“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, I vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”–William S. Burroughs
With those unforgettable first words, William S. Burroughs sweeps readers away through the terrifyingly nightmarish yet captivating junkie hellscape that is the iconic Naked Lunch.
Celebrating William S. Burrough’s 100th Birthday, a centennial of deviance, depravity and disturbing literary innovation, we here at Filthy Dreams want to give a fitting tribute to the eponymous gentleman junkie, Beatnik novelist, dangerous queer, cut-up magician, Control subverter and one part of The Third Mind. While we often like to repeat over and over again that John Waters is our filth elder, Burroughs more truthfully is the filth elder to all of us revelers in the dark side of queer culture–you know, the rebels and the minorities who don’t even fit into their own minorities. Without Burroughs, we would likely have no Waters, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and even, Keith Haring.
Starting with his first novel Junky, Burroughs delves into subjects as taboo and transgressive as heroin addiction, sex, guns and ex-pat queers. While many associate the beginning of the reappropriation of the word “queer” with AIDS activists such as Queer Nation and the burgeoning field of queer theory in academia, Burroughs was undoubtedly first with his 1952 novel Queer, which he began writing after the death of his wife Joan who Burroughs accidentally shot and killed during a drunken “William Tell” game.
Attributing his descent into writing to Joan’s death, Burroughs explains in his introduction to Queer, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
While I adore Burroughs’ novels, my interest in Burroughs’ work has always lied in his semiotic and cut-up collaborations with Brion Gysin. Originating during their stay at the Beat Hotel in Paris, Burroughs and Gysin experimented with the cut-up technique as a means to transcend, as Burroughs would say, Control and access an unrestricted, unmediated truth, culminating with their text The Third Mind.
Later in his life, Burroughs enjoyed his status as a Downtown, New York forefather, recording an album with poet and Warhol Sleep-er John Giorno and Laurie Anderson. He also collaborated with director Robert Wilson and our favorite confetti-flecked musician Tom Waits on a play The Black Rider, a mythical tale vaguely reminiscent of Burroughs’ wife’s death.
Even though this is a mostly video tribute to Burroughs and his 100 year influence, I want to leave my rambling text off with a remembrance by Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge about h/er first meeting with Burroughs in 1971.
As s/he recalls in The Psychick Bible, “I first met William S. Burroughs in London, at Duke Street, St. James, in 1971 after a brief series of postal correspondence. It actually felt and seemed strange, as I had discovered his existence via Jack Kerouac as the mysterious character “Bull Lee.” Confirmation of his being an actual person led me to the porn district of Soho in 1965, where I snagged a copy, a first edition actually, with dust jacket by Brion Gysin of Naked Lunch. It had been prosecuted for obscenity, so porn shops were the only places in those days to buy Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jean Genet and pretty much everything I was consuming as confirmation, vindication and affirmation as a fifteen-year old. Six years after beginning my Beat odyssey via books, my very first question to him a living, breathing, Beatnik legend in the flesh was…”Tell me about magick?” (278-9).
Speaking over drinks near Burrough’s own life-size cut-out of Mick Jagger (where can I get one of those?), Breyer P-Orridge continues, “What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, then it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick. For if we have the ability and/or choice of how thing unfold—regardless of the original order and/or intention that they are recorded in—then we have control over the eventually unfolding. If reality consists of a series of parallel recordings that usually go unchallenged, then reality only remains stable and predictable until it is challenged and/or the recordings are altered, or their order changed. These concepts led us to the realization of cut-ups as a magical process.” (279).
Phew…enough writing about Burrough’s for now. On to the video section of this celebration, selecting our favorite videos of Burroughs, which also feature some other of our favorite queer figures from Warhol to Kathy Acker. So sit back, squeeze your dropper, cut-up the papers you need to hand your boss and enjoy these Burroughs videos in honor of Bill’s 100th!
If anyone can help shed some light into Burrough’s complicated and corrupt mind, it would be Downtown novelist Kathy Acker whose books such as Blood and Guts In High School and Pussycat, King of the Pirates follow in Burrough’s subversive footsteps with their frank depiction of female sexuality, ever-switching narrators and transgressive techniques.
Oh to be at the Chelsea Hotel with Burroughs and Warhol before the gentrifying, boutique hotel-building hoards! Utterly mundane (just like Warhol would have wanted), Burroughs and Warhol discuss chicken fried steak. My favorite part? Warhol’s tired “Gee…I’ve never tried chicken fried steak.” Warning: “Gee” is now a part of my camp vocabulary.
Who better to give advice to “the youth” of our nation than William S. Burroughs? Who needs those bs motivational speakers at high school assemblies preaching abstinence and sobriety? All you need is Burrough’s advice like “Avoid fuck-ups.” You tell ’em Bill!
A not-so-secret-secret about me is that I love Jim Morrison’s awful poetry on An American Prayer. He’s just so genuine and also so bad. What could make Jim’s poetic shit show even better? William S. Burroughs! With The Doors backing up Burrough’s recognizable gravely voice, it makes me just want to twirl into the sunset. Awake!
“Come on aloonng with de Black Riderrr. We’ll have a gay ole tiiime!” I laughed so hard I cried at Robert Wilson’s Weimar cabaret rendition of Tom Waits-penned song “The Black Rider.” It’s just so campy! Just try to get it out of your head.
Written by Burroughs, The Black Rider is the best of Burrough’s horror with some added vaudeville sorrow by Waits. Warning: you may run out for some pancake makeup and confetti after watching this.