The ‘lost’ art of William Burroughs’ mind-bending unpublished graphic novel, ‘Ah Pook is Here’
05:31 pm


William Burroughs
Malcolm McNeill

When William S. Burroughs’ novella “Ah Pook Is Here” was published in 1979, it was in a form greatly diminished from the authors’ original intent. That’s not a typo, because although it was Burroughs who wrote the text that was published, there were two creators of the far more elaborate work that it was cleaved from, Burroughs and Malcolm McNeill, a then 23-year-old illustrator.

Burroughs’ apocalyptic text tells the story of a megalomaniac bastard (an “Ugly American” based on a powerful media tycoon like William Randolph Hearst or Henry Luce) who acquires the powers of the Mayan death god, Ah Puch. Conceived as “continuous panorama,” with accordion-style, linked pages in the pictographic format of the surviving Mayan codices—“an early comic book” as per Burroughs—the project, seven years in the making, consisted of over 100 detailed illustrations by McNeill, 30 in full color, and about 50 pages of text. “Ah Puch is Here” (as it was originally titled) would have been prohibitively expensive to publish at the time, but it was also rather racy and sexually explicit—including male on male imagery—meaning the pool of potential publishers was certainly very, very small to begin with.

As Burroughs wrote in the forward to the 1979 book:

“[O]ver the years of our collaboration Malcolm McNeill produced more than a hundred pages of artwork. However, owing partly to the expense of full color reproduction, and because the book falls into neither the category of the conventional illustrated book, nor that of a comix publication, there have been difficulties with the arrangements for the complete work. The book is in fact unique…”

That it was. “Ah Puch is Here” wouldn’t have been the first graphic novel—Burroughs’ own American publisher Grove Press had already put out Guy Peellaert and Pierre Barther’s Adventures of Jodelle as well as Massins’ graphic interpretation of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano... There was Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella, Michael O’Donoghue’s The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist, Guido Crepax’s “Valentina” series, The Adventures of Tintin, lots of stuff comes to mind, but in the main these books were collections of episodic comic strips, not “serious” narratives originally conceived of to fit between two book covers or that would have required luxurious glossy printing to properly display the highly detailed Hieronymous Bosch-inspired photorealistic artwork within… Unique yes, then as now.

Burroughs collaboration with McNeill began in 1970, when the author was living in London and McNeill was an art student. Without any communication between them, McNeil illustrated Burroughs’ submissions to Cyclops magazine, “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” and impressed him enough so that he wanted to meet the young artist. (It’s worth noting that McNeil scarcely had any idea who Burroughs was at the time, even so, he drew Mr. Hart, the villain, to look a lot like a younger version of El Hombre Invisible.)

After a year of museum research and preliminary design on a mockup, Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Books imprint agreed to publish the “Ah Puch” book and McNeil moved to San Francisco to work on it. Straight Arrow was shuttered in 1974 and eventually the project was abandoned before the text portion alone saw the light of day in Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts in 1979. Malcolm McNeil went on to a distinguished career as an illustrator for the likes of National Lampoon, Marvel Comics and The New York Times and a motion graphics designer and director for film, advertising and television, including winning an Emmy for his work for Saturday Night Live. (This will be of interest to no one save for fellow vets of the 1980s New York advertising world, but McNeil’s Paintbox work was synonymous with Charlex, the NYC-based video production house probably best known for The Cars’ “You Might Think” video, dozens of TV show openings and hundreds of commercials.)

After some 30 years in storage, the by now fragile “Ah Puck is Here” artwork was restored by Malcolm McNeill for exhibition, and was shown at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, the Saloman Arts Gallery in Manhattan and elsewhere.

Fantagraphics have published two separate Ah Pook books, one a gorgeous coffee table book of McNeil’s extraordinary panoramic illustrations for the Burroughs collaboration, The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel and a memoir, Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me, an intimate, affectionate portrait of their unlikely friendship and multi-year/multi-continent joint project.

The first book has very little text, and although it’s impossible to make heads or tails out of what is going on with the drawings alone, trust me, you get a very good sense of the epicness of the vision and also see some of what would have made 99% of the publishers of the 1970s very squeamish. Sadly, for reasons McNeil politely declines to go too far in-depth about, he was denied the use of Burroughs’ text for the Fantagraphics publication by his estate and this is a real shame.

