Burroughs Readings

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

RealityStudio bills itself as a virtual community and for the past year, I have been chronicling Burroughs’ place in the international post-WWII avant-garde. In the forum, RealityStudio members have been discussing the current climate for the arts and speculating pm its direction in the near future. As a direct result of these discussions, I have begun more actively exploring the creative community in the Baltimore / Washington DC area. Recently, I attended a production by the Vagabond Theater (the longest continually running little theater in America) of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. It is quite a challenging choice for a small theater as Albee’s complicated (you may say convoluted if you are so inclined) play provides no easy answers for audiences. Not much has changed since 1964 when Albee refused to explain the enigmatic work and even John Gielgud who played Julian expressed his puzzlement over Albee’s intentions.

Leaving the Vagabond Theater, I felt the same way I felt exiting the Jasper Johns 1955-1965 exhibit at the National Gallery. I was at a loss why until I read Jed Perl’s book on the Manhattan art world of the 1950s, New Art City. Perl recounts Fairfield Porter’s reaction to Johns’ show at the Jewish Museum. Perl writes, “Porter was reminded of a story about a dying rabbi, who said to his disciples, ‘Life is like a bagel,’ but when the village idiot asked, ‘Why,’ the rabbi responded, with his last breath, ‘So it’s not like a bagel.’ In other words, Johns was merely playing to the audience’s confusion, turning banalities into elegant but empty enigmas.” Tiny Alice, the play, was like the elaborate mansion on stage: an elegant construction that required not just Julian’s but the audience’s faith and intelligence in order to exist and to have meaning. I got the sense that Albee, like Johns, was concerned merely with “elegant but empty enigmas” and that he relied on the audience to do all the heavy lifting in the answer department.

I also attended my first poetry reading in several years. Over a decade ago, I attended a reading by Sven Birkerts of his provocative Gutenberg Elegies at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. Birkerts’ talk made quite an impression on me then, and I am still wrestling with and fascinated by the fate of the printed word in an age of electronic reproduction. Years later, I heard Gary Snyder read at a large gathering in Washington DC. In this case, the nature and size of the venue detracted from the experience for me. It lacked intimacy, and I felt lost in the crowd. The poems seemed to echo lifelessly in the auditorium.

Such was not the case a week ago when Bill Berkson came to Adams Morgan on a Sunday afternoon. Berkson realizes the value to the artist of a strong sense of place and of belonging. He was a driving force in the Second Generation New York School and a fixture in the group of poets living an alternative lifestyle in Bolinas from the late 1960s. Berkson edited Big Sky magazine throughout the 1970s from the far left coast in an effort to maintain his ties with the scene at the other end of the country as well as all those enclaves that flourished in between.

The space in Adams Morgan was intimate, secluded. I felt like Berkson read for me personally and that he had much to impart. Attending the reading was an active community that hung on every word filing away Berkson’s poems and commentary for their own creative purposes. What struck me was the intense interest of the small audience. I was reminded of the old cliché about the Velvet Underground. Few people saw them play or bought their records but those who did inevitably started bands of their own. As Charles Olson hammered home, this was poetry as action, intended for “use.” Readings, such as Berkson’s, are the lifeblood of the active poet and artist: part lecture, part concert, part sermon, part social event, part political protest. It was thrilling to listen and to talk in such a thriving community.

William Burroughs reading at the Walker Art Center in 1979
William Burroughs reading at the Walker Art Center in 1979

These recent experiences forced me to reflect on the role of the reading in Burroughs’ career. What did readings mean for Burroughs? Where they influential to other writers? Given my experience with Albee and Johns, I was particularly interested in exploring the role of the audience at a Burroughs reading. My initial impressions were largely negative. For the most part, I thought that Burroughs viewed readings as a necessary evil. It was a money-making venture and a publicity machine for selling his novels. He disliked performing before a crowd. I had the sense that he got little from the experience but a check. In this light, the readings were not a laboratory to experiment with the success or failure of a work in progress like they are for many poets. In addition, Burroughs privileged the act of and discipline of writing first and foremost. The performative aspects of the writer, embraced by Ginsberg, held little interest for him.

