Some artists, like Picasso and Dali, were discovered when they were young and their talents grew to maturity before the public eye. Sometimes, however it takes… well, dying before the art world sits up and takes notice of you, This was certainly the case with Brion Gysin, the Canadian/British painter and author who long stood in the shadows, figuratively speaking, of William S. Burroughs, his lifelong friend and collaborator. Burroughs once said that Brion Gysin was the only man he ever truly respected.
Gysin is an artist whose work must be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Of course this is said about every artist’s work, but it’s particularly true with Brion Gysin. What might appear to be random chicken scratch calligraphy when reproduced in a book, becomes ALIVE when seen in person. Seemingly careless hash marks become scenes of hundreds of people around a bonfire or a crowded Arab marketplace when you’re staring right at it.
The man was a master. And he left an awful lot of work behind. Although there were various Gysin gallery exhibits in New York while he was still alive—I recall being astonished by some large works on paper in a great 1985 show at the Tower Gallery—there was never a museum-level retrospective of Gysin’s work in the United States until 2010 at the New Museum in Manhattan:
One of the things Gysin is best know for is inventing the Dreamachine—a kinetic light sculpture that utilizes flicker effect to induce visions—a drugless turn-on.
FLicKer is a 2008 Canadian documentary about Gysin’s Dreamachine, directed by Nik Sheehan. Kenneth Anger, Marianne Faithfull, Gysin biographer John Geiger, Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, DJ Spooky and yours truly are interviewed.
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a lesser-known project of William S. Burroughs (who wrote the opera’s book) and a somewhat better-known work of Tom Waits (who composed the majority of the music and lyrics). The pair collaborated on the piece at the behest of theatrical visionary Robert Wilson, who staged and directed the avant-garde production which premiered in a German-language version at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on March 31,1990.
The Black Rider is based on a gruesome German folktale with supernatural themes called Der Freischütz, which had previously been made into an opera by the Romantic school composer Carl Maria von Weber. Historically, it is considered to be one of the very first “nationalist” German operas.
The story is simple: A mild-mannered clerk falls in love with a hunter’s daughter and seeks his approval in order to marry. He is offered magic bullets in a Faustian bargain. On the day of their wedding, the final bullet kills his love. He loses his mind and joins other of the devil’s victims in a hellish carnival.
Worth noting that while The Black Rider is based on German folklore, the book has a bit of unavoidable overlap with William Burroughs’ own life, the sordid “William Tell” incident that ended in the death of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico in 1951.
In the late 90s, English language versions of the opera started to occur. In 2004, Robert Wilson and Tom Waits teamed up again for an English language version of The Black Rider that would tour the world. Casts members included performers such as Marianne Faithfull (who essayed the devil character), eccentric Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O’Hara and Richard Strange from The Doctors of Madness. The opera has been staged several times since then by various companies.
Waits’ own version of his songs from The Black Rider came out in 1993 and featured William Burroughs’ distinctive vocalizing on “‘T’ Ain’t No Sin”:
The trouble with classic silent movies is that they can be a bit of a schlep. If you’re not down to read title cards and accept nearly 100-year-old conceptions of cinematic pacing, silent film may not feel like leisurely entertainment. This is why when I suggest folks watch the 1922 Swedish/Danish documentary, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, I strongly recommend they go for the 1968 William S. Burroughs-narrated version.
For one, the Criterion Collection version is 104 minutes long to the ‘68 version’s 77 minutes, cutting out some “fluff.” Bigger doesn’t always mean better, film buffs! Second, you get Burroughs’ genuinely spooky-as-hell voice perfectly setting the mood. Third, the new soundtrack is absolutely amazing! We’re talking weirdo jazz and early groovy synth work. I like a little camp in my horror, but it in no way relegates this classic to kitsch.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages was the most expensive Swedish film ever made at the time, and the movie itself is absolutely beautiful. The high production values are apparent in the elaborate scenery, costumes and props. While the film itself is nominally a documentary chronicling the hysteria surrounding the occult in Europe (primarily during the Middle Ages), most of the actual footage is reenactment of these superstitious delusions. We’re talking satanic masses, sex with the devil, broom rides, and all kinds of black magic.
