The Bowling Ball Cannon Caper: Burroughs in Lawrence with Zoom and Lotuspool

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Zoom frontman Mark Henning met William S. Burroughs and key members of his inner circle on an early-1990s’ afternoon, when they sat together watching bowling balls whistle through the hot Lawrence, Kansas air and crash into junker VW Beetles. (More on this below.)

Henning’s initial meeting with Burroughs blossomed into a full-on friendship, which lasted until the end of Burroughs’ life in 1997.

In a revealing, funny, and candid interview, Henning discussed his relationship with Burroughs, the shooting trips and parties that they enjoyed together, the history of his band Zoom and the guys behind Lotuspool Records, Nirvana, and his adoration of Poster Children.

All his remarks center on Lawrence, what was and still is a mecca for creative expression, open-mindedness, and downright fun.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em – and get ready for a wild ride.

CITC: How did your relationship with William S. Burroughs start?

MH: My experience with William was more about Lawrence and Kansas. It started with Lotuspool, really at the Lotuspool farm.

CITC: How did William come to know the Lotuspool guys?

MH: Chris Garibaldi, Matt Nalbach, Matt Hyde, and Larry Glasscock had their farmhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. I organized it to have William come out and do some shooting, which is actually documented in A Man Within – the scene where he and I are smoking reefer and talking about Oklahoma.

There is also a cameo of Jeremy Sidener and Chris Garibaldi watching as William shoots a collection of things leaning on a tree. That’s all out at the Lotuspool farm out in the country. And it was rather flat; William was concerned about bullets traveling (laughs), and any marksman who shoots regularly is concerned about that.

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CITC: How did you become interested in William?

MH: When I was in high school, I saw the Re/Search issue with William, Brion Gysin, and Throbbing Gristle at Wax Trax in Chicago, where I used to record shop. That caught my attention. Then I read Naked Lunch, but I really liked the idea of William Burroughs the person more than his writing. I liked what he cultivated in himself, in his image, using all manner of media, oral history, and the stories that surrounded him.

In college I read A Report from the Bunker by Victor Bockris. Everyone from Tennessee Williams to Joe Strummer to Francis Bacon coming by for dinners or drinks in an old converted locker room of a YMCA…dinner conversations – incredibly wasted dinner conversations – the kind that are the best.

CITC: How did you meet him for the first time?

MH: Before I met him, I just came across him – as everybody seemed to – in Dillons on 19th St. because that’s where we all bought our groceries. Or maybe it was at the Town Crier, a newsstand on Mass St. downtown. He comes shuffling up and pokes around really quickly, looking at various magazines on the shelf. His fidgety-ness, his quickness were impressive; I was like, “Wow, that’s William Burroughs.” Then he was gone.

The first time I actually met him was at a party at Wayne Propst’s house. Wayne is a seminal figure in the countercultural history of Lawrence, especially before my generation. He is one of the great raconteurs of all time. As I understand it, he had a bookstore in the 60s, and that was the store that had the underground literature. James Grauerholz was a big part of that whole scene. Those were his people in the late 60s-early 70s. That’s where Allen Ginsberg and the Beat folks went when they came through town, and that’s where James first met Allen. There is a fantastic book called Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You that documents it quite well.

There was a party out at Wayne’s farm. Lawrence had an incredible Art/Farm/Party culture. So Wayne’s throwing this party, and Allen Ginsberg is in town to visit William.

Brian Lefong, whom I would call a conceptual mastermind of pranks and found sculpture, built a contraption called The Bowling Ball Cannon. It was a gas tank used for helium, acetylene, or nitrous. They lopped off the end of it – the bottom of it – and had it packed into the side of the hill, buried. They somehow figured out that a bowling ball would fit snugly in this thing. So they submerged the bowling ball in ice to get the perfect tightness. They packed the rear end or top of the tank with gunpowder then wired the tank to a car battery or a 12-volt battery – similar to something that you’d use to launch a model rocket.

