The Best of William S. Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems, Read by William S. Burroughs, Mouth Almighty / Pgd, 1998
There are some voices that are instantly recognizable the moment you hear them, either through their ubiquity (the President’s, whoever he may be that year) or through their peculiarly unique sonic quality. William S. Burroughs falls into the latter category. There’s a distinction to Burroughs’ voice that at first sounds affected, that Beat syncopation with the studied pause, yet by the time you become accustomed to, it sounds perfectly natural, as if no other voice could do justice to the material. Who else could inhabit so deadpan the amoral Dr. Benway? Taped evidence going back decades proves conclusively that even in his youth, Burroughs was possessed by a craven crypt keeper croak, a dry, drawn out chirp like a vulture speaking English.
Performance poetry originator, Warhol confidante, and (perhaps most importantly) the force behind the Dial-A-Poem recordings, John Giorno has collected a wide-ranging and representative box set of Burroughs’ work, four CDs of material from all stages in the writer’s career. The set kicks off with a live bit, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” featuring Burroughs’ most famous creation, Dr. Benway, and this is followed up with a series of sketches of junkies, “103rd Street Boys.” At one point, in lamenting the fussy insistence of nurses on hygiene and correct surgical procedure, Dr. Benway prophetically drops the line, “Soon we’ll be operating by remote control on patients we never see.” And within the first two tracks we are introduced to at least three themes that were operative through the whole length of Burroughs’ career, bizarre physicians, junkies and addicts, and homosexuality.
What’s rather nice is the breadth of the pieces spanning his career, if not in scope of material, which was frequently limited to be sure though delved into repeatedly for ever more perverse satire. Clearly audible based on microphone and tape quality from years past, Burroughs’ style of material and style of delivering that material changed little. What is apparent is the change in how audiences perceived his work. What is remarkable in the older recordings is how much funny stuff Burroughs will say before you hear the slightest titter from the audience, and you realize he’s reading before a live crowd that apparently doesn’t understand his writing is often meant to amuse, the bitter zing of satire perhaps needing the seasoning of a few years to make itself understood. Perhaps today as well we laugh more at Swift than his contemporaries.
And that’s the aspect of Burroughs that is most overlooked by American critics and the American canon, that his work could be broadly subsumed as a kind of abstract satire at times, while at others quite crystalline clear. When hearing the man reflect at length on the atom bomb, it is quite obvious that his concerns were larger than the pigeonhole of the hallucinations of a gay junkie Beatnik. Often relegated to the Pretentious Addict niche in literary considerations, Burroughs is poorly served by critics who are unable to see past their own protestant morality, hung up as they often are by writers who deal frankly in self-degradation, sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and other earthly concerns of the mere flesh. There is a long, long list of authors, Burroughs among them surely, worthy of a second consideration once more fastidious literary evaluators divest themselves of their preachy sensibilities.
This is most commonly an American tradition of neglect, serving such authors as Miller and Bukowski in the same fashion, lauding them only after years of praise and recognition have been bestowed by the French. Poe suffered the same way, and perhaps it will take as long for the American canon to elevate Burroughs as it did Poe. His induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters be damned, Burroughs has yet to gain the kind of mainstream cache accorded to a “cleaner” writer.
One of Burroughs more recent pieces that highlights his knack for political satire is his reply published in Vanity Fair answering that ever-pressing question “When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President?” Never wanting such a title, Burroughs dreams of being Sewer Commissioner for St. Louis with his low-level graft and corruption, his hands more closely in the shit of political influence and power. This is followed closely on by “Chief Smiles” which features Burroughs barking sharply “Death, death, death!” in a chilling fashion counterpoint to a Pentagon plot to harness death itself for military purposes.
The military and all its accoutrements were often targets for Burroughs invective, the insistence on faster, more efficient killing, more permanent forms of damaging the planet earning his scathing wit. “Thank God it wasn’t a dud,” Burroughs chirps in imitation of Oppenheimer after the leveling Hiroshima. “What kind of a god is that?” Burroughs often wondered. In “From Here to Eternity,” Burroughs grabs hold of the hackneyed phrase and runs with it, spicing his military satire with the words. The plotting, counterplotting, and treasonous level of plotting by the CIA is also the butt of such nasty bits as “What Washington? What Orders?” which ends with the veiled threat of political class genocide.
