"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Last testaments promise to deliver a final truth. Forget my trumped-up masterpieces with their pancake makeup and professional lighting, the ghostly author seems to whisper — if you want the goods, visit my deathbed.
Of course, they rarely do deliver. Writers are such costumed creatures, so adept at creating (or distorting) who they are, that even a work written with one foot in the grave often conceals as much as it reveals. And even when a late work does shed some light on a writer’s biographical “truth,” that truth is often irrelevant or, worse, boring. The simple fact is that most of the time, the creation is more interesting than the creator.
But we’re drawn to swan songs for another reason. Revelatory or not, first-rate or not, they are a record — good, bad or indifferent — of the universal human encounter with The End. And that is one scene we never tire of watching.
“Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs” holds out a special interest. For Burroughs was singularly enigmatic, and anything promising to shed light on him is hard to resist.
Burroughs is one of the weirdest writers ever to graduate from Harvard, become a junkie and shoot his wife in the head while playing William Tell in Mexico City. Michel Foucault, an odd duck himself, could have had Burroughs in mind when he closed “The Order of Things” with the famous line imagining a future when “man will be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Burroughs’ claim to literary greatness is inextricably tied to the shocking inhumanity of his fiction, its quality of notes found in outer space. That alien feeling is heightened by his famous “cut-up” technique, which shattered his authorial persona into thousands of linguistic fragments.
But the true source of Burroughs’ weirdness wasn’t his avant-garde style (which in any case he abandoned) — it was his mind. He is one of the most obsessive writers of the 20th century, returning again and again over a period of more than 40 years to the same scenes and fixations, composed of equal parts sexual wish fulfillment, rage at authority and pure, nihilistic glee. Feral homosexual boys battling an ominous, quasi-metaphysical “Control System”; hanged men ejaculating; extraterrestrial villains letting loose grotesque sexual viruses upon the planet; hideous centipedes chewing through screaming human flesh — these riffs pop up with such regularity that you can almost set your watch by them.
It’s natural, after stumbling with glassy eyes through this bizarre yet increasingly monotonous 50-hour movie (Burroughs never came close to equaling his awe-inspiring 1959 masterpiece, “Naked Lunch”), to wonder to what degree the author actually believed in his fictional world. Was he as out in the ozone as L. Ron Hubbard or Elijah Muhammad, whose sinister, vaguely Gnostic cosmologies resemble his, or was he a wild satirist who immersed himself profoundly in his science-fiction world but knew that it was all made up?
More the latter, surely, but enough of the former to move into that familiar area where genius is inseparable from ridiculousness. The question of what Burroughs “rationally” believed goes to the mysterious heart of his creativity. For Burroughs, rationality was the enemy, a tentacle of the Control System dragging its victims toward the sucking maw of the Terminally Normal. It seems likely that he could never have created the amazingly original world of “Naked Lunch” unless he believed, at some impossible-to-locate level in the galactic parking structure of his mind, that the world he was writing about was real. Psychosis? No. Controlled psychosis? Yes.
“Last Words,” which covers the months from Nov. 14, 1996, to Aug. 1, 1997 (the day before Burroughs died), sheds some light on the mystery of Burroughs, but the 83-year-old writer it sheds light on is a galaxy removed from the one whose shocking, amoral, trancelike imagination jammed a speedball shot into the jugular vein of American lit. The Burroughs of “Last Words” is an old and tired man who no longer has the energy for psychosis, controlled or uncontrolled, and knows it. The combination of this self-knowledge and his dogged insistence on practicing his craft right to the end as a member of what he calls the “Shakespeare Squadron” gives these journals a certain poignancy. Exhaustion, physical and spiritual, is the deepest note here — and yet Burroughs keeps writing right up to the day of his death. Even readers who find him distasteful (although the authorial presence here is far more sympathetic than in his earlier books) must find something admirable in that.
