Monday, October 5, 2015

A Junky in Mexico City

Just finished A Stray Bullet by Jorge Garcia-Robles, an account of William Burroughs' three years living in Mexico City in the middle of the 20th Century. It made for depressing reading...
So what brought Burroughs to Mexico City?  He'd come from a wealthy family, studied English at Harvard but wasn't interested in working. Thanks to a regular monthly allowance he was able to bum around in New York with his junkie friends Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassidy, while (despite his homosexuality) shacking up with Joan Vollmer, an equally self-destructive character. He also got himself a criminal record and became a father to a son and step-father to Joan's young daughter from a previous relationship. Things weren't working out financially, so they decided to get out of the USA, and Mexico City seemed like a good, cheap place.
They arrived at the end of 1949 and lived in various unremarkable apartments in the Roma district, most of which still exist. Neither worked as such, although Burroughs wrote his first two books there. They took drugs or drank themselves into oblivion. Somehow the children were brought up. Then one evening they did a William Tell act at a friend's apartment. Burroughs always carried a gun. He missed the wine glass on top of her head and shot her in the temple. It was an accident but seemed somehow pre-destined. With the help of a sharp lawyer, he somehow evaded prison, skipped bail and returned to the States in early 1953.
Of his three years in Mexico City, he didn't seem remotely interested in Mexican culture and spent the whole time bumming around with gringoes. 
I wouldn't say I was an ardent admirer of his writing, but I have read Junky, Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, all early works and all influenced by his time in Mexico, and I have a few albums which feature spoken word pieces in his incredible, drawled monotone of a voice. There's no denying he was incredibly influential to novelists (especially science fiction), musicians, film-makers and a growing breed of cultural commentators. 
But what got me was the lethargy and selfishness of their aimless (typically junky) existence in Mexico City - and I felt for the poor children, who seemed to spend much of their time either looked after by neighbours or playing in the street outside the bars their parents spent so much of their time in. The boy, Billy, ended up a junkie and alcoholic himself and died aged 33 in 1981 (16 years before his father). His step-daughter Julie fared better and is apparently married and living a quiet life in the States.  
What price art?

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