Afterthoughts on Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”
I was reading ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven’‘, one of a mutlivolumesque serie of very thorough biographies written byVictor Bockris, treating of everything that has to do with some specific thinkers and doers that were behind the 60’s counterculture and social revolution. ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” was published the day after his victory over Foreman in 1974 and it was Ali’s favorite book about himself (and mine too!). If you check out the author’s bibliography you will find some of the most iconic figures of that revolution: All of which can be related in one way or another to Beat Punks. I’ve already reviewed in-depth his remarkable biographies about Andy Warhol and Lou Reed . By the way, I intend to review all of Bockris’ biographies in the near future here on LAN.
So, in the blue corner, you have all these writers, painters and musicians and then, in the red corner, there is a real boxer, an athlete so good that he left for sure a permanent mark in the boxing world. And you may ask yourselves ”How did he get there? How does Ali fit in with all these people who triggered a revolution in the 60’s?” Let me just say for starters that they all, in their own ways, shed some blood, sweat and tears. Muhammad Ali was much more than an athlete or an inspiring success story. Most people remember him from the early days of his celebrity for being a loud mouth. He sure was one. For each and every opponent he fought he would ”bust some rhymes”, taunting his opponents, predicting in how many they would go down, making fun of them any which way he could as well as giving names and meanings to his fights likeThrilla in Manila, (Ali-Frazier IIIin Manila, Philippines, October 1, 1975) and Rumble in the Jungle (Ali-Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974) that led to a documentary called”When We Were Kings”.
Ali remembers the origins of his poetry: ”It was ’62, when I fought Archie Moore. Moore rhymed with four, so the publicity for that fight was:
hit the floor
in round four
Then I fought Henry Cooper, I said:
This is no jive
leave in five
Doesn’t that sound like rap to you?? It sure does to me. The very roots of rap were precisely a verbal fight between 2 opponents and organized as such in official contests and in my mind, those verbal assaults were the very first rap rhymes ever made. Some might deny him that but he did write poems. Now Ali also was a success story and a very good story-teller, you can’t deny him that. The very first ”big book” I read was Muhammad Ali very own striking autobiography”The Greatest”that was later put into a mediocre movie in which Ali played his own character (of course!). Doesn’t it sound a lot like ”8 Mile’‘ to you?? (except for the fact 8 Mile is a good movie and Eminem a good actor). The irony is that ”The Greatest” was a fake bio written by a back muslim propagandist. Ali never read it and did not like it. Bockris’ book about the champ was Ali’s favorite book. Victor gave it to him in 1975 and Ali had himself photographed with the book in the 1990s. His wife told me she was still reading the book to him in 2009! Because it is the most accurate account of his inner life and what he planned to do after he retired from boxing in 1975. The horror of the fights he was forced to fight from 1976-1981 made it especially appealing to the peace loving champion.
But first and foremost, Ali was an actor in his own life. He was an artist as a boxer, as a promoter, as a poet, as a spiritual figure, as a counterculture thinker, as a civil right champion, as a family man, as a life coach. Furthermore as you read Victor Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighters Heaven” you are told that they were rocks painted by Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., and transported by a guy named Harvey Moyer, huge rocks on the grounds of his training camp on which were painted the names of great adversaries, each of them representing a milestone in Ali’s life, installations that should be considered as conceptual art to be on the technical side of this but his skills were in every detail. These rocks meant a lot to Ali. What made Ali so inspiring is not so much what he did as how he did it and who he was, because who he was always transpired in the way he did things. Reading through ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven’‘, you can very well imagine how everyone around him; his family, his supporters, trainers, organisers, doctors, lawyers, etc. were all devoted and loyal to him because they loved him as a person. He was running things with love and discipline, using one or the other along the way as required by the circumstances. Always true to himself and his beliefs, as a man, as a father, as a colored man and as a muslim.
Ali saw in his birth name Cassius Clay the mark of the slavery that was a burden to his colored brothers and that is the reason that he changed his name and his faith.
On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” This guy did what many thousands people promoting peace never even dared to do. This ”Black Muslim guy”, who was mistreated for as long as he can remember in his own country precisely because of the fact that he was black, said to the face of his recruiting officer that he had no intentions whatsoever to go kill another human being at the other end of the world, whom he had never met and further more who had never caused him any harm. Now it may not seem such an act of bravery but don’t forget that this young fellow still officially and originally named Cassius Clay, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, this Muslim Black Boxer who at age 18, won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and turned professional later that year, was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles.
He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as a boxing athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war had made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation but he definitely paid a very steep price. Those years were lost forever for him and for all of the world to see him boxing at his best even if he is still considered by many to be ”The Greatest”.
Of course the ultimate integration as a counterculture figure was Ali’s placid but unmovable resistance to go fight the Viet Nam war. And the unveiled interest Andy Warhol had towards him just confirmed the fact that Ali had become one of the greatest leading spirits of the 60’s and the 70’s. The encounter of Andy Warhol to Ali’s training camp is detailed in Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”. A man who’s dazzling virtuosity within the prize ring was matched only by his articulate and outrageous showmanship and integrity outside it.
I can see no better ending than to leave you with a poem written by Ali himself. This one of three poems that were exclusively published in ”Muhammad Ali inFighter’s Heaven” for the first time… This one is a poem about…
Better far from all I see
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?
Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead
Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees
Better than of heart attack
Or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black
Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know
Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pain
Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum
Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot
Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age
Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie
Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth
Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.
– by Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016). ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” contains an outstanding collection of his poetry, along with his commentary on how he wrote the poems.
”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” also contains a complete utterly interesting chapter detailling the historic encounter that took place when Warhol went to Ali’s training camp to take pictures of the champ. Here’s a glimpse…
This post is dedicated to Ali’s children: Laila Ali, Maryum Ali, Rasheda Ali, Asaad Amin, Hana Ali, Khaliah Ali, Jamillah Ali, Mya Ali, Muhammad Ali Jr. It is dedicated as well to all the children victims of crimes against humanity or civil rights violation.
The Cities of Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea.
The largest of these oases contained a lake ten miles long and five miles across, on the shores of which the university town of Waghdas was founded. Pilgrims came from all over the inhabited world to study in the academies of Waghdas, where the arts and sciences reached peaks of attainment that have never been equaled. Much of this ancient knowledge is now lost.
The towns of Ba’dan and Yass-Waddah were opposite each other on the river. Tamaghis, located in a desolate area to the north on a small oasis, could properly be called a desert town. Naufana and Ghadis were situated in mountainous areas to the west and south beyond the perimeter of usual trade routes between the other cities.
In addition to the six cities, there were a number of villages and nomadic tribes. Food was plentiful and for a time the population was completely stable: no one was born unless someone died.
The inhabitants were divided into and elite minority known as the Transmigrants and a majority known as the Receptacles. Within these categories were a number of occupational and specialized strata and the two classes were not in practice separate: Transmigrants acted as Receptacles and Receptacles became Transmigrants.
To show the system in operation: Here is an old Transmigrant on his deathbed. He has selected his future Receptacle parents, who are summoned to the death chamber. The parents then copulate, achieving orgasm just as the old Transmigrant dies so that his spirit enters the womb to be reborn. Every Transmigrant carries with him at all times a list of alternative parents, and in case of accident, violence or sudden illness, the nearest parents are rushed to the scene. However, there was at first little chance of random or unexpected deaths since the Council of Transmigrants in Waghdas had attained such skill in the art of prophecy that they were able to chart a life from birth to death and determine in most cases the exact time and manner of death.
Many Transmigrants preferred not to wait for the infirmities of age and the ravages of illness, lest their spirit be so weakened as to be overwhelmed and absorbed by the Receptacle child. These hardy Transmigrants, in the full vigor of maturity, after rigorous training in concentration and astral projection, would select two death guides to kill them in front of the copulating parents. The methods of death most commonly employed were hanging and strangulation, the Transmigrant dying in orgasm, which was considered the most reliable method of ensuring a successful transfer. Drugs were also developed, large doses of which occasioned death in erotic convulsions, smaller doses being used to enhance sexual pleasure. And these drugs were often used in conjunction with other forms of death.
In time, death by natural causes became a rare and rather discreditable occurrence as the age for transmigration dropped. The Eternal Youths, a Transmigrant sect, were hanged at the age of eighteen to spare themselves at the coarsening experience of middle age and the deterioration of senescence, living their youth again and again.
Two factors undermined the stability of their system, The first was perfection of techniques for artificial insemination. Whereas the traditional practice called for one death and once rebirth, now hundreds of women could be impregnated from a single sperm collection, and territorially oriented Transmigrants could populate whole areas with their progeny. There were sullen mutters of revolt from the Receptacles, especially the women. At this point, another factor totally unforeseen was introduced.
In the thinly populated desert area north of Tamaghis a portentous event occurred. Some say it was a meteor that fell to earth leaving a crater twenty miles across. Others say that the crater was caused by what modern physicists call a black hole.
After this occurrence the whole northern sky lit up red at night, like the reflection from a vast furnace. Those in the immediate vicinity of the crater were the first to be affected and various mutations were observed, the commonest being altered hair and skin color. Red and yellow hair, and white, yellow, and red skin appeared for the first time. Slowly the whole area was similarly affected until the mutants outnumbered the original inhabitants, who were as all human beings were at the time: black.
The women, led by an albino mutant known as the White Tigress, seized Yass-Waddah, reducing the male inhabitants to salves, consorts, and courtiers all under sentence of death that could be carried out at any time at the caprice of the White Tigress. The Council in Waghdas countered by developing a method of growing babies in excised wombs, the wombs being supplied by vagrant Womb Snatchers, This practice aggravated the differences between the male and female factions and war with Yass-Waddah seemed unavoidable.
In Naufana, a method was found to transfer the spirit directly into an adolescent Receptacle, thus averting the awkward and vulnerable period of infancy. This practice required a rigorous period of preparation and training to achieve a harmonious blending of the two spirits in one body. These Transmigrants, combining the freshness and vitality of youth with the wisdom of many lifetimes, were expected to form an army of liberation to free Yass-Waddah. And there were adepts who could die at will without nay need of drugs or executioners and project their spirit into a chosen Receptacle.
