Saturday, April 4, 2020

Howard Cosell

So I had this dream. Howard Cosell is standing on Wilshire Boulevard near the La Brea Tarpits. He is alone, but very much alive. In vintage Cosell fashion, he holds a microphone in hand and is reporting on the Coronavirus as if it were an epic sporting event.

Hello again everyone, it's Howard Cosell. It's good to be here with you. It figures to be a monumental battle today, one that does not need any buildup. In one corner we have the crazed conspiratorial crackpots, the delusional denizens of our arrogant terrestrial sphere. Weighing in at 7.5 billion with a prognosticated diminishment of 4.8%, please welcome the citizens of planet earth.

In the other corner, a brash and truculent rookie, a provocateur of pestilence, an instigator of immolation ready to assert itself atop the pandemic podium, please welcome COVID-19.

Every indication is that the humans are taking this bout with less than the necessary solemnity appropriate for this juncture. It is quite apparent to this trained observer that they are not suitably garbed and do not have the facial covering requisite for such a barbaric battle. The opponent is obstinate and unwavering in its mission to subjugate the hubristic humans.

Just a few short months ago, the virus was toiling in impoverished anonymity in a foreign land. It tussled in undistinguished wet markets sustaining itself on putrid pangolin and the bloated buttocks of barbecued bats. But then, November 17, 2019, a silent rumble was heard from a small village in Wuhan, China. Unbeknownst to the world, a beast was unleashed. From these humble origins, the opponent quickly rose through the ranks to become a ruthless, contemptible contender for king of terra firma.

We watched in awestruck consternation as the virus vanquished all opponents. Some never believed this little-known adversary would have the audacious temerity to challenge our species. But the skirmish has escalated in intensity and it now appears to this reporter that the hominid heroes of yesteryear are in for the battle of their lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my charge to be dispassionate and evenhanded. But I would be less than candid if I acknowledged any personal bent toward impartiality. It's time to take off the gloves and ameliorate these microscopic marauders. I call it like I see it and I say this clash is one for the ages. This is Howard Cosell signing off. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Archangel Raphael