However, if you have a copy of truncated 1979 Ah Pook Is Here (I do) it becomes an even more satisfying excuse to dive in deeply on the detective work and match passages from the text to the artwork. If you’re interested enough to purchase the coffee table book, surely you are going to have to rush over to eBay or ABEBooks and get yourself a copy of Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts, just bear that in mind.

Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me, the memoir and the third book in this trilogy, is no less essential for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of what made Burroughs tick, and should, along with the artwork that was regretfully parted from WSB’s text, be seen as one of the most exciting things to come along in Burroughs scholarship in recent years. It is, by far, the most observational—and highly personal/subjective, which makes it fun—look at Burroughs produced by any of his friends or collaborators. McNeil is a fine writer—the man must be a superb raconteur—and he never forgets who the book is really about.

I must say, as a longtime William Burroughs fanatic, I was wowed by McNeil’s twinned Fantagraphics books (which are beautiful matching objects) and spellbound by his tales of working with Burroughs. There are really three books here that you need, so it’s not a cheap proposition to acquire the lot, but if you’re a big Burroughs fanboy, it’s certainly well worth the expense.

Furthermore, if you’re so inclined Malcolm McNeil is selling very reasonably priced limited edition prints of several of his incredible “Ah Pook” panels.


The Dead City Radio recording of Burroughs reading “Ah Puck is Here” provides the soundtrack to this amazing short animated film directed by Philip Hunt with music by John Cale.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
The Stratospheric Colossus of Sound: Meet Frank Zappa’s mentor, Edgard Varèse
08:14 am


Frank Zappa
Edgard Varèse

We partly have French-American experimental, modernist, avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse to thank for The Mothers of Invention.

When Frank Zappa was a teenager, a musical prodigy living in rural Lancaster, California, he idolized Varèse. He tracked down The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One after a year’s search (this is what life was like before on-line ordering) and studied it obsessively. Zappa was graciously permitted an expensive long-distance phone call to Varèse’s home as a fifteenth birthday present from his mother. He ended up talking to Varèse’s wife, the famed literary translator Louise McCutcheon Varèse, instead, as Varèse was out of the country.

The young Zappa eagerly sought out a correspondence with the man he considered his mentor. Varèse wrote to him, describing his current work (Déserts) and telling Zappa to visit him if he ever came to New York. Zappa wrote an earnest and impassioned letter to him at 16 while visiting relatives in Baltimore, asking to visit him. He did speak to Varèse on the phone eventually, but the two men never met.

Zappa wrote to Varèse:

...It might seem strange but ever since I was 13 I have been interested in your music. The whole thing stems from the time when the keeper of this little record store sold me your album “The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol.l .” The only reason I knew it existed was that an article in either LOOK or the POST mentioned it as being noisy and unmusical and only good for trying out the sound systems in high fidelity units (referring to your “IONISATIONS”). I don’t know how the store I got it from ever obtained it, but, after several hearings, I became curious and bought it for $5.40, which, at the time seemed awfully high and being so young, kept me broke for three weeks. Now I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I am looking around for another copy as the one I have is very worn and scratchy.

After I had struggled through Mr. Finklestein’s notes on the back cover (I really did struggle too, for at the time I had had no training in music other than practice at drum rudiments) I became more and more interested in you and your music. I began to go to the library and take out books on modern composers and modern music, to learn all I could about Edgard Varèse. It got to be my best subject (your life) and I began writing my reports and term papers on you at school. At one time when my history teacher asked us to write on an American that has really done something for the U.S.A. I wrote on you and the Pan American Composers League and the New Symphony. I failed. The teacher had never heard of you and said I made the whole thing up. Silly but true. That was in my Sophomore year in high school.

Throughout my life all the talents and abilities that God has left me with have been self developed, and when the time came for Frank to learn how to read and write music, Frank taught himself that too. I picked it all up from the library.

I have been composing for two years now, utilizing a strict twelve-tone technique, producing effects that are reminiscent of Anton Webern.

During those two years I have written two short woodwind quartets and a short symphony for winds, brass and percussion.

Recently I have been earning my keep at home with my blues band, the BLACKOUTS. We have done quite well and in my association with my fellow musicians I am learning to play other instruments besides drums…

I plan to go on and be a composer after college and I could really use the counsel of a veteran such as you. If you would allow me to visit with you for even a few hours it would be greatly appreciated.

