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Call Me (William) Burroughs: A Conversation with Barry Miles

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Barry Miles is a counterculture icon who writes about counterculture icons. He's a chronicler of the 1960s whose attention to its rhythms and rebellions took him from the famous Indica bookshop and gallery (as co-owner) --where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono -- to the founding of the International Times underground newspaper, to his newly released and lovingly researched biography of William S. Burroughs.

Known to all as Miles, the biographer of Allen Ginsberg, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski and others, and now, Burroughs, discusses it all in this interview.

Davis: Call Me Burroughs: A Life is a major statement, and will certainly be the defining statement of Burroughs for this generation. Could you speak to what space this book fills in relation to Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw?

Miles: Literary Outlaw was the groundbreaking Burroughs biography but it was published in 1988, nine years before Burroughs died. I have purposely not re-read it, but as I recall he barely touched upon Burroughs' second career as an artist, didn't deal with his scrapbooks, photo collages or avant-garde experiments with photo-collages and cut-up tapes.

A lot more research has been done since Morgan's book, including entire books on his time in Texas, books about the gay scene in Tangier, and even an attempt to list every book that Burroughs is known to have read. One of my earlier books was about Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso's time in Paris at the Beat Hotel. Much of this information I have drawn upon. I have also been in a position to correct some of the errors in Morgan's book, inevitable in a first biography. I also filled in some of the gaps: for instance, Burroughs lived in London for more than 10 years, a time that Morgan more or less skips over as he doesn't like England.

Davis: Is this because Ted Morgan is really a Frenchman, born Comte St. Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont? This is a serious accusation!

Miles: I don't know about that! When he was working on the book, I was working on my Allen Ginsberg biographer, and I used to meet Ted from time to time. We got on well, amicably even, until I did my own little portrait of Burroughs, an introduction to his work called El Hombre Invisible, which Ted objected to. As I said, I haven't read Ted's book in 20 years so I can't really say how my book differs from his except that I use direct quotes whereas he experimented with an 'interior monologue', or however he describes it, in which he paraphrased Bill's answers to his questions so that the whole book sounded sort of like Bill talking, but you were never sure if it was Bill or Ted talking. It was a groundbreaking book and all future biographers of Burroughs must thank him for it, and for selling his research tapes and papers to the U of Arizona at Tempe where any scholar can use them.

Davis: You've worked on Burroughs since 1965, and Call Me Burroughs details your long association. What is it that sustains, to borrow an idea from Oliver Harris, your "fascination" with Burroughs?

Miles: I was an art student when I first discovered The Naked Lunch. I had the usual teenage romantic notions about bohemianism and the artistic life, but the only people who seemed to be living that life were the Beats. I used to hitchhike up to London and stay in a friend's communal apartment. I remember one of the residents was Peter Wollen -- later head of the UCLA Film Department -- who one day remarked, "This is such a cool pad, man. There's always a fresh copy of Naked Lunch on the table."

This was when copies of the Olympia Press edition had to be smuggled in from France, as it was banned in Britain and not yet published in the USA. Burroughs was then -- in 1960-61 -- the prototype cool individual. He was associated with everything that was illegal, homosexuality, drugs, he had even murdered his wife, all very romantic to a naive 18 year old.

And the book was filled with pothead humor, and was to us, hilariously funny. Over the years I got to know Burroughs and always thought that he was not just a great writer, but that politically he had a type of healthy cynicism that always challenged the accepted viewpoint: he was opposed to all control systems, he made you question everything, all received ideas, everything from patriotism, religion, sexual mores, drugs, everything. My role in life has always been editorial, so I published him, sold his books in my bookshop, produced spoken word recordings, wrote his bibliography, curated two of his photography shows and finally wrote the full-length biography that I always wanted to write.

Davis: You note that the myth of Burroughs was romantic to the naïve 18 year old version of yourself. I was at The Burroughs Century conference in Bloomington last weekend, and at a closing late-night costume party that attracted a swath of non-academic Indiana youth, I noticed the standard Burroughs fetishizations on display: junkie, wife-killer, etc. One woman was dressed as a heroin needle.

What do you think of all of it now, particularly after writing extensively on Burroughs? Does the old romance of the Burroughs myth still attract you?

