Text by Bob Dickinson
After a weekend event celebrating one century since William Burroughs entered this world, what sticks in the memory is the multifaceted nature of the creative being he grew up to be. Burroughs isn’t easy to read, to interpret, to watch on film, or to listen to on tape, especially in the cut-up form. But he remains “iconic” – the favoured cliché that was used repeatedly by speakers and performers on both days, during the course of which many differing versions of Burroughs were put forward as definitive.
Organised by Douglas Field and Suhail K, Saturday evening’s proceedings began with two key players representing the UK’s response to Burroughs in the 1960s and 70s. C.P.Lee’s opening was entirely appropriate: a banishing ritual uttered by Burroughs in his 1963 film, Towers Open Fire, which itself was screened on Sunday afternoon. C.P.’s ability to impersonate (“He do the police in different voices”, the working title of Eliot’s the Wasteland, always comes to mind) led directly to his famed recreation of Lord Buckley’s entire career in compressed form. Buckley, proto-beat poet and jazz joker, created bizarre hipster versions of famous texts from the Bible and Shakespeare. But occasionally C.P. dropped the mask and let the audience in on valuable details about his own eventful life, at one point describing the evening 50 years ago when he first met Michael Horovitz at the Salutation pub, Manchester. A police presence provoked panic as C.P. confessed to Horovitz that he was carrying half a pound of cannabis. Horovitz told him not to worry; he’d look after it for him. Problem solved, but we never heard what happened to the cannabis.
C.P.’s own writing, which he saved till last, was particularly impressive. Tarzan Queen of the Jungle was written and delivered in Burroughs’ voice, but inspired by the other Burroughs, William Rice, creator of the fictional hero brought up by great apes. When, 50 years on, Horovitz himself took the stage, he did it to the sound of Duke Ellington’s earliest hit, East St Louis Toodle-Oo, a Burroughs favourite. Accompanied by the younger poet and musician, Vanessa Vie, Horovitz’s mixed two Bills, Burroughs and Blake, while Vie sang mixed-up romantic songs such as See You By The Lake and Moonwalk. As Horovitz testified in his panel appearance the following day, he values and promotes the ecstatic side of Burroughs – the man he met and got to know as early as 1959 when Horovotz was starting the magazine New Departures and Burroughs was a pure beat writer, albeit strange to heterosexual English eyes and ears. Horovitz hates cut-ups and twice invoked the phrase “Gysin let the mice in”. Thus Horovitz and Vie’s rendition of extracts from the Naked Lunch sounded gentle, despite overlapping the words: a bit like overhearing a conversation.
Not before time, experiment took hold of Saturday evening with Lauren Bolger and David McLean’s Meetings. Sitting behind two typewriters, Bolger wrote and spoke texts, while McLean improvised on saxophone. Gradually Bolger moved backstage to a grand piano half-seen beneath the omnipresent video screen, and started pounding. The work promises to be the beginning of a series of live performances and installations exploring the “tension between performance and the page” and was edgy stuff, one person near me opining “This is appalling,” before shortly after leaving the room: a good sign Meetings was heading along the right Burroughsian lines. Oddly, however, we were reminded that it is Burroughs’ recorded voice that does more than anything now to keep his bodily presence alive, as Rauridh Law/TVO demonstrated in Wind Die. You Die. We Die. using turntables, laptop, electronics and numerous floating clips of that well-known monotone croak. But the sight of artist Rachel Goodyear wearing antlers and a black veil warned of something weird on the horizon, which soon got closer in the form of Soft Machines, a collaborative performance with 2 Koi Carp, Clyve Bonell and Sam Weaver. Against a barrage of electronic noise and distortion, and a back-screen projection of flames, things burning, and indistinct insects feeding and crawling, Goodyear wailed though a microphone a kind of aria to the apocalypse. Later tied and tangled up with 2 Koi Carp, one of whom is Lauren Bolger, the writhing bodies, insect-like, ended up wrapped in a piece of red fabric: quite a culmination that left ears ringing and imaginations frazzled.
While Saturday’s over-arching title, Nothing Is True, underlined the contemporary performative response to Burroughs’ legacy, Sunday’s, Everything Is Permitted, pointed towards Burroughs’ techniques and the way they were intended to work on the viewer, reader and listener. In the preamble to his detailed and fascinating history of editing the Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded) for Grove Press, Oliver Harris revealed his Manchester music-scene origins and another C.P. Lee connection, in that it was Lee who first made Harris aware of Burroughs via the gift of three bootleg cassette tapes of Burroughs’ audio-works. Harris’s “genetic backstory” of his mammoth editing project took the audience into the complex, multi-layered history of some of Burroughs’ most important cut-up literature, about which Burroughs said, “I bring not peace, but pieces.” Harris contends that Burroughs “weaponised” cut-up in a “media war”, and went to great lengths to excavate the archaeology of Burroughs’ texts. Their mutability seems endless; one wonders if, one day, a digital version of the Nova Trilogy might enable users to drift, dreamlike, through versions of text, to earlier edits, and earlier still, and back, like a time-traveller, and maybe that is what Burroughs envisaged.
