The Memoirs of Gerard P. Pas
These are the autobiographical writings of Gerard Pas.
They have been written in non-sequential order.
All texts and images remain the copyright of Gerard Peter Pas ©
Read all of Gerard's written memoirs by clicking here.
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How I came to know William Burroughs confession of a wild boy by Gerard P. Pas Thank you Benn Posset
Gerard Pas and William Burroughs. Brussels, Belgium. 1979
On route to Amsterdam “to meet the man”.
I first met Bill Burroughs through his writings, as most of us did. As a young man, in my late teens, a good friend who I met at art school named Michael Hannay introduced me to his writings. I got to know Burroughs through his literature and was dually impressed by its scope and radical nature. He quickly became a hero and icon to me, I thought so very highly of his work as a writer. Such an icon, that I used a portrait of him, which Michael Hannay had created, as a backdrop in a series of works that I completed in the late Seventies. That series of works was titled “Dance with Leg” (see below) and was collaborative work with Hannay who documented my performance.
Dance with Leg by Gerard Pas in collaboration with Michael Hannay (1977)
Mike documented the performance - image in mirror is of a artwork depicting Burroughs.
During the 70’s, I began the first of my numerous trips to New York City as a young man, unaccompanied by my parents. My parents had earlier taken me there before as a boy in short pants to visit our family in the Bronx. My intentions in New York were simply to meet as many artists as I could and to hang out in the then beginnings of the Punk Scene at CBJB’s 1976-77.
One summer while in New York I met some artists who had also worked for a cultural organization, with which I was attached to in Toronto called “Centre for Experimental Art and Communication” (C.E.A.C.). They were Dirk Larsen and Tom Puckey of “Reindeer Werk”. C.E.A.C. had earlier represented Canada at “Documenta 6” and published an international art magazine titled Art Communication Edition or ACE later changed to STRIKE Magazine. STRIKE had previously published several of my controversial works earlier in that year of 1977. These two artists as well as several others, such as Marina Abramovic | Ulay, where involved in the “European Performance Series” at the Brooklyn Museum, New York in 1978. Many of the works I had published with STRIKE were known to these artists and the administrators involved with this show at the Brooklyn Museum. Dirk Larsen and Tom Puckey of “Reindeer Werk” were performing a piece at the museum as part performance festival as well as a show at Sharon Avery/Redbird Gallery, Brooklyn, New York. I went along to the museum to partake in the events and as time unfolded, I met several arts administrators from the Netherlands. In my discussions with them, I was encouraged to come back to the land of my birth, being assured financial support from the State for my endeavors as an artist. Later that year I would move from Canada to Amsterdam.
I was no stranger to Europe by that time as I had already published numerous works and participated in several Museum Exhibitions. I had visited and worked in Paris and Cologne in the years before, most of my family still lived in Holland, and as I speak Dutch, German, and limited French, it was not a major inconvenience for me to relocate.
Gerard Pas performance of Kunstledematen 1978
Performed at De Appel Amsterdam
Video screened at One World Poetry Festival, Amsterdam 1979
— click here to view video 48.7mb wmv —
When I arrived in Amsterdam, I hooked up with the people I had met in New York and began to create new series of work. I didn’t have a studio at first so I crashed or sublet apartments from other artists or friends that where traveling. During that year 1978, I made a performance at De Appel – Centre for Visual Art, Amsterdam called “Kunstledematen” (see above). This performance was well received in Amsterdam and was reviewed in several major art periodicals around the world shortly after. Wies Smals, the then director of De Appel, was provoked by my performance and later would recommend that it be included in a major world festival of poetry being held in The Melkweg, Amsterdam, 1979.
Wies Smals at the Paleis op De Dam, Amsterdam. 1978
* I miss Wies, her loss was a tragedy!
As a result of Wies kind affirmation of my work, I suddenly found myself exhibiting the video of this above performance “Kunstledematen” in the “One World Poetry Festival”. This festival hosted some of the biggest names from the Beat Culture in America as well as contemporary poets from around the world at the time. What an honour this was for me and one, which I would take full advantage of. Being at the festival, I was given free reign to come and go from the back rooms. As such, I began to met poets like Brion Gyson, Michael McLure, John Giorno, Gregory Corso, Alan Ginsburg (who would later stay at the house of my then lover Meikina Wilgenkamp), Ira Cohen, John Copper Clark, Thomas Moore Raworth, Simon Vinkenoog, Harry Hoogstraten, Jules Deelder, Ron Padgett, Franco Beltrametti, Steve Lacey and many more. I have taken many pictures of these artists from this time, which can be seen on my website by clicking here.
At One World Poetry Festival, Amsterdam.1979
The coolest cat I ever met, totally unique, who had a thing for fast things.
My video-performance document “Kunstledmaten” also got the attention of the organizer of this festival Soyo Benn Posset with whom I would begin a truly good friendship that would last until his untimely death. Soyo Benn not only acted as the organizer of the One World Poetry Festival but he undertook a role as agent for many of the poets and writers in other festivals around Europe. As Benn and I became friends, he would often ask me to drive himself and the poets he was working with as he had no driver’s license and I just enjoyed coming along for the ride. What a privilege it was to be with Benn and some of the greatest thinkers of our era sitting there in the back seat. I was not the driver as in chauffer, you must remember I was simply another artist who offered to drive with Benn, and so there was no class struggle in my role. Benn was very good to me and I owe him dearly for his trust in both my ability as an artist but also in allowing me to transport such minds around Europe at the high speeds, which I drove.