I have mentioned hanging, strangulation, and orgasm drugs as the commonest means of effecting the transfer. However, many other forms of death were employed. The Fire Boys were burned to death in the presence of the Receptacles, only the genitals being insulated, so that the practitioner could achieve orgasm in the moment of death. There is an interesting account by a Fire Boy who recalled his experience after transmigrating in this manner:
“As the flames closed around my body, I inhaled deeply, drawing fire into my lungs, and screamed out flames as the most horrible pain turned to the most exquisite pleasure and I was ejaculating in an adolescent Receptacle who was being sodomized by another.”
Others were stabbed, decapitated disemboweled shot with arrows, or killed by a blow on the head. Some threw themselves from cliffs, landing in front of the copulating Receptacles.
The scientists at Waghdas were developing a machine that could directly transfer the electromagnetic field of one body to another. In Ghadis there were adepts who were able to leave their bodies before death and occupy a series of hosts. How far this research may have gone will never be known. It was a time of great disorder and chaos.
The effects of the Red Night on Receptacles and Transmigrants proved to be incalculable and many strange mutants arose as a series of plagues devastated the cities. It is this period of war and pestilence that is covered by the books. The Council had set out to produce a race of supermen for the exploration of space. They produced instead races of ravening idiot vampires.
Finally, the cities were abandoned and the survivors fled in all direction, carrying the plagues with them. Some of these migrants crossed the Bering Strait into the New World, taking the books with them. They settled in the area later occupied by the Mayans and the books eventually fell into the hands of the Mayan priests.
The alert student of this noble experiment will perceive that death was regarded as equivalent not to birth but to conception and go in to infer that conception is the basic trauma. In the moment of death, the dying man’s whole life may flash in front of his eyes back to conception. In the moment of conception, his future life flashes forward to his future death. To reexperience conception is fatal.
This was the basic error of the Transmigrants: you do not get beyond death and conception by reexperience any more than you get beyond heroin by ingesting larger and larger doses. The Transmigrants were white literally addicted to death and they needed more and more death to kill the pain of conception. They were buying parasitic life with a promissory death note to be paid at a prearranged time. The Transmigrants then imposed these terms on the host child to ensure his future transmigration. There was a basic conflict of interest between host child and Transmigrant. So the Transmigrants reduced the Receptacle class to a condition of virtual idiocy. Otherwise they would have reneged on a bargain from which they stood to gain nothing but death. The books are flagrant falsifications. And some of these basic lies are still current.
“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” The last words of Hassan I Sabbah, Old Man of the Mountain. “Tamaghis … Ba’dan … Yass-Waddah … Waghdas … Naufana… Ghadis.” It is said that an initiate who wishes to know the answer to any question need only repeat these words as he falls asleep and the answer will come in a dream.
Tamaghis: This is the open city of contending partisans where advantage shifts from moment to moment in a desperate biological war. Here everything is as true as you think it is and everything you can get away with is permitted.
Ba’dan: This city is given over to competitive games, and commerce. Ba’dan closely resembles present-day America with a precarious moneyed elite, a large disaffected middle class and an equally large segment of criminals and outlaws. Unstable, explosive, and swept by whirlwind riots. Everything is true and everything is permitted.
Yass-Waddah: This city is the female stronghold where the Countess de Gulpa, the Countess de Vile, and the Council of the Selected plot a final subjugation of the other cities. Every shade of sexual transition is represented: boys with girls’ heads, girls with boys’ heads. Here everything is true and nothing is permitted except to the permitters.
Waghdas: This is the university city, the center of learning where all questions are answered in terms of what can be expressed and understood. Complete permission derives from complete understanding.
Naufana and Ghadis are the cities of illusion where nothing is true and therefore everything is permitted.
The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes.
-William S Burroughs
During the Crusades, the Hashishins fought both for and against the Crusaders, whichever suited their agenda. As a result, the Crusaders brought back to Europe the Assassins’ system, which would be passed down and mimicked by numerous secret societies in the West. The Templars, the Society of Jesus, Priory de Sion, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, etc. all owe their organizational efficiency to Hasan. In fact, the Illuminati had their origins in the mystical aspect of the Hashishin order, although most equate the Illuminati with the Bavarian Illuminati, which was a revised version of the Hashishin system (Tim O’Neill analyzes, in-depth, the influence of the Assassins in Adam Parfrey’sApocalypse Culture)
Our modern day “assassination cults” (the FBI, the CIA, etc.) have incorporated many of the Hashishins’ techniques into their methodologies. In a CIA training manual titled “A Study of Assassination”, you find traces of the Assassins influence throughout. Hasan Sabbah is even mentioned in the document, which is a must read if there ever was one.
If you want to know more about the secret order of Hashishins click on the image below.
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheep herder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
”The hippies , who had never really believed they were the wave of the future anyway, saw the election results as brutal confirmation of the futility of fighting the establishment on its own terms. There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move — either figuratively or literally — from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope… The thrust is no longer for “change” or “progress” or “revolution,” but merely to escape, to live on the far perimeter of a world that might have been.”
”Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final”
”Bush is a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all.’‘
”There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation. It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix — a clean well lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts what is missing… And being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there. Missing. Back-ordered. No tengo. Vaya con dios. Grow up! Small is better. Take what you can get…”
”Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish — a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow — to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested…”
”Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.”
”But with the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it… howling through a turn to the right, then to the left, and down the long hill to Pacifica… letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge… The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles and LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.”
”But speaking of rules, you’ve been arrested dozens of times in your life. Specific incidents aside, what’s common to these run-ins? Where do you stand vis-à-vis the law? “Goddammit. Yeah, I have. First, there’s a huge difference between being arrested and being guilty. Second, see, the law changes and I don’t. How I stand vis-à-vis the law at any given moment depends on the law. The law can change from state to state, from nation to nation, from city to city. I guess I have to go by a higher law. How’s that? Yeah, I consider myself a road man for the lords of karma.”
”America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
”Going to trial with a lawyer who considers your whole life-style a Crime in Progress is not a happy prospect.”
”In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
”The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
”A man who has blown all his options can’t afford the luxury of changing his ways. He has to capitalize on whatever he has left, and he can’t afford to admit — no matter how often he’s reminded of it — that every day of his life takes him farther and farther down a blind alley… Very few toads in this world are Prince Charmings in disguise. Most are simply toads… and they are going to stay that way… Toads don’t make laws or change any basic structures, but one or two rooty insights can work powerful changes in the way they get through life. A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.”
”Sometimes at dusk, when you were trying to relax and not think of the general stagnation, the Garbage God would gather a handful of those chocked-off morning hopes and dangle them somewhere just out of reach; they would hang in the breeze and make a sound like delicate glass bells, reminding you of something you never quite got hold of, and never would.”
”When the going gets weird , the weird turns pro. But it never got weird enough for me to turn pro.”
”Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jack-rabbit gets addicted to road-running, it’s only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.”
”I sat there for a long time, and thought about a lot of things. Foremost among them was the suspicion that my strange and ungovernable instincts might do me in before I had a chance to get rich. No matter how much I wanted those things that I needed money to buy, there was some devilish current pushing me off in another direction toward anarchy poverty and craziness. That maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas goat.”
*Football season is over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
Following my review of Andy Warhol’s biography by Victor Bockris, I was pleased to know that the author himself was kind enough to grant me an interview regarding the book itself as well as the recent deal that was made regarding the making of a biopic involving Jared Leto. The actor Jared Leto, the producer Michael De Luca and Terence Winter are teaming to tackle the life of Andy Warhol, the famed pop art artist whose blend of art and commerce made him a household name. Winter, the ”Boardwalk Empire” creator who wrote ”The Wolf of Wall Street”, will pen the screenplay, using the 1989 Victor Bockris book, ”Warhol: The Biography”, as a jumping-off point. Leto and De Luca jointly acquired the rights to the book, having had a desire to partner on a project for some time now and since it is now a done deal, I thought it was the perfect time for a little chat with the author of the well acclaimed biography which has been published in nine countries since 1989 and remains in print in several.
LAN: Do you remember how, where, why and under what circumstances Andy Warhol caught your attention for the first time?
Victor Bockris: Andy Warhol had a tongue in cheek “Retrospective” at the I.C.A. on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia in October 1965. (Tongue in cheek because he had only started showing paintings in 1962 and it usually takes much longer than three years to get a retrospective!)I had moved from my British boarding school Rugby to Central High School in Philadelphia in February, a week before Malcolm X was assassinated in New York. My transition from the one school to the other was fraught with the most extreme culture shock I had ever experienced in a life of shocks. During my first two months at Central I had a nervous breakdown, which I kept confined to the afternoons at home so nobody else knew about it. The trauma faded as soon as I started making friends amongst the cool kids who were all folkies. They were mad about Bob Dylan and took me to Convention Hall to see him on the early 65 tour he did with Joan Baez. My closet friend, Elliot Fratkin, invited me to go to the Warhol opening in early October.
As we approached the I.C.A that night walking across the lawn at the center of the campus I started seeing people standing around in small groups hugging each other and crying or lying on the ground like the victims of a nuclear attack in Peter Watkins famous film The War Games, which I had seen in the same place the previous week. As we got closer I could see and smell the aftermath of some hideous event such as a lynching or a riot.
I was right about the riot. Apparently when Warhol swept into the gallery with Edie Sedgwick, Girl of the Year and star of eight films Andy shot in six months, Gerard Malanga, superstar stud of the Factory, and Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the ecstatic crowd of students packed like penguins in the small space and spontaneously exploded in a riot that reminded Geldzahler of a Beatles concert. People were screaming and crying “Andy and Edie! Andy and Edie!” This was the moment at which Andy crossed over from being a famous artist to something more akin to a rock star, somebody who has transformed themselves from a person into a magician. Of course I was not there, but Andy Warhol’s essence hung in the air like the acrid smell of machine guns and wild horses.
