High Times Greats: Terry Southern

Writer Terry Southern digs through a stash of cast-off pharmaceuticals alongside William Burroughs in this February, 1981 High Times interview with Victor Bockris.
High Times Greats: Terry Southern
Terry Southern by Marcia Resnick

Two great satirists take the High Times blindfold test in a February, 1981 interview with Victor Bockris. On the occasion of the late Terry Southern’s birthday May 1, we’re republishing the whole thing below.

William Burroughs and Terry Southern, independently and in concert, midwifed, suckled, weaned and reared the very special consciousness of our age. Naked Lunch and Candy, Nova Express and Dr. Strangelove, The Ticket That Exploded and Red Dirt Marijuana; if the one most special thing about our age’s consciousness is its wholehearted affinity for blowing itself to bits regularly on strange drugs, we have Messrs. Burroughs and Southern to thank for that. Both are now, in their middle years, anointed American Writers from the South, and everything that could possibly mean they embody. These two guys can get away with just about anything now.

High Times culture condor Victor Bockris had for over a year been looking for an occasion to formally interview Terry Southern, to whom he had been introduced by Burroughs—”Bill,” Bockris smugly calls him—at the 1969 Nova Convention in Toronto. The occasion finally developed early one autumn day when Southern appeared at Bockris’s door bearing a shopping bag stuffed with miscellaneous pharmaceutical remnants from an apothecary of his acquaintance: spansules, vials, tablets, lozenges, suppositories of all sorts, powders, crystals, solutions, ointments, pills and caps, complimentary freebies the drug companies send around to druggists, all unlabeled. Victor, seeing his chance to get both authors on tape—and not knowing, himself, a Sandoz Ergomar from an ayahuasca vine—flipped on his tape recorder and kept Southern rapping while he set up a rendezvous at Burroughs’s place in Greenwich Village. Presently they repaired thither, and what transpired—the late 20th-century equivalent of Johnson and Gibbon bullshitting while Boswell kibitzes them—is revealed exclusively in these pages.

High Times: Terry, you’ve spent a lot of time on the West Coast and know all the inside stuff, so let’s begin this thing by talking about drugs in Hollywood, ’cause that’s what people are really interested in.

Southern: Drugs in Hollywood! What a paradise. Now you’re talking paradise non artificialia.

High Times: Is it true that people spend much more money on drugs out there than anywhere else?

Southern: Yeah, but their generosity in terms of sense-derangement drugs—cocaine in particular—is enormous. Weight, weight, weight! That’s all they talk about.

High Times: I heard that part of the budget of each film was now given over to the purchase of drugs, so that a movie had, for example, a coke budget.

Southern: I’m sure that that’s generally true, but once it has reached the high instance to come to my attention and your attention, then they probably take it out of the contract, or they’ve got some code. Actually, it would just be better to raise the budget of the film.

[Assuming voice of outraged manager-type] “This is ridiculous! Now let’s just… we’ve got to get into… piss off! Look what happened to the Rolling Stones for Christsake, and you’re risking a coke hassle? Let’s just ask for an extra $150,000. Will that hold you for a couple of weeks? That’ll hold you for the two weeks’ shooting? You fool! Now go, get your coke.”

High Times: When I was out in Hollywood, I heard that a big star walked off the set of his latest picture on the first day of shooting because they hadn’t included a coke budget. “No blow, no show,” he said, or something.

Southern: Well, people used to do that on location. The prop man would carry a lot of Coors beer in the prop truck, very cold—and, you know, take care of the actors that way. The prop guy would know what a person’s needs were, so then a hip production manager would come along and ask—I’m translating—Which man has the higher brand of Kaopectate? Mustn’t affect their lungs’’ or something like that. [Whispering] “He’s inta sunshine, he’s inta…” They cater to the most outrageous tastes, you see. The idea that they’ve got them so imperious that they can make these demands in contracts—I’m not saying, no, that they’re not that imperious, I’m just saying that once you and I know that it could possibly be in a contract, they’re going to keep it out of contracts and they’re going to have the money up front, or under the table, or something like that. I mean, the money’s incredible.

High Times: How does the movie industry compare to the rock industry in terms of the amount of money being spent on drugs?

Southern: Well, the top of the rock industry, like the Stones, is the same. After all, the record industry was the first to let it really get out. You know, it was very open, sort of doing dope favors, it was sort of a social thing, it wasn’t a setup or anything. Just that, well, you can imagine certain persons, who shall remain nameless, coming into a place and there’d be no toot. I mean they’d just get up and walk off. I don’t know that that’s happened in the movies. See, on a movie set it’s hard to imagine, ’cause what I’m talking about is usually what happens in an office with four or five people. But let’s put it this way: I’ve met people in Hollywood who will toot but won’t smoke grass. In other words, they’ve come into the toot thing before they were getting high on pot.

