From The Comics Journal #293 (November 2008).
Author’s note: A few months after this interview took place, Wilson sustained disabling brain injuries requiring special care. Contributions maybe sent to Wilson’s Special Needs Trust, PO Box 14854, San Francisco, CA 94114 or you can make a contribution online here.
S. Clay Wilson has been termed “The Legendary Underground Cartoonist” so often it seems part of his name the way “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” was part of Sophie Tucker’s. He was born in 1941 in Lincoln, Neb. The state university schooled him in anthropology and art. The Unites States Army trained him as a medic. In 1968, following a brief stint in New York City and a longer, more formative one in Lawrence, Kan., he moved permanently to San Francisco.
Upon his arrival, Charles Plymell, a poet he knew from Lawrence, introduced Wilson to Robert Crumb. Crumb, who was in the process of publishing Zap #1, which is generally regarded as one of the pads from which all of underground comix launched, invited him to contribute to Zap #2. His comic sex-and-violence extravaganzas, featuring a repertoire company of demons, pirates, bikers and dykes, executed in a style that combined the details of a master etching with the energy of an abstract expressionist, have been in every issue since, as well as in a variety of publications ranging from those (Playboy, The Realist) substantial enough to have helped bedrock American popular culture, to others (Barbarian Women, Maggotzine) whose lifespans paled beside that of the mayfly. He has written and drawn several solo comix. He has illustrated work by Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and the Brothers Grimm. He has drawn album covers and book jackets and matchbooks for a Chicago bar. His work has been praised by Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Harvey Kurtzman and Terry Southern. It has been exhibited at museums and galleries in Los Angeles, New York City, Rotterdam, San Francisco and Zurich. In recent years, he has concentrated on commissioned drawings — rotting zombies playing baseball, dykes ravishing nuns, demons beheading ogres — which have sold for prices in five figures.
I met Wilson when I profiled him for the Journal in 1995. (Available from Fantagraphics, in Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates.) He had been impossible. He canceled appointments. He damned me to my editor as “a wannabe.” He demanded half my fee. He drunkenly harassed my secretary. (Having been married to a junkie tenor player, she rolled with the flow.) But when the article appeared, he loved it, and when I ran into him at conventions, we buddied around. When the Journal decided it was time for a “definitive” career-and life-spanning interview, he announced he “wanted to stick with one guy, like Boswell” and insisted I get the job. “I don’t want the usual ‘How’d you meet Crumb, blah, blah,’ he told me. “I’ve been asked the same questions so many times, I ought to interview myself. That way, I’d get the check.”
He had a point. And since Wilson, who claims to have inherited a “talking gene” from a grandmother who had won the Blue Ribbon at the Iowa State Fair Talkathon by besting two cranked-up truck drivers, has never given a dull interview in his life, and since, furthermore, he had landed me the gig, which was more than any agent ever had done, I solidified his cooperation by offering to split the fee. Then, to push his confidence in me further, I brought along a sixpack of Red Tail. Wilson, apparently hoping to push mine, already had Spaten in the fridge — and Mendocino burley for smoking.
Wilson lives in the same eight-room flat in the same row Victorian as when I had first visited him. The newspaper clipping about the octopus’s penis is still posted on his front door, but the coffin that served as his coffee table — and the crocodile skeleton that sat on it — are gone from his living room. His hats and swords and fetishistic figurines have been joined by a 36-inch Panasonic TV, an answering machine and e-mail, civilities attributable to Lorraine Chamberlain, with whom he has resided for the past seven years. (Chamberlain, an artist, who is the ex-wife of John Chamberlain, ex-roommate of Nico and ex-consort of Frank Zappa — it was she who was framed with him in the famous 1964 Cucamonga porn-tape/sexual-perversion bust — is an interview subject in her own right.) His hall is still lined with waist-high stacks of videotapes of old movies and piles of read books. (In Cold Blood, The Wild One and Satyricon provide a fair sample of the former and The Great Dali Art Fraud, a biography of the mid-20th-century bank robber Slick Willie Sutton, and a two-volume compilation of Russian gangsters’ anti-Nazi tattoos the latter.)