Based largely on the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th century German guide to witch and demon identification, director Benjamin Christensen makes it perfectly clear that the mass delusion of witchcraft was the true horror, and the inquisitors the real monsters. My favorite part is the depiction of witches cursing the clergy with lust; isn’t that convenient? That way, anytime a priest couldn’t keep it in his pants, he could conveniently blame a woman for seducing/bewitching him! I guess some things never change!
What do you get the Beat-lit enthusiast who has everything? How about one of William S Burroughs’ prescription methadone bottles, filled with rocks from his grave and a shell fired from one of his guns? No lie, this is a thing you can actually obtain. San Francisco’s PBA Galleries are auctioning a MASSIVE collection of books and memorabilia, including, among many wonderful books, a first edition hardcover of Dune, a signed 1959 copy of Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island Of The Mind, a complete run of all 14 issues of Avant Garde magazine, an original drawing by Charles Bukowski, a collection of Henry Miller vinyl records, and a William Burroughs grocery list, disappointingly bereft of ammunition or narcotics. Plenty of marvelous old comics and pulp mags, as well, but nothing else in the auction even comes close to the methadone bottle in terms of sheer what-the-fuckness. Bidding opens on Thursday, October 10, at 11 AM Pacific Time.
While you’re browsing the lots and drooling over the temptations contained therein, enjoy Destroy All Rational Thought, the Burroughs/ Bryon Gysin documentary that includes one of Burroughs’ final interviews.
“Bill Burrough’s Recurring Dream,” David Wojnarowicz, 1978
I think it’s safe to say that many, many more people have heard William Burroughs’ 1990 Dead City Radio album than have ever picked up one of his books and read it from cover to cover. I don’t feel this way at all, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that they think it’s the best thing Burroughs ever did.
Ignoring that uniformed sentiment and moving on, for most people, seeing the “A Thanksgiving Prayer” video every year on bOING bOING is practically the only exposure to Burroughs they’ll ever get and so therefore Dead City Radio assumes an unwarranted, out-sized importance in his body of work. (Personally I don’t find it that satisfying. Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, a selection from Burroughs’ archive of his occult reel-to-reel tape-recorder experiments, is 100x more interesting, but would be of no use whatsoever to most people who might profess to like “weird” stuff and just sound like someone messing around. That’s the material they should’ve slapped the Sonic Youth music over.)
Ultimately what can be gleamed from this is that it’s more Burroughs’ “image” than anything else about him that has so much continuing—and even widespread—iconic currency in popular culture.
Timothy Leary? Abbie Hoffman? Younger people hardly have any idea of who they were or what they were all about. William S. Burroughs on the other hand? Well, do a search for his name on Tumblr and you’ll see.
He’s well on his way to becoming as iconic as Che Guevara, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. Give it more time, he’s only been dead since 1997. In terms of ready-made rebellious iconography for the Facebook generation, William Burroughs is the ultimate semiotic symbol for a truly dangerous mind.
So let’s celebrate him today, with a selection of lesser heard Burroughs-related musical material that’s not from Dead City Radio:
“T’aint No Sin” from The Black Rider
“Sharkey’s Night” from Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak album
Burroughs reads poetry by Jim Morrison over music by The Doors on “Is Everybody In?”
Guesting with Ministry on “Just One Fix.”
“Star Me Kitten” William Burroughs and R.E.M. (This comes from the Songs in the Key of X-Files album. It’s terrible. Loutallica terrible!)
“What Keeps Mankind Alive?” from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, as heard on September Songs
“Art makes people aware of what they know and don’t know.”
William Burroughs said in this interview with (“pilot & writer”) Jürgen Ploog.
“Once the breakthrough has been made there’s a permanent expansion of awareness. But there’s always a reaction of outrage at the first breakthrough.
The artist expands awareness, and once the breakthrough is made, it becomes part of the general awareness.”
The conversation between the two men forms the basis of Klaus Meck’s documentary William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers. Filmed in what looks like a hotel room, the duo’s dialog is inter-cut with clips of Burroughs reading extracts from his work, including “The Do Goods” and “Advice for Young People.”
