©2021 By Legs McNeil

“You like sports?” William S. Burroughs asked, staring down at me like Peter Graves in Airplane when he asks the little boy, on his knee, if he likes to go see gladiator movies.

“Nah, you?” I muttered.

“Not particularly,” Burroughs snorted, “though I must say, I do like guns. But of course, I don’t have any here. Against the law, you know…”

And then he snickered, showing some teeth through those pale, thin lips, and I felt like I was sharing a laugh with the Grim Reaper himself. We were sitting across from one another at the dinner table inside the Bunker, an old YMCA locker room on the Bowery that poet John Giorno had converted into a loft and that Burroughs called home. It was a hulking, white, windowless, concrete slab of a space that reeked of naked men being functional. Perfect.

Victor Bockris, who I’d managed to become friends with after he broke up with Billie Bartlet, and Burroughs’ personal adjutant, James Grauerholz, were in the other room going over manuscripts. So it was just me and William, both of us so drunk and stoned that we were trying to keep from nodding out as we exchanged pleasantries. Two guys with no use for small talk, small-talking.

“I do have some things of interest, though,’ Burroughs said, rising from his chair, looking quite brittle and teetering from the effects of potent chemicals. I felt like I should’ve grabbed him before he fell, but once on his feet, Burroughs righted himself, strode across the room, and returned with a Bowie knife and a blowgun.

“Cool, a blowgun,” I managed, as he handed it to me along with a steel dart. Burroughs unsheathed the knife for himself, which turned out to be not a knife but a small sword.

“Chris Stein gave this to me,” he said, referring to the Blondie lead guitarist. “An excellent piece of workmanship!” And then he started to slash the imaginary bears coming at him.

I put the dart in the blowgun and stood up beside him. Staggering a bit. And just as I raised it to my lips, a little gray mouse– a real mouse– scurried out from underneath a cupboard and ran across our killing field.

“GET HIM, LEGS! GET HIM!!!” Burroughs yelled as he clutched the sword overhead, “GET HIM!”


I missed by ten years; the dart bounced off the wall, nowhere near the crevice the mouse disappeared into. Burroughs looked at me with disgust.

“The object was to hit the mouse, not the goddamn wall,” he hissed.

“Uh, sorry…”

“Well, I guess it takes some practice to hit a moving target,” Burroughs mumbled, excusing my aim, though his entire six-foot frame sulked.

“What are you two doing in here?” James Grauerholz asked, re-entering the room to see what the ruckus was.

“Mouse hunting,” I told him.

“Having any luck?” James grinned.

“Noooo, we haven’t bagged anything yet,” Burroughs huffed, still upset that I’d blown such a great opportunity. His sulking seemed to say, if only he had the blowgun, instead of the knife, we’d have a trophy-mouse to show for our efforts.

James went back in the other room to finish up with Victor, and Burroughs sat back down at the dinner table. I quietly took my seat across from him, and we both stared at the table.

“Plenty of vodka left,” Burroughs sighed, being polite, though it was obvious he was bored with me.

“Great, can I get you a refill?” I asked, trying to make it up to him.

“No,” he huffed, “I’m doing just fine, thank you.”

But I knew that William S. Burroughs hadn’t been fine in years, which is why I was there, to learn from the ultimate outsider the murky secret of how to survive until fortune finally smiled on me. There were things I had to know from him….

I did know William had been born into an upper-middle class St. Louis family in 1914 and when he came of age, took one look around and said, “Fuck this shit!” Already painfully aware of his homosexuality and heavily influenced by, You Can’t Win: The Autobiography of Jack Black, about the thieving world of a turn-of-the-century corrupt family of weasels, Burroughs rejected his mid-western civility in favor of a life of crime.

“I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming houses, pool parlors, cat houses, and opium dens; of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles,” Burroughs wrote in the introduction to the reissue of You Can’t Win, “I learned about the Johnson family of good bums and thieves, with a code of conduct that made more sense to me than the arbitrary, hypocritical rules that were being taken for granted as being right by my peers…”

After a short stint at a boy’s school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, that was torn down to make way for the Manhattan Project, Burroughs bummed around the country trying to make his mark in the underworld, before becoming a fence in Times Square. It was there he discovered morphine Syrettes and his heroin addiction was off and running. It was also there that Burroughs met two former Columbia University students who were also looking to break out of confines of America’s numbing sterility—Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

“We couldn’t figure out what his secret mystery was,” Ginsberg said of his and Kerouac’s first meeting with William, “From Burroughs we got our whole conception of some spiritual crises in the West and the possibility of decline instead of infinite American Progress– and the idea of an apocalyptical historical charge….”

