Register Monday | September 24 | 2018

One Blow Job Away

When William S. Burroughs came to town

I started reading the Beats in 1978, when my friend and roommate Roy Berger weaned me off science fiction and introduced me to his library. In our apartment in Montreal, I would lie on our dilapidated garbage-rescued couch and read Ken Kesey and John Clellon Holmes, Ferlinghetti, Abbie Hoffman, Ginsberg (of course), Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and a whole bunch more. I was eighteen then, and half the time I couldn't figure out why these guys were so important. The other half I was wishing they were better writers.  

But mostly, they all sounded like Roy, who sounded like no one else I'd ever met. Sometimes you couldn't really figure out what he meant, either, like his favourite author, William Burroughs. Naked Lunch was like all those other writers mixed into one book, then shuffled so the0pages were out of order. It left me cold. I couldn't see the value in it because it lacked a visible context.  
At the same time, Roy and I were reading Canadian stuff: Quill & Quire, Descant, Canadian Fiction Magazine. Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler were the big men, Hugh MacLennan was still read and discussed, Margaret Laurence and Mavis Gallant were lauded, Margaret Atwood and Matt Cohen were what was happening. It bored the crap out of us. Mostly it still does.  

This was not a literature for young men like us. We lived in St. Henri, right around the Square, the very neighbourhood so accurately captured by Gabrielle Roy in The Tin Flute . At the time it was still largely as described in that great novel-a slum-and therefore cheap. I think the total rent we paid on a five-room flat with a basement was $130, which the landlord was thrilled to get. When he did.  

We lived on unemployment insurance. Back then, this was possible: benefits were not humiliatingly low, and if you'd worked enough weeks you got it without hassle. Roy and I read books during the day and at night joined our friends downtown at the Café Prague, a basement on Bishop Street that catered to Concordia arts students and others in Montreal's boho community. The lights were low, the brick walls exposed, the wooden beams varnished and dark with age, the food cheap. You could nurse a single glass of tea all night without being thrown out. Over the comings & goings of various friends, we talked books, writing, women, art, life-everything we knew nothing about.  

It was around then that Roy decided we should put out our own magazine. He went so far as to get it listed in Writer's Market. He wrote that he didn't want any "boring Canadian regionalism set on farms." He put my name on a list of authors who typified what he wanted; it was the first time I saw my name in print.  This wasn't Roy's first magazine. When I had gone to visit him in London, Ontario, two years earlier, he'd been the editor of Rude-which looked then the way Wired and Adbusters and homemade zines look today. That week in London, Roy and I drank and smoked dope in rundown apartments and painter's studios, drove to crowded dives to watch punk bands thrash, and visited City Lights, a second-hand bookstore named after the famous Beat publishing house in San Francisco. This, I thought, was how to put together a magazine.

But this time Roy had to get a job to help cover production costs. We moved to a bigger place in a better neighbourhood (NDG). The previous tenant had left behind a prescription bottle. I don't recall what it was or if we knew then, but Roy suspected it20was some kind of morphine derivative. He crushed up the tiny white pills as finely as he could and we snorted it. I don't recall it having any effect.

Roy bought a second-hand mimeograph machine. We had to type every page onto stencils with manual typewriters-Roy had a collection of typewriters-and we cranked the machine by hand, then collated and stapled hundreds of copies. Roy'd gone around to all the local stores & merchants and drummed up advertising, so he actually paid people for their work. Even me.  

Roy couldn't get enough wild stories to satisfy his vision, so he offered me extra money to write something outrageous. The story was about a dwarf or a hunchback or something who is sexually tortured by lesbians. When Roy went to collect the money due from the pet store down the block, they refused to pay for having their name associated with such obscenities. When he went back to the magazine shops and bookstores to check the sales, they returned all the copies in disgust. Most hadn't even displayed them. The magazine died with its first issue.  

We turned to hitchhiking. On the Road. It was only a decade after Woodstock and the summer of love, so you still saw people thumbing rides on the 401. We'd go on the least excuse. One late October night, over smoked meats and beers at Ben's, Roy recalled that there was a Halloween party at a friend's house in London. Seven hundred kilometres away. We went home, packed and headed out. All you had to do was stand at the on-ramp off Dorchester Street and in ten or fifteen minutes some complete stranger would let you into his car, and off you'd go under a giant sign reading "Dorval/2&20/Toronto." For some reason it didn't seem like a recklessly stupid thing to do.  

It was a long cold night on the highway and we didn't make London till late afternoon the next day. When we arrived, we learned that the party had taken place two days before. We hitched home to Montreal the next day to collect our unemployment cheques.
 
About ten years later, after my father died, I was living with my mother and staying up late so I could write without hearing the television. My mother still turns the TV on first thing and leaves it on until bedtime. Roy phoned up, thrilled because William Burroughs was coming to Montreal to show some of his shotgun paintings. Roy had wrangled invitations to a press conference. Would I come along and take snapshots of him with Burroughs? 

Roy showed up at 7 or 7:30 in the morning dressed in a black suit and tie, just like Burroughs. I was pissed off because it was so early; I was tired and didn't give a shit about Burroughs, I just wanted to sleep. When I got out of the shower, Roy was sitting at the kitchen table eating the breakfast my mom had made him. He still had the suit jacket on and was already littering the ashtray with butts. He was so nervous about standing in the same room with "Wild Bill" Burroughs he practically trembled as he showed me how to work his camera. 

We went over to the Oboro Gallery on St. Laurent, a couple of blocks from my mom's, and got there too early. Roy was unusually quiet, standing straight and working his jaw a little from side to side. I didn't realize he was working up his courage, didn't think he'd need to. Finally somehow we were inside and there was a handful of press, reporters and photographers. I seem to remember they were all from the French press, that no English media bothered to come. 

Everyone was awed and reverential, but what I remember is a frail old man who needed help sitting down and then leaned forward with his hands on his cane to keep from falling to the ground. He wore the famous suit, and it hung on him like the skin hanging on his face. 

The gallery directors said something in French and then in English, and then Burroughs answered questions: 

With a shotgun, yes.  T

welve-gauge. 

No, you take the buckshot out, for god's sake.

You put the paint in the shells. 

No, I only keep the good ones. I throw the others out. 

Yes, you select the right part. You choose. 

No, it's not random. 

Yes, the process is random.

You can't tell what you'll see until you pull the trigger. 

Well, no, you choose the right one. It's not random. I choose the pictures I like. You have to do a lot before you get to the good ones.

Yes, it's art.  Because I choose among them. Aren't you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That's what art is.  Yes, I sign them. Jesus. No more questions. 

And then the old man gave a little tour of the exhibit, with everyone crowded close to his eminence. I hung back and snapped photos, trying to get a good one of Roy and his hero. 

I've pretty much gotten over losing sleep that Saturday and it made Roy happy to have the photos. But I didn't get into any of the snapshots myself because it didn't seem important then. Now, I'm grateful Roy made sure I met William Burroughs and made sure I read the right books. He showed me you don't have to be afraid to try something-drugs, hitchhiking, reading, publishing a magazine, thinking twice about what the Man is up to. 

Or daring to meet people you admire. You never know when you're going to get a chance, purely by accident. Life is so random. But Burroughs was right: you have to choose. So since then I've found myself working up my courage to talk to William Gibson, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie. Nice guys, all of them. 

Last year I made a point of meeting another writer because I liked his novel, and we talked about Burroughs. After I told him this story, he said, "Think about it, man: you were just one blow job away from Jack Kerouac." 

I still have the pictures I took of my friend Roy. Burroughs is just the old guy standing next to him.