High Times: To them, grass is still weird?

Southern: Well, sort of. Yeah. I’m trying to figure it out. I think maybe that it goes hand in hand with the health thing, with not smoking at all. They’re not putting it down socially, I don’t think. Maybe they are, it’s possible, but I’m just thinking about the effect of this, that there could be a generation of people who don’t smoke grass but use coke. I’ll tell you a bit about the coke culture that would be of interest to High Times readers: One of the record producers—and I’ve never heard this happen in the film industry—gave a certain rock star a pint ice-cream container of coke as a gift, which is, you know, like an incredible gesture. A half a million dollars, I think. Not stepped on too much!

High Times: I hear in Hollywood that a screenwriter like yourself is more and more important.

Southern: If you have a good script, you can make a good movie. If you don’t have a good script, you can’t.

High Times: You seem to have spent most of your time in films in the last decade.

Southern: Yes. Well, I wanted to give it a fair shake. Also the money was good. The money is $3,500 a week, which is very good for a writer. I mean, you’re not going to make that writing articles for Cosmopolitan. And it’s such a fun thing to do, making movies. Like Stanley Kubrick said, someone asked him if he’d ever taken a vacation and he said, A vacation from what? It would be like taking a child out of the nursery, taking all his toys away and saying, Okay, you’re on vacation. And so I’ve been trying to persuade my son to become a filmmaker. It’s a bit too late for me, although I do hope to direct sometime. I actually very nearly had that chance with William Burroughs and Chuck Barris, but we blew it.

High Times: Bill Burroughs has mentioned the famous trip you two took to Hollywood. What was the story?

Southern: Chuck sent me a letter saying, “I’ve always admired your work and I feel pretty guilty about my own success,” which was at this time “The Newlywed Game,” “The Dating Game” and some other really bad things. And he said, “If there’s anything you would really like to do, I’ve got $500,000 earmarked.” Just about that same time, by coincidence, Bill showed me this script, “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz.” I said, “Ah! That’s the thing to do,” and I was working on a movie, The End of the Road, so I sent the script to Gordon Willis and said, “Can I do this for $500,000?” And he said, “No, ask for $750,000.” And like a fool, instead of saying “Oh yes we’ll do it,” and taking the $500,000, I held out for the $750,000, and by that time Chuck had started reading the script and he didn’t understand it at all.

High Times: But Bill said you went out to L.A. and they had the Rolls at the airport and they sent you back in a VW.

Southern: He’s thinking of it as some kind of deliberate put-down. Chuck sent a limo out to pick us up and when he had decided it was totally hopeless, it was actually a Ferrari that took us back to the airport.

[At this point the phone rang. William Burroughs was on the other end. When told of the giant bag of drugs, he advised us to come immediately to his apartment where he would graciously lend his expertise in examining, sorting and classifying the unknown substances. So picking up the bag, we hurried onto the streets and took a cab over to Burroughs’s place. We had no sooner taken off our coats than Burroughs pointed at the bag.]

Burroughs: Now what is all this shit, Terry?

Southern: Bill, this is from Jim’s druggist. Now anything you can’t cook up, we’ll eat it. These are all non-’script things that are sent around like Miltowns when they were nonprescription, but see they’ve gotten so sophisticated now that you can’t tell… Well, this druggist agreed to give me all his samples so that we can go through them and see if there’s anything that interests you. Not necessarily by what’s on the labels, but on examination of the contents.

Burroughs: If it don’t got a label on it, no way that I can tell.

Southern: No, but you can usually, see, look at it…

Burroughs: Yeah, yeah, I know.

Southern: [Reading] “Fluid control that can make life livable.” Well that could apply to blood, water…

High Times: Yes, well, if you haven’t got fluid control there’s no point in sticking around.

Southern: [Gets up to organize a garbage bin for the waste] We’ll put just total rejects into this thing.

Burroughs: Well, we don’t know yet. I’m just sort of picking out what looks like it might be something, you see [inspecting another bottle]. All right.

Southern: [Excitedly] See! See! A lot of these things have names you don’t realize that you may not be familiar with because they’re covering them up. See what they’re trying to do. And here’s an item for research and a good article: How the pharmaceutical companies connive to beat the FDA thing, you know, and get a Cosonal-type [a morphine-based cough syrup sold over the counter a few years ago—Ed.] addictive drug on the market because they know from the Cosonal experience that they’re gonna sell. See, if they can get a Cosonal on the market without a ’script they’ve got a fantastic thing. That’s why it’s off limits before somebody says, “What, are you kidding, this isn’t a safe thing. This is heroin. This is stronger than heroin!”