In my initial thoughts, I felt the audience brought little to the table and took even less from a Burroughs reading. Burroughs was less like the Velvet Underground and more like the Rolling Stones of the 1970s playing before packed stadiums to fans obsessed with the myth of celebrity. The Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)” comes to mind: “If I could stick my pen in my heart / And spill it all over the stage / Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya.” A Burroughs reading possessed elements of a freak show at a carnival with the audience hoping to catch a glimpse of the wife killer and junky telling tales of drug addiction and sexual deviance laced with four-letter words. The fact that these outrages against decorum came from a seemingly non-descript grandfatherly figure added to the shock value. After the show, the audience might engage in acts of excess themselves, but they would not sit in front of the typewriter and begin the life of addiction that is the writing life.

In this view, a Charles Bukowski reading in San Francisco seemed more in line with Burroughs than the Berkson reading at Adams Morgan. From the Seventies on, Bukowski was poet as rock star swilling beer and heckling his audience as good as he got. The act of the public reading gave Bukowski material for his work and a paycheck but not a sense of belonging. Bukowski seemed little interested and even hostile to the idea of an artistic community. He preferred and gained inspiration from skid row, a world far from white picket fence, ivory tower, and Parisian café alike. All Bukowski required was a bottle, some paper, a typewriter and clear reception to a classical station. Of course, reading Bukowski’s letters and his biography proves that this image of the dirty old man is a myth. In the early 1970s, he edited his own literary magazine Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns for three issues, and throughout his career, he maintained an intimate relationship with the little magazine community, if not a love-hate relationship with the public reading.

Were these initial impressions on the mark or was I off base? A closer look at four separate readings in Burroughs’ career both supports and contradicts my initial thoughts. Research reveals that in some respects Burroughs received more than just a paycheck from the experience, especially early in his writing life. At certain points in the late 1950s to the early 1980s, the public reading placed Burroughs firmly within a vibrant community in which he was an active participant among peers, sometimes to the detriment of his work and health. These readings proved to be important events for Burroughs as a writer and life-changing events for an audience of established and emerging creative artists.

“Hipsters, Flipsters And Finger Poppin’ Daddies, Knock Me Your Lobes…”

Given the drugstore pulp nature of Junkie and his marginal status as an author, Burroughs did not give a formal reading until the publication of Naked Lunch in Paris. Yet as the biographies and recent scholarship prove, Burroughs had been reading for an audience for years. Oliver Harris makes clear that the work of the 1950s after Junkie were performance pieces. Burroughs could not write in a vacuum. The letter and the routine demanded a receptive audience, be it Allen Ginsberg, Lewis Marker, or an unsuspecting patron in a third world bar. Queer, Naked Lunch and The Yage Letters were part vaudeville act, part stand-up routine, part con, part declaration of love. Given the materials’ origin, it is no surprise that Burroughs’s novels are so wonderful read out aloud.

The performative nature of the routine lends itself to the public reading, yet it would take Burroughs a while to warm up to the challenge of a live audience in a formal setting. In Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, Harold Norse recalled Burroughs’s first reading: “In 1959 Burroughs had accepted an invitation to read sections of Naked Lunch at the Mistral Bookshop. Corso and I completed the program. When the day arrived Burroughs didn’t appear. He was junk-sick. He sent a tape of his reading from the opening pages of the novel. The tiny audience, mesmerized by the deep, hypnotic voice and black humor, sat spellbound. This was his first reading; it was entirely appropriate that a disembodied voice should create the hallucinatory climate of fear, horror, and fun.” Even though for years, Burroughs read for and wrote for intimate peers, it would take some time and some coaxing to get Burroughs to bear his soul in public. Burroughs’ bared his soul with Naked Lunch making the public reading awkward and frightening. The material also flew in the face of 1950s decorum. With this taped reading, Burroughs dipped his toe into these new waters.

Program for William Burroughs' Valentines Day ReadingThe tape-recorded reading foreshadowed the tape experiments that would play a part in his Valentine’s Day reading of 1965. As the Burroughs box set proves, Burroughs and members of the Beat Hotel were deeply involved in tape and voice experiments in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Norse is correct in mentioning that it was “entirely appropriate” that Burroughs read on tape. It was in keeping with the mysterious, shadowy, Dr. Sax-like aura surrounding Burroughs at this time. In the United States and Great Britain, Burroughs was a name whispered among the hip. People heard of Naked Lunch, but could only read selections from the little magazines. Life Magazine provided a face with the name in 1959, but few had seen him in the flesh.

