THE BEAT MEMOIR pt. 4 By Marc Olmsted
BURROUGHS IN THE BUNKER AND OUT
Allen invited me to see Burroughs, January 1977, when I was visiting NYC.
As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed the Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, and had literally no windows. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art like old colleague Brion Gysin’s, the door was shiny steel. I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young cats were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and now-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him, some weed, he was a hilarious story teller.
I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like a sort of half-Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.” At another point he just leaned on his hands and gazed at me, openly appreciative. I felt like a young boy at the swimming hole – which was slightly unnerving coming from Burroughs.
I told Burroughs about this great sci fi movie I had seen that reminded me of his work, They Came From Within, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, who would later make Naked Lunch some 15 years later.
Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the brainstorm to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James Grauerholz out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a positive from Bill. We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.
So the next morning, I went to the diner and got to bring old pal Richard Modiano (who lived in NYC then), previously denied when I attempted to wrangle him an invitation to the Bunker from Allen. So we were both quite happy about this new development. Besides my Bauer Super 8, I was also armed with a primitive cassette tape recorder.
We met at the breakfast joint, and Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.
I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera movement was a moral statement.
“To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely legible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words. Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.
Later I intercut the then-rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.
The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was original a full shot, and filming 2nd and 3rd generations of Super 8 footage. Craig had a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. Craig lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.
Blue first Burroughs walk?
— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.
I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the one unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom & empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.
I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishing and screened it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film Finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated.
I took the print to Naropa in Summer 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs has this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Graulerholz but a new kid dressed in thrift store New Wave named Cabal, literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short 50’s hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembles Burroughs’ cowboy porn of The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James Grauerholz tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – HE was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’s shot up with Cabal.
A teaching assistant as per Ginsberg’s request arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked, he wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “he’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied. Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.
Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.