‘The priest they called him’: the wild and crazy life of William S Burroughs

Probably the third most famous drug addict in literary history died 25 years ago today

After Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas DeQuincy, William Burroughs (who died on this day in 1997) is probably the third most famous drug addict in literary history. However, he was also hailed by Norman Mailer as “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”.

Born to a wealthy family in Missouri, Burroughs went to Harvard University. His early life seems to have been a sexually confusing time for Burroughs. Initially, he attended the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which was a boarding school for wealthy students where – as he put it – “the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens”. This did not go according to plan, however, as his journals indicate that he was sexually attracted to another boy during his time there. Despite subsequently losing his virginity to a female prostitute in a brothel in St Louis, while at Harvard, he made regular trips to New York City, immersing himself in the gay subculture there.

Luckily for Burroughs, after he graduated, his parents gave him a monthly allowance of $200. This meant that for the next 25 years, he didn’t have to work and was free to write. It was in New York that he met the other leading lights of the “Beat Generation” as they became known – Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

In 1944, Burroughs moved in with Joan Vollmer in an apartment they shared with Kerouac and his first wife. A friend of Burroughs from St Louis, Lucien Carr, killed another man who, Carr claimed, was stalking him and making unwanted sexual advances. He told Burroughs and Kerouac but they didn’t report it. At this time, Burroughs also began using morphine and became addicted. After a search of their apartment, police found letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg about a possible delivery of marijuana. This, combined with his involvement with Carr, meant that Burroughs was in trouble with the police. He and Vollmer – and their newly-born son, William S Burroughs, Jr – fled to Mexico.

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While living in Mexico, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” (something they referred to as their party piece) that went wrong. Burroughs was arrested and thrown in jail but his brother bribed officials to have him released on bail while he awaited trial for the charge of “culpable homicide”. Burroughs skipped bail and returned to the United States. He was convicted in his absence and was given a suspended sentence of two years in jail. Years later, Burroughs denied the “William Tell” story:

“I had that terrible accident with Joan Vollmer, my wife. I had a revolver that I was planning to sell to a friend. I was checking it over and it went off – killed her. A rumour started that I was trying to shoot a glass of champagne from her head William Tell-style. Absurd and false.”

Burroughs’s killing of Vollmer would be a turning point in his life, one that saw him begin writing in earnest:

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death ... the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”

In 1953, Burroughs travelled to Tangier, Morocco. The easy availability of drugs there led him to stay. In the story, The Lemon Kid, Burroughs wrote about his early images of Tangier:

“As a young child Audrey Carsons wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.”

The truth was somewhat less romantic. Burroughs became – as he wrote in the book, Junky – “a ghost in daylight on a crowded street”. He spent four years in Tangier working on the book that would finally make his name – Naked Lunch. The book was produced under the influence of marijuana and opiates. Naked Lunch used a style that Burroughs would go on to pioneer known as “cut-up technique”, where he cut up phrases and words to create new sentences as well as cutting different scenes together, even if they were out of context or didn’t make narrative sense. He described Naked Lunch as a book that could be cut into at any point. Burroughs later defended his “cut-up technique”:

“People say to me, ‘Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up.’ I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up? Somebody has to program the machine; somebody has to do the cutting up. Remember that I first made selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one.”

The novel would go on to be an influence on many writers and musicians, including David Bowie (who borrowed Burrough’s cut-up technique for his lyrics), and science-fiction authors such as William Gibson – not to mention being seen by many as a precursor to postmodernism.

When Naked Lunch was eventually published by Olympia Press in 1959, it caused a huge controversy. The United States postmaster general classified it as “obscene” material and ruled that it could not be mailed to subscribers. Eventually, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the book was not obscene. At this point, Naked Lunch had established Burroughs’s name.

In 1966, Burroughs went to live in London to try and kick his heroin addiction through a revolutionary new withdrawal treatment being offered there. He wrote: “I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness.”

Around this time, James Grauerholz, who was a big fan of the writers of the “Beat Generation” and Burroughs in particular, had the idea of sending Burroughs on a reading tour, akin to the rock tours undertaken by bands and singers. These were a huge success and would eventually support Burroughs throughout the next two decades.

In 1976, Burroughs’s son, Billy – now suffering from alcoholism – was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and had to have a liver transplant. Burroughs took care of his son for many months during this period. However, Burroughs Jr. couldn’t kick his alcohol addiction and died in 1981 having returned to drinking.

At this point, Burroughs was once again addicted to heroin. From this time until his death, he went through a number of drug-free periods, only to eventually relapse again. In 1981, he moved to Laurence, Kansas, where he lived for the rest of his life. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Burroughs had a resurgence in popularity and recorded with a number of bands, including Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, as well as starring in a number of movies, such as Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. He died of complications from a heart attack in 1997. At the time, he was still on a methadone programme.