Johny Brown interviewed by Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris: People will know of you from the Band of Holy Joy, going back an implausible quarter of a century to the mid-1980s, and some will have been listening in for the last couple of years to your very own Radio Joy Sunday evening show. It was well worth waiting for, but I only caught up on the action in summer 2009 when, along with almost a hundred other lucky thieves at the Naked Lunch@50 events in Paris, I witnessed “A Lucky Thief in a Careless World.” With the stunning projections of Inga Tillere and the music of Jonny Mugwump and Chris Brierley, you seemed to come close to an act of conjuration in your oblique retelling of the shooting of Joan Burroughs. “Matter, energy, spirit and being, they were our prime concerns,” one of your lines went. It felt like a dangerous game; was that your aim?

Johny Brown: Yes, absolutely, we were aiming to conjure up the spirit of William in the room, no other objective. We worked the piece up from scratch especially for Naked Lunch@50. Improvised the text and visuals in front of an audience over the space of a week at the Shunt Theatre under London Bridge station. It’s a dark crumbling maze of arches and every night we could feel all manner of spirits manifesting.

We deliberately kept the structure loose and when we arrived in Paris nothing was nailed down. Of course within the sunny splendour of the University of London Institute in Paris building we found ourselves in an entirely different space than Shunt and soon realized that would bring a different perspective again to the performance.

We all got pretty wired with nerves and uncertainty as the day wore on. And if truth be told maybe a bit overwhelmed by the sheer academia of the occasion, the opulent surroundings, the legacy that we were dealing with. Yea, all those things, and it was such a hot, hot, heavy, heavy, hungover kind of day. Defeat seemed a distinct possibility and between ourselves we confessed to feeling a touch out of place. Too late to stop now though!

Just before we were to perform a funny thing happened. A plump translucent bug crawled down the curtain and across the plush carpet. We sat and watched the thing work the room. Watched it crawl over the boot of Barry Miles. Watched it skirt around an elegant lady of independent means. Watched it look Andrew Hussey up and down. Watched it return our way. As at home as any bug has ever been before or since. We took it as a sign. We are all here to go. We set about our work.

For us the performance seemed like a moment of magic, everything seemed to coalesce so beautifully. The Greek chorus of my favourite NYC poets dizzied the podium some more. I’m not sure if the great man was there at all, but, wow, some palpable memory of beauty and terror took its place in the room. It was meant very much as a one off.

That night, carousing outside that little bohemian bar in the Rue Veron with Beat legend Eddie Woods and a young Parisian pop group called Mondrian, was just the best. Beautiful times I must say. The whole three-day event was food for the soul in our eyes and we were very much honoured to be a part of it.

We foolishly tried to replicate the moment months later in a Soho folk club. We made a lot of noise, shot our visuals on to the wall, stamped our feet, looked to the heavens, called on the twisting soul of WB to come forth, and of course, failed miserably.

OH: One further question prompted by “A Lucky Thief in a Careless World”: in a sense it follows productions like The Black Rider (1990), written in collaboration with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, and Erling Wold’s opera of Queer (2001), so that you belong to a long tradition of direct and indirect collaboration between Beat writers and musicians—going all the way back to Kerouac’s performances to jazz in Greenwich Village in the late ‘50s, through Ginsberg’s appearance with everyone from Bob Dylan to Philip Glass, and of course in Burroughs’ case there’s been a literal A to Z of influence and collaboration, from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa. What’s your view on the reasons for this extraordinarily fertile crossover between these specific writers and such a variety of musicians, yourselves included?

JB: The two crafts have always been inseparable to my mind, and I know I started reading and got inspired by Kerouac at the same young formative age as I began listening to the Velvets, Bowie, Van Morrison etc and through Road dug deeper to Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday and then bounced back to Waits, Dylan, Brecht etc. There seemed no difference to me. I knew I was drawing from the same well of experience searching and adventuring.

I do think though that most musicians of a curious bent would have been beat writers given the chance and we all know how the beats approached their typewriting machines…

For the band and myself I think probably speed and movement are key. Vision and setting definitely. Something also to do with finding the true underground. The fellaheen spirit that Kerouac talked about. You know, like still, as opposed to Ikea, George Osbourne, Chris Moyles, the Royal Wedding, Twitter whatever… God, just the whole thirst for life and adventure, to push things as far as humanly possible whilst forever trying to dig close to the heart and the spirit! Certainly for myself it’s to do with a need, an impulse, a search for something holy, something higher, something other. The beats proffered some great road maps both external and internal. Maps that the band still try their best to read today.