Interestingly, once Burroughs found his signature style and voice and once he published under his own name, the requests, and maybe the need, to read his work began. As far as I know, Burroughs never read the developing Naked Lunch in the literary community or salons of Tangier, but he definitely read the work to Kerouac, Alan Ansen, Peter Orlovsky, and Allen Ginsberg in early 1957 as they were typing up the manuscript. Burroughs read his work to intimate friends, and his first reading in Paris in 1959 tentatively extended the circle. The Beat Hotel and those residing there formed a vital community for Burroughs as he blossomed into his mature style. The tiny audience at the Mistral, while not close friends, like Kerouac, or lovers, like Marker and Ginsberg, would have been fellow travelers in the hipster community around the Beat Hotel, Olympia Press, and expat Paris. Excerpts from Naked Lunch were received with open ears, and even more importantly, open and receptive minds. Myth swirled around Burroughs, but Naked Lunch and its author was so new on the scene that the myth had yet to crust over into a state of convention and celebrity.

“It’s A-Happening!!”

In a previous column, I mentioned Burroughs on the Lower East Side in 1965. Burroughs read at the Poet’s Theater and in artist Wynn Chamberlain’s loft at 222 Bowery. In both cases, Burroughs was an active participant in a community of artists and writers. Especially at Chamberlain’s, Burroughs read to peers. As newspaper articles of the time suggest, Burroughs enjoyed the experience. These reading were crucial in the development of Burroughs as a spoken word artist. The St. Valentine’s Day Reading incorporated his tape and voice experiments. Due to Burroughs’ living abroad, the recent availability of his work in the United States, and the still evolving nature of the cut-up technique, there is still an aura of wonder and mystery surrounding a Burroughs reading in 1965. Few had seen the man and even fewer had heard the voice. As I demonstrate in my previous column, the circus and celebrity element of the New York Art scene seeped into the reading. The demand for the shock of the new begins to color Burroughs’ reception. There is a sense that Burroughs is the flavor of the month. Yet the Lower East Side was a vibrant community of writers and artists creating and developing in a similar manner to Burroughs. I get the sense that Burroughs’ presence generated waves in the creative pool of the Lower East Side. It caused creative things to happen. The use of the cut-up by first and second generation New Yorkers like John Ashbery and Ted Berrigan suggests Burroughs’ influence. The cut-up also placed Burroughs in the visual art and visual poetry communities as well. Given that I have written about this period in some detail, I will not dwell on it here, but it provides an interesting context to a multi-media event that took place over a decade later once again back in the Lower East Side.

Nova Convention LP, front cover
Nova Convention LP, front cover

“Ain’t You Hungry For Success, Success, Success, Success”

Throughout the seventies, Hollywood flirted with Burroughs and his work. Various heavy hitters and big money lowlifes optioned Naked Lunch, Junky, and The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. In 1978, Burroughs was on the set of Heartbeat, a movie based on the memoir by Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s second wife. Out of this atmosphere, the idea of an “homage to Burroughs” germinated, later to be named the Nova Convention. About the Convention, Ted Morgan writes, “The Nova Convention took place on November 30th, December 1, and December 2, 1978, with the principal performances to be held on the last two days at the Entermedia Theater, on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street, which in the Fifties had been the fabled Phoenix Theater. Attending were an odd mixture of academics, publishers, writers, artists, punk rockers, counterculture groupies, and an influx of bridge and tunnel kids drawn by Keith Richards who made the event a sell out.” Due to his drug problems in Canada, Richards never made it.

I always focus on the term “sellout” when thinking about the Nova Convention. The whole thing seemed more about money and publicity, more about Burroughs’ celebrity than a celebration of Burroughs. The double LP issued after the readings reminds me of a tie-in, a cashing-in. Even the readings in 1965 seem more pure somehow, although I feel stupid and naïve saying that. No doubt there are obvious similarities between the attendees of the Nova Convention and Wynn Chamberlain’s loft party. But comparing the Call Me Burroughs LP from 1965 to the double LP there seems no denying that the earlier disk not only captures the essence of Burroughs but also was a defining work in Burroughs’s canon. The Nova Convention is merely an “odd mixture” like a sex on the beach shot at a frat bar. Call Me Burroughs is a shot in the mainline. It takes you to the core of Burroughs as a writer and a performer. Burroughs’ wonderful deadpan delivery completed the performative nature of his early routine based work.

