Photo by Brion Gysin of William Burroughs standing in front of a dangerous construction zone in Paris, October 1959.

“Burn, burn, burn”

The entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy opens:

“Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–1990) was one of the most influential Marxist philosophers of the 20th Century.”

The entry goes on to talk about the French philosopher’s impact on Marxist philosophy and his career, and then, dropped into a paragraph, almost like it is not particularly notable, there’s this:

“In November 1980, after a painful surgery and another bout of mental illness, which saw him hospitalized for most of the summer and whose symptoms continued after his return to the ENS in the fall, Althusser strangled his wife. Before he could be arrested for the murder, he was sent to a mental hospital.”

The strangulation almost seems an afterthought.

One can imagine the sentence going “after his return to the ENS”—the famed  École Normale Supérieure—“Althusser took up watercolors.”

No, he strangled his wife.

The Stanford entry goes on to point out that after the murder Althusser lived both in his apartment in Paris and several mental hospitals. It points out, almost with a sigh, “Given his mental state, his frequent institutionalizations, his anomie, and the drugs he was prescribed, these were not very productive years.”

Not for Hélène Rytmann-Légotien, either.

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William Burroughs, one of whose literary creations was appropriated for the name of the band Steely Dan, once lived in an apartment with Jack Kerouac during the 1940s. With Burroughs was a poet, Joan Vollmer, who was to become his common-law wife. Kerouac was with the woman who was to become his first wife, Edie Parker.

Kerouac wrote in On the Road: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

An existence of manic energy.

Burroughs and Vollmer, both of whom had drug problems, moved to New Orleans, then, with looming potential incarceration at the notoriously harsh Louisiana State Penitentiary (a.k.a., “Angola”), fled to Mexico City.

In September 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were at a party in a bar. Presumably both were inebriated. The story goes that Burroughs pulled a pistol out of a travel bag and said to Vollmer, “It’s time for our William Tell act.” Vollmer put a highball glass on her head. Burroughs shot at it. He missed. She died a few hours later.

Burroughs spent 13 days in jail, then, while on bail, fled the country and returned to the U.S. He was convicted, in absentia, in a Mexican court of homicide. He never returned to Mexico.

Vollmer never returned from it.

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“Jim Gordon, rock drummer convicted in mother’s killing, dies at 77”

That was the headline in The Washington Post. An earlier version of the headline pointed out that Gordon co-wrote “Layla.”

In the late 1960s Gordon and Rita Coolidge were partners, personal and professional, and, Coolidge wrote in her 2016 memoir, Delta Lady, that the two had written words (her) and music (him) for a demo they recorded, “Time (Don’t Let the World Get in Our Way).” There is a piano progression that is part of that song. Coolidge wrote the melody. Coolidge wrote that they offered the song to Clapton, who didn’t take it. She later heard “Layla.” The words were different but part of the song was the same. Clapton and Gordon are credited. Coolidge isn’t.

The Coolidge/Gordon relationship ended in 1970. In a hotel, during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, Gordon reportedly punched her.

Osa Marie Gordon, who was 71 at the time, was hit in the head with a hammer, then finished with a butcher knife.

That happened in 1983.

By then Gordon, who had played with musicians including George Harrison, Steely Dan, Glen Campbell, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, Tom Petty, John Lennon, the Byrds, and Paul Anka, was pretty much out of the industry.

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A question that arises in all of these cases is whether a person’s work defines them or if that work is in some way affected by what that person has done.

Althusser is still taught. Burroughs didn’t publish Naked Lunch, certainly his most famous novel, until 1959.

And “Layla” gets more than reasonable rotation.

So should we think about Marxist analysis differently? Should we read about William Lee and Dr. Benway while keeping in the back of our minds that Joan Vollmer is buried in Mexico City? Should we hear a fulsome catalog of music and take into account that the back beat was provided by a man who took a hammer to his mother’s head?

Sartre wrote: “I say a murder is abstract. You pull the trigger and after that you do not understand anything that happens.”

But the victims? Is it abstract?

Does the psychotic act shadow the thoughts, the words, the melody?

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