William Seward Burroughs Jr. was was born in Texas on July 21, 1947.
The baby boy was named after his famous father William S. Burroughs Sr., one of the founders of the beat movement and the author of ground breaking books such as "Junky", "Naked Lunch" and "Queer".
William Jr. was nicknamed Billy by his mother Joan Volmer, an aspiring author who he would only be with for four years. Billy's father William was a queer, his relationship with Joan was platonic and built on a mutual love of literature. Senior loathed women and most people in general. Billy was what they call a unplanned mistake. Joan had a daughter, Julie from a previous marriage who also lived with the "on the edge" bohemian family.
Herbert Huncke (who was the inspiration for the character Ratzo in "Midnight Cowboy") was vintage Times Square street hustler. He had worked as barker at the freak show in Coney Island and as a shoe shine boy. He lived with the Burroughs on and off until Joan's death. William met Huncke in New York City circa 1948. Herbert would do the most petty shit to hustle dope money. He was a pickpocket who ran bogus drug scams and rolled passed out drunks for cash on subway benches. William started experimenting with junk for different reasons than Huncke. Herbert grew up a street orphan during the depression, hustling just to eat, so junk for him started on the street. Burroughs came from wealth and graduated from Harvard, so being a junky for him was a grand cosmic experiment.
Burroughs learned the art of street living from Herbert and rolled a few drunks in Times Square subway station. Not many Harvard grads can boast of rolling drunks in their resumes. Burroughs had visions on junk and romanticized the street hustler
experience, which he chronicled in his book "Junky".
After a year of hustling on the square between 1949 and 1950, Burroughs met Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who were students at Colombia University. Both were pioneers of the beat movement. They were blown away by the older and more experienced William Burroughs. Alan and Jack wanted to try junk right away, feeling it would be a boon for jazz listening and writing. Burroughs introduced them to Huncke on the square. Herbert ended up hustling Ginsberg and Kerouac, robbing both of their apartments. Jack and Alan were so beatific that a deal was struck with Huncke not to press charges. He had to return the stolen goods, the deal was never honored because Herbert had pawned the shit all over New York. In reality the beatniks property was
already shot up Huncke's golden arm days earlier.
The Junk Scene in New York became a burden for Burroughs . He was living with Joan and her young daughter. Joan had read William's work and fell in love with him, realizing what an expansive genius he possessed. Burroughs just kept her hanging on to vent his misogyny and to proof read. Volmer had a PHD in literature from Vassar and wrote as well.
So one night in the Burroughs's East Village apartment after a poke of junk and some weed, Huncke came up with a plan to go to Louisiana and grow pot. In 1950 this was a very radical idea. They all agreed to go south, hoping to kick junk in the healthy country air and make some much needed money.
Over the next few days Burroughs recieved a loan from his brother Edward who lived in Kansas City. He bought a used heavy metal 46 Plymouth wagon from Jack Kerouac for 125 dollars. What was to be the first " On the Road" beat saga was beginning to take shape.
The gypsy road show began with a band of eccentrics. A queer junky, his manic depressive wife, her screaming baby and a street hustler. This trip was to be the inspiration for Kerouac's "On the Road" and Ken Kesey's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip”.
As well as most the hippie caravans of the aquarian age.
William Burroughs had a Harvard pal in Clayton, Louisiana named Harvey Pillman. He was the local Doctor. Harvey had a vacant summer cottage on a 15 acres at the edge of a swamp. It was perfect location to grow pot. Down a gravel road surrounded by thick bush and out of sight.
The caravan of weird moved in. Dr. Pillman agreed to write scripts of morphine and benzedrine for Burroughs and Huncke until they could kick. Everything was cool at the little house of circus freaks. Then planting time came, the two city boy farmers started to prepare the plot. When it came time to sow the seed, Burroughs looked at Huncke and said, “All right Herbert where are the seeds?” Huncke looked at Burroughs and said, “What seeds man ?”
Huncke and Joan would make the daily run into Clayton for dope and groceries while William would stay home and write. Small town Louisiana in the 50s was full of good old boys, red necks and klan members. The New York junky crew were very different from the shit kickers. Dr Pillman started hearing gossip in town about New York Jews and northern liberals. This was enough for a cross burning or a lynching, so the good doctor advised the cosmic crew to pack up the Plymouth and get out of town.
Burroughs with the help of another Harvard friend got the use of a farm in Texas. The farm was west of Dallas a couple of hundred clicks near Sweetwater. Huncke said he could take a bus to Brownsville, cross the border and score marijuana seeds in Juarez. After a fun filled ride on a backroad Higway 5, tripping and listening to jazz, on the southern radio. The beatnik family settled into a two bedroom house that needed painting and was on 100 acres of land.
