ON THE FACE of it, the new William Burroughs album is an implausible product. Though rock 'n' roll has a great deal of Burroughs in it, there is no rock 'n' roll in the Invisible Man himself. After all, the author of the Naked Lunch, still a few months short of his 80th birthday, who was already middle-aged when rock was born. Is it seemly for somebody of his age to be cavorting with a rap act, even one as intellectual and as upscale as the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy?
It's not even as if music of any sort has played a huge part in Burroughs' life. 'He's not really someone who has a tape player in his home or listens to music,' observes James Grauerholz, who over the past 20 years has acted as secretary, editor, manager, agent and general creator of order around Burroughs and his work. The only music of which the author has spoken to Grauerholz is the pop music of the 1940s, the old Viennese waltzes he used to play on his Victrola, and the ritual music of Jajouka, in Morocco.
Nor did he ever see the point of reading his work out loud until Grauerholz hit upon the idea of public readings as a way of shoring up the shaky foundations of Burroughs' finances. But for many of those who now count themselves among Burroughs' admirers, the readings made his work make sense for the first time. It's the voice: the parchment chuckle and the sensation of static electricity, as though the man were transmitting from some place else, a long distance and a long time away. Once you have heard Burroughs read his own texts, the current generated by the voice remains live when you read them thereafter.
Moreover, it's a voice that benefits particularly well from musical accompaniment; a dried mushroom releasing its flavours in the sauce. That was demonstrated on Burroughs' 1990 album, Dead City Radio, produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon. The roots of the project lay in an appearance by Burroughs on Saturday Night Live, for which Willner was musical director. On that occasion, in 1981, Burroughs recited 'Twilight's Last Gleaming' over an old recording of 'The Star Spangled Banner'. Willner, hooked by the voice, went out and bought himself a stack of Burroughs books.
Willner's discography is highly varied, but he has a special fascination with the interaction between music and the spoken word: 'It becomes cinematic in your head, a movie for your ears,' he observes.
He is also a radio fan. 'When I was a kid I used to collect old radio shows. I have a lot of the Goons on tape.' The Goons it definitely wasn't, but Dead City Radio was conceived as an echo of Forties and Fifties wireless broadcasting. Most of the musical ingredients were Burroughs' kind of tunes, sepia-toned old recordings of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The rest was homage from the bohemian quarter of rock: John Cale, Chris Stein, Sonic Youth and Donald Fagen. The latter had already paid homage himself by naming his band after a fictional brand of dildo invented by Burroughs, Steely Dan. He wasn't the only one: there was the Soft Machine, Throbbing Gristle, the Mugwumps, Dead Fingers Talk, Heavy Metal Kids . . . The phrase 'heavy metal' entered rock culture via Naked Lunch and the Steppenwolf song 'Born to Be Wild'.
Burroughs' influence has also filtered into other cultural forms of our times, such as 'cyberpunk' fiction. Its most comprehensive acknowledgment was in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. James Grauerholz cites the film as an argument in favour of bringing the original Burroughs directly to the public. Although he considers it 'very good by its own lights', he points out that 'it's not really very Burroughsian'.
It was Grauerholz who had the idea of making a follow-up to Dead City Radio using rap or dance tracks. He had been approached by Kim Buie, the A & R person on Dead City Radio, who told him that she and Chris Blackwell wanted to make another Burroughs album. Grauerholz suggested a collaboration with an Island act. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphpoprisy were brought in to collaborate with Willner. And it came off, magnificently.
There was already enough material for about a third of the new album left over from the Dead City Radio recordings, made at Burroughs' home in Lawrence, Kansas. Burroughs is shielded as much as possible from the production (and promotion) of his albums. He lives quietly in a modest house, the most striking features of which, according to biographer Barry Miles (William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, Virgin) are cats and firearms, the kind of weapons and survivalist magazines normally associated with ominously withdrawn youths.
He, was, however, prevailed upon to make the journey into Kansas City when U2's Zooropa tour hit town. Taking a bag of guns as props, he posed for photos with the Disposables, the support act, and was ticked off as a feature of local interest by Bono, the Great Global Tourist. Bono wanted him to stay to see the show, but it was past Burroughs' bedtime. These days, he tends to be in bed by nine.
Over the past few years, William Burroughs Communications, the author's corporate incarnation, has not shied away from the special guest appearance. Burroughs had a cameo role in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. His voice was used on an album called Seven Souls, by Bill Liswell's fusion group Material, and more recently on a single by Kurt Cobain. He did a Gap ad. He would probably do the Bill Burroughs Book of Cats if he hadn't already done a cat book (The Cat Inside).
According to Grauerholz, commerce is not the only item on the agenda here. 'In addition to being a writer with literary concerns per se, William has a message. It's not exactly a political message or anything that can be put in so many words, but it has to do with a freedom of mind, and challenging authority, and a certain kind of sense of humour and view on the world. The point is cultural subversion.'
The message can, perhaps, be put into one word: paranoia. 'Paranoia? That's not a bad aspect,' laughs Grauerholz. But the most easily grasped theme of Burroughs' writing is that the world is manipulated by unseen conspiracies, and if those don't get
you, then viral or other parasites will. The viruses and conspiracies are the active forces in the world; individual will shrivels to nothing. It reinforces the great American mantra of today: nothing is ever your fault. Burroughs' big ideas, in theage of AIDS and addiction theories, are now mainstream.
None the less, the Invisible Man is still subversive. Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales has the equivalent of a hit single on it, in the shape of 'Words Of Advice to Young People'. There are only two pieces of advice that William Burroughs could reasonably offer young people: don't do heroin, and don't play with loaded firearms. But his entire corpus of work is based on the denial of those two axioms; chronically in the first case, and acutely - the accidental shooting of his wife - in the second. Still, he offers his titbits of advice, and in the process proves himself to be one of America's most mordantly funny deadpan humourists.
A couple of Burroughs' other greatest hits, the 'Dr Benway Operates' and the 'Talking Asshole' routines, help make up the tour de force that is Spare Ass Annie. The standout track, however, is 'Junkie's Xmas', written in 1952. The junkie story is one of the simplest of all human stories, since all other relationships are squeezed out by that between junkie and junk. Burroughs magically subverts both it and the Dickensian Christmas tale with the story of how the junkie eventually manages to score at
Christmas, when all the dealers are away, and then gives his fix to a stranger in pain. Going back to his room, Danny the junkie is overtaken by a miraculous high. 'For Christ's sake,' Danny thinks, 'I must have scored for the immaculate fix.' And hark, on the backing track, the herald angels of incorrigible subversiveness sing.
'Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales' (Island) is released on 11 October
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