An interview and overview of
William Burroughs and Psychic TV
at the ‘Hacienda Club’, Manchester
This can be no neutral tract of reportage.
We’re crammed in on wraparound concrete stairwell. A bodyguard like a Mormon salesman, smart suit, laser-set hair. William Seward Burroughs shakes my hand, but avoids eye-contact. Is courteous and pleased to talk, but – distant, amputated, disconnected. Jeff Nuttall’s ‘nervous hypnotic man.’ Not quite registering anything. L’Homme Invisible stood like a dead ancestor. Philosopher-King designate of a private fantasy zone. Adrift like a muttered trance on a killing floor…
A single bronze-wood table, solid, lathe-turned legs. A ‘v’ of angled silver mikes zigzag in. Burroughs wasted, thin and expressionless, in green shirt, brown patterned tie, brown jacket, C&A white-‘n’-grey sectioned jumper, grey sox, an air of bored grey resignation. It’s unreal. A mid-Manchester Club vaulted tram-shed high, cat’s eyes and M-way bollards fencing the dance area into a traffic island, industrial severe and austere. Twin huge screens slurred with Factory Records direct relay video slicing in at table, mikes, aged Beat relic, heroin novelist, subversive fag nihilist. A humourless humourist. Slightly unhinged. Freeze-dried in a cerebral slum of spiritual numbness.
The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture at a slaughterhouse carnival.
I’m here with pirate publisher/fantasist Michael Butterworth, and his Japanese Lady. She speaks fractured English, so our describing Burroughs in ‘Ladybird Books’ keyword-manual vocabulary and elaborate semaphore mime isn’t easy. CP Lee hangs on from his ‘Lord Buckley’ review, while clusters of self-nominated celebs hang out beneath the screens. The Burroughs-(An)tony Balch cinema verité movie ‘Towers Open Fire’ (1964) swivels few heads, there’s spasmic jerky monochrome movement, panning across Tangiers Harbour 1962, syringes in wooden flesh, firearms, narcotics, retributive atrocity exhibitions of the several senses, flashes from the archives of Beat Hotel oblivion, Rue Git-Le-Coeur in Paris, the orgasm gun. The lens blurs in ferocious hand-held distortion, an iron brain spewing out random codes and scrambled components that escape into the two-dimensional auto-suggestion of flat celluloid.
His words are a disease that attacks cell-by-cell. Already I’m jet-lagged from going nowhere. A zone of drones. But there’s no doubt he’s closing all kinds of synaptic connections in unprepared brain-centres with the mere black opacity of his presence, underscored by his understated delivery. He ends his Final Academy some twenty minutes later with “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” from ‘Nova Express’ (1964) – ‘cross the wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading’, and he’s gone. Doubtful if he saw the audience, if their presence even registered. But against the odds he’s spun the weight of a four-decade mythology and come off with it intact. What’s been did, and what’s yet to be done.
But I’m already worming backstage over cables and power-lines, crammed in on wraparound concrete stairwell, shaking Burroughs’ cool, smooth, pressureless hand. A guy who tokes so much impedimenta of legend that what do you say he hasn’t already been fed seventy-two times? He looks bored, humourless, sad, a look of borrowed flesh. And there’s something else, something vaguely unnervingly absurd about a tall angular sixty-eight-year-old St Louis gentleman hung out behind the soundstage of a Manchester Disco. He seems amiable, accessible, mellow even. It’s a peak experience for me, cool gone beyond boiling point, syllables cracking open and clogging in the back of my throat like a stuttering fan. Just two people I’ve encountered REALLY scared me. Bo Diddley was one. WSB is the other. Both times the barriers are on my side.
The biggest responses came to the more obvious obscenities and the more visceral passages in the ‘routines’ I offer guardedly. Do you think you’re always appreciated for the right reasons?
‘I’m not prepared to say what makes people react. Or whether their reasons for reacting are right or wrong.’ But do YOU respond to their reactions when you’re performing? ‘I may make changes as I go along, according to how I feel an audience is reacting.’ He speaks of his ‘routines’ as ‘almost like a stand-up Comic act, when you analyse it. Short pieces. Usually comic. Very pointed.’ The humour of Lenny Bruce reconfigured by the Marquis De Sade and ghosted by Dr Goebbels. Everything viewed through anal-tinted spectacles and fed through that Burroughs Adding Machine computer brain, tapes shredded and spliced.
How do these audiences compare with… ‘with the last time I was here?’ Alright, sure. Let’s relate past to present. What’s been did and what’s yet to be done.