Benn Posset (soyo) with Gerard Pas (left). Brussels, Belgium. 1979
I miss Benn and mourn his loss to the literary community.
Here's what Timothy Leary had to say about him - click here to read.
How I came to know William S. Burroughs.
As it was, Benn had been asked to organize some of the artists and participate in a major Belgium poetry festival at “Refinerie de Plan K”, where many of those same artists would read as did in Amsterdam. One of those artists was the American writer William Burroughs. Benn asked me if I wanted to come along for the event, drive and partake in the festivities to which I did.
We began our trip by picking up William Burroughs at the Brussels International Airport where he landed from the USA. I still remember picking up Bill at the Airport because of the events leading up to his arrival. First Benn took me to the Belgium Ministry of Culture where we were met kindly by a Cultural Ministry bureaucrat and received some papers which would permit Burroughs to enter this country as a national guest of Belgium; thus circumventing the Customs and Border officials. I really paid attention to that because of how strange it seemed to me: here was one of the world’s most notorious heroin users being escorted through the border as a guest of Belgium and not being subjected to any of the border controls – it made me grin and think of the abstract nature of our world. Benn and I waited outside the arrival tunnel of the plane as we were given special dispensation to walk by customs and await Bill’s arrival there. It was a weird feeling as we were marshaled by the police to stand at the planes tunnel door instead of in the arrivals hall of the airport. The doors opened and there came William Burroughs to be met by friends and confidents instead of a quadrant of Customs Officers and drug searching dogs. I took this picture as we began our exit from the airport to go into the city of Brussels.
William Burroughs arrives at Zaventem Airport, Brussels, Belgium. 1979
Whisked through Customs like a Head of State.
After the formal introductions, we established that the first thing we would do would be to drop off our luggage at the swank hotel suite, which had been provided us. Our Hotel was the same hotel where the Princes and Princess’ of Europe would stay in lavish luxury when visiting Belgium. As you can imagine it had all the accouterments of the rich and famous the only difference was that now it had us three staying in it, a sultry bunch of cultural vagabonds if ever there was. They really know how to show respect to artists in Belgium and I truly commend them, maybe this comes about because of “The Red Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians (1876-1965)” influence and her relationships with artists such as Jean Cocteau. Whatever it was, it was certainly the first time in my life that as a kid who not only grow up on the wrong side of the tracks but also grew up right next to the damn tracks had ever been offered such privilege. Art has a way of transcending class -- often it is only the rich who can afford art -- being an artist helps you cross through a gate that would otherwise be closed to most.
William Burroughs at the hotel in Brussels. 1979
Well, funnily the first things that Bill wanted to do was not sit back and enjoy the trappings of fame and a life of leisure in the hotel. Oh contraire, he had an itch and it needed to be remedied as soon as possible. I’m not talking about a skin disease but the monkey on our back screaming for a fix of heroin or something to soothe the pain. We went down to the car and drove off in search of an apothecary. We didn’t have any connections in Brussels from whom to score “brown sugar” and driving back up to Amsterdam was simply not in the cards due to timetable and the readings later that night. We found a pharmacy and the first thing which overwhelmed me was Bill’s complete and utter understanding of the world of drugs; be that illegal or over the counter medicines. He knew ever drug in that store, how to brew up a concoction of over the counter medicines, to buy time and keep the monster of addiction at bay; which we did. We returned to the hotel and mixed the various ingredients finding a dismal lull in the otherwise heinous cry of needing narcotics. At peace, we ate a small lunch of wine, bread and cheese in the hotel room (see picture below) and took a small rest before the engagements of the night were to unfold.
William Burroughs eating a light lunch in the hotel, Brussels. 1979
Bill always took care of his body he made it a point to do so.
Sometime late in the afternoon - early evening, the hotels concierge called up to inform us that some people were waiting for us in the lobby. We quickly dressed and readied ourselves before going downstairs to meet our hosts in the lobby. I remember this because I had earlier bought a suit in New York, which I decided to wear to this event, it was so out of my Punk character at the time, but I wanted to look the part with Bill in his suit.
Gerard Pas as a Punk in Amsterdam. 1977-78
to see Gerard as a punk in New York - click here
I can’t exactly remember whom these people were waiting for us, but I do remember that some were of noble blood, as it was told me by Benn. They were asking us if we’d like to come and spend the weekend at their villas or family palaces after the readings had been completed for some relaxation and fun. We looked at Bill and in his own shrewd way, he pulled one of his wry, sides of the mouth, grins saying, “No thanks, we had other engagements to meet in Amsterdam”. That was code for: I want to get the hell out of here and get up to Amsterdam and score some real dope. I don’t care if you’re the King of Siam or Little Lord Fauntleroy, I need smack. The villas and palaces can wait, the itch can’t. We dispensed with the formalities from our very hospitable guests and crawled into the Mercedes limousines, which would carry us to the readings.
I remember the look, which Bill gave me when I entered this car as clearly as today. At first, it frightened me, it was one that said, well here, you are son, and you now know the cost, welcome. As he looked directly into my eyes, I looked back at his and assured him by sight alone that I did indeed know, thank you. It frightened me somewhat because for a moment I felt to be Dr. Faust and Bill became Mephistopheles, was the price too high as it was for Faust. Hubris is a strange motivator.
