“I’m not anticipating any trouble, because I don’t like violence.”
William H. Burroughs
Something I’m working on led me back to Burroughs. You’re pretty much obliged to bow down to the beats and it’s understandable, but I’ve picked up plenty of tat in my quest for enlightenment. To be honest, ‘On the Road’ didn’t ignite an epiphany in me — I was more impressed by Kerouac’s ‘Doctor Sax,’ (written while Jack was living with William Burroughs), and Ginsberg’s NAMBLA support to prove a point left me perplexed. Maybe I need to reinvestigate Allen’s intent there. But Burroughs is the one whose work felt — and still feels — truly dangerous. Nearly every piece of the man’s work has a clinical oddness that’s somehow at odds with the sometimes squalid imagery in his head. He put impurity down with his own opiate-bred brand of twisting narrative that never felt contrived despite his celebrity status — in-demand from those seeking the seated figure with the memorably nightmarish voice and embalmed appearance. Even when he was being photographed for GAP and promoting Nike’s Max2 line, that creepiness remained. It was a perfectly tailored breed of hardcore, with a sedateness that betrayed what those eyes had seen, with no skull rings or posturing necessary. I’ve had to retreat from certain texts like, ‘The Ticket That Exploded’ (my mind wasn’t ready for that cut-up technique), but his love letter to the feline race, ‘The Cat Inside,’ was a revelation, exposing another aspect of a complex soul, evolving until the very end. Was he always so deadpan, or was it the drugs? Did that experimentation create the face that’s as hard to read as the prose?
When I’m watching footage of Burroughs or reading his work, as well as pondering just how high drinking nutmeg and water will make you, I’m looking for those glimmers of humanity, rather than the UFOs, viruses, governmental weirdness, extreme shape shifts and poisoned blood perversities, all the while bearing in mind that he shot his wife in the head once. In between all the dispatches from the dark side, there’s a joy in trying to decipher where his mind is at. With ‘Rub Out the Words’ — a compilation of his written letters during his ‘golden era’ — recently published (and worth your time, his near-constant financial issues explain that willingness to participate in so much during the 1980’s and 1990’s), and Burroughs’ shotgun art of 1986/87 going on display at Uruguay’s Bohemian Gallery & Museum of Contemporary Art, there’s always room for a retrospective. Blasting cans of spray paint in front of canvases with a firearm feels irresponsible, given the man’s relationship with bullets, but it’s an authentic representation of where his head was probably at. Had Burroughs had a knack for illustration, his canvases and sketchbooks might have been an even clearer depiction of his dreams. From recollections from fellow Harvard students that William was fond of firearms, to that day in 1951, to the end, where he’d entertain/scare visitors by producing a sword from his cane (as recollected in ‘Last Words’), weaponry was a significant accessory in the Burroughs mythos. That fetish gets a memorable outing towards the end of ‘Burroughs.’
Howard Brookner’s ‘Burroughs,’ filmed between 1980 and 1983, is a superior documentary that — like the Omnibus ‘Cracked Actor’ documentary — was a BBC production for the Arena strand with Alan Yentob heavily arrived that deserves a DVD release, quietly capturing the complicated subject at a significant point in their career. It’s one of my favourite documentaries, making good use of his readings (and I recommend the UbuWeb sound archives for a thorough collection of Burroughs audio, from him reading ‘Junky’ in its entirety to dubs of cassettes made with Genesis P-Orridge) and including some memorable moments — rare footage of William and his tortured, tragic son Billy at the table (Billy died in 1981, during filming) that’s interspersed with some unflattering remarks from James Grauerholz, William visiting the home of his old gardener and leaving him visibly moved with his surprisingly lucid recollections of the man’s deceased son, a visit to see Lucian Freud, a moment of mirth around his improvised ‘Danny Boy’ lyrics and quite a few weapons — on showing off a telescopic baton, he animatedly describes a telescopic blade to slash somebody’s throat “…right in the middle of a sentence” and shows off a massive knife and fires off a blow dart too. Then there’s his terrifying looking ‘Bunker’ that’s a disused YMCA locker room, where he discusses a paranormal visitor as if it’s simply a matter-of-fact. It’s a compelling watch and Jim Jarmusch was recruited for sound duties (Howard Brookner was gaffer on ‘Permanent Vacation’). Brookner’s passing at age 34 robbed the world of plenty more equally strong portraits.
Somebody has kindly upped the whole documentary on YouTube, but there’s also a full upload of 1984’s ‘Decoder’ there too. ‘Decoder’ couldn’t feel much more 1980’s, but with the real Christianne F (Christiane Felscherinow) as a love interest and Burroughs in some unsettling dream sequences, it’s worth 88 minutes of your existence if you’re my way inclined.