Raphael is the angel associated with healing. In Hebrew, his name translates to "the medicine of God." Catholics refer to Raphael as the patron saint of doctors, nurses and medical workers. Throughout Italy, health facilities are called Raphael Centers.
     Raphael is one of four archangels. The others are Michael, Gabriel and Uriel. In the New Testament, Raphael is thought to be the unnamed angel who stirs the healing pool at Bethesda. In the Babylonian Talmud, three angels appear to Abraham. Each is given a specific mission by God. Michael is told to inform Sarah she will give birth to Isaac. Gabriel is told to destroy Sodom. Raphael's charge is to heal and save human beings.
   The Bible teaches that angels are real and can work on our behalf. ("Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?") But we are not to worship or pray directly to angels. We are to worship and pray only to God.  ("Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.") Angels do God's bidding. Their power comes from God. When they intervene on our behalf, they've been sent by God.
     Several years ago, I was suffering from horrible allergies. I visited my doctor but he was inconclusive. Medicine was ineffective. I went on a wheat and dairy detox but the allergies continued. I prayed to God for guidance. I woke one morning with a word in my head. "Aubergine." My wife told me this is French for eggplant. I booked an appointment with a kinesiologist who'd helped me with health issues over the years. She concluded I was allergic to nightshade vegetables. She gave me a list of foods to avoid: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and of course, eggplant. I abstained from eggplant and the allergies went away.
     According to the book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Connecting With Your Angels, this is how Raphael works. He provides hunches to guide you in your healing. He often works in riddles (as in "aubergine"). Maybe he'll inform a dream with an obscure message. He's a bit of a prankster. He might drop healing foods into your shopping cart or knock a book off a shelf you're meant to read. Perhaps he'll "accidentally" cue you to a new way of thinking.
     In 1928, the British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming returned from a vacation to his London lab. He noticed something unusual in one of his petri dishes. New colonies of Staphylococcus had spread throughout the dish except in one area where a blob of green mold was growing. He tested the mold and found it to be a rare strain of Penicillium notatum. The mold secreted a "juice" that inhibited growth of the Staph bacteria. Further testing revealed the mold killed other harmful bacteria like streptococcus, meningococcus and diphtheria bacillus. This is how the world's first antibiotic was discovered. Fleming's biographer Gwyn Macfarlane wrote that the discovery of Penicillin was "a series of chance events of almost unbelievable improbability."
      Raphael heals the body, mind and spirit. He delivers those who are plagued by dark energies. In the apocryphal Book of Tobit (part of the Catholic biblical canon), Raphael protects Sarah and Tobias from the demon Asmodeus.  Raphael reminds us to focus on God's light. He teaches that stress and worry do not help the healing process.  He is associated with laughter and he helps us to see the humor in all situations.
     In 1964, journalist Norman Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and crippling collagen disease. Doctors gave him a 1 in 500 chance of recovery. He realized he needed to learn why his body was reacting as it did. Among his vast collection of books, one stood out: Hans Selye's The Stress of Life. He read that negative emotions like frustration or suppressed rage are linked to illness. This gave him a hunch. If negative emotions make you sick, perhaps positive emotions like love, joy and laughter are healing.
     He took out his 16mm movie projector and watched Marx Brothers Films, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. He binge-watched Candid Camera. He noted that just ten minutes of induced laughter per day produced two hours of painless sleep. He put himself on a laughter therapy regimen. The more he laughed, the faster he healed. His pain diminished and he regained the use of his limbs. Within two years he was walking again and cured of the disease. Doctors were baffled. Cousins wrote about his experience in the 1979 book An Anatomy of An Illness. He lived pain-free until dying at the age of 75 in 1990.
     In classic artistic depictions of Raphael, he is usually shown holding a staff symbolizing healing or with a caduceus emblem representing the medical profession. Believers say Raphael's energy corresponds with the color green. When Raphael is present, you may see or sense an emerald green light. Green crystals like malachite or emerald are used by healers to invoke Raphael's presence. The penicillin mold in Alexander Fleming's petri dish was green. The 1956 first edition book cover of The Stress of Life featured author Hans Selye's name in green.
     In the Book of Tobit, Raphael takes human form to help a family in distress. He heals them and protects them from evil. Only at the end of the story does he reveal his true angelic nature and his mission. "The Lord hath sent me to heal thee…For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the Lord…when I was with you I was there by the will of God…It is time that I return to him that sent me; bless ye God and publish all his wonderful works." (7" x 9", black ink print)

