GREAT MOMENTS IN SPORTZ
23 SKIDOO
Renfreu Neff’s
(NAKED LAMBCHOPS FOR LUNCH)

Painting, AKA

I was wondering if my laptop made me look fat? when an e-mail alerted me to a 3-day commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, an occasion that apparently called for three venues, Columbia and New York Universities , ending at the new Milton Glaser designed film school of the School of Visual Arts in Chelsea. Don’t know how things went at uptown academia; I opted for the SVA, since it’s two blocks from my Winter Palace.

The afternoon began with some meandering, personal shorts that went on too long, a longer documentary & no printed program to assist should memory sieve out. Or should something be missed in rummaging one’s bag & pockets for Kleenex & a pen that works. Memory’s the least of it when you’ve come late and can’t get a handle on what the talking-head/ filmmaker is talking about. It’s dark, anyway. Says nap to me.

As for the documentary, those on-screen are named, John Giorno, James Grauerholz etc, identified as Poets, most of whom had lived with the formally referred to “William” at various times & places. Obliging guides, they conduct a tour through the minutiae of Life With William – the bedroom preserved just as he left it in a downtown loft, the chair he sat in whilst listening to his radio; a man stands outside a house & points to a window where William’s cat used to sit & preen, the revelation here being the subject’s love of cats.

Another live-in poet, this one distinguished by practical plumbing skills, recounts the time a toilet blocked, overflowing the bathroom and floating forth a turd of William’s. The poet cum plumber salvaged the stool and preserved it in a jar of grossly discolored wax, and unscrewing the lid, he thrusts it forward. CAMERA DUTIFULLY DOLLIES IN.

These recollections are indeed personal yet, oddly, neither intimate nor insightful, coming across as degrees of separation that converge at some nexus where egotism & voyeurism blend into exhibitionism. Were there no casual dinner table conversations? No memorable bon mots re broccoli or peas? On those long, wearying reading tour flights, did he never offer a telling observation about anything? Only in footage of college students’ enthusiastic response to Burrough’s gravelly readings & some attentive sober faced listeners in a spotless bookstore abroad do we get a sense of William
 Burroughs as a literary figure.

Shortly after William Burroughs returned from England in 1974, some New York friends arranged a small, supposedly exclusive dinner gathering at El Quixote, the funky, dimly lighted Spanish restaurant in the equally funky Hotel Chelsea where Burroughs
 was perching at the time. As is usual in instances demanding an illusion of exclusivity, my husband Gianfranco was invited, but instructed not to bring me. Since the reason given for my exclusion made no sense – “William hates women’s voices. He might get up and leave if she comes”, I decided I had to go. I might add here that at the time, I was a smoker, and on an extended stay in Paris, I was often hired to dub voices of young boys in movies. Also, in keeping with the unisex fashion of the time, I sported a “shag”, a haircut subsequently commemorated as a sexual pastime. No makeup, jeans, blazer & cowboy boots: I was off with Gianfranco to El Quixote.

The guest of honor was installed at the head of a table located in the shadowy back region of the eatery; there were 4 or 5 other men at the table, and Allen Ginsberg was sitting center on one side beside an empty chair. Gianfranco was introduced to the group and he introduced me, simply, “My friend Renfreu.” Renfreu could be an acronym for a committee, so the introducer seemed relieved. I tucked into the chair next to Allen; he liked me (in truth, he liked Gianfranco better) so I knew he’d talk to me. A waiter brought a chair for Gianfranco and he sat on my other side. Drinks were brought, food was ordered, banter resumed, and Burroughs sent a plate of crudities and a basket of bread down the table to “ the skinny boy next to Allen.” I nod & smile, grateful for the bounty of celery stalks & carrots & slippery green olives. Don’t talk with your mouth full, mothers always admonish.

The food arrives – shrimp in pungent sauces, steamy paella, delectable Spanish dishes are set before the hungry group, and Burroughs is served a dinner plate bearing a couple of naked lamb chops adorned with sprigs of parsley. Surprise is voiced at the appearance of the drab looking “native” meal. Wouldn’t he like some fluffy, yellow paella? A shrimp or two generosity to enhance the iceberg lettuce and tomato wedge salad, those in closest attendance are eager to share, but as he starts to explain why he always orders lamb chops in restaurants, Allen Ginsberg leaned over and confided to me that he & Bill (he eschews the deferential “William”) have had sex since the latter’s recent return. “And he’s still great in bed.” And I never found out why William Burroughs always ordered lamb chops in restaurants.

After Intermission – Live Poets: Anne Waldman rant-reads a lengthy piece, interrupting to explicate Buddhist references; A woman behind me is overheard telling someone, “I’m a Burroughs scholar…and a poet”. Hal Willner is introduced and speaks
 of having been music producer for Saturday Night Live when Burroughs guest-hosted a show. Friendship developed, and this evening he reads a finely crafted imagist ‘road” poem, his measured, rhythmic cadence evoking a dreamlike Western landscape. His voice trails away as he crouches down behind the podium, ceding the spotlight to an actor who picks up and begins reading Naked Lunch’s (in)famous hallucinatory “Benny’s (?) birthday party” section, a sadomas-ochistic orgy graphically depicting torture with bodily fluids & bullets exiting & entering, every human orifice, an endless, obsessive page-after-page junk-driven, acrobatic indulgence that, ultimately, becomes extremely boring.

A female “Burroughs scholar”? A woman poet who speaks nostalgically of his strong mentoring influence? But didn’t he shoot his wife & get away with it when they were in Mexico? Nit-picking further, wasn’t clever Gertie Stein goosing around with the
 cut-up technique Back Then? Cut-up chronology aside, how does one reconcile the, uh, blatant misogyny? Or do you just cover it over with Buddhist platitudes?

The tedium subsides when poet-playwright Michael McClure is introduced to appreciative applause. He offers “a bouquet for William”, a collection of quiet, graceful passages in which he recalls the early San Francisco origins of the Beats. A fitting homage by a Beat Elder that provided a context within the spectrum of American writing that had been missing from the afternoon’s proceedings.

The thing is, when viewed from a somewhat broader & more current perspective, once drugs & homosexuality are deleted and you’re not fixing the plumbing, compared to his more artful peer-pervs — you know, Genet, Miller, Lawrence, Nabokov or Southern — William Burroughs was essentially the pioneer who blazed the trail for The New Yorker to print the word fuck.


23 Skidoo is an excerpt from Contributing Editor Renfreu Neff’s column Sleeping At The Movies  (http://smokesignalsmag.com/7/?p=218) Which also can be found at http://smokesignalsmag.com/7/?p=964. She also interviewed poet John Giorno, or they interviewed each other in LOVE & SLEEZE http://yrstruly.org/valentine/wordpress/?page_id=24

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