Review of Soft Need #23 (Expanded Media Editions, 2020) edited by Udo Breger and Luzius Martin
Like Velvet Underground and indeed Naked Lunch, “Soft Need” is one of the great two-word combinations. It is the title of an irregular magazine produced by Burroughs’ friend Udo Breger (also co-curator, among other things, of the ZKM Karlsruhe show The Name is Burroughs) and Burroughs goes back with it to the start: the English version of his Kerouac obituary first appeared in Soft Need #8 (1973) which, despite the numbering, was the first issue. Issue #9 followed, with #17 – a Brion Gysin special – a decade later, and now comes this cornucopian fourth and probably final issue, edited by Breger and Luzius Martin and numbered (what else?) #23.
It is a coffee-table fanzine, weighing in at 258 large-format pages, with almost ninety contributors offering pieces that range from substantial essays and collages to ephemera, photographs, and modestly categorized “Bits and Pieces”. The line-up is free from what I once saw called – unkindly, but all too evocatively – “The Curse of the Ass Prof”, and includes Barry Miles, Oliver Harris, Ian McFadyen, Gary Snyder, Gerald Nicosia, James Grauerholz, Terry Wilson, Jeremy Reed, Mathew Levi-Stevens, Victor Bockris, John Geiger, Jim Pennington, Jean-Jacques Lebel and many others. In the persona of your humble scribe I should say that I am one of them, but one among so many others that writing this doesn’t seem like too corrupt an arrangement: more like reporting on a conference you were part of.
Soft Need 23 is dedicated to the memory of Ian Sommerville, inventor of the Dreamachine, and a number of pieces focus on him. Matthew Levi Stevens, writer of the notable monograph The Magical Universe of William Burroughs, gives a broad account of Ian’s life by way of an introduction, and Barry Miles’s ‘Thoughts about Ian’ – he knew him as a friend from 1965 until his tragic death in 1976 – also broaches the subject of Burroughs’s Anglophilia. For all his deeply North American obsessions, from handguns to final frontiers, and despite his hatred of royal snobbery and offhand English service, Burroughs admired the English respect for privacy and had a surprising number of English friends. And, as Miles says, there was Shakespeare and Graham Greene; full English breakfasts and Senior Service cigarettes (“the only service you can get in England”); shoes from Lobb and hats – the grey Panama, a trademark like Beuys’ fedora – from Lock & Co. And the list could go on, from Burroughs’s early dissertation on dandy Beau Brummell to his enduring fascination with Jack the Ripper, source of his motif phrases “Wouldn’t you?” and “Just for Jolly”.
Significant English friends included criminal Paul Lund, film-maker Antony Balch and, above all, Gysin and Sommerville. Gysin, product of the elite Catholic public school Downside, was “perhaps his closest friend”, as Miles says, and Sommerville was “the great love of his life” over a fourteen-year relationship: “Bill often said that Ian was the only person he really loved”. It was Sommerville who had the mathematical flair to devise a low-tech, home-made strobe around a lightbulb, putting a card cylinder on a 78rpm record deck and calculating the gaps in the card to produce flicker at the frequency of alpha brainwaves. Gysin then patented it as his own (French patent 868281, “an apparatus for the production of artistic visual sensations”) having added some of his artwork to the inside of the cylinder (“which” as Miles says, “in no way increased its efficacy as you viewed it with eyes closed”). Sommerville seems to have gone along with this because he trusted Gysin to make them both some money: there is a 1961 letter reproduced here in which he describes the two of them in Paris “hearts a flutter as we set about making our first million dollars, theres to be a flicker show in Dec. hence the million…”
Miles also remembers Ian installing the electrics at Indica gallery, neatly painting red blue and yellow strips of wood behind the skirting board even though they would never be seen. On another occasion, “admittedly under the influence of some good hashish, he explained the nature of floating equations to Paul McCartney, Peter Asher, Sue Miles and me, causing us all to slap our heads, nod enthusiastically, and generally exclaim how straightforward it all was. The next day, however, they remained as much of a mystery as ever.”
