Sept. 20, 2017
Six months before he would commit suicide, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain escaped to Lawrence.
It was October 1993. Cobain, then 26, was determined to meet one of his childhood heroes during the band’s “In Utero” tour — another tortured soul by the name of William S. Burroughs.
Cobain was about to meet someone who understood him. Burroughs, best known for his 1959 novel “Naked Lunch,”was a Beat Generation poet and writer who wrote about drug culture in vivid, often obscene detail.
At a point in both of their careers, Cobain and Burroughs were pinned as kings of subculture, of the forgotten, the misunderstood.
But Burroughs, in many ways, was unlike Cobain. Burroughs was born into an affluent family, often getting stipends during his world travels. Cobain grew up poor, with an auto mechanic dad and secretary mother until their divorce when Cobain was 8 — at which point, Cobain jumped around from house to house until he was kicked out by his mother at 16.
Like Cobain 11 years later, Burroughs also needed an escape at a point in his fame. It would also be Lawrence, the day after Christmas in 1981.
Both men felt the heat of their fame. Cobain publicly used a Dream Machine for ‘deep states of relaxation’ during the tour.
On the date Nirvana was set to perform at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, Oct. 21, Cobain grabbed his tour manager, Alex Macleod, and a copy of “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly,” a biography about one of the most famous black musicians of the early 20th century.
He climbed into the limo and headed far away from the limelight.
“Neither of us were aware how gloomy and morbid Kurt’s spiritual condition was at the time of the visit,” said James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime companion and literary executor.
Grauerholz, 64, still lives in Lawrence and was one of the six people at the Burroughs’ house during the visit. Only two of the members of the visit are alive now: the Coffeyville native and a man Grauerholz remembers as a local “skateboarder kid,” who he no longer keeps in touch with.
By the time of the visit, Cobain had looked on as the genre of grunge rock — his prodigal son — had become pop music. He’d never wanted to be a part of the corporate machine, but “Nevermind” took on a life of its own. The 1991 album soared up the charts. By January of 1992, it had taken the mantle from Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous,” becoming the top-selling album in the nation.
Cobain, a troubled young adult-turned-face of the 1990s underground in the blink of an eye, had become a hero to millions, a role he never wanted — with his signature ragged T-shirt and flannel serving as his coattails.
Times had changed since Nirvana first performed at the Kansas Union Ballroom in 1991. Six months after his final visit to Lawrence, Cobain committed suicide. But not before leaving imprints of his descent in a small bungalow at 1927 Learnard Avenue.
Burroughs, who died in August 1997, looked back at Cobain’s rendezvous during an interview with author Christopher Sanford for the Cobain biography, “Kurt Cobain.”
While he couldn’t tell Cobain was hurting at the time, Burroughs recollected a ghastly image of Cobain.
“As far as I was concerned, he was dead already,” Burroughs said.
Cobain was dropped off by Macleod in a limo some time in the afternoon. Macleod left for Love Garden Sounds — he had asked for the best record store in town — while Cobain was greeted by Grauerholz.
Grauerholz introduced him to the young skateboarder, Steven Lowe, who was Burroughs’ assistant at the time, Burroughs’ art curator and manager Jose Ferez, and, most importantly, Burroughs, who wore a black fiddler cap and green army jacket.
Cobain gave Burroughs the “Leadbelly” biography, signed with a note made special for Burroughs, and the group headed a block away to what was called the Art House, at the corner of 19th and Learnard.
Cobain and Burroughs had finally met face to face, but this wasn’t the first time Burroughs and Cobain crossed paths.
Cobain had been reading Burroughs’ work since high school. Adolescent Cobain was described as a “sensitive sort, small for his age and uninterested in sports” in a Rolling Stone cover piece on Cobain in 1992. He spent time either reading books by authors like Burroughs or trying to get in with Seattle-area bands, such as the Melvins.
Years later, while on Nirvana’s first international tour, Cobain was said to have found a copy of “Naked Lunch” in a London bookstall, as told in the 2002 biography “Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.” This may have led him to reconnect with Burroughs’ work.
Some time in 1992, Grauerholz got a tip from record producer Thor Lindsay at Tim/Kerr Records that Cobain was a big fan and wanted to collaborate with Burroughs. The parties ended up choosing one of Burroughs’ audio recordings of 1973’s “Exterminator!” in which a junkie tries to sell heroin around Christmas time. The chapter is titled “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him.”
Cobain sent in music in the spring of 1993 that was inspired by the story. The record was cut and mixed at Red House Recording on the 900 block of Massachusetts Street.
In that same year, around the release of “In Utero” in September, Cobain asked his management to contact Burroughs to be in the music video for “Heart-Shaped Box.” In the video, Burroughs would play a man hanging on a cross above a poppy field.