William Burroughs and Gerard Pas in discussion before the Brussels reading. 1979
On arriving at Refinerie de Plan K, I was impressed at the size of this huge hall, which was previously a sugar refinery. It was filled to capacity with some 10,000 people all there for poetry and literature. I was overwhelmed yet again that such an interest even existed and that these readings could be such a big draw. I remember coming in the back entrance and be escorted in the cavernous underbelly of the building lead to a waiting room filled with notable writers from around the world. There was Steve Lacy, Joy Division, Kathy Acker, Cabaret Voltaire and many more. We sat down and enjoyed the preamble to the readings by catching up with the many there whom we new.
note: “There was us, Cabaret Voltaire and William Burroughs who was reading from his new book The Third Mind. Afterwards we got introduced to him and I asked if he had any spare but he hadn't.”
Ian Curtis of Joy Division commenting on meeting Burroughs in an interview with Alan Hempsall.
Alan Hempsall interviewed Joy Division and their manager Rob Gretton for Extro sci-fi magazine, Vol.2/No.5. January 8th, 1980.
My lover in Amsterdam son-in-law (actually he lived with her daughter) was also there, he had already achieved some repute in Holland for his writings and for his involvement with the Dutch writing community. His name was Hans Plomp, we sat and chatted until it was time for the proceedings would begin and enter the auditorium proper. I don’t remember the order of readings but I remember how I was moved by John Giorno’s work as he read. I had met John earlier at a friend’s home in Amsterdam where he would stay from time to time.
John Giorno reading at Refinerie de Plan K. Brussels. 1979
Simon Vinkenoog, one of my favourite writers from the Netherlands, was also there, sitting at the side of the stage. Simon was a great person and lots of fun to chill with. Even at Simon’s age he remained a party animal and keeping up with him was hard enough even for me as a young man. Simon was one of the first people in Holland to be busted for Marijuana possession in 1963; which in Holland is quite a testament, as by the early 1970’s you could buy it in numerous coffee shops around the city. Simon was also the first to translate the works of Timothy Leary into the Dutch language. Simon was the origins of hippie in Holland and here at this reading his beat roots were showing.
Simon was someone who deserved respect and got it from all his fellow citizens and writers’, including me – besides it was not hard to like his convivial nature.
Simon Vinkenoog in Brussels. 1979
Simon was one of the first people busted in Holland for Marijuana possession in 1963.
Amongst many things he translated the works of Timothy Leary into Dutch.
Many more read and then it came time for Bill to enter the hall. Bill sat down at the table as he often did when reading publicly with his manuscripts open before him as though it was his desk at work or wherever he wrote. Sitting there like ‘the chairman of the board’, he began to read from “The Third Mind” his collaboration with Brion Gysin, Viking, New York, 1978.
Note: I recently read at The Poetry Project at St. Marks Church, New York, for the release of “Back In No Time” - The Brion Gysin Reader a new anthology edited by Jason Weiss (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
Other artists and writers involved where Ira Cohen, Genesis P-Orridge, José Férez Kuri, Marshall Reese, Ellen Zweig, Terry Winters, Pierre Joris, Jason Weiss, and Ondi McMaster.
Bill had a marvelous way of drawling his speech and emphasizing any particular point he want to by raising and lowering the intonation of his voice when he read. I must say that Bill’s readings, live or recorded, are indeed a rare treat and unique to him alone. He also had an erudite sense of humour and if you could read between the lines, it always got a chortle out of those that understood the nuances of what he was suggesting. I have included a sample of Bill reading which you can download by clicking here. What a rare pleasure it was for me to sit there on the stage with Bill and take photos of him at my discretion.
William Burroughs reading at Refinerie de Plan K. Brussels Belgium.
Alongside Steve Lacy, Joy Division, Kathy Acker, Cabaret Voltaire and more, in Brussels, Belgium 1979
The audience was more than 10,000 people who paid admission.
Benn had introduced Bill and I, as such Bill knew that I had been baptized, even if by fire, into the dark underworld of where we too often treaded. His look, conveyed in that car ride earlier, said he understood that I did also. In some ways with my years of living amongst the bikers in the rough east end, living on the streets of London, Canada, my time on the Bowery and the whole Punk scene, had made me a sort of “Wild Boy” like the characters in his other book of the same name. I was there, where I wanted to be, surrounded by the greatest minds of our generation and I was an honoured guest up on the stage with them. This was still the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the street kid who knew each alley and back way, and the punk who could stir shit with the best of them, chew it up, spit it out, and chew it up again. Now I had transcended my past and had arrived at a place I thought and had aspired to be for too many years. Was I happy, yes but at what cost. At what price, at that time it had seemingly only cost me my own ingenuity and making my own luck; as they say good to be lucky and lucky to be good. That grin Burroughs gave me on entering that limousine would haunt me for years to come.
The formalities of the readings and the hoopla ended but we didn’t stay long to party and celebrate each other’s laurels with pats on the back. No Bill, Benn and I high-tailed it back to the hotel so that we could expedite our journey back to Amsterdam and tame the monkey on our back. No cold shivers or shakes as Bills formidable knowledge of pharmacology had already tempered that back at the drug store. Yet we all knew where the real party was and it wasn’t here in Belgium, it was in the den of an opiate induced hallucination and calmed by the thrilling rush of the heroin cursing through our veins. Amsterdam, beckoned and we answered its clarion call by parting our hosts, friends, and celebrations with sudden dispatch. At first light I got the car, went by Le Plan K to pick up the Bill’s cheque, and then we drove through the Belgium countryside with urgent speed, hastened like a galloping horse to be near our sweetheart the white nurse, or the black tootsie roll. Stopping along the way only to relieve ourselves and eat something – Bill was good that way he always took care of his body even as a junkie.