The whole idea of the party revolved around the spectacular launching of this Bowling Ball Cannon. William and Allen were typing messages on old typewriters, and they left the typewriters with the messages still in them. Then they brought the typewriters out to these junker VW Beetles that were out in the middle of the field and proceeded to shoot the Bowling Ball Cannon at and through the cars -which is weird because nothing exploded (laughs); it’s just a bowling ball. But a bowling ball being a powerful force with these holes in the side made the most brilliant, shrill sound [makes whizzing sound]. Right through the car windows and off a hundred yards into the river; it was so absurd and spectacular!

Somehow I ended up sitting in a lawn chair next to William, directly over where The Bowling Ball Cannon was buried. It wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, I’m sitting next to William Burroughs”; but rather, “This Bowling Ball Cannon is going to go BOOM in a minute; let’s have a seat and enjoy the explosions!”

It made a huge sound, and when it went off – the earth moved beneath our lawn chairs. I think we went airborne for a second. Major rush (laughs). William was absolutely pleased with getting jolted by that. I could hear the ice rattle in his drink.

Yeah, it was a hot afternoon in Lawrence. William had his signature vodka and Coke, and we were passing around a joint. We just started conversing…he mentioned something about snakes. I’m a huge fan of reptiles and amphibians. They were everywhere outside my back door as a child in Orland Park and have been with me all along. The conversation just kept going from there. I remember William rattling off different kinds of venom produced by various poisonous snakes.

During that same time period, I was helping a metal sculptor named George Kaull out in his studio. George was my friend Arianna Leamon’s grandfather, and he was getting up there in age – a couple years older than William. I didn’t know at the time that he and William were friends. These things just kind of happened all at once.

At some point, I think I was telling James about it. And he thought it would be a good idea to get them together more.

CITC: When did that get organized? Was Chris there when you did the shooting?

MH: Yes. Chris was there for that first time. The Lotuspool guys had figured out a good spot on the back 40 of their farm to do target shooting. First, they were shooting cans off the fence behind the house, but then I think it progressed to heavier artillery. That’s when they found the spot in the back lot. Once Chris told me about that, I made the call to James and William.

 

CITC: Was William’s enthusiasm for guns infectious?

MH: Absolutely. I would have never on my own had such an inclination. His collection, his knowledge, his stories – he was like, “Go ahead, try this one. Be careful, it kicks like a mule!” He was game for all of it. Even Allen Ginsberg would get into the action when he came along.

To me the target shooting was most important, but it was also about the spectacle. Somehow someone would show up with a high-powered rifle used for hunting big game and some watermelons and basically blow the watermelon to the next county. Or someone would bring out clay. We’d blow up wet clay into these grotesque and beautiful shapes, then put them in the kiln – that was a great project. Rick Rodriguez and I set up that one. There was always something to shoot besides a target. I wouldn’t say I am a gun enthusiast, but I enjoyed the experience immensely.

I remember William owning a Magnum that was like the one Bronson used in Death Wish II or III. When I shot it, the skin between my thumb and forefinger came right off! Lots of that type of stuff – and plenty of joints being fired up. It all just seemed so easy and right and natural (laughs).

CITC: Was William still writing at this point?

MH: Often I would go by and pay a visit to his house after I got off work around 3:00 pm, and he was always writing, reading, making notes, and engaged that way.

CITC: What was the house like?

MH: The house was a modest Sears bungalow. It was built in the same year as the address of the house. It was a kit house, a catalog house. Your typical wood-frame bungalow from the 20s, with a nice open basement, two little bedrooms, and a bathroom off to the side on the first floor, a front room, a little dining room, and a kitchen in back. No second floor. Rear porch. All you need.

CITC: So he lived pretty modestly. Did he have lots of books?

MH: He seemed to have a healthy amount but nothing outrageous or mammoth…you know how record nerds are with their collections (laughs) – it wasn’t like that.

William had a life-size Mugwump.

CITC: That’s right; I heard Cronenberg gave that to him.

MH: Yeah (laughs), it was sitting propped up on his back porch.