It was at this house in Texas that Billy Burroughs was born to William and Joan. Joan was on benzedrine when Billy was born so he must of got a dose while in her womb. Joan was brilliant but psychotic. Once in New York William found her wandering the streets. He had to admit her in the infamous Bellevue Mental Hospital. Bellevue became a club house for the Beats. So you can imagine what kind of household baby Billy was in. William enjoyed being around children as much as going in a cage with a 300 pound Gorilla. Joan wouldn't even touch the new baby, she was so shaky on booze and benzedrine that she was afraid she would drop Billy. Herbert Huncke took care of baby Billy allot. And when Allen Ginsberg would visit the marijuana farm, he fed and clothed the benzedrine baby. Billy and his half sister Julie lived like two motherless Monkeys. They would bath and eat when they felt like it and go for days without a change of clothes or diapers.
Billy was born addicted to benzedrine. The history of the Beats has shown that none of them were good parents. They were detached from the daily burdens of the middle-class.
Family values made the Beats want to barf. They were on a day to day search for cosmic vision and freedom from the chains of the office cubicle, mortgage and church. Kerouac had a daughter Jan, and she had addiction problems as well.
Joan Volmer and William Burroughs moved around because of their drug addictions. William and Huncke did bring in a marijuana crop on the Texas farm and sold it to a couple of Mexicans in Houston . In the summer of 1951 Billy was three years old and he, his half sister and his parents moved to Mexico City. In Mexico it was easy to score and Tequila was cheap. They rented a small villa type bungalow outside of the city and carried on with the cosmic experiment. Allot of the Beats would travel to visit with the family, including the hero of "On the Road" Neal Cassidy the originator of the hipster lifestyle of juicing the moment for every bead of feeling. Being wasted 24 hours a day helped to stay tuned in.
On the night of September 6, 1951 William was in the living room of the bungalow with little Billy, Joan and Julie. He also was talking to a pal, Pepe Riveraz, who was a lawyer. They were drinking Mescal. William who had a life long obsession with guns had a Colt 45 on the table. He was a sharpshooter and he began to explain to Pepe how he could shoot a glass of Joan's head. Volmer was blotto, after months of non stop using she was in zombieland. William told her to take a glass off the table and walk 6 meters, to the end of the floor, and put the glass on her head. Pepe thought William was just acting the thing out. William picked the 45 up, aimed it at Joan (she showed little reaction and looked bored). William fired and hit her with the 45 round on the right side of her forehead, of course missing the glass. Joan Volmer collapsed shot dead.
Little Billy was playing on the floor in the living room and saw the whole thing. It was as though a wave of satanic energy shot through his body and the room. William got out of jail because Pepe Riveraz paid off the Mexican judges. Billy was sent to live with his rich grandparents, who were retired in Palm Beach, Florida. He and his dad William Burroughs would never be the same, and it was the last time Billy would ever she his half sister Julie again.
Billy's grandparents Laura Lee and Mortimer Burroughs had made a fortune in the Adding Machine business in Kansas and lived in a mansion in Palm Beach. They sent Billy to private school there. They were kind and functional people and Billy's years with them were happy. In school Billy was a shy student and felt out of place in the traditional atmosphere. He felt cheerleaders, football and proms were corny and bogus. Billy was still suffering from the experience of seeing his mother shot. Something would happen during summer break that would change things, liberating Billy. But that which liberates can kill as well.
The early 60s, were a great time to be alive. Life was simple and it was a time to cruise. Billy was 14 living with his grandmother. Mortimer Burroughs had died. Billy got a invitation to spend the summer with his father in Tangiers, Morocco. A very cool place, it was a like a pirate's cove. Tangiers was a independent city with no country, the rest of Morocco was ruled by the French. You could score hashish and kef in the open market and smoke openly in public. Hard drugs like cocaine and morphine were easily bought in pharmacies. Tangiers had a reputation as a city of expats, writers, painters, and beachcombers. It was a place young boys were pimped to queers in cafes. It was a place to be free, to hallucinate and to experiment. Some of the famous freaks who visited Tangiers were Matisse , Bryan Jones, Keith Richards, Blackbeard the Pirate, Paul Bowles, Allan Ginsburg, Jim Morrison, and Lord Byron.
