The current issue of the National Examiner newspaper
Of all the people you might see on the cover of the National Examiner supermarket tabloid—Loretta Lynn, Michael Jackson, Honey Boo Boo, the Clintons and of course the Kardashian family—one face that you’d probably never expect to find there is that of junkie novelist William Burroughs, but there he is, in the right upper corner, right above Burt Reynolds and to the left of the bit asking what the fuck Delta Burke did to her face…
See Burroughs there, along with Ted Kennedy, Claus Von Bulow and Susan Cummings, the original affluenza poster children? The question asks “Do the rich and famous get away with killing people?”
The short answer, of course as was most certainly the case with William Burroughs (whose brother bribed Mexican police to let him go after he’d blown his wife’s brains out at point blank range) is that they often do! Predictably there’s a sidebar about Claudine Longet, too.
I’m not normally in the habit of picking up cheesy supermarket tabloids, but I noticed this at the check out this morning at Ralphs (that’s what they call Kroger in So Cal) and had to share. The National Examiner has a reputation for bad reporting—if not just out and out making shit up—but they got the basic facts right for this one. Still, it’s got to be the most unexpected company ever for William Burroughs to keep.
In 1978, after many years of living in London and Tangiers, William S. Burroughs decided to return to his home country. For a small group of artistic weirdos, this was a significant event, and a convention was held in his honor at the Entermedia Theater from November 30 through December 2, 1978, on Second Avenue and 12th Street in New York City (it’s no longer there). Much earlier, it had been announced that Keith Richards would be on hand, but after his heroin arrest in Toronto, his management calculated that it would not be wise to appear at a festival honoring the legendary deviant drug addict William S. Burroughs. Frank Zappa was enlisted to read the “Talking Asshole” section from Naked Lunch. Patti Smith, who wore “a glamorous black fur trench” in the words of Thurston Moore, objected mightily to having to follow Zappa and had to be placated by Burroughs confidant and organizer of the convention James Grauerholz, who explained to Smith that Zappa’s appearance was a last-minute necessity and not intended to show Smith up. You can listen to Smith’s contribution, in which she addresses Richards’ absence, here. At the “event party” for the convention, the musical performances included Suicide, The B-52s, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. The inclusion of The B-52s is most fascinating, as they hadn’t even released their first album yet.
Other participants included Terry Southern, Philip Glass, John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Allen Ginsburg. You can read a writeup of the event from the December 4, 1978, edition of the New York Times: “Of the other performers, Mr. Burroughs himself was the most appealing, and this had less to do with what he was reading than with how he read it. Although he has created some enduring characters, he is his own most interesting character, and he was in rare form, sitting at a desk in a business suit and bright green hat, shuffling papers and reading in his dry Midwestern accent.” An LP and cassette documenting the event were released in 1979 and they fetch top prices today at Discogs.
The Nova Convention took place on November 30, December 1, and December 2, 1978, with the principal performances being held on the last two days at the Entermedia Theater, on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street, which had in the fifties been the fabled Phoenix Theater. Attending were an odd mixture of academics, publishers, writers, artists, punk rockers, counterculture groupies, and an influx of bridge-and-tunnel kids drawn by Keith Richards, who made the event a sellout.
Saturday night the Entermedia was packed, largely with young people waiting to see Keith Richards. There was a small hitch, however, which was that Keith Richards had cancelled. He was having problems as the result of a heroin bust in Toronto, and his office convinced him that appearing on the same program with Burroughs was bad publicity.
But the show had to go on, and the composer Philip Glass, playing one of his repetitive pieces on the synthesizer, was thrown to the wolves. The disappointed kids who wanted Keith Richards shouted and booed. Then Brion Gysin went on amid cries of “Where’s Keith?” and found himself hoping that the riot would not start until he had done his brief turn.
In a last-minute effort, James Grauerholz had recruited Frank Zappa to pinch-hit for Keith. He volunteered to read the “Talking Asshole” routine from Naked Lunch. But as Zappa was preparing to go on, Patti Smith had a fit of pique about following him. James did his best to make peace, saying “Frank has come in at the last minute, and he’s got to go on, and he’s doing it for William, not to show you up.” Patti Smith retreated to the privacy of her dressing room, and Zappa got a big hand, because that’s what they wanted, a rock star.