Udo Breger has a vivid account of visiting the London menage at Dalmeny Court, Duke Street, in December 1972 (catalyst for the first Soft Need), staying in Gysin’s flat with its gloss-painted brown interior (cardboard promo figure of a naked Mick Jagger under a pink spotlight in the corner, covered only by the LP of Sticky Fingers) and bathroom with a black bathtub and an aroma of Wright’s Coal Tar Soap. They went out for dinner with Burroughs and John Brady at the Kalamaras Greek restaurant, still there in Bayswater, and then back at the flat Udo asked about Ian and the Dreamachine, but Gysin was dismissive, “saying that the Dreamachine was a dead duck and Ian was in bad shape emotionally”, and that it would be best to leave him alone.
Next day, Christmas Eve, Ian himself turned up. When Udo mentioned the machine he was suddenly “electrified” with enthusiasm (including, it is pretty clear, enthusiasm for Udo himself) and they went back to Ian’s flat at 6 Ansdell Terrace, South Kensington, with Ian in high spirits. There is a photograph of the flat in here, with its Regency-looking mirror and Venetian-looking chandelier (we can safely say Sommerville had rented it furnished) and there amid the “dollhouse plush” is the machine, standing there like a visiting alien. It is on a table in front of a sash window with a curtain halfway up and trees outside, revealing this as the location of the well-known Charles Gatewood photographs of Burroughs and Gysin, staring into the machine with closed eyes before an evening window.
The whole collection is strong in photographs, particularly of Sommerville. Going well beyond the lank ectomorph we are almost familiar with, he is revealed as handsome, funny, clearly charismatic, even a little Protean: there is Ian with a quiff, James Dean-ish Ian, Ian in a suit, Ian goofing around with a cigarette in his ear and a Duchampian bicycle wheel, and some photos by Ian himself, including Burroughs in Tangier with their “English Tea Made Here” sign.
There are photos of Burroughs at the Beat Hotel by Alberto Durazzi, and a rich Gysin photo (two in fact, but one more arresting) of Burroughs, Ian and Mikey Portman at Christopher Gibbs’s flat on Cheyne Walk. It is an artefact of the deep Sixties, dense with intersecting associations: Ian is wearing Cuban-heeled Beatle boots in a room used as a location in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, while Gibbs himself, leading arbiter of high-end Swinging London style (very high-end, with Pordenone’s Milo of Croton on the wall in the photo) designed the sets for the Donald Cammell film Performance, giving it the defining look specified by Cammell to be in “the Gibbsian Moroccan manner”. Burroughs, looking austerely out of the photo while holding a furled umbrella, was then at the height of his counter-cultural ‘underground’ reputation, and Performance has its cool in-joke: talking of the fugitive gangster Chas, with his whipped back, Anita Pallenberg says “Maybe we ought to call Dr Burroughs, give him a shot” (an earlier version of the screenplay even had “He could stay with Professor Gysin, couldn’t he?” – which was maybe trying a little too hard). Perhaps the most unexpected photo of Burroughs, by Luzius Martin, catches him walking past Dalmeny Court in 2019 – not an error, 2019 – and it is understandably titled ‘Revenant’. Any of us would have done a double-take if we were on the street that day.
Oliver Harris contributes an impressive in-depth examination of the celebrated 1959 series of Gysin photos featuring Burroughs in Paris, with Burroughs against a scaffolded site stencilled DANGER. Sometimes identified as the Odeon, the building behind him is the Institut de France, the domed and pillared French establishment edifice just to the south of the Pont des Arts. It is good to get a solid fix on the locations, and the others are identified as Pont Neuf; rue de Seine (not so difficult, this one, below a sign saying RUE DE SEINE); and the other famous photograph of the series, with Burroughs looking like a cadaverous T.S. Eliot (in his three-piece-suited “banker drag”, with a couple of clochards flopped out on a bench behind him) is in front of the square Honoré Champion, at the very top end of rue de Seine perhaps better known as the site of Guy Debord’s wall work “Ne Travailez Jamais”.