After that first meeting in 1943, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were poised to change American Literature forever and that “apocalyptical historical charge” Ginsberg had mentioned, introduced a dangerous new concept into American life—the hipster. When the writing of the Beats morphed with rock & roll, the world suddenly became very big indeed. The hipster was a free spirit who rebelled against traditional American middle-class values in favor of thrills and adventures– conscious and unconscious— trying to discover who and what we were in relationship to the Universe. It was a life that was completely aware of The Big Picture, but as time rolled along, it was shortened to, “Sex, drugs and rock & roll,” a much smaller, compact vision, that primarily involved indulging addictions, as valid a pursuit as any.

Ginsberg said it best when he wrote in Howl, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix….”

We’d all been driven furiously mad searching for that angry fix–that new way to get off—and I still was on the path, desperately trying to find that thing that would make me work.

Unlike Ginsberg and Kerouac, that night at the Bunker, I wasn’t looking for anything so grandiose as a “apocalyptic historical charge;” I just wanted some advice on how to survive my role as Resident Punk– some insight on how to carry on until I manifested enough self-discipline to really start writing. I knew it wasn’t a question I could come right out and ask, I had to be patient and wait for William to reveal the secrets to me….

In the meantime, I drank and watched as Burroughs tried to survive his oceans of guilt…

It all started when Jack Kerouac was seeing a rich girl from Grosse Point, Michigan, named Edie Parker, who was attending Columbia University when she wasn’t out chasing boys. Edie was roommates with Joan Vollmer, a lithe beauty who was a Barnard student and even more boy-crazy than Edie– she even had her own diaphragm, an unheard of personal possession for 1943. While Joan was already married to a serviceman and had a daughter, Julie– they didn’t interfere with her ever increasing sexual exploits. Like Burroughs, Joan had also rejected her middle-class upbringing in favor of the bohemian lifestyle, reading Plato and Kant while listening to classical music in the bubble bath, when she wasn’t out screwing some “cocksman.” Unlike Burroughs though, Joan preferred the whirlwind highs of Benzedrine, to the negated bliss of heroin.

When Kerouac and Ginsberg moved into Joan’s new apartment on 115th Street, Burroughs became a regular visitor. The older criminal and the college girl formed a fast friendship, sharing in books like Conrad Aiken’s Silent Snow, Secret Snow, and enjoying dinners at Chinese restaurants, where William taught her how to eat with chopsticks. Both Kerouac and Ginsberg urged Burroughs to take up with the attractive speed freak, and in early 1946, Burroughs finally gave into his need for companionship and moved in with Joan.

“Burroughs didn’t mind having sex with women,” Ted Morgan wrote in his biography, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William Burroughs, “and he must have been proficient at it, because Joan, a woman of wide experience at 22, gave him high marks, saying, ‘You make love like a pimp.’ Primarily, however, their relationship was one between two remarkable intellects. Burroughs saw Joan as a woman of remarkable insight. She was the smartest member of the group, he thought, certainly as smart as Allen Ginsberg, in many ways smarter, because there were limits to Allen’s thinking, but none to Joan’s.”

As Burroughs descended deeper and deeper into his addiction, he was eventually busted for forging prescriptions and thrown into the Tombs– Manhattan’s infamous city lockup. While in jail, Burroughs suffered a nasty heroin withdrawal, before Joan came to his rescue, bailed him out, and gave him a handful of “goofballs” to counter his “kick.” When William came to trial in June of 1946, he was given a four month suspended sentence, since it was his first offense and a misdemeanor– but the judge told the junkie he was going to send him home to St. Louis for the summer– a fate far worse than jail.

Burroughs tried his hand at a variety of get-rich-quick schemes in St. Louis before convincing his parents to front him the money to buy fifty acres of farmland in East Texas, right on the Mexican border. He planted cotton and waited for the money to come rolling in, since cotton was a subsidy crop at $150 an acre. It didn’t work out. Farming proved to be much more of a gamble than Burroughs realized and he took to traveling to over the border to ease his boredom.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Joan, who missed William terribly, began using Benzedrine around the clock. Kerouac found her “out of her fucking mind” on speed and told Ginsberg, who informed Burroughs. When Joan was committed to Bellevue after the cops found her wandering the streets, Burroughs came to the rescue—he traveled to New York City got her released from the nuthouse, and then took Joan back to Texas with him.

