Graded on a Curve: William S. Burroughs,
Call Me Burroughs

Drug addict, gun enthusiast, Harvard graduate, cat lover, convict, accused conjurer of smut, and a distinguished member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the late and very great William Seward Burroughs II’s transformation from a consummate flouter of norms into an enduring icon of the counterculture didn’t transpire overnight. Most important were his writings, but the recordings played a large role as well; 1965’s Call Me Burroughs was first, and a half century after it helped to define post-Beat pre-Hippie underground cool, it remains amongst his best.

Barry Miles’ biography of William S. Burroughs, which just happens to share a title with the singular litterateur’s first LP, came out early last year. I’ll admit I’ve not read it, a circumstance pertaining far less to the tome’s 718 pages than it does to the simple fact that I’ve carried Burroughs’ writing and knowledge of his struggles, failings, and accomplishments with me for the entirety of my adult life. I do look forward to eventually inspecting its contents, however. I’ve only engaged with a small portion of Miles’ stuff, but in my experience he does sturdy work on subjects of interest to him, specifically musicians, writers, and the counterculture; if disinterested in hatchet jobs or salacious gossip, he’s also not a sycophant or a shill, and it’s possible to disagree with a conclusion Miles might make and yet want to continue reading.

I discovered Burroughs in my teens, so my own observations on the man and his achievements are solid if still open to change. But it occurs to me that a younger generation knows of him as just one in the myriad ranks of Great Dead Artists, which stings a bit since even in late age the guy was larger than life. Frankly, I’m totally chuffed a hefty Burroughsian study has recently appeared.

Bothersome is the pesky seriousness of those who abjure Burroughs’ celebrity as an obscurant to his worth as a writer, but trust me, they’re less obnoxious than folks who champion his reputation as a badass while deeming it needless to crack a spine. If the notoriety is unavoidable and oft-captivating, the importance of William Burroughs is primarily literary; as one of the Beat’s big three, he was a wily conduit between pulp and the postmodern.

General acceptance of Burroughs’ art grew substantially across the 1980s as his stature as an outsider icon (what previous biographer Ted Morgan used as a fitting title; Literary Outlaw) hit its apex. He had new work on the shelves through Viking Press, namely The Red Night Trilogy of 81’s Cities of the Dead Night, ‘83’s Place of Dead Roads and ‘87’s The Western Lands, and the same publisher also reprinted older writings including his early ‘50s pulp double shot Junky and Queer and two-story collections, the circa-‘50’s Interzone and ‘73’s Exterminator!

A story from Exterminator! served as the basis for the character Burroughs played in the Gus Van Sant-directed ’89 classic Drugstore Cowboy, and by ’92 Grove Press had put out a cheap and attractively designed paperback run of the novels that solidified him as a writer of distinction; ‘59’s Naked Lunch (originally The Naked Lunch in Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press first edition), The Nova Trilogy featuring ‘61’s The Soft Machine, ‘62’s The Ticket That Exploded and ‘64’s Nova Express, and ‘71’s The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead.

Hearing that distinctive croak in a ’94 Nike commercial hardly dented the magnitude of his hip cred. Three years later Burroughs was dead of a heart attack at age 83; the one Beat Generation figure for whom a premature death seemed if not inevitable than certainly a safe bet had outlived Allen Ginsberg, thirteen years his junior, by almost four months.

Burroughs is sometimes given short shrift as a disher of trashy confessionals whose drug use and chaotic life (as in the now legendary drunken William Tell disaster that cut short the existence of second wife Joan Vollmer) led him to a novel of accidental greatness and an ensuing development of cult renown through combining experimental “cut-up” technique with liberal doses of paranoia and the perverse.

Fact is, the vast majority of wordsmiths go to the grave without getting close to that level of success, and yet Burroughs has more in his background. For instance, there’s his persistent influence upon the subversive wing of the science fictioneers (both writers and filmmakers) and the key connections to punk, industrial, and alternative culture, with a considerable impact on the music scene.

The names Clem Snide, The Soft Boys, Steely Dan, and Soft Machine all reference his work to varying degrees of inventiveness, and it’s regularly suggested Steppenwolf’s lyrical phrase “heavy metal thunder” in “Born to be Wild,” which of course went on to describe a certain musical style, was lifted from Burroughs’ The Soft Machine character Uranium Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid. Some pshaw this link (I’m not so sure I believe it myself), but the Canadian group did name themselves after a novel by Hermann Hesse.

Indisputable is Burroughs’ suave mug on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an inclusion that might seem tied to his writings, Naked Lunch long finished and The Nova Trilogy freshly completed by ‘67, but instead it directly pertains to his ’65 recording and its influence on Paul McCartney, who heard it before he encountered the books.

Call Me Burroughs came to fruition modestly, reportedly the idea of Gaît Frogé, owner of The English Bookshop in Paris, with Ian Sommerville engineering the readings on a tape machine belonging to Burroughs’ cohort Brion Gysin. Frogé enlisted poet-artists Jean-Jacques Lebel and Emmett Williams for liner notes and in April of ‘65 1,000 copies were pressed.