I think too that Kerouac’s spontaneous style, especially with its disregard for formalist sentences etc, really opened a lot of doors for musicians who were eager to push on and blast away the older more staid sound, usher in something rawer, and more true, to a ragged romanticist heart. For us Burroughs’ cut up style then pushed the whole game a step further again. He didn’t just open the door for guys like us, he showed us in no uncertain terms that the twentieth century was about to leave the building.

And out there somewhere was definitely the place to be.

Again Burroughs was a step further and I associate him not just with much revered artists such as Patti Smith, Coil and PTV but a great deal of hip-hop and techno, the language of these two genres especially.

William himself of course would trade his whole catalogue of innovative edgy punked up followers for a few tender bars of Al Bowlly. A lot of good art did it for me too. Kline, Joseph Beuys, those guys. All this talk and no mention of Ginsberg who really did break down the boundaries between the sound and the word!

Anyway, what I probably most needed to say is, yes, the cross fertilization has been going on since day one, it’s so obvious that I’ve struggled to explain it here, but, hey, long may it continue.

OH: Focusing more specifically on your work as a playwright, I’d like to ask you about “William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which put Burroughs in Coleridge’s ship alongside Kathy Acker, Johnny Thunders, and Jean Michel Basquiat. Would it be fair to say that this combination was exploratory, in the spirit of these mixed artists’ own work—that you wanted to set something in motion and see where it ended up?

JB: Absolutely. And the play wrote itself. I’ve really no idea where it came from. First thrust was automatic. The initial notion came from myself being bored and alone at home one night and finding myself wanting to sail a doomed rust bucket trawler over the Artic wastes, maybe follow an Albatross, get stuck in the ice for sure, some kind of great tragic futile voyage to the end of the world was what I was after. Then I figured it would be such a great thing to have Burroughs as my Captain, have him gang press some buddies from New York and pirate someone else’s poem, joy ride it right out of town, at a rate of great knots. Everything else followed swiftly. I sat down at the kitchen table and it pretty much wrote itself over two nights.

Absolutely nothing to do with me I swear. I just kept pushing at it and pushing at it over the two nights. I was pretty stoked when all the synchronicities became apparent. Not least when The Captain shoots the bird…. Well, we all know the history of that… It’s not really a good play or piece of literature at all. It has some good Burroughsian routines and plenty of NYC punk slapstick, which lends itself well to the stage. But as an exploratory expedition into truth and darkness railing at the stars trying to break through the bonds of control and possession it is a voyage I am so damn proud of.

When it was performed in Glasgow Tam Dean Burn put it on a boat and it was a doomed romantic comedy of sorts. Later on in Paris at the Théâtre des Abbesses, the director Daniel Jemmet placed it back in New York in a stinking petrol garage. He put the voyage squarely inside William’s head and made it a darkening voyage of inward imagination. When The Captain shoots the albatross, a scabby pigeon falls onto the forecourt. Beautiful ugly scummy moment of self- realisation! Tour De Force performance from Denis Lavant.

OH: You seem to revisit the past in order to time travel forward (as when putting Rimbaud and Verlaine on the Eurostar in your play Assassins), and this cultural piracy seems to launch you towards the edge of things—whether in a spirit of hazardous adventure or doomed melancholy. How much of this is an influence you trace back to Burroughs?

JB: A great deal, especially the early Eighties trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, etc. Fantastic historical characters leaping through time and space and all that. Another strong influence around the time of writing was the Grant Morrison graphic novel The Invisibles. Man, that is one hell of a read.

Overblown literary characters like Arthur Rimbaud who invested as much art/magic/chaos into their lives as they did their letters really lend themselves to the stage. And it’s great fun to let them loose on the streets of today.

I think for songs and prose I’d tend to veer the other way, to creating my own characters, either from imagination, or from memorable personages I have happened across in the past. Ghosts and monsters that still haunt and linger.

OH: Finally, where are the Band of Holy Joy going next?

JB: I think the aim is to put together a decent body of new work on our Radio Joy label over the next who knows how many years. Of course no body is buying CD’s anymore, and all the youth they just rip their downloads for free, so it’s a great futile struggle, though consequently, perversely, probably, the best and the right time to be doing it.

It feels really good to be still involved in the word and sound and visual struggle after all these years. There is a long way to go yet. And more than ever a twisted planet of things to write about. Age, illness, healing, memories, the otherworld, they’re most probably our primary concern and reason for living right now. Game on.

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