It may sound strange but I think I have something to offer you in the way of new ideas. One is an elaboration on the principle of Ruth Seeger’s contrapuntal dynamics and the other is an extension of the twelve-tone technique which I call the inversion square. It enables one to compose harmonically constructed pantonal music in logical patterns and progressions while still abandoning tonality.

Varèse became involved with the New York Dadaist circle upon moving to America as a young artist in 1915. His 1931 piece, Ionisation, mentioned in Zappa’s letter, was written for percussion instruments only. Varèse met and planned to work with Soviet inventor Léon Theremin, whose invention of the electronic musical instrument of the same name fascinated Varèse. His interest in electronic music, including the revolutionary musique concrète, frustratingly overreached what was technologically available to him at the time.

Surrealist Theatre of Cruelty pioneer Antonin Artaud wrote a libretto for Varèse’s futuristic, science-fiction stage drama, L’Astronome (The Astronomer), but the project was abandoned when Varèse become distracted by a different composition, Espace. Author Henry Miller wrote the libretto for the also unfinished Espace, describing Varèse’s music as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound”.

Varèse’s influence cast a long shadow on Zappa’s massive body of work. The Mothers of Invention’s first album, Freak Out!, includes “In Memoriam, Edgar Varèse,” the second movement of “Help, I’m A Rock.” Zappa’s final project in July 1993 was The Rage and the Fury, a recording of Varèse’s music. Zappa said,  “Varèse’s music has never been given the credit it deserves and I believe it’s because the technology was never there to record the compositions properly.”




Varèse’s Offrandes conducted by Pierre Boulez, a longtime champion of his work, with Anna Steiger soloist.

Previously on Dangerous Minds
Poème Électronique: Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse & Xenakis Collaborate, 1958

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright | Discussion
Stan Getz on Jazz, drugs and robbery: ‘I’m sorry for the crazy thing I did’
08:22 am


Stan Getz

In April 1954, Stan Getz wrote from the jail ward of the Los Angeles General Hospital to the Editor of DownBeat magazine explaining how he had been busted in Seattle for (as Popsie Randolph put it) “holdin’ up a drugstore to get money to buy some stuff.”

Getz was one of the most talented saxophonists of his day, and had been a featured tenor sax since he was sixteen-years-old. He was also addicted to heroin, which caused the various behavioral antics that led Zoot Sims to describe him as “a nice bunch of guys.”

According to drummer Don Lamond, Getz’s early career success had never allowed him “a chance to grow up.”

“And you know how it was during the war. There weren’t any bands. There was nobody for these kids to dig except for a few guys who happened to be around, and some of those guys were on junk. And you know how kids are. Everything their idols did was right. So the kids did it too.

“Stan was an impressionable kid like many of them. And he was a spoiled kid, coddled all his life. The tragedy is that I can’t think of anyone who has more talent. Stan is a natural musician. He has a fabulous ear, imagination, a retentive memory. What else do you need?”

At a loose end in Seattle in 1954, Getz needed junk.

In his letter to Down Beat, Getz began by declaring he had many things to say, “excluding excuses, regrets, and promises.”

Promises from me at this point mean nothing; starting when I am released is when my actions will count.

His actions in Seattle was what he wanted to explain, and to understand.

What happened in Seattle was inevitable. Me coming to the end of my rope. I shouldn’t have been withdrawing myself from narcotics while working and traveling. With the aid of barbiturates, I thought I could do it. Seattle was the eighth day of the tour and I could stand no more. (Stan you said no excuses.) Going into this drugstore, I demanded more narcotics. I said I had a gun (didn’t).

The lady behind the counter evidently didn’t believe I had a gun so she told another customer. He, in turn, took a look at me and laughed, saying, ‘Lady, he’s kidding you. He has no gun.’ I guess I didn’t look the part. Having flopped at my first ‘caper’ (one of the terms I’ve learned up here), I left the store and went to my hotel. When I was in my room I decided to call the store and apologize. In doing so, the call was traced and my incarceration followed.

The woman behind-the-counter was Mary Brewster. When she asked to see Getz’s gun, he fled the drugstore, and ran directly to his hotel across the street, as other customers watched. When Getz ‘phoned Mary to apologize, a policeman was listening in. Gettz said:

“I’m sorry for the crazy thing I did. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m not a stick-up man. I’m from a good family. I’m going to commit myself on Wednesday.” Brewster asks “Why don’t you commit yourself today?” “I can’t. If I don’t get drugs, I’ll kill.

