A CURIOUS LATE-1970s TOUR OF AMSTERDAM’S FRINGES, FROM DRUGS TO WILLIAM BURROUGHS, WITH A FEW BLOW JOBS THROWN IN FOR LAUGHS
Amsterdam is loose change.
You can’t add it up.
None of the pieces ever quite fit together.
REAL SEX LIVE ON STAGE ONE HOUR PROGRAM LIVE SHOW ONLY 15 GUILDERS REAL FUCKING The guy propped on a high stool across the canal from my front window is new on the job. In that business they’re always new on the job, barking doorman for a tinsel-fronted sex theater. When they grow silent you know they’re getting ready to quit. Either that or go on stage and finally get their peckers wet. Only this place has no stage to go on. It’s a front, like half a dozen similar joints in the neighborhood. Except for the competition, who have maybe two genuine fucky-fucky houses. Pretty outrageous, really: buy your tickets anywhere but always end up seeing the same show, give or take an occasional change of dildo.
I’ve been in Amsterdam more than a year and haven’t seen a live show yet. I’m waiting for something different to come along. So are the tourists. Business in the red-light district is lousy these days.
Next door to the phony sex theater is an unusually wide building, date of construction 1613-1633, Rembrandt’s time, when the city was first spreading its watery wings, digging new canals, erecting new houses (for the rich burghers growing fat on trade and visions of future empire), moving outward, out from the center, from here, the oldest part of town, where I live and where doormen bark and most of the girls sitting half-naked in picture windows waiting for custom spend most of their time doing just that, sitting and waiting, and where on every corner and the top and bottom of every cobblestoned alley, tucked in doorways or nestled under flying buttresses, mostly cute, friendly junkie girls do their streetside hooking.
I like whores. They remind me that so much of what we’re all doing most of the time (even those of us who think we’re not on the game) is nothing other than basic prostitution. Only with whores there’s no mistaking it. Selling pussy is so totally up front.
Around the corner is Chinatown. Unreadable signs, chop suey joints with encyclopedias for menus, a few curio shops and the usual insular slant-eyed people, aloof from the Western world. As Chinatowns go it’s pretty small. But Amsterdam is small. Busy, crowded, but still small. So understandable that the microscope was invented here.
Once upon a time, so I’m told, it was easy to score opium in Chinatown. There were dens and though never wide-open they could be penetrated, with connections. Now I’m not sure even the Chinese smoke. Here’s what happened:
Five or six years ago the CIA moved out all the old Chinese opium heads and moved in a syndicate of Hong Kong heroin traffickers. Then junk was still the single most important world drug. And as with any main drug, from coffee to coke, the Man always wants to control it. (The Man: combination of the Mob and Government, i.e. international business interests.)
But something went wrong, the CIA hadn’t done its homework properly. Whoever set up the Amsterdam operation failed to take account of the Secret Societies, the Triads. (Even Lee Kwan Yew, the dictator-prime minister of Singapore, can’t bring them under control, so how the fuck should some foreign-devil gwai los do it?) By the summer of ‘77 all hell was breaking loose. The various Tongs fought so desperately among themselves that in no time flat the high-level business side of Amsterdam’s smack trade was a shambles.
As to which of the Man’s many fingers moved in to fill the vacuum is anyone’s guess. Some say Mossad, the Israeli secret service; others reckon—but who cares? This particular Man, by any name, smells equally bad.
These days opium is a rare find in Mokum. When it does come along it’s pricey. Anywheres from 20 to 35 guilders a gram, say up to 17 Yankee dollars. If it’s any good and you don’t overdo it, a fifth or so of that should slip you into a proper mental cocoon, an opiated balloon separated from the rest of world. If you eat it, or—when you want a faster zing into the bloodstream and to avoid possible tummy aches—shove it up your ass. Smoking requires more but has other charms.