LAN: What made you decide back then that Warhol was to be the subject of your next bio? Do you have similar reasons for the other biographies you wrote? Is there a link? How do you connect the dots (if any)?
Victor Bockris:I did not decide to write the Warhol biography. My agent, the young and ambitious Andrew Wylie just at the beginning of building his literary agency, suggested it in 1982. I was spending the summer writing ‘‘Negative Girls” into a book in Philadelphia. He called right after the girl who inspired the book phoned to tell me she was getting married, (to a rock star!) which drained all the desire and drive to finish Negative Girls out of my frenzied mind. We discussed the book for six weeks before I decided to take it on. There was much at stake, not in the least my friendship with Andy. I knew nothing about biography, which is a complex form one can only master by learning on the job like The Ramones did on stage. I decided to do it because Andy was the most mysterious figure in the vanguard of the American culture. Nobody knew anything about his childhood or the years before he became a pop artist. He was also a sitting duck for a writer who wanted to grab the attention of the country. Earlier that year Jean Stein had done just that with her bestselling book, “Edie” (Sedgwick). The most powerful part of that book was the long section about Edie’s relationship with Andy. According to Stein He was a verrrry bad man. His nickname at the Factory, Drella, summed up the impression. He was a monster, half Cinderella half Dracula. He never slept, he never ate, he drank blood. He wanted to be machine, he did not believe in love, and that was the tip of the iceberg. I had known Andy for almost ten years and I loved him the way you love a hero, like a comrade in a war. Believe me, stating your alliance to Andy Warhol could still ignite a bar fight in 1983 New York. He was still the most hated artist in America, but he was the most loved artist in France, Italy and Germany.
There are several links between all my books: I never wrote about anyone unless I knew them well enough to see how they got through the day; everyone I wrote about was a remarkable talker; everyone I wrote about played a role in the development of the Counterculture in New York in the 1970s. They were all living in William Burroughs Magic Universe.
As soon as I garnered good reviews for the Warhol biography I wanted to dash off and write my own biography. However my Dutch Uncle and mentor in biography, Albert Goldman, who published a masterpiece, ”Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!” as well as first class biographies of Elvis and John Lennon, told me, “You’ve just mastered how to write a biography, don’t throw away what you’ve learned, do at least two more.” Keith Richards was a dream subject and ”Keith Richards: The Biography” was published right before the release of his first solo album. The book has been published in ten countries and stayed in print in the English language since it’s original publication in 1992. The third book in my trilogy of biographies, ”Transformer: The Lou Reed Story” was well received in the U.K. and U.S. in 1995 and did a lot to broaden his audience in the six countries in which it was published.
This biography obviously required an incredible amount of work. So many subjects, so many people! How did you manage to achieve such a complete story of his life without being drowned in archives of all sorts!? Did it require a different methodology than your other books??
Victor Bockris: It required a one hundred percent commitment for five years. At several stages I employed an editor to keep me on track. Writing a biography is quite different from writing the portraits I had previously published of Ali, Burroughs,Blondie and The Velvet Underground. Warhol was by far the hardest book I ever wrote, in fact it almost killed me. I have always been lucky with my timing. My first seven books were perfectly timed. Andy died two and a half years before the book was released. It was the first and remains the only real biography of Warhol. I started it by going to Pittsburgh with Keith Haring and meeting Andy’s oldest brother Paul Warhola, who was a lovely man and became a good friend who helped me out until the very end. Andy did not want me to write the book but he never told anybody not to talk to me. I think he realized that somebody was going to do it and he was in safer hands with me than with some hack who did not know him and would mess it up.
There are by the way two distinctly different versions of my biography. When Andy died in February 1987 my British editor, Paul Sidey, at Hutchinson (Random House UK) got in touch and played a strong role in helping me complete the book. This climaxed with an all expenses paid six-week visit to London during which I was given a full-time editor and copy editor. By the time Sidey gave me the retyped 721 page manuscript of ”Warhol: The Biography’‘ I was in heaven, because it had come out much as I originally envisioned it. The British were planning to publish in May 1989. This euphoria was short-lived. A week after I delivered it to my agent, word came back, or so I was told, from Warner Books that the manuscript was “unpublishable.” I never found out if this was actually true, but the long and short was Warner wanted a re-edit. At this point I was exhausted. I had given it everything I had. Finally Hutchinson published their version ”Warhol: The Biography” in May 89. It received wonderful reviews and was published in paperback by Penguin. Warner Books published their version, on which I worked for six weeks with an editor they had flown in from England, ”The Life and Death of Andy Warhol’‘, in October 1989. It was about one hundred pages shorter and much of the life had been cut out of it.
Whereas the U.K. edition did well and remains in print twenty-seven years later, the Warner edition was a fiasco. Although it was well reviewed it suffered very disappointing sales for the advance they had paid me. Today, the British edition is in print in the U.S. (with DaCapo) and in France and Poland. With the movie coming out in 2017 we are looking forward to seeing it in print in several other countries.
LAN:How do you perceive Warhol’s contribution to the literary world? I know you feel pretty strongly about a: A Novel…?
Victor Bockris: I think it’s a disgrace that Andy Warhol’s books have not been released in uniform paperback editions or in a complete twelve volume set. Starting in 1967 and continuing until after his death Andy published a series of between nine and twelve books. They are as vital to an understanding of his oeuvre as his paintings and films. There is much more interest in his writing in Europe than America. Language is the basis of all Warhol’s work. In his college years his confrontation with the American language distressed him so much it became the root of his artistic drive to portray America as a land of Deaths and Disasters. He is a conceptual artist. His first works like the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings and his first film Sleep were seen by few people, but their names became part of our culture. He published at least three classic books: ”a: A Novel;The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and The Andy Warhol Diaries.”His collected literary works are ignored by the Warhol Foundation because they do not make enough money to warrant even an investment of time. They appear uninterested in developing his literary reputation and have done nothing with the unpublished books in his archives. There appears to be nobody taking care of Andy Warhol’s literary works and nobody to defend the books against people who claim they wrote them. Andy Warhol’s writing is pure Warhol. I hope one day somebody will wake up to the fact that there is actually a goldmine yet to be discovered in the many unpublished volumes in the files of the Warhol Museum. Somebody should write a book called ”Andy Warhol: The Writer”, but they might have a problem getting permission to quote from his writing. There appears to be a determination to keep him down or out of print. I have published six essays about Andy’s writing in various sources, including the current DaCapo version of the Warhol biography.
LAN: You were obviously close to Warhol. What were the most valuable things you learned from him or about him?
Victor Bockris: The most valuable things I learned from Warhol: To grow my ambition higher; to realize works is the most important thing in my life; to simplify; to minimize and to recognize that most growth comes via connections to people who open doors to other people. To never let anybody take your work away from you. To collaborate. To do interviews without questions, to just let them happen. To connect to the power in yourself. To be a very tough businessman. To never lose your self-respect. To treat people well. To not get hung up on your problems. To discipline yourself to not waste your life on alcohol or hard drugs. To believe that you can transform yourself.
LAN:Do you feel you have resolved the enigma of Andy Warhol’s persona through this book?
Victor Bockris: Jared Leto told me my book was the only one who made him feel that he got Andy, got to know him and understood him. My original motivation for writing this book was to reveal Andy so that people could feel as if they knew him and liked him. So, yes I think I succeeded.
LAN: Do you feel that part of the enigma of Warhol persona is whether he was a psychopath or simply an oversensitive person who simply just couldn’t afford to deal with a heartbreak, betrayal or negative feelings of any sort?
Victor Bockris: This question is difficult for me to understand. Andy was not a psychopath in any way. That sounds like the kind of word somebody desperate to write something new about Warhol might come up with, but I can’t imagine anybody who knew Andy saying that. He was, much like William Burroughs, the opposite of his image. Andy was a supersensitive romantic who found it harder as he got older to be alone. He certainly denied his emotional distress, but there is no question that he became increasingly lonely as he got older. At the same time he was turning out an extraordinary stream of great paintings.There is something almost too poignant for words about his final works, The Last Supper paintings which regained the vitality of the Car Crash paintings. And the fact that when he died he had so much work to do but perhaps nobody to look forward to seeing. Nobody he could give his love to. He checked into the hospital under the name Bob Robert. In his last phone call to Vincent Fremont, Vice President of Andy Warhol Enterprises, he was full of energy and humor. Some people called him Superman some called him the Angel of Death. He was an otherworldly figure who gave us everything he had.
LAN: Do you feel Warhol’s works and ideas are still relevant today?
Victor Bockris: Much has been written about the Legacy of Andy Warhol. I think he will be relevant forever in the sense that Shakespeare is still relevant. I wrote his biography and it would be hard for anybody to write a new one because most of the sources on the first thirty years of his life are dead. However, I don’t think anybody has yet put together an understanding of the impact of his collected work, not in the least because nobody has recognized the importance of his writing in his oeuvre. A writer who could show us the overall influence of Warhol’s contribution, without being over influenced by the prices of his art, but saw the art the films and the writing as the triangular base of his huge body of work would be doing us a great service. Andy Warhol may be the greatest artist of the twentieth century because he harnessed the century’s theme of death. But we will not know until somebody emerges who isn’t frothing at the mouth about the money.
Andy’s brother Paul Warhola told me Andy never really changed. Sophisticated art dealers might scoff at that remark, but Paul is right. The Andy who drove his assistants mad by endlessly pushing them with his divine energy was the same Andy who as a child drove his brothers wild in the same way with his insistent, “What are ya gonna do now?”
LAN: How do you feel about your book becoming a biopic next year and Jared Leto with his very talented friends being so enthusiastic about co-producing it and playing Warhol himself?