Ploog’s questions rather randomly move from writing (where Burroughs claims if he hadn’t succeeded getting his novel Junkie published, he might never have become a writer); to religion and reincarnation; through Cezanne and Art and onto animals (where WSB discusses why humans empathize more with predatory animals than with their prey). Their disjointed Q&A has a strange “episodic” quality to it but Burroughs (and his encyclopedic knowledge) is fascinating throughout.
Bonus track: Burroughs reads “When did I stop wanting to be President?” after the jump…
“The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals.”
― William S. Burroughs, Nova Express
In the mid-1970s, William Burroughs wrote a monthly column for the rock magazine Crawdaddy called “Time of the Assassins” (which he got from a line of Rimbaud’s “Voici le temps des Assassins”).
Evocative, isn’t it? The “Time of the Assassins.” It has such a nice ring to it.
That we may soon be (or already are) living in an age that would require assassins struck me last week as I was watching the controversial statements made by former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (today he is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Nestlé S.A.) who said that water should be valued like any other commodity. Brabek’s comments were made in a 2005 documentary, We Feed the World, and are today, eight years later, being scrutinized in horror and exchanged feverishly by lefties on social media. As a result, Brabek’s been on the receiving end of quite a lot of stick on Facebook and Twitter, and not without some justification, if you ask me.
Brabeck’s flawed “free market” remarks betray such a peculiarly evil “logic” that only an extremely wealthy man, far, far removed from the rest of humanity, could have conceived of it:
My name is Peter Brabeck. I’m from Villach in Carinthia. And for the past 7-years I’ve been head of the Nestlé Group, the largest foodstuff corporation in the world, with a turnover of around 90 billion Swiss francs or around $65 billion, and with around 275,000 employees working directly for us. So, it’s quite a large ship. We’re the twenty-seventh largest company in the world.
Today, people believe that everything that comes from Nature is good. That represents a huge change because until recently, we always learnt that Nature could be pitiless. Man is now in the position of being able to provide some balance to Nature, but in spite of this, we have something approaching a shibboleth that everything that comes from Nature is good. A very good example is the organic movement. Organic is now best. But organic is not best.
After 15-years of eating GM food products in the USA, not one single case of illness has occurred from eating them to date. And in spite of this, we’re all so uneasy about it in Europe that something might happen to us. It’s hypocrisy more than anything else.
Ah yes, if you overlook what that benevolent gangsta Monsanto is doing to the soil and the water in much of the country and the fact that our vegetables have mere fractions of the nutrients they used to (like apples and spinach), then, yeah, I see his point. LOL.
There’s that lovely old Austrian folk song: “The dear cattle need water, hollera, holleri,” if you remember. Water is of course the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter.
The one opinion which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.
It’s an extreme position to expect… water? Wait, wait, come on, let’s let the man who is the Chairman of the world’s largest multinational manufacturer of bottled water define his terms, before we lay into him, shall we:
And the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally, I believe it’s better to give foodstuff a value, so that we’re all aware that it has a price, and then that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to this water and there are many different possibilities there.
Okay, folks, I’ve heard enough, go ahead get your knives out for this bastard.
And if that wasn’t bad enough already, then he really goes off into the stratosphere:
I’m still of the opinion that the biggest social responsibility of any CEO is to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise. For only if we can ensure our continued long term existence will we be in the position to actively participate in the solution of the problems that exist in the world.
What.The.Fuck.Is.This.Guy.Talking.About? The obesity or diabetes epidemics he’s done his part for, perchance? Brabeck-Letmathe helmed goddamned Nestlé for seven years! It’s the largest foodstuff corporation in the entire world and just look at what their over-packaged, corn syrup-heavy product lines consist of! Nestlé, the corporation that ran a massive advertising campaign in Africa discouraging breast feeding and then sold African mothers powdered milk, which they diluted with dirty water resulting in the deaths of literally millions of infants? (The UN had to get involved!) Nestlé the corporation that turns a blind eye to child labor practices… That Nestlé?
I’d trust Peter Brabeck—who started working for the corporation in 1968 and was the 2007 recipient of a “Black Planet” award given for destroying the environment, monopolizing water resources and tolerating child labor—and Nestlé‘s shareholders with the water supply of a Third World nation like I’d trust a fuckin’ coyote to keep an eye on my Chihuahua. A Russian hacker with all my online banking passwords. A famished shark with my good luck ham.... (Sorry, I think I got carried away there).