Old age mellowed Burroughs, but only to a point. His governing obsessions are still on display, but now they’ve shriveled into crankiness — in both senses of the word. (Unfortunately, his world-class humor, in the form of those hilariously sick cosmic jokes uttered in a deadpan tough-guy rhetoric he picked up from Dashiell Hammett, has faded.) He rages predictably against William Bennett, Newt Gingrich and President Clinton as peddlers of anti-drug messages, an animus that seems as tired and cornball as the messages themselves. He denounces the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, but his obvious belief that Hiroshima was part of a larger pattern of evil deeds and lies perpetrated by “them,” whoever they are, undercuts his outrage. “We have been abandoned here on this planet, ruled by lying bastards of modest brain power … Lying worthless bastards,” he screeches. These bombastic outbursts will strike all but the most sentimental apologists of “the literature of rebellion” as at best politically naive, at worst flat-out paranoid.
Indeed, Burroughs’ political ravings exemplify a strain of Looney Tunes leftism that can still be found squirming under various mossy post-hippie rocks. This paranoia isn’t surprising — Burroughs and his Beat brethren helped invent the “Whoa, dude, the Man is watching us through our TV sets” strain of analysis. (His fascination with alien-abduction theorist Whitley Streiber fits right in.)
And some of his rages are still less attractive. Just three weeks before he died, brooding over a report in the Weekly World News (if this publication was Burroughs’ lifeline to reality, many questions are answered) that Oklahoma City mass murderer Timothy McVeigh broke down like a coward in his jail cell, Burroughs rants, “If they have faked it … then they have perped a viler attack than his, to take from him any dignity and acceptance and eye-to-eye contact.”
Even taking Burroughs’ point that the worst villains still deserve to be treated uprightly, it’s obscene to assert that not doing so would be worse than killing 168 people. And his next sentence does not make matters better: “Now what Tim did was stupid, of course: sensibly he should have sought out the individuals responsible for Waco, and whacked them.” Burroughs, always an original, reveals himself to be not just the ur-Beat but the ur-Black Helicopter conspiracy theorist, the original crossover lefty-righty: a counterculture icon who is also a government-hating, gun-worshiping frontiersman on a first-name basis with Tim McVeigh.
“Last Words” isn’t just a catalog of rants. Part working notes, part sui generis fragments and part personal confession, it wanders from remorse-filled meditations on the people he let down to unsettling declarations (“I have no real feeling against murder”) to weird set pieces (a country boy’s demonic fiddling causing two FBI agents to crash their car and die) to denunciations of the soullessness of the contemporary world (the replacement of the romantic four-master ship logo on Old Spice after-shave by a “little boat with outsize sails” — a “meaningless smear”). Readers who think of Burroughs as existing apart from the literary tradition will find it fascinating that he spends much time mulling over, and quoting from memory, writers as disparate as Joseph Conrad (a particular favorite), Paul Verlaine, Mario Puzo, T.S. Eliot, Andrew Marvell and Petronius.
But though there are a few chuckles, and though an occasional outburst of energetic bile faintly recalls his high invective, nothing here comes close in quality even to such inferior later works as “Cities of the Red Night,” let alone “Naked Lunch.” Burroughs is painfully aware of this deficiency, as the following characteristically fragmented passage, which follows a short attempt at a sketch, makes sadly clear:
What I am writing here is lifeless and flat as old mud-spattered snow. They have sucked my talent away. Why should I longer stay? “It stinks and I am ready to depart.” George Sanders, I think. “I leave you to this sweet cesspool.” Suicide note of George Sanders, actor, Barcelona. Overdose of sleeping pills.
The most allusive and fascinating sections of “Last Words,” for me, are a few scattered passages that cryptically recall long-lost wild and mysterious days. “How I miss the old Agent days of total fear and alertness,” Burroughs writes; and “Can I bring it back, the magic and danger and fear of those days in 9 Rye Git-le-Coeur and London and Tangier …”
Enigmatically referring to a “war” during which “they” turned on a “withering heat,” he writes,
We had to retreat — so many times. And we came back maimed. Whole areas of thought and feeling burned out … Wonder what casualties the others suffered? Remember Mikey’s black lover, who was psychic, said, “It is terrible here. Spirits fighting.”
In another place:
I invoke: rows of naked red male forms moving forward in a definite pattern — a killing fan-out: Kill! Kill! Kill! Like we used to kill. The pure killing purpose. Now? Turned out to pasture like old horses, is it? Well, I got one good kick left.
In these enigmatic lines, the man’s life and his strange work come together in a mysterious and oddly harmonious way.