Burroughs: [Scrutinizing a bottle] I don’t really know what this stuff may be.

Southern: [Determined] There’s only one way to find out.

Burroughs: I’d be careful.

Southern: Now a thing like [picks up a bottle and reads] “for pimples and acne” [throws it aside in disgust]. Now a thing like Icktazinga [handing it to Bill]. Does that ring a bell? Not that it should, mind, because…

Burroughs: If it’s chewable—I’m not much interested in anything chewable. [Makes a wry face.]

Southern: But they’re saying chew one at a time and I’m saying, cook up eighty. If one will chew, eighty will cook up.

High Times: Well, here’s a diuretic. With six diuretics you could…

Southern: Oh! Hey, that’s… a diuretic is full of paregoric, I think.

Burroughs: No, no…

Southern: When I say a diuretic is full of a spasm-relieving—I mean, a nerve killer—a coke-type—

Burroughs: A diuretic—

Southern: …cooked up—

Burroughs: Is something to promote urine, my dear. It causes urine. That’s all it’s for.

Southern: Hmmm, really?

Burroughs: Yeah. That’s what diuretic means.

Southern: To cause urine?

Burroughs: Yeah.

Southern: I take vitamin C for that myself.

High Times: Well, these could be anything here without a label. Look at these pills.

Southern: Well, I know, but you pays your money and you takes your chances.

High Times: Take six of these and we’ll watch you.

Southern: All right, then. I suggest we single one thing out and see. I’m sure something’ll turn up. We’ll put everything questionable here and we’ll match them up later. Group tests! Trial and error! I suppose it’ll have to be another case of trial and error, doctor.

Burroughs: Yes.

Southern: Well, we’ve gone through many of these trial-and-error things before.

High Times: I’ve got a few innocent—I mean, willing victims lined up.

Southern: Oh, I think we can handle it, ha, ha, ha.

Burroughs: What do you mean we? I ain’t taking—if you take any of that shit, you crazy, man.

Southern: Wait a minute! Wait a minute! What is this?

Burroughs: It’s disposable. [Bill throws it into the can.]

Southern: What you have just done, my good friend, is tantamount to admitting that hairdressing oil cannot be cooked down to some essential element that’s suitable for shooting up.

High Times: Now here’s nicotinic acid. What’s this like?

Burroughs: That’s vitamins, my dear.

Southern: That could be a synthetic speed.

High Times: It says “for prolonged action.”

Southern: I say it might be synthetic speed.

Burroughs: I’m looking for the word pain and I ain’t seen it yet.

High Times: Hey! What’s this stuff?

Burroughs: Here you go. This could be it. [Bill inspects an ancient-looking bottle with an old, dark green label on it.] Yes, this is the stuff. Well, it’s got a little something. It’s got a little codeine in it.

Southern: We’ll have to savor it, savor it. But listen, Bill, I hope you’re not underestimating these synthetic painkillers, just because they’re not labeled heroin or morphine.

High Times: Now here’s something we don’t need. [Reads] “Clean acne lotion for nubile…” [Terry grabs it and slings it into the can.]

Southern: You sure you’re not overlooking any of the new synthetics, Bill?

Burroughs: Man, I know every synthetic.

High Times: These look like birth-control pills.

Southern: Looks like it, but it could be euphoriaville.

High Times: Euphoriaville?

Southern: Don’t you understand? The legitimate drug is on the lam. Everybody is picking up, and so it’s a question of the old Miltown syndrome. I mean they gotta be very cool. They can’t just say, “This is for relieving,” because that’s too obvious. Then the FDA instantly knows, “Hey, pain! This is Cosonal.”

Burroughs: Man, the FDA has to know before they can even send out a sample, believe me.

High Times: This is for hypertension so this is a down, right?

Southern: Bill’s threshold of tolerance is getting lower.

Burroughs: Hypertension is for high blood pressure.

Southern: [Exasperated] It’s a down, man, it’s a down.

Burroughs: No it isn’t.

High Times: Hey, I found some niacin!

Burroughs: Man! Don’t you know what niacin is? It’s a vitamin-B complex.

Southern: [Getting serious] Well, let me ask you this, Dr. Benway, do you acknowledge the existence of an attempt to pass on to a not-unsuspecting public—on the contrary, to an all too eagerly awaiting public—some sort of drug that they would recognize that would eliminate pain?

Burroughs: No, I categorically deny this because, see, in order to consume a drug orally you’ve gotta have the FDA…

Southern: Well, how did Cosonal get in?

