William S. Burroughs and I performed at the same major Amsterdam literary event back in 1978, Soyo Benn Posset’s first One World Poetry festival, P78. Whose closing night, where WSB and I took to the big stage separately, I wrote about in a long rapid-fire prose poem entitled “Poetry & the Punks: An Apocalyptic Confrontation” which was published in P78 Anthology. But that’s not when I got to meet the author of Naked Lunch, Junkie, and Queer up close and personal. Same as with Bill’s friend and partner in experimental cut-ups crime Brion Gysin, that would come later. In the case of William it was the following year, when Benn again brought Bill to Holland, and not for the last time either. On this occasion Benn asked the Dutch poet Harry Hoogstraten to organize a special reading at the Melkweg multi-media center for Burroughs and other outlaws. Those others being Jules Deelder (aka ‘the night mayor of Rotterdam’), shamanic legend Simon Vinkenoog, the rock star Herman Brood, and of course Harry. While to emcee this extraordinary happening Harry chose me.
The day of the evening reading began with an afternoon dinner on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, a mere stone’s throw from the red-light district. With some of the attendees (albeit not William) gathering beforehand in the bar next door for nerves-settling drinks. Among whom was Brood, front man of the hugely popular band Wild Romance. Onstage, Herman (who in 2001 ended his life by flamboyantly leaping from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton) was confidently outrageous. Yet in person he could often be incredibly shy. A trait I encountered whenever we bumped into one another and chatted at Padrino, a gangster restaurant near the Melkweg that didn’t start serving meals until midnight (and was also one of Soyo Benn’s favorite eateries). And who was Herman Brood’s junkie hero? You guessed it, Bill Burroughs. So much so that Herman, a talented artist as well as an accomplished singer/songwriter, had produced a series of comic strips for various underground music ‘zines with the unnamed Burroughs as a main character. (Where are they today, these strips? God alone knows.) Now suddenly they were performing on the same program. And even sooner, Herman could connect one-on-one with his idol over dinner. Alas, it never happened. Nor did they get to exchange even a word. Shy Herman bottled, pure and simple.
“Time to go eat,” I said to Herman in the bar.
“Sorry, man, I gotta go get me some Angels. See you at the gig.”
And off he sped to the nearby Hell’s Angels HQ, high on shots of speed and natural adrenalin.
It was a narrow restaurant with a single long table accommodating a couple of dozen (mostly Dutch) writers and visiting firemen. William sat at the head, his back to the door. ‘Brave,’ I thought. ‘He must be packing a rod.’ (A love of guns was something Bill and I had in common.) I was at his left, Harry to his right. Benn had discreetly placed himself down at the end. William ate in silence, as did I. The rest blathered away, but not in our direction. Coffee and digestifs quickly segued into several writers coming forth to present Bill with books. Books in Dutch, a language Bill couldn’t read. Always the gentleman, Bill politely growled his thanks. That parade over and done with, I turned to Bill and said: “I’m afraid I don’t have a book for you, but I do have this.” Whereupon I popped a gram ball of opium into the palm of his hand.
“Oh, I know what this is,” he said, dividing the ball in two and immediately swallowing a half.
“Say,” he then said, “allow me to return the favor.”
And reaching into his jacket pocket, he withdrew a slim plastic container full of little pink pills and handed it to me saying: “Here, this is for you. I scored them in Paris, but have more at the hotel.”
They were codeine, a drug I wasn’t much familiar with.
“Much obliged,” said I. “But ah, how many should I take?”
I’m a thin chap. In those days with particularly gaunt facial features. And so my question somewhat startled William.
“How many? Dunno. Ten, maybe twelve. Hell, take as many as you like, you’re an old veteran!”
Haha, Bill Burroughs reckoned I was a fellow junkie!
There was still plenty of time to kill before the reading, and everyone headed to the Melkweg by varied means, some individually, others in small groups. By then Bill and I had gotten into conversing, and so found ourselves walking together at a slow pace far behind the rest. We discussed heroin (“How much does it go for here?” Bill queried); guns (“In New York if you’re carrying and shoot someone in self-defense, no one will bother you,” he insisted, much to this New Yorker’s surprise); his son Billy, who was less than two years away from dying at age 33; Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa University and Allen Ginsberg’s guru (“He definitely has powers,” William stated unreservedly, adding he saw that clearly when Trungpa visited Billy in hospital). That and all sorts of groovy stuff, with me doing most of the asking and listening.