But if “Last Words” reveals Burroughs dreaming of the “war,” it also reveals a gentler, more intimate side. The end of the final entry, which gained a measure of fame when the New Yorker published portions of “Last Words” after Burroughs’ death, reads:
Thinking is not enough.
Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, no Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict.
Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love.
What I feel for my cats present and past.
Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
In his informative, heartfelt introduction to the book, editor James Grauerholz (who was Burroughs’ best friend and lived with him in the writer’s house in Lawrence, Kan.) writes that these words represent a kind of spiritual breakthrough for Burroughs, an epiphany: “In the last years of his life William Burroughs was allowed — by effort, suffering and grace — to finish his education.”
Grauerholz is obviously in a far better position than a reviewer to evaluate Burroughs’ spiritual education. But based on Burroughs’ own declarations in “Last Words,” it would seem that that education came sadly late. Burroughs himself confesses to a monumental case of arrested development. “One more thing to learn, and always too late,” he laments. A few weeks later, he writes, “So at 83, I finally catch up with myself. In terms of where I came from, I am just emerging from a stormy adolescence with a modicum of sense.”
That “modicum of sense” meant turning away from the anger and hatred that had consumed him and toward greater emotional openness. “I find myself knocking myself out to be charming, and how I love it — to see the subject glow in response,” he writes. “It’s a great feeling, that I have only experienced in the last few years. Putting out charm and watching it hit. This [is] completely different from the fear hit, putting out fear and watching it hit and twist in a cold sore.”
It is strange, and half-sweet, to think of Burroughs — the ultimate naysayer, who confesses to having “a weakness for evil old men”; the man who in the course of his savage career burned down his relationships with his father, his mother, his wife, Joan, and his neglected, alcoholic, doomed son, Billy — becoming a have-a-nice-day kind of guy. And his declaration that love is the “most natural painkiller what there is” is undeniably moving. But there is something irredeemably sad about “Last Words” as well, and the sadness outweighs Burroughs’ late attempt at emotional redemption. Even the deepest, most genuine emotion in the book, his love for his cats, arouses pity more than any other feeling: What was it that channeled this man’s emotions away from human beings?
Burroughs gives the answer:
The things I had to do to do the things I had to do. I sound like some tiresome old mean typhoon — I mean tycoon, of course, mulling over all the people that he trampled down, like the bloody horse’s ass he was. And I was obsessed, possessed by writing, after a late start at thirty-five with “Junky.” Forgot about the cat that caught food in its paw. Forgot about Mother and Dad, Joan and Billy. I had to keep moving, New York.
In another passage, he writes, “Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy — I failed them all.”
And in perhaps the most painful passage in the book, written just days before his death, the thought of his mother unleashes an anguished stream-of-consciousness cry:
Mother said about Joan: “She was just like a tigress.”Said no to any enforced confinement. She was right there, and other where’s and there’s. What can I say –
Why who where when can I say — Tears are worthless unless genuine, tears from the soul and the guts, tears that ache and wrench and hurt and tear. Tears for what was.
The terrible, barely coherent fragment “Why who where when can I say” recalls the despairing words of another old man at the end of his life: Lear’s lament that Cordelia will come no more — “Never, never, never, never, never!” And when in the very next line Burroughs mourns his beloved Fletch, the link between his love of his cats and his failure to love human beings is inescapable. “In despair he threw himself somewhere, and was saved by his love for cats,” he writes. This may be a salvation of sorts, an illumination, but it is an illumination that casts a pitiless light on a haunted, blasted past.
In the end, the paradox of Burroughs, and the contradiction that makes “Last Words” not just fragmentary in form but fragmentary in thought and feeling, are that this writer created his life’s work out of barrenness — out of a rage, hatred, nihilism and rebellion that at the end he began to realize were fatally limited. Burroughs truly was an inhuman writer; his muse descended from a planet wandering in the void, out beyond good and evil. This is why his gestures toward a positive morality are hopelessly confused — and why he vacillates between celebrating his old, nihilistic self and embracing his new, softer one. He was far too intelligent not to know that it wasn’t the gentler William S. Burroughs who was responsible for “Naked Lunch.” Readers of “Last Words” may find the human Burroughs more congenial — but if it hadn’t been for the alien Burroughs, they wouldn’t be reading him at all.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)