Burroughs: What does it have to do with Cosonal?

Southern: Cosonal was this cough syrup. This is while you were out of the country. There was a period of about a year and a half where there would be situations where you’d run into a room full of kicking junkies literally ankle deep in Cosonal bottles. They were having to drink like fifteen bottles of Cosonal, which were eighty-five cents a bottle, and then started going up inexplicably.

Burroughs: Believe me, nothing gets by the FDA. You can’t put it out. They won’t okay it.

Southern: I know, but can’t they okay something that will get you high without knowing? Isn’t this the classic argument? That the bureaucratic restraints and bonds of the FDA would have put them imaginatively and creatively behind the guys who are trying to really sneak something in under the radar?

Burroughs: I’ll tell you why not. In the first place, all the big companies are hand in fist with the FDA, provided the FDA doesn’t try starting something. The FDA are the company cops. That’s exactly what they are.

Southern: But there must be corruption within the company.

Burroughs: There’s corruption but it’s more likely that it has something to do with something that kills people rather than get them high. You look there and you see something like Milanite. Something like that can sneak through. Other things can sneak through that they find cause liver damage, but very little sneaks through that is going to get you high. [Picking up a bottle] Well, so far here’s the one thing we got. It contains half a grain of codeine sulfate, hardly any, but in other words, if you drank one of these bottles you might get a little buzz.

Southern: C’mon, we got anything else?

Burroughs: [Grumbling] Now this stuff goes straight to the garbage—nonnarcotic. I don’t want anything nonnarcotic!

Southern: Look, you’re complaining a terrible lot about all this, Bill. I’m telling you, you’re being very unreceptive. They can all say nonnarcotic but they may be using some really weird definition of narcotic, like something out of Dracula. Do you realize the competition that must be going on between the headache people, trying to cure headaches?

Burroughs: [Picking up another bottle and tossing it aside] Well, we don’t need any anti-inflammatory agents for ancient arthritic conditions.

Southern: It’s a painkiller! Arthritis is the word they use now for pain, and that means heavy codeine.

High Times: [Holding a bottle] This is well known to me. It’s just cough syrup with all these regular ingredients.

Southern: But it might cook up into something really sensational! You don’t understand the cook-up theory, where you cook it up until everything disappears except this essence, which would be dynamite in terms of sense derangement—

High Times: Terry, how about rolling a joint.

Southern: Sure. [Opens a small metal can.] This is from Colombia. That is packed in there. Shit! This is dynamo dynamite. I’m gonna twist one up right away. [Whips out some cherry pink rolling papers.]

High Times: Why don’t you twist up another one of those things, Terry? I figure Bill might be gonna smoke that one up hisself. [Burroughs has picked up a series of newspaper clippings about murder and is acting out various parts on the other side of the room, Terry’s first joint in one hand.] Was there a lot of cocaine in Paris during Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time?

Burroughs: Man, there was plenty of cocaine and heroin. In the late 1920s it was all over the place in Europe if you knew how to go about getting it. It was about a hundredth the price it is now.

Southern: Hemingway and Fitzgerald never mentioned any of this stuff. They never mentioned drugs.

High Times: Well, what I’m saying is, Were Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Hemingway snorting coke?

Southern: No, but see in Paris, where you have an Arab population, you can turn on at the Hotel de Ville. They have the strongest hash you can get, so they had that thing in the Gide-Baudelaire tradition…

Burroughs: You sure messing up your times in this message. You got Gide and Baudelaire at the same fucking table sniffing cocaine. Why don’t you throw in Villon for Christ’s sake! They all had a sniff of cocaine. I think you’re sniffing something stronger than that. You’re sniffin’ time travel, baby. YouVe sniffin’ time travel.

Southern: Hey! Is that a big giant popper, a giant amy? [Looking at Burroughs holding a strange object.]

Burroughs: I was attracted by the old, old label.

Southern: Looks like a real golden oldie.

Burroughs: [Grinning lasciviously] Wouldn’t you like to take some of this shit, man…

High Times: Well, one thing I really hate to take is Mandrax.

Southern: What is that, that’s the same as Quaaludes?

High Times: Stronger than Quaaludes. The English equivalent. Stronger.

Southern: Really? How much is that? What’s the street price?

High Times: I don’t know. They use it a lot for seduction.