Miles: Well, having known Bill for 30+ years and now spent years studying his life and work, I obviously no longer have that adolescent romantic view of him as the tortured bohemian artist. I know too much about him, and have witnessed too much of his home life to project onto him any more. I still feel that he is a major writer and thinker, and I think his ideas and predictions about control systems are becoming more and more apposite, particularly in these days of mass surveillance by governments.

With information comes power over people, and the U.S. and U.K. are certainly moving into the realms of Big Brother, just as Bill predicted. So in a way, I still regard him as a mentor, even though I thought some of his ideas were crackpot.

Davis: What unexpected revelations did you discover while writing Call Me Burroughs?

Miles: I found out little that I didn't already know because I had been moving in Bill's circles ever since 1965. However I did uncover a lot of fascinating detail about his early days in London -- 1960-1964 -- that was completely unknown to me, fascinating and amusing. Mostly it was a question of revising my understanding of the relationships and friendships in his life and seeing how very much he changed each time he moved to a new city: new clothes, new friends, new views, new attitudes. He was always concerned to fit into whatever scene he found himself in.

Davis: Do you still read Burroughs' work, or read it in the same way? Or is the risk for the biographer that the subject's work will lose some of its magic through the research process?

Miles: Well, this book isn't over yet; I'm still at the publicity stage, but I do still read Burroughs. I'm not Burroughed-out yet. I keep finding something new. When James Grauerholz and I co-edited the restored text edition of Naked Lunch, I must have read Naked Lunch about 20 times, and at least another six times in writing this book. I still find it funny. I think his work has always been so much part of my life that there was never any risk of losing the magic. If anything, I enjoy it more and more, and keep finding things I wish I had put in the book.

Davis: You note that "The Burroughs brand comes in many varieties." Does therein lie the secret to the abiding interest in his production?

Miles: I think you are right. He is many things to many people, people project onto him what they want, a bit like the appeal of a boy band or Elvis Presley. The real Burroughs remains hidden, El Hombre Invisible, while he is admired for everything from his experiments with language, proto-critical theory, to his guns and role as grandfather of punk. And all stations in between.

Davis: Ok, sure. Yet Burroughs is much more visible as a "brand" than J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, whose "brands" are articulate through certain lip service to "invisibility." What makes the very public figure of Burroughs any more invisible than Stephen King? Is it the critique that his work aims to produce?

Miles: OK, when he returned to the U.S. in 1974 he realized that in America you have become a brand, and you have to play the celebrity game in order to sell books. Whereas he had previously played down his connection to the Beat Generation he now played it up. Kerouac who he broke off relations with in 1958 became an old friend.

If people wanted him to be the godfather of punk, then he would play that role for them. He needed the money. I guess I was referring to his earlier life, pre-1974 when he did seriously want to remain out of the public eye. After 1974 he was willing to be part of that scene, though he had no interest in rock and roll, punk or most of the celebrities routinely paraded before him.

Davis: Despite the ample evidence of his non-novel work, is Burroughs pigeonholed as a novelist?

Miles: I think people quickly realize the extent of his work if they start to investigate him. There have been numerous books about his paintings, collages and more recently his photography. His cut-up films have been widely discussed in academic circles. He is known to contemporary music fans across the board from working with Laurie Anderson and John Cage to Kurt Cobain and Hip Hop bands. Critics like people to stay in their genre because literary critics can't write for the visual arts pages, but Burroughs is very much a post-modernist and mixes up his genres.

Davis: I've focused my writing on Burroughs' work as an argument against the over-mythologizing of the man. Do you think Burroughs is more a cultural figure than an author at this point, and if so, what are the implications of that?

Miles: I think films such as William S. Burroughs: The Man Within don't help in this respect, as they concentrate on Burroughs as celebrity. I have personally always been opposed to the cult of celebrity, which celebrates the surface and ignores the actual message. Burroughs himself had no idea who most of the celebrities he met were.

He thought Andy Summers and Sting were cops; when he interviewed Jimmy Page for Crawdaddy he could not relate to Led Zeppelin and stuck to safe ground by discussing magic; Kurt Cobain just seemed like a disturbed young man. However, he realized that this is how books are sold in America -- and increasingly so everywhere else -- so he went along with it. If his fame introduces more people to the work, then it can do nothing but good. If it just makes him a cult figure then there is nothing much gained.

