100 years of William S. Burroughs

Lawrence residents remember William S. Burroughs

Updated: 2014-01-26T02:59:31Z


Special to The Star

A friend related once seeing actress/model Lauren Hutton walking down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence. He approached and asked, “What are you doing in town?”

She turned and merely said, “Burroughs,” with the same dismissive inflection as saying, “Duh.”

Sure, William S. Burroughs was a cultural magnet who drew admirers from all over the globe to Kansas. But the “Naked Lunch” author didn’t touch the lives of just celebrities. In addition to his literary influence, he proved a vital, accessible part of the local art, music, film and university scene. As such, he interacted with an array of people during his 16-year tenure in Lawrence.

A few notable individuals recount key encounters with the Beat Generation legend.

Roger Shimomura

Professor of art emeritus at KU

In 1991, I had an exhibition of a series of portraits of 14 Lawrence denizens at Haskell Indian Junior College. Among them was a portrait of William Burroughs. While the show was up, I received a phone call from James Grauerholz, personal assistant to Burroughs. He said that performer Laurie Anderson was in Lawrence to visit with Burroughs, and the subject of the painting had come up. Both Burroughs and Ms. Anderson requested a trip to Haskell to view the piece.

Since they had no transportation, I drove over in my van to pick them up. As the only available space was the back of the van where there were no seats, the two of them loaded from the back doors and sat on the floor, crossed-legged, facing each other.

As I left the parking space and entered the street, the car tilted to the left and right a bit and sent both of them tumbling. I turned around and nearly panicked when I saw these two American icons rolling uncontrollably around the back of my van.

James Gunn

Hugo Award-winning author

Shortly after Burroughs moved to Lawrence, he served for a semester or two as a visiting writer and in that context gave a talk in Alderson Auditorium about his writing. In spite of his public appearance, which was a bit stiff and formal, more like an adding machine executive than a bohemian writer, and his monotone reading style, not looking up from the table in front of him, he seemed to be a student favorite.

I arrived late and took a seat at the very back of the auditorium and slipped out quietly at the end, but I was surprised to receive, a few days later, a note from Burroughs thanking me for attending the reading.

Burroughs was a science-fiction fan. I checked that out once. When the Beat Generation reunion was held in Lawrence, a reception was held at the Alvamar home of professor Roy Gridley’s mother-in-law. I happened to be standing by a grand piano when Burroughs approached me.

“What’s your favorite science-fiction novel?” I asked.

“Fury,” he replied.

It was a favorite of mine, too, written by Henry Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore and serialized in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1945 and published in book form a few years later.

“Do you remember the final sentence?” I asked.

“Of course, ‘Sam woke up.’ 

It was, indeed, the final sentence.

Mark Hennessy

Former lead singer of Paw

I had read, and loved, William Burroughs way before I met him or knew that he lived in Lawrence. He asked Paw for tickets to an Eighth Street Tap Room gig once through his secretary, gave a sword-cane to our buddy (and his sometime cook) Curt Flowers that I admired on a regular basis, but I met him only once: on campus, on the east lawn of Wescoe, during Lawrence’s — what was it — Riverboat Days? The gathering that brought, among myriad other gifts, a Keith Haring half-pipe to Lawrence.

William Burroughs and John Cage were watching tai chi students go through their forms. James Grauerholz stopped me on my way to class and introduced me to them both.

We spoke, but I remember nothing of what he said to me. I was starstruck by his voice, dumbfounded by meeting the Old Bull Lee of Beat mythology, and more than a little scared of the intelligence behind “Cities of the Red Night.”

Jacqueline Davis

Former executive director of the Lied Center

I remember going with Philip Glass to visit William on several occasions. Once he took me out to the backyard and said, “Look what I’m doing.” And he grabbed a shotgun and began shooting driftwood with paint on top of it to show me how the paint would drop and what it would form. That created part of the exhibit that was at the Spencer Museum of Art.

William drew people who were very important in the music world and the literary world because of his amazing stature and the wisdom he imparted. He always had time for all of these artists. They came to sit at the feet of William. All the controversy that surrounded him was not relevant to them. Somehow he touched a chord with them because of his literary genius.

Stan Herd

Crop artist

I was around William a few times at readings and other gatherings but can’t count myself a friend. I knew the gang: James Grauerholz, Jim McCrary, Wayne Propst, Mark Kaplan and the photographer Jon Blumb, who shot a lot of Burroughs portraits and also my earthworks.

I got a call one day that William wanted to fly over one of the earthworks. I met them all at the airport in Vinland on their return, as I recall, and William suggested he was impressed with my work.

I believe it was the Absolut Vodka image, and I remember being disappointed that it wasn’t one of my “pure” artworks. I think I said as much, and Bill just laughed at the idea. I also had a studio with my friend Wes Jackson (not the Land Institute Wes) at the old Turnhalle building just off Mass Street.

