William S. Burroughs

The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems

(Mouth Almighty)

“I don’t see any point in people reading their work,” William S. Burroughs observed more than once in the 60s, and true to his word, he seldom presented his own work in public. This, combined with his self-imposed exile in London, meant that in America he remained a disembodied name, the author of a surreal book about drug addiction, Naked Lunch, that had been found not obscene in a landmark federal court case in 1966. But less than two months after Burroughs moved back to the States in 1974, he gave the first in what would be a long string of live readings, at Saint Mark’s Church in New York. For many readers, the Saint Louis twang in his oaken voice forever altered their understanding of his work, and his short hair and conservative suits drew a wild contrast to his stories about modern mad doctors performing unspeakable procedures and baboons taking over the Supreme Court. Burroughs insisted that he was reading only for the money, but he obviously relished his ability to make an audience rock with laughter.

Giorno Poetry Systems, a label run by New York writer John Giorno, has been releasing recordings of Burroughs for the last 20 years, usually anthologized with work by other artists. But a superb new four-CD set, The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems, collects about four hours of his readings, arranged chronologically by date of composition to form an oral history of his career. It’s an excellent sampler for anyone unfamiliar with his work, but the portrait it presents is skewed, favoring the most accessible pages of a large and supremely challenging body of work. It omits his mid-60s studio readings (which the Tim/Kerr label will release later this year) and his ill-advised collaborations with rock and hip-hop musicians in the 90s. The Burroughs who emerges is the consummate comic storyteller, poker-faced and sly, stretching his words like taffy. For most of the 60s he’d done his best to sabotage linear expectations of the written word with a prolonged series of word collages. But the readings helped him rediscover the high satirical instincts that had powered Naked Lunch, and the balance of his career found him returning to more traditional narratives.

Naked Lunch was drawn from a wealth of short, corrosive “routines” Burroughs accumulated in the late 50s, during and after his 15-year addiction to heroin. In the spring of ’58 his friend Allen Ginsberg helped him publish some of them in the University of Chicago literary magazine, the Chicago Review, which was edited by grad student Irving Rosenthal. In his Daily News column Jack Mabley labeled the issue “Filthy Writing on the Midway” and compared it to “kids chalking a four-letter verb on the Oak Street underpass.” The winter issue, which was to contain more Burroughs along with Jack Kerouac and Edward Dahlberg, was suppressed by the university, and the staff quit in protest, publishing the entire issue as an underground magazine called Big Table. In March 1959 the Chicago post office impounded a mailing of Big Table on the grounds that it was obscene, and the ACLU sued. A year later federal judge Julius Hoffman ruled in favor of free speech. The censorship fracas helped clinch a book deal for Burroughs with Olympia Press in Paris.

Sixteen years later Burroughs returned to the U. of C. for a reading, and The Best of William Burroughs’s first CD includes his triumphant performance there of “I Can Feel the Heat Closing In,” the opening section of Naked Lunch. By the time of the reading, Burroughs had been on the circuit for a year and a half, honing his delivery and timing, and the audience was all his. His hipster junkie character eludes an undercover cop by leaping onto a subway train, where he pulls the leg of a young Madison Avenue type, telling him about the time he gave an informer a poison shot: “We rigged his room with a one-way whorehouse mirror and charged a sawski to watch it. He never got the needle out of his arm. They don’t if the shot is right. That’s the way they find them, dropper full of clotted blood hanging out of a blue arm. The look in his eyes when it hit–Kid, it was tasty….”

The seven readings from Naked Lunch, recorded between 1975 and 1980, show Burroughs at the top of his form, and gathered together they highlight many subjects examined in his picaresque mix of nonfiction, surrealism, and burlesque humor. The book is populated by medical charlatans like Doctor “Fingers” Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, who unveils before his colleagues his surgical masterpiece, the “Complete All American De-anxietized Man.” The man’s flesh falls away, revealing “a monster black centipede,” and the other doctors rush to destroy it. Burroughs purposely uses raw, ludicrous stereotypes: one of the centipede’s killers is “a fat, frog-faced Southern doctor who has been drinking corn out of a mason jar….’Fetch the gasoline!’ he bellows. ‘We gotta burn the son of a bitch like an uppity Nigra!'” Worse is the infamous Dr. Benway, one of Burroughs’s oldest characters, a cynical sawbones whose advanced methods of thought control subdue the citizens of the mythical Interzone. Benway performs open-heart massage with a plumber’s helper and lectures his students on an operation that “has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.”