Billy had only seen his father a few times in the 10 years since the shooting death of his mother. William didn't communicate with Billy much while he was in Tangiers. William was fucking weird, extremely cold and distant. He spent most of his time with his artist buddies particularly, Paul Bowles the author of " The Sheltering Sky". William got Billy high on hashish for the first time, the teenager enjoyed the dope and took to it immediately. But it wasn't enough to bridge the gap between him and his old man. Billy was disappointed that he didn't bond with his father more, of course, very few people ever bonded with the beatnik bloodsucker. Billy reminisces in his book "Kentucky Ham" (which he began at 15), that experiences in Tangiers influenced the rest of his life. Turning on for the first time and experiencing hallucinogenics opened his mind.
Back in Florida the next year, Billy was starting to cut classes with his buddies and hitchhiking to Miami getting wasted on beer. Billy didn't really need to go to school he was already writing, "Kentucky Ham" an autobiographical novel that is still in print today.
Both Joan Volmer and William Burroughs were literary geniuses and Billy got something that couldn't be taught in English class from them. What Billy didn't get from his old man was William's coolness under fire when it came to taking dope. William Burroughs never flipped out on dope, he knew how to use it and not let it use him. He hung in there with the good and the evil. Billy could never seem to handle dope or booze, it made a weakling of him. And it would cause his early death. It was like Billy needed to primal scream the pain inside, out. Without that scream he turned all the diamonds coming his way to shit.
Billy finally quit school altogether because doing dope and writing like his old man became his life. Still living with his grandmother Laura Lee, he would wake up in the morning and and go with his buddies and hang out at rocky parts of the beach. His grandmother would be thinking he was in school. When Billy came home in the evening he would make up lies about school. He hated lying, so eventually he just let it out and told her the truth. She was a single women who was going senile, so there was little she could do to control Billy.
By 17 Billy was totally on his own and addicted to speed. His grandmother was put in a nursing home, so Billy went to New York with a friend. His addictions grew in New York, and Billy began living on the street by choice. If he needed a place to stay Alan Ginsburg's apartment in the East Village was always available. Billy knew he had a drug problem by now. His daily life was consumed with "scoring". Somehow, like his old man, he found a way to write though it and about it. Billy's book "Speed" chronicles his experiences in New York and his two drug busts. In the early 60s there was still little tolerance for drug use and Billy ended up in Jail. The Jewish angel Alan Ginsburg who was always helping people out, paid Billy's bail and got him out of jail. Billy jumped bail in New York and went to Florida.
Billy was up for 5 days on speed hitchhiking to Florida. He was a such sweet kid. He would get rides from red necks, Black folks, traveling salesmen, none of them suspected how hopped up he was. But all of them liked his quite and self effacing manner. One traveling shoe salesmen asked Billy to work with him. Billy started getting withdrawal symptoms, “shakes,” and asked to be let off in Atlanta. He told a pharmacist he was a truck driver and needed some bennies to stay awake. The bennies held him over until he got to Florida.
In Florida Billy lived mostly on the streets of Miami. Billy's appetite for dope grew and his body was screaming for more. He came up with a scam of printing up fake scripts and visiting clinics to rip them off. This worked great for awhile scoring such goodies as
desoxyn and demerol. Billy had a small income from a trust fund set up by Mortimer. Even though the Burroughs family was wealthy, the trustee, William's brother Edward gave Billy a monthly check for $250. He knew any money given Billy would be shot up his arm.
Billy was sleeping in parks and on the beach, wearing a thin over coat, no shirt, dirty chinos pants and black Kung Fu shoes. He looked like any bum in Miami who came south to escape the winter. Looking at him no one would know he was a family heir of the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune.
Then Billy got busted for passing one of his phony scripts for desoxyn. Edward contacted Billy's father William who was in London hanging out with Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso experimenting with cut-ups. Cut-ups is a type of improvisational technique where the writer cuts up his own and other writers work, juxtaposing the story line to pull meaning from the subconscious.
William flew to Florida from London to help Billy. He went to court on his behalf. Since Billy was still a minor he got off with 4 years probation and was sent to the Federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His father William and Herbert Huncke had visited the junk farm years earlier, just to get the free junk the farm would give out to kick . The junk farm treated addicts by continuing doses of morphine, reducing the amounts till they could kick. This was a wimps way out compared to the cold turkey method. Today the junk farm method has been replaced by methadone treatment. The environment in the junk farm was institutional. There were oil painted lines, metal fences, food from cans with salt peter, as well as hundreds of bad ass dyke nurses. Billy adapted well, he was quiet and spent his free time writing “Kentucky Ham”. Writing was his way of dealing with the shit at the farm.
