William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in conversation 1991 – 7

[William S. Burroughs, Self Portrait, 1989. Paint and spray paint on wood, 90 x 52 cm. © Estate of William S. Burroughs Photo: Jonathan Greet – courtesy October Gallery]

Our Allen Ginsberg-William Burroughs transcription continues from yesterday. Today they survey a little of Burroughs art

AG: I’m already a little drunk, it’s funny, a pleasure. It’s very pleasant, I would say.

WSB: Yeah, it is quite… Yes.  It’s fascinating. I love the colors, the way they they play in and out..   Of course every artist.. His place is trying to make something that hasn’t existed separately.

AG: Yes

WSB:  …that can even put him in danger, (which, of course, would be the purest indication of his separateness).

AG: You know what (Bob) Dylan’s definition of high art is? – what… anything that will stop time.

WSB: Well, that’s a good thing, yes.

AG: But it’s a very original phrase – “stopping time”

WSB: “Stopping time”, sure – “stop and left me off”, I‘ve had enough – I’ve had enough of your time. I’m sick of the time (So what?)

[“Man on A Bridge” (2009) – from “The Drawn Blank” series – painting by Bob Dylan]

AG: He paints also you know.

WSB: Pardon.

AG: Dylan paints also.

WSB: Does he? Any good?

AG: Many years. Well, he went to painting class, and learned how to do it, you know, draughtmanship and everything. Some old Russian painter that’s taught painting in the Carnegie Hall side studios. And he worked for many years very faithfully, apparently, (or a year or two). This old guy was very straight with him and didn’t treat him special and taught him painting, (with other lessons)

WSB: Well you can’t really teach people how to paint..

AG: Well, I think he gave him the techniques or whatever

WSB: You can teach them how to draw, you can teach them how..  about perspective and drawing (which I never had, (incidentally), I can’t draw a thing, I can’t draw a chair..)

AG: Have you tried?

WSB: Of course I’ve tried!   What do you mean by “tried“?..

AG: I’ve tried. I can’t do it well but I’m..

WSB: I’ve tried innumerable times but I..

AG: You know.. If you just try and do it, then whatever comes out is just as weird as that, you know [pointing to Burroughs’ scribble]

WSB: That’s the way it comes out when I try to draw a chair.  I like to draw. You want me to draw a portrait of you? If you give me a piece of paper, I’ll show you ..how the process of this.. (this is going..)

AG: Here’s a pen [hands Burroughs a pen]

WSB: .. I get my start..

AG: A good pen.

WSB: Well, we’ll see.. I’m not sure.

AG: I’ve got your nose there. If you turn back a page, you’ll see what I do with your nose (it doesn’t look bad actually),(turn back to) another page, and you’ll see – just that one line – and bam!

WSB:  Yes.  I did do a portrait of you once.

AG: Really?

WSB: Yeah… but I don’t know where to put my hands upon it..  (WSB continues  attempting to draw Allen’s portrait):

AG: Yes, I do have a bit of hair…   (some moments of silence follow, as we hear Burroughs making his picture. He’s clearly dissatisfied with it and, off-tape, makes some disparaging remark, the tape returns with Allen responding to that remark)

AG: Well (that’s) not exactly helpful, you know. Because, in a sense, you know, it’s no worse, no more awful, than the other squiggles.  And it has the.. whatever, your imprint of.. impression is

WSB: Now look, I’m trying…  Now here’s the thing.  There are times to draw something, ok?

AG: In other words, why is this inferior to the chance operations of that [pointing to another work]– because this is just chance too, what you get down?

WSB: Well, of course it’s chance too. I don’t say..  This didn’t work out very well there, I don’t do very well with the pen.  But the thing is I can produce by chance perfectly clear, beautiful faces, like that oriental face I showed you They’re perfectly clear, perfect faces. But those are produced by chance. I can’t sit down and draw one. Of course I’ve tried to draw, but it’s very hard work – I have some portraits of people that are very extraordinary…that came out..(but)..

[Adam Block (1951-2008)]

AG: (looking at another work of Burroughs) When was Adam..  When was this painted?

WSB: Oh about three or four days ago.

AG: Oh it’s recent.

WSB: It’s recent, yes… This is a whole series..

AG: What reminded you about Adam Block besides the picture?

WSB: The picture?

AG: Actually, he’s quite a faithful guy.