CITC: Did William ever lose his aura for you as one of the great writers of the 20th century?

MH: I just stumbled into the situation really, through music and my own personal interests in life. As soon as we started doing more of the shoots with him…I worked in a place called Community Living Opportunities for adults with disabilities – I was a caregiver for adults mostly with autism. My friend Al Levine, who had a band called The Love Squad in Lawrence, was there a lot. He worked for WSB Communications. I would take George to see William. William really liked George and vice versa. They were quite good friends. It was a joy to be able to facilitate getting them together.

George’s health declined, and he passed away earlier than William – you could see it coming. William really appreciated his relationship with George – he told me that often.

What I could add as an able-bodied person was that I could coordinate the shoots and visits with George. I think James appreciated it because he had plenty of his own stuff to do with the business and, moreover, because he was a musician and creative force in his own right.

The specialness, the uniqueness of it never wore off because William was the bard, the medicine man. He always had insight to offer, theatrics that were spellbinding, and I always learned a hell of a lot from interacting and listening to him.

CITC: It sounds like you enriched William’s life and he enriched yours.

MH: Perhaps. Maybe because of my enthusiasm. I had an iguana, and he loved snakes, loved the reptiles and amphibians. He would come over and feed my iguana yellow squash. His name was Chumley. He’d say, “Chumley – how’s Chumley doing?” (laughs).

He came over to my apartment, he was taking a look at my artwork and such, and I had a picture of a Zoom flyer I was making with a bullfighter. Zoom had a bullfighter motif, which I credit Jeremy Sidener with initiating. He looked at it and said “Ah, Manolete. One of the greatest… Have you ever read Death in the Afternoon by Hemingway? I’ve got a copy for you to borrow.” So he made sure to give me his copy of Death in the Afternoon. He was a good friend in that way. He was a loaner of his stuff. To have William Burroughs turn you on to a Hemingway book that you never read with William’s penciled-in notes was almost too much to handle!

He was very generous with his enthusiasm and knowledge. That to me was the William S. Burroughs I was most interested in.

CITC: How did Ginsberg fit in?

MH: From my perspective he was like the first line of defense for William when he was in Lawrence – very protective. The first time I encountered Allen, I had come over for an after-work visit and he answered the door with: “Who are you? What do you want?” (laughs). It took a whole afternoon of hanging out with him to finally break the ice, and by that time, of course, he was hitting on me full force (laughs). I was like, “Okay, you’ve come full circle.”

CITC: I’ve seen images of Burroughs with Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain, and Sonic Youth at William’s house. How aware was he of indie rock at that point when you guys met?

MH: He was certainly aware, but it was obviously not his priority. He seemed to be into a mystic, naturalist phase of being on the planet for the remainder of his course.

People in Lawrence were tremendously protective of him in the coolest way. Hip kids could’ve been geeking out exponentially and harassing him, but they didn’t. He had a great life there. Inevitably, the uninvited guests would stop by – the über fans, but he always seemed very gracious. He had an endless stream of dignitaries from the art, music, and literary worlds just coming through constantly. It was unbelievable.

I remember walking down the street in Lawrence and Ornette Coleman was on Mass St. I was like, “What?!?” (laughs). You know? Ornette Coleman! William and James’ presence affected the culture of Lawrence with such powerful and positive force.

The musicians there – everyone – just let it be. They just let it be. And by that, he came into my life in an amazing way.

CITC: Your band, Zoom, was getting started during the period when you knew William. Tell me about Zoom.

MH: Zoom started at the tail end of 1990 – the fall of 1990…

We took over the rehearsal space of a seminal band from Lawrence, The Ultraviolets. It was above a garage – an auto shop owned by Jerry Landers, drummer of The Ultraviolets.