Wilson sat on a floral-patterned sofa, beneath a lavender abstract of a Kansas twister. He wore a herringbone Harris tweed jacket, an off-purple turtleneck, matching socks, black slacks and black faux alligator loafers. He has blue eyes, gray collar length hair and a gray goatee. When I asked his height and weight, he replied, “Forget that!” He did not, he said, wish to be too easily known, citing James Joyce’s requirements for a productive artistic life: “Cunning, stealth and exile.”
BOB LEVIN: Since we last spoke formally, I understand you’ve added a new hip.
S. CLAY WILSON: [Laughs.] I’m all fine. Everything’s fine. You don’t have to list my ailments. There’s too many and probably use up most of your tape. How much are you getting per word? Four cents? Where’s the medical reports? I’ll read ’em off to you.
I think you told me that you’ve added Robert Hughes to your list of testimonials.
I met Robert Hughes when he was coming out of Fanelli’s Bar [Author’s note: An establishment in New York City’s SOHO district]. I was with Rebecca at the time. (Dare I mention her name? I bear her no ill will. It was fun while it lasted.) She had a bunch of Pork comics, and she’s bopping around, “There’s Robert Hughes! There’s Robert Hughes!” She’s like a celebrity-search girl anyway. “There’s Robert Hughes!” I said, “Really?” She immediately runs over and starts giving him Pork. He was like, “What?” I guess he was 86ed from Fanelli’s. He’s a heavy drinker. You know the Aussies have their motor-oil-sized cans of Foster’s Lager Bitter. All he did was, he looked at it. And she says, “This is S. Clay Wilson.” And he yelps, “Wow! S. Clay Wilson! I love your work!” So that was the quote I put on the Grimm Brothers thing.
He was wandering off, but Rebecca’s kind of a mixer, and Robert Williams really wanted to have approval from Robert Hughes; so she was, “Ask him what he thinks about Robert Williams’ work,” nudge, nudge, nudge. [Slurred] “Wha’y’ thinka Robert Williams’ work?” He turns around. [Aussie accent] “Robert Williams? He’s a loada shite,” at the top of his lungs. Then he waved and lurched on down the street. (If this is printed … Oh, the hell with it. Let Williams discover it. It might cause undue friction, but I think it’s funny.)
Added any new celebrities to your collectors?
I don’t know. The artwork I’ve been doing, I don’t put names on ’cause it has legs that way. And people buy artwork from galleries, and it has more legs if they resell it.
Henry Miller has been quoted as saying all artists and writers work out of uncomfortable positions. What’s your favorite?
Now that I’m older I kind of like Matisse’s deal. Just lie down and pass moving pieces of paper over the ceiling. Once I start drawing, it’s in that little rathole over there. [Gestures.] That is forbidden territory. That is my turf, right there, in that fucking room. (I’m trying to get some continuity here. What was the question again?) All of ’em are uncomfortable. I’ve got a big drawing table and chair that adjusts. When I’m working, I’m in this zone. That’s why I have to get my eyes checked all the time. Got to use a magnifying glass. But don’t mention anything about what I use to do the artwork. I want to keep all that a mystery. Actually, I don’t even do the artwork. You ought to see the guy. He’s in there working right now while we’re out here drinking beer from Munich.
[Shouts] Faster! Faster! More dwarves! More bells and whistles! Put more highlights on that cutlass!
When you told me you wanted to avoid the usual questions, I decided to check some different sources. One was The Paris Review’s writers’ interview series. Here’s some of those: Do you work every day?
How do you get started?
By waking up. The way I work … I’m always behind. I sell everything up front. I don’t want stock laying about, clogging up this room ’cause I have to fill it with movies and art books. It’s easier to keep working, I’ve found, if you’ve been working than to start working if you haven’t been working. I always quit when I want to draw more, so I can’t wait to get back after it, rather than beat myself up to meet deadlines. So you enjoy what you’re doing, rather than hurry up and bop it out. Like Spain [Rodriguez]’s doing this huge, long bio of Che Guevera. “What page are you on? 107?”
I quit work when I still want to work, and when you get to this point, in your dream life, your brain is on your side. If you’re working on something, it’ll show you more of it. It’s like a slide show. Billions and billions of crosshatching techniques, or the way light hits, or water color techniques. It’s like a huge catalog, but real specific. P-Chink. Wow! Chink. “Enough already!” My subconscious is nagging me.
I know writers’ll keep a notepad by their bed …
Oh yeah! Right! I’ll do that, and I’ll get up 2:00 in the morning and scribble on a piece of paper a detail of a drawing or something.