There are elements of ‘Happening’ at the Hacienda, I suggest, but the atmosphere, the garb is wrong. ‘The way of dressing is a demonstration, and it is useful as such,’ delivered in a scabrous drawl.
‘I wasn’t involved in the sixties at all’ he concurs unbidden. ‘I was out of the country (out of the USA) most of the time. I really led a very secluded life. Apart from the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which I wrote about.’ He speaks low, now side-face, and in a rush so’s I miss some of it. He paces up and down in the confined concrete cell talking. Yes but I’ve read the ‘Exterminator!’ (1973) account of those trendy riots, mace, night sticks, busted heads, shattered glass, truncheons, ‘youths washing teargas out of their eyes in the fountain’ (“The Coming Of The Purple Better One” originally for ‘Esquire’, November 1968).
And I explain how I’ve travelled some sixty miles, and a literary lifetime, across the Pennines to reach this place. But a small price. I wouldn’t be writing the style I’m writing now were in not for ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959), ‘Soft Machine’ (1961, revised 1966), ‘Junky’ (aka ‘Junkie’, 1953), ‘The Ticket That Exploded’ (1962, revised 1967) et al. This CAN be no neutral tract of reportage.
He’s politely interested, but amputated. Restless with a nervy edge. The Mormon salesman smiles beatifically and benignly while glancing at his watch. A single frame in ‘Towers Open Fire’ shows a right hand with index finger missing. The hand – I’d been assured, was Burroughs’. The missing digit a self-inflicted mutilation, severed as token of a mild homosexual crush. I note his finger-count is complete, and the story collapses. But Burroughs attracts myth, and – aware of their potency, refuses to confirm or deny any of them.
…And it’s a fascinating exercise to compare the films. The contrasts between – say, ‘Towers Open Fire’ and ‘Psychic TV’, the then and the now. The ‘sex magic’ that’s also present in Burroughs’ then-current novel ‘Cities Of The Red Night’ (1981). The shift in perception that occurs when Burroughs’ textual sex and death preoccupations get naked visualisation in – um, less subtle mediums. The differences…
‘But there are similarities. I feel there are common points too. They are statements of a kind.’ In Burroughs’ fiction the medium of print, celluloid, and vinyl get intermeshed. He experiments at length with tape-effects both in the ‘Ticket That Exploded’ novel, and on his Industrial-records LP ‘Nothing Here Now But The Recordings’ (1981, with Brion Gysin, Industrial IR0016) with P Orridge’s sleeve-scrawl, while his character Agent-23 gets literally sucked through the film barrier. ‘Most parts of a film are left in the cutting room, as in music or recording as well. But because a written text is visual does not necessarily mean that it’s cinematic.’
‘Naked Lunch’ itself was compiled in this cutting-room tape-editing fashion. ‘For every ten published pages there are fifty pages of notes to be edited, some on tape, and some filed.’ And the guy who once quoted ‘writing techniques are at least fifty years behind those of painting’ now deals in frames-per-second, enthuses about Malcolm Whitehead’s video from tonight, and encapsulates his words as often on vinyl as in print. Main soundtrack source for much of the Hacienda texts tends to be the new Burroughs-Laurie Anderson-John Giorno live ‘Red Night’ double album ‘You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With’ (1981, GPS, Giorno Poetry Systems), on which WSB sprawls and drawls across all of the third side. While vintage-1965 ESP-Disk ‘Call Me Burroughs’ has been reissued in cassette form by S Press of West Germany (and then by Rhino Word Beat in 1995). Each edition adds new dimensions and emphasis to his work, indicating new directions and consolidations for future explorations.
Burroughs’ form of dissidence is more difficult to categorise. But before I can get down to analysis, at a signal, he turns to go. ‘Desolate thin blue overcoat, far to go, a sweet sadness in his eyes looking for a name.’ He hesitates and comes back again. Re-offers that same bone-ridged hand, but still not his eyes. Then he’s gone.
The smiling Mormon (James Grauerholz) blocks me. ‘Was that alright?’ voiced like a post-coital ritual. And even though circumstances fall far below optimum levels I can only confess that yes, it was way more than alright.
William Seward Burroughs was born 5 February 1914. His contribution to the Rock-Lit infrastructure is second to no other writer, although he claims no great love for it, preferring older music forms. He near-invented the literature of verbal assault, and now that some claim the power of language is exhausted and debased by repetition, he returns to show it not only stunningly alive, but more essential than ever before. Immortality now his only goal worth striving for. An earlier interviewer flung a line at him – ‘I am bound to the past’, from ‘Cities Of The Red Night’, and asked how it applies to William Burroughs in 1982.
He dismisses it. ‘It’s the statement of a character. Obviously I intend to continue…’