Friday, March 14, 2014

Steely Dan -- "Dr. Wu" (1975)

Are you crazy?
Are you high?
Or just an ordinary guy?

William S. Burroughs was many things -- he was crazy and he was usually high, but never "just an ordinary guy."

Burorughs was also cool.  In fact, the co-curators of the "American Cool" exhibition, which recently opened at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in downtown Washington, DC, chose Burroughs as one of the hundred coolest Americans ever.

William S. Burroughs
The Portrait Gallery is just across the street from my office, and I visited "American Cool" shortly after it opened.  I was not in a good mood that day, which may explain why I reacted somewhat negatively to the exhibition.  If you ask me -- or even if you don't -- it featured a lot of very uncool men and women.

Of course it was not at all cool of me to walk through the exhibition, muttering under my breath (most of the time) how stupid the choices were. 

The next several 2 or 3 lines posts will relate to "American Cool" and a number of the authors, musicians, and athletes, who made the list of coolest Americans.  Today we will consider the coolness of William S. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch and a Beat Generation icon.

(By the way, the Beats are way overrated when it comes to cool.)

Burroughs graduated from Harvard with honors in 1936.  He was attracted to men more than women, and cut off the end of his left pinkie in a Van Gogh-esque gesture intended to impress a man he had a major crush on.  

Unaware that Burroughs was a homosexual, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg introduced him to Joan Vollmer, and the two quickly moved in together.  The couple (who believed they were telepathic soul mates) both became addicted to drugs in short order -- Burroughs favored heroin and morphine, while Vollmer's drug of choice was Benzedrine.

Joan Vollmer
Vollmer gave birth to a son in 1947.  After a drug bust in New Orleans, Burroughs jumped bail and decamped with his family to Mexico City.  A few years later, the happy couple got drunk at a party -- Joan had given up Benzedrine in favor of tequila -- and decided to play "William Tell."  

Joan balanced a glass on top of her head, and Burroughs pulled out the pistol he usually carried and fired at the glass from about nine feet away.  Unfortunately, his aim was not true, and the bullet hit Vollmer squarely in the forehead, killing her instantly.

Burroughs hired a prominent Mexican attorney, and persuaded a couple of witnesses to testify that the gun had discharged accidentally.  But rather than take any chances, Burroughs jumped his bail and returned to the U.S.  (He was eventually convicted in absentia, but received only a two-year suspended sentence.)

Burroughs later wrote that his shooting of Vollmer was what made him become a writer:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. . . . [T]he death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

Burroughs was every bit as big a disaster as a father as he was as a husband.  After he shot and killed Joan, he sent their  four-year-old son, Billy, to live with his paternal grandparents.

William S. "Billy" Burroughs, Jr.
When Billy was 13, he flew to Tangiers to join his father, who introduced him to drugs.  Billy later wrote that several of his father's friends attempted to rape him.

After returning to the United States, Billy became addicted to amphetamines and later became an alcoholic.  When he was 19 he had a liver transplant, but continued to drink.

Billy became a writer, and penned an article for Esquire blaming his father for ruining his life.  He died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage when he was 33.

According to Call Me Burroughs, a new Burrughs biography by Barry Miles, "Virtually all of Burroughs's writing was done when he was high on something."  

A recent New Yorker review of Miles's book included this observation on Burroughs's oeuvre:

While always comic, Burroughs is rarely funny, unless you're tickled as he was by such recurrent delights as boys in orgasm as they are executed by hanging.

The reviewer went on to say that a Burroughs trilogy is "easier to read than, say, Finnegan's Wake," which is damning with the faintest praise possible.

None of this really persuades me that Burroughs was one of the hundred coolest Americans ever.  Cutting off your finger to get someone's attention, becoming addicted to narcotics, shooting your wife in the head while playing a dumb game, and ruining your only child's life add up to an extremely uncool life.

But that's just me.

"Dr. Wu" was released on Steely Dan's 1975 album, Katy Lied.  I really had to feature a Steely Dan song when writing about William Burroughs.  After all, the band took its name from "Steely Dan III from Yokohoma," which was the name Burroughs gave to a strap-on dildo featured in his best-known novel, Naked Lunch.

Here's "Dr. Wu":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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