We made our first demos very quickly and just practiced, practiced, practiced. We went to Jeff (J.J.) Johnson’s studio Holly Hills (or Holy Hell as Mott-ly from Mudhead called it.). It was near The Paseo, in a sketchy part of K.C. He recorded The Cocktails, Kill Whitey, The Ultraviolets, Mudhead, The Pedaljets, etc… He did all kinds of stuff. He had a mixing console that belonged to Sly Stone at one point! We recorded there, did a couple demos, made a first kind of cassette tape thing, got that circulating around, played a few Midwestern shows – just kind of slowly built things up.

I wrote the songs, brought them to the other guys, they said yay or nay, and we just kind of took off from there. Gigs started coming, and then shows out of town started coming. Our first out-of-town gig was at Gabe’s in Iowa City…

 

CITC: Briefly, would you describe Zoom’s sound?

MH: Zoom mutated tremendously over the short three-and-half-year time period that we were together. I think it started out being a balls-to-the-wall Thin Lizzy-like monster riff pop – music with a lot of harmony. I don’t know if you could call it power pop? Maybe so.

CITC: What’s the relationship between Lotuspool and Zoom?

MH: Chris Garibaldi and Matt Hyde were friends of mine from way back. I met Chris in junior high. Matt Nalbach and I go back as far as what I would call my first band – one of those bands that never were. Just a practice or two in Matt’s basement, but a kick start for all of us. Matt and I went to grade school together, and we tried to jam in fifth grade – maybe 1980, I think.

This was in Western Springs. Scott Hartley was most pivotal to all this. I met Scott my summer going into fifth grade in school band and basketball camp. Scott and I started a serious band called The Locals in sixth grade and continued various incarnations through sophomore year of high school. He and I were peas in a pod, musically. We went through a tremendous musical growth together. Scott is my dearest musical soul brother.

Matt Hyde as well, another founder of the Lotuspool operation – we all went through high school bands together. We played in different bands (laughs), probably supported and simultaneously dissed each other’s bands, but it was all energizing!

We remained friends through college. We were all home and at a party that the keyboard player from The Locals, Eric Buer was throwing – we were all very tight from that point on.

Chris and Matt Nalbach were in a band called Grab Ankles, and they were about to go record with Albini. I really liked the Grab Ankles’ stuff a lot – I liked the sense of humor that Chris and Matt brought to the bands they were in. Matt is a great musician and engineer.

CITC: What did Grab Ankles sound like?                                       

MH: It was partially noisy pop; it was partially humor; it was partially, dare-I-say-it, Ween-ish – nerdy, brainy with a little bit of metal thrown in there. They were their own thing – I was very impressed with that.

CITC: How did those guys find out about Lawrence?

MH: I told them about Lawrence. Chris Garibaldi and Scott Hartley were going to the University of Missouri at Columbia, and that was two and a half hours away. Matt Nalbach and Larry Glasscock were in Iowa City, which was about five hours away. So they would come down to Lawrence every once in a while. Matt Hyde was living in Chicago, working on the road with different bands and was ready for something different.

Luckily, Zoom waswell received by folks in Lawrence. Things were just really going along well for us. Local DJs just played the dickens out of the local stuff, and the Zoom songs just got on there, the disc jockeys just liked it, everybody in Lawrence listened to KJHK; we played all the time on KJHK. We started playing the Crossing, which was the greatest little dive-y bar. The whole place would just stink up – it was just wonderful!

Everything in Lawrence at that time was really, really percolating. There were endless places to play – at least 10 different places to play shows – endless house parties to play. And there were people organizing shows all the time, like at the Outhouse. You just go out on a weekend night and run around the hill, and you’d go to two or three house parties and then to regular bars and clubs.

And I think all the guys that I went to grade school or high school with – Garibaldi, Hyde, and Nalbach – all these guys were very impressed with it.

I don’t ever recall having to lobby them to come down. They just did it. There wasn’t a hard sell at all. Chris said, “Hey, I want to start a label. I want to have Zoom be the first band.”