Saturday, March 7, 2020


When I heard the news of Kobe Bryant's death, my first instinct was to call my father. My dad died back in October and we'd always bonded over the Lakers. I yearned for his voice to help me make sense of Kobe's passing.
     I spent the next week immersed in news articles, sports talk and Kobe YouTube clips. I spent hours on the phone with friends commiserating and speculating on the cause of the accident. I drove to Staples Center and walked among thousands of grieving Lakers fans. No one wanted to accept reality. 41-year Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles's favorite son, was gone and he was not coming back.
     Kobe was complicated.  He was brash and petulant and often rubbed people the wrong way. There was the sexual assault accusation in Colorado and the feud with Shaquille O'Neal. In the 2006 playoffs against Phoenix, Kobe refused to shoot costing the Lakers the game in order to prove that his teammates were awful. His own coach Phil Jackson wrote that Kobe "was uncoachable."
     Kobe was a basketball prodigy. His skill set was unmatched and his work ethic legendary. To watch Kobe play basketball was like watching Baryshnikov dance or Bobby Fischer play chess. His jump shot was elegant, his footwork sublime. He was a tactical master able to exploit opponent weaknesses and psych out rivals with Jedi-level trash talk. Unlike anyone since Michael Jordan, Kobe's strength was his tenacity and willingness to do whatever was necessary to win a game. This is why Lakers fans loved him. He gave everything he had and became an on-court role model for how to live life with passion and commitment.
     The day Kobe died Los Angeles had it's heart ripped out. People were dazed and confused. Kobe was like a superhero. He can't die. If he dies, what chance do the rest of us have? Everyone was glued to their phones waiting for news updates. When the revelation came that Kobe's daughter also died, people lost it.
     Speculation immediately arose about the cause of the accident. The morning was foggy. Law enforcement helicopters were grounded. Yet Kobe's pilot was given permission to fly. Everyone I spoke with asked the same question. Did Kobe urge the pilot to fly despite the dangers? This seemed like a Kobe move. Or did the pilot himself feel pressure to please his A-List client?
     It was reported that Kobe and his daughter received communion at an Orange County church prior to the accident. This prompted a friend to suggest that Kobe accomplished his duties on earth and was being called back to God. But what about his daughter, I asked. "Sometimes people get swept up in the energy field of others." My friend, like everyone else, was trying to make sense of the senseless.
     Watching an interview with Tracy McGrady on ESPN, I heard a story about Kobe's early days. McGrady shared how 17-year old Kobe predicted his future in the NBA, how he'd win multiple championships, win MVP and score more points than Michael Jordan. All of these things came to fruition. Then McGrady added a coda. Kobe used to say, "I want to die young. I want to be immortalized."
     When I heard McGrady's words, I thought of the biblical passage about the power of the spoken word. "The tongue has the power of life and death." Kobe's will was indomitable. Combined with his passion, he was able to impress upon his subconscious a vision of fame and success. He spoke his future into existence. Did his statement about dying young play a part in his destiny?
     Kobe always wanted to be better than Michael Jordan. His primary competitor in this regard was Lebron James. The night before the accident, Lebron eclipsed Kobe's career scoring total. Kobe was gracious, tweeting "Much respect my brother" (his final tweet). Less than twelve hours later Kobe was dead. The sequence of events is surreal. Lebron breaks Kobe's record threatening Kobe's pursuit of immortality. Kobe dies in a tragic accident and his name is immortalized forever.
     Like my friends, I've been struggling to process the tragedy. Kobe brought me so much joy his death was like losing a friend. I've always yearned for life to make sense. Kobe's death makes no sense. We're all going to die. This is a fact that unites us and gives life meaning. Maybe the only lesson is to appreciate every moment since we don't know when our final day will come. (6" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Van Gogh

I teach art classes. I often ask my students to name their favorite artist. The name that comes up more than any other is Vincent Van Gogh. When I ask why I hear things like "he suffered for his art" or "he'd rather paint than eat." This is true, of course. Van Gogh gave his life for his art. In the process, he became an iconic role model. I know this because he's always been a role model for me. But Van Gogh is a terrible role model. And I'm ready to give him up.

I create art both as a writer and a printmaker. The Van Gogh energy field has not served me well.  Mind you, I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh the artist. I'm referring to Van Gogh the life coach. The Van Gogh who were he alive today would likely host a podcast on living your life as an independent artist. This is the Van Gogh I'm eager to expunge. The struggling Van Gogh, the miserable Van Gogh, the Van Gogh who paints a life picture of pain, hardship and death. If a 12-Step Van Gogh Anonymous Group exists I'm ready for an intervention.

First, let's recap the Van Gogh ethos. Van Gogh was dedicated to suffering. Like Nietzsche, he believed melancholy had creative value. In one of his letters to his brother Theo he wrote, "What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that's adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed."

Van Gogh's painting Old Man In Sorrow (At Eternity's Gate) is possibly the most intense depiction of misery ever painted. In a letter from 1882 he wrote, "I do not wish to express in my landscape a sentimental sadness, but a tragic grief." This grief engulfed him. The fact he completed 900 paintings in his lifetime is a near miracle. His creative output did not cure his ills. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.  In 1890 at the age of 37 he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

I agree there is value in melancholy. Wistful periods allow you to mine your subconscious and find the gold that resides in the darkness. Carl Jung referred to our Shadow Side that holds a seed of creativity. Tapping this resource can yield greater awareness, compassion and artistic output. But melancholia can become a self-fulfilling trap. To believe you must feel pain in order to create is to play with fire. You build resistance and must summon deeper reserves of agony to stimulate creativity.

