Although “The “Priest” They Called Him” might be the most obscure thing in Kurt Cobain’s discography, it’s probably the best selling musical collaboration of William S, Burroughs’s recording career. Basically, in 1992, Cobain contacted his hero, Burroughs about doing something together. Burroughs sent him a tape of a reading he’d done of a short story originally published in his Exterminator collection in 1973 and Cobain added some guitar backing based on “Silent Night” and “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
It was originally released as a limited edition 10-inch EP picture disc on Tim/Kerr Records in 1993, it was subsequently re-released on CD and 10-inch vinyl.
At the time of the collaboration, however, the two had not met. In a carefully prepared “dossier” on the subject found on the web’s premiere Burroughs website, The Reality Studio, their eventual meeting is described thusly, via several sources:
In October 1993 Cobain met in Burroughs in Lawrence, KS.
During this first week of the tour, Alex MacLeod drove Kurt to Lawrence, Kansas, to meet William S. Burroughs. The previous year Kurt had produced a single with Burroughs titled The “Priest” They Called Him, on T/K Records, but they’d accomplished the recording by sending tapes back and forth. “Meeting William was a real big deal for him,” MacLeod remembered. “It was something he never thought would happen.” They chatted for several hours, but Burroughs later claimed the subject of drugs didn’t come up. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant. “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”
—Charles R. Cross, Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
Burroughs describes the meeting… “I waited and Kurt got out with another man. Cobain was very shy, very polite, and obviously enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t awestruck at meeting him. There was something about him, fragile and engagingly lost. He smoked cigarettes but didn’t drink. There were no drugs. I never showed him my gun collection.” The two exchanged presents — Burroughs gave him a painting, while Cobain gave him a Leadbelly biography that he had signed. Kurt and music video director Kevin Kerslake originally wanted Burroughs to appear in the video for “In Bloom.”
—Carrie Borzillo, Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle:
“I’ve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half,” Cobain says with a discernible relief in his voice. “I’m still kind of mesmerized by it.” He ticks off the reasons for his content: “Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.
– Rolling Stone interview, 25 October 1993
Cobain killed himself on 5 April 1994.
In Lawrence, meanwhile, William Burroughs sat poring over the lyric sheet of In Utero. There was surely poignancy in the sight of the eighty-year-old author, himself no stranger to tragedy, scouring Cobain’s songs for clues to his suicide. In the event he found only the “general despair” he had already noted during their one meeting. “The thing I remember about him is the deathly grey complexion of his cheeks. It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs is one of those who feel Cobain “let down his family” and “demoralized the fans” by committing suicide.
– Christopher Sandford, Kurt Cobain
Read more at The Reality Studio
Below, detail from a mixed media collage that Burroughs sent Kurt Cobain for this 27th birthday.