Burroughs, having previously turned down a “Twin Peaks” episode, according to Grauerholz, also rejected the video appearance. His reasoning: “That’s one of the things I don’t do,” recalled Grauerholz of Burroughs, “I can act, but I can’t die on screen.”
Cobain penned a letter to Burroughs in August 1993 in an effort to court him. In the letter, Cobain made it clear that Burroughs’ appearance in the music video was not for it to have some deep meaning and that Cobain was merely a student of his work.
“I realize that stories in the press regarding my drug use may make you think that this request comes from a desire to parallel our lives. Let me assure you that this is not that case,” the letter reads.
Cobain went on without Burroughs, but that didn’t stop Cobain from trying to meet him in person.
Burroughs, at the time of Cobain’s visit, spent time painting at what they called the Art House, owned by Lowe. It housed an ink-on-paper painting of Burroughs, a part of Burroughs’ “Shot Sheriffs” series, for the fact that it could be used for target practice at a shooting range, Grauerholz said. It would go to Cobain as a gift.
Aside from his paintings, Burroughs would continue to write several stories after his move to Lawrence from New York, including the spoken word album “Dead City Radio”in 1990. Lawrence became a permanent escape for Burroughs. Burroughs bought the house at Learnard about six months after his move in 1981.
Burroughs, for one of the few times in his tumultuous life, was grounded.
“His fame had become very distorting,” Grauerholz said.
Burroughs was, by many accounts, on-again-off-again a hard drug user — principally heroin. Burroughs, according to Grauerholz, had also called 6 p.m. his cocktail hour since their first meeting in 1974. He soon noticed, however, that Burroughs wouldn’t go a day without acknowledging the cocktail hour, which later became 3:30 p.m.
Famously, Burroughs accidentally killed his wife in Mexico City during a drunk game of “William Tell.” He aimed for the glass above her head, but instead, fatally shot her.
By 1978, Burroughs was starting to get hooked again. Friends would buy him heroin and other drugs. His fame at the time was also immense; at the Nova Convention that November, Frank Zappa read a portion of “Naked Lunch” to a crowded room at the Ukrainian Ballroom in New York. Zappa wasn’t even Burroughs’ first choice; Keith Richards had canceled.
Grauerholz moved back to Lawrence in 1979, having had enough of the debauchery of the New York night scene. Grauerholz briefly attended KU before moving to New York.
Grauerholz soon convinced Burroughs to go with him. When Burroughs arrived in the winter of 1981, Grauerholz rented Burroughs a farmhouse south of Lawrence. It was a way for Burroughs to refocus on himself, without the vice grip of critics and the pull of living a lavish lifestyle.
“How can you decide who you are when everything has to be a topper or it has to fit preconceptions?” Grauerholz said.
The same question — but now posed to Cobain — is why Ed Rose, who was a studio engineer at Red House Recording at the time of “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” was not surprised that two leaders of counterculture had collaborated.
“Junkies love other junkies,” said Rose, who also attended the Nirvana performance at the Kansas Union ballroom.
Mark Luce agrees. Luce is a lecturer in the University department of English and chair of the English Department at the Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri. Luce, during a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s, would dine often weekly with Burroughs, along with other writers.
“That Kurt Cobain, poet of the disaffected, whatever generation, and a fellow drug pioneer would be attracted to the ‘Gentleman Junkie’ seems to make perfect sense,” Luce said.
Cobain, Burroughs and the rest of the group returned to Burroughs’ home not long after the visit to the Art House. For a bit, the group lounged at the living room coffee table, chatting it up about the books in Burroughs’ collection.
Burroughs then led a tour of his backyard, which included a manmade pond and an “orgone box:” The box was like a pod, almost like an outhouse, which someone could enter and be “healed,” even sexually stimulated by just sitting in it. These boxes were barred for sale by the Food and Drug Administration in 1954, but Burroughs, Grauerholz said, got the plans on how to build them early on in 1939.
“William said, ‘This is an orgone box, you get in there and you’ll get a boner just like that. Kurt said, ‘Oh, I’ll try it.’”
The orgone box was said to have special healing powers. Cobain jumped in. The picture that resulted shows Cobain in his rarest form: smiling.
The meeting between Burroughs and Cobain in total lasted around 90 minutes. Grauerholz and Burroughs kept in brief contact with Cobain after that meeting. In February, for Cobain’s 27th birthday, Burroughs sent him a collaged photo of Cobain in the orgone box on a purple and white backdrop.
Behind the collage, Burroughs left a note.
It reads, signed Feb. 20, 1994: “For Kurt, all best on 27 birthday and many many more.”
— Edited by Wesley Dotson