Victor Bockris: I have seen several opportunities to make the book into a film come and go, starting with Gus Van Saint in 1992. I’m sure he would have made a good film, but I don’t think there was the large international audience for Warhol’s heroism back then. I hope we are going to see a film about a revolutionary culture hero who changed the world with his brilliance and his machine like drive. Something like ”Lawrence of Arabia” but with the desert being the streets of New York. Mind you this comes from a fevered brain in the middle of a hurricane. I am confident that Leto will be Warhol by the time he starts making the film and I imagine he will give us something we cannot even imagine until we see it. Something Magic.
LAN: I wish you all the best!! I hope you will finally get all the credit you deserve for the quality of your books and that the world will remember your name and that the movie will be an incentive to check out the rest of your work as well. You do have a very special place as the witness of an era, an author and as a very special friend, you most certainly had a huge influence on everything that went on since the 60’s. It seems it’s not about to stop…
Victor Bockris: Thank you Tobe for the opportunity to talk about Andy. It went well because you asked stimulating questions and I enjoyed answering them. I wish you all the best with Loud Alien Noize. And I look forward to contributing some of my favorite pieces to you in the future. I hope your readers enjoy with what we’ve come up with above.
It is actually the 4th book I have read that was written by Victor Bockris and the third one about Warhol. I have never been deceived by Bockris in the past but I have to say that this one, written in 1989, must have been a very hard and complex task that he managed to achieve with his usual amazing brio. Bockris has this gift of being able to cut the crap and swiftly reach out to what is relevant. Bockris for sure have learned from the best since it was Warhol himself who taught him how to make an interview. You will get the facts, don’t worry about it but you will also get, and that’s what makes all the difference in the world, all the surrounding facts; friends, events, traumas and personal victories.
Bockris has this ability to be very thorough but also doesn’t make you feel like you are just showered with a timeline of events and facts. It is written a little like a documentary in which you get to hear the people who were implicated in the occurring events in turn, hearing from their mouth what they saw and what were their thoughts at that time, an ongoing non-stop interview in which people take turns to enhance Bockris’ interesting narrative until the very end.
I must say that I thought the book ended a bit abruptly. Still it fits with the whole concept of this as it doesn’t pretend to resolve the enigma of Warhol’s persona and anyone pretending to do so would be a fraud because Warhol precisely was a living contradiction of himself. Being at the same time as authentic, even if detached and minimal, as one could possibly be while at the same time declaring that ”art is anything you can get away with”. This is the perfect example of perfectly working paradox! While some will say on one side he was just exploiting everyone else and letting himself be exploited if he felt it was ok, he clearly must had a very clear path in his mind of what was art and what wasn’t.
Reading the book you can clearly understand as he went through a lot of heart breaks and traumas, and that led him to try to become a machine, a certain robot deprived of emotions and that feeds on pills instead of actual food, well, he certainly made an art of it! That right there is one essential part of starting to understand Warhol. This is why Warhol is such an important keystone in the history of modern art! Warhol made it possible for everyone to become an artist, he was the first to use multimedia coverage for an event, the Velvet Underground was not just a band playing, it was a multimedia event called the ExplodingPlastic Inevitable(EPI).
You get to really know Andy Warhol’s childhood, his relation with his mother, his first love, his first heartbreak, his friends, the ones that remained friends; the ones that became enemies and the ones he simply didn’t care about or apparently so.. Reading this bio, one really get to observe as Andy slowly, inevitably builds a fortress around his heart and his emotions.
How can one manage to never lose it even after anattempted murder. This clearlyhad a huge effect on him, very palpable in the book but he managed to turn it around and live the most prolific happy period of his life. Another thing that is interesting is to be able to see how and why he started to be involved in writing, photography, music, cinema and why he would always come back to painting, his insecurities, why his apparent ”numbness” , you get all the naked truth here. While we’re at it, I would like to do something that only has been done on very rare occasions, (one being done by Bockris) I would like to underline the relevance of his novel a:a novel as well as some movies like Flesh , Trash or Beauty No. 2.
One look at the very essence of the modern USA in a time where everything was possible and more but at the very base of it today, you find the hope given by Warhol that everyone is an artist or in other words that everyone’s life could be a subject of art. Of course, it isn’t literally true but you get the sense reading the bio that if you really believe in yourself, if you work really, really hard, you listen to what others people say, you support some of them, associate with them or if you take some parts that fits with your ideas and/or most importantly if you have the talent, you will have a chance to being seen and/or even better a chance at success. Of course another paradox may be that Andy managed to create the first corporation that became a millionaire by creating an art factory ( literally) and made art a monetary valuable product. Andy worked really hard. He did all that but reading the book it seems the most difficult part is to find some people who were trustworthy and not too greedy. Luckily Andy was very stingy.
Today, you can be your own PR agent, you can create your own window in the world and run it yourself! What an amazing, uplifting thought it is also to know that no matter if you are good enough to have worldwide or even nationwide success, some people will get to know you, some people across the world will like your stuff for what it is, not because they are your friends, just because they like it!! It is such a shame that Warhol died before all the computer revolution he had foreseen… But he knew!!
It never ever took me such a long time to read a book but with experience you realise that reading a very good book for the first time is a very rare and unique experience. I made sure that I didn’t miss a line!! But even if it took me a really long time to read it and make sure I wouldn’t miss a thing, there is so much going on that for sure I will have to read it again. This is NOT the kind of book you just borrow from the library! You have to own it!! I got the amazing surprise just as I finished the book to see that Jared Leto has bought the rights to Victor Bockris’ 1989 book Warhol: The Biography and not only will he co-produce the new biopic but he will also star in it as Warhol himself.
I always felt I had this gift to sense what was to be ”in the air” or anything that is about to get important somehow, but Andy was creating art with nothing, he was only slightly influenced by the beat generation and maybe Dali (according to Ultra Violet) but he wasn’t Dada, It was something different, it was Pop Art, an art that has more or less the same criterias as today’s art. Like I said, reading this book, I also got to know the fragile, heartbroken, insecure artist and human being Warhol was. I could so relate when he tried to be a machine, not showing any emotions, no love, no trust, no friends, no compassion and maybe he managed to pull it off for a while but you can feel that this isn’t working for him, deep inside, I’m pretty sure anyone who knew him felt he was lonely and sad but mainly uncomprehended. So for all the future greedy psychopath-by-choice to be, know that it is impossible to really be happy that way mk? . You will get hurt, you will be betrayed, you will suffer, just like Andy, but you have to keep on going, keep trying, always and until your last breath, something will come out of it. If anything, understand that message he left for us. RIP Edie.
I really am shocked at the amount of people who don’t really know who Andy Warhol is. I’m trying my best to make him known to the present and future generations and this book is an essential part of your culture (including the creation of the magazineInterview). Meet the guy who made the impossible possible to anyone who has the talent and the will. You owe it to yourself to read this book. Of course there are autobiographies but the way this book is written gives you more objectivity I think. Add that to Bockris’ talent to cut the crap and go to the heart of what is happening and you will realize why Leto chose this bookand not another one, not even one Warhol wrote himself, to base the biopic on. This book is a must for anyone that reads and I clearly must mention here the 16 pages of amazing pictures that illustrates key moments in Warhol’s life. Andy Warhol must never be forgotten. I sincerely thank Victor Bockris not only for this book, but also for all his amazing work allowing those who weren’t part of ”it” in the 60’s and the 70’s to feel as if they were, to be able to really get a sense of what was going on back then in such a heartfelt way. In the end I would simply state that even if the biography is, Andy Warhol’s personality still is and always will be incomplete to me.
Just a little update; This is the reaction about my review I got by the author himself! Don’t forget to read the related interview!
‘‘Thank you Tobe. This is the most comprehensive review of the book which has been published in nine countries since 1989 and remains in print in several. I appreciate your comments and insights regarding all of my work”. -Victor Bockris
Just finished reading the latest Burroughs’ biography ”Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles and I was so enthusiastic about it I had a hard time putting it down. Just to give you an idea the intro consist in simply telling this (true) story in which Burroughs tries to get rid of this Ugly Spirit in a sweat tent with a few very close friends and a Shaman who finds it happens to be a much harder task than he originally thought it would be. the ”Ugly Spirit” won’t give up so easily and he really needs to use all the supernatural powers he has. After the ceremony he confides that at a certain point he wasn’t even sure he was going to be able to get rid of it.The intro ends by saying:”This is the story of William Burroughs battles with the Ugly Spirit”. Sounded VERY promising to me… The book doesn’t follow that lead though but rather gives a very well documented detailed bio about Bull’s parent’s, friends, travels, business projects, relationships, love..everything is in there!! It is very detailed and is very interesting even if it’s very different from Victor Bockris‘ bio ”Notes from the Bunker” which has a much more intimate approach but if you love Burroughs as I do, you will none the less be delighted by all the details that you always wanted to know but was too afraid to ask!
I can’t stress out how this is the ultimate detailed biography on Bill. Finally we are getting the whole, complete picture by someone who was very close to him, not in bits and pieces, the whole, complete, complex picture served on a continuous thread that we can all grasp fully and completely. Bill had a way of telling stories that were so personal that he’d always left you wanting to know more, just opening avenues after avenues, the embryo of the embryo of an idea that he has yet to explore and trust me, they are infinite… I think my wish was granted and I finally got to getting the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth in plain, simple and understandable words and figures of speech for all to understand and grasp the grandeur of this larger than life character who has shaped so many aspects of today’s art. I have read almost all his novels, lots of essays and other experiments, interviews with other significant masters of modern art (like Andy Warhol for example) but something tells me this was the ultimate voyage that I had been waiting for into the mind of the Godfather of Punk himself. I wasn’t even deceived to have uncover a his secret and that his mystery will be gone and I’m sure that all of you who knew him know very well why. So… even if I know you will want to finish this book very fast, I suggest that you take your time and savor every word, every page and every chapter of this biography I could definitely have a lot to say about it although whatever I could say will never be a match to what you can get by reading Bill’s bio. If you are a fan, you owe it to yourself to read this one and the one by Victor Bockris.