Do you find the process of drawing pleasurable?
It’s probably the most fun I have. ’Cause you have absolute control, and if you fuck up, it’s on you. I mean, I’ve always done it. It’s the life I chose. I never had a real job, y’know. A book store once. A million years ago.
Adele [Levin] wanted me to ask, what you’d have been if you hadn’t been a cartoonist?
Uh. Probably an ax murderer. See, I always liked art. My mom collected all my drawings. I was drawing all the time, and when I discovered EC comics …
Hold on. Sounds like we’re getting dangerously close to the autobiographical. You ready for that?
I have you born July 25, ’41, in Lincoln, Neb.
I guess I’ll let that stay, but I hate Lincoln, Neb. Can we change it to Lawrence, Kan.? [Laughs.] Nobody knows the difference, Lincoln, Neb., Lawrence, Kan., if you’re from New York. What are these places, right?
Anyhow, the reason I wanted to be a cartoonist was EC comics. My uncle, Millard Townsend, who was a druggist from Ponca, Neb., would come down to visit my father and go see Nebraska’s football team. “Go Big Red.” Or as I say, “Go Big Redneck.” I hated football. He brought down these big boxes of books my pa loved, detective magazines and stuff; and I was going through this box, and a Piracy, with a cover torn off, was my satori, as you’d put it if you were a Zen Buddhist. This beautiful drawing just popped up. And it was a [Raised voice] comic strip with [Reraised voice] great artwork. It was Reed Crandall’s “Blackbeard.” And each individual artist did their own individual story in their own style. So I immediately started drawing comic strips, at age 14, roughly. “I wanna be one of these guys. I wanna be a cartoonist.” I had eight pounds of ’em. I sold ’em all.
Were you drawing comics before you saw ECs?
Kinda. I did funny drawings, and me and kids in the neighborhood had jam sessions. I was always interested in art. I always drew. I went to the art school in the museum in Lincoln, Neb. I won awards. I was in the newspaper.
I’m pre-TV, y’know. I love radio because I have fond memories listening to the radio with my dear old dad. Inner Sanctum, mysteries and stuff in the ’40s. My fantasies were always cooking. TV, it’s somebody else’s pictures, but if I’m hearing a story or reading, my memories are more vivid than the movie I saw last night. So the EC comic really flipped me out.
What did your parents do?
Mom worked as a medical stenographer in Lincoln Nebraska’s state insane asylum. She was a little nutty herself. A real intense woman, God rest her soul. She was a whiz with algebra. She was very smart, though neurotic and weird. She’d get real upset; she was kind of nervous, and I take after her. I’m nervous all the time, and kind of depressed, off and on, just like ma.
Pa was easygoing. From the Blue Ridge Mountains. West Virginia. He was a machinist. He ran a steel lathe, and he could make anything, including crossbows, like the one in there [indicating dining room], which would punch a hole through solid marine plywood — THOK! He made furniture. He made fuel pumps for Offenhausers. He was a whiz woodcrafter, steel lathe operator and mechanic.
I wanted to get a vehicle. “How about a car?”
“Get your own car.”
The only thing I could afford was a Harley Davidson. So I hung out with these biker guys, and they’d come over and need a part for their motorcycle, and Pa wouldn’t say whether he could do it; he’d say, “When do you need it?” Maybe I got my craftiness from pa, some oblique path. ’Cause when I’m working sometimes with a magnifying glass, I remember seeing my pa doing real detailed work with micrometers. I was always fascinated, and I wish I’d learned the steel lathe. He was always waiting for me to ask him, “Please teach me how to run the steel lathe”; but, I don’t know, there’s some kind of friction between the son and the father. [Clears throat.]
Were you into guns as a kid?
I was a gentle soul, but Pa got me a .410 shotgun, and going pheasant-hunting with my hillbilly father was a pleasant memory. I always felt real bonded. There was no talking. It was just silent walking and stalking. Then I shot this bunny, and “Wait a minute. I don’t want to do this.” It’s when I quit hunting, disappointing my father. Pheasants are one thing, but this bunny was blown apart. There was nothing left to eat — BLAM!