From July 1 through July 13, the Red Gallery in London is putting on an exhibition dedicated to the Nova Convention. The exhibition is curated by Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz; Moore, who was present at the event in 1978, supplies a short piece called “Nova Reflections” to the exhibition catalogue; here are some snippets of that:
What I remember of the Nova Convention, in my teenage potted reverie, was a palpable excitement of the importance of Burroughs’ return to NYC. He had been living and working in London for some time, and before that, was residing in Tangiers. My awareness of the poets and performers on the Nova Convention bill was obscure, but I did realise everyone there had experienced a history in connection to the man. The poet Eileen Myles performed, and I have a hazy memory of what she has since reminded me was a polarising moment that night: She and a femme cohort came out on stage and performed the so-called William Tell act where in 1951 Burroughs tragically sent a bullet through his wife Joan Vollmer’s skull, killing her instantly. According to Eileen she was hence persona non grata backstage, and frozen out from the coterie of avant lit celebrities shocked at her “reminder” performance.
Glass’s idiosyncratic high-speed minimalist pianistics was natural, gorgeous and sublime. Zappa came out and read a Burroughs excerpt “The Talking Asshole” which seemed appropriate and was mildly entertaining. Patti hit the stage in a glamorous black fur trench, purportedly on loan from some high-end clothier. She rambled on a bit, brazenly unscripted, testing the patience of the long night when out of the audience some fan-boy freako leapt on stage and bequeathed her with a Fender Duo-Sonic guitar. She accepted it cooly and before long was gone. And we stumbled into the 2nd Avenue night.
In his catalogue piece, Moore leads with an anecdote about photographer James Hamilton, whose astonishing pictures of rock icons are collected in the book (Moore was intergral in putting that book together as well) You Should Have Heard Just What I Seen. Hamilton was covering the event for the Village Voice, and while it’s not stated as such, presumably many of Hamilton’s photographs, are featured in the exhibition.
Here’s Timothy Leary, Les Levine, Robert Anton Wilson and Brion Gysin engaging in “conversations” about Burroughs’ work:
And here’s Frank Zappa reading “The Talking Asshole” from Naked Lunch:
Preview video of the “Nova Convention” exhibition at the Red Gallery:
If your life needs a little-seen dystopian ‘80s German film about Industrial music sparking revolutionary change in a society of fast food and cultivated complacency—and I believe it does—then your life needs Decoder. Largely illuminated in lurid reds and TV-tube blues, the 1984 film starred Einstürzende Neubauten’s then-percussionist F.M. Einheit as a sonic experimenter who discovers that playing back recordings of disturbances in public spaces can create actual disturbances among the public, a concept developed by William Burroughs in the “Electronic Revolution” essay found in some editions of the collection The Job. (In fact, Burroughs briefly appears in the film, as does Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge.)
Einheit uses this esoteric knowledge to cultivate increasingly widespread defiance and mayhem, attracting the attention of a Muzak corporate hit-man (I love the conceit that Muzak would have an assassin in its employ) whose task is complicated by his crush on F.M.’s peep-show dancer/amateur herpetologist girlfriend, played by Christiane F. The film’s themes and inspirations are illuminated by its writer Klaus Maeck in this interview from Jack Sargeant’s Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, excerpted here from the film’s web site.
I wanted to realize Burroughs’ ideas and the techniques which he described in the ‘Electronic Revolution’, and in The Revised Boy Scout Manual and in The Job. These were my favorite books … And I loved Johnny Rotten for his revolution in show business (and I still do). I was convinced that the only valuable political work must use the enemy’s techniques. From the ‘Foreword’ of the Decoder Handbook: “It’s all about subliminal manipulation, through words, pictures and sound. It is the task of the pirates to understand these techniques and use them in their own interest. To spread information is the task of all media. Media is power. And nowadays (1984!) the biggest revolution happen at the market for electronic media. To spread information is also your task. And we should learn in time to use our video and tape recorders as Weapons. The fun will come by itself.”
