William Burroughs
Meeting William Burroughs

b y   S a r a j a n e   I n k s t e r

An interview with David Britton and Michael Butterworth at the Savoy Offices, 12th August 1997, ten days after Burroughs' death.



ON 23 MAY, 1979, Michael Butterworth and David Britton of the Manchester publishers Savoy Books took the opportunity to visit William Burroughs. They met him at 'The Bunker', his home on The Bowery, New York, before he moved to live in Kansas. The publishers were staying in Manhattan, en-route to the American Booksellers Association Trade Exhibition in Los Angeles. Michael Butterworth's note book records the visit briefly with the barest facts:

NOON—William Burroughs, 222 The Bowery, between Prince St. and Spring St., on The Bowery. Call first by phone before knocking. We to make offer to his London Agent for Cities of the Red Night and arrangements to discuss The Job and Dutch Schultz. (1)

Ostensibly their intention was to discuss with Burroughs a Savoy line of his work. However, although the meeting went well, the venture was ill-fated.

As of writing, the company has recently emerged from 20 years of persecution by the Manchester police and city authorities. Unknown to them in 1979—the time of their visit to 'The Bunker'—they were soon to be dealt a body blow. Returning to England, after successfully contracting to publish the paperback edition of Cities of the Red Night, Savoy was hit by the first of three big raids. (Two other raids, in 1989 and 1990, concerned the publication of their novel Lord Horror and various graphic works.) Led by 'God's Cop' Police Chief Constable James Anderton, this raid was a co-ordinated simultaneous swoop on their main retail and publishing premises, and almost achieved the intention of shutting down their company. It was the culmination of many smaller raids. In total, hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of stock were seized and not returned, including Savoy-published titles by Samuel Delany, Charles Platt, and Jack Trevor Story. At the same time, an unrelated action by the Times Mirror Organisation in America dealt a body blow to the publishing house New American Library. This had a knock-on effect on Savoy's distributor-publishers, New English Library, who went into liquidation. Savoy was forced into temporary bankruptcy in 1981, and in 1982 David Britton was jailed—the first of two jail sentences connected with his publishing which he had to endure. Savoy lost Cities to another publisher.

Butterworth and Britton's other agenda worked out well—they met one of their literary heroes, one of the great people of the 20th Century.

I asked them for their memories of that meeting.

David Britton: My memories of William Burroughs at that date are mixed up today with the images you see of him on film. You know—'Did I really meet him, or was it the dream celluloid Burroughs who sat opposite drinking tea?' However, I do remember thinking that the Bunker was definitely an extension of Burroughs' personality. Burroughs added ambience to the place, which was an old gymnasium—the sort you would see depicted in gangster films set in the Brooklyn of the '30s, where Pat O'Brien plays the honest priest, and all his young punks are working up a sweat in the gym—Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, etc. You could just see Burroughs as the Daddy, The Bowery Daddy, and the Dead-End Kids as his private street gang. Even their name sounds like one of his creations.

There was a flight of long stairs up to the Bunker which was a long room with a couple of side-rooms and a kitchen. I remember the 'john'—a partitioned-off area with a row of old-fashioned tiled urinals, which had the sort of sleazy sex connotations you would expect of Burroughs' living quarters.

Michael Butterworth: The Bunker was in a run-down low-rise area of stores, bars and light industry, very like Ancoats in Manchester, only busier. On the ground floor was what seems in my memory to be a used furniture store selling tall cabinets and cupboards, or wardrobes. It had open iron security gates, and was the general entrance to the building. I can't remember how we got upstairs, or who met us to show us up. It may have been Burroughs. Possibly we walked up after calling on a door entry system. I remember Burroughs brewing us tea. During the meeting there was the sound of typing coming from a small side-room—probably his companion, James Grauerholz, who was also his secretary and manager. It was Grauerholz who—with Allen Ginsberg—did so much to help gain establishment respectability for Burroughs. It would figure, because at this time Victor Bockris (2) was being allowed to make introductions between Burroughs and celebrities like Susan Sontag, Lou Reed, Nicolas Roeg, Andy Warhol, and Tennessee Williams.