And at that time, there was all this crazy major label courting going on in Lawrence, Kansas, back in the days when that was actually somewhat of a big deal (laughs). Paw got signed to A&M Records, recording with Butch Vig in Madison, Wisconsin. Kansas was in on the grunge explosion thing. Kill Whitey were playing, and they were big. They just did these incredible live performances, not to mention having one of the most incendiary names (laughs). I still wear my Kill Whitey hat around – it freaks both Black and White people out and everybody in-between tones. I went to a screening of a Black Panthers’ movie here on the West Side of Chicago, and the older Chicago Black Panthers were nervous and weirded out by it (laughs).

 

CITC: Why do you think that Lawrence hasn’t been mythologized to the extent that Athens, Minneapolis, and Seattle have?

MH: That’s a good question. I think if you really look back at the long history of recording from maybe the 80s to the mid-90s, I don’t think there were a whole lot of great recordings, despite having J.J. Johnson in Kansas City. With Zoom, I wouldn’t have thought for a second about recording in Lawrence. We always recorded out of town. With the exception of when Matt Nalbach lived in Lawrence, and we did a couple of tracks with him. Actually, now that I think about it, James Graeurholz had an excellent and very important studio in his home called Hairball. It wasn’t full service by any means but rather a creative outlet for James when the spirit moved him. His songs and style are amazing! Zoom recorded our last and still unreleased song there. Panel Donor recorded their astounding first album there, and James released what I consider a very important document of the times, “Cough It Up”: The Hairball Story compilation on Tim Kerr Records. Zoom, William & James were all label-mates on a Portland imprint, but that’s a whole other article…

Kansas City and Lawrence were cities that talked back and forth with each other. You’d always go to Kansas City to play.

CITC: So there wasn’t really a Butch Vig figure or a Mitch Easter figure or somebody like that in Lawrence?

MH: That’s exactly it. There wasn’t a brainiac recording visionary. There wasn’t an Albini. Just like any music scene that you listen to or study, will always have that, and I think Lawrence was missing that.

CITC: You were talking about the heavy power pop stuff – I was wondering about how you felt when Nirvana broke in ’91-’92.

MH: I thought it was great. I saw them in ’89 at the Outhouse.

 

CITC: They were playing the Bleach material?

MH: Yeah, they had that other drummer, that Chad guy, and they were opening for 24-7 Spyz. The Bad Brains vibe was so huge at the time – and so everyone was like, “Oh, another band that sounds like Bad Brains.” It packed the place.

Beforehand, Nirvana played, and it wasn’t packed. I was very impressed because Kurt Cobain had a long jean jacket on with a very nice embroidered The Thing comic character on the back of his jacket. It was somebody’s 70s’ jacket that I imagine he thrifted. But it was really nice, and I was like, “That guy has a really good sense of fashion.” And he had a white SG.

The next time I saw them, they played the Student Union, and that was the very beginning of the Nevermind tour. They sucked, but Urge Overkill were fantastic!

CITC: Another band with strong Lotuspool connections was Poster Children, who were making their seminal records during the Nirvana years. What’s your take on Poster Children?

MH: They were enormously important to me. Mrs. Valentin, Rick and Jim’s mother, was my librarian in junior high. Jim was a year older than me. The Valentins lived in the next grade school zone over from me, Forest Hills. I was in the Clark School zone.

Mrs. Valentin used to stock our junior high library with great cassette tapes, like Who’s Next, 2112, David Bowie – really great classic stuff. We used to go to the library and listen to that during school library hours – very important to me.

By the time I was a freshman in high school at LT, Rick had gone to Champaign. Rick didn’t know me, but I knew about him. He was about four years older than I was. My mother worked in school district 101 and helped me get a janitorial job. Rick and Jim’s mom did the same for them. Nepotism at work! I took over Rick’s summer job of cleaning Forest Hills while he was away at college.

I didn’t know initially that his band was Poster Children. I was introduced to Poster Children in ’90, in Lawrence through KJHK. Then I remember seeing them at the Cabaret Metro, and they were doing a Wednesday Spring Break college night-type thing with 13 Nightmares, The Hollowmen, and The Phantom Helmsmen.