First it will be some country we’ve never heard of and will never visit in our lives. Next thing you know, a Republican governor will be proposing to privatize the water supply in a southern state… because, you know, the freemarket is more efficient than the private sector or perhaps just because a Swiss multinational food company donated a shit-ton of money to his campaign ....
We’re in the position of being able to create jobs: 275,000 here, 1.2 million who are directly dependent on us in principle. That makes around 4.5 million people in total—because behind each of our employees are another 3 people, so we have at least 4.5 million people who are directly dependent on us.
Because the world needs moar Kit-Kats! The idea that the notoriously predatory Nestlé is somehow “a part” of the solution to poverty at this advanced stage of capitalism’s life cycle is surrealism at its best. Brabek’s like a caricature of a crazed Bilderberger. I half-expect him to goosestep around wearing a paper Burger King crown and tissue boxes on his feet in his private moments. He is Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, incarnate. Ah Pook is here!
The part of the video clip that has nothing to do with privatizing water is actually the best bit, in terms of the off-the-scale absurdity of this privileged man’s blinkered 1% vantage point.. on the “little people”:
If you want to create work, you have to work yourself, not as it was in the past, where existing work was distributed. If you remember the main argument for the 35-hour-week was that there would be a certain amount of work and it would be better if we worked less and distributed the work amongst more people. That has proved quite clearly to be wrong. If you want to create more work you have to work more yourself. And with that we’ve got to create a positive image of the world for people, and I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be positive about the future. We’ve never had it so good, we’ve never had so much money, we’ve never been so healthy, we’ve never lived as long as we do today. We have everything we want, and still we go around as if we were in mourning for something.
The Japanese. You can see how modern those factories are; highly robotized, almost no people.
(Shakes head) You get the picture. I present to you, solely on the basis that he spoke these words (which he ostensibly seems to believe), that the man is a criminally insane psychopathic wanker. He has the worldview of a sociopath top executive of a large multinational, which of course, he is. If Peter Brabek were willing to share his nine million euros a year salary with some of Nestlé‘s rank and file workers in Bangladesh, I’ll bet they’d be JUST FINE with with cutting back their work week and spending more quality time with their kids instead of slaving in sub-human working conditions to make Hot Pockets that’ll be bought on a credit card at Wal-Mart by a morbidly obese couch potato living in Georgia… Just sayin’...
Naturally, seeing the consternation his words have unleashed, Brabeck tried to back-peddle furiously, limiting the damage that his 2005 remarks have caused in an essay that he (or more than likely a PR flunky at Nestlé) wrote for Huffington Post (Whose side are they on, anyway? Brabeck or humanity’s?)
At its heart, though, is still the kernel of the idea that it’s a good idea to put a price tag on water:
I do need to correct a misconception that has fueled a lot of the criticism on Facebook and elsewhere.
I do not deny that clean and safe water to drink or for basic hygiene is a human right. Of course it is.
However, I do not think it is right that some people in the world do not have access to a clean, safe supply when others can use excess amounts for non-essential purposes without bearing a fairer cost for the infrastructure needed to supply it.
When we give water a value, we use it more carefully, and this does not mean privatization.
Sounds almost high-minded, don’t it? I love this part, too:
Why does a company like Nestlé care about this?
Our consumers need access to clean, safe water and decent sanitation, wherever they are in the world, as do our hundreds of thousands of employees, their families and friends. As a good global citizen, we have a responsibility to be part of the solution.
And to skim a little off the top and then eventually skim a lot off the top... Hey, that’s capitalism, baby! The first sip is free!
Which brings us full circle back to William Burroughs: In The Naked Lunch, the author laid out a nightmarish vision of an out-of-control, planet-destroying consumer culture addicted to that which will most certainly kill it, with the metaphor of a junkie hooked on, and controlled by his metabolic need for heroin.
As Burroughs wrote to Jack Kerouac:
“The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
“The little people” are what will be on the end of Nestlé‘s fork if elitist viewpoints like Peter Brabek’s hold sway over public debate. It’s an idea that should be stomped out with extreme mob violence, if you ask me. Eliminated from the conversation.