William Burroughs, Benn Posset and Gerard (photo)
Grabbling a quick bite to eat "frites" in Brussels. 1979
Amsterdam, the orient of the west with its whores, gay bars, and schmack dealers was an oasis to many who needed a fix during these days of the seventies, it was known to the world, and it was very intimate to me. Many of my Punk friends from New York would make there first point of entry, after Schipol, was my studio. They knew I could score or be carrying enough to remove their pain until more was gotten and they knew I could always get more as I knew the many places in Amsterdam to score. Pain management was my specialty and I was as sought after as a good trader on Wall Street in searches for rare commodities – paradoxically, a junk trader – no not a dealer.
Gerard Pas after chasing the dragon and on the nod, Amsterdam. 1978
On arriving in Amsterdam, we dropped Bill off at Harry Hoogstraten’s home in south Amsterdam, where Bill would be lodging. Benn and I then hustled off in the car to the visit the Zeedijk and one of my dealers there to buy some junk for Bill and me. Benn was not a user but he’d been around too long to be squeamish about anything he’d seen along his sojourn too many times before. The Zeedijk, back in these days was a dammed street that bordered the Red Light District and as such provided an excellent location to provide the whores with what many of then searched for with “Charlie” and he was no “John”. To the contrary, Charlie was not the customer but rather the consumption and in many ways, I could understand their need to dull the pain of the John’s, Charlie was their real master. I wasn’t much better as I knew him, Charlie, all to well and often waiting in the lobby for the “paper boy” I got to meet these girls before I got the “girl” myself.
The Zeedijk was dotted with Chinese restaurants and boarded over buildings, as it was slated to be gentrified with the advent of a new super hotel being built at it’s opening across to the Central Station downtown. I lived very nearby; in fact, I lived in a squatted building at the end of the Zeedijk, across from the De Waag, on the Nieuwmarkt, at the time, next to the Red Light District. When I rode my bike to get almost anywhere in Amsterdam, I’d have to ride through De Waalitjes (Red-Light District), so much so that I started to know the whores by sight as they waved at me, simply as a cordiality, when I went by. More on this some other time.
I got the brown powder of the very highest potency and back we went to Harry’s to chase the dragon or rather shot it with Bill. First, I stopped at my house to get “clean works” (syringes) and drop of my night bag.
Harry Hoogstraten in Amsterdam. 1979
I had met Harry Hoogstraten many times before as he was also involved with the art community and we would see each other at De Appel. He actually saw me do my performance of Kunstledematen that first night De Appel. I actually respected Harry for this, as he went to every cultural event and art opening, he truly had his finger on the pulse of the creative community in Amsterdam. Besides Bill Burroughs liked to stay at his place – good enough for Bill, good enough for me!
This was my first visit to his house. We walked up the steep Dutch-staircase to Harry’s apartment and were greeted by him at the door. Harry had a small and humble apartment that was studious, made evident by the piles of books everywhere. For Amsterdam, it was a classic De Pijp / south Amsterdam neighbourhood apartment. On entering, Bill was seated in an easy chair in the living room. He had already taken a little time to refresh and unwind from the trip up from Brussels, as much someone “waiting for the man” can unwind. Bill watched me take out the works and cook up a delicious hit in the spoon, always small to start out with if it is new dope. He asked me if I’d inject him with the fit, which made me wonder as most people like to inject themselves. He saw the puzzlement in my face and told me he wanted me to inject him in his feet. Okay, I agreed.
Injecting someone in their feet can be a tedious task as the veins in the feet are thin and have a tendency to role away from the needle. There is always a concern that you might push through and have the heroin squirt in under the vein, which is a total bummer and painful in the foot.
I cooked up the hit in the spoon. As I filled the syringe, Bill pulled off his sock, rolled up his pants and slapped his foot a bit to get the veins to stand up a bit more, making it easier for us to see. I placed the syringe on his foot on top of his vein, at a slight angle, and without waiting poked it into his vein. With these small veins, you want to make sure you don’t push the plunger to fast, as these veins can’t take the volume as easily as in the arm. I slowly pulled back on the plunger to make sure it was mainlined in his foots vein; a small vortex of brackish-red blood entered the chamber of the syringe. I say brackish-red because the colour of the blood is a tell tale sign of how much junk your shooting, the brighter the red the less dope has been cursing through your veins in recent times – it always brightens up when you lay off. Slowly and with deliberation, I pushed the plunger full of smack into Bill’s foot giving him wings. I took my index finger placed it on the vein that had syringe still in it and withdrew the fit.
As I looked up the rush of the drug became apparent on Bill’s face as though it were and act of transcendence. I then got a clean set-up, cooked a sizeable hit and mainlined. Within a few moments, I saw what Dr. Maurice Buck and American poet Walt Whitman saw in the collective unconsciousness. I could put my finger exactly on what Mr. Burroughs was feeling, seated there across from me. As that calming euphoria of heroin surged to my brain and settled in my nerve cells. No pain, no cares, the pain-free-zone. I could fall a sleep with a cigarette burning in between my fingers and I wouldn’t care or feel the pain, which I did on one occasion only to awake with burn and blisters between my fingers. I was there in the zone, the ozone, the chromosome; I was there in the zone.