Billy chronicled his experience at the junk farm in "Kentucky Ham". He stayed at the farm for a full year, 64 to 65, and it got him clean. Billy went back to Florida when he was released and enrolled in an experimental school in Florida called the Green Valley School. He managed to stay sober on the Grey Hound bus trip from Lexington to Miami. It was a welcome break for him to be sober and not have to hustle and sleep outside. On the bus Billy listened to some dudes radio playing gospel and blues. He liked the sound and he could smell the tropic air through his open window.
When Billy got to Green Valley School he was awestruck. The campus was a restored seminary outside of Miami. It was idyllic with palm trees and opened fields. He immediately bonded with the Reverend George Von Hilsheimer. The Reverend George provided a straight forward and senisitive role model for Billy who had been fatherless since the death of his grandfather Mortimer. The Reverend became a good friend and counselor for the rest of Billy's life. The Green Valley curriculum was tailored to the student. Billy was advanced in creative composition, so he studied the Greek Classics and Latin. His expriences at Green Valley were a bright and peaceful spot compared to his rugged street hustling life.
Billy met his future wife, Karen Perry one day in a spiritual sanctuary at Green Valley. The two talked for hours, day after day, in the shade of the Banyun trees. Karen was amazed at Billy's stories about his life and how eclectic his mind was. Karen and Billy were married in 1968 and moved to Boulder, Colorado. Billy planned to get a job teaching at the Jack Kerouac School of Advance Buddhist Studies. Also known as the Naropa Institute. Naropa was a school started by Alan Ginsburg and Gregory Corso in honor of Jack Kerouac after his death. It was dedicated to the study of Buddhism and poetry.
The newly weds got a one room place in Boulder near Naropa . Allan Ginsberg sent Billy's manuscripts for " Kentucky Ham" and "Speed" to a friend and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. The Black Sparrow Press published both books in 1972 and they are still in print today. Billy was now a published author receiving royalties. The job at Naropa teaching never materialized because Billy had a run in with the spiritual master, Sri Stupa. A Tibetan Buddhist monk who walked around Naropa with a martini in his hand.
Things got cramped for Karen and Billy in the one room place. Neither worked and they had allot of time on their hands, so shit was bound to happen. Billy began to think he could drink booze as long as he didn't do dope. Being a addict this was a big mistake for him. Billy immediately was drinking like a lush on a daily basis. He was living on the streets again, a lifestyle he seemed compelled to live. His marriage was on the rocks and Karen split in 1971.
Billy found a knew old lady who was also living on the street called Deer Woman. She was a full blooded American Indian who claimed to be Crow Dog's daughter. Crow Dog was a Sioux medicine man who lived on the Pine Creek Reservation up in South Dakota. Deer Woman wanted Billy to go live with her on the reservation. Both of them did nothing but hang at a dive off of main street in Boulder called Phil's. They would drink beer all day long with shots and pass out in the park or up in the mountains at night. One day in Phil's bar the royal couple was feeling jived. They were drinking with some real "skins" as Deer Woman called other Indians. These skin dudes had monstrous beer bellies, like old bikers and wore Sioux braided hair. You could tell they had no use for little White guys like Billy. He decided to move to another table while Deer Woman talked Sioux with the skins. All of a sudden the bucks jumped up and started yelping, going after Billy, knuckles flying, heavy boots stomping. Billy somehow got out of the door and ran, the fat bucks couldn't run a city block. Billy found out latter from the Boulder Sheriff that Deer Woman had been talkin shit to the bucks. She had told her skin brothers in Sioux that Billy was beating her. This was bullshit, because Billy didn't have a shred of violence in him.
By 1977 the 6 years of heavy daily drinking in Boulder and the prior years of speed addiction caught up with Billy. He suffered a liver collapse, he was only 32. By some miracle he managed to get a liver transplant in Denver. It might have been Alan Ginsburg and his father William working behind the scenes. The liver seemed to be taking and then Billy started drinking again. Today he would have never gotten the liver because he would have been judged by the hospital to be a bad candidate for the transplant. Billy continued to write, even though he never put any complete books together after "Speed" and "Kentucky Ham".
By 1981 Billy could feel the second liver failing and he traveled back to Florida to be with Reverend George Von Hilsheimer. Billy reflected on his life with the Reverend. He focused on the first 4 years living with his parents and the trip to Tangiers. He came to the conclusion that his father William S. Burroughs Sr. was a demon spirit who murdered Billy and his mother Joan Volmer with one shot of queer misogyny.
William Seward Burroughs Jr. died on March 3, 1981 of liver failure in Florida.