But, as Patricia Allmer and John Sears demonstrated, he also did it with his own photographs. Co-curators of Taking Shots: The Photography of William Burroughs, an exhibition which ran in 2014 at the Photographers Gallery, London, they worked hard to locate original prints and negatives left behind with Burroughs’ former lovers, friends and acquaintances, and lovingly pieced together the history of some of his photographic wall-collages – tapestries stuck together with sticky tape. While Burroughs was thankfully not into the techno-trickery of darkroom practice, preferring to pay high street chemists’ shops to develop his prints, he explored certain themes, such as car crashes, flower arrangements, and shop-fronts, in depth. He also took notable portraits of friends, like Ginsberg, and self-portraits that were curiously self-effacing, placing himself as camera-bearer in off-centre mirrors or reflective surfaces (more shop windows). Then, taking things to more complicated levels, he photographed his own photographic collages, made collages of those photos, and photographed them, carrying the pattern on and on. His ultimate photo, the curators believe, shows photos arranged on plates of glass, stacked up on top of each other using drinking glasses; a kind of 3D mosaic for photographic gazing, proposed in just one image.
When Burroughs, accompanied by a “cockney rent boy”, visited Horovitz in Oxford in the late 1950s, he wanted to see rivers and waterways (to remind him of St Louis, perhaps), so they took a bucolic walk along the canal. But, as Horovitz recalled during a four-way session about biographers of Burroughs, it was not many years later that during another visit, Horovitz – on Allen Ginsburg’s prompting to “look after” Burroughs – managed to source some mescaline. Burroughs’ unsurprising response, according to Horovitz, was “Shall we sample it right away?” Their trip ended up in a transport café, with Burroughs making remarks about the waitress’s physical attributes that could have been used successfully in the script for a Carry On film. In these recollections, Burroughs’ role seems like that of a reassuring but rather unknowable doctor, who happened to be on duty during the birth-pangs of the English psychedelic counter-culture.
This was probably the least successful session of the day, as none of the participants are, strictly-speaking, biographers of Burroughs. In fact, Anthony Burgess’s biographer, Andrew Biswell, was present to describe why he’d abandoned a project to write about Burroughs. He asked Oliver Harris if a rumoured autobiography by Burroughs, entitled Evil River, would ever appear, the reply being that it didn’t exist, except in fragments. But Biswell went on to read a fictionalised version of Burroughs written by Burgess in his 1968 novel Enderby Outside, and he also noted Burroughs’ cut-up of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Burgess and Burroughs, an unlikely couple, even wrote letters to one another. Experimental writer and cultural theorist Ken Hollings added another Mancunian connection to Burroughs in the UK: growing up in Levenshulme his first taste of Burroughs was a copy of the Soft Machine, found in a revolving book-rack in an anonymous local shop. Hollins rightly pointed out that at that time – the 1960s or early ‘70s, presumably – Burroughs’ books were sold as mass-market paperbacks. The revolution, in Burroughs’ case, came in reading what was behind the pop-art cover design.
I had never heard of Dik Jarman’s animated film The Junky’s Christmas, made in 1993, based on a Burroughs short story, voiced by Burroughs, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. But, introduced by Jarman himself, an Australian who described the advantages to Hollywood of using an Australian production company, it was a bit like watching Wallace and Gromit trying to score heroin. The wintery New York setting, the optimistic ending, and, at the end, the short film of Burroughs carving a Christmas turkey surrounded by friends, all made me want to see the film screened on BBC 1, on Christmas Day, straight after the Queen’s speech. Every Christmas, for ever.
When Ken Hollings introduced two of Burroughs’ films, he referred interestingly to the effect on a BBC radio newsreader who could not supress a fit of the giggles after a broadcast of the oldest known recorded voice in history, from 1860. This “phonautogram” of a woman singing a French folk song, was recorded in soot, on paper, and was only “heard” when digitally converted in 2008. This “voice in smoke”, Hollings believes, had a similar power to disturb and confuse as cut-up did in filmic form, which he described as “a project for disastrous effect.” Pointing out that Burroughs’ 1966 film The Cut-Ups, in particular, was “not entertaining” and that the looped soundtrack was especially hard work, he warned the audience that he was heading for the bar and that we might run screaming from the building if we stuck with it too long. At this point I was convinced I had never seen it before. But, on hearing the problematic soundtrack, I felt a surprisingly warm glow of familiarity. Of course, it was compulsory viewing, at art school, in 1973. Those words, “Yes. Hello. Where are we now? Look at that picture. Does it seem to be persisting? Good. Thank you.” Over and over. They had always stayed in my head and I had forgotten where they came from. William Burroughs seems to be persisting, whoever he is. Good. Thank you.
Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.
Top (main): Rachel Goodyear in Soft Machines
(lower) 1: Sarah Hardacre, artist, screenprinting Burroughs posters
2: Vanessa Vie and Michael Horovitz
3: C.P. Lee