WSB: I didn’t think about him. I wasn’t thinking about him at all while I did the picture. And then I looked at the picture after it was finished. I was getting this clearer face over here, so I didn’t obscure it (much, so..)

AG: There’s also little faces in the…

WSB: Yes.  So then I looked, and thought, all of a sudden, it looks like Adam Block, sort of, vaguely, (he looks like that). Have you ever driven with him? He’s the most awful driver in the world!

AG: No, driving, I’ve never done that. I’ve been interviewed by him any number of times – or twice.

WSB: Well, yes, I’ve been interviewed by him – but his driving is horrifying!.

AG: Well…

WSB: In San Francisco… just turn around in the middle of the street, little saucy things, you know, you just don’t feel you’re going to get there alive.  So.. I suppose that’s him, driving last weekend.

AG: Point to the scene.

WSB Pardon?

AG: Point to the scene.

WSB: (Burroughs examines his painting) –  Driving glasses, sort of thrown-up over his head, and here’s the teeth – There’s the clear outline of the head. This looks definitely some sort of driving get-up, almost like a motor-cycle…

AG: Yeah, very definitely

WSB: Well, I guess..  Anyway, when I’m in a car with him, I don’t feel he knows what he’s doing. Some people are fast and good but he’s fast and sloppy and not good

AG: (laughs) –  (When did you drive with him? – I can’t see you doing that.)

WSB: Oh we were in.. what was it? San Francisco, I guess, you know, I think it was San Francisco. (yes, it must have been, or was it Vancouver?, I don’t know, I think it was in San Francisco). Anyway, (it) was driving out some place to some museum, or some landmark, and then his driving was just outrageous.  It was awful. And it was upsetting. (You had the feeling that any moment that he could pile this heap…

James Grauerholz:  No wonder you’ve got a stone face there.

WSB:  ...pile this heap up, you know, or somebody could get hurt.)

AG: It’s alright.

WSB: But he didn’t have any idea of that, just driving along, parking in outrageous places. But nothing happened. We didn’t have any mishaps, fortunately. But he did upset me with his driving . He’s a very sort of militant gay, you know.

[Allen sneezes]

WSB: Bless you! Gesundheit!

[Jean Genet (1910-1986) ]

So all artists are trying to create life. They’re engaged in the elements of life.   You want to walk off the canvas right from the page  – As (Jean) Genet said, “An author takes upon himself the terrific responsibility for his characters”. (So) He saw his characters (as I do) as living creatures, and he takes upon himself the responsibility for the creation of his own characters. That was.. there…. He also says some great things about writing –  Genet
AG: Yeah
WSB: Someone asked him…

[W.Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)]

AG: (changing the subject, examining another of Burroughs’ portraits):  This doesn’t look like you at all but on the other hand it does..
WSB: Well, that’s what I mean.. Let’s see
AG: Too old, it’s too old, but on the other hand, it has some resemblance, it’s odd.
WSB: Oh, surely.
AG: Much too old but not as handsome as (you) – really, it’s you.
WSB:  Look, you know, you know who it looks like?
AG: Who?
WSB: Somerset Maugham!
AG: Oh, right, right, right.
WSB: That’s Somerset Maugham, the mouth and everything.
AG: Yeah.
WSB: I am not Somerset Maugham, nor was meant to be!
AG: I didn’t say you were Somerset Maugham, or that I was enamored to Maugham.
WSB: But.. Did you read the biography of Somerset Maugham by Ted (Morgan)?
AG: I read in and out of it. I didn’t read the whole book.
WSB; Oh  ack!    The end of it is so horrible.
AG: What is it? What happens at the end with it?
WSB: Well he’s senile, just falling apart.
AG: Alchohol or just ..
WSB: No, not alcohol.
AG:  Just mental senile.
WSB: No, he never abused alcohol. You know, he’d shit in the corner and things like that.  It was awful!
AG: And Syrie took care of him?
WSB: Yeah, he (Maugham) knew which side his bread was buttered on, for crissakes.
AG: And did they leave everything to Syrie?
WSB: No – no, but Syrie got a good slice. He left the villa, more or less, to Syrie, (which was a terrifically valuable piece of real estate, on the Riveria –  he probably sold it – and, advantageously sold, could have set him up very comfortably for the rest of his life, because it was quite a huge building, (and) the.. the real estate in the area, on the Cote d’Azur there, is fantastic, it’s very high, real-estate values, and, yes, he was well taken care of). Now there are various relatives, this and that…

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-three minutes in]

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