We talked about things like who was doing what and who was going where, when I thought it better that I go before I started to float and nighttime set in. Heroin has a way of taking all your cares away and you can watch your shoelaces four hours to be entertained, this is floating in the opiate daze of the drug. It is often called “the nod” as your head boobs up and down into consciousness. I once nodded on the top of a stepladder with out falling for almost two hours before I came to and realized were I was. What was I doing on the ladder, hiding my stash - strange times to say the least. After the nod comes, the itch as the drugs attacks the nerve ends and they start to twitch making you very itchy. Sometimes in between these stages, your body gets “good sick”, a user term for the nausea that accompanies taking heroin. You just go to the toilet bowl and have a big Ralph, vomiting out the contents of your stomach. It is not painful as your on heroin the number one painkiller; after a while, you get so used to it that it becomes much like sneezing - just something, you do when you’re stoned. After this comes the desire again and so the circle goes until you get to the nighttime and withdrawal when the monkey tears every inch of flesh of your back, flaying your skin so that you’ll get more to the point of fever, shakes and then collapse. It takes more than courage to dare to leave the pain-free-zone, as your body starts to want the heroin as though it could not function without it and there in lies the addiction.
I left Bill with his fit and a few spares, plus the dope he had scored through me and went home to float and take another small shot. Unlike cocaine, which is insatiable, heroin lets you alone for a while until you need some more, usually several hours later. Only then, when you need it, does it become a tyrant urging you for its thirst to be quenched. Cocaine on the other hand, makes you think of the next fix almost as soon as the essential rush of the last one has escaped your body – it truly is a demon that way. I can understand why crack-heads are exactly what their called cracked-heads - it takes your brain to the point of crawling on the floor, looking through a shag carpet, for any crumbs that may have dropped. I know, I have the scar on my arm to prove it and when I glance upon it, it reminds me of just how high I have fallen. It wasn’t until the festering pus bubble under my vein convinced me it was time to lay back awhile and cool my jets, change my life even.
Arm with surgical wound after removing infection
My, my, how powerful is the delirium of keeping away the pain of coming down off coke; so powerful it makes a man do crazy things. That wasn’t going to happen tonight, I was with Charlie riding on his Horse down the Dragon Trail chasing a China Lady to oblivion – I was stoned on junk, horse, schmack, I was floating.
The next few days provided to be one of the most telling and pivotal days of my life. It had been rumoured that Bill had stopped using, or injecting heroin in the cultural press and amongst his fans and Bill was willing to support this façade. It was probably in his best interest, as you don’t want to draw too much heat to yourselves when you’re in the public eye and we had all seen what had happened to the Rolling Stones. I was asked to keep my mouth zippered, on this and I assured Bill that it was “between me and a fence post” if I ever needed to talk about it. That is until today, some near thirty years later and I think it is okay to speak of it now as Bills been dead for a few years - I’ve spoken to enough fence post now.
As Bill was thought to be clean, Benn, being the astute managerial wizard that he was, thought it might be a good time to spin some good press out this for Bill. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this, as the message was “Look he cleaned up so can you!” which is a positive message. Even though he had not cleaned up and his close circle of friends knew it, and I most certainly knew it, as told above. Benn organized a reading of Bill Burroughs work at a place called the HUK (I can’t remember the name exactly – too much heroin) in Amsterdam. The HUK was a new Dutch experiment in assisting junkies get off junk. So you can see Benn’s angle, the plug, or spin doctoring here. The clean Bill and author of “Junkie” (Written before many of these kids were born) would read to the aspiring ‘get clean’ junkies of Amsterdam. Clever if you ask me, even if it was “a tissue of lies” as Bill might say. The HUK acted as a state run centre for junkies to come and get assistance in getting off the dope – a kick the habit centre translated directly from the Dutch “Afkick Centrum”. The clients were provided counseling, people to watch for their safety, clean syringes, a place to do it, and methadone. It operated as one of the first methadone clinics in Holland and you could get as much free methadone as they would give you - from the HUK to get you unhooked. It was located just behind the Palace on the Dam, across from the Nieuwe Kerk, on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. Then again, maybe it was on the next street over on De Spuistraat.
So before the event I went up to Harry’s with Benn to pick Bill up for this reading this night. The reading had not been announced in the “National News” or anything, but everyone who was anyone in the writing community and more was to turn up to that awkward place to listen to Burroughs read. Benn was so used to this that for him it was just another event and Bill, well he’d been around the bend a few times before this, and nothing could really faze him when it came to doing what he did so well – read his work. Or so I thought, until the proceedings had begun.
We arrived at a stodgy old building of no real architectural significance; it had all the glass painted white from within. Standing outside loitering in front of the door was a sorry mob of emaciated older teens and twenty-something’s. All of us walked up to the door wearing suits and ties, looking somewhat like the mob or some criminal government agency. No not “men in black” if we did look alien compared to the displaced youth loitering outside.
I opened the door to let, Benn, Harry and William in and then stepped into a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, accompanied by an assault on all of the senses.