Occasionally I shove, but quite often I eat it, one gulp followed by a slug or two of hot coffee. Comes on slow, but very strong. My lady nibbles away at it and sips tea. I’ve friends who let it dilute in various pleasant liquids, mixed with honey, a sweet rush to the circulatory system. Dreams. Nightmares. Spiritual hallucinations. For smoking, Chinese pipes are reckoned better than Indian ones. Coleridge and other English poets of his era were heavily into laudanum, which is really great if you’ve got the runs. Opium constipates. But so what? It’s lovely. It gave Faust back his soul.
William Burroughs was in town recently and right after dinner, with coffee, took precisely half of the gram ball I’d just laid on him. Everyone else was giving him books, their books, including one in Dutch: Jules Deelder’s translation of The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. William asked Jules to sign it for him. Had I not forgotten my hardbound edition of The Naked Lunch, I too would have picked up an autograph. Writers are such sentimental bastards.
Three hours later, at the Melkweg (Milky Way, the freak multimedia center), William gave his usual knockout performance. Smallish upstairs room packed solid with faces, everyone—even the Dutch—hanging on every word, absorbed and intrigued by this gravel-voiced writer in suit & tie and straight back & sides who at 65 and after years of drug addiction can be damn sure that he’s not only opened up new literary vistas but torn American literature a brand new asshole in the process. The country’s been shitting better ever since.
William read twice, in between times suffering with almost joyous patience the constant attention of a small band of local Hell’s Angels, rock star Herman Brood’s impromptu backup group, beer bottles in hand and stomping their feet in lieu of making real music, spaced-out Herman at the mike holding a flagon of French wine. Just the right touch.
“Where’s Jack [Kerouac]?” Big Jack the Angel kept wanting to know. “Where’s Jack then?”
“You know where he is,” answers William benignly.
“Where is he then, eh?”
“He’s wherever you read him.”
“I’m Jack,” sez Big Angel Jack. “Jack’s here, I’m him.”
“Oh, yes, I know what you mean,” William says, “it’s all in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
“Damn right I am,” sez Jack.
William reads a new piece on Harrisburg, some other things, all devastating critiques of the relentless drift toward totalitarian control, even annihilation; all of them shot through with Burroughs’ own brand of grisly black humor.
Even annihilation? Most days I find it the preferable alternative, what in New York we’d call a Clean Sweep. Besides, I reckon it’s time—though miracles are quite naturally welcome.
OPIUM ITSELF is something of an annihilator, one way by which those far-out visions come along. Sweep away the mundane burdens of daily existence that crowd out every other mental possibility, dissolve them at the end of a long pipe ceremoniously prepared and leave yourself wide open to the extraordinary. But that’s just it, isn’t it? The big rub: when everything else is gone, the self is still there, isolated in the universe. Even the best of opiates is only a pain killer.
One thing I’ve discovered about opium—again, if it’s done only seldom—is it can be great for sex. Usually a quick comer, it takes me forever to shoot my load on O, a long erotic ride bubbling over with genital inebriations of the most exquisite kind. When the moment of truth arrives it’s no longer a moment but something much more infinite-seeming, a pearled string of expanding cloud bursts wherein I’ve even caught glimpses of the orgasm on its own as distinct from the ejaculation. Feminine almost, ultimately androgynous, without differentiation.
This is the same journey left-handed Tantra is said to take you on, as do certain Taoist sex techniques. As one teacher describes it, you eventually fuck without fucking, full male hard-on penetrating to the hilt but with hardly a movement between you, and instead of finally blowing out your brains all over the mountain peaks, adrenaline-capped cells exploding among eagles, you experience a continual flow of “valley orgasms.” In other words, you come without coming.
But too much opium finishes sex completely, while even a small dose taken on occasion can be enough to turn off the fuck machine. I remember once lying in bed for hours, beautifully stoned, wishing someone would come in and gently make love to me, touch me only; for opium vastly accentuates one’s tactile sensitivities. The girl lying naked next to me felt the same, yet neither of us had energy enough to move. No one came in. It was weird.