What makes the piece worthwhile is the virtuoso mix of pinned-down empirical fact with larger ‘Why does it matter?’ meaning, in this case the photos’ quasi-magical, prophetic, and combative significance introduced via the important distinction that “Burroughs’ subversion of reality, his resistance to the illusion of truth, was not a postmodern skepticism but a way to fight fire with fire: a strategic response to the media’s habitual misrepresentation of facts and to the fake news he saw not only all around but directed specifically against him, starting with LIFE magazine.”
Several pieces centre on the photographer-sorcerer of the DANGER series himself. Udo Breger has a conversation with Gysin from 1983 that focuses on his memories of the New York music scene in the 1940s; he talks of his close friendship with the lyricist John Latouche, remembers Malcolm X as a lavatory attendant selling ready-rolled joints in the restroom, and produces “my own theory” about the birth of bebop: Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and the rest encountered the “first recordings by tape… when the new machines came through. They were able to hear themselves twice as fast, four times as fast, and so on, and suddenly they heard a whole new sound, and they went on from there. This is my personal, unique Brion Gysin theory about what happened.”
There are a couple of quite reverent celebrations of Gysin from Jean-Jacques Lebel and the late Jurgen Ploog, and a more iconoclastic and unbuttoned glimpse from Amsterdam counter-culture figure Eddie Woods, with Gysin in unusually ungracious form: “Brion’s head swung sharply round, eyes glaring into mine for a seemingly interminable mini-second before his lips bitingly snapped: “Shut your fucking mouth!”’. There is a more edifying account in the meaty clutch of journal excerpts by John Geiger – writer of Gysin’s biography, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted, and an exemplary book on the dream machine, Chapel of Extreme Experience – when he visited Burroughs on Learnard Avenue during the 1990s: “Brion initiated me into the whole magical universe,” Burroughs said.
Geiger woke with aches and pains while he was there, which James Grauerholz suggested might be the result of black magic and spells directed at Burroughs; Burroughs was meanwhile sleeping with a loaded revolver under his pillow, explaining “I’ve been threatened by lesbians.” On a happier note, he had some junk mail from none other than Time magazine, promoting their Million Dollar Dream Sweepstake. “William Burroughs has been declared the big $1,666, 675.00 winner,” it read: “With a guaranteed annual income of $66,667.00 for 25 years to look forward to, William Burroughs’s address would change from 1927 Learnard to EASY STREET!”
Burroughs produced some self-contradictory opinions over the course of a long lifetime, and there are some interesting annotations to his proof copy of Edmund White’s 1993 Genet biography, which he kept by his bed and used for dream notes and general thoughts: along with a scathing comment on the writing of Aleister Crowley, he speculates “There seems to be a split or incompatibility between ‘art’ and ‘magic’” – an awkward idea from a writer many of us see as extensively magical. Similarly, the more simplistic strains of eco-criticism must have something to chew on with Burroughs’s observation, from Naked Lunch, that the land of America was ever “old and dirty and evil”, and not just before the settlers but even “before the Indians.” It is almost Lovecraftian, and Udo draws Grauerholz out to speculate on it as “some paleo-geological Original Sin!” long before the Spanish arrived, in due course “Out-evilling the Aztecs!”
Facing the photo of the Genet annotation, that same distinctive handwriting appears on the final page of Udo’s Place of Dead Roads. Sitting with Udo and Alan Ansen at a dinner in Paris, Burroughs suddenly told Ansen it should really have a different ending: picking up the copy he’d given to Udo, he wrote in a final six words, closed it and handed it back. There are some prime bits of ephemera in here, including a 1960 invoice unearthed by Jim Pennington: addressed to William Burroughs Esq at 25 Lillie Road, Fulham (the Empress Hotel), from a firm called L. Light & Co., on an industrial estate just outside Slough, it is for a gram of mescaline sulphate at two pounds seven and sixpence including postage.