Burroughs was raised on the periphery of the Saint Louis social scene, where he mastered the tone of airy observation and patrician malevolence that characterizes his medical quacks and powerful bureaucrats. He picked up the hipster lingo while living in New York, and stays in Texas and Mexico added to his gallery of voices. Others came from the movies or radio, or from pulp literature. “Man, that mother fucker’s hungry,” screams one of the Negro Bearers who carry in the centipede. “I’m getting out of here, me.” As Jennie Skerl writes in her introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of Naked Lunch, Burroughs grafted mass-media materials–horror, sci-fi, true crime–to a dystopian vision of human addiction and government conspiracy to create a new form, the pop-art novel, and in performance he did his best to play up the B-movie thrills.

Even as Burroughs’s radical style was being misunderstood and attacked, he began to find it inadequate. He came to believe the written word was a virus, and he made the equation his virtual slogan throughout the 60s. Like a biological virus, he figured, the word required a host–the brain–and replicated itself endlessly, filling volumes like the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet reading words and sentences was predicated on a linear view of reality. No word or sentence could be comprehended in an instant; it required time. So our dependence on written and spoken words locked us into a perception limited by time, blocking us from a better life in space. Burroughs became fascinated with the pictographic systems of the Mayans and the ancient Egyptians, seeing in them the seeds of a possible escape.

In the early 60s, with little to show for Naked Lunch but notoriety, he began to explore other media, applying aspects of cinema, sound recording, and the visual arts to his writing. In Tangier he met the English artist Brion Gysin, who told him, “Writing is 50 years behind painting.” It became one of Burroughs’s favorite sayings. Once, on a lark, Gysin chopped some newspaper pages into segments and rearranged them; Burroughs seized on the idea, transcribing the new sentences, and these “cut-ups” dominated his writing for the better part of a decade. In their raw form they were frequently nonsensical, but carefully edited they produced weird, dreamlike tableaux. Best of all, he insisted, they freed the reader from linear time. A passage of his own writing could be intercut with a news report or a speech by Winston Churchill, creating strange symbols and signifiers. In some cases the cut-ups contained eerie references to future events, proving to him that the method really worked. Over the years he applied it to film, tape, even sheet music–any medium dependent on the predictable unspooling of time.

Burroughs relied heavily on cut-ups for the Nova trilogy, a series of books that followed Naked Lunch–and mystified what little audience he’d acquired. The box set includes three readings from Nova Express (1964), one from The Soft Machine (1966), and none from The Ticket That Exploded (1967)–and all four selections are narratives. The only cut-up performed for an audience on the collection is “The Evening News,” a poem Burroughs read at U. of C. that combines his words with a horoscope from a French newspaper. (It was published in the book Exterminator!.)

Some of the better examples of his cut-up work are tacked on to the very end of the set, on the fourth CD, but they’re not public readings. They’re a series of 15 tape experiments dating mostly from the early 60s and originally released in 1981 on an English LP, Nothing Here Now But the Recordings. Using a reel-to-reel machine, Burroughs recorded himself and others, conversations, street sounds, radio broadcasts, static, and sound effects, then randomly spliced together three- or four-second segments from two or more different tapes. Some of them are simply unfocused, but the best are deeply hypnotic, shattering the Missouri molasses of Burroughs’s voice into dark shards of sound. “The Saints Go Marching Through All the Popular Tunes,” from the early 60s, mixes white noise, radio signals, harmonica, Burroughs singing scraps of 50s hits like “The Sheik of Araby,” and another tape of him reading cut-ups (“Your cool hands on his naked dollars, baby…crackling paper without names went out in green electric shocks”). “The Total Taste Is Here” (1965) interpolates radio announcements and music from commercials. And “Handkerchief Masks,” also from the early 60s, seems to foretell Watergate when two radio broadcasts are cut together to describe the president going before a grand jury for perjury; it mixes a news broadcast in Spanish, an American broadcast of Hanoi being evacuated, and others, producing announcements like, “President Johnson, addressing a meeting of editorial cartoonists at the White House, held three maids at gunpoint and preceded to ransack the apartment.”

