The Week in Radio: Uproarious Iggy Pop reveals the naked truth about Burroughs
"A warning," rumbled Iggy Pop at the start of the bananas doc Burroughs at 100, part of Radio 4's Archive on 4 series. "The following programme contains references to homosexuality, drug use, sex with aliens, violence and kitty cats. What did you expect? Hehehe."
One imagines that, at the commissioning stage, Burroughs at 100 was touted as a serious and high-minded look at the life and times of the famed author of Junky and The Naked Lunch. I'm pretty sure it wasn't sold as a comedy.
In the event, however, it was an uproarious and unexpectedly meta exercise in which a gleeful Pop, hired to bring a bit of rock'n'roll pizzazz to an hour-long, ready-written documentary, ran roughshod over writers, producers and, mostly unexpectedly, a man that turned up on his doorstep with a microphone whom he mistook for a burglar.
Having established that the man was in fact from the BBC and not casing the joint, Pop got started. "We're taking a look at [Burroughs'] life, his times, and his work," he said. Then, to no one in particular, he added: "I didn't write this stuff but I'm willing to present [it]. I really hope you put that line in there. I'm not that close to the take of BBC4 [sic] or this whole thing, I'll be honest with you."
It's to the producer's credit that they did leave "that line" in. For a while, it looked as if whatever words were put in front of Pop, he would crank out a sentence and then start riffing madly. But that's not to say that we didn't learn anything about Burroughs.
On the contrary, we learned that The Ticket That Exploded is where Pop found the raw materials for "Lust For Life" ("Here comes Johnny Yen again/ With the liquor and the drugs/ And the Flesh Machine").
We discovered that he is mentioned in Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" and appears on the cover of Sgt Pepper next to Marilyn Monroe. He inspired band names including The Soft Machine and Steely Dan, the latter having been named after a strap-on dildo in The Naked Lunch. He also worked with Kurt Cobain. "Without William, there is nothing," Pop croaked.
Various friends paid tribute including the director John Waters, whom Burroughs once anointed the "Pope of Trash". "He was a bad guardian angel that got us out of the house," said Waters referring to his indolent youth in which he shot heroin in tribute to his hero. Later, an ex-boyfriend recalled his first night with an elderly Burroughs in which he discovered that, company or no company, the writer slept with a loaded gun in his bed.
Despite his madcap diversions, Pop drew a detailed portrait of a man in a world of pain "railing against the world with one hand on the typewriter and the other pushing a needle into his arm".
There were archive recordings of Burroughs reading from his books. There was also Pop's impersonation of Burroughs' disdainful, nasal rasp. I'm still not sure which of them was more terrifying.
A rare dissenting voice came in the form of Will Self who viewed the mythology around Burroughs as "an unpleasant slug crawling across the lawn of literature". Pop called Self a "known smart-ass".
Burroughs at 100 was a joy on many levels. I loved its unapologetic recounting of Burroughs' baser instincts. I loved the tenderness with which it treated his many frailties. I loved its choice of presenter and his steadfast refusal to toe the line. I loved the fact those who made it weren't afraid of said presenter's off-piste outbursts. I loved that it blew the cobwebs off the Radio 4 documentary. I loved it.
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