The event itself was a blast. With the packed-house Fonteinzaal audience paying rapt attention throughout. Deelder rapped rhythmic Chicago-style jazz poetry; Vinkenoog machinegun-delivered his usual high-powered mixture of psychedelic magic; Harry recited poems in English (the language he’d adopted for his writings during a lengthy stay in Ireland); William gravely-voiced read a number of short tracts, including “Bugger the Queen” (that I eventually arranged for International Times in London to publish); with me reeling out my own verses in between making the introductions. Herman, who was nowhere in sight until I caught a glimpse of him up in the balcony sound room, I’d decided to save for last. And now it was time.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I called out, “let’s give an uproariously warm welcome to the one and only Herman Brood.”
“I told you to wait, fucker!” screamed Herman from God knows where. (He hadn’t told me, but never mind.)
“Seems Herman’s not quite ready, folks,” I laughed into the microphone. “So while he’s powdering his nose [more discreet than saying ‘shooting up,’ eh], I’ll read a poem by Ira Cohen that I’m sure Herman will especially appreciate hearing. It’s entitled ‘A Brickbat for Herman Brood or P78 Meets Wild Romance in Paradiso.’”
I’ve no idea if Herman bothered to listen, but the crowd was stunned as I belted out lines like ‘Let the bread stay in the breadbox, Herman’ and ‘Patti Smith queens your pawn – Anarchy prevails – It is poetry which breaks the bars of jails!’
No sooner had I finished than a thoroughly stoned Herman comes strolling towards the stage, his face beaming with a broad smile.
“Alles okay, baba?” I ask.
“I’m fine, man, just fine,” he drawls. Followed by, “I brought some friends with me.”
The friends were half a dozen well-seasoned Hell’s Angels, each of them holding a large bottle of beer. Herman would be knocking out poems, not singing songs. And minus his band, these dudes were his backup boys. They accompanied his recitations by stomping their feet in cadence to his words. It was a perfect performance that saw the audience cheering and howling for more. They got more, though not from Herman. He’d disappeared with all but one of the Angels, the tallest of the lot. Who then approached me and politely asked if he could recite a poem. I said sure, introduced him, he stepped up to the mike, pulled a tiny slip of paper from his jeans’ bicycle-key pocket, and proceeded to recite an unbelievably sweet love poem. A pin-drop silence gave way to a round of applause.
Bringing the reading to a close, I made a point of thanking William for the many hours of reading pleasure he’d afforded me over the years.
“Pleasure?” Simon snarled loudly. “He’s trying to stick a knife in your heart!”
“And if I get a kick out of that,” I snapped back, “what’s it to you?”
The audience filed out…to the main hall, the café, the bar, the house dealer’s counter, wherever. We participants, sans Herman, adjourned to the Melkweg office, with the Angels tagging along.
“Where’s Jack?” Angel Jack demanded to know from William.
“He’s wherever you care to find him,” Bill responded, in his mind meaning Kerouac.
“I’m Jack,” said Jack, stabbing at his own chest with a forefinger.
“Oh, yes, I know what you mean,” Bill replied with a wise nod of the head. “It’s all in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
“Eddie, get those guys out of here,” Soyo Benn pleaded with me, “before they drive William nuts.”
I forget how exactly, but I got them to leave without a fuss.
William made his exit shortly afterwards. We shook hands. Then referring to the remainder of the opium he’d already gulped down, he said: “Thank you, Eddie, I’m well away.”
William and I next saw each other in 1985 when he and his manager James Grauerholz, in company with Benn, visited Ins & Outs Press for a long afternoon into early evening. Plus we spoke on a live telephone hookup (that the audience could hear) during a 1993 Soyo Benn-organized Burroughs Tribute at the Melkweg that I co-emceed. And I had Bill affirm that I was not the Eddie Woods who witnessed him accidently shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs in Mexico. (Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan’s biography of William, had many people seriously believing it was me.)
“No, Eddie,” Bill said dryly, “it wasn’t you.” And went on to describe my infamous namesake. Red hair, short, a good nine years younger than I, et cetera. I wrote about all of this in the essay “Thank God You’re Not Eddie Woods” (http://eddiewoods.nl/short-stories/thank-god-youre-not-eddie-woods/)that I delivered at the William Burroughs conference Naked Lunch@50 in Paris, 2009, and was subsequently published in Beat Scene.
Btw, I was only half-joking when I said that Burroughs and Gysin were partners in cut-up crime. 1) I don’t much care for the technique. (Neither did Gregory Corso, who collaborated on Minutes to Go only reluctantly); 2) To the extent it has any validity, I consider Harold Norse to be its real master. As exemplified in his ground-breaking novella Beat Hotel; 3) I by far prefer Burroughs’ straighter writings to any of the cut-ups. None of which negates Norman Mailer’s 1962 appraisal of Burroughs as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Hear, hear. That’s my Bill Burroughs, all right.
This piece was first published in Beat Scene (issue no. 73):