William S. Burroughs and Joy DivisionTags: Cabaret Voltaire, David Britton, Ian Curtis, Joy Division, Michael Butterworth, William Burroughs
Recently the writer Jon Savage published a thoughtful essay about the literary influences of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the seminal post-punk band Joy Division. Having followed the band from its inception, Savage is in a unique position to offer insights. He notes that “Ian Curtis was an avid reader who became a driven writer,” one whose lyrics reverberated with his passion for authors ranging from Gogol and Kafka to the Existentialists. Curtis was especially fond of J.G. Ballard, borrowing the title of The Atrocity Exhibition for one of his songs, and also of William S. Burroughs. Though he had already written the lyrics to the song, Curtis lifted the title “Interzone” from Burroughs for a song on Joy Division’s groundbreaking record Unknown Pleasures.
Joy Division was given its first opportunity to play outside the United Kingdom on 16 October 1979. That alone would have distinguished the gig for the band, but of special interest to Curtis and his mates was the fact that they would be opening for Burroughs. The avant-garde theater troupe Plan K, which had made a specialty of interpreting Burroughs’ work, were founding a performance space in a former sugar refinery in Brussels, Belgium. The opening was conceived as a multimedia spectacle. Films were to be screened — among others, Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (starring Mick Jagger) and Burroughs’ own experiments with Antony Balch. The Plan K theater troupe were to perform “23 Skidoo.” Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire were to give “rock” concerts. And Burroughs and Brion Gysin were to read from their recently published book, The Third Mind.
Before the evening’s events, Burroughs and Joy Division gave separate interviews to the culture magazine En Attendant. Graciously provided to RealityStudio by the interviewer and the organizer of the Plan K opening, Michel Duval, these have been translated from the French and are reproduced here for the first time since their publication in November 1979. You can read the French original or the English translation of Duval’s interview with Joy Division, as well as the French original or the English translation of Duval’s interview with William Burroughs.
After Burroughs’ reading brought the opening of Plan K to its climax, Curtis attempted to introduce himself to his literary idol. This meeting, like so many things about both Curtis and Burroughs, has already become legend — which is another way of saying that its factual basis may have receded into darkness. If you search around the internet, you’ll see sites describing the encounter in terms like this: “Unfortunately when Ian went up to talk to him the author told Ian to get lost.” And this: “Burroughs probably was tired and bored with the concerts and when Ian went up to talk with him the author told Ian to get lost. Ian got lost immediately, not a little hurt by the rebuff.” Chris Ott’s book Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures repeats the story, and Mark Johnson’s book An Ideal for Living asserts that Burroughs refused to speak to Curtis.
To anyone familiar with Burroughs, the thought of him telling a fan to get lost is perplexing. Burroughs tended to be unfailingly courteous, even a touch “old world” in his manners. Typically he was generous with fans and admirers, particularly with young men as handsome as Ian Curtis. What could have prompted such an exchange? Was Curtis insulting? Burroughs in a bad mood? Were there mitigating circumstances?
RealityStudio began doing research on Joy Division as an offshoot of its work on Savoy Books, aka David Britton and Michael Butterworth. It was a natural progression: both the band and the writers hail from Manchester; both drew inspiration from literary and counter-cultural sources; both toyed with Nazi symbolism (or rather, with the public’s notions of Nazi symbolism); and in fact they intersected in Savoy’s bookshops, where young Ian Curtis hung out and where he may well have discovered Burroughs for himself.
Taken together, this research forms a dossier that paints the encounter of Burroughs and Curtis in a more complicated light. What follows are primary documents — accounts, recollections, and interviews that tell the story. Editorial comments by RealityStudio, which have been kept to a minimum, are set [in brackets.]
Ian Curtis, Reader
Sitting down to drink I ask Ian about his liking for the work of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs. I discover that he has read a good selection of both authors’ works including Crash (my personal favourite), Terminal Beach, Atrocity Exhibition and High Rise by Ballard and Soft Machine, Naked Lunch and Wild Boys by Burroughs. He also has a small booklet by Burroughs called APO-33 which he happens to have with him. I glanced through it and found it very interesting. I wonder if any of the books have influenced Ian’s lyrics.
“Well, subconsciously I suppose some things must stick but I’m not influenced consciously by them.”
Then there were the shops run by David Britton and Mike Butterworth: House on the Borderland, Orbit in Shudehill and Bookchain in Peter Street, just down the road from the site of the Peterloo massacre. As Butterworth recalls, all three “were modelled on two London bookshops of the period, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in Berwick Street, Soho — which sold comics, sci-fi, drug-related stuff, posters, etc — and a chain called Popular Books”.
With his friend Stephen Morris, Ian Curtis regularly visited House on the Borderland. Butterworth remembers them as “disparate, alienated young men attracted to like-minded souls. They wanted something offbeat and off the beaten track, and the shop supplied this. They probably saw it as a beacon in the rather bleak Manchester of the early 70s.”
“They came in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. Ian bought second-hand copies of New Worlds, the great 60s literary magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, which was promoting Burroughs and Ballard. My friendship with Ian started around 1979: we talked Burroughs, Burroughs, Burroughs. At the bookshops he would have been exposed to an extremely wide range of eclectic and weird writers and music.”
Dropping out of school at 17, Curtis was an autodidact who took his cues from the pop culture of the time. In 1974, David Bowie was interviewed with William Burroughs in Rolling Stone. The actual chat was fairly non-eventful, but it made the link explicit — especially when Bowie was seen fiddling with cut-ups in Alan Yentob’s “Cracked Actor” documentary — and Burroughs would cast a major shadow over British punk and post-punk.
Ian and Steve came in [to Savoy’s House on the Borderland bookshop] as schoolboys, on Saturdays.
The attitude radiating from the shop was fuck everybody