Southern: Well, I know. That’s the incredible thing. Dig this for weirdness, I mean for indicativeness, whatever, but I’ve had at least three chicks—you know, I thought, can I come home with them? So: “Uh, listen, why don’t you come up to the place with some Quaa’s”—because these are people I’ve given Quaaludes to—”Why don’t you come up with, you know, a couple of Quaa’s. We’ll have some fun.” They were trying to pass it off as a social thing, not a hooker thing. “I’ll fuck you for two Quaaludes.” Junkies used to fuck just to get—

High Times: Well, a lot of girls can’t fuck without Quaaludes, for one thing.

Southern: Right. So they keep one for their lover so they can at least fuck him.

High Times: Yeah, it seems like the most salable drug of all time is the one that is going to make sex better. Don’t you think?

Burroughs: [Emphatically] No, I don’t think so at all. Because the drug that’s always sold the most on any market, and which will eventually replace any drug that makes sex more possible, is the drug that makes sex unnecessary, namely heroin. On an open market heroin would push marijuana, which is a fairly good sex drug, right off the market. See most people don’t like sex. They want to be rid of sex. Their sex life is terrifically unsatisfactory. They have a wife who they were attracted to forty years ago. It’s terrible. What do they want their sex life stimulated for? Their sex life is horrible. So heroin enables them to get rid of that drive and that’s what they really want.

Southern: What was the drug you said was sexually stimulating?

Burroughs: Well, marijuana, for example. That usually makes something happen.

High Times: A good mixture of coke and marijuana can sometimes work, depending on the catalyst, I guess.

Burroughs: I don’t like coke. Get high on marijuana and then a couple of poppers.

High Times: Do you like to keep poppers next to the bed?

Burroughs: Well, naturally, you see, all the young people do. They say the stink of amyl nitrate fills the halls of the hotels up at Bellows Falls. Apparently the bellboys come off in their pants.

High Times: Terry, which drug would you most like to have for yourself?

Southern: Cocaine is the most enjoyable drug for me.

High Times: What would you most like to see developed in the way of new drugs?

Southern: Well, I think it depends. It’s a question of metabolism, you see.

Burroughs: If it were up to me, I would say, something that would enable you to leave your body and just go away somewhere, perhaps not even come back. It would save me a lot of trouble…

High Times: Can any of you foresee a change in the way drugs will be distributed to the people?

Burroughs: Now wait a minute. You’re talking about what comes out of the drugstore? What are you talking about?

High Times: I’m talking about the people that are here and the drugs that are here and how the drugs are going to get distributed to the people who want them. How are things going to become available more easily?

Southern: The regulation of it will happen when it suits the convenience of people. The same people who have the cost of a color TV set at $400 while a black-and-white is $55. It’s an incredible discrepancy obviously caused by a conspiracy between the companies. They said, Well let’s get rid of the whole of our color stock before we agree on this $89 price for a color TV.

That kind of thing can happen in the dope market as well. There can be a standard of excellence. There should be standards in the organization of marijuana distribution. They would have to, because there exists this incredible market and so it’s a revenue that could be well used for education by the U.S. government. If they were to tax the sale of marijuana they could gain a pretty penny, like they have on the legalization of gambling casinos. So it’s only proper that that argument be used, because dope would be bought by the same people who can afford to gamble. There has to be a beginning somewhere there. Legalization could occur, but if it doesn’t occur concomitantly to standardization of excellence, establishing a quality of excellence with the legalization framework, then it’s better not, you see, because it just opens it up to all sorts of dolts and non-Ralph Nader-types of people, and they would be selling catnip.

High Times: Bill, earlier Terry was talking about your Hollywood meeting with Chuck Barris and how you misconstrued the whole—

Burroughs: Listen, when that Rolls started to shrink down like that—And I didn’t like the name of his assistant, that woman called Keester, I didn’t like that at all.

Southern: What?

Burroughs: [Shouting] Her name was Keester. This this this woman behind Chuck Barris. Didn’t you meet her? Yeah, no kidding, her name was Keester. I thought, well, wait a minute. The guy met us at the airport and he drove us right over to meet this Keester, sitting there with Chuck Barris with these muscle guys.

High Times: Was Chuck Barris a muscle man in those days?

Southern: James Jones, James Dean, James Cagney, Norman Mailer. You know, he’s like that.

High Times: He’s very successful. He makes a lot of money at what he does.

Southern: I didn’t tell you, Bill. I thought it might give you a coronary but I’m getting in touch with him again. I’m laying out our terms for a new project. Which I’ll have you okay, naturally, before flying out there, you know, but it’ll be a big car both ways. Big car both ways is the first thing. [Pounding the table] Big car both ways with video and all sorts of sense-derangement things.

Burroughs: Sounds great. Tell him we want a coke budget.

Southern: Of course! A big car both ways and a $100,000 coke budget up front!!

Featured image of Terry Southern by Marcia Resnick.

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