And my uncle, Pa’s brother, Eli, he had his own flea market in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a railroad terminal covered with vintage circus posters and honeycombed with used guns, coins, antiques and all kinds of amazing stuff. He had one son was a rock ’n’ roll star. Everybody liked Mike [redneck accent] “’cause he sounded just like a nigger” when he sang. Then his brother was a gay male nurse, who had a palomino horse covered with a fucking silver saddle and bridle; and when the horse died, they had him stuffed and had the horse, with all the fucking stuff, in the living room.
I got my collecting gene from [Uncle Eli]. He would sell me any weapon. I had fucking Civil War cavalry sabers, matching flintlock pistols, percussion stuff, war clubs from the Fiji Islands. We played guns with real guns. Once I had to make a sandwich, and my cousin Mike said, “Here’s a knife.” It was a Luftwaffe dagger for cuttin’ up the hot dogs.
My sister. She’s five years younger. She was my proofreader, when I did comic strips.
I read all the time that our generation was influenced by growing up “in the shadow of the bomb.” I can remember the drills where we learned to duck under our desks for protection, but I don’t recall ever thinking I was threatened by nuclear extinction. That factor into you?
In high school, I was conscious primarily of the first mass murderer, Charles Starkweather. [Interviewer’s note: Another Nebraska boy.] I liked to draw. I was drawing, drawing, drawing. I was obsessed with chess and drawing. I was a recluse, drawing comic strips compulsively. So I was called a “squirrel,” which, at the time, meant “egghead” or “geek.” I hated everybody, except for Ace, who I still see, and his now dead brother, Muth, my Army buddy — and himself a brilliant artist. We were alienated and beat. We wanted to be beatniks. Like, “Hey, man, let’s, like, fall down by the Zoo Bar and, you know, whatever, you know.”
On The Road came out in ’57, but before that, when you were still a kid, what besides EC were you into, books or movies or music …?
I liked Little Richard — and Howl. I hung out with the Jewish intelligentsia boys. They kind of liked me, but I was this weird squirrel. I had great-looking girlfriends. (I still have some of their drawings.) Lots of the artgirls were real sexy. Scads of beautiful Latvian lassies. Arty and sexy. In high school, nobody ever got laid, but everybody fought. When I was 14, James Mosely insulted my mother in art class.
“Take that back.”
“I’m not gonna take that back. Fuck you.”
“Fuck you.” So I had to be macho. Like if you’re in jail, you have to show heart. So I had to fight Mosely. But a sailor had this parrot, Mabel, I was looking forward to buying that evening to go with my pirate fantasies. So I thought, “Fight Mosely. Get it out of the way. And if you live, you can buy the parrot for dessert.”
So anyway, we meet in the bathroom. I hit him as hard as I could. He hit me back and mopped the floor with me; but, OK, now I can relax, put my nose back in shape, and buy this fucking parrot. But people kept fucking with me. “Wilson’s a squirrel. Wilson’s a squirrel.” So when Charlie Starkweather went on his rampage, I identified with his sister, who crept, huddled, down the hallway. “There’s Charlie Starkweather’s sister!” And [they were] throwing shit at her and stuff. I went to school with her, and my mother, when she worked at the Coney Island Café in Lincoln, Neb., used to feed him breakfast. Charlie and the whole family. He wanted to be a drawer, too, but he went the other direction.
Anyway, getting back to my trial by arms. So I’m getting ready to buy Mabel, and this guy says, “You were crazy to fight Mosely, because he’s Junior Golden Gloves champion,” which I didn’t know. I was a piece of candy to him. Anyway, I blew that off and didn’t think anything about it.
But a little later, some rednecks were, “Hey, Wilson, ’ey Wilson.”
“Shut up, you Neanderthal assholes.”
And suddenly there’s this booming voice in the back of the room, and this big, black track star said, “If you’re fucking with Wilson, you’re fucking with us.” I had this whole fucking black cadre behind me, because I showed heart and fought Mosely, and I’m a fucking squirrel. I’m more of a minority than they are. So fuck all of you. It was my best moment in high school.
That and my date with Astrida.
What kind of influences were working on your art then?
Carl Barks. G.I. Joe, Babe Darling of the Hills, and all ECs. (It’s EC for me, see.) I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but when I saw EC, it gelled, because they’re different styles and they’re more artistic by miles than comics of the time. I liked that. “Wait a minute! You can draw anything you want.”
After high school, you attended the University of Nebraska?