I have always viewed the Nova Convention as a literary equivalent of the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, something of a glorious mess that could only be fully appreciated years later and at a distance. As Morgan points out, much of the audience was there to see Keith Richards hoping to see a rock show, and the Convention delivered that even without Richards. Yet the audience was not all “bridge and tunnel kids.” The performers were all directly influenced by Burroughs and formed something of a school of Burroughs and the Beats. This included members of the audience as well.

Jan Herman attended the Convention and wrote his impressions to Carl Weissner in Germany. Herman and Weissner were intimately involved with Burroughs and his work. They were not only influenced, but also influential in spreading Burroughs’ work internationally as well as spreading the word about the cut-up technique. RealityStudio posts the complete letter (page 1, page 2) in order to allow an eyewitness account of this event that like all legendary gatherings many claim to have attended but few actually did. The letter provides several interesting comparisons and contrasts in a short two pages — for example, Bukowski’s Hello, It’s Good to Be Back LP of a reading he did on his return to Germany. This tour of Germany possesses many similarities to the Nova Convention as a merging of hype and honest sentiment. The New York party scene in 1978 versus 1965. The establishment literary homage (National Book Award) versus the counterculture homage. Much food for thought in that the first National Book Award for fiction went to Nelson Algren’s novel The Man with a Golden Arm. What a large field of play in the parameters of the drug narrative!

William Burroughs reading Nova Express on Saturday Night Live
William Burroughs reading Nova Express on Saturday Night Live

“All My Friends Are Junkies”

As I suggested in an earlier column, 1981 was a pivotal year of Burroughs. He began a publicity tour for Cities of the Red Night and read across the country. In my view, this is Burroughs in full-fledged Bukowski mode. Burroughs as touring rock star. Cities of the Red Night came out from a mainstream publisher, and the book had some of the media machine behind it. To my mind, Burroughs got little from these readings creatively but they proved monumental in increasing his readership and visibility in the mainstream.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Burroughs’s last reading before he moved to Lawrence. On November 7, 1981, Burroughs read scenes from Naked Lunch on Saturday Night Live for six full minutes. On one level, the reading announced his slow acceptance by the mainstream media. Burroughs had been courted by Hollywood and New York entertainment industries before, but the final two decades of his life would bring the celebrity that comes with movies, commercials, and musical collaborations that actually appeared, instead of just being discussed tangentially during drug and alcohol benders financed by Hollywood money. Soon after would come accolades from the mainstream print media that grudgingly admitted his position in the 20th century canon.

On another level, Burroughs’ appearance on Saturday Night Live was Burroughs’ goodbye to the New York community that had become much too much to handle. The Nova Convention placed Burroughs on a slippery slope back to drug addiction as he waded too deep into the New York art and music scene. The late night show optimized the drug culture of New York, particularly the episode on which Burroughs appeared. Of the early 1980s on Saturday Night Live, writer and Burroughs peer Terry Southern wrote, “Perhaps the most memorable aspect of working at SNL was the quantity of dope or drugs on hand… We were well nigh up to our proverbial ‘A’s in toot, hemp, speed, oil of hash, what have you. Talk about your ever lovin’ cornucopias of sense-derangement!… I mean I’ve been to some heavy-hitting Hollywood soirées, and on two Rolling Stones tours, and I’ve seen nose candy by the carload, toot by the truckful, but I’ve yet to see anything comparable to the sheer quantity of primo-primo heaped and stacked in the writer’s wing of SNL.”