It's easy to forget the muse can take many forms. This includes desperation and inspiration. Van Gogh was a desperation tweaker. He battled poverty, suffered from mental illness, quarreled with family and was spurned by potential lovers. He put his faith in difficulty. He wrote, "One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end and shows himself entirely different from what he had seemed at first sight."

Van Gogh ultimately reached land as an artist. But his journey helped fuel a false narrative that artists must suffer to create. Historians have theorized that Van Gogh's psychological and emotional troubles fueled his creativity. In my mind, his depression enslaved him and prevented him from achieving even greater success. He remains a mentor for me but he's become a cautionary tale. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the novel The Subterraneans, "I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he's left us." (7" x 10", black ink print)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Babe Ruth

There's a famous story told by the legendary sportswriter Fred Lieb about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth from the 1920's. The two stars were scheduled to share a cabin on a Georgia hunting trip. Cobb refused. When asked why he said, "I've never bedded down with a n---- and I'm not going to start now."

George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the most renowned baseball player of the 20th Century, the embodiment of a time when only white athletes played pro sports, may have been black. It was not just his "broad lips and wide nose" hinting at mixed heritage. Or the fact he loved to date black women and spend evenings at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. It was that many of his contemporaries believed he was black.

During the 1922 World Series at the Polo Grounds, a Giants player named Johnny Rawlings shouted racial slurs at Ruth. After the game, Ruth burst into the Giants locker room and challenged Rawlings to a fight. Only when Ruth noticed the baseball writers standing nearby did he calm himself. According to biographer Robert Creamer, Ruth begged the journalists not to write anything about the incident. He told Rawlings, "I don't mind being called a prick and a cocksucker but none of that personal stuff."

Ruth had an affinity for black ballplayers. After the Yankees won the 1927 World Series, Ruth joined a barnstorming tour against Negro League teams. He befriended Satchel Paige, sat in opposing dugouts and mingled in the segregated stands. This upset the racist baseball commissioner of the day, Kennesaw Mountain Landis who wanted to prevent integration in the major leagues. According to baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, Ruth sought to become a baseball manager after he retired. He "didn't get the job because Landis...knew if hired as manager, Ruth would have openly supported signing black ballplayers." Ruth never became a manager and baseball did not break the color line until after Landis' death.

Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1885. His parents were of German ancestry. He was raised in poverty and only one of his six siblings survived infancy. His father owned a saloon and his mother was an alcoholic. After his mother had an affair with one of his father's bartenders, his parents divorced. At age seven, Ruth was sent to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. During his time at the orphanage, he was taunted with the nickname "n---lips."

Early on there were rumors that Ruth had African-American ancestry. His parents were less than faithful and it was possible Ruth was illegitimate. Ruth passed for white and enjoyed all the benefits of a white man in American society. It wasn't uncommon for African American celebrities of the era to pass for white. Actress Carol Channing had a black grandmother. Oscar winner Merle Oberon had an Indian mother and white father.

From a historical standpoint, Ruth's background is significant. He enjoyed white privilege during a time in America when racism and the KKK were thriving. For Ruth to have mixed ancestry would cause heads to spin from Alabama to Arizona. He always denied the rumors. Of course this was in his self-interest. Jackie Robinson would not break baseball's color line until 1947, one year before Ruth's death.

There was never hard evidence Ruth had a multiracial background, only supposition. He empathized with black athletes like he empathized with all who were underprivileged. Perhaps he was a black baseball player in the same way Bill Clinton was a black president.

In a 2001 article in Gotham magazine, film director Spike Lee related that his father, a huge baseball fan, always said Ruth had "some of the tar brush in him." Lee suggested that if DNA testing was appropriate for Thomas Jefferson's remains, to see if he fathered children by slaves, then perhaps Ruth's remains should be tested as well. (7" x 7," black ink print)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Lou Reed

The first time I heard a Lou Reed song I was 18 years old and floating down the Chattahoochee River in a canoe. A shirtless Georgia teenager stood on the riverbank slapping his paddle at some swimming kids while a boom box blasted "Walk On  the Wild Side." At one point the teen's paddle made contact with a young boy's skull. I heard a loud "thwappp"and the boy fell face first into the water. The teenager laughed maniacally as the boy's friends pulled him to safety.