The first thing that overwhelmed me was the odour of rancid vomit. It had permeated every corner of the front room and took sometime of getting used to. The drugs had been doing there work on all the patrons and with that comes the nausea. I had just never thought of a room full of thirty or more people all doing it a various times through their highs and from the looks of some of these patrons it didn’t matter if you hit the porcelain or not. It was abstract and a test for the senses – this was the only time when I used heroin that I felt bad about vomit. Dizzying!
I lifted my eyes to behold a sight, which still occupies my nightmares. A young woman sat on a chesterfield with her head pointing upwards slouched over its back. On closer inspection, I could see a syringe hanging out of her arm. This might at first sight alarm anybody, as you thought or questioned whether she had O.D. overdosed. As I look in puzzlement, I saw her slowly bang the end of the syringe again with her finger. It seemed that she was using the syringe as though it was an intravenous tube and she just repeatedly tapped it a bit to keep the rush going and going and going. This helpless girl was a real addict and what a sight to behold after the initial wave of bilious odour. She may have been as old as me but it was hard to tell, probably younger. Through the glaze of the opiate high in her eyes, all I saw was emptiness when she looked up from the fit and glanced at me. Empty pools of nothing, I’d like to say misery but even it wasn’t reflected through those eyes. They were in that way very Zen, they were just there and if they were pebbles dropping back into the sea of life, there would be no waves, nothing at all but the still of the water. For all my toughness and all that I had already seen in life, this sight got a grip of me, which has stayed to this day. That girl sitting on the sofa slowly feeding herself heroin as though intravenously with the syringe hanging from her arm. Quite a sight!
Gerard Pas and Benn Posset (soyo) at the Burroughs reading,
Heroin Substance Control Centre (HUK) in Amsterdam. 1979.
On further inspecting the room, it was bald of anything other than empty walls painted in an institutional colour so nondescript other than to call it an “institutional colour”. They had the look of some poorly located medical or dental office. You know the type with the sliding window in the front reception to greet the clients. The room I had entered would also house the Burroughs reading but it may have been a large reception - waiting room. It was a cold, sterile environment filled with the smells and sights of illness everywhere. Consternation had known a home here until the heroin had come and washed it all away through its powerful pain killing and numbing effect like a tsunami from the orient. Kafka may very well of felt as though he was home in his prison here. Unlike Dante’s inferno, this level of hell was not occupied by artists and money-grubbing skinflints but artists and addicts. It seemed in some ways like the topic of a Max Beckman painting called “The Night”. Instead of the torturers being others, as in the Beckman work, here we were torturing ourselves.
Max Beckman “The Night” (1918-1919) oil on canvas
Looking further into the room was a host of people who had come to hear Bill read, dressed in fine attire, like ourselves, with no seeming concern to the sights that were unfolding before us. There was a virtual whose, whose, list from the Amsterdam literary community sitting there, as there should be for a writer of Bills quality. The first person I recognized, who stuck out only because I had only seen her a few times in the scene, was Xaviera Hollander, author of the “The Happy Hooker” the infamous Madame herself. Simon Vinkenoog had made it back from Brussels and was there as were a few other previous members of the Dutch Provo movement of the 60’s. For example, Aat Veldhoen sat in a corner with his stunning young wife/partner. Steef Davidson of comic fame sat waiting for Bill. There were several notable artists and photographers, a list of names too long to cite here.
Steef Davidson in Amsterdam. 1979
It soon came time for Bill to pull up to his desk and declare his office open to literary delight. Someone from the centre welcomed Benn and Benn made the formal introduction to the crowd. Before Bill read, the constituency of clients to the HUK circled around in front of the desk like children in a kindergarten class waiting story time.
William Burroughs reading
Heroin Substance Control Centre (HUK) in Amsterdam. 1979
Bill seated at the desk took a long hard swallow of water from the glass before him. In his typical fashion, like a cobra snake seducing its prey with dance, it wasn’t long before Bill had mesmerized the crowd with his drawling almost lethargic reading, like a Beat mantra. His sometimes-high nasal whine accentuating the points he wanted to make clear to us cut through the air like a spatula wiping the vomit of the floor of the bathrooms. He read from the same manuscript of his then yet unreleased book “Cities of the Red Night”. There would be no salacious snippets from “Junkie” here, for all the reasons, which I mentioned in the benevolent aim of this reading. As he read, I watched those seated before him look up and then boob back down with the proverbial junkie nod. It was a rare sight to watch, and nothing like preaching to the converted at all. Oh contraire, if this was a kindergarten reading for these junkies seated before him someone had switched the book from “Alice in Wonderland” to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. The words just seemed to float over this orchestra of sorts into the seats and galleries behind. There in the galleries were the initiated, those who understood the esoteric, wafting through the room in the sound of Bill’s voice and story. Smiles from the faithful behind and perplexing stares from the un-ordained filled faces of those seated before Burroughs. Like a strainer, Bills words drifted through the crowd of clients in front of him like water through a coffee filter. This would become even more apparent when Bill finished his recital of linguistic elaboration, describing boys swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper in hordes of unruly gangs.
As Bill read, I couldn’t help but feel the paradox between us and those client-junkies sitting on the floor before him or huddled against the entrance wall listening. Here you had a tale of two variants resulting from one truth, not unlike the French Revolution. I felt suddenly like Hegel, left to decide if the revolution brought liberty or tyranny with its guillotine. Bill had written “Junkie” and influenced a whole generation of counter-culture minded people. The result was that in time his counter culture had manifested itself before him here in the form of these children of oblivion, junkies to which he read.