I had won this Hallmark Greeting Card scholarship. I shoulda taken it. I don’t know what I would’ve ended up being — richer or not at all; but Hallmark involved the Kansas City Art Institute, which was kind of a mill, and my mom was: “You should get a college education. Blah blah blah.”
You were an art major?
Anthropology, primarily. I was switching between the anthropology department and the art department. There was, like, friction. It was schizophrenic. I liked anthropology more than the art department because of — not to mention any names — Gale Butt (God rest his soul), a sadistic fag who couldn’t draw or paint. He’d destroy my paintings and hit on me, too. “No! No! No! You’ll never be an artist.” And his work looked like Ford Times magazine covers — awful abstract expressionist stuff.
I preferred anthropology. “Wilson, you should be in anthropology, not art, because you’re hated in the art department.”
What kind of work were you doing?
Figurative stuff. Call it comics. Call it illustration. Call it your momma. I was always doing the cartoon thing, but, at the time, abstract expressionism had hit. So I wasn’t learning how to draw like, pencil drawings in deep perspective, or none of that. I wasn’t learning anything. I thought, “This is bullshit,” and to show that their idea of art was bullshit, I did a Dada gesture and went and looked at the art magazines. “OK, Jackson Pollock. OK, Willem de Kooning.” And I gotta buncha paint and a buncha canvasses and did abstract expressionist paintings and filled the hallway.
They said [whispers], “Wilson, these are strong in their own way.” It was all horseshit. It was a complete put-on. It was a whole bad scene of bad memories. I was thrown out of school and I had to go back and I barely got the degree. I shoulda took the scholarship, but you gotta start from where you are.
After college, you went into the service?
The University of Nebraska was a land grant college, so you had to have military training. And I’m like [bellows], “What am I doing? I coulda gone to the Kansas City Art Institute, getting laid, having a good time, doin’ art, instead of learning the M-1 fucking rifle.” (I would’ve preferred another weapon. The Thompson, perhaps.) And the reason I was thrown out of school was you had to wear the Army uniform for drill. If you didn’t, you needed an excuse. I had this excuse I used over and over. “Wilson, where’s your uniform?” Sarge Ryan would ask.
“You won’t believe what happened. I got drunk last night and threw up all over it” — and show him — as usual — my frayed laundry slip.
The Sarge stopped buying it. “And get that hair cut, Wilson!” And if you’re out of ROTC, you’re out of college; and if you’re out of college, you’re up for the draft. So I go in the Army.
Did you do two years?
Six months active. Basic training, infantry, at Fort Leonard Wood; then medic training in San Antonio. I’m a fucking trained medic. They gave me an ambulance. “Drive this.” BAM! Right into a tree. “Fuck y’all. You drive the ambulance.” It wasn’t like the Marines who kick the shit out of you. This was more docile. The cooks loved me, though, because I had access to meth tablets. I thought they were salt. I was clueless. And morphine styrets. So if you wanted to go up or down, I could get you both places.
The cooks said, “Wilson, you’re a medic …”
“You know the extra-strength salt tablets, that big brown bottle … Get us one of those.”
“Sure.” So they loved me.
[After active duty] I joined the Nebraska National Guard. I had meetings every month and the two-week fucking trip to Pikestone, Minn., or some such hell hole. I was like, “What the fuck? This is really fucked up.” Vietnam was rumbling in the background, and I’m a medic, and they’re going to send my ass to the rice paddies to save the guy you don’t want to save, the guy who was giving you shit. All these rednecks wanted to go. I didn’t want to go, thank you very much. I thought, “I’m not gonna do this.” I’m too chickenshit.
Finally I saw a Jewish shrink and [laughs] … Thank God for Jewish shrinks. You kind of remind me of him. I said, “I’m too sensitive. I can’t hack that situation.”
He said, “Don’t worry about it.” He was anti-war — and I was certainly anti-war; so he wrote me a thing and got me out, and I missed that fray.
What did you do after you got out of the service?
I go back to school to get this fucking useless degree; and I still had to go through ROTC, uniform, weapon, the whole nine yards; and they said, “You can’t wear that uniform.”
I said, “I earned this. I’m the only one here who has rank. I went to the Army. I came back and still went to school. What do you want from me?”
I did New York for a while. My friend Jack Shurbach, who’s a homeboy, he moved to New York, so eventually I split and went to look him up. “Where can I get a job?”
He said, “Go see Mark and David. They’ll hire you.”