Joan was pregnant with William’s child by the time she arrived in the Rio Grand Valley, where Burroughs rented another ninety-acre spread for growing marijuana while he waited for his next cotton crop to be harvested. Joan gave birth to a boy, who they named William Burroughs III, just in time to haul their pot to Manhattan where they hoped to reap a huge profit. But Burroughs hadn’t cured the male and female plants, and the grass was lacking THC, the ingredient that gets you high. Needless to say, nobody wanted their pot, and they dumped the entire load on some hoods, who agreed to take it off their hands for 100 bucks.

Back in Texas, Burroughs was arrested for drunk driving and public indecency when he and Joan stopped to fuck by the side of the road, and spent a night in jail. Fed up with marijuana farming and Texas, Burroughs sold the farm and he and Joan moved to New Orleans with their two kids, Billie the III and Julie, but the new city proved no better than Texas. Burroughs was picked up in a sweep by the local cops, and when they searched his house they found pot, heroin and a bunch of unregistered guns. Burroughs was facing a long prison stretch when his attorney bailed him out and hinted that Mexico might be the safest place to hide out until the five year statue of limitations expired. And so Joan and William, along with their kids, moved to Mexico City in the summer of 1949.

Mexico City didn’t prove any more hospitable to Burroughs than New York City, Texas or New Orleans. Like those other locales, Burroughs spent his days cruising the bars, betting on horses, shooting guns and getting high. As usual, his routines quickly turned into habits.

Then, one day, the routine was interrupted.

William had an overwhelming feeling of dread in early September 1951 as he walked down the streets of Mexico City, looking to get his knife sharpened. The knife-sharpeners had carts every ten blocks or so, and as William walked, the fear in his heart turned into a malignant horror that possessed his body— one he could not explain. He could hardly breathe as he approached the knife-sharpener– and burst into tears.

What was happening? Could this be some kind of weird withdrawal symptom? A physical manifestation of his losing streak? Some kind of possession? After the knife was sharpened, Burroughs returned home and started drinking to pass the hours until it was time go to a friend’s to sell one of his pistols, a .380 automatic.

Joan and William arrived at John Healy’s apartment above the Bounty Bar in the late afternoon, but the buyer wasn’t there, just Healy, as well as Eddie Woods and Gene Allerton. The couple continued drinking– and the drunker they got, the more playful they became, until Joan said to William, “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act…”

As one eyewitness, Eddie Woods, said of the incident, “We were sitting around in this living room littered with bottles, and Joan was drinking limonada and Gene Allerton and I were sitting on the sofa, and Burroughs was sitting in a chair about an arm’s reach from me., so close that I could have reached over and grabbed his gun, and Joan was in a stuffed chair across from Gene and myself. I don’t know how the conversation got around to it, but Burroughs said, ‘Joanie, let me show the boys what a great shot old Bill is.’

“So she balanced her glass on her head and turned her head and said with a giggle, ‘I can’t watch this—you know I can’t stand the sight of blood.’ And then it dawned on me that he was going to pull the trigger, and I thought, ‘My God, if he hits that glass there’ll be shards flying all over of the place, there’ll be a hole in the wall…’ it just seemed ridiculous to me. So I started to reach for the gun, but then I thought, ‘You better not, cause if it goes off and hits her…’ She was nine, ten feet away….

“And then bang, that was the first impression, the noise,” Woods continued, “We were temporarily deafened by the sound. The next thing I knew the glass was on the floor, the glass was intact, it was rolling around in concentric circles…. And then I looked at Joan and her head had fallen to one side. Well, I thought, she’s kidding. Then I heard Gene say, ‘Bill, I think you hit her.’ Then Burroughs cried, ‘No!’ and started toward her, and then I saw the hole in her temple. Burroughs kept crying, ‘Joan, Joan, Joan!’ He was out of it, in complete shock…”

William Burroughs had shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, age 27, in a drunken game of William Tell on the afternoon of September 6th, 1951. (The same day that I met Shannon, only 49 years late)

“You could say it was an accident,” Ted Morgan wrote in Literary Outlaw, “but to Burroughs, there was no such thing as an accident. He believed in that inimical forces caused accidents. In this case, he had been given foreknowledge that something awful was about to happen, that a smog of menace and evil was about to descend. He had broken out in tears, but he had not paid proper attention to the signals. If he had, he would have retrenched, cut his drinking, gone to bed.