These hapless waifs whose lives were dictated by the drug, and not like Bill’s writing, a result of the same drug. It was a chasm, which seemed un-crossable and as much as I looked, there was no bridge present for them either. We the cultural mandarins had flown in from our busy lives abroad to read to the waifs, like Blake’s children receiving alms in his poem “Holy Thursday”.
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand ?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
By William Blake 1757-1827
From “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”
It was that stark, that black and white, like night and day, and as true / absolute as the speed of light in a vacuum. If indeed Hegel was right in asserting, “That all the cows are grey in the dark”, in his polemical discourse on dialectics, then there was a spotlight cutting through the dark in this room and nothing could hide the light of this truth. The light has shined in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
We and I included myself, were artists and our adventures and addictions were almost as though leisure compared to the grim reality of these junkies. We had created a culture and they had consumed it. We had received drive and motivation from our works and the drugs were like a good sedative, distraction, frivolous leisure. None of us was pounding the concrete streets looking for our next fix, like the rich who carry no money it was given us. Sadly, at times through pure hubris, I may have thought that “free” was to jeopardize my friends by borrowing money that I thought and may never had repaid. Nor am I arguing that there is no value in the exploration of altered states, which all of us have searched for or are searching for it. Be it the repetitive swinging of a swing as a child, the smoking of a marijuana cigarette or joint, the endless limits of our imagination in reading, we all explore or make an attempt to explore altered or various dimensions of reality.
Here we had people who simply wanted to dull everything and any type of stimulus other than the grip of an opiate adventure into nowhere. No cities of the red night, no poems of the concrete kind, just plain and simple numbing of the mind and a sort of drug induced walking comma, sleep walking to the next hit or injection. It was as horrific a sight or state of mind as it would have been to be a stoker of the gas ovens of Bergen- Belsen. Throwing your fellow human, whether Jew or not, into the flames and becoming so galvanized to your work that your lungs filled with the grey ash of their remains and nothing more.
I couldn’t help but to think on science, as Anti-Cartesian as I was, and the laws of cause and effect. If we the cultural workers create a sub-culture or counter-culture, were we responsible in any part for the results. Did my own parading of drugs and championing the lifestyle that accompanied it actually have a ramification in the broader context of the society that I was trying to effect? Could I for example, be held responsible for those other less fortunate junkies in the room with my drug-buddy Bill and me? The thought sent my mind reeling like a juggernaut; it was as though I was a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Was I responsible for creating a culture that had been consumed as I had the Beatles? Where the results these nodding kids in front of us? I knew what it meant, “to nod on junk” and I know that if George Bush were seated in front of me, I wouldn’t hear every word he was saying. Damn, I’ve stood on a stepladder for two hours nodding; I really knew what was going on their heads. It was going on inside my head as well.
Please, I don’t mean this as though I thought the sun and moon rose and set from my ass everyday. That I could effect the world in a sick Nietzsche kind of “I am the centre of the universe” sort of way. I mean it more collectively. That if I as a boy, had consumed as we did the Beatles in 1965, Hitler bubblegum cards, carried a Hitler Lunch Pail, joined the Hitler Boy Scouts (Hitler Jugend), and became the Pope; what would I do with the knowledge of the evil that I had seen under that Nazi culture. Was I responsible for Hitler, or a victim of him, as in Nuremberg, what would my call for defense be were I Albert Speer.
It was a moment of pure cogence an epiphany of sorts and it sent my mind into a clarient state of shock.
Did the revolution set the French free, or where they only subjected to another form of tyranny in Robespierre and his guillotine? Had our cultural revolution set us free, or where we all victims under the tyranny of addiction? I knew that Bill wasn’t a slave to it nor was I. We had our art our work, it acted as the catharsis between the need to understand pain and we could use the dope when we wanted to subdue or relax from it. Then there was the exploration of the altered state, a rich breeding ground in which most artists want to cultivate their work. We had every reason to live and use the drugs and we did, we elevated the dope as though it were a key to reaching that state of shamanistic conscience. The real problem was seated here in front of us in those clients; the key they had received was a blank slab and wouldn’t start a bicycle, let alone a motor engine. They had consumed a culture, not unlike I had bought into the Beatles as a 10 year old, with my Beatles lunch pail and bubble gum cards. I consumed the Beatles and fashioned out of it an identity. During the hippie era, I purchased the right clothing to fit in with the youth society around me. I didn’t have any input into that culture but rather consumed it as a teen. The result in me was a hungering to create a language and culture in which I could say I had a part, ownership. For me it was made manifest in my involvement in the Punk Movement, which was founded in many ways off the precepts of the Beat culture to which Burroughs was responsible with his cohorts in Ginsberg and others. Punk for me was a lexicon to which I could lay copyright. I was in New York at Max’s Kansas City the night Sid Vicious (of the Sex pistols) broke a bottle and threatened to cut Patty Smith with it. I had many of the top punkers of the day visiting my home in Amsterdam even if it was for drugs; it was part of that Punk culture we created. The heroin-emaciated model walking down the runways of New York in black leather and injecting her self with smack was a friend and I knew her by name. We had appended this counter-culture to the back of Bill and his Beatnik friend’s earlier influences.
