The Spoken Word: William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin
The British Library, CD, 23 recordings, 66 minutes
The British Library’s collection of rare recordings by Burroughs and Gysin—reading and performing separately—offers an eclectic-yet-ultimately-incongruous selection of works by these important figures; in doing so, the disc also expresses, perhaps, the fraught state of their recorded legacies.
Gysin, long-overlooked and sometimes undercut by Burroughs’ fame, is the subject of renewed interest in recent years. Yet even with the increased attention of a show such as the New Museum’s “Brion Gysin: Dream Machine” (2010), he remains a figure associated, for some, with a particular strand of avant-poetics. His work has proven massively influential, and has remained a touchstone of indie-culture, yet he is not as well known as he should be given the importance of his work.
Also, while everyone knows Naked Lunch, critical work is still coming to terms with Burroughs’ small press and recorded works (anything beyond his major novels). Compared to Gysin, Burroughs oscillated between market success (or at least mainstream literary acknowledgement) and the avant-garde world of what is sometimes dismissed as purely experimental poetics. Therefore, many readers and listeners familiar with Burroughs have some understanding of how his long career extended in these many different directions. The Burroughs offerings on this disc, which center on a comparatively conventional 1982 “reading” of “literary” work, are at odds with the framing tracks that investigate the more speculative side of his career, and which more prominently feature Gysin.
Put another way: a listener taking, as Burroughs suggests, “a broad, general view of things” will appreciate the various modalities the disc offers. For others, this release may sound like neither fish nor fowl.
The disc contains 23 tracks, organized in this fashion:
1: Burroughs / “I am not an addict, I am the addict” routine, circa 1963.
2-10: Burroughs / A 42-minute reading at the Centre Hotel in Liverpool, including excerpts from The Place of Dead Roads, Nova Express, and the famous “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1938), 1982.
11: Gysin / “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” no year.
12: Gysin writing while stating “I Am this Painter Brion Gysin,” no year.
13-18: Gysin / “Pistol Poem” interpolated through a suite of spoken permutation poems, 1960s.
19: Gysin / “I Am that I Am” permutation poem, with studio effects, 1960s.
20-12 Burroughs: 3 versions of “Invisible Art,” with studio effects, 1970.
23: Gysin / “Silky supple mirrors to be folded…,” 1970.
The liner notes by Colin Fallows, professor of Sound and Visual Arts at Liverpool John Moores University, provide a cursory if not archive-satisfying description of the specific recording histories; this leaves the reader with the suspicion that the British Library is not entirely certain of the provenance of what it is presenting. For instance, the notes to Track 12, indicate that “[t]he piece is a reflection of the material Gysin would have performed with Burroughs at the multi-media event they staged at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, in March 1963.”
We are not told even the approximate date of this particular recording, the nature of the multi-media event or its title, or how the material presented on this disc, exactly, is a “reflection” of that event. This tendency toward the vague, unfortunately, overtakes at times the liner notes’ contextualization of the disc, and aside from the fact that “[a]ll recordings are taken from tapes held by the British Library” (disc jacket copy), much of the curatorial principle remains mysterious.
The exception to this is Fallows’ notes regarding the “centre-piece of this collection”: the 1982 reading that makes up tracks 2-10 and the largest portion of the disc. This reading offers Burroughs-as-elder-statesman/showman, playing the crowd for laughs and using his well-defined sardonic drawl to maximum effect. The notes indicate that Burroughs read at the invitation of his collaborator Jeff Nuttall, whose fantastic My Own Mag, with significant contributions from Burroughs, is now available in its entirety at Realitystudio.org. 1982, of course, is long after the end of My Own Mag, and well into Burroughs’ late-career Red Night Trilogy. In particular, the readings from his time-traveling Western, The Place of Dead Roads—delightful in their unforgiving vitriol—seem worlds removed from the cut-up focused experiments of the rest of the disc.
There is no doubt that a listener interested in or accustomed to Burroughs as 1980s personality, as he appeared on Saturday Night Live or worked with Gus Van Sant, will find this reading enjoyable. It is very enjoyable. Burroughs is witty, dry, and just crotchety enough to avoid obnoxious curmudgeonliness; even so, how well the casual listener will take to Gysin’s permutations remains an open question.
Despite their difficulty, Gysin’s permutations form the most fascinating portion of the disc, re-presenting the infamous “Pistol Poem”—a series of pistol shots taken at varying distances—originally broadcast (and now on YouTube) in a famously low-rated 1960 BBC program called “The Permutated Poems of Brion Gysin.” This recording interpolates “Pistol Poem” with a suite of other permutation poems, yet there is no explanation as to when this recording was made, whether the poems are the same as those also presented during 1960 BBC program, or, well, anything else to help understand the genetic underpinning of the work.
This criticism is perhaps too harsh by half. The recordings of The Spoken Word are of high quality, and greatly amusing. Anyone with an interest in Burroughs and Gysin will find value and pleasure, no doubt, in hearing these pieces. The presentation may not satisfy completionists, but those people are never really satisfied (so says one of those people…).
Note: Fallows is the curator of Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs, an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien Museumsquartier (Vienna), 2 June 15th – October 21th, 2012. The exhibition catalogue Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs: The Art of William S. Burroughs (ISBN: 978-3-86984-315-5), edited by Kunsthalle Wien, Colin Fallows, and Synne Genzmer is a wonderfully designed book with exhibition images and essays or interviews by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Tim Head, Barry Miles, C.A. Howe, Lee Ranaldo, Fallows and Genzmer.
I suggest reading it while you listen to The Spoken Word.
Make your response in the third column.