A caretaker’s view of the William S. Burroughs centenary in Lawrence, Kansas.
Door knock, dinnertime, summer 2009. Scraggly white male, 20s, red eyes.
– “I need to be hurt.”
– “Hurt me.”
– “You’ve got the wrong house.”
In 2009, I counted approximately 60 tourists at the William S. Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas, the year I moved in as resident caretaker. Keep in mind that these are only the tourists I happened to see. I work for William Burroughs Communications (WBC), headed by James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ best friend and editor, and executor of the Burroughs estate.
Burroughs’ former home is a two-bedroom bungalow, red with white trim, in a quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood south of downtown. Burroughs found peace and security here, and lived in Lawrence longer than anywhere else in his life. The estate owns the house as a private residence—it isn’t open to the public. There are no Burroughs artifacts here (too obvious); his effects are in secure storage elsewhere. We use the house to host meetings and private events, and to house WBC guests, who stay in Burroughs’ room. During busy times, I call it the WSB&B. 2014, the centenary of Burroughs’ birth (he was born in 1914 and died in 1997), was the busiest year yet.
Over 200 tourists visited the house in 2013 with a marked increase in young visitors, particularly females. I had never before thought of Burroughs as a woman’s writer. Even more surprising is the number of younger visitors only slightly aware of Burroughs’ literary career. They perceive him more as a counter-culture godfather, a charismatic old dissident who made drug movies and hung out with Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain. True enough, but a tiny part of the picture. The young folk come mostly because Burroughs is famous, dangerous and seditiously cool. Their zeitgeist has been waiting for Burroughs to arrive.
Anyone with a bent for Western literature must eventually address the Beat Generation, specifically the Big Beat Three: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959).
Burroughs, the elder of the three, was more architect and mentor than Beat proselyte—he wasn’t much of a joiner. Nevertheless, he embodied many of the counter-culture ideals of the Beat movement. He was highly intelligent (Harvard, 1936), seemingly fearless, and overtly critical of the control systems of American institutions. He frequently tussled with the law. He distrusted the media, scoffed at social mores, scorned the corporate model and decried Big Brother government—sentiments far more prevalent today than in the 1950s. Devoted Burroughs fans see him as a whistle-blower, if not a prophet.
Most tourists hop out of the car, stand in front of the house for a picture, post it to Facebook and move on. The true pilgrims—people who can quote Burroughs and have favorite books—linger with hopeful looks. If I happen to be working in the front garden, we talk. “What brings you here?” is my usual question. Usually they answer: “To be where he was.”
The pilgrims come in all ages and types: professors and students; geeks and hipsters; a surprising number of families; dozens of writers, photographers, and filmmakers; vans of rock bands; and, in summer, an influx of Europeans, mostly German, Scandinavian, and British. The visitor count rises again at Thanksgiving and Christmas—the house is on the unofficial local landmarks tour.
The majority of visitors are polite but there are trespassers. Anything that might pass for an artifact has been stolen. I’ve caught frat boys with flashlights in the back garden after midnight (that isn’t Burroughs’ typewriter, guys; it was placed there years after he died), and a woman digging up plants in broad daylight. “William Burroughs is a public person so this is public property,” she stated. Anticipating an increase in tourist traffic during the centenary, Grauerholz had a fence installed out front. So far, so good.
Tourist traffic did indeed increase this year, due in large part to the Lawrence Arts Center (LAC). Many of the dozens of centenary events around the world focused on February 5, Burroughs’ birthdate. The LAC’s multi-media exhibition of Burroughs’ visual artworks, “Creative Observer,” opened on January 17 in a raging blizzard. With the Burroughs archive nearby, the LAC show was unprecedented in scope: paintings (including several shotgun works), drawings, collages, sculptures (a triptych of garage doors), films, photographs, and recordings. Works too big or too fragile for shipping were exhibited for the first time. The packed opening night kicked off a week of dinners, get-togethers and campouts at the Burroughs house.
The months that followed would see gallerist James Elphick, a founder of the Burroughs 100 website, come from London to help install the show. Filmmaker Aaron Brookner and his two-man crew flew from New York to document the LAC exhibition for his forthcoming Burroughs movie, Smash the Control Machine. Cellist James Ilgenfritz, composer of the Burroughs-based avant-garde opera, The Ticket That Exploded, performed in the main gallery. Director John Waters, a longtime Burroughs insider, wowed a sell-out LAC crowd with a Burroughs-heavy version of his one-man show, This Filthy World. Former National Endowment of the Arts Literature Director Ira Silverberg and London-based author Barry Miles showed up for a panel discussion with Grauerholz at the LAC, Miles returning in April to work on the archives for five weeks. Miles, a man who can get Paul McCartney on the phone, released his authoritative
biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life, the week before Burroughs’ birthday.
In May, artist Nina Katchadourian came to sample Burroughs’ personal library for her Sorted Books project, the resulting photographs projected on Lawrence’s new and then-unfinished public library as part of the LAC’s annual Free State Festival in June.
That festival also had a strong Burroughs theme. R. Luke DuBois, a conceptual new media artist, projected the local newspaper’s anti-Burroughs editorial on the tallest building downtown, sentence by sentence. Musician Grant Hart, a founder of HÜsker DÜ who often visited Burroughs in this house, gave a blistering performance with an all-star, local pick-up band. I wish I had recorded him singing in the shower.
Some of Burroughs’ old friends have inflexible perceptions of who and what he was, but I’m fascinated by the ways new artists are carrying Burroughs’ ideas forward. Burroughs always insisted his work would determine its own value. From my five-year vantage point, the value is steadily rising.
I just heard a car door out front. Three gray heads with hopeful looks, one holding a fancy camera. The Beat goes on.
Tom King is a freelance writer in Lawrence, Kansas. View a selection of Burroughs’ art from the Lawrence Arts Center’s “Creative Observer” exhibit.