“Who the fuck are Mark and David?”
“They run Mark and David Jonish’s Leather. Six Jacob Street.”
So I strolled down there and said, “Can I get a job?”
“Yeah, catch.” He threw this big fucking roll of split cowhides at me, and I caught it. “Put it up there.”
“OK, thank you.” They were these short guys, and I was six-four, not an ounce of fat on me. They hired me on the spot.
Mark and David Jonish taught me about fucking work. Those guys worked harder than anybody I had ever seen, ever, anywhere. They dealt in these shitty split cowhides, and they’d emboss fake alligator hide, or snake, or whatever onto [them] to be made into cheap wallets. It was like cardboard. It looked neat but it was dreck. That was OK. I had a job. [Yiddish accent.] “Y’vanna piece-a herring for lunch?” I liked those guys. They wore pajamas. They were like moles. Huge amount of these split cowhides and a whole crew and myself. There were five or six or seven different languages spoken there. Jewish, Puerto Rican … When the blackout hit, it was like the Tower of Babel. “Yeahhh! We can get the fuck out of here.” This midden heap of split cowhide. I also caught the train strike. I was only there six months but I caught a lot of urban activity.
What were you doing?
I was measuring split cowhides — Fshht! “Nine-fifteen” — through this machine — Fshht! — with either Mark or David.
[Yiddish accent] “You like Chagall?”
“Me too. Eight-fourteen.” This naked bulb fraying above the measuring rig. It was cozy. It was neat. It kinda reminded me of my pa’s shop. They know where everything is. You don’t; you’ll learn if you hang around long enough. So that was my job. Then I dropped some acid and decided to get out of New York.
Were you doing drugs when…
I was doing real early acid. My friend Stewart Hitch, God rest his soul… He’s a painter — gone — and all these people showed up from Lincoln, Nebraska on Christmas Eve, 1963, ’64, somewhere in there. First time I heard the word hippy. “Are you a hippy?”
“What’s a hippy?”
Anyway, I hooked up with these guys — one had a suit — and they were hustling the streets of old New York. [Yokel accent] “Garsh, it’s real Bohemian. Kinda exciting.” Away from the cornfields, y’know. These people wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve. They said, “Let’s get some of this acid.”
“It’s a doctored sugar cube. But you can get really fucked up.”
So we got acid. “Who’s gonna try it and see what it does?”
“I’ll do it. I’ll let you know. I’ll be back in touch.”
We didn’t have any money. We bought each other Christmas gifts, but you couldn’t spend more than a dollar. A tender moment. I got a black-and-yellow Twilighters baseball T-shirt with black stars. I was wearing this and dropped some acid. So they’re looking at me and asked, “What’s going on?”
We had smoked pot before, but this was a different ball game. So the acid hit, and I said, “It’s great. C’mon up.” So they dropped acid, and we wandered around the Lower East Side, and it was a real magical evening. It was real gentle, tinsel blowing down the street. I moved back, but Hitch had such a good time on his acid trip on the Lower East Side he decided to live there and became a well-known painter.
Another little detail, which will amuse the readers … I lived in the toy-warehouse district, down on Ludlow, 153 Ludlow, by Katz’s Deli. My rent was $38.50 a month, and I had my own toilet, which I thought was paradise. In the district, there were like several Jewish lightning fires, you know, people burning down their places to get the insurance money. Before my Midwest buddies split, we found huge crates of puffy, pink doll arms. They thought it would be a good idea to take them back. So they had this big huge Buick full of doll arms — arms on all the door handles — going to Nebraska.
Why did you leave New York?
Due to a bad acid trip. What freaked me is … I decided to take acid again because I was intrigued by it, and this was before the propaganda came out: Everybody jumps out of windows and shit. (I didn’t know anybody who did that. Not anybody from Nebraska, certainly.) At one point, I was on the top of my building, looking across at this gray urban mass, over this vast city of New York. For a split second, I was hallucinating these are trenches in World War I, and I was in No Man’s Land. So I went inside, still loaded on acid, and I was staring in a mirror, and in the reflection I saw smoke rolling out of my eyes. Fuck! And at that moment, somebody’s pounding on the door. All that was going on, and I was freaking out. (“Freaking out,” yes, that’s the word that comes up, “freaking out.”) Somebody knocking: BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM. I’m like, “Why am I hearing that? They don’t know who I am. They don’t know where I am.”