This is how the music of Lou Reed entered my life. There was something magnetic about the music, the raw and minimal guitar riffs, the shocking lyrics (did he actually say "even when she was giving good head"). Most pop music was safe. Lou Reed was dangerous. The sound had a dark energy, an urgent power with distorted guitars and atonal vocals.

The first Lou Reed album I purchased was Transformer (1972). From the moment he sang the words "Vicious, you hit me with a flower" I realized there was something deeper going on, ironic storytelling in a way I'd never heard. On "Perfect Day" Reed sings, "You made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good." The line perfectly encapsulated my teenage angst, my self-doubt and dim hopes for future redemption. Reed goes on to repeat the frightening refrain, "you're going to reap just what you sow." The words penetrated my soul like a warning, a call to pay attention to my own words and deeds.

When I discovered the Velvet Underground, I was spellbound. The music was real and edgy as if made in someone's garage. The guitars were droning and slightly out of tune, the drums scratchy and dirty. This was my first experience of lo-fi music and Reed was my first rock star crush.

He was a prototypical rock and roll bad boy. He abused drugs and alcohol, trashed hotel rooms, cursed reporters and engaged in bar brawls. But Reed was different. Where most rockers had affairs with supermodels, Reed opted for trysts with transvestites. While typical pop stars sang about how much they missed old girlfriends, Reed sang about bondage and sadomasochism ("Venus In Furs").

Google the words "Lou Reed was an asshole" and you'll find dozens of incidents describing his brutal, selfish, misanthropic behavior. There was the time he slapped David Bowie after Bowie suggested Reed cut back on his drug and alcohol use. Or the time he called Bob Dylan a "pretentious kike." (Reed himself was Jewish.) His Velvet Underground band mate John Cale called Reed "a twisted scary monster." Paul Morrissey, manager of the Velvets said Reed was possibly "the worst person who ever lived."

Friends and admirers grew familiar with Reed's moody tantrums and profanity-laced assaults. At the Manhattan clothing store RRL a sales clerk told Reed he was a big fan. Reed responded, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Fuck off." Howard Sounes, author of Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed writes that Reed "was constantly at war with family, friends, lovers, band members, managers and record companies." Reed even described himself as a "fucking, faggot junkie."

This begs the question does it matter? As a person, Reed was clearly complicated. As an artist, Reed inarguably shaped the musical landscape. Without him there would be no punk rock. (Sid Vicious took his name from the Reed song "Vicious.") There would also be no grunge or shoe gazer scenes. Brian Eno claimed, "everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band." Reed's songs directly informed the musical style of Joy Division, Jesus & Mary Chain, Galaxie 500, Dream Syndicate, Luna, Spacemen 3, the Dandy Warhols, the Feelies and the Pixies.

Reed was an avant-garde storyteller who wrote about misfits and lost souls. His song subjects were junkies and drug dealers, transsexuals and schizophrenics. He chronicled trips to the bad part of town to buy heroin. In the brilliant but dark album Berlin, he told the story of Jim and Caroline, a troubled couple whose relationship crumbles as they fall into drug use, prostitution, domestic violence and suicide. This is the heady stuff of literature, not the trivial fare typically found in rock music.

Reed's heroes were literary figures like Hubert Selby Jr., Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. During his days as a student at Syracuse University, Reed started a literary journal called The Lonely Woman Review. He wrote short stories and read poems aloud at St. Mark's Church along with the New York writers Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. Reed studied creative writing with the poet Delmore Schwartz whom Reed credited for teaching him to "use the simplest language imaginable" to impart the heaviest impact. (Schwartz was the inspiration for Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift.) Under Schwartz's tutelage Reed wrote poems that ultimately became the songs "Heroin" and "Sister Ray."

One of Reed's poems was titled "We The People." The words are as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

We are the people without right. We are the people who have known only lies and desperation. We are the people without a country, a voice or a mirror. We are the crystal gaze returned through the density and immensity of a berserk nation.