My first real acquaintance with opium was made in Ceylon, in the friendly shanty dens alongside the railway tracks in Colombo. I loved the atmosphere, the ritual, even the slightly acrid taste racing along my tongue after each hit of the pipe. What I didn’t like was the effect, for at the time I was living very meditatively, mostly on a small island hermitage with only a few Buddhist monks. I was already so mellow that opium couldn’t take me anywhere I needed to go. Though often introspective, my overall mood was expansive (perfect for grass and hash, even better for acid) and opium is nothing if not an isolator, enveloping one’s being in a kind of psychic bubble that stubbornly resists all efforts to penetrate it, especially by people. Which is why opium dens are always such quiet places.
Only in Amsterdam have I begun to appreciate some of opium’s finer points. The town is magic but even that can get to you sometimes. And the rare is always alluring.
In reciprocation for the opium, William turned me on to some little pink codeine pills available in Paris without a prescription. I felt it as a warm gesture.
“How many should I take?” I asked.
“Hell, you’re an old veteran,” says William S. Burroughs, looking up almost impishly at my gaunt face and thick shock of ever-whitening hair; “take 12, take as many as you like. They won’t hurt you.”
“William always a gentleman sd Jay Hazelwood who ran the Parade Bar in Tangier, the very bar which serviced mugwumps sucking sperm thru alabaster straws,” writes Ira Cohen from Kathmandu after I mention the encounter to him. “A gentleman…,” I’d say that’s right. And a brilliant visionary writer, many of whose more cynical social views coincide splendidly with my own. Excepting those on women.
To me a woman, if she’s personally attractive and depending on how deeply I’ve communicated with her soul, if at all, is a creative mixture of fellow creature and purest sex object. Which is not where William is coming from, for sure. To him women are entirely superfluous, even to the extent of being a “perfect curse.”
A slow walk from dinner at a homely French restaurant on the oude zijds (old town) to the reading venue near Leidseplein, poets Harry Hoogstraten and Steef Davidson strolling slightly ahead, bicycles in tow, William and I lagging behind, discussing; then later, in the Milky Way office and after Angel Jack and the boys have stopped looking for the other Jack and roared off into the cool night, back to the Angels Place that Herman Brood hauled them away from to bolster his confidence, upstairs with joints and wine but unfortunately no coke, we continue discussing; this topic and that, New York (“Very violent, but as long as you carry some protection you’ll be all right”), America since Watergate (“Great place, you can smoke dope anywhere”), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoché and the great rape scandal at Naropa (“Trungpa’s OK, he definitely has powers”)…but not women and not his misogynist views on them nor the extent to which those views are real and even correct and the greater or lesser extent to which they are conjured up by homosexual oblivion. The subject crosses my mind but I have the feeling William will not be much interested. And this is not an interview but a casual meeting.
We don’t talk about boys either, as I’m quite certain our tastes are vastly different. I like queens, especially the Asian variety.
“If you like them that swish…,” a noted playwright once told me in Bangkok, after we’d come back up from Singapore where I’d blown his mind with the drag queens of Bugis Street, “if you like them that swish, baby, you like girls.”
“I do,” said I, “I surely do.”
OUT OF CURIOSITY, I suppose, since I somehow doubt he was intending to score, William asks me the price of smack here. I can’t tell him. I feel about smack the way he feels about women. Most likely he can’t tell me the price of a whore in Manhattan. Here the starting rate for a short time is 50 guilders, about 25 bucks. And condoms are mandatory, even for blow jobs.
Or so I hear, as I’ve yet to try one. The constant parade of hungry men prowling the streets of my neighborhood has gone a ways toward reshaping even my gut-level feelings for the sex trade. Every day it’s looking sicker and sicker. Though some of the girls are really out of sight, the stuff that jeweled fantasies are made of. Too bad they have to put up with so many gawking Turks, vulgar Germans, loud-mouthed Americans, childish Britons, and the rest of that crude lot. Anyone who can do that, whether it’s for the next fix or for food, is a saint in my book. More so if she manages to remain human, and many of them do.
As for the other side of the equation, what the sex market does to the male ego, I like Mel Clay’s assessment the best: “It’s not going into a whore house that wrecks a man, but never coming out!” I’ve been in numerous whore houses and other red-light haunts, from the back streets of Hong Kong’s Suzie Wong land in Wanchai to that idiotic auto-go-round under the big bridge in Würzburg, Germany, near the cathedral, and I’m still here, still growing, still constantly horny. The Tantra of the left possesses many strange devices. Some of them are considered downright immoral, but not by me.