Discovering Burroughs and his art was a turning point in my life and from that moment I never saw life the same way I used to. William S. Burroughs is without question one of the most influential character of the modern ages and I intend to suck out every detail I can from him. I was once invited to meet him personally by Montreal writer and poet Denis Vanier (1949-2000) and his wife (also a writer) Josée Yvon (1950 -1994), both being close friends to Bull, told me they wanted to introduce me to him !! Imagine!! Vanier gave me a VIP pass for his shotgun paintings exhibition when he came to Montreal around 1989 but unfortunately fate and my crazy life back then didn’t allow me to meet him in person and I so regret that it was impossible for me to make it, I regret it to this day still.
(Always click on images for put in links!)
This guy has foreseen so many events, trends, politics, changing in arts, literature, performing arts, fashion, screening our lives like the FBI or the CIA would in an attempt to reduce our lives to basic intel but just falling in an endless spiritual torment of ideas and beliefs, occult images and visions if the past and the future … This is really all I can say about his work, trying to break it down in a few lines. It is simply impossible. Like I said before, do not go and try to understand word for word that he is saying, some of his books are more like a huge mosaic of images and ideas following a very thin and fuzzy line for an idea in huge brush strokes for sure he will give you inspiration and if he doesn’t give you inspiration he will for sure in some strange way understand where you can find it. I think the best quote I could use comes from the first book of the trilogy of “Cities of the Red Night” and the Old Man in the Mountain Hassan I Sabbah….
“Without a doubt, the single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut,” Richard Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love, his new collection of nonfiction. It’s a characteristically self-deprecating statement from a writer who started as one of the main sparks in New York City’s 1970s punk-rock movement. Hell has authored novels, books of poetry, and an acclaimed memoir—but his most lasting achievement, in his view, is that groundbreaking haircut.
Maybe it’s a strangely fitting legacy: Hell has been fascinated with hair since childhood. “Because it’s dead but personal and because I’m moved by the futility of its attempts to warm and protect the places where it grows,” as he put it in 2013’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Rachel Kushner’s review of that memoir lauded Hell’s commitment “to the unvarnished truth, about himself and others.” That honesty remains on display throughout Massive Pissed Love; at one point, he imagines asking Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth whether her hair is real or if she scalped an angel.
The collection is divided into three sections: long-form essays (“Massive”), angry takedowns (“Pissed”), and adoring panegyrics (“Love”). Hell, a prolific essayist and critic, has published everywhere: in Bookforum,the New York Times Book Review, GQ, and in the cunnilingus-themed issue of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, where he envisions eating out a deer whose “vagina would taste like warm folds of liquefying bubblegum and then like lobster meat drenched in lemon butter sauce.” Elsewhere, he writes on culture, politics, emotions, spirituality—anything he wants, really.
I first spoke to Hell for an essay I was working on about Michel Houellebecq and the nineteenth-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who figures prominently in Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. The discussion below took place soon after Houellebecq, who did a literary eventalongside Hell in Spain in 2008, wrote a widely discussed op-ed for the Times. (Antonin Baudry, The Paris Review’s newly appointed Paris editor, comments on it here.)Houellebecq’s call for France to be run without political parties or a government, through direct democracy, seemed like a fittingly punk-rock place to begin the conversation.
I’m happy that we’re talking again …
Me, too. When I read your e-mail about that Houellebecq op-ed it came flooding back how bizarre that piece was. It was typical, but it was also an extreme example of how he can just not give a fuck—that he could just be so casual and just mouth all this outrageous stuff that didn’t add up. It was fun to see the French government called morons in the Times, but on the whole the op-ed was also kind of disappointing. And that apparent call to close borders to immigrants was ugly. I can’t think of a more extreme example that I’ve seen of him being so … irresponsible.
But I know where he was coming from. When the World Trade Center attacks happened, I immediately wanted to take some kind of action for the first time in a long time, actually get politically active in a time-consuming, energy-consuming way. One of the things I did was start going to these meetings that sprang up where like-minded people who were opposed to invading Iraq would plan how to have an effect. There would be maybe five hundred people in these meetings, but they worked by consensus in a way I’d never seen before. In order for them to agree to do something, whether it was to plan a demonstration or write a petition, or any action whatsoever—everybody in the room had to agree. Every single person. And you had to stay there until everyone at the meeting agreed to do something. I can’t remember what the criterion was for just giving up, saying, Okay, this isn’t going to work. But they would literally spend three hours discussing the wording of a paragraph or something like that. And that drove me crazy. I guess in the most radical left that’s kind of an accepted procedure? Gloria Steinem had a book out recently, and she describes operating in that way—there was no hierarchy, everybody had to agree in order to move forward. I guess it’s kind of like anarchy. But direct democracy, if I understand what that means, is even more ridiculous and impractical. There’s no way that the entire population could have enough grasp of either the facts or the subtleties of the consequences of specific laws and policies to make decent decisions. That would be a full time job, which is why we elect people to make it their full time job. I don’t know, I’m kind of undecided on the question of anarchy versus capitalist democracy. I’d always thought of anarchy as being kind of like a pipe dream, something that couldn’t be a practical political choice—but it has very sophisticated thinkers who believe in it.
Anarchy seemed to be a bigger deal in the British punk movement than in the New York punk movement—the Ramones and Television and the Heartbreakers weren’t political in the way, say, the Sex Pistols or the Clash were. One of the things that surprised me about Massive Pissed Love is how political some of your recent writings have been—your statement objecting to the Iraq war in 2003, or your recollection of the weeks after 9/11, published in Libération. And in another piece you speak of the punk movement in New York in the seventies being political in terms of ignoring big companies and doing it yourself—your art or your music or your writing or whatever it is. That always struck me as an aesthetic decision, so I found it interesting that you characterized it as a political act.
Calling it political is a kind of classification—but that’s what comes to my mind when I think of deciding not to accept the manipulation of your values and choices by corporations. There’s a huge tendency to regard wealth as the primary evidence of success. You’re successful if you’re published by the largest publishers. You’re successful if you wear expensive designer clothes—even having the damn name of the designer featured as a major component of the design. You become an advertisement for them in order to have the status that comes with showing you can afford their stuff. Wouldn’t you call it political to say that you reject that? That you’ll dress in a way that bypasses them, you’ll publish stuff in a way that bypasses them, that in every facet of your life you’ll refuse to be shepherded by these people whose only interest is to make money from you? You’re saying, “I want to make work that I think is interesting rather than take the path of least resistance and surrender to a system.”
How do you see this new book fitting in with your other works?
I don’t make very much distinction, really. I think it’s consistent with all my other work. In my novels, I give myself a lot of the same kind of latitude I give myself in my nonfiction—to make digressions and to follow lines of thought in this sort of meandering way. And also to mix up the genres. The essays in Massive Pissed Love often have completely different forms, and I let myself do that in my novels, too. There’ll be a chapter that’s like an essay and then a chapter that’s all about first-person narrative and then a chapter that has poems in it—you know what I mean? I’m mostly interested in trying to write well, and the pretext for the writing is really minor. A lot of writing well is thinking well. If you think clearly, you’ll write clearly. But then that’s mixed up with the formal and alsomusical qualities you want in good writing. It’s amazing how significant the music of a sentence or a paragraph is, and writing can only really be good when it has this musical quality to it.
One of the most musical pieces in the collection is the essay about the Marilyn Minter piece—it’s totally lyrical, right from the start: “Up along the heart of the galaxy slides a tongue. I want the light on my tongue, always coming, coming from—everything … the desire to orally know a photon. The heart is ice cream.”
That piece kind of kicks out the jams, you know? It goes on feeling, and it’s an immediate feeling. It’s about sensuality. It doesn’t make an intellectual argument. It just kind of rhapsodizes, lyrically—it sort of goes off on a flight.
There’s a musicality to your prose even when you’re discussing music itself. In one of the essays, you mention that the good punk bands were too quick to be pinned down, that it’s impossible to define them. You’ve been a punk, a poet, a musician, a publisher, a novelist, a memoirist, a film critic—what do you most see yourself as?
My vocation is a writer. But I do have this weird—I don’t know if it’s arrogant, or naive—urge to want to try any art medium that interests me. If something stimulates me, I want to try doing it myself. Sometimes I think I might still become a painter. And I always thought I would eventually make a movie. I made a few stabs in that direction before I realized that it wasn’t really feasible. Everything I’ve ever done was me teaching myself how to do it. Usually that’s kind of the case with artists. It can be practical to go to school for a while, when you’re a kid, in that period where you’re, like, casting around to find out what you’re suited to do. But I was really terrible when I started writing. It was awful! Starting from when I was sixteen or seventeen, it took me maybe six years to write a poem that I thought was acceptable, that really had something that I could get behind and stay behind. And that’s when I decided to go into rock and roll. After my first album, I knew I had figured out how to do it. And I could see the trajectory—that I would get better and better. I could see where it would all lead. So I lost interest. I wanted to do something else then, so I started a novel. But I regard writing as my native area. Writing is just like a whole universe. I love that Mallarmé quote about how the world exists in order to be a book.
In one of the book’s essays, you write very forthrightly about what it means to be a singer—how a front man has to be egotistical and difficult, godlike. Basically, they have to be dicks. Were you like that?
Well, I’m talking about a very particular stratum of rock and roll—a particular kind of function—that rock and roll serves. I also acknowledge that there are other types of rock and roll. But, for me, I’m into the rock and roll that works the way I define it in that essay, where the front man is this focal point for all the dreams and ideals and fantasies of the audience. But it’s not because the front man is separated from the audience—it’s the exact opposite. It’s that the front man mirrors the audience. That’s what makes that function of the front person—women, too—so powerful and meaningful, that the performance is shared by the audience—the audience gets to feel their own power by surrendering to it. It’s classic Dionysian shit, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a religious revel of the audience feeling its own resources and depths of ecstatic engagement with life personified in the frontperson. But it’s a hard job for the front person, and it makes them cranky. Did I do that? On my best nights, I had some of that, yeah.
And how do you think that relates to writing?
