burroughs' personal opinions on rock 'n' roll can be found in print--a situation I decided to remedy somewhat when I recently interviewed him.
MORGAN: For many contemporary rock critics and musicians, William Burroughs is rock 'n' roll. Do you feel the same affinity for rock 'n' roll that rock 'n' roll obviously feels for you?
BURROUGHS: Well, yeah. (laughs) I have given them a lot of titles: The Heavy Metal Kids, The Insect Trust, The Soft Machine...there are a couple of others.
I enjoy rock 'n' roll. It certainly is a unique and incredible phenomenon. Remember that 40 or 50 years ago, musicians didn't make any money. They played to very small audiences in night clubs and road houses. Also, they had no protection on their records.
I'm always asking rock 'n' roll people if they know who Petrillo is, and none of them do. Well, they wouldn't have a dime if it weren't for Petrillo because he organized the Musicians' Union way back at the end of the 30s. And that is why they make money on their records. There wouldn't be any white Rolls Royces or anything like that.
MORGAN: Can you see the intersection point between your works and rock 'n' roll?
BURROUGHS: Well, I think that, in a way, we're both--I mean, of course, they're operating much more in a mass area, but the ideas are similar. Some of the content is similar: the drugs, et cetera. There are a number of places where we overlap.
MORGAN: Did you see The Man Who Fell To Earth?
BURROUGHS: Yes. I thought it had some very interesting sections. It wasn't bad, but I didn't think it was great, either.
MORGAN: What did you think of Diamond Dogs? Have you heard it?
BURROUGHS: Vaguely, yes. It's been a long time since I saw it, actually. Yeah, I think that Bowie did quite a good job there. I just didn't think that the film overall has much impact. I thought the alien aspect was conveyed very well.
MORGAN: No, no. Did you ever hear the record he made after you interviewed him in 1973? The one he made after reading half of Nova Express?
BURROUGHS: Oh, yeah, yeah. (dryly) That is fun.
MORGAN: What did you think of him when you met him? Did he seem to be the kind of guy who was bullshitting his way through life or did he seem to be walking the straight and narrow?
BURROUGHS: (laughs) Well, neither one. He's not bullshitting, he's very, very clever and I think very calculating. I think he knows exactly what he's doing and where he's going and how to get there.
MORGAN: Did Jimmy Page know who Petrillo was when you talked to him?
BURROUGHS: (laughs) No. I'll tell you one who would know is Mick Jagger. He's a businessman, he went to the London School of Economics.
MORGAN: How's the film version of Junkie coming along?
BURROUGHS: On again, off again. No Hollywood project is on until it's on screen and it's never completely dead until the whole film industry is dead. Many scripts have been battered around Hollywood as long as ten years, so I won't say it's dead. We have a script and people have expressed interest, so it may work out.
We talked an awful lot about whether Junkie should be shot as a contemporary film in a contemporary setting, and I said absolutely not. The reason is very simple because the whole junk scene has changed so unrecognizably since that time that, if you start shooting it in 1970, you might as well throw the book away and do another script.
As far as box office is concerned, it's not very good box office. They don't want to see people sticking needles in their arms.
MORGAN: How did Patti Smith get involved in the project?
BURROUGHS: Well, she simply said that she'd like to play a part if the film was produced.
MORGAN: What is there about her poetry that you like--if anything.
BURROUGHS: Well, she is good as a performer. It isn't the poetry itself, it's the way she puts it across. She's a terrific performer, a great stage presence.
To read the poetry doesn't mean that much to me, but to see her perform it--the energy that she generates is really something.
MORGAN: So you don't care for her poetry on the printed page then.
BURROUGHS: No. It's something that's made to be performed, it seems to me.
MORGAN: Your long-awaited new book, Cities Of The Red Night, is scheduled for release later this year and, at over 700 pages, it's going to be your longest book yet. Can you tell us something about it?
BURROUGHS: It's got a very different plot to it. Plots and sub-plots. It's very much a romantic play with trick endings and so on--so, for that reason, I don't talk too much about it. I don't want to give away the ending.
MORGAN: Is there any advice you'd like to give to young writers?
BURROUGHS: I have an exercise I learned from a Mafia Don in Ohio: see everybody on the street before they see you. It's quite interesting actually because, if you see everyone before they see you, they won't see you.
And then you'll find that somebody beat you.
Interviews originally done for Creem Magazine,