Ian McFadyen is a phenomenon in Burroughs studies, turning obsessive and often esoteric knowledge into writing in its own right. His main contribution in here, ‘Report on Fear’, like his stand-out strand in NL@50, his ‘Dossiers’, again shows the landslide pressure – or perhaps landslide pleasure, or perhaps anxiety – of the word-hoard exceeding and defying full integration, instead erupting into a bullet-pointed, paratactic mind-download that ranges over the increasingly disembodied nature of human cognition; Sommerville on J.W. Dunne; Tibetan chod; “the most frightening story I’ve ever heard”; Brett Whiteley’s overdose; Gysin telling Hoppy Hopkins that “Light” was the meaning of life (which sounds Gnostic, but might be more closely derived, as Ira Cohen apparently suggested, from the philosophy of Ibn’Arabi) and much – much – more.
Elsewhere McFadyen has a more delimited riff taking off from another curious piece of reproduced ephemera, a letter to Burroughs from David ‘Dixie’ Snell, one of the two men from LIFE magazine (the other being photographer Loomis Dean) who came to interview him at the Beat Hotel. Addressing himself to “Dear Dr. Benway” and wildly enthusiastic (“More I get into “The Naked Lunch,” more I realize what a giant of a book it is. I’d rank it the equal or better of Moby Dick,[…]”) Snell suggests Burroughs might like to play with his own comic idea of Transvestite Airlines, not TWA but TVA, which McFadyen characteristically knows made it into both an archival draft of Nova Express and into Gysin’s Naked Lunch screenplay.
The Chemical Corn Exchange Bank letterhead that Snell is writing on – seemingly re-using one of his old bank statements – is also echoed in The Soft Machine, where the name ‘Chemical Corn Bank’ occurs in connection with Snell’s employer Henry Luce, hated head of the Time-Life control machine. The mutual admiration and warmth between Burroughs and Snell-and-Dean is also striking, given that they worked for LIFE but they were – as Burroughs told Ginsberg – “far-out cats” with a true feeling for his work. It is like the situation at the end of Junky, where a trumpet-playing hipster tells Lee about narcotic agents who even shoot up: “How can you beat it?” he says, “I mean these guys are hips themselves. Guys like you and me with one small difference – they work for Uncle.”
Add Jon Blumb reminiscing on Burroughs’ love of heavy-calibre, Magnum-style handguns, Gysin acolyte Terry Wilson on ‘Operation Trance’, and Rob Johnson on the current state of Mexico, and it might sound as if Soft Need 23 is a bit of a boys’ club. To be fair, it’s not as male as my account might suggest. To the extent that it is, it probably reflects the way the contributors tend to radiate out from a social network. And to the extent that it actually isn’t, it only comes across that way because the most quotable pieces tend to be those with primary material and sharper focus. There is also a very generous selection of poetry, fiction and art (from mega-gallery pieces to landscape art to various graphics), which is more mixed in every sense.
I was glad to discover the painting of Theo Mouxigouli and the drawing of Assunta Abdel Azim Mohamed, and although I might need to read more of the poetry of Louise Landes Levi to get attuned to it, I was interested to discover her music through googling. But in the realm of I like this… but I don’t like that so much… and this is good… but this doesn’t do it for me… the overall point, and more so since anyone else might have totally different preferences, is not to reduce everything to some kind of consumer choice (like the nice American lady who said, and so reasonably, “Evolution? – It’s not for me…”). Instead, it is to appreciate how the more disparate material keeps the whole show lubricated with that authentic channel-hopping experience, in a way that a straight stack of essays, however good, could never do.
It all reverbs nicely with Udo’s 1973 manifesto-announcement, “to please and tease with as many illustrations as possible” and more particularly to get away from the linear “into an associational way of thought (and living).” And sure enough, flicking around the mag, there are some coolly understated associative juxtapositions and segues lurking across facing pages.
Celebratory, revelatory, inevitably tempered with the elegiac, this is a beautiful production on every level, packed with value and interest. It is not cheap but it has a handmade feel and an anti-corporate spirit, and for better or worse it will no doubt become collectable. I’ve just seen it described by a well-respected specialist bookdealer as “A great cathedral with even the silences included! A brilliant achievement for both physical creation and the brilliant contents. A centerpiece of scholarship and a brilliant expression of friendship for Gysin, Burroughs and Ian Sommerville.” He’s trying to sell it, of course, but I’m not, and I can only agree.