The cop on the phone spoke up, pretending to be a doctor and asked if he can help. Stan blurted out his life’s story. The “doctor” said he was coming right over to help. Locked in his room, despairing and ashamed, Stan tried to kill himself by swallowing a fistful of barbiturates. The police knocked on his door minutes later, and run him in for booking. A photograph of Stan in the back seat of a patrol car, looking sick and scared, was flashed over the news wire services. The overdose of barbiturates took effect minutes after he was locked up and he collapsed.

In his letter to Down Beat, Getz explained explained his attempted suicide.

My ‘dope poisoning’ was sixty grains of a long-acting barbiturate that I swallowed en route to jail. I’d had enough of me and my antics.

An emergency tracheotomy was carried out to save Getz’s life. When he came round from his drug coma three days later, he found himself lying on a hospital bed at the Harbor Haven County Hospital, with a breathing tube in his throat.

Getz was sentenced to six months in jail, and three years probation. In his summing-up, the judge said:

“You have talent, family and a good background, but despite an income of a thousand dollars a week, you are not only broke, but your family is living under deplorable conditions. They are sleeping on the floor while you travel in luxury spending money on yourself - and doing what comes naturally.

“You’re a poor excuse for a man. If you can’t behave yourself, someone else is going to have to look after you… It’s time you grew up.”

Getz was admitted to the jail ward at the LA General Hospital, where his detox began. At the very moment he was being processed to the prison ward, his addicted wife was downstairs, giving birth to their daughter Beverly.

In jail, Getz received incredible support (through letters, telegrams and ‘phonecalls) that helped him through his moment of despair. Though he was not a religious man, the experience showed him that “there was a God, not above us but here on earth in the warm hearts of people.”



Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Before the punk rock comedy of ‘The Young Ones’ Rik Mayall was investigative reporter ‘Kevin Turvey’
07:24 am


The Young Ones
Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall was fearless. In the early 1980s, when British stand-up comedy was chubby blokes in too tight dinner jackets telling jokes about wives, mother-in-laws and ethnic groups, Rik Mayall would walk on stage, looking like a Bowie-fan circa Heroes and recite poetry about his love for Vanessa Redgrave and the theater. Audiences were aghast and unsure whether Mayall was genuinely an angry socialist poet ranting about theater or some kind of bizarre amateur stand-up comic taking time out from his sociology degree.

Mayall was part of the disparate group of comics who were filed under “A” for “Alternative Comedy.” Ye olde comics didn’t like these cheeky young comics, because they didn’t have punchlines, and couldn’t understand why younger audiences found them funny.

From the Comedy Store in London, these Alternative comics made their early appearances on shows such as the rather excellent Boom Boom Out Go The Lights, which launched Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Keith Allen, Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson, and (the sadly forgotten) late-nite-live entertainment series, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, hosted by amongst others, the avuncular Ned Sherrin, the man responsible for That Was The Week That Was and producing musicals like Side-by_Side by Sondheim. Friday Night, Saturday Morning gave air time to Mayall and Edmondson (as Twentieth Century Coyote) and The Outer Limits (Planer and Richardson). These four would later regroup with Keith Allen, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Robbie Coltrane as The Comic Strip Presents… for Channel 4 in 1982.

Yet, before all that, and even before Rik and co. “kicked in the doors of British comedy” with The Young Ones in 1982, Mayall starred as intrepid investigative Redditch reporter Kevin Turvey on A Kick Up The Eighties—the show which launched Tracy Ullman, Robbie Coltrane, and Mayall, alongside more established actors/performers Miriam Margolyes, Roger Sloman, Ron Bain and Richard Stilgoe. Produced by comedy supremo, Colin Gilbert for BBC Scotland, A Kick Up The Eighties was a mix of Alternative and traditional comedy, which set the tone for other sketch shows such as Naked Video, and (to an extent) even Ben Elton’s Alfresco (with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Siobhan Redmond and Robbie Coltrane).