  • SJI: How did you arrange your meeting with Burroughs?

MB: We phoned Burroughs before we called round to see him. We told him that we were interested in doing the UK paperback edition of Cities of the Red Night, which he was still working on. At first he wondered why we wanted to see him rather than his London agent. I said we would do this, but we would still like to meet him as we were in New York and could show him our titles, and explain to him what type of company we were. On reflection, he probably realised that we were looking for a slender reason to meet him, and he very kindly allowed us his time. Yet we were seriously interested in publishing Cities, which we thought was his best novel since The Naked Lunch. We also told him that we seriously intended to make available new paperback editions of harder-to-get works like The Job and The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. We were planning for these to be in uniform editions, if we could, and this seemed to please him. When we got back home we contracted with John Calder, his UK hardback publisher, to do the paperback edition of Cities. This was to have been the first title in what we saw as a Burroughs line, which could establish Savoy as a major publishing company.

DB: We offered what was for us a high advance of £10,000, and were surprised when it was accepted. For someone of Burroughs' calibre, it was a low figure. It made us wonder what other publishers had offered, what they thought he was worth. He never did earn a vast amount of money, despite what people think. When he was in England he was reported as saying that he was earning what the average plumber would earn.

  • How much time did you spend with him?

DB: It's hard to recall how long we were with him. (Records show no more than about 2 hours). We'd brought with us a selection of our titles. I can remember discussing The Savoy Book with him. This is a collection of fiction and graphics which we'd just put out. It had such writers as M John Harrison, who worked for us at the time, and Harlan Ellison. We'd published Harlan's book, The Glass Teat, and were going to see him next, to discuss further titles with him at his home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. Our good friend Heathcote Williams was in there... and artists such as Jim Leon, who had illustrated for Oz magazine. It was a showcase collection for Savoy. We would also probably have left with him titles like Charles Platt's The Gas, Delany's Tides of Lust, Michael Moorcock's The Golden Barge, Jack Trevor Story's Screwrape Lettuce, and Henry Treece's Celtic tetralogy. We discussed Harry Clarke, the Irish artist, who Burroughs knew of. Clarke illustrated Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination—which suggests that we also talked about Poe. At the time we were contemplating doing a book of Clarke's colour and stained glass work...

  • Was there any sense of the atmosphere at the Bunker being 'contrived' in any way?

DB: No—not at all. It was very definitely a home, first and foremost. The place was very clean, and pleasing to the eye, with no sense of the dereliction of the streets outside. It was open-plan and so from where we were sat we could see across the room to the kitchen area, where he made us tea. Burroughs dealt with everything, and he knew his way about. We saw no one else. He was the perfect host.

MB: There were no windows. It was where Burroughs lived, slept and worked—like a bunker. But it was strange because you were actually upstairs, on the first floor. We sat on one side of a longish table, with him facing us, constantly smoking thin cigarettes. He was very polite and well dressed in a light suit. He looked and behaved exactly as you would expect from his public profile, but his formality broke and he became genuinely interested when he came across one of Dave's illustrations. The picture, from The Savoy Book, was called 'A Fortnight on Calvary: Don't Put Me Down Like All the Other Fish'. It has a weird alien landscape, in which are two figures. The main figure was Count Sublime Hubris, one of the characters who later appeared in Lord Horror, imperiously tall, black, and dressed in finery, like Little Richard, but with an exposed cunt. The other was also black, but winged, small and naked, and fierce, with a very large hard-on, sucking on a tube which has been fed into the Count's vagina. It made Burroughs chuckle, and he asked who had drawn it.

  • Were you nervous about meeting someone who was obviously so important to you?

DB: Yes, it was nerve-wracking, and easier that we had been a pair visiting him.

  • How much did this meeting with Burroughs mean to you?

MB: It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can't tell you how much it meant to me. As a writer he had had an altering effect on me—after coming across his work I was not the same person. He opened my mind to possibility more than any others except other greats like Rabelais, or Lautréamont or Bosch. He was by far the most important person I have met or probably will ever meet. I regret that we took no pictures, but that was what everyone else was doing, which was not the Savoy style. Savoy was a calling card that allowed us to legitimately meet people we admired, like Burroughs, Gerald Scarfe or Burne Hogarth. At the time, that was enough.