I think it’s fair to say that 100% of the human race is “addicted” to water and this is why, when I listened to what Herr Brabeck had to say, I thought of William Burroughs and wondered, if he were alive, what he would make of all this.
What chance does the human race have with enemies of Earth like this, when vast monied interests and multinationals start to have designs on our drinking water?
The Burning Ghat is a strange, yet revealing short film that reveals something of the relationship between original Beat, Herbert Huncke, and his long-time companion and room-mate, Louis Cartwright.
Huncke was a petty crook and junkie, who hustled around Times Square in the 1940s, where he met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was Huncke who originally introduced these 3 young writers to the “Beat Life,” and became a major inspiration on their writing.
Who is Herbert Huncke? When I first knew him I saw him in what I considered the ‘glamorous’ light of a petty criminal and Times Square hustler who was experienced in the ways, thoughts, and activities of an underground culture which is enormously extensive. The attempt to dismiss him because of his social irresponsibility is something that I was never able to conceive as truthful or productive. I saw him as a self-damned soul—but a soul nonetheless, aware of itself and others in a strangely perceptive and essentially human way. He has great charm. I see that he suffers, more than myself, more than anyone I know of perhaps; suffers like a saint of old in the making; and also has cosmic or supersensory perceptions of an extraordinary depth and openness.
The Burning Ghat was directed by James Rasin (Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar) and Jerome Poynton, and was filmed in Huncke’s apartment on Henry Street, New York.
Allen Ginsberg wrote of the film, “O Rare Herbert Huncke, live on film! The Burning Ghat features late-in-lifetime old partners Huncke & Louis playing characters beyond themselves with restrained solid self-awareness, their brief masquerade of soul climaxing in an inspired moment’s paradox bittersweet as an O’Henry’s tale’s last twist”.
Harry Smith said of the film, “It should have been longer”.
The Burning Ghat was featured at the 53rd Venice Biennial, and included in the Whitney Museum’s “Beat Culture and the New America” show of 1996. It won the Gold Plaque Award for Best Short Film at the 1990 Chicago International Film Festival.
Made the same year Huncke published his autobiography Guilty of Everything, this was to be his only on-screen, acting performance.
In 1964, The British Labour Party was elected into government with a slim majority of 4 seats. Such a small majority made governing the country difficult for canny Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Therefore, after 17 months in power, Wilson called a second election. In support of winning re-election, the Labour Party’s magazine, Tribune asked a selection of writers and artists who they would vote for in the 1966 General Election. In response, sensing Labour might not hold to their socialist ideals, poet Christopher Logue wrote the poem “I shall vote Labour.”
I shall vote Labour
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
I shall vote Labour because if one person
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best
in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.
Christopher Logue was a poet, writer, journalist, dramatist, screenwriter, actor and performer. Born in Portsmouth, in 1926, Logue was an only child of middle-aged parents. After school, he served in the Black Watch regiment, from which he was given a court-martial for selling stolen pay books, and given a 16-months’ jail sentence.
‘It was so drab. There was nowhere to go. You couldn’t seem to meet any girls. If you went up to London in 1951, looking for the literary scene, what did you find? Dylan Thomas. I thought that if I came to the place where Pound flourished, I might too.’
In Paris, Logue met writer Alexander Trocchi (who saved Logue from an attempted suicide), and the pair set-up and edited the legendary literary magazine Merlin, which premiered work by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Chester Himes, as well as Logue and Trocchi. The pair also wrote pornographic novels for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, and briefly met William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the late 1950s.
George Whitman, propietor of Shakespeare and Co., described the pairing of Trocchi and Logue as:
‘True bohemians, Beats before Beats officially existed. Christopher was the scruffy poet, quite down and out most of the time. He definitely fancied himself as Baudelaire or somebody like that.’
In Paris, Logue toyed with Marxism, and was once famously put down by the author Richard Wright.
‘You’ve got nothing to fight for, boy—you’re looking for a fight. If you were a black, boy, you’re so cheeky you’d be dead.’