The stand-out segment of A Kick Up The Eighties was Mayall’s superb “Kevin Turvey Investigates” which presented one of the most brilliant, original and hilarious comic creations of the 1980s. The character’s success led to a one-off “mockumentary” The Man Behind the Green Door in 1982, which starred, Mayall as Turvey, with Coltrane as Mick the lodger, Ade Edmondson as Keith Marshall, and Roger Sloman as the park keeper. The story-line is simple: Kevin investigates what’s going on around in his hometown, Redditch. The answer is “not a lot.”

It’s an astonishingly original piece of television that prefigures the style of shows like The Office, and it still retains its comic brilliance more than 30-years later. Enjoy!

Bonus clip of Rik reading his angry poetry, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
The Credibility Gap: The roots of modern political satire
12:23 pm

Pop Culture

The Credibility Gap

Woodschtick and More

The Credibility Gap isn’t referenced all that much anymore, but in its day it was a very important comedy troupe. Its members included both Lenny and Squiggy of future Laverne and Shirley fame (Michael McKean and David L. Lander) and Harry Shearer. With two members of Spinal Tap, its pedigree needs no defending. There had been political humor, of course, including Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, but something about The Credibility Gap was different—it was political satire created for and by the hippie generation, and it was mainstream-ready. It took sardonic scorn at the political powers that be for granted. Its very name, a signifier for the difference between official explanations and the truth, was, as Paul Provenza pointed out, about as succinct a definition of satire as you can get.

The troupe started at Pasadena’s AM radio station KRLA, and none of its early members are today famous. It didn’t take long for young McKean, Lander, and Shearer to show up with resumes and put their ineffable stamp on the proceedings. KRLA had thought of The Credibility Gap as a hipper version of their normal news programming, but the troupe’s edge began to wear on the more conservative news directors there, and the station steadily reduced their spots until finally dropping them in 1970. At the crosstown FM station KPPC, they were given more time and freedom to pursue their demented sketches, but KPPC dropped them in 1971 as well. By that time they had worked up a reputation solid enough that they could take their act on the road.
The Credibility Gap
In 1971 they released their first LP, Woodschtick and More, but their peak was probably 1974’s A Great Gift Idea, in which they poked fun at figures like Johnny Carson and Sly Stone. In “Kingpin” the concept was to imagine a Shaft-style movie about Martin Luther King Jr., as in “He’s got a plan to stick it to the Klan”:

None other than Robert Christgau himself gushed about the album even as he (rightfully) complained about the obvious imperfections of the LP as a medium for political satire (i.e. you can’t see the performers’ faces): “If its humor isn’t unprecedented—and although I am no historian of humor, I think it may be—it is at least radically different from Jose Jimenez, Mort Sahl and the First Family. Its content is different, because it avoids gags, and its form is different, because it is molded to the phonograph record. In other words, it is new comedy—post-FS. … FS refers to Firesign Theater, who if they didn’t invent this kind of humor were the first to get it on record.”

Years later, in Paul Provenza and Dan Dion’s Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians, Michael McKean reminisced about the group:

The Credibility Gap really started in the wake of the RFK assassination in 1968. Everybody was pretty on edge in those days. There was the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Woodstock, and by 1970, when I got there, everybody was pretty politicized, and there was something every day. We’d wake up one day to find out we’d just invaded Cambodia, so we’d do a sketch about that. We were all pretty political, and we did little stuff and big stuff. It was fairly radical for AM radio in the sixties and early seventies. In 1971, we moved to KPPC FM in Pasadena—the other English-language station in Pasadena then—and we got a little bolder. I think we broke the word “asshole” on FM radio. That was ours. A true legacy.

The truth is, The Credibility Gap may have been bracing at the time, but the material has dated, and frankly it doesn’t hold up that well. The humor was “sophisticated” but at times surprisingly obvious—gags like referring to PBS as the “Paid Broadcasting System.” The sensibilty was miles ahead of the material itself—you could import the sensibility lock, stock, and barrel to South Park and scarcely notice the difference.

Shearer, of course, would go on to work on such illustrious projects as Fernwood 2-Night and The Simpsons and his radio program Le Show, while Micheal McKean would have a varied career in the movies and on stage, working frequently with Christopher Guest post-Spinal Tap.

In this video, which dates from 1975, late-night talk show host Tom Snyder himself generously introduces Harry Shearer’s dead-on impersonation of Snyder contending with a mismatched pair, a CIA whistleblower and the investigative reporter for Hustler magazine.

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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