When I first came to Amsterdam I crashed for a few days with an English girl who was screwing four times a night in a sex theater. It was nice work, she said, because it gave her a chance to act, play a few roles. That and the bread, nothing super by Amsterdam standards but enough to live on. Unless you have a habit. I don’t know if she had one then but she does now. Her favorite hooking spot is just out of view of my front window. I think she’s onto a bum deal but I wish her well. I’ve never been hooked on any drug myself (except for coffee and tobacco), but I do know what it’s like to be strung out. Before coming here I was living in London and collecting dole money. Ugh! [Even whilst writing this, however, the author was embarking on what became an 11-year long love affair with cocaine.]
“Terribly depressing,” is what William had to say about London. “Last place in the world I’d want to live now.”
Bill Levy’s description is even more succinct. He calls London a “cold steam bath.” Poor London, she’s so totally strung out, on everything. The Man has really let her down badly.
Does opium have a Man? Has it ever had? Yes, of course, the British—during those heady, evil days when the Empire sowed so much bad karma ramming the dream-inducing poppy down the decadent throat of late Manchu China.
Today, as far as the Man is concerned, opium is an anachronism. It’s too slow, too tender, belonging to a time that knew nothing of jet planes, telephones, fast-food chains and, of course, the hypodermic needle. Modern escapees need something faster, something with a kick to it. How apropos to the 20th century is the drug that, unlike opium, doesn’t simply open the door by which common reality can be left behind but instead boots you straight through it, usually onto the scrap heap. Verily, friends, this is the Age of Junk.
I’ve done heroin, of course. What self-respecting head doesn’t eventually, if only to find out? The first time, in London, both my mind and body rejected it more utterly than ever they’d scorned opium. I was certain I’d never try it again. But I did, here in Amsterdam, yet only the purest and when offered by close friends. As with most drugs, given the right set and setting, it’s not half bad. Particularly if you’ve just done some good coke.
Still, I’ve not fixed and most likely never will. Needles hold no attraction for me. Successive doses of the clap, among other things, have made sure of that. In the Orient, condoms are not mandatory. Nor were they ever in France, for that matter. Leave it to the Germans and Dutch to insist on taking a shower with a raincoat on—in the name of hygiene. I mean, sucking rubber! [And then AIDS came along, by which time the author—who soon dove headlong into a series of relationships, both simple and complex, with Amsterdam’s ladies of the night—had ceased frequenting prostitutes. Btw, condoms weren’t always obligatory, at least not for him.]
THE WEEK BEFORE BURROUGHS, Allen Ginsberg was here, along with Peter Orlovsky and a young guitarist-songwriter named Steven Taylor. Funny, but as soon as I met Steven I felt he was a kind of artistic doppelgänger to David Wentworth, Harold Norse’s young protégé and companion. Not that Steven and David look alike; but something in the dedicated attitude of the two aspiring artists, each toward his own older American poet who he was following around Europe, was so similar that it practically made them look the same.
“Do you know David Wentworth?” I asked Steven. But of course he didn’t.
Allen, who likewise performed at Melkweg, was magnificent, and this despite incipient laryngitis, brought on by a lethal combination of North Sea damp and a too-heavy reading schedule. He read “Plutonian Ode,” first telling us that we’d already absorbed more than enough deadly radioactivity to ensure the eventual demise of the human race as a species. And apparently the prospects for any positive mutation, say to a higher order of Earth being, are not very bright. As I’ve said, it’s time.
Allen also chanted, recited haiku—including spontaneously composed ones—and chided the Milky Way for preserving, along with many of the finer traditions of the 1960s, much of what he called “the silliness of that age.” He was very childlike, Allen was: barefoot, playing his junior-size harmonium, sometimes affecting a sweet and melodious falsetto as he mixed Whitmanesque and Blakeian images to produce a poetic quality that is uniquely Ginsberg.
To my knowledge Allen didn’t do any opium while in town, but he did show Simon Vinkenoog how to meditate.
