If you look around YouTube, you’ll find no shortage of videos featuring William S. Burroughs, the famous beat writer. One of the best videos shows rock ‘n roll hall of famer Patti Smith playing the acoustic guitar in Burroughs tiny bungalo in old east Lawrence. That’s Lawrence, Kansas. River City. Hashtag L-F-K.
There were a lot of reasons the author of Naked Lunch, a book that Time magazine named one of the best English language novels between 1923 and 2005, moved to Lawrence. You can see one big reason in another video; Burroughs emptying the clip of his semi-automatic pistol into a target in the woods near his home.
“He’d hand you the gun and you’d say, is it loaded? And he’d say, of course it’s loaded! What good is an unloaded gun? I like guns that shoot and knives that cut,” says James Grauerholz the executor of the Burroughs estate.
This episode of Archiver is just as much about Lawrence as it is about Burroughs. According to his closest friends and confidants, he changed Lawrence and Lawrence, well, let Burroughs be Burroughs.
But how and why Burroughs moved to Lawrence in 1981 is, of course, tied to how he lived his life up until then. Burroughs was born in St. Louis in 1914. His grandfather invented an adding machine. His mother claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee. He had an uncle who was a publicist for the Rockefellers.
It’s impossible, really, to boil down Burrough's life in a few lines but here’s some of what you need to know: after Harvard he moved to Europe where he came out as gay. He did marry a Jewish woman to help her gain admission to the U.S. at the time Nazis were rising to power.
He would eventually find his way back to America, become addicted to drugs and marry once again. His wife, Jane Vollmer, would move with him to Mexico City in 1950 after a drug charge in New Orleans. Burroughs skipped bail and fled south of the border.
It was in Mexico that Burroughs, drunk and probably high, shot and killed Vollmer, also drunk and probably high, when he used a pistol to try and shoot a highball glass off her head. It didn’t work. Guns, it turns out, would always play an outsized role in Burrough’s life.
He would live and write in Paris, London and New York. In New York he would rub elbows with, well, almost everybody…David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Frank Zappa and, of course, other beat writers…like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Already a drug addict, Burroughs would pick up a nickname in New York, the Pope of Dope.
Burroughs first saw Lawrence in 1976 when KU’s English department brought him in for four days to teach. In 1981, he moved. It would have a profound effect on him and, in some small but lasting ways, change Lawrence.
Many said there were three places to be in the 60s and 70s; Berkeley, Boston and Lawrence. Archiver historian Virgil Dean, who lives in Lawrence, talks about the counter-culture feel of the town at the time, a town already filled with characters.
“Certainly it had the reputation, and rightly so, as the place in Kansas at least that was most tuned in in regard to the counter culture, Vietnam War protests, civil rights activities and that kind of thing in the late 60s and 70s. The university and the local counter culture attracted people from all over the country who would travel through or stop in cause they knew there would be a receptive audience.”
Phil Heying is an artist born in Kansas City but with deep ties to Lawrence who worked with Burroughs on some visual arts projects. James Grauerholz was Burroughs constant companion starting around 1974. He managed his affairs, is now executor of his estate and is the one who convinced Burroughs to move to Lawrence.
Burroughs bought a little house in old east Lawrence where he and his cats would be visited by lots of famous folks; the actor Steve Buscemi, the poet Alan Ginsberg, the musician Tom Waits. But here’s the thing, in Lawrence most people just didn’t care.
“The town seemed to fit him like a glove and he was very comfortable. And he would do things like walk to the liquor store, to the grocery store and have conversations with ladies by the cat food in Dillion’s. He could just be a normal citizen of a town. Everyone was like, that was Burroughs but so what? So it was a good place for him,” Heying says.
“People were impressed. This was the William Burroughs. But that wore off because they were regular old River City hippie/poet/Philosopher-of-the-barstool. Lawrence was like that,” says Grauerholz.
Don’t get the idea that Burroughs moved to Lawrence and just got high, drank and fired guns in the woods, although he certainly did plenty of all of those. Grauerholz made a two book deal for him and Burroughs, somewhat surprisingly to me anyway, did a TV commercial for Nike because, well, people have to make a living.
When you talk Burroughs, you not only talk Zappa and Timothy Leary and Debbie Harry but also Sig Sauer, Lugar and Glock. Few things excited Burroughs more in his Lawrence life than getting a new gun.
But Lawrence isn’t quite as naughty as it used to be. While pockets of the counter culture that drew Burroughs and many others to River City are still there, they’re hard to find, the town has a much more suburban feel to it.
Things from early Lawrence days like Rock Chalk Bar, Joe’s Donuts and ditch weed have disappeared. But Burroughs lives on in some unexpected ways. Hundreds of people a year visit his house at 1927 Learnard Avenue. And the city has named a park, trail and playground after him.
Williams S Burroughs died in Lawrence on August second, 1997.