For Burroughs, an attack on the word was an attack on the established order itself. In a 1973 essay, “Playback From Eden to Watergate,” he suggested that the bugging of Martin Luther King and other activists was part of a government conspiracy to intersplice tapes for experiments in shame-based behavior control. “Any number can play,” he urged his readers. “Millions of people carrying out this basic operation could nullify the control system which those who are behind Watergate and Nixon are attempting to impose.”

Between the Nova trilogy and his other experiments, Burroughs managed to run his career into the ground. His late-60s work–Dead Fingers Talk, The Third Mind, The Job, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz–went largely unnoticed. From 1965 to 1974 he lived a solitary existence in London while the countercultural seeds he’d planted with the beats and Naked Lunch began to flower. Several rock bands, most notably the Soft Machine and Steely Dan, took their names from his work; he became friendly with Paul McCartney, got to hear an early version of “Eleanor Rigby,” and ended up in the crowd behind Sgt. Pepper’s band. In 1968 he was still enough of a wild card for Esquire to assign him to cover the Democratic National Convention with Jean Genet and Terry Southern. All three, along with Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, were in Lincoln Park at midnight on August 26, when police clashed with yippie demonstrators.

Finally his life in England became so stultifying that he returned to New York, where Ginsberg hooked him up with James Grauerholz, a 21-year-old fan from Kansas. Grauerholz was Burroughs’s lover for a time, then became his secretary and manager. He booked Burroughs’s readings and helped him craft performances that played up his formidable reputation: the spotlight on a darkened stage, the plain office desk, the fedora and Brooks Brothers best. Burroughs quickly rediscovered the inner raconteur who’d acted out wild skits with Kerouac and Ginsberg in the late 40s. Yet his readings also recalled the western humorists who rode the lecture circuit before the advent of mass media–Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward. “I used to play with the pause as other children play with a toy,” Twain once wrote back to his fiancee, Olivia Langdon. Burroughs, born on the Mississippi not 100 miles south of Twain’s native Hannibal, drew on the same skills to begin a profitable career that was distinct from his publishing. But judging from the selections on the box, he relied heavily on earlier work, not just Naked Lunch but Junkie (1953) and ancient routines like “Roosevelt After Inauguration.”

He had already made a tentative return to the narrative form with The Wild Boys (1971), a utopian adventure tale about a tribe of gay warriors who spread across the globe and learn to clone themselves. The book contained a good many cut-ups, but its plot played well before audiences: A riotous highlight of the second CD is “The Green Nun,” recorded at Burroughs’s comeback reading at Saint Mark’s. A strict and pious sister presides over a mental ward occupied by adults playing with plasticine; she hears confessions with a lie detector that administers electric shocks. “Once, after a particularly degrading confession, she levitated to the ceiling in the presence of an awed young nun,” Burroughs explains. “Every night she put on Christ drag with a shimmering halo and visited some young nun in her cell.” His performance sparkles compared to the recordings Giorno made two and a half years before in Burroughs’s apartment in London. Reading a narrative from the same book, Burroughs uses a subdued monotone, as if the words hardly matter.