One of Reed's favorite books was the 1963 John Rechy novel City of Night. The book was a landmark of queer literature chronicling a gay street hustler's travels through America. Reed channeled this energy into his own songs about street life such as "Waiting For the Man."

Reed yearned to write the great American novel and put it to music. In a 1991 interview with author Neil Gaiman, Reed explained how he used prose technique in songwriting. "There are certain kinds of songs you write that are just fun songs, the lyric can't survive without the music. But for most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist's eye to it, to try and have that lyric there so somebody who enjoys being engaged on that level can have that and have the rock n' roll too."

Reed grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn. When he was nine, the family moved to Long Island. His mother had been a teenage beauty queen while his father abandoned dreams of becoming an author to become a tax accountant. At a young age, Reed experienced social anxiety, panic attacks and depression. He spoke of being beat up routinely after school. He escaped into music, mimicking the guitar sounds he heard on the radio.

During high school he formed a doo wop band called The Jades. He also began experimenting with drugs. The band played gigs in shopping malls and dingy bars. His parents were overprotective and fought often with Reed. In one instance an inebriated Reed crashed the family car into a toll booth on the parkway.

Reed waited tables at a local gay bar and began having sexual encounters with men. He tried heroin for the first time and contracted hepatitis. He attended New York University but during his freshman year he had a mental breakdown. His parents drove to the city and brought their son back home. They sought professional help. Psychologists suggested Reed might have schizophrenia. He was briefly admitted to a psychiatric institution where he confessed to homosexual urges. Doctors recommended electroshock therapy. His parents consented and Reed endured more than two-dozen ECT sessions. The treatments wreaked havoc on his short-term memory. Reed never forgave his father, something he wrote about in the 1974 song "Kill Your Sons."

Reed recovered and enrolled at Syracuse University. After college, he moved to New York City and befriended the Welsh musician John Cale. The two became roommates in a lower east side apartment and busked the Harlem street corners, Reed on guitar, Cale on viola. They formed a band initially called the Warlocks then the Falling Spikes. They settled on the name the Velvet Underground (taken from a book about a 1960's secret sex subculture).

In 1965 they met Andy Warhol while playing a gig at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village. Warhol became the band's producer and the Velvets recorded four studio albums. The albums sold poorly but the work is among the most innovative music of the period. Reed grew frustrated as his peers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen skyrocketed to fame. Reed fired Cale, Warhol and the singer Nico and the band disintegrated. Reed had another breakdown and moved back into his parents' home. He took a job at his father's tax firm as a typist for $40 a week. In 1971, he signed a contract with RCA to be a solo artist. His career was back on track.

For Reed, the 70's was a decade of substance abuse and excess. He told a friend he "was going to take meth every day for the rest of his life." He binged on scotch and according to his first wife Bettye Kronstad he became a "violent drunk." During a 1975 tour through Italy he pulled a knife on his violin player and told Italian reporters he came to Rome to have sex with the Pope.  His reputation for misbehavior grew as he hung out with drag queens and became romantically involved with a transgender woman named Rachel.

It wasn't until the late 90's that Reed finally seemed to find a semblance of happiness. He took up meditation and practiced tai chi several hours a day. After two failed marriages he began dating the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. The two made several recordings together and were married in 2008.

Reed's years of hard drinking and drug use led to hepatitis and liver disease. He developed liver cancer and underwent a liver transplant in May 2013. After the surgery he posted on his website of feeling "bigger and stronger than ever." He died of liver disease in October 2013. He was 71 years old.

