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September 26, 2006

Book Notes - David Ohle ("Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs")

David Ohle has gathered and edited letters, interviews, essays, and even the aborted third novel of William S. Burroughs, Jr., and created a snapshot of the Beat Generation in Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs. The talented son of noted author William S. Burroughs led a tragic life, and Ohle's presentation of his work draws a fascinating portrait of the man. As a fan of his father's writing, I found the book a mesmerizing insight into the life of William S. Burroughs as well as his son's.

In his own words, here is David Ohle's Book Notes contribution for Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs:

I never met Billy Burroughs, but I was a friend of his father’s for awhile in Lawrence, Kansas, where Bill Sr. lived for the last sixteen years of his life -- longer than he had ever stayed anywhere. When I was around him, the Old Man talked in an endless spasm of words, for hours, on subjects from the blue-ringed octopus of Australia to Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful, but there were two things he never talked about – his son, Billy and Billy’s mother. At the time I, like most beat fans, knew that Burroughs had killed his wife, Joan Vollmer in some sort of ill-conceived William Tell routine and it was understandable that it was never spoken of ( later I saw her morgue photos -- so very little blood, her face spookily restful, contented, relieved). But I knew very little about what had become of their son. He’d published two books, Speed and Kentucky Ham. I knew that, and I had a vague notion that he was an addict and a vagabond. I had assumed his books were published because of the famous name and never bothered to read them.

Usually a friend and I went over to Bill Sr.’s house on Thursdays for an evening of cocktails (cold cheap vodka and Coke for Bill Sr., no ice), dinner (I cooked most of the time), conversation, and occasionally music. Allen Ginsberg visited once or twice a year. He’d sit on the cat-clawed sofa and play his little harmonium and sing Blake songs. Patti Smith showed up with Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray once, played her guitar and sang. Kurt Cobain paid a visit, too, though I wasn’t there. Jello Biafra and John Cage were other musical celebrities I missed. Sometimes the Old Man got into the act. For a short time he had a boom box and a couple of tapes he liked to play. I remember a Hoagy Carmichael number, “Yabba Dabba Dabba Dabba Do,” Cab Calloway’s jumpin jive versions of Minnie the Moocher and Reefer Man,and Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris, Texas’ soundtrack (Bill Sr. liked this one so much he wanted it to be played at his wake, which it was).

Because most of the editing work on Cursed involved tediously piecing together the scattered paper trail of Billy’s existence (all packed into three file boxes on loan from Ohio State University), I didn’t want to be distracted by wordy music, so I listened to hearts-of-spacey stuff like the Kronos Quartet’s “Black Angels.” I also listened to traditional melodies of Sufi dervish trance ceremonies on a disk called “Steam” (Hamam: The Turkish Bath), Vangelis’ “The City,” Ali Akbar Khan’s “Garden of Dreams,” and Robert Rich’s “Seven Veils.” I played these over and over again.

But the soundtrack I most closely associate with Billy Burroughs’s life is an impromptu composition of his father’s. It came about during one of Bill Sr.’s ever-fleeting infatuations, when he acquired a small drum set. When boredom or distraction would set in, he would sit on the sofa, half-pickled, pick up the sticks and bang the drums for amusement (his, not ours). And it’s that noisy, out of synch, anxiety-inducing clatter that, for me, became Billy’s theme.

see also:

David Ohle interview with Hobart
Lawrence Journal-World review

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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