But Logue lost none of his mettle, or his socialist convictions and he continued to be a gadfly throughout his life. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Lindsay Anderson, giving poetry readings at the National Film Theater between features. He was a pacifist and a member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, taking part with Bertrand Russell on the marches to Aldermarston.
He appeared at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment and wrote songs for jazz singer Annie Ross, and had one recorded by Joan Baez. He also appeared at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival, and contributed the wonderfully bizarre “True Stories” to Private Eye magazine. He acted for Ken Russell in The Devils, wrote the screenplay for Russell’s Savage Messiah, and acted in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Logue’s poetry was incredibly popular, even appearing in posters throughout the London Underground. His most famous works were Red Bird, a jazz colaboration with Tony Kinsey, and War Music, a stunning and critically praised adaption of Homer’s Illiad. He was awarded the 2005 Whitbread Poetry Prize for his collection Cold Calls.
Logue died in 2011, and Wilson won the 1966 election with a majority of 96 seats.
This is Christopher Logue reading “I shall vote Labour” in 2002, as filmed by Colin Still.
It’s difficult to write an actual “book review” of someone’s collected letters, in this case, Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 (edited by Bill Morgan) but trust me when I tell you that if you’re a Burroughs buff there is much to love between the covers of this thick volume. Some real revelations and some of it’s just flat-out hilarious. If you are considering buying it, you should.
In 1959, the year Naked Lunch was published, Burroughs, then 45 years old, was living in Paris and avidly exploring the occult implications of Brion Gysin’s cut-ups technique. A page of text would be sliced with a razor or else folded in from something else so that the “real” meaning could sort of, mediumistically speaking, “leak through.” Things changed quickly for the author by the end of that year. Via a Life magazine article, Burroughs’ rising notoriety as part of the Beat movement, his drug habit and his homosexuality was becoming known to his wealthy Palm Beach socialite parents. One letter to his mother begins, in reference to her reaction to the Life article.
I counted to ten before answering your letter and I hope you have done the same since nothing could be more unworthy than a quarrel between us at this point.
Yep, William Burroughs having a fight with his mom… and you can eavesdrop. Burroughs goes on to try to mollify his mother (who still sent him a small monetary stipend each month that he very much depended on) by telling her that risque publicity sold books and hey, weren’t Poe, Byron and Baudelaire considered bad boys of literature in their time before gaining charter memberships in the Shakespeare squad? (I only wish that her letter that preceded his was in the book, too.)
His parents were raising his young child, William “Billy” Burroughs, Jr. (Burroughs had, of course, killed his son’s mother). In a letter to Billy, who was then 13, his wayward father mentions how traveling would be easier now without his “monkey” travelling companion (i.e his heroin addiction) but how his mother had forbidden him from stepping foot in Palm Beach under threat of “financial excommunication.”
Brion Gysin’s deep influence on Burroughs was a topic frequently mentioned in his correspondence during this time period—with Gysin the recipient of the bulk of the letters, along with Allen Ginsberg—and they are also filled with references to other WSB obsessions like Hassan-i Sabbāh, the apomorphine cure for heroin addiction, Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, Count Alfred Korzybski, tape recorders, the Mayan calendar, the then-burgeoning underground press and Scientology. In fact, there is far more information about Burroughs’ interest in Scientology in these letters than I’ve encountered in any other source. So many Burroughs scholars seem to have a difficult time believing that a literary genius like William S. Burroughs could have been conned by a second-rate flim-flam man like L. Ron Hubbard, but he was in fact a very enthusiastic adherent to Scientology for about eight years, and that’s all here in his own words (along with plenty about his vicious post-fallout with the cult as well).
One short note politely abstains from joining Norman Mailer in his tax withholding protest against the Vietnam War:
November 20, 1967
8 Duke Street
As regards the War Tax Protest if I started protesting and refusing to contribute to all the uses of tax money of which I disapprove: Narcotics Department, FBI, CIA, any and all expenditures for nuclear weapons, in fact any expenditures to keep the antiquated idea of a nation on its dying legs, I would wind up refusing to pay one cent of taxes, which would lead to more trouble than I am prepared to cope with or to put it another way I feel my first duty is to keep myself in an operating condition. In short I sympathize but must abstain.
