An extract from Alan Lord’s forthcoming memoir, which gives an insight into the avant-garde literary scene of the 1980s in Montreal and New York.
My introduction to the Beats came by way of Jack’s Book, a biography of Kerouac I picked up cheap in a Bleeker Street store remainder bin in New York, 1979. Bored with my engineering studies during the fall of 1981 I finally grabbed it from the shelf and started reading it simultaneously with On The Road, switching from one to the other, fact and fiction, each step of the way.
Sure, it was “Jack’s book”, but for me, the two people who clearly stood way above the crowd were Herbert Huncke and William Burroughs – men of heart and mind, respectively. At the time I was too busy going through Kerouac’s oeuvre to afford decently exploring that of Burroughs’. However, after seeing him read Twilight’s Last Gleaming live on SNL in November of 1981 I was hooked, and immediately ran off to purchase his new novel Cities of The Red Night. Apart from the books, I remember also being especially affected by listening to his Last Words of Hassan Sabbah on the vinyl LP Nothing Here Now But The Recordings. It was a treasure trove of Burroughs’ sonic experiments put out by Genesis P. Orridge of Throbbing Gristle. This signal piece expressed all the rage I felt, but at the time could not yet articulate.
Faced with immediate unemployment upon my graduation in the spring of 1982, I spent the rest of the year devouring Burroughs’ books, and spent quite a few hours in McGill University’s McLennan Library researching and photocopying various rare works of his, including magazine articles and interviews. Yes, I had become quite the serious Burroughsian. Yet in the course of starting to kick around texts of my own, I became more interested in the experimental aspect of his writing, as demonstrated in The Third Mind and Electronic Revolution. I started writing computer programs to cut up texts, and experimenting with permutations.
In late 1982 I was invited to participate in the exhibition Art par ordinateur (Art By Computers) at Montreal’s cutting-edge Véhicule Art gallery. Over the span of ten days I displayed among other things texts by Burroughs and Rimbaud cut-up together by computer in real time, on a continuous ticker tape output by a small Sharp PC-2 Pocket Calculator. The texts and graphics were continually output along the gallery wall, and completed a 300‑foot paper loop that crawled back to the computer by the last day of the exhibition.
In November of 1983 I saw that Howard Brookner’s documentary on Burroughs was being screened at a film festival at the Polish Hall on Prince Arthur Street. I was completely thrilled by such an unexpected treat. Howard was there on stage to introduce the movie, and after the film I bribed him with drinks to ply me with stories about my great literary hero. My then-girlfriend Jo was with me, and by some funny quirk it so happened that the following day we were to be in Manhattan. “I’m going back also,” Howard remarked nonchalantly, “would you like to visit The Bunker?” Huh? Had I heard right? I couldn’t believe it. Here was an invitation to visit Burroughs’ legendary abode – the chance of a lifetime!
The following day I called at the Bunker. Howard would join us later but minder Ira Silverberg was there, manning the fort. He was later to become Burroughs’ and then Kathy Acker’s publicist, before presently winding up at the helm of Grove Press. He greeted me at a nearby bar and took me in to explore Burroughs’ inner sanctum.
I didn’t know it yet but John Giorno, whom I later got to know, lived right above the place, on The Bowery. At the time the street was littered with passed-out drunks and you had to step gingerly around them. I was very much impressed with the heavy iron gate job downstairs, the whole medieval urban padlock mentality. Ira very kindly gave me a tour of the Bunker, hobbling around with a cane, dragging a leg stuck in a cast. “Bill’s left for Lawrence, Kansas,” he explained, “but all his stuff is still here.”
And there it was, laid out before me, all the objects I had become so familiar with perusing the countless classic photos: the chunky typewriter atop the army-issue desk, the long table that served for all the VIP dinners in Victor Bockris’ With William Burroughs (Jagger, Warhol, Lou Reed), the gun-practice targets riddled with bullet holes. I even got to sit in Burrough’s famed Orgone Box. I closed my eyes and waited patiently for the Orgones to tingle my energies. Nothing. Going through the place, fingering Burroughs’ intimate objects, I felt thrilled but also shitty. I was the ultimate voyeur, desecrating Bill’s secret lair. Howard took my picture. “Stand in the urinals,” he motioned to me and Jo, “close your eyes and fold your arms across your chest to look like a Pharaoh inna sarcophagus.”
I emerged from the Bunker completely gobsmacked. The least I could offer Howard and Ira was to buy them dinner. During the conversation it came about that they were organizing a big party for Burroughs’ upcoming 70th birthday, which would coincide with the release of his latest novel The Place of Dead Roads. Naturally, I had to be there and finally get to meet the man. To my relief they graciously obliged.
So I got to meet William Burroughs at his birthday bash at New York’s Limelight club, which was a renovated cathedral on Sixth Avenue at the corner of West 20th Street. I brought along my friend the French Canadian artist Fred Mignault, and both of us had prepared neon sculptures as gifts for Burroughs. When we got there a huge crowd was milling about on the sidewalk. A dark shifty figure was making his way to the door. “Huncke!” someone cried out. It was Burroughs’ old confrère Herbert Huncke. He briefly waved and ducked in through the doorway.