Laurie Anderson wrote that Reed "was a prince and a fighter" and that his last days were peaceful. She did her best to debunk Reed's dark reputation saying, "I never saw the blackness." After his passing, the rock community paid tribute. Bono said, "Every song we've ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song." David Bowie said, "He was a master." Cale wrote, "I've lost my schoolyard buddy." Reed's last tweet posted hours before his death read simply: "The Door." (7" x 9," black ink print)

Monday, September 3, 2018

William Burroughs

William Burroughs is largely known for three things. He was a junkie, he wrote Naked Lunch and he shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer. The incident haunted him the rest of his life. It also prompted him to become a writer. In his autobiographical novel Queer, he wrote: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never become a writer but for Joan's death…the death brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

Burroughs was born in 1914 in St. Louis, grandson of the inventor of the adding machine and founder of the Burroughs corporation (this became Unisys in 1986). His maternal grandfather was a minister who was close friends with Robert E. Lee. Surrounded by wealth, he began writing in his early teens. He published his first essay Personal Magnetism at the age of 15 in his high school journal. He also discovered an interest in magic and the occult claiming to see "ghostly grey figures at play" in his bedroom. He was sent to a boarding school for the wealthy in New Mexico where he wrote in his journal about his attraction to boys.

He attended Harvard where he studied English and anthropology. During this period he traveled to New York where he discovered the city's gay subculture and underground club scene. His family sold the right to his grandfather's invention just before the 1929 stock market crash. Burroughs received a $200 monthly allowance from family.  This guaranteed his freedom and survival without needing to work for the next twenty-five years.

Burroughs briefly attended medical school in Vienna. He became involved with Weimar-era gay culture and had liaisons with men in steam baths. He also met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. Burroughs married Klapper in Croatia allowing her to obtain a visa. Back in the states they divorced and Burroughs resumed his dalliances with men. In 1939, he cut off the joint of his left little finger above the knuckle to impress a man to whom he was attracted. (This inspired his short story "The Finger.") He enlisted in the army in 1942 but was as accepted as infantry, not an officer. He grew depressed and was released from the military for mental instability. He embarked on a series of menial jobs including one as an exterminator. (This later informed his novel Naked Lunch.)

In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York. He attended writing salons at the apartment of Joan Vollmer. These gatherings included the future Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs and Vollmer moved in together sharing an apartment with Kerouac and his future wife Edie Parker. Around this time, Burroughs began using heroin. He became addicted, a struggle he fought most of his life. He was arrested for a prescription narcotics violation and moved back to St. Louis to live with his parents. Vollmer, addicted to benzedrine, was diagnosed with temporary psychosis and admitted to Bellevue. This placed her custody of her daughter at risk. Learning this, Burroughs returned to New York and asked Vollmer to marry him. They never formally married but she lived as his common-law wife. The two would have a son together, William Burroughs Jr..

The couple moved to New Orleans. Facing possible detention in Angola state prison for drug charges, Burroughs and Vollmer fled with their son to Mexico. They planned to live abroad until the statute of limitations on his charges expired. Life in Mexico was difficult. Unable to obtain heroin, Burroughs suffered through brutal detox symptoms. He abused Benzedrine and frequented Mexican gay bars in pursuit of men. Vollmer drank excessively and mocked Burroughs in front of his friends. Their drug-fueled fights grew violent.

On the evening of September 6, 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer met friends at a party at an American-owned bar in Mexico City. The details remain disputed but Burroughs allegedly took a handgun from his travel bag and said to Vollmer, "It's time for our William Tell act." Vollmer, who was drunk and suffering through amphetamine withdrawal, placed a highball glass on her head. Burroughs aimed and fired. The bullet struck Vollmer in the face. She died a few hours later. She was only 28.

Burroughs initially claimed he dropped the gun and it accidentally fired. He spent 13 days in a local jail while his brother traveled to Mexico and bribed officials to release Burroughs on bail. He hired a prominent Mexican attorney. Two witnesses testified the gun accidentally fired while Burroughs was checking to see if it was loaded. A ballistics expert was allegedly bribed to corroborate this story. While awaiting trial, Burroughs' lawyer fled Mexico to escape his own legal troubles. Burroughs promptly left the country himself returning to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and given a two-year suspended sentence. He never served his sentence since he never returned to Mexico.

Burroughs would go on to write 18 novels, 6 short-story collections and numerous essays. His novel Naked Lunch was the last prominent book to be prosecuted for obscenity in the United States. He became a popular counterculture figure, associating with artists like Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain. He suffered another tragedy in 1981 when his 33-year old son died of a cirrhosis-linked hemorrhage. Burroughs died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 83. (7" x 9", black ink print)