An interesting grouping of recordings are the Mexican sketches, beginning with a live version of “Tio Mate Smiles” immediately followed by a studio “Tio Pepe” practically ending the live piece in mid-paragraph to cut to the studio. The effect is disturbingly intimate, Burroughs’ voice right in your ear whispering Spanish curses in Tio Pepe’s voice. With his raspingly dry croak, Burroughs’ voice is put to its best effect here, singing out little curse songs. A second, different studio recording continues in a scattered group of sketches from the same canon “As Esperanza Turns to Go Inside; Tia Maria, Tio Gordo” the story, leaving the cursing Spanish uncle briefly, only to get back to him. This is such a privately unprofessional recording that we hear brightly and crisply the turning of the pages and Burroughs’ muttering to himself between bits.
Curiously, the Giorno boxed set follows no kind of chronology or arrangement by theme. This is both a strength and a weakness, allowing Burroughs’ work to appear in a semi-cut up form mirroring his experimental style, yet at the same time diffusing some of the focus a good editing could have given to the work as a whole. For a man who retained an astonishing mental clarity and acuity late into his life, as his book The Cat Inside demonstrated amply (nicely excerpted here), Burroughs’ fourth disc ends with the cut-and-paste experimental recordings of his youth, unfortunately tagging the end of the set with an Alzheimer like incoherence.
Now granted, a box set is rarely bought by someone unfamiliar with the material, and these Burroughs readings sit in isolation, connected only by the voice and the general subject matter. Those who wish to familiarize themselves have the option of reading the novels whole, picking up the Burroughs’ reader Word Virus, or searching out any number of Burroughs’ recordings and diving right in. Repeated listenings familiarize you with the outlines of Burroughs’ concerns, his disdain for racist, bigoted good ol’ boys, police, the military, and other figures of authority, his lip-smacking appreciation for heroin, and his general atmosphere of pervading schizophrenic paranoia and seedy homoeroticism. (It is odd that a gay author should so habitually present such poor portrayals of homosexuals.) The likewise frequent references to virus propagation is prophetic both due to his life as a junkie and a gay man and featured as a reference point in Burroughs’ career nearly from day one. There are also, as would be expected if you write frequently of virus, inhumane doctors that seem to be in abundance from Benway to Pierson, and this material often dates from before we even knew how doctors at the CDC pushed AIDS to the backburner as an unimportant “gay flu.”
One could even possibly argue that it is Burroughs’ unrepentant and visceral homosexuality, unlike say Armistead Maupin’s more PG-gay life, that keeps him a good critics’ arm length away. Yet like those other unrespected American authors, Burroughs remains widely influential, though most commonly among late adolescence and the college years. This is a bit of a shame as revisiting these authors long after those first heady days pays dividends and brings new appreciation for a kind of depth overlooked in one’s youth. Burroughs’ track entitled “Words of Advice” is worth transcribing on the back of every birth certificate upon delivery. In closing, I reproduce it here below as proof that the man, though eccentric to the highest degree, was possessed of sound wisdom.
“[H]ere are a few simple admonitions for young and old, man and beast.
Never interfere in a boy and girl fight.
Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What
they mean is that they want more money; much more, these are the most
expensive whores what can be got.
If you’re doing business with a religious son of a bitch, get it in
writing; his word isn’t worth shit, not with the good lord telling him
how to fuck you on the deal.
If, after having been exposed to someone’s presence, you feel as if you’ve
lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need
We don’t like to hear the word “vampire” around here; we’re trying to
improve our public image. Building a kindly, avuncular, benevolent image;
“interdependence” is the keyword -- “enlightened interdependence”.
Life in all its rich variety, take a little, leave a little. However, by
the inexorable logistics of the vampiric process they always take more
than they leave — and why, indeed, should they take any?
Avoid fuck-ups. Fools, I call them. You all know the type — no matter
how good it sounds, everything they have anything to do with turns into
a disaster. Trouble for themselves and everyone connected with them. A
fool is bad news, and it rubs off — don’t let it rub off on you.
Do not proffer sympathy to the mentally ill; it is a bottomless pit. Tell
them firmly, “I am not paid to listen to this drivel — you are a terminal
fool!” Otherwise, they make you as crazy as they are.
Above all, avoid confirmed criminals.
They are a special malignant strain of fool.