all the best,
Burroughs already had enough problems, obviously. Lack of money and yet always being generously and sweetly concerned about the welfare of friends less well-off is another theme that runs throughout the collection. Unsurprisingly the letters also frequently mention Burroughs’ lifelong misogyny and distrust of females. A proposed Naked Lunch film to be made in conjunction with Terry Southern and produced by Chuck Barris is discussed. There is one letter that I thought was especially funny, Burroughs writing to Gysin about seeing gay porn on Times Square for the first time and how it’s going to put a novelist like himself out of business. There is even some correspondence from Burroughs to Fred Halsted (an early pioneer of extremely hardcore gay pornography) about a potential Wild Boys porn film(!), but WSB pulled the plug, he wrote the S&M auteur, for both of their sake’s, knowing that it was never, ever going to be funded or made.
It was John Willett’s review of William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch, in the Times Literary Supplement, that led poet and writer, Dame Edith Sitwell to make her famous statement about the book, in 1963.
Willett was a writer, critic and, most importantly, translator of Bertolt Brecht’s plays. His translations so impressed the playwright that it led to their collaboration on the Berliner Ensemble’s historic 1956 London season. Yet, for such a seemingly radical critic and writer, Willett hated Naked Lunch and made his thoughts well known in a review headlined “Ugh!”:
“[Naked Lunch]...is not unlike wading through the drains of a big city . . . [It features] unspeakable homosexual fantasies . . . ...such things are too uncritically presented, and because the author gives no flicker of disapproval the reader easily takes the ‘moral message’ the other way…..If the publishers had deliberately set out to discredit the cause of literary freedom and innovation they could hardly have done it more effectively…”
Appearing not long after the controversial trial and publication of D. H. Lawrence’s infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, it seemed to many of England’s older and moneyed class that their world was under very real threat from the Barbarians at the gates.
One such figure, was Dame Edith, who upon reading Willett’s review fired off the following missive to the TLS:
To the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement
[published 28 November 1963]
I was delighted to see, in your issue of the 14th instant, the very rightminded review of a novel by a Mr. Burroughs (whoever he may be) published by a Mr. John Calder (whoever he may be).
The public canonisation of that insignificant, dirty little book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a signal to persons who wish to unload the filth of their minds on the British public.
As author of Gold Coast Customs I can scarcely be accused of shirking reality, but I do not wish to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories.
I prefer Chanel Number .
Edith Sitwell, C.L.
What Dame Edith failed to grasp was that to a generation of young, free-thinking individuals, this letter was the perfect encouragement to go and buy the book.
Though Mr. Burroughs and Mr. Calder had made no small an impression at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 (though arguably upstaged by the legendary spat between Communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid and Beat writer Alexander Trocchi), it is fair to say, this letter was amongst the best publicity they could have had for Naked Lunch.
Edith Sitwell is sadly neglected today, and her poetry, biographies, and one experimental novel are now mainly left to the reading lists of academics. Yet once, Edith and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, were the English Avant Garde—but time, fashion, politics and a World War soon usurped their position.
The poem mentioned in her letter, Gold Coast Customs (1930), was Sitwell’s own (almost Ballardian) tale of the horrific barbarism lurking beneath the artificiality of civilized humans in the city of London.
The following clip is of Dame Edith discussing her life, her parents and Marilyn Monroe, in 1959.
Two of the earliest things that I read by William Burroughs were The Job, a book’s worth of interviews conducted by Daniel Odier, along with some shorter pieces that focused on revolution (and revolutionary technology for lack of a better term) and The Third Mind, his enigmatic collaboration with painter Brion Gysin about the “cut-ups” literary technique, and its occult implications. The cuts-up technique holds that if you randomly rearrange words via chance operation, that you’ll find their “real” meaning or encourage some sort of prophecy to leak through. Sort of like those “Magnetic Poetry” refrigerator magnets used as a Ouija board, to put it simply…
The “occult Burroughs” is my favorite aspect of his work. When the topic veers towards the use of occult technology in the employment of revolution, I prefer that even more (like “The Revised Boy Scout Manual”).