Not much. It’s really, really different. That was part of what drew me to rock and roll, too, was that it involves so many different phenomena than writing. Rock and roll is so physical. Writing is not physical. As I say, it has this whole musical component, there’s a lot of sensual data incorporated—it can be really lush, it can be really elegant, it can have really subtle gradations of color—but it’s not physical the way music is. Music is waves of physical data pouring into your ears, not to mention all the human beings in front of you, if it’s a live show.
It does, of course, include lyrics, and I took that really seriously. It was a very different form of writing than I had ever done. The form itself of a song lyric was nothing like my poems, nothing like any of the sort of writing that I had done. When I wrote lyrics, they were like little mechanisms. I took a really classical approach to the form of songwriting. They were rhymed, they were obviously rhythmical in this strict way, but the rhythms would vary from song to song. I used all these complex forms of clockwork. My songs are almost like John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins, where the form is really strict and everything adds up. You make a statement in a stanza and then the implications are presented in the chorus, and then you make another statement that’s consistent, that moves the discussion along a little further, in the next stanza, and then it gets summed up by the chorus again. It was very formal. People don’t think of punk music as being like that, but my lyrics were really like clockwork. It doesn’t mean it’s cold or mechanistic—it’s just that I liked having the constraints of the form. I imposed them on myself because it was fun. I always wrote the music first, but I wrote the lyrics to fit the construction of the music in this very exacting way.
What is it that made you want to write nonfiction?
My nonfiction is mostly about art. That doesn’t mean that there’s a big distinction between my nonfiction and my fiction. My fiction has probably more to do with reality than my nonfiction does—reality is just a term of convenience. What it refers to can’t be defined. But that’s what’s interesting in trying to make a piece of work—is to try to stay open, as much as you can, to the implications of everything, to have it be present in your writing.
You contend that the most interesting artists are those who aim to make works that correspond to life, but that only three or four people per century achieve that.
That’s the ultimate achievement. And there’s no shame in not being cut out for that or having your area as a writer be more defined and limited. There’s a super-pantheon of unclassifiable masterpieces like In Search of Lost Time, artworks by Borges, Rimbaud, Godard, Bob Dylan, Beethoven. There are three or four artists in a given medium per century who have limitless ambitions and actually have the means to carry them out. I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that the greatest books—I’ll get this completely wrong, you’ll probably have to look it up—the greatest books create their own genre. They follow no preexisting form. There’s no precedent, ultimately, for the way they’re put together and the way they operate. Those are really rare—but it’s not like you’re a failure if you didn’t do that.
Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Fruit Hunters and The Book of Immortality.
His plots play out like fever dreams, swirling through time and perception, but Charles Burns’ aesthetic style alone is enough to make you queasy. In a class on underground comix, I was assigned Burns’ most popular tome, Black Hole, as an introduction to contemporary comic art. During the second session on Burns, a few of my classmates begged the professor to let us move on. “I just can’t look at this stuff anymore,” one of them said. She was sitting close to the projector screen and a page from Black Holefrom superimposed on her hair. I remember it being these panel: My only qualm with Black Hole, though I do love it, is the sinister use of yonic imagery. Some useful information emerges from the vaginal openings Burns draws in his character’s feet or throats, but mostly it’s just more nightmares. Flipping through Burns’ book, you begin to feel tension building around the image of what most characters call “the slit”. Oh great, another evil vagina, come to absorb you and your agency. What I found most exciting in Black Hole were the repeated images of monstrous teenagers.
They experience bodily changes which mirror “normal” stages of puberty (i.e. new patches of body hair, sensual urges toward others, changes in skin texture), becoming alienated from unchanged teens around them.
The kids in Black Hole are altered and mutated by a sexually transmitted infection (or something, it’s never fully explained.) Although they have a lot in common, they fall into isolation by blaming each other, losing themselves in numbing drug use, or fading into repetitive nightmares which blend into Burns’ depictions of reality. The reader is left questioning what’s real and what isn’t.
As far as monsters, the most engaging depictions in Black Hole are the yearbook-photo style drawings lining the jacket. Readers love these anonymous, twisted, rotting teenagers so much that they’ve even recreated some of the portraits in photos.Burns’ teen faces are made grotesque with the addition of insect parts, or by the omission of recognizable human traits like eyebrows or hair. It’s funny how a teen with vicious acne and greasy hair is considered “normal,” while a teen with larger teeth and a rotting scalp becomes something else, something more disturbing, simply because we don’t recognize these changes. Monsters, again, need to be slightly unfamiliar or surprising.
It would be a disservice to Charles Burns to discuss his flair for monstrous images without discussing his other pieces. So far I’ve found The Hivetrilogy more engaging, as its set in a world different than our own. His use of flat color, without depth of focus or gradients, makes his creatures look as if they’ve been drawn for children, and this makes the books more uncomfortable to read.
The long, strange trip that began in X’ed Out and continued in The Hive reaches its mind-bending, heartbreaking end, but not before Doug is forced to deal with the lie he’s been telling himself since the beginning. In this concluding volume, nightmarish dreams evolve into an even more dreadful reality…
The series centres around a troubled young man, Doug, in a non-linear narrative interspersed with dream-like sequences, varying levels of reality among a man who has overdosed, a weird world of worms where a reverse Tintin named Nitnit is finding his way, and angsty drama that will be familiar to readers of Black Hole.
I just finished reading Sugar Skull yesterday, well in fact I reread the whole thing starting with the first album and by God it definitely is a striking masterpiece. Charles Burns manages to make reality seem even worse than his nightmarish visions. It is a blend between Eraserhead and something by Daniel Clowes but I thought it was way better than anything he had done so far. Pushing his strange world into ours. It is very harsh. Very sarcastic. Almost traumatic. For sure I enjoyed every page of it. I must admit I had doubts that it would be good and that the wait wouldn’t be worth it but it was… but then again that’s just me…. Charles Burns always was and remains my favorite Graphic Novel author.
Burns has been producing this work at a slow rate of 64 pages every two years so it hasn’t exactly been a quick ride but who cares. This is one of my favorite comics of recent years—despite the low page count, every panel is filled with allusions, color-coded mystery and a complete world that it takes many readings to unpack. And of course, perfect cartooning.
Interesting in The Hiveand X’ed Out, the first two installments of Burns’ most recent collection, is the hierarchy of monsters. Burns doesn’t explicate his monstrous society through character dialogue, but his art suggests some monsters, though capable of fear and trauma, are just food for the larger, humanoid creatures.
In a sequence that has haunted me since I read it, an unintelligible creature eats an obviously terrified worm-monster. There are a few questions at play here: what separates a monster from an animal? Is this larger creature a cannibal, or is he simply eating the way we eat, popping prey into his mouth? His sneer suggests that he’s aware of the worm’s fear (or worse, he’s into it.) Burns’ narrator, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Tin Tin, looks on in stunned silence.
“Six years ago, when I started working on this project, I conceived the books as three separate books, even if they tell one complete story,” Charles Burns says about his just completed trilogy, which started with “X’ed Out,” in 2010, and was followed by “The Hive,” in 2012. The last installment, “Sugar Skull,” comes out September 16th. Burns, who turns fifty-nine this month, told us what inspired him:
The format of the three hardcovers is based on Tintin in its Franco-Belgian comics album format. I know it’s unusual for an American artist of my generation to be growing up with Tintin. These days, you can find it in all the bookstores, but, when I was growing up, there were just six books that came out and they just didn’t do very well.
Luckily, I had those books growing up. When I was five years old—I couldn’t even read yet—my Dad, who went to bookstores and libraries all the time, brought back one of those early Tintin books for me. It felt like the first book that was just my own. My sister read it, but it wasn’t for her—it was specifically for me. Also, it stood out from all of the other comics that I’d seen—the beautiful color printing—it was a world that you could really enter. It made a huge impression on me.
In those early American editions, there were six volumes, and then, at the very bottom of the last book, it said, “Look for additional titles coming soon.” And, of course, I looked for additional titles for years and years. Eventually, when they started being imported to the U.S., I found the British translations, but it took a long time. So as a kid looking at the books, I was filling in the holes, the missing pieces—kind of making up my own stories, I guess—looking at the back cover and seeing images that didn’t appear in the stories I knew. Now, the book I made—all three books—feels complete to me. I had a pretty firm idea of what the story was going to be when I started, but many things changed while I was working. In the end, all the pieces fit together the way I wanted, or as close as I could get. I feel like I’ve said everything I need to say.
See below for a few pages from “Sugar Skull”–though we strongly recommend that new readers start at the beginning.
“You have no idea…..”
If you do not know what a Sugar Skull is Click on image below:
The 2 previous albums of the trilogy:
”It’s not like here’s Anti TinTin”
As for other works: Burn’s Big Babyis interesting, because monstrous humans are difficult to depict in graphic novels. Burns’ protagonist, Big Baby, is both childlike and devious. Big Baby is a particularly impressionable young boy named Tony Delmonte, who lives in a seemingly typical American suburb until he sneaks out of his room one night and becomes entangled in a horrific plot involving summer camp murders and backyard burials. Burns’ clinical precision as an artist adds a sinister chill to his droll sense of humor, and his affection for 20th-century pulp fiction permeates throughout, creating a brilliant narrative that perfectly captures the unease and fear of adolescence.
Fears of the Dark, Burns’ short animated segment had some interesting moments. His creaky insectoids, as they cared for their victim, were pretty unsettling. As usual, I wanted more from the human characters; Burns’ humans tend to appear numb, or only vaguely ruffled despite the atrocities he puts them through.