After the reading, which drew a surprising number of hecklers (“I’ll come down there and spank you if you don’t shut up,” Peter shouted from the stage at one point), a bunch of us removed to Bojos, the late-night Indonesian eatery where the nasi gorengs and gado-gados are as spicy hot as delicious, never mind that they don’t serve alcohol.
“I am very glad,” wrote Ira Cohen shortly thereafter, “that you are maintaining the indispensable Eddie Woods image with politic ease over Nazi Gorengs with Allen at Bojos…”
At some point the conversation turned to acid, and as the Ginsberg troupe had just been to London I thought to mention the David Solomon affair (i.e., the Operation Julie LSD trial).
“I tried talking about it,” Allen said, “but nobody seemed much interested.”
“Who’s nobody?” I asked.
“Miles, people like that.” [Barry Miles, Ginsberg’s eventual biographer.]
“What’d they say?”
“Nothing. They weren’t interested. Everyone thought it was too bad, all that jail time and everything, but that was it.”
There’s a word for it, of course. Apathy. Some people don’t need opium. It might even wake them up.
We pondered, briefly, what might be done; mused on why the case never got much media play outside the UK, no big stories in High Times, Playboy (who David, editor of The Marijuana Papers, used to work for), wherever. Simon reckoned, quite rightly as it turned out, that appeals would be futile. I said all the prisoners, who are essentially political prisoners, should be sprung. But no one picked up on that. Now I’ve another idea. Instead of breaking them out—David, Richard Kemp (the chemist), Christine Bott (Kemp’s girlfriend), etc.—someone should be kidnapped and held for liberty ransom, some big-shot nuclear scientist maybe. But who among us, I wonder, has the know-how?
Even in Amsterdam, freak mecca of Europe, people don’t know much about the Operation Julie business.
“Big acid bust? Where? In England? Oh.”
Simon knew. But then he knows something about everything. He wrote a line about it in one of his poems: “I’m thinking of David (Solomon).”
Probably the most dramatic artistic statement came from the Amsterdam Palette Union, whose big LSD porn painting was one of several oil canvases busted last summer when they were exhibited over the Melkweg entrance bridge, just across the road from a spanking new cop shop. Merely for covering the Palette Union story, the editor of Ins & Outs, Amsterdam’s international literary magazine, was given an insider’s view of what Dutch detention cells are like. Solitary confinement, bordering on sensory deprivation.
Finally, after more than a year of trying, top contemporary artist Aat Veldhoen and his mad-hatter gang of political pornographers managed to secure the release from custody of all their misappropriated paintings. They are again hanging within clear view of the same police station.
But what a weird situation! Comfortably subsidized Dutch artists display their work at a heavily subsidized hippie playground and get busted by a more than merely subsidized police force. Where but Amsterdam do taxpayers tolerate such expensive living theater? It’s been going on for years, too. Heck, even the Hell’s Angels are handsomely subsidized here.
AFTER AMSTERDAM both William and Allen made their way to a beach near Rome, where a reported 40,000 people gathered for a three-day poetry festival. Gregory Corso was there, along with Anne Waldman, the Russian poet Yevtushenko, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and lots of other better and lesser knowns. Brion Gysin, the man who first adapted and developed the Dadaist cut-up technique that William Burroughs later used with such notable success, was also on hand.
“Roman gig on Ostia beach collapsed the stage…you heard?” he asks in a recent letter.
I hadn’t. What I did hear was that there was a fair bit of violence, mostly from the same breed of reactionary punks who comprise much of Herman Brood’s following. Word has it that at one point a nasty gang of these creeps isolated Peter Orlovsky and others and started moving in on them. Allen, who was some distance away, made a beeline through the crowd, linked hands with Peter and began chanting: “AAAUUUMMM, AAAUUUMMM, AAAUUUMMM,…” Within moments the area was pacified. Of course.
Other reports tell of Ted Berrigan and Diane di Prima getting booed off the stage. And I imagine the Red Brigade were there, as they were at an earlier reading in Genoa, seizing the mikes, making political statements, disappearing. I shouldn’t think anyone minded that. As poets, we must know who the real terrorists are.