DB: There was something magical about meeting him. I thought of him as a sorcerous 'Tinkerbell'—and some of his inspiring talent might just dust off. Mr Burroughs was Chaos Magick incarnate and, like the best oneiric spells, your memories of what was said and done are fractured. Just the 'distant wonderland' of it all stays with me. It was a very important moment in our lives.

  • Can you think of anyone else to compare him with?

DB: Ironically, despite his anti-drug stance, Frank Zappa comes immediately to mind. Particularly the early Zappa, who had a similarly cynical turn of mind and cold intelligence. It goes without saying that Burroughs was the greater, original artist. Andrea Dworkin has his passion, though her obsessions are elsewhere. It's difficult to think of Burroughs having any peers. To me, he never seemed to quite fit with the Beats, nor with later contemporaries like Vidal, Mailer, Bellow or Updike. They were writing about the present, but Burroughs was 'leaking in' the future for us: which will be alien. His mindset was genuinely alien, his mental umbilical chord was cut off from the rest of humanity, and he could articulate that discord within himself with the most powerful of visions. Burroughs had opened himself up, fallen into hell and climbed back out again. There are no other living writers capable of sustaining such visions. He was a mutant product of those strange decades, the '30s-'50s. They gave him a primitive quality denied to later generations of writers—who are urban, literate in computers and technology, but lacking his connections with the fleshy and sinister.

MB: I can't compare him with anyone except, strangely, considering what Dave has just said, in a small way to Don Van Vliet—Captain Beefheart—with his ability to draw so directly on experience to make art. Burroughs' work is so different to what went before. No one today has his idiosyncratic genius. He has had such a diverse effect—on literature, music, films, and electronic culture. Whatever detractors say of him—that he is misguided, lightweight, or whatever—will only serve to confound all the more, as his influence is seen to continue to grow, particularly now that he is dead. He is a hybrid genius, a great poet of the technological age, and a great satirist... and to some a spiritual leader.

His best poetic writing, especially his depiction of things gone, in broken, fragmented images—a yearning for the absolute, and at the same time an intense sadness or grief for man's inability to attain 'something' lost—produces an acute nagging pain inside me. It is like the worst love sickness, a terrible ache in the stomach, a feeling of fragility. I sense his loss, his fear. I pick it up off him like a worrying parent does off a child. Of course, if his writing did just this, that would not make it great. What makes it great is the way he is able to use this peculiarly intense emotion to describe reality, unbearable beauty and awfulness of the universe, of distant galaxies as well as the human life processes.

  • And now that he is dead?

MB: His death—his final editor—only intensifies everything he has written. What he has recorded between 1914 and 1997 is truly awe inspiring, and has had an effect on the way we perceive things and how we communicate these things ourselves—his is a way of seeing humanity in all its pain and humour that cannot be reversed.

"A great deal of my writing which I most identify with is not written out of any sort of objection at all, it's more poetic messages, the still sad music of humanity, simply poetic statements. If I make a little bit of fun of Control with Dr Schaeffer, the Lobotomy Kid, they say, 'This dark pacifist who's paranoid, who's motivated completely by rejection of technology'. This is a bunch of crap." (3)

To me, death was something that Burroughs always seemed to face head on.

MB: Burroughs wrote a novel as long ago as 1970 called Ah Pook is Here, which is about him trying to come to terms with his death. "Ritual and knowing the right words," he says with dry humour, is no solution to the problem. Death can come on the unprepared suddenly, like a "forced landing, or in many cases a parachute jump ". Far better, he writes, to know your landing site—where and how you are going to die—in advance. Cultivate a mindset of "alert passivity and focussed attention". When he finally came in to land on the far shore across the sea of his life, I hope he landed exactly where he planned, give or take a few yards.

(1) Verbatim text from Michael Butterworth's 1979 American Notebook.

(2) Author of With William Burroughs, A Report From the Bunker, 1981, Seaver Books, New York.

(3) From an interview with Victor Bockris.

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