Most people know that Lauren Hutton was the special guest star and that she announced Burroughs that November night as “the greatest living writer.” Hutton, one of the first supermodels, symbolized the art / drug culture of New York of which Burroughs lurked on the fringes at the Bunker. Warhol, Studio 54, Max’s at Kansas City. Fewer people know that Rick James and his Stone City band were the musical guests. James sang the hit “Super Freak” and “Give it to Me Baby” that night. James was the epitome of rock excess. At the Bunker, Burroughs became a father figure to the flipside of James’ disco influenced funk: the punk movement. Both music scenes had a shared love of drugs. In New York, Burroughs picked up a heroin habit through his contact with the punk and New York art scenes. By late 1981, Burroughs had kicked his habit and agreed to remove himself from the bad influences of the Big Apple. The November 1981 reading on SNL was both celebration and eulogy of Burroughs experience at 222 Bowery. The reading announced his departure from New York and his arrival in Lawrence. The small communities at the Beat Hotel, the St. Valentine’s Day reading, and the Nova Convention threatened to become worldwide and even Main Street.

Is it so wrong to gain financial security from one’s art? Is that selling out? I do not fault Burroughs in the least for reading to an eager public and cashing in on his celebrity. I do think it affected his writing. The responsibilities of celebrity make it impossible to give one’s full attention to writing. In addition, I feel that Burroughs’ affiliation with Hollywood and mainstream publishing lessened his writing. Unlike Kerouac who benefited from Malcolm Cowley at Viking, Burroughs suffered at the hands of his professional editors. The most perceptive editors of Burroughs’ work were his peers: Ginsberg, Irving Rosenthal, Kerouac, and Gysin. In my opinion, the return to narrative in Burroughs’ later work parallels his courtship with publishing houses like Holt. The best part of Burroughs’ six book deal was the inclusion of the Interzone and Queer material.

In addition, I would argue that the return to narrative and his retreat into genre and historical writing was due to his estrangement from the avant-garde community that sustained him in the three decades after World War II. The greatness of Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy cannot be separated from the vibrant literary and artistic community in which it was created: the Beat Hotel, Tangier, Times Square drug culture, dada, surrealism, concrete and visual poetry, the little magazines, the small press, the New American scene, free jazz, abstract expressionism and later Pop. The list goes on. As Burroughs and the literary / art community he grew out of became more established and accepted, both lost touch with the energy and intimate relationships of people and institutions in which they were born. Of course this is a personal preference. Many readers and critics welcomed and championed Burroughs’ later work as the best of his career precisely for the reasons I neglect it.

Yet the audience is not completely innocent. The rise of Burroughs’ popularity, as evidenced by the success of his readings, suggests that maybe it is wrong to accuse Burroughs of selling out. He was merely following the path of his inspiration and the implications of his art. As time passed, many in his audience sold out by taking at face value the Beat myth and lifestyle. Burroughs is more than a drug addict and a wife killer but legions of fans revel in such tabloid sensationalism and read his novels as they would the News of the World. Burroughs is a down-and-dirty chronicler of the underbelly of 20th century urban culture to be sure, but also a serious artist and thinker addressing age-old questions regarding language, writing, sexuality, control, and possession (to name a few). Those who merely feed on the Beat myth fail to enjoy the full pleasures of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program
Front cover


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program


Nova Convention Program

Nova Convention Program
Back cover


Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 24 April 2007. The wonderful ubuweb.com has made the entire album of the Nova Convention available for free download. Many thanks to Jan Herman for scanning and making available his original letters describing the Nova Convention. Updated 27 July 2011 with Nova Convention program.

3 thoughts on “Burroughs Readings

  1. On June 11, 1965 there was a large reading (in terms of number of poets and in terms of audience) at Albert Hall in London. Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Trocchi all appeared. In many ways this reading launched the summer of love in Great Britain. Burroughs was in NYC at the time but he did provide a taped message/reading that was played at the Reading. This is similar to Burroughs’ first reading as well as the taped portion of the 2/14/65 Reading. So Burroughs was present in spirit and in voice at one of the most important readings of the 1960’s. Quite possibly Burroughs heard from Ginsberg the incredible energy that had transformed Great Britain and this played a role in his move there in the space of a few months.

  2. holey moley — where would one find the footage of burroughs on this SNL performance?! damn, i’d love to see that. tips?

  3. This is very well written piece. and quite informative. I like how the used the Rolling Stones as sort of a background vehicle for the material. Excellent! Ican’r wait to read Jed Birmingham’s other writings on WSB.

    I have somewhere a VHS recording of Burroughs’s 1981 SNL performance, so I am sure that it is readily available. Is the taped portion of the 2/14/65 event likewise available?

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