Burroughs had a strong interest in the occult all of his life, but aside from his own writings, there were precious few interviews where he’s speaking openly about his magical interests. The interviews that come to mind immediately are the ones Vale did in RE/Search #4/5 and a late in life Q&A that (I think) was conducted by the great Kristine McKenna around the time of Burroughs’ big LACMA art show in 1996 (I can’t find it online). Burroughs’ major biography, Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan, barely touches on the subject, as if a major component of his subject’s worldview had sailed right over Morgan’s head, although Barry Miles’ more sympathetic El Hombre Invisible is much more satisfying in this regard.
Below, William S. Burroughs lectures to his writing class at Naropa University, on “wishing machines,” the paranormal, synchronicity, propaganda and dreams. You can hear Allen Ginsberg’s voice in a couple of places. Taped in Boulder, Colorado on June 25,1986.
William Seward Burroughs, the literary prophet of everything weird that would happen during the latter half of the 20th century (including the 23 enigma) was born 99 years ago today, in St. Louis, MS.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” while Norman Mailer described him as “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War.” Richard C. Kostelanetz wrote that “Naked Lunch is one of the more truly original and exciting pieces of prose to emerge from the fifties.”
Then there was the flip-side of that: English critic Philip Toynbee called both Naked Lunch and Nova Express “boring rubbish, insufficiently redeemed by passages of brilliant invention.” Writer John Wain wrote of Burroughs’ work “From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance,” while Burroughs’ arch enemy, Truman Capote, had this to say: “Norman Mailer thinks William Burroughs is a genius, which I think is ludicrous beyond words. I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent.”
William S. Burroughs traveled to the Western Lands at the age of 83 in Lawrence, KS in 1997.
Below, William Burroughs shooting Ralph Steadman’s William Shakespeare portrait dead. Video by Andrea Di Castro, Lawrence, Kansas, 1995.
Laurie Anderson’s 1986 film, Home of the Brave, a documentation of her Mister Heartbreak concert tour, was shot in Union City, NJ, in the summer of 1985, at the Park Theater. Directed by Anderson, the film is a great record of the tightly choreographed hi-tech multmedia theatrical gimmickry she was known for at that stage of her career.
I recall thinking when Home of the Brave came out that it was an attempt to do for Laurie Anderson what Stop Making Sense had done for Talking Heads. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, percussionist David Van Tieghem and Joy Askew are part of her backing band and William S. Burroughs walks onstage from time to time muttering cryptic things to great effect.
Home of the Brave has never been released on DVD, although a decent torrent file made from the laserdisc is pretty easy to find. I would buy this sucker on Blu-ray in a second.
When Hugh MacDiarmid died in 1978, his fellow poet Norman MacCaig suggested Scotland commemorate the great man’s passing by holding 3 minute’s pandemonium. It was typical of MacCaig’s caustic wit, but his suggestion did capture something of the unquantifiable enormity of MacDiarmid’s importance on Scottish culture, politics, literature and life during the twentieth century.
Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps best described by a line from his greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), in which he wrote:
‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
It explains the contradictory elements that merged to make him a poet.
Born Christopher Murray Grieve, on August 11, 1892, he changed his name to the more Scottish sounding Hugh MacDiarmid to publish his poetry. He was a Modernist poet who wrote in Scots vernacular. One might expect this choice of language to make his poetry parochial, but MacDiarmid was a poet of international ambition and standing, who was recognized as an equal with T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak and W. H. Auden.
In politics, MacDiarmid had been one of the co-founder’s of the National Party for Scotland in 1928, but was ejected when he moved towards Communism. He was then ejected from the Communist Party for his “nationalist deviation.” He maintained a Nationalist - in favor of an independent Scotland - and a Communist throughout his life.
As literature scholar and writer Kenneth Butlay notes, MacDiarmid was:
..as incensed by his countrymen’s neglect of their native traditions as by their abrogation of responsibility for their own affairs, and he took it upon himself to “keep up perpetually a sort of Berseker rage” of protest, and to act as “the catfish that vitalizes the other torpid of the aquarium.”
In 1964, the experimental film-maker Margaret Tait made short documentary portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, which captured the poet at home in Langholme, his sense of childish fun, his socializing his the bars and public houses of Edinburgh (the Abbotsford on Rose Street).
More on Hugh MacDiarmid, plus poetry and reading, after the jump…