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tearing the rag off the bush again

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WSB: Do you know that famous story about the Zen Master who appeared before the Emperor with his paintings? He bowed three times and disappeared into his paintings.
SE: ah ya. (laughs) do you think that will ever happen to you? Or does it often happen to you?
WSB: I hope. I hope. Yeah. (long pause)  You know… I think the only really important function for people is to feed their  …cats.
SE: (slightly uneasy laugh)

WSB:  That would bother me more than anything else... when I pass. If I should die?
That’s what would deter me from suicide… My cats …my cats…   what would happen to my cats?

SE ( an audible sigh, and then quickly…) Not that you’re gonna…. (Simultaneous with his reply…)

WSB:  Not that I ever … everyone looks at me reeel funny when I say that I have never considered suicide.

SE: Never considered it?

WSB:  Never considered it.  

SE: … huh.

WSB:    Never considered it. 
SE: But you’ve haven’t always had cats, William?

WSB: uh… oh….no… well… I

SE: …but you had other reasons? 

WSB: Well humm, I never considered suicide. Well whether you consider that there is a life after death or whether you don’t, I don’t see how suicide could be other than deleterious to your ummmm …chances.

SE: Deleterious?

WSB: Yes! I mean say you believe in life after death and you’ve committed suicide, what you’ve done is you have admitted the unforgivable sin of despair…

SE: (chuckles)

WSB: … that is you have not tried to come to grips with whatever  problems that you’ve had.

SE: humm yeah. Yeah.

WSB: It’s .. to me… for example, I believe Abbie Hoffman let us all down.

SE: You believe he meant to…he killed himself?

(At the time of this interview, the media and friends of Hoffman, were still spinning Hoffman’s death, which had occurred in ‘89 as an “accidental overdose.” Today everyone knows what William knew back then, that it was most likely suicide.)

WSB: Oh come now. There’s no question. The coroner found out that he had taken up to a hundred pills of Nembutal. He’d woken up and taken more and more…. (he lifts his hands to his mouth like a bear eating honey. SE snickers)

SE: He was in despair. (then responding to Bill Rich coming in, ready to leave) I can take a cab.

WSB: Now wait a minute, why was he in despair. Number one I believe he was in pain from a recent auto accident. However that doesn’t amount to very much, as we have pain killers and drugs available…

SE: Maybe he didn’t get enough… (both joking a bit now).

WSB: wait wait… but also he felt that young people were paying less and less attention to him. He was the overlooked older revolutionary who’s been shunted to the side.

SE: (laughing out loud now)

WSB: (doing  a theatrical voice) “Oh Abbie you don’t mean anything any more.”…He felt that very much. But what the hell!

SE: You’ve got to have patience! He’d have come back into fashion.

WSB: Not only that but you have to have some position of your own.

Bill Rich leaving, both WSB and SE complimenting the meal.

SE: Beautiful meal, Bill. Thank you.

WSB: Very nice very nice. Bye now Bill. Goodnight.

SE: So he let everybody down by committing suicide.

WSB: He let us all down! I would never commit suicide unless I was just faced with some…well, say if I was captured by (slamming his plate with a utensil for emphasis)  Russians and they were going to torture me, maybe then.. or you know, I had terminal cancer or that sort of thing.  That’s the only way I could see it, and he was not faced by any of these… alternatives. (SE chuckles through this wry comment)

SE: Right. So you don’t really want to disappear into one of your paintings right now, William?

WSB: So I don’t know what was the matter with him.

SE: hum.

WSB:  Of course people say they have unbearable depressions.  I have terrible depressions myself, but I don’t …quit (slamming sound) … because of terrible depression. I go on working. You see what I mean?

SE: Because you’re always working,. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had four or five projects going… writing, and now painting.

WSB: That’s it. I take it completely seriously and it must be completely absorbed into your self.

SE: The painting?

WSB: Yes, you absorb it and realize it into yourself. It’s something you’ve done, now you transmute it into your self for god’s sake. That’s all.

SE: It gives you another dimension.

WSB: Exactly. (He slips on a custom made pair of black leather cowboy styled gloves with fringe on the side of the long cuffs, which SE has brought for him from Santa Fe.. then smacks a fist into the palm of his hand like a fighter.) …Exactly.

SE: Yes… and you feed your cats… your familiars, because they are the witnesses? they are part of the transmutation, the realization?

WSB: (smack) You’ve got it.

William was a devout cat lover (see The Cat Inside, Penguin Books, one of my personal favorites of WSB’s later books), and when Andrei and I agreed to dig out my Burroughs archives for Exquisite Corpse, I thought of this conversation right away.

I was always very touched by William’s sincere love for his cats and especially how he expresses it in this conversation. The sound of plates and utensils can be heard throughout this piece, as we were eating a lovely slice of salmon with white sauce, followed by a strawberry desert.

William and I had eaten dinner together many times over our long friendship, mostly in Boulder where I’d walk up to his apartment and we’d cross the street to a little Chinese place, or we’d drive downtown where he could get fried catfish. But we’d  also met up for dinner in New York, San Francisco and Santa Fe (usually with a large entourage in tow). This dinner took place at his house in Lawrence in 1992.

Our chef that night was Bill Rich, who was a long time household assistant to William, and who sometimes accompanied him when he traveled, thus we’d known one another for many years. He’d made us a beautiful dinner and we were eating very late… my notes state that we ate about midnight that night. WSB knew I was taping and it was his decision to talk about suicide. For the record, William died of natural causes, August 2, 1997, in bed, in his house in Lawrence – in fact, just a few yards away from where we were sitting during this conversation. I like to think that his remaining cats were with him on his bed when he passed away.

I once heard that, at his peak, William had some 13 to 18 cats. Of course, as cats are known to choose who they want to hang with, the Cat Grapevine word got around so alley and con cats were crashing his scene quite often. Sometimes if one showed up for a few days, and it happened to be one that took William’s fancy, he’d put a note on a collar – provided by him --  that said, “If you do not want this cat, please contact William S. Burroughs (and it would give his address on Leonard Street).” I always smile when I think of the unsuspecting cat owner getting one of those notes printed on a tiny cat collar.

For this section of Burroughs Speaks, I contacted Bill Rich as I’d always wondered what happened to William’s cats. Though I understand that Bill Rich left the fold before William’s death, he was always very much the cat person, so he seemed to be the one to ask about the fate of the William’s beloved cats.

Below is Bill Rich’s response:
“…about William’s cats -  I think he was down to 2 when he passed away, and they remained at the house until old age took them.   I think the cat cemetery at the property has all their remains. There had been one other cat that William gave away many years ago when he was overloaded. I recall being told years ago that it had died, and thus, the last of William’s cats are no longer…  -- bill rich.” 6/24/08

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