Thus its reach was limited, though as said it fell into famous hands (not just Beatles but Stones) and made quite an impression that year. Listening today to opener “Bradley the Buyer,” the first of two consecutive tracks from Naked Lunch, the disturbing fascination it provoked remains palpable, as is the mix of diseased sci-fi/noir pulpiness, narrative economy/jumps bordering on the surreal, satirical intent railing against the hypocrisy of the modern age, and an obvious grasp of the underground, or better said, the Underworld.

It’s no surprise Burroughs wrote an intro for a repress of Jack Black’s enlightening 1926 portrait of hoboism and survivalist criminality You Can’t Win. And “Meeting of International Conference of Technological Psychiatry” reinforces the writers’ revulsion for authority in tandem with the procedures of research and higher education, the piece shrewdly satirical in the way it blends a futuristic nightmare vision with aspects of Jim Crow as character Dr. “Fingers” Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid clearly concerns the medical practice often inflicted on those who didn’t fit in, amongst them drug addicts and homosexuals.

Burroughs was both, and one of numerous appealing facets of this LP is the recurring uninhibited queer sass he exudes, frequently in character and especially in “Bradley the Buyer” and later in “Inflexible Authority,” one of five entries from Nova Express. “The Fish Poison Con” is concerned with addiction and its relationship to said underworld, as “Thing Police Keep All Board Room Reports” offers a brief hard-boiled sci-fi cut-up excursion seguing into the related imagery of “Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin Hear Us through the Hole in Thin Air.”

The excellent “Where You Belong,” Call Me Burroughs’ sole selection from The Soft Machine, devotes itself to skewering commerce, business conformity, and White Privilege. And the sound of Burroughs’ voice, particularly when he mentions an IBM Machine, recalls the vicious croak of the sentient computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s masterful film Alphaville, also from ’65 (a movie the director originally wanted to title Tarzan vs. IBM).

As the longest of the album’s pieces, the nearly 11 minute “Inflexible Authority” finds Burroughs inhabiting his creations at length and nurturing a gloriously twisted tale, the visions occasionally foulmouthed and unabashedly explicit. It’s still no shock why some intolerant minds desired the books burned and the man locked up for thought crimes. And closer “Uranium Willy” is a short, fevered, increasingly mechanical sounding incantation concerning futuristic warfare.

By the end, as the command “towers open fire” is chanted a final time, the bond to the Industrial genre makes total sense. In ’66 Call Me Burroughs received stateside distribution on Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk, and for years it was his only recording on the market. Starting in the mid-‘70s through a partnership with New York City poet John Giorno, a series of albums were cut, the most well-known perhaps being ‘81’s You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With, a disc licensed by Rough Trade that compiled work by Burroughs, Giorno, and Laurie Anderson.

1998 saw the appearance of The Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems, a four CD set of material for said imprint (and Nothing Here but the Recordings, an ’81 LP made for Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial label, appended at the end). It’s absolutely essential, including the pre-Junky story “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” and excerpts from all the expected sources plus bits from less feted volumes like ‘73’s Port of Saints, ‘79’s collab with artist Malcolm McNeill Ah Pook is Here, and ‘86’s feline appreciation The Cat Inside.

What it doesn’t have is Call Me Burroughs, which Rhino Word Beat placed on CD in 1995. And one of the qualities of the debut that stands out is how it’s captured alone in a room rather than in front of an audience, an environment where the author’s penchant for humor could inspire something close to nightclub comedy. This isn’t a knock, since a piece like “The Do-Rights” (for an example) is truly fucking hilarious.

But it delivers a special kind of kick to just absorb his reading minus the external triggers of crowd response or for that matter without the reliably superfluous additive of music, though I’m not completely opposed to the concept of Burroughs plus accompaniment; I remember liking parts of ‘89’s Seven Souls from Bill Laswell’s Material, a relatively focused affair drawn from The Western Lands.

Two Hal Willner-instigated releases, ‘90’s Dead City Radio and ‘93’s Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales each have problems, the former shouldering a too broad base of collaborators while the latter’s association with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy falters through strained attempts at contemporaneousness. I do mildly enjoy the ’92 Tim Kerr Records 10-inch pairing Burroughs’ reading of “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” with Kurt Cobain’s overwrought punk-Hendrix guitar wailing, but that’s mainly because it reminds me of Drugstore Cowboy.

As Burroughs’ writing was progressively more accepted, many folks wishing to make a societal point through his books found it no longer sufficient to simply stash a couple tattered texts in a backpack for sporadic public perusal. Subsequently, t-shirts became available for purchase depicting the typically dapper Burroughs brandishing and even discharging his handgun of choice. As he was purportedly buried with some heroin, a little weed, and his snub nose .38 special, I’m sure he didn’t mind.

Beyond its ESP-Disk pressing, Call Me Burroughs has never been reissued on vinyl. A 50th anniversary edition would be very welcome and would additionally be an outstanding way to celebrate one of the 20th century’s sui generis giants of free expression and challenging, often discomfiting art.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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