“Are the El Borbah stories actually, you know, important? Hell no. This is Burns pop recycling at his manic and hysterical best. For all his later work, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Burns is, you know, a really funny guy. And never has this been more on display as through El Borbah’s adventures, vague detective tales where our hardboiled antihero is a misanthrope in a Mexican wrestling outfit, unraveling mysteries with equal doses of contempt and fisticuffs, like every weird television moment of the fifties and sixties exploding onto a page. El Borbah is a giant book with beautiful stuff inside. Well worth it at twice the price.”-Matt Fraction atwww.artbomb.net
”Big Baby is a particularly impressionable young boy named Tony Delmonte, who lives in a seemingly typical American suburb until he sneaks out of his room one night and becomes entangled in a horrific plot involving summer camp murders and backyard burials. Burns’ clinical precision as an artist adds a sinister chill to his droll sense of humor, and his affection for 20th-century pulp fiction permeates throughout, creating a brilliant narrative that perfectly captures the unease and fear of adolescence. “At once alluring and grotesque, Burns’ imagery has been eagerly embraced by the counterculture, mainstream media, and a recalcitrant art world without ever compromising his strikingly singular aesthetic.” – Juxtapoz
“The work of Charles Burns is a vision that’s both horrifying and hilariously funny, and which he executes with cold, ruthless clarity… It’s almost as if the artist… as if her weren’t quite… human!”–R. Crumb
“These comics are brilliant, loaded with humor and a love of B-movies, pulps, and old comic books. ‘Curse of the Molemen’ is a classic of modern cartooning, and alone would make this book worth buying.”–John Porcellino
He certainly has an eye for round, jutting ugliness, and I admire how tension undulates through most of his stories. More uncomfortable than horrifying, Burns is a classic for any monster-lover. I imagine I’ll give his books to a teenage kid one day. At the very least, I think any offspring I’d have would enjoy Uncle Death:
I too have read ”Just Kids” by Patti Smith, which is an homage to her lover, friend, fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe as well as her own personal bio and I’m looking forward to read this one. TY ”Motorcycle Boy”!! 😉
M-Train by Patti Smith is a collection of stories by the poet laureate of punk rock. Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith is an American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist who became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album Horses.
To be honest, I have been a Patti Smith fan since 1978. I have all her albums, seen her in concert, and own several of her books including number 86 of 100 of WIIT. I was really surprised at how well received and the broad appeal of Just Kids and I was interested in seeing how well M-Train would fare.
I waited a while to start this book wanting to hold on to the idea of a new Patti Smith book before risking disappointment. I saw one review that talked about coffee and mentioned the word was mentioned forty-seven times. Actually it…
Warhol directed over 400 screen tests, and they serve now and forever as a remarkable archive of the personalities of the New York art scene and the Factory. Artists, male and female prostitutes, art dealers, transexuals, collectors, critics, writers, musicians, lesbians, actors, poets, dandys, painters, sculptors, dancers, strippers, athletes, sinners and saints, servers and patrons are all very well represented, as are the celebrities of the ”Factory’s Studio System” themselves. Those series of portrait films were shot from 1964 to 1966 and each test was about four minutes long. Warhol would place his subject in front of a 16mm Bolex with instruction to face the camera until the film stopped. In many cases, Warhol would walk away from the subject as the film was shooting without any further instructions, giving them absolute freedom to be and to do whatever they wanted as long as they remained in the frame.
William Burroughs never sat for a screen test. Given the hype and excitement that surrounded Burroughs during his time in New York City in 1964/1965, this is somewhat surprising. At the time, Burroughs was an underground celebrity, a perfect subject for a screen test. Yet Burroughs and Warhol did not hit it off in the 1960s. Panna Grady, a rich heiress and a groupie of underground poets and writers, took Burroughs to meet Warhol for dinner. They went to a Chinese restaurant, where Burroughs was offended by the manners of those in Warhol’s entourage. Burroughs walked out.
The personalities of the two men were quite a bit different, as must have been obvious when they met. Warhol cultivated a camp and effeminate gay persona that was the polar opposite of Burroughs’ gun-toting machismo. Burroughs’ letters of the 1950s are filled with his dislike for swishes, so coming face-to-face with Warhol must have aroused some level of distaste. Creatively, however, the two had much in common. Before their ill-fated dinner, Warhol arrived at Burroughs’ loft with a bag of tape-recording equipment. Surely this piqued Burroughs’ interest because Burroughs asked Warhol to leave the recorders at the loft.
I am fascinated by Warhol during the Factory years, and it is an interesting “what if” to me to wonder what a collaboration between Burroughs and Warhol would have been like. How would Burroughs have reacted to a screen test? If anybody could have out-stared a Bolex, without a doubt, it would have been Burroughs. For my part, I catch myself fantasizing about it and think that the camera would have blinked, tore up, or broke down under the strain of Burroughs’ impassive, sullen gaze or that, on the contrary, Burroughs would not even register on the film…. After all, In Mexico City, Peru, Panama, and Tangier, Burroughs stalked back alleys anonymously, melting into the shadows without leaving a trace on his surroundings. The banker’s suit and the grey hat were the uniform of the 1950s Everyman. Or maybe a Nobody. Not for nothing did Burroughs’ ability to blend in and disappear earn him the name “El Hombre Invisible.”
Face to Face
Ironically, Burroughs’ non-descript clothes became iconic by the 1970s. Immediately recognizable, precisely because he was invisible. The banker’s clothes disguised a revolutionary: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Burroughs returned to New York City from 1974 to 1981, Warhol was still holding court, although the Factory gave way to Studio 54. The screen tests were replaced by celebrity portraits painted for a sizable fee. Interestingly, it was at this period, when Burroughs truly broke into mainstream consciousness, that Warhol and Burroughs would connect. When Burroughs lived in New York City at the Bunker, he and Warhol met again for dinner, and the results were much more cordial than 1965. Victor Bockris who wrote A Report from the Bunker taped several of these meetings, made all the transcripts, added his personal notes and photos as well as others by Marcia Resnick, Bobby Grossman, Jenny Moradfar and David Schmidlapp in a very interesting book that was released first under the title ”The Warhol-Burroughs Tapes”, later changed to ”Conversations”. At first glance the conversations appear to be somehow superficial but nevertheless, because of its honesty, you still can very well get a good insight of each participant’s particular behavior ”au naturel”. ”Conversations”gives you the same feeling that one would get from looking at Warhol screen tests; It may seem superficial at first but you get to see the real person if you wait, watch closely and pay attention without waiting for ”something” to happen. For some reason this book was controversial and I will not go into the details of why because to me, no matter what people say, it still is a very important document that would not have seen the day if it wasn’t for Bockris relentless efforts to make it happen. Let me give you a delightful example here as Bull and Warhol have an open conversation, talking sex, sharing about their ”First Time”:
Burroughs: Cocteau had this party trick that he would pull. He would lie down, take off his clothes, and come spontaneously. Could do that even in his fifties. He’d lie down there and his cock would start throbbing and he’d go off. It was some film trick that he had.
Bockris: How’d he pull that off? Have you ever been able to come through total mental—
Burroughs: Oh, I have indeed. I’ve done it many times. It’s just a matter of getting the sexual image so vivid that you come.
Warhol: How old were you when you first had sex?
Burroughs: Sixteen. Just boarding school at Los Alamos Ranch School where they later made the atom bomb.
Warhol: With who?
Burroughs: With this boy in the next bunk.
Warhol: What did he do?
Burroughs: Mutual masturbation. But during the war this school, which was up on the mesa there thirty-seven miles north of Santa Fe, was taken over by the army. That’s where they made the atom bomb. Oppenheimer [the scientist who invented the bomb] had gone out there for his health and he was staying at a dude ranch near this place and said, “Well, this is the ideal place.” It seems so right and appropriate somehow that I should have gone to school there. Los Alamos Ranch School was one of those boarding schools where everyone rode a horse. Fucking horses, I hate ‘em. I had sinus trouble and I’d been going to New Mexico for my health during the summer vacations and then my family contacted the director, A. J. Connell, who was a Unitarian and believed very much in positive thinking, and I went there for two years. This took place on a sleeping porch, 1929.
Warhol: How great! Was the sex really like an explosion?
Burroughs: No no … I don’t remember it was so long ago.
Warhol: I think I was twenty-five when I first had sex, but the first time I knew about sex was under the stairs in Northside, Pittsburgh, and they made this funny kid suck this boy off. I never understood what it meant…
Burroughs: Made him do what?
Warhol: Suck this boy off, but I didn’t know what it meant, I was just sitting there watching when I was five years old. How did you get this kid to do it, or did he do it to you?
Burroughs: Oh I don’t know, sort of a lot of talking back and forth…
Here’s a remarkable clip of the pair chatting in the very room in which Arthur Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey! The footage is from an episode of the BBC documentary program Arena about the Hotel Chelsea and there are a couple of odd narrative elements to it, but the clip mercifully ends with Nico singing a haunting rendition of “Chelsea Girls”—in the Chelsea Hotel itself, one wonders if it was in Room 506…..
In 1974 William S. Burroughs and David Bowie got together for a little chat, documented by Rolling Stone. Here’s a particularly weird part where Burroughs and Bowie talk about the alien and reptilian nature of Andy Warhol:
Burroughs: Have you ever met Warhol?
Bowie: Yes, about two years ago I was invited up to The Factory. We got in the lift and went up and when it opened there was a brick wall in front of us. We rapped on the wall and they didn’t believe who we were. So we went back down and back up again till finally they opened the wall and everybody was peering around at each other. That was shortly after the gun incident. I met this man who was the living dead. Yellow in complexion, a wig on that was the wrong colour, little glasses. I extended my hand and the guy retired, so I thought, ‘The guy doesn’t like flesh, obviously he’s reptilian.’ He produced a camera and took a picture of me. And I tried to make small talk with him, and it wasn’t getting anywhere.
But then he saw my shoes. I was wearing a pair of gold-and-yellow shoes, and he says, ‘I adore those shoes, tell me where you got those shoes.’ He then started a whole rap about shoe design and that broke the ice. My yellow shoes broke the ice with Andy Warhol.
I adore what he was doing. I think his importance was very heavy, it’s becoming a big thing to like him now. But Warhol wanted to be clichi, he wanted to be available in Woolworth’s, and be talked about in that glib type of manner. I hear he wants to make real films now, which is very sad because the films he was making were the things that should be happening. I left knowing as little about him as a person as when I went in.
Burroughs: I don’t think that there is any person there. It’s a very alien thing, completely and totally unemotional. He’s really a science fiction character. He’s got a strange green colour.