Being in the music business and participating in the punk and new wave explosion I became more interested in music. Muzak was one thing I found. Subliminal music to influence people’s moods, to make them function better, or buy more. So my conclusion was similar to that of ‘bands’ like Throbbing Gristle; by turning around the motivation, by cutting up the sounds, by distorting them etc. one should be able to provoke different reactions. Make people puke instead of feeling well, make people disobey instead of following, provoke riots.
Though it deals thoughtfully with provocative ideas, the film is laden with Euro art-film pretense that feels like fit matter for a “Sprockets” gag. Early on there’s a montage of video games cut with military stock footage, and another that alternates gore and erotica while Soft Cell’s “Seedy Films” plays. And it features this exchange:
But as strange as it can be, Decoder still holds a coherent, if dreamy, narrative, filled with captivating imagery and a gorgeous soundtrack composed by Einheit, P-Orridge, and Soft Cell’s Dave Ball. You can watch it in its entirety right here. I’ll throw the trainspotters a bone: Burroughs’ cameo is in the scene that starts at about 37:30, and P-Orridge’s appearance is at about 49:00.
Early one Saturday morning in September 1982, Genesis P-Orridge met filmmaker Derek Jarman at his apartment in central London. The pair then drove to Heathrow Airport, where they were to collect William S. Burroughs. Jarman brought his camera, and took a few “shy snaps” as Genesis welcomed Burroughs and then drove him to Chelsea, where he was booked into the Arts Club. A full itinerary of events had been organized for Burroughs during his visit, as Jarman later wrote in his journal.
During the next week Mr. B. was banqueted at the B2 Gallery, filmed and interviewed across London, and did four nights of readings at the Ritzy in Brixton and one night in Heaven.
Burroughs was publicizing his latest novel, Cities of the Red Night, as well as reading extracts from past works and his forthcoming book The Place of Dead Roads. Having made three critically successful art house films (Sebastiane, Jubilee, and The Tempest), Jarman was struggling to raise money for his next feature on the Baroque artist Caravaggio. Genesis, finished with Throbbing Gristle, had formed the video art and music group Psychic TV, who were working with Jarman on a film portrait of Burroughs.
Jarman “clicked away” with his Nizo Super 8 camera filming Burroughs, Brion Gysin, John Giorno and others. The results were edited together into a short film Pirate Tape, with a soundtrack by Psychic TV.
In his memoir Dancing Ledge, Jarman described a reading by Burroughs and Brion Gysin:
WSB emerges tortoise-like to greet his audience. He stoops like a cadavre in the catacombs of Palermo and talks of mummies and immortality. To speak to him is almost impossible, as he is always on the move in little erratic circles. At rest he retires into himself and puts out a signal, ‘Leave me alone.’ The only thing to do is to be photographed with him, and that is what everyone attempted to do. His readings are immensely funny. He drawls out his lines in a Southern monotone, punctuating it only for sips of water. What might give you the shivers on the page becomes the blackest of black comedy. Brion Gysin fights an old battle with him; but William’s junk vision has won out against Brion’s magic and the battle isn’t joined. Brion described William fishing for inspiration in the sewers of Paris. They do not share accommodation on this trip, and their friendship now seems cemented by the common platform that their young admirers have provided. Time has parted them: Brion the Parisian with his dream-machine and Bill in Kansas with his junk.
Sometimes the bare facts of history create a romantic notion that the participants in such culturally important events were happy, successful and generally financially secure. When usually, in truth, the opposite was often the case.
So it was for Jarman, who by January 1983 was broke, his bank account shut, and all his holiday change spent. He was reduced to selling clothes and books to pay the rent. Genesis P-Orridge, on hearing of Jarman’s financial plight, gave him £50 towards the cost of the Super 8 film he had shot for Pirate Tape.
Pirate Tape is an experimental portrait of William Burroughs, which features a loop of the writer’s voice cut to images of his visit to London. This film tends to disappear quickly, so watch it while you can.
For the uninitiated, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is only a “documentary” in a very abstract sense. Intrigued by the Malleus Maleficarum—a 15th century German guide to witch and demon identification—director Benjamin Christensen depicted the occult hysteria of the Middle Ages by actually portraying the delusions and superstitions themselves. So instead of a movie made up entirely of inquisitions and trials and executions (which, to be fair, are certainly scary), he delivered a motion picture depicting mental illness, satanic masses, baby killing, sex with the devil, broom rides, the seduction of clergy and all manner of cinematic evil. The film was once banned in the United States.