ACROSS THE CANAL the nifty South American chick who rents the window nearest the street lamp has just stepped out for a breath of air. She has three white poodles and by the way they jump up and down, a yard or more off the ground with their hind haunches obscenely spread-eagled, you’d think they were the whores and not her. Maybe they are.
Down the road, a little ways past the ice-cream parlor where it’s as easy to score smack as the latest shade of tutti-frutti, the Christians are singing. Sometimes it’s the Jesus Freaks, one variety or the other. Though I hear that Mo David’s Children of God have split Amsterdam. Their boat is gone from the Kloveniersburgwal and they’re no longer at the Dam on Sundays, haranguing.
This bunch sound like the Sally Army. Their singing is precise, like their uniforms. Occasionally they preach and that’s bothersome, especially when I’m trying to write. Conflict of sounds even if I don’t understand the words. They hold forth in Dutch, so it must be aimed at the local males. I can’t see them laying into the girls, though I’m sure they’d love to. This is their milieu, all right, and I suppose it adds color. After all, they’re junkies, too. Hooked on goodness.
The Hare Krishnas seem to prefer the nieuwe zijds, though I’m not sure why. More likely to sell their reading matter, perhaps. Any afternoon, around two o’clock, you can see them jangling their way past the Real Free Press on Dirk van Hasseltssteeg. Martin and Olaf can almost set their clock by it. So can the only whore on the street, a rather matronly lady who sits the whole day in her window, reading. I’ve not noticed her getting much business but she must be doing well. She often washes her car and it looks new.
The old Press shop, on Oude Nieuwstraat (Old New Street), was more to my liking, as is the street itself. Shorter, narrower, much more funky, with at least half a dozen windows on either side. At night the whole lane is bathed in a soft red glow, something out of a French novel or maybe one of Baudelaire’s poems. I don’t know how much the Dutch have written about their whores but they should, and with feeling. Prostitution is one of Amsterdam’s blessings.
The guy on the stool is barking again. This time he’s advertising REAL ERECTIONS and FULL PENETRATION. But the price has dropped to five guilders, since the show is more than half over. For me it is also half over and to help pass the rest of today’s journey through life I am going to eat some opium, the last of that same stash of Turkish from which William’s piece came. Maybe someday I will even start smoking it again, though preferably in the East, in Penang or possibly Macao. I’d like to think Vientiane, that pleasant sleepy hollow across the Mekong River from Thailand where I used to buy grass at the morning market but is now closed to Western travelers. Though they still smoke there, I know. And Saigon, too, is now gone. Gone straight, you might could say. Which means they are no longer cities, not my kind anyway. They’ve lost their decadence and without decadence cities can have no soul.
Wherever I smoke I will do it correctly, for the way in which you smoke opium is nearly as important as the quality of the drug. I will follow the rituals, as I do when consulting the I Ching or when I invite one of the psychedelic gods to visit my spirit. But I will not overdo it. Claude Farrère puts the experience I envision very neatly, in one of the stories from his book Black Opium. He writes:
And now, the lamp is lighted, the mats are on the floor, and the green tea is steaming in the cups without handles. And here is my fifth pipe, all ready for me. It is not old, and it is not precious. I purchased it of the coffin-maker for six taels. It is plain brown bamboo, finished off with a red-earth bowl. The bamboo knob is sufficient to give grip to the fingers.
It has no gold nor jade nor ivory. No prince, no queen has smoked it. It does not evoke, in magic fashion, poetically distant provinces nor centuries of past glory.
But all the same, it is the one which I prefer above all the others. For it is this one that I smoke, not the others; they are too sacred. It is this one which, each evening, pours an intoxicating draft for me, opening for me the dazzling door to clear-headed pleasures, bearing me triumphantly away, out of life and to those subtle spheres which opium-smokers know: those philosophic and beneficent spheres where dwell Hwang-Ti, the Sun Emperor; Kwong-Tau, the Perfectly Wise; and the God without a Name who was the first of smokers.
© 1979, 2010 by Eddie Woods
Published in International Times (IT), London, September 1979