Once inside, Ira led me to the VIP room, where I noticed poet Peter Orlovsky milling about in the A-list crowd. Ira introduced me to Burroughs, saying “Alan came all the way from Montreal to meet you, Bill.” Burroughs was very gracious, and spent a fair amount of time talking to me. He was especially curious about the ongoing linguistic problems in Quebec, and I brought him up to speed. I came away very impressed; with this nobody Canajun bumpkin, he had been the perfect gentleman.
The festivities included a book signing of Place of Dead Roads at the B. Dalton’s bookstore at corner of 6th Avenue and West 8th Street, where I spied the tall, lanky Ric Ocasek of new-wave band The Cars talking to Burroughs’ manager James Grauerholz. There was a long line of waiting fans, some of them carrying a stack of dog-eared works for signing. Then there was also the New York première of Brookner’s first full feature documentary film Burroughs at Carnegie Hall. And lastly, an after-party at the Congo Bill lounge, which was on the third floor of the Danceteria club – where I finally got to meet Huncke. It was open bar and the place was packed shoulder to shoulder. Not knowing each others’ language, Huncke winked at Fred and the race was on to see which one of them would get to the bar first.
The following day I dropped in on Huncke and we became fast friends. I invited him to Montreal for a couple of readings, and whenever I was in New York we’d hang out together. He even stayed at my place, and once Huncke showed me a picture of Burroughs holding a cat upside down by the tail. For Christmas Burroughs had sent Huncke a red tie and a picture of this cat he’d skinned.
Those familiar with Kerouac’s work will remember that Huncke was the Pope of 42nd Street in New York. And those familiar with Burroughs will know it was Huncke who introduced him to smack. Huncke rhymed with junkie. He told me Burroughs often used him as a guinea pig, when unsure about some dubious dope he’d just acquired. “Go on, you shoot up first, Herbert (sniff)…” he said, then wait to see Huncke’s reaction to the stuff. Scrutinizing Huncke for any signs of discomfort, he asked, “Soooo Herbert, how are you feeling?” Huncke swooned and almost passed out, but grit his teeth, braced himself and moaned, “Oh… Bill… this is some GOOD SHIT!…” So Burroughs lost no time shooting up. But when the crap he’d just shot in his veins kicked in he glared at Huncke and fumed, “… bastard!”
I put on a first festival of cutting-edge literature called Ultimatum in May of 1985 and invited Huncke to that one. Then in 1987 I was planning another one and definitely wanted Burroughs in it. I called up James Grauerholz and asked him if Burroughs could come and do a reading. He told me the trip from Lawrence, Kansas would be too much for him. So for a while we looked into the possibility of having him broadcast live from a satellite feed. But that also came to naught, as he warned me that Burroughs started drinking at dinnertime and would be too plastered by showtime.
Burroughs’ novel The Western Lands came out on December 14th, 1987. It was to be the last in a trilogy along with Cities Of The Red Night and The Place Of Dead Roads. Of course I was excited and called up the editor of Montreal’s hip weekly The Montreal Mirror, and got the commission to review the book. For the occasion I interviewed Burroughs by phone, which I taped. It was around the time of the Palestinian Intifada in Israel, and asked him what he thought about that. “Nothing new,” he drawled, “they’ll be fighting each other forever.”
My review appeared in February 1988, and I got them to put Burroughs on the front page. Scoop number one.
Cut to spring of 1989…
Early in 1989 I learned that Montreal artist and gallery owner Daniel Dion was putting together a show of Burroughs’ Shotgun Paintings at his Oboro Gallery. I immediately offered to help, and became the publicist for the event. I also helped organize a dinner in Burroughs’ honor, set up a window display of all his books I had at nearby book shop Ficciones, and also got the idea to put together an Hommage à Burroughs show at Montreal’s famed Foufounes Électriques punk club.
As publicist I was fairly proud of my latest scoop – managing to get his portrait on the covers of rival publications The Montreal Mirror AND Voir magazines simultaneously that week – a publishing first.
We were given a private pre-vernissage tour of his paintings, and shuffled from painting to painting, stopping at each for Burroughs to explain the subject or his painting technique. I remarked that he was wearing his Commandeur des arts et des lettres medal given to him by the French Ministry of Culture. In his trademark dry creaky drawl he barked in mock irritation, “They gave it to JERRY LEWIS… hmmph!…”
Burroughs and I retired to a back room at Oboro, with the night sky falling slowly over the Montreal skyline. Lifetime Highpoint here: I smoked a joint with Burroughs at sunset. In silence. I broke the stillness by asking about this mysterious drug called Yage he wrote about – pronouncing it like “gauge”. “YA-HÉ!” he scowled – correcting my total ignorance. I dearly wished to disappear into a wall crack. To be in the presence of such an overpowering intellect was often utterly terrifying.