I highly recommend you watch it, and I also highly recommend the 1968 William S. Burroughs-narrated version I posted at the bottom. The film was originally silent (obviously), but whatever score might have been played at a screening couldn’t be any creepier than hearing William S. Burroughs’ nasally voice over psychedelic jazz and electronic noises. Plus, the Criterion Collection version is 104 minutes long, whereas the Burroughs version is 77 minutes, since a narrator eliminates the necessity of title cards.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages was the most expensive Swedish film ever made at the time, and it shows. There are lush, eery sets, clearly created with careful attention to detail, and the early special effects are haunting, even in our cynical CGI-laden present day. The cinematography is also very sophisticated, using odd angles and unsettling close-ups. It’s absolutely gorgeous, a true fantastic horror—disturbing, violent, and sometimes sexy—pretty much everything you want in an occult documentary, no? To give you a taste, some of the lot is below, (the first four are larger sized, the others are smaller photos).
But really, watch the movie. In the dark.
Oh, and buy me these photographs. I need them for apartment ambiance whilst summoning the dark forces
William S. Burroughs was born one hundred years ago today, February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, MO. Unsurprisingly, this year there will be countless celebrations of his life, work and still very profound cultural influence. The best place to keep up with the events of the Burroughs’ centenary is at the Burroughs100 website.
Here are some past Dangerous Minds posts about the author:
Two cultural icons of the twentieth century, William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol, enjoying dinner and amiably discussing the first time they had sex with another man—whatever could be more salubrious? Horses are part of the conversation, too. Read on in the excerpt from Victor Bockris’ classic book, With William Burroughs, A Report from the Bunker
Burroughs: Cocteau had this party trick that he would pull. He would lie down, take off his clothes, and come spontaneously. Could do that even in his fifties. He’d lie down there and his cock would start throbbing and he’d go off. It was some film trick that he had.
Bockris: How’d he pull that off? Have you ever been able to come through total mental—
Burroughs: Oh, I have indeed. I’ve done it many times. It’s just a matter of getting the sexual image so vivid that you come.
Warhol: How old were you when you first had sex?
Burroughs: Sixteen. Just boarding school at Los Alamos Ranch School where they later made the atom bomb.
Warhol: With who?
Burroughs: With this boy in the next bunk.
Warhol: What did he do?
Burroughs: Mutual masturbation. But during the war this school, which was up on the mesa there thirty-seven miles north of Santa Fe, was taken over by the army. That’s where they made the atom bomb. Oppenheimer [the scientist who invented the bomb] had gone out there for his health and he was staying at a dude ranch near this place and said, “Well, this is the ideal place.” It seems so right and appropriate somehow that I should have gone to school there. Los Alamos Ranch School was one of those boarding schools where everyone rode a horse. Fucking horses, I hate ‘em. I had sinus trouble and I’d been going to New Mexico for my health during the summer vacations and then my family contacted the director, A. J. Connell, who was a Unitarian and believed very much in positive thinking, and I went there for two years. This took place on a sleeping porch, 1929.
Warhol: How great! Was the sex really like an explosion?
Burroughs: No no … I don’t remember it was so long ago.
Warhol: I think I was twenty-five when I first had sex, but the first time I knew about sex was under the stairs in Northside, Pittsburgh, and they made this funny kid suck this boy off. I never understood what it meant…
Burroughs: Made him do what?
Warhol: Suck this boy off, but I didn’t know what it meant, I was just sitting there watching when I was five years old. How did you get this kid to do it, or did he do it to you?
Burroughs: Oh I don’t know, sort of a lot of talking back and forth…
Here’s a remarkable clip of the pair, this time chatting about, er, chicken fried steak—in the very room in which Arthur Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey! Phew, so much history! The footage is from an episode of the BBC documentary program Arena about the Hotel Chelsea and there are a couple of odd narrative elements to it, but the clip mercifully ends with Nico singing a haunting rendition of “Chelsea Girls”—in the Chelsea Hotel itself, one wonders if it was in Room 506…..
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 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.