Davis: I know the director Yony Leyser and did a few hours worth of script consulting William S. Burroughs: The Man Within. I told him when we hosted a showing at Lake Forest College that while I admired his filmmaking I also do disagree with the emphasis of the film, which trends toward the mythopoetic. Of course, Yony was quite young when he made it, and perhaps it's the film that many young Burroughs fans would have made.

Was the infamous Nike commercial (one version) part of this same impetus to "go along with it?"

Miles: The Nike commercial was quite simply a way to raise enough money to guarantee that he would have health care in his old age now that he had left England where he would have had it for free. James Grauerholz wanted to set aside a certain amount and I guess that's what happened. No one expected such a reaction from people: most of those who criticized him had regular jobs, getting wages from regular big American companies. Why they thought that Burroughs shouldn't do the same is beyond me (this is before any criticism of Nike's employment practices as far as I remember). So yes, he was going along with the American way of life.

Davis: Your subjects are often larger cultural moments -- Hippies, The British Invasion -- or major counterculture figures Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa, Paul McCartney to name a few. Is there still a counterculture today? If so, what books need to be written to document it?

Miles: I would think with the occupy movement and Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and so on there is a very active counterculture movement, it's just that the underground press equivalent is now online and global. I would like to see proper documentation of its predecessors so that the present generation are working with accurate information because just as the hippies -- so called -- used the Beats as their mentors, so the youth of today look to the hippies and the sixties counterculture for inspiration.

It includes people like Burroughs who were working through that period, but now includes Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, the Beatles and so on across the board as well as cyberpunks, actual punks and outsiders like Genesis P-Orridge.

In Britain, which these days is the scene I'm most familiar with, the London counterculture is mostly in the visual arts, with hundreds of small experimental galleries in the East End and Fitzrovia, often run by artist collectives. The work is mostly not very good, but the energy and the excitement, the conversations and friendships are wonderful.

Davis: What is the duty/role of a biographer to the "truth," especially for a figure like Burroughs whose relationship to authoritative narrative is highly charged?

Miles: I have always attempted objectivity, "Just the facts," and prefer to let the reader make their own mind up about whether my subject's activities were reprehensible, praiseworthy or groundbreaking. I try and show my subjects as real people, not gods or "great teachers." I usually know my subjects firsthand and I've not met a god yet.

Davis: This seems the right policy, especially with Burroughs. Yet will the next biographer of Burroughs, perhaps a generation from now, take Call Me Burroughs to task for implicitly expressing your bias, as per Morgan's dislike of London?

Miles: My generation will be the last one to have known personally the Beat Generation members we are writing about. I hope there is a new generation, because that means there is still an interest in Burroughs and his work. I'm sure they'll find things wrong in the book. Many of the things Bill did are now regarded as quite reprehensible whereas at the time there was little public censure of sex tourism, etc. Who can tell what they will find praiseworthy or wicked!

Davis: Would you have wanted Bill to like this book?

Miles: Well of course I would. However, I did find it easier to write about some of his more careless behavior, more sloppiness of action and downright silly ideas, now that he cannot read it. He did not shy away from the truth, even when the facts were painful, so as long I have my facts right, I think he would certainly respect the amount of work that went into it.

When I published my Allen Ginsberg biography, Allen took to calling me up to ask if he worked at the New Jersey Labor Herald before or after he worked at the ribbon factory, and on one occasion to even ask when his mother died. He found it easier to have a biographer on hand to deal with the facts. The opinions and ideas, he held to himself. I think Bill was concerned that the overall arc of his life was documented so, yes, I hope I did him a service.

Davis: It's easy to understand how the documenter can become the arbiter of the subject's reality, and do you think Bill would have asked the same sorts of questions were he alive? Put another way, how important were dates and time to the man endlessly cutting the past intro fragments? We know some dates were very important for his work -- September 17, 1899 -- but was he the type of person to take stock of his own life, to create a retroactive linear narrative?

Miles: From the end of the sixties Bill used to date his manuscripts very precisely and even created his own calendar system in the early seventies. As you say, certain dates had a special meaning to him, but he was not someone who cared about a linear narrative at all. His own memories were all jumbled up and he liked it that way because the random juxtapositions sometimes made interesting connections between people and events that he had not previously noticed.

Davis Schneiderman is a Burroughs scholar and writer, and the author most recently of the appropriation novel [SIC].