“The inimical force that caused him to kill Joan,” Morgan maintained, “Burroughs believed quite literally, was an evil spirit that had possessed him. This was a concept more medieval than modern, although whether the evil spirit is seen as coming from within or without, the result was the same. A divided personality with a capacity for wickedness can look for a psychological explanation, or can believe that he is possessed by malignant forces. Both explanations are metaphors for evil, which religion and the ‘ologies’ do not satisfactorily define.

“This was not on the level of a ‘save-me-from-myself’ apology.” Morgan added, “Being occupied by an evil spirit was not an excuse for throwing oneself on the mercy of the court. Quite the contrary: Each time a battle was lost in his struggle with the invading entity, the price was high, the sentence heavy…”

Evil spirits? Invading entities?  Inimical forces? A divided personality with a capacity for wickedness?

I don’t know if I believed in that shit, but hanging out in the Bunker, I knew William did…

“The Moloch’s are out tonight, Legs,” William told me one night, when we stopped by the Bunker to pick up James Grauerholz to go to a show at CBGB’s, “Be very careful, you don’t want to let those buggers get a hold of you…”

“I will William, I will,” I smirked, not really believing there were forces of darkness out there waiting to get me– probably more forces of darkness inside the Bunker.

“Here, take my hat, for protection,” William said, handing me his green felt, Tyrolean-styled hat, with a feather in the side, to ward off the evil spirits. I hated hats, but put it on anyway. I mean, what was I gonna do, insult the man? He was only trying to help me, even if he was a bit loopy.

I lost the hat, even though it was snowing, in the few blocks it took to walk up Bowery from the Bunker to CBGB’s, and thought nothing more of Burroughs’ warning. That was the night I went for drinks with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at Club 82 and ended up at Phebe’s, the off, off, off Broadway theater bar a few blocks from CBGB’s. Since I was just drunk enough when we left, I attempted to leap-frog over a row of parking meters out front. I succeeded clearing them all– except the last one, when my hands slipped on the icy meter– and instead of going up and over, I just went up and down– and my head splattered on the pavement like a ripe pumpkin.

“Uh, Legs, you still with us?” Debbie fussed.

I had a nasty road-burn on the side of my face, and blood trickling down my chin when I looked up and groaned, “Almost… I almost made them all…”

“You wanna go to the hospital?” Debbie fussed some more.

“You want us to call an ambulance?” Chris deadpanned.

I slowly picked myself up and shook myself off.

“No,” I moaned, “but I almost nailed them all…”

“Yeah,” Debbie laughed, “Except for that last one, it was expired, just like you– if only you’d dropped a quarter in first…”

“But I don’t have a quarter,” I laughed, smearing the blood across my face so it looked even more gruesome, “Let’s go to CB’s and scare people into buying us more drinks…”

No, this wasn’t inimical forces, but alcoholism. Or so I thought, but what if I hadn’t lost William’s hat? I was too practical to believe in signs and wonders, too rigid in my quest for facts to believe in anything mysterious, and like Carl Jung, I thought that, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.”

Still, I knew Burroughs was suffering some heavy karma– everyone knew he had committed the ultimate act of transgression; it was the first thing they mentioned whenever his name came up, “Didn’t Burroughs shoot his wife?”

So I understood that William had permanently crossed over into the murky world of eternal sorrow and remorse, and curious as I was, I was fascinated by what it was like to live there…

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” Burroughs wrote, “and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write me way out.”

I was fascinated by William Burroughs’ personal story; I was intrigued by his role as inspiration and mentor to the Beats, and by the fact, that to become free from his demons, he had to write his way out. I was so enthralled by his story that I ignored his warnings– those huge ugly turkey buzzards on the billboards up ahead, screaming, “Beware!”

Good words to head, but did I listen?


Legs McNeil is the guy who named a movement, and then told the true story of how that movement came to be in PLEASE KILL ME; THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK, among several other books.