A New York friend mainlining or shooting Heroin. 1978
As artists, this was the culture in which we built and we could celebrate in the notoriety of it by traveling the world exhibiting our documents on it through our art. I wasn’t just a desperate junkie, I was an international artist exhibiting around the world, traveling with the greatest minds of our time, and reaping the rewards of our hard work; did I say hard work. I used heroin and encouraged other to participate in it, even in providing the drug to friends for their first time (more on this some other time). I had shot dope with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, famous Vogue models, infamous writers, artists, and musicians who would rise to the top of our / their professions.
I was not just a junkie, I had meaning, or maybe I was just a junkie with meaning; almost oxymoronic if you think about it. I did have meaning through my works, but these young people sitting before me, seemed to have nothing but an interest in my above story and its details on how I injected William Seward Burroughs 65 year old feet.
Bill Burroughs folds up his papers the reading is done.
Heroin Substance Control Centre (HUK) in Amsterdam. 1979
This would become glaringly apparent now! Bill had completed his reading and folded up his papers, gently tapping them back into order and putting them in his small envelope like attaché, lying next to him on the table. The office was closing – ‘last call’ if you’d like. And so said, the chairman of the board and scion of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company family; Mr. William S. Burroughs.
The reading was over and now would come the questions from the floor.
The clients out of decorum were the first to put for their propositions or questions. I can still see this woman on her knees sitting there at eye level with Bills table. She looked up at him and mumbled out the first question. “Hey how much dope can you put in a spoon. Like how much can you hit up? A gram, two grams like just how much?” The expression on Bill’s face was askew; he looked down at this dark eyed maven in some astonishment. “Say what?” he replied. “How much dope can you take at once?” was her retort. That wry smile appears on Bill’s face as he pressed his thin lips together and contemplated her question yet again. “Enough for it to do its purpose darlin” came sliding across his pursed lips as reply. Suddenly, it was as if someone had spilt blood into the sea the odiferous stench of bile suddenly turned into a sharks feeding frenzy. A slimy character who looked as if he hadn’t washed in weeks then aggressively postulated the next question. “No man, like really, how much can you shoot into your arm, man?” asked with a heavy Dutch accent was his query. This time the constituency of clients chimed in with a chorus of “Ja, how much?” Bill not in the slightest fazed or at least I thought, when someone from the visiting avant-garde, sitting in the back, quickly called out a semiotics or language based question; dispensing with the cordialities and changing the subject in midstream. Bill dutifully answered this question leaving the issue of how much he could shot dead in the water. All these clients wanted to know was how many grams Bill could stick in his arm and no more questions came from them. The other guest provided some more formal and didactic questions and then it was over.
Bill quickly packed his remaining things, grabbed his coat and we headed outside for some air. Remember the vomit, well it hadn’t subsided, and the rancor of it had permeated our clothes as well as fixing itself in our nostrils. Air; please give us some fresh night air. As we progressed out some of the guests asked if we wanted to grab a drink in a café across the street in the corner of the Nieuwe Kerk, were many writers often went. Benn looked at Bill but he said no, with a pale complexion to his skin. Naw thanks; I need some rest, no cafes tonight. I would drive Bill back to Harry’s so he could get what he needed, be that rest or whatever. As we turned the corner of the building, into an alley that led up to the next canal - Singel, Bill stopped and leaned against a wall. I looked at him stopped there as though he was trying to catch his breath. He looked at me and we made eye contact. That look which I spoke of in the limousine back in Brussels, well it wasn’t there. Instead was the look of desperation, as though somehow he had had the same cogitative experience, which I had had inside during the reading. His look of what the fuck have I created am I somehow responsible for this? I asked him if he was cool, needed anything to which he sighed, and then in his typical Kansas drawl said. No, I’m cool, let’s just get me home.
Gerard Peter Pas, London, Canada.2005.
Postscript: I would see Bill again whether in Europe or in New York and we never talked about that moment in the alleyway again. That moment of pure epiphany.
One year later while looking out of my squatted 6th floor studio in the Flesseman Building on The Nieuwmarket, overlooking the Red Light section looking towards the Oude Kerk and the Damrak, I would have this epiphany again. As the golden light of the sun set over the copper domes and roofs of old Amsterdam before me, a thought was provoked in my mind. As I looked out over this post-card or Rembrandt lit painting of Amsterdam, with golden shafts of light pillaring down, enshrouding the roof and steeple of the Oude Kerk and the Ij river behind. The thought that I was indeed responsible came rushing in through the din of the drug-induced rush I had just received. This realization would change my life.
I will write on my continuation of this theme and my notion of responsibility in the time to come. What did I do to attempt an answer to this realization in the months that followed? When I think about how I ran from my studio that night, it makes me laugh now, but I was absolutely frightened of what I had just concluded and I would go through a circus in my mind before I calmed down and accepted the reality of the answer.
Dedications: I dedicate this work to William Seward Burroughs (born February 5, 1914, died August 2, 1997, at the age 83), scion of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, inventors of the first workable calculator. Bill if you can hear me I had a question for that night and I wish I had of asked you there in that alley afterwards, “What did that experience add up to for you in terms of what we created?”
I also dedicate it to those poor junkies from that evening, may you find the same meaning I have found.
Lastly, I dedicate this to my loving children Joshua and Nicole - see from what a height the mighty can fall even your father - you truly don't need to crawl into a sewer to know that it stinks. Remember that we are responsible for what we create.
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