Old Bill Lee: Sultan of Sewers

The Socco Chico is the meeting place, the nerve center, the switchboard of Tangier. Practically everyone in town shows there once a day at least. Many residents of Tangier spend most of their waking hours in the Socco. On all sides you see men washed up here in hopeless, dead-end situations, waiting for job offers, acceptance checks, visas, permits that will never come. All their lives they have drifted with an unlucky current, always taking the wrong turn. Here they are. This is it. Last stop: the Socco Chico of Tangier.

The market of psychic exchange is as glutted as the shops. A nightmare feeling of stasis permeates the Socco, like nothing can happen, nothing can change. Conversations disintegrate in cosmic inanity. People sit at café tables, silent and separate as stones. No other relation than physical closeness is possible. Economic laws, untouched by any human factor, evolve equations of ultimate stasis. Someday the young Spaniards in gabardine trench coats talking about soccer, the Arab guides and hustlers pitching pennies and smoking their kief pipes, the perverts sitting in front of the cafés looking over the boys, the boys parading past, the mooches and pimps and smugglers and money changers, will be frozen forever in a final, meaningless posture.

Futility seems to have gained a new dimension in the Socco. Sitting at a café table, listening to some “proposition,” I would suddenly realize that the other was telling a fairy story to a child, the child inside himself: pathetic fantasies of smuggling, of trafficking in diamonds, drugs, guns, of starting nightclubs, bowling alleys, travel agencies. Or sometimes there was nothing wrong with the idea, except it would never be put into practice—the crisp, confident voice, the decisive gestures, in shocking contrast to the dead, hopeless eyes, drooping shoulders, clothes beyond mending, now allowed to disintegrate undisturbed.

Some of these men have ability and intelligence, like Brinton, who writes obscene novels and exists on a small income. He undoubtedly has talent, but his work is hopelessly unsalable. He has intelligence, the rare ability to see relations between disparate factors, to coordinate data, but he moves through life like a phantom, never able to find the time, place and person to put anything into effect, to realize any project in terms of three-dimensional reality. He could have been a successful business executive, anthropologist, explorer, criminal, but the conjuncture of circumstances was never there. He is always too late or too early. His abilities remain larval, discarnate. He is the last of an archaic line, or the first here from another space-time way—in any case a man without context, of no place and no time.

– William S. Burroughs, Word Virus

What is there to add? Growing up in the fifties and sixties, being a rebel, loner, and wild man one drifted in and out of the madness as if it were the natural course of things. The Beats, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, etc. were not so much our troubadours as they were the misfit vanguard of some strange new sign of life. As if they had moved into a future that slid sideways, sidereal to our own, marked out their own nightmare paradises, bitten the fruit of other strange forbidden trees.

Scholars of the night and streets they dove into the cesspool of existence and brought back the darkness instead of the light, but this was no ordinary darkness: this was the depths of hell, a place we all live in but never knew before. Most of us live with blinkers, blinded to our own inescapable truth, the truth of our own nightmarish realizations. Never realizing that hell is paradise, a place of unbidden dreams, a realm of hope and plenty, we wander as zombies, asleep, frightened, unable to envision an escape into one of these zones of pure joy.

It took these poets of the madness, shamans of a joyous despair, to lead the way out; or, was it the way in? The Labyrinth is neither in or out, it leads nowhere; or, it leads elsewhere, toward some hidden zone of being where the nightmares live.  Men like Old Bill Lee walked before us, explored the intricacies of these dark chambers, and returned to tell us about love and the thoughts of love. We have only to follow this Philosophy of the Sewer, break out of the frozen world of our caged normalcy and begin to know and live a life that is what is

– S.C. Hickman, A Zombie’s Journal

9 thoughts on “Old Bill Lee: Sultan of Sewers

  1. Thanks for the memories. I lived in Tangier for 7 months in the early seventies, long after Burroughs had left, but since at that point I’d never heard of Burroughs I didn’t miss him. I would pass through le Petit Socco on my frequent walks between the casbah and the Jesus Freak commune where I had been converted (temporarily) from agnosticism and where I was staying. Certainly the affordances calling out to Burroughs were integral to the attraction of Tangier for international vagabonds traversing the “Hippie Trails” through North Africa and Asia. We got to be friends with several of the local hustlers hanging around near the Socco, who for a small fee would escort to our compound young travelers looking for a free place spend the night. I learned to speak in tongues in Tangier, but alas I never learned much Arabic or French there.

    “A Zombie’s Journal” — is this a book you’re working on? It sounds good.


    • Sounds like you’ve done a little traveling worth a tale… yep, it’s a journal I’ve kept since the early 70’s on almost anything and everything of interest that came my way… I go back and draw from it here and there… yea, might publish aspects of it someday.


    • Sometimes I look at this journal and I’m reminded of those old daguerotype pics of Whitman in his room with all those sheets and scraps of his life strewn from one end of the room to another… this old journal is like that, stuffed in old boxes, sometimes in actual leaflets, sometimes in pinstriped notebooks, others just loose leaf typescript from old girlfriends typewriters, discs, cd’s … you name it, I’ve stuffed thoughts on almost everything along the way… a creature of life and word, hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins… 🙂


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