Monday, January 13, 2014

The New Recruit (in honor of WIlliam Burroughs's 100th)

(Here is a slightly updated version of my essay, first published on December 14, 2006)

Lawrence, Kansas: City of the Arts, Harvard on the Kaw, bastion of hippie liberalism, spark to the Civil War and basketball empire. It’s said to be a great place to raise a family, but hasn't yet caught on as a destination for retiring stars of the literary and art worlds. Perhaps it's because we lack the scenic attractions of mountains and oceans, the grittiness and cultural wonders of big cities, or the comfort of a mild climate; all of which make the relocation of writer William Burroughs to Lawrence in 1981 that much more remarkable. (For more about how he came to Lawrence, read Tom King's interview with James Grauerholz here.)

For nearly sixteen years Lawrence was on the map as the place where Burroughs lived. Although many couldn't understand how he could live in Lawrence, the devotional effect he had on his followers and popularity as a cultural icon drew many to make pilgrimages to the writers' new home. And during that time, it wasn't unusual to see his peers and protégés like Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, Kurt Cobain and Laurie Anderson pass through. It was cool to be from Lawrence, where William Burroughs lived.

Burroughs's home on Learnard Ave.
Burroughs died in 1997, but his spirit still roams downtown, reanimated by the memories of those who knew him well, those who know those who knew him well, and those who count a happenstance encounter with the writer as a fish story worthy of a thousand retellings. Today, you can still hear the slightest anecdotes about him traded like hipster currency in bars and coffee shops, with admirers referring to him as “Burroughs” and those who can claim a closer connection referring to him by the more familiar "William." Ones I’ve heard include - 

I used to always see Burroughs at the dirty Dillons.
I once had to drive William to the methadone clinic in Kansas City.
Someone who did landscaping at his house told me that Burroughs's lawnmower was stored in my garage in North Lawrence after he died.
I actually had sex in William's house during some sort of party and remember what an incredible library he had. 
We stocked shotgun shells for him at our store until he died. 
I cut William's hair for thirteen years.
I shook Burroughs's hand at a birthday soiree in D.C.
I lived two doors down from him, I think.

And here's one final anecdote I heard from an old friend. I won't reveal her identity except to say that her story has been verified by six people at the Bourgeois Pig.

One time, William S. Burroughs came in to my work to buy cat food and we went bungee jumping off the Kaw River bridge together. I told him he was the best and he shot a can of paint in the most talented way. So then I said let's make this shit real, and we blended our souls into one and the clouds opened up and he ascended with my soul into the heavens and stood next to Jim Morrison and waved at me and told me to Don't Stop Believin'. It was intense. He was amazing. He loves me more than he ever loved you.

Others would rather have us forget Burroughs, as was clear when the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association put forth the idea of renaming the creek near his house as a memorial. The creek eventually was renamed "Burroughs", and maybe someday his old house on Learnard will be preserved as a place for visiting writers and artists, but what about the loose band of anti-establishment free thinkers who coalesced around and were motivated by his presence? This may have been the biggest effect Burroughs had on Lawrence, as local poet Jim McCrary wrote in the book Embattled Lawrence:Conflict and Community, "By living in Lawrence, William kept alive an alternative community of libertarianism that always made room and stood aside for younger members."  When William Burroughs checked out, this "alternative community" lost its number one anti-hero and sage.

The only other Lawrencian, that comes to mind, who inspires a kind of devotional following is Bill James. Who? He's the guru baseball statistician whose counter-intuitive number crunching brought a World Series title to the Boston Red Sox after an eighty-six year drought. That's sports analysis though. It may be a worthy pursuit (and I wish the Cubs would hire him for a season), but it just doesn't have the same cache as renegade Beat writer. So, isn't there anyone else, any other edgy and brilliant writer or artist living among us, under the radar? Maybe. There are rumors...

Nearly all of them name the same figure. An innovative art multitasker who, if he did live here, would go a long way toward putting Lawrence back on that map. Unconfirmed sightings of him began soon after Burroughs's death. The story spread, and then someone I trust swore that this guy, this artist, writer, producer, and rock and roll hip-star was now confirmed as living in Lawrence. He'd hired a realtor to find a home while he stayed at the Eldridge, they said. Then, he'd bought a house on the southwest corner of 23rd and Massachusetts, and his number was in the phone book under D. Byrne.

That was eight or nine years ago. Nevertheless, a lot of us really wanted this story to be true so we ignored evidence to the contrary, like the fact that D. Byrne hasn't been seen here since his show in 1997, and clung to a fading memory of once hearing about someone who'd seen him riding his bike downtown. I cannot and would not want to try to prove that the front man for the Talking Heads never lived here. All I can say, is that if he did, he was one hell of a recluse, and it appears from checking area phone books that our city's charms weren't enough to hold him here, and he moved to Olathe. Olathe.

So, it seems that we are without an iconoclast captain once again, adrift and invisible on the map of cool. What to do? Will Lawrence ever again be home to a big fish who can rekindle our nonconformist spirit? If so, who, and why would they come here? The way I see it, we can sit around hoping and manifesting or we can get up off our asses and recruit - you know, the way we do for basketball players and CEO's.

With this in mind, I've sketched out a short list of qualifications that I think will quickly narrow the field (feel free to add to or modify the list). The candidate should ...

1) be over 50 years old,
2) never have lived here in the past,
3) have achieved international recognition in their discipline,
4) inspire avid devotion including pilgrimages of more than 500 miles,
5) be commonly referred to by either a first or last name, but not both,
6) be the cause of consternation among elected officials and chamber of commerce members due to their 'alternative' lifestyle,
7) and promise, when they arrive, to live east of Massachusetts Street or in North Lawrence.

I solicited regulars at the Bourgeois Pig for nominations. Their eyes sparkled at the prospect. Noting the prerequisites above, they put forth, Laurie Anderson, Slavoj Zizek, Willie Nelson, Elvira, Amiri Baraka (just passed), John Waters (who will be visiting in a few weeks), Patti Smith, Gus Van Sant, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis among others. Note: Bjork and Sherman Alexie are too young, Bruce Springsteen already lives here (check the phone book), and Martha Stewart would never live on the east side, so they're not eligible. 

With Burroughs gone more than fifteen years now, I don't think it's too soon to muse about a new nonconformist paragon of culture, the question is who and how would we entice them to come here. Once we agree on a nominee, the recruiting efforts can begin in full. In the meantime, check out the new show at the Arts Center and soak up the memories of Burroughs's Lawrence years.


YZ said...

a well considered idea for us to further consider... hmmm

Jim McCrary said...

Dave..where'd ya get that quote...dont sound like me.

Dave said...

Hey Jim,

Thanks for asking about my source.

The quote - ""By living in Lawrence, William kept alive an alternative community of libertarianism that always made room and stood aside for younger members." comes from your essay in "Embattled Lawrence: Conflict and Community" on p. 260.

In my piece, I added the book title as the source of your quote.