I remember reading Naked Lunch at 14 and understanding maybe only half of the words but nevertheless really loving it. Then a couple years later I did a book report about it for an English class, where I took notes on every page — the teacher had never heard of it, but allowed me to do it based on a back cover blurb by Norman Mailer. When I submitted the report, he gave me high marks and wrote on the back page that he’d never allow any student to read that again, and never would have let me either if he had any idea what was in it.
I fell hard for William Burroughs’s writing — he was the first writer that I read everything by, and I’d save up from my first job, working at a local library, to buy all those weird little one-off publications from the ’60s and ’70s, “APO-33: A Metabolic Regulator,” “So Who Owns Death TV?”… Zappa hit me around the same time too, 15, 16. A potent mixture. My first flush of fandom for Burroughs ended when I was in my late teens, when I took ecstasy and believed I was possessed by him for a couple of hours. It was an intense experience, and served as a sort of exorcism in the sense that afterwards I no longer imitated his voice or style in my own writing — this weird druggy spiritual event obviated the need to try and sound like someone else, because I’d ‘been’ that person for those hours. Hard to explain, but it happened.
Since then I feel like I can read Burroughs more clearly, with a deeper appreciation for what he did and who he was. As with FZ, the work speaks more fully once the idolization of the man wears off, and it’s possible to reconcile the flaws and pain and bad decisions with the mind that created such a vast empire of dark wonderment. It makes a huge difference, too, to come to project/objects of that magnitude and intensity — James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Freud, Marx, Coltrane, George Clinton, Eugene Chadbourne, the Surrealists, Out To Lunch — having one’s own creative, imaginative, and living experiences; having something, and preferably lots of things, to hold up against those specimens steels one against being lost beneath them and adopting their frameworks whole hog. My first impulse of course is still to imitate whatever’s unfamiliar — I think mimicry’s probably the most effective way to learn at any age — but unlike as a kid, I now have a base to return to where I can agglutinate the juicy bits without remaining blind to or robotically reproducing the rest. It’s a relief to have enough comfort in my own skin to no longer look to escape into someone else’s. And it’s paradoxically freeing, because I find that I can and do still love the work of Burroughs et al. from that distance, I think even more than during that first fanboy phase, partly because the work no longer needs to support such psychic attachments and instead gets to speak for itself and be as unique and weird and un-‘identifiable’ as it really is.
Getting old is wonderful. I’d recommend it to anyone.