Before 1974 Burroughs had never worked actively as a writer while performing regularly in front of people. In the early days, his audience was Ginsberg and Kerouac and other friends whom he entertained with lengthy letters from Mexico and Tangier. His private life was extremely private, and he hated parties and literary schmoozing. After he began his public readings in the mid-70s, he reported a troublesome period of writer’s block, possibly brought on by overwork, but a young fan and writer, Steven Lowe, got him interested in 18th-century pirates, and the notion of a gay pirate colony on Madagascar, founded on libertarian principles, became the basis for Burroughs’s masterpiece, Cities of the Red Night. Though it wasn’t published until 1981, fragments of the novel show up in Burroughs’s readings as early as ’75. It inaugurated a trilogy that played out with the sci-fi western The Place of Dead Roads and the ancient-Egyptian space-exploration saga The Western Lands. The recording dates on the box set reveal that all three books were previewed before live audiences; Burroughs once estimated he’d done 150 readings between 1974 and 1984, which is when the trilogy was being written.

Burroughs’s prose style changed little after he began reading: terse, fact oriented, dry in its physical and moral observations. But in his last trio of novels the level of characterization increases measurably. The books are structured as intercut narratives, with fictionalized history generating alternate versions of the present and future; in their level of reasoning and dazzling technical execution they vanquish the cut-up novels. “That’s half the battle, when you can find your characters,” he explains in the 1984 documentary Burroughs. The same archetypes show up again–the young gunslinger, the evil press magnate, the foolhardy military man, the corrupt doctor–but the elaborate historical context allows them to gather weight as individuals. The recording of “Doctor Pierson” dates from 1975; in it Burroughs deepens the Benway persona, turning the drug-addicted physician into a Graham Greene character. Pierson receives an emergency call that delays his nightly fix. “Of course he could always slip a half-grain under his tongue,” Burroughs admits, “but that was wasteful and he liked to be in bed when he took his shot, and feel it hit the back of his neck and move down the backs of his thighs while he blew cigarette smoke towards the ceiling….His temper was always evil when he ran over like this, but right after a shot he could be nice in a dead, fishy way.”

The trilogy takes up the entire third CD in the box, and the readings are superlative, focusing on Burroughs’s new antagonists, gunslinging faggot Kim Carsons and newspaper tycoon John Stanley Hart. Carsons is a partly autobiographical character, sharing Burroughs’s Saint Louis upbringing and dark, ambivalent memories of his father. Hart, who fears death and forbids anyone in his household to speak the word in his presence, uncovers Mayan books that reveal the secrets of life and death. “Mr. Hart sets out to be death,” Burroughs reports. “He learns to kill through his newspapers and he teaches his editors the tricks as they crawl up his ladder. . . . Mr. Hart has to be inhuman because humans are mortal, and Mr. Hart is addicted to immortality. He’s addicted to an immortality predicated on the mortality of others–gooks, niggers, wogs, human dogs–and feeling his own contempt for these apes affords him a mineral calm.”

Burroughs knew such types: his uncle Ivy Ledbetter Lee was the father of modern public relations, a newspaper writer turned flack for the robber barons of the teens and 20s. Lee helped rehabilitate the Rockefellers’ image after the 1914 massacre of coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, and in 1933 he was retained by I.G. Farben to promote the Nazi government in America. In Germany he met Hitler and Goebbels, who impressed him deeply, but he was disgraced the next year when he admitted his affiliation before the Un-American Activities Committee. Burroughs was 20 the last time he saw his uncle; Ivy Lee died in October 1934 of a cerebral hemorrhage. For him, too, the word was a virus.

As early as Nova Express Burroughs prophesied a corporate future in which mass media served not to unite people but to enslave them. But after he returned to America the power of his voice made him a part of the mass media. Young popular artists used him as a touchstone, putting him and his ideas in their films, songs, and videos, and his work was introduced to a whole new generation (of nonreaders, one might speculate). His eagerness to get his message out might have clouded his judgment–not long before he died he offered his ideas about technology and the body in a Nike commercial, straying perilously close to Uncle Ivy’s territory–but for the most part he used his power wisely, striving for the laughter that brings sudden insight and freedom. “Listen to my last words anywhere,” he’d written in Nova Express in 1964. “Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth.” But only when he spoke aloud was he truly heard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.