Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
“Not in Maynard and Miles” — the phrase is the siren’s song for Burroughs collectors. Obsessives like Eric Shoaf and Brian Shottlaender, spend much of their free time looking for these unicorns. Sometimes they are just narwhal horns, like “Wind Die, You Die, We Die” from the August 1968 issue of Esquire. It is hardly rare, given the circulation of the magazine at the time, but still it has that magic since it escaped the notice of Maynard and Miles (who, make no mistake, generally miss no Burroughs appearance not matter how weenie).
That is what makes “Pry Yourself Loose and Listen” so special. This piece is so off-the-radar that the title is derived by default from the first piece in the collection. I tend to think of it as the Gnaoua Offprint, which is more accurate as the piece collects all the Burroughs appearances in Ira Cohen’s legendary magazine Gnaoua from 1964 out of Tangier: “Pry Yourself Loose and Listen,” “Notes on Page One,” “Ancient Face Gone Out,” and “Just So Long and Long Enough.”
I first became aware of this publication in 1999 at the Nelson Lyon Sale at PBA Galleries. Lyon had an inscribed copy, natch. The estimate was $200-300. Now remember that in 1999 I was still a novice in the Burroughs collecting game so forgive me for buying the distressed copy of Gnaoua 1 signed by Burroughs and Michael McClure from that auction instead of the far more desirable and unusual offprint. I literally had no idea. I thought another one would turn up. Granted I have seen a few over the years, and, in fact, know of a collector who owned two, but the Gnaoua offprint is definitely not something you see every day.
Now do not get me wrong, the offprint is not visually stunning or innovative. It is actually very simple and that is its charm. This is ephemeral publishing at its best — a total afterthought. You have to wonder why it was even done. This would have been the first question I would have asked Ira Cohen when we thought about interviewing him for RealityStudio. Unfortunately it was too late by the time we got out of City Bakery and into action.
As far as I can tell searching on WorldCat, the only institution to possess a copy of “Pry Yourself Loose and Listen” is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So you are unlikely to see it anywhere but here unless you happen to track down your own copy. If you do, congratulations. It only took me over a decade to get mine.