So I was very anxious indeed when awaiting the arrival of Burroughs and entourage to the dinner organized in his honor, held at avant-choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault’s house on Sherbrooke, corner Aylmer. The creator of Joe – a work involving 32 dancers dressed like Magritte’s skyfloating men marching in lock step – was away, and he’d amiably left his house at our disposal. The chef for the occasion was Jean-Luc Bonspiel – singer of my outrageous band VDMS – who cooked us up a sumptuous Thai-influenced repast.
I heard a commotion, opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. And there was Burroughs in his trenchcoat, charging up the staircase thrashing his cane left and right as if clearing his way amid a throng in the narrow lanes of Tangier’s Casbah, bellowing “IS THERE ANYTHING TO DRINK IN THIS PLACE, SONNY???”
Of course, being the consummate Burroughs fan, I had his drink of preference ready, and thrust it forthwith in his hand – vodka and orange juice. With a lot of vodka.
When the time came for us to go see my Burroughs books display in the window at Ficciones bookstore, it was quite a sight to see the old man charging up Montreal’s fabled Main leading his disciples, madly swinging his cane.
For my Hommage to Burroughs event at the Foufounes Électriques, I had a few local bands play, and the highlight was Huncke reading from his work. Grauerholz didn’t promise that Burroughs would show up, but eventually they did, and I led Burroughs to a private room where Huncke was waiting. The Foufounes owners and I had arranged, between their armchairs, a table with a large bouquet of flowers in a vase, plus little piles of cocaine, heroin, and rolled joints of hash and pot, to enliven their little get-together. The drinks kept coming too.
Burroughs sat down. “How ya doin’, Herbert?” he drawled. “Not bad Bill, how’re things with you?” They sounded like a pair of old Mah Jong cronies.
Of course it was tempting to play “fly-on-wall”, but we all backed off to let them catch up with each other in private. At a certain point Burroughs came out of the lounge and walked over to the edge of the mezzanine, and placed his elbows on the railing to listen to what was going on below onstage. He was particularly mesmerized by the self-regulating music set up by my old pal Philippe Bézy, which was reminiscent of Bill’s cherished Master Musicians of Joujouka. Someone in the audience spotted Burroughs, and there was a roar of cheers and clapping. Old Bill waved back smiling, and there’s a great photo of this unforgettable moment.
I then flew on to Toronto with my future wife Caroline for a parallel showing of Burroughs’ Shotgun Paintings at the Cold City Gallery, and also to catch a joint reading by Burroughs and Kathy Acker. The reading took place at Toronto University’s stately Convocation Hall. Surprisingly, Burroughs read first, followed by Kathy. It was strange to hear him start by saying “it’s an honor for me to be reading with Kathy Acker”. He then launched into a series of texts that had me doubled over in laughter throughout his reading. People don’t realize it, but in addition to being America’s greatest writer of the 20th century, Burroughs was also one of its great comedians. “Young people often ask me if I have any advice for them,” he drawled in his inimitable dry rasp, “avoid Fuckups. Everything they have anything to do with turns into a disaster. Trouble for themselves, and everyone connected with them.”
When it was Kathy’s turn, she returned the compliment by saying it was an honor for her to be reading with the great William Burroughs.
After the reading, we were all milling around and yakking, and poor Bill just sat on a chair in a corner ashen-faced, obviously not enjoying himself as much as he had back in Montreal. The Shotgun Paintings monograph he’d signed for me said “For Alan Lord with memories of a great visit to Montreal”.
Huncke died in 1996, and Burroughs, Ginsberg, Acker all died in 1997. Among Burroughs’ last words were sauve qui peut – every man for himself. And this was before 9/11. I’m glad they died before having to see that. They lived and died within the 20th century, before everything went to shit forever, exceeding the worst nightmares they all warned us about. 9/11 was the beginning of the loss of humanist reason and creativity without boundaries they incarnated. They don’t make Hunckes, Burroughs, Ginsbergs and Ackers anymore. Welcome to the 21st century. You deserve it.
Born in 1954, Alan Lord is a trilingual writer/satirista musician/songwriter civil/structural engineer based in Montreal. He opened for the Ramones and The B-52’s, and is featured in the documentary films MTL Punk and Montreal New Wave. In the ’80’s he produced the Ultimatum series of avant-literature festivals that featured William Burroughs, Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus, among hundreds of writers and musicians. He published a few books – notably ATM SEX – and is mentioned in several books, including the biography of Beat legend Herbert Huncke. He is married and has a 17 year old son, and is also a cancer survivor (Lymphoma). This May he is releasing a French rock album under the name Pagan Gurus, and inaugurating the signature St. Jacques cable-stayed bridge in June.
Featured Image ‘Burroughs’ by Christiaan Tonnis, used under a Creative Commons license.
Burroughs portrait by Graziano Origa, pen & ink, 1997, used under a Creative Commons license.