Poster Children came on, and they were fantastic! Utterly mindblowing!! I cannot overstate my enthusiasm. Very rhythmically-oriented and hard sounding. Then I found out, “Oh, that’s Rick’s band!” (laughs). I’m watching, and Rick had this long bowl cut, and his hair was just all over his face. I had no idea who he was. Bob Rising was a monster drummer. I think they were a three piece then. They were all so physically into playing this great music. I was up in the balcony watching the show just thinking, “This band’s amazing!” Matt Hyde told me later that it was Rick’s band. From then on I was just a superfan…

 

I can’t say enough about their music. Those first two albums, and even the third… When Flower Plower and Daisychain Reaction came out, I remember I worked with their friend Byron. Again, cleaning grade schools. There’s a song called “Byron’s Song” on Flower Plower. He would say, “Rick has trouble coming up with names for songs, and I happened to be around, so he just used my name.”

Daisychain Reaction was recorded with Albini, and when that record came out, I was like, “Well, forget it.” That was the be-all-end-all statement for me. Even though the vocals were buried. I saw them play at the Cubby Bear. They were playing before the Blue Meanies, who were a frat-oriented ska-band-type thing. But Poster Children came on in their full power with Bob Rising and Jeff Dimpsey. I must say it was one of the top five shows I’ve ever seen in my life. I know Rick and Rose always try to downplay the primal gut-based heaviness for a more academically-bred “art-oriented” appeal, but at one point, they were the BEST there ever was with those sonic tools and that simple feeling.

CITC: What is Poster Children’s legacy?

MH: People in the know always give full credit. They were such oddballs, completely straight edge but not preachy straight edge – nerdy…reserved, incredibly hard working…Rose was a bit more social. I think Rick was very conscious of image. I have complete respect for his ideas.

I believe Smashing Pumpkins were completely influenced by their sound.

Once Daisychain Reaction came out, it inspired us to do our own thing and work harder. We played with them once at the Bottleneck in Lawrence in ‘92 That was one of the best nights of my life. It was like, here’s my favorite band…I’d literally told everyone about Poster Children. I was like a P.R. guy. I couldn’t shut up.

 

  • Nick

    Let me start by saying excellent article from top to bottom. Kudos Carousel for seeking out the story and Thank-God for Facebook, or this might not have caught my attention…

    I just want to go on the record stating that I fronted vocals for a band with Mark Henning and Scott Hartley called ‘Clutch and the Cargoes’, back in ’84 and it bothers me that he so carefully chose to omit this slightly more-than-significant chapter from the historical timeline.

    At the time I was a Senior and they were Freshmen. Let me say that it was nothing short of an ENORMOUS deal that someone of my age and stature would agree to such a trivial venture. The personal risks were substantial. Did I understand I might be being used as a conduit so that they might enjoy a bit of ‘leg’ from the upper class females? Of course. Was I aware that my post-pubescent size and strength were being manipulated to move a disproportional amount of heavy gear, or carry extremely ‘bulky’ palm trees up flights of stairs so that Mark and Scott could convey a more tropical mood? Sure. Did I mind that they wanted to move beyond a twenty minute version of ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’? Yes. I didn’t see the point in ‘scaring’ our demographic with unfamiliar material. Do I feel a bit burned by all of it. Absolutely.

    I knew what was underfoot once the bolo ties and pressed white button down shirts started showing up at rehearsal. I knew something was wrong when the music took a darker, more ‘tribal’ turn and ‘What I Like About You’ was crossed off the set list. It was a crystal clear signal that my collection of Panama Jack hats and Hawaiian shirts were no longer needed on this ship. I mean they didn’t even have the decency to verbalize my dismissal; I just to take my cue like a man and made my exit from their stage. For good… And I’ve never looked back since.

    Well there you have it. I’ve clarified my side of story I can feel reassured that it won’t go unnoticed by those who see this article in the future. So despite whatever Mark says, people can know the whole truth behind the magic (which is still there by the way.)…

    -Nick S.