Wes used to box a lot of Bill’s shotgun paintings, building intricate crates to send to Europe, etc. So I got to spend a lot of time around those works. It was inspirational, and I found myself playing with some woodworks with oil paints.

Jon Blumb


On Sept. 25, 1992, William Burroughs was recording excerpts from his writing for a music video entitled ‘Just One Fix’ by Ministry. During a break in the session, he went across the street to his favorite bookstore, Town Crier.

The next thing I saw was William contentedly sitting in a brilliant pool of light, reading a paperback novel by Mary Kittredge entitled “Rigor Mortis.” The overhead light was reflected off the pages, beautifully illuminating the features of his face. He could not have been posed more perfectly.

Editor’s note: Blumb’s photo appears on the cover of today’s A+E section.

Ed Rose

Record producer

William was a Lawrence legend by the time I moved here in ’91, and everyone I met had a Burroughs story. Most included drugs, firearms and general orneriness. When I met him he was aloof — almost prickly — armed with an enormous handgun and handful of joints. All the legend stuff seemed to add up.

Over the next five years I engineered a number of sessions for William, and he slowly accepted me as OK. I never got to the inner circle level of trust but was close enough to be accepted casually and, on occasion, got to see him with his guard down.

During those sessions I heard him talk about all kinds of unsettling things — drug addiction and withdrawal, the deaths of friends, the death of his wife, the death of his son — and not once did his slow, mechanized monotone ever break stride.

When we started recording “The Cat Inside,” he hit a section that brought him to tears. Like full-on anguished sobbing kind of tears. James Grauerholz (producer of the session and president of Burroughs Communications) asked me to turn off the mic as he went in to comfort William and returned a few minutes later letting me know we were done for the day.

No “Give us a minute,” or “Let’s come back to this later.” We were just done. And we never came back to it. Up until that point, I’d pretty much bought into the folklore surrounding William and never in a million years would’ve expected a book about cats to bring him to tears.

In that moment I realized that, while a lot of the legend was true, there was another very human layer to him that few ever saw.

Ted Johnson

Professor emeritus

of French at KU

During spring of 1983, I conducted an undergraduate humanities course at KU on the works of Samuel Beckett. Bright and high-spirited students took it upon themselves to invite Mr. William S. Burroughs to speak to us. And so, one sunny spring morning late in the term, Mr. Burroughs came to our classroom in Fraser Hall.

Impeccably dressed with his usual dapper cap, coat and tie, and using note cards, Mr. Burroughs gave us a formal presentation turning around this acquaintance with Beckett and his work followed by diverse observations about literature.

It turns out that he admired the work of Proust more than Beckett. He sat formally at a table in front of the room, note cards in hand, and with his inimitable voice, he set forth ideas, one after the other, that hovered in the air like writs.

Vivien Jennings

Rainy Day Books owner

I never got to meet Burroughs, but when Austin Kleon, the author of “Steal Like an Artist,” was here a couple of years ago, he told a fun story about Burroughs. He referenced an interview where Burroughs talked about his cut-up method of writing, which is when you take a piece of writing, cut it up and reconfigure the pieces to make a new piece of writing.

He explained that Burroughs got the idea for the cut-up technique from his friend Brion Gysin, an American painter and poet who lived in Europe for 30 years. Burroughs met Gysin in Paris in 1960 after the French publication of “Naked Lunch.”

One day Gysin was preparing a canvas, and when he was cutting the canvas, he cut through a stack of newspapers, and the way the newspaper strips floated and the words worked together gave him an idea of how to make poetry.

Burroughs became interested in the possibilities of the technique and began experimenting himself with the cut-up method of writing. He also experimented with scrapbooks.  …When asked to comment on objections to the cut-up technique, Burroughs answered, “What is any writing but a cut-up? Remember that I first made selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one.”

The lure of Kansas

By the early 1980s, William Burroughs was done with New York City.

Barry Miles, author of “Call Me Burroughs,” the new biography of the “Naked Lunch” author, documents the locations in Mexico, Morocco, England and elsewhere that Burroughs lived or visited, and how he eventually felt at home in Lawrence.

“He was looking for somewhere cheap, quiet, where he could his shoot his guns and find a sympathetic group of friends,” Miles said. Burroughs’ longtime friend James Grauerholz, who had attended the University of Kansas, lived in Lawrence, Miles said. Burroughs, who died in 1997, spent his last years in the community.

“He liked James’ friends,” Miles said. “They accepted him for what he was and made no demands on him.”

• The author will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at Unity Temple on the Plaza. For more details and a review of his book, see page D11.

Brian Burnes, The Star

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