And “Wilson? Wilson? Are you in there?” This girl’s voice. “Wilson? C’mon, open up. I’m scared. I don’t like this building.”
“I don’t like it either. Who is it?” It was Ellie May Moritz, who’s an old girlfriend of mine, who visited me but didn’t call ahead or send a postcard. She was freaked out because the building was full of meth addicts and syringes in the hallway. I could go on and on about this building. So she split, and later told me, “That was me at the door”; but I thought I was hallucinating.
These visions stacked up, so I thought, “Just sit here and maybe it’ll go away.”
Wasn’t there some point when you worked on archaeological digs?
This was mid-college. My mom worked for the Smithsonian Institute somehow. So they hooked me up to a dig on the Crow Creek Indian reservation in South Dakota. That’s where the peyote guys were hanging out, but I wasn’t doing peyote then. I was tempted because we had Indians on the crew. The way this worked, OK, was when you went on a dig you had aerial photographs showing vegetation changes since the area had been plowed up. They wanted to know what happened to the people before their tribe. The Mandan Indians. Sedentary corn growers. They were fucked. You need that horse to get out of Dodge.
So we’re on this dig. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m wearing a straw cowboy hat, and I discover a cache pit burial. It’s my first touch with death, close up and personal. We dig a test trench and then we profile it. We plow up the ground. If you see a circle in the test trench a different color, it’s gotta be connected to another circle, which means it’s the arc of an earth lodge. It means you’re in a village. If you’re in a village, where’s the next house? So I’m digging a test trench, and here’s like an orange peel. (I get chills even thinking about it.) It’s spongy and organic. I’m scraping, and there’s more of it. The crew leader comes over and says, “Here’s your spoon. Go into that hole. You’re in a cache pit burial.” A cache pit is the ice box where they store the food. A cache pit burial means … They didn’t have horses. You wanted horses so you could hunt, hunt and gather, not just sit and grow corn, ’cause if the corn is gone, there’s nothing to eat. It’s winter. You’re done in. So that hole that used to have the food is where you end up. There were seven skeletons, children and adults.
I was loving this. Everyone’s pissed at me, but I wanted in on this job, since it was easier, cooler work. “This is my project. Fuck you guys. I’m gonna find out what happened here.” You had to put [the skeletons] in this thermostatically controlled truck from the Smithsonian Institute in exactly the same location as they went into the hole. The skull, when the sun hit it, went orange and kind of elastic, so whatever was going on with the earth and the dead was interchanging. I was watching it change color. It was rubbery and elastic and orange, and I’m trying to get it cold and into the truck. It was like 110 degrees, coming straight down. It went from organic orange, like an orange peel, to white, then white-ish grey, then it turned into fucking chalk. I was finding all this great stuff like razor-sharp buffalo-hide stone scrapers. And they’re on us, like we’re gonna steal this shit. Who, us? I talked a lot, so time would go by in case you weren’t discovering a cache-pit burial. I’d be blathering away, and they’d say, “Wilson, shut the fuck up.”
“Man, you shut the fuck up. Y’hear the one about …?” Just blathering, like I am to you. It was mid-week, a real long day, hotter ’n hell, so they made a deal with me. The bet was KP and seven Seven-and-7s — Seven Seagram’s Seven and 7-Ups — I could keep quiet all afternoon. We were in Pierre, S.D. We weren’t supposed to go to Fort Pierre, because that’s where the fun began with all the drunk Indians and cowboys. It’s across the river called Bad River. It’s a different time zone. There’s nothing but bars, and they stay open two more hours. You go there, if you’re dressed like a cowboy, you’d better be one. But they’re goading me, really trying to get me to talk. They’re insulting me, but I didn’t give a fuck. So I win, and we immediately go to Fort Pierre, and I line up my seven Seven-and-7s. I’m banging them down: PANG! BANG-BANG! It’s getting real foggy, and the next thing I know, somebody picks me up in my chair and sits me down in the alley. So we went to this other bar, The Snake Pit. All these Indians are there, spending their dole, getting shitfaced. Everybody’d buy a round until everybody’s broke. They’re whooping and yelling, and the place is painted like hell. Flames painted on the walls and stuff. A little sparkly sign: The Snake Pit. I got pretty fucking drunk there too. But I survived. I thought I was having a good time.