Bowie: That’s what struck me. He’s the wrong colour, this man is the wrong colour to be a human being. Especially under the stark neon lighting in The Factory. Apparently it is a real experience to behold him in the daylight.
Burroughs: I’ve seen him in all light and still have no idea as to what is going on, except that it is something quite purposeful. It’s not energetic, but quite insidious, completely asexual. His films will be the late-night movies of the future.
Despite the coldness of their first meeting, Burroughs and Warhol briefly bonded in Burroughs’ loft over the tape recorder. This machine proved central to the creative work and philosophies of both artists in the 1960s. Burroughs: “I am a recording instrument.” Warhol: “I want to be a machine.” Burroughs utilized the tape recorder from the late 1950s on. In his essay ”The Invisible Generation”, Burroughs proclaims such technology as an agent for revolutionary change. Warhol relied on the tape recorder for most of his literary projects. A: A Novel is at its simplest a transcription of Warhol star Ondinetalking about the events of his day. Tape transcriptions made up the bulk of Popismand The Philosophy of Andy Warhol as well. Ideally, Warhol sought to just let the tape run and present verbatim transcriptions. There would be no stopping or re-starting of the tape, no edits, no cuts. On the other hand, Burroughs aggressively manipulated the tape. He inched it backwards and forwards, recording and re-recording. He cut and spliced the tape. The resulting transcripts were heavily revised and altered. These two creative icons are on the opposite ends of the spectrum concerning the process of editing. Yet the goal is the same: a dissolving of the control of the artist, a striving for the impersonal.
The major difference between the films of Warhol and Burroughs is, again, the cut. Burroughs’ films are full of aural and visual cuts, and Warhol uses the cut sparingly, if at all. Despite opposing editing techniques, the desire to displace the artist is the same. Of course, just the reverse occurs. Reading Burroughs cut-up texts, his personal obsessions and style shine through. The same occurs with his films. The selection of images and sounds betray his hand. He cannot help but impose his personal imprint. The same holds true for Warhol. Within the seemingly very strict parameters of the screen test, extremely individual, personal performances result. No screen test is exactly the same, even with the same subject filmed for several different tests. If you doubt this, view the several different tests taken of Baby Jane Holzer or Edie Sedgwick. Each test has its unique qualities. The personalities of the sitter show through as does that of Warhol.
UPPERS, DOWNERS & WITHDRAWALS SYMPTOMS
Watching the films of Burroughs and Warhol from a drug perspective, I feel that their styles could have been reversed. The drug of choice for Warhol and his art was amphetamine, while Burroughs preferred heroin. One would expect rapid cuts of image and sound from Warhol, and yet it was Burroughs’ cut-up films that reflect the speed freak’s sense and sensibility. Conversely, Warhol films like Sleep and Empire seem to capture the perspective of the junkie on the nod. Burroughs famously wrote in Naked Lunch that while on junk he could stare with interest at his shoe for hours. What would Burroughs have thought of a movie like Empire? Given his interest in editorial manipulation, Burroughs might have found it boring, preferring instead a movie like Chelsea Girls with its split-screen projection. Burroughs’ fascination with multiple perspectives hammers home the point that the world he described is largely seen through the lens of withdrawal. The kicking junkie is besieged by sensation. Spontaneous orgasms, crawling flesh, runaway thoughts. Burroughs’ art, cinematic and literary, captures and reproduces the experience of withdrawal more than the sensation of the fix. The hardcore addict fails to experience the euphoria of heroin in the same manner as a first-time user. Part of the kick is trying to recapture that initial rush. Burroughs’ strong sense of nostalgia stems in part from the longing of the addict for the first fix.
As Warhol was making screen tests in the 1960s, so in a way was Burroughs (along with Brion Gysin, Anthony Balch, and Ian Sommerville). Towers Open Fire (1963) opens with a long static shot of Burroughs which mirrors the portraits Warhol would begin creating a year later. In Guerrilla Conditions, later to become the basis for The Cut-Ups (1966), Burroughs introduced chance / found techniques similar to Warhol’s. Barry Miles writes, “The Cut Ups was literally that, with four reels of film being cut into twelve-inch lengths and assembled in rotation by a lab technician… No artistic judgment was made, and Balch was not even present.” The similarities to the restraints imposed on the screen tests are obvious.
I am more intrigued in considering a film like Bill and Tony(1972) as a Burroughsian screen test. The movie consists of the image of Burroughs mouthing Balch words, and Balch doing likewise to Burroughs’ words. Balch and Burroughs experimented with merging images to form a composite person. Burroughs was very interested in such superimpositions. Burroughs states, “Anthony Balch and I did an experiment with his face projected onto mine and mine onto his. Now if your face is projected onto somebody else’s in color, it looks like the other person. You can’t tell the difference; it’s a mask of light.” He states further, “Another experiment that Anthony and I did was to take the two faces and alternate them twenty-four frames per second, but it’s such a hassle to cut those and replace them, even to put one minute of alternation of twenty-four frames per second on a screen, but it is extraordinary.” Burroughs and Gysin also played with such techniques in The Third Mind experiments. The New Reformers photographs, produced in connection with the Colloque de Tanger in 1975, utilized such superimpositions. In 1971, Jan Herman visited Burroughs and Balch at St. Duke Street in London. At this time, the two men were making Bill and Tonyand performing the experiments Burroughs describes above. Herman took part in these experiments and recorded a session on videotape. The results are available exclusively on RealityStudio.
As the video shows, Burroughs introduces montage to the screen test. Montage, collage, assemblage, like the cut-up technique, all center on the cut. In the screen tests, Warhol avoided the edit, the physical cut. The duration of the movie was dictated by the length in feet of the packaged roll of film. No takes, no director yelling cut, no splicing of the film. On the other hand, Burroughs urged a generation to cut up everything. Film, text, audio tape all was fair game for the scissors. Warhol and Burroughs’ editing techniques differed but their goal of depersonalization (and eventual failure to achieve those goals) were the same.
Both Warhol and Burroughs were well exposed to the world of experimental film from Russian avant-garde film of the 1920s to Surrealist film of the 1930s to the New American Film of the post-WWII era. Warhol was a fixture at The Filmmakers’ Co-op and a friend of numerous underground filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith (before their falling out), Willard Maas, and Marie Menken. These filmmakers were subjects for screen tests. Through Gysin and Balch (who distributed European soft-core films), Burroughs would have been exposed to a number of experimental films. I suspect Burroughs and Warhol were well aware of each other’s films as well.Towers Open Fire was completed in 1963 before the underground film boom of the next year. Much of what became The Cut-Ups were filmed around that time. Sections ofThe Cut-Ups were filmed in the Chelsea Hotel in 1965, the year Warhol and Burroughs first met. Given his connection with Mekas and others, Warhol may have heard about Burroughs’ film experiments as early as 1963. Interestingly, despite Burroughs’ absence from Warhol’s films, particularly the Screen Tests, they are Burroughsian in spirit (alternatively Burroughs’ films are Warholian) as both men had similar obsessions and interests. Burroughs’ films of the mid-1960s have images of young men in bed, of static portraits, of artwork being created in Factory-type fashion.
One day a young man appeared at the Factory introducing himself as Julian Burroughs, the son of William Burroughs. The man was in fact Andrew Dungan. Here is the real actual story of what happened, as told by the man himself (see comment section for current post):
”I was drafted into the army in 1966 and deserted in June 1967. In October, after the March on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. I arrived in NYC. Walking down the street I met Warhol and Paul Morrissey by chance and they asked me to be in a movie that evening. They had asked me my name and I did give him my fugitive name which I had constructed from the knowledge that he did have a son, (who oddly enough I later met as he was a friend of my brother), and I felt it would get me off the hook if I was busted by the FBI agents presumably looking for me. Well, we made the movie that night and I sort of got along with Andy and Paul and the others and, being straight, was passed around among the females in the entourage. Heady experience, but the heavy paranoia of living in NYC made it difficult. Still, I hung out, dined on the Warhol tab at Max’s Kansas City, and came up with the concept for Lonesome Cowboys- based on Romeo and Juliet, hence Ramona and Julian in the film. The police did get word I was connected with Warhol and I got out of town to Paris in April 1968. Lived there for six years before getting an amnesty when Nixon got his pardon, saw Andy a few times, but returned to California, and have led my quiet life here in LA though I still am in contact with people like Viva. Saw William Burroughs once and told him my story and he enjoyed it. But it was really a chance encounter not a con or an attempt to get into the Warhol scene.”
The idea of a doppelganger of this type always appealed to Warhol (who probably got that from Dali who was obsessed by doubles and copies). He played such tricks himself. Before all that took place Warhol had already sent Allen Midgette (who sat for a screen test) on a speaking tour of the United States posing as Warhol himself in October 1967 before the time of the Julian Burroughs hoax. Most famously, Edie Sedgwick had dyed her hair silver and accompanied Warhol to parties and openings as a female version of Warhol. Quite possibly, the hoax perpetrated on the Factory inspired Warhol to try it himself, although forgery and impersonation were already staples of the Factory aesthetic. In any case, Warhol cast Dungan / Julian in Lonesome Cowboys and Nude Restaurant. So indirectly Burroughs was a Warhol superstar. Burroughs appeared on Saturday Night Live, was the Godfather of Punk, was profiled in People. Such flash and recognition captivated Warhol. The pinnacle of this type of attention would be the Nike adin 1994 that capitalized on Burroughs’ iconic status in the realm of, not Punk, but Cyber-Punk. Burroughs may never have set foot in the Factory but his presence was felt there and bled into Warhol’s films of the period. Similarly in the screen-test feel of Bill and Tony, Warhol proves to be a ghost in the machine in Burroughs’ films.
This article is largely inspired by Jed Birmingham and his ideas on the cinema of Burroughs and Warhol. The links have been updated and some have been added but you don’t have to check every single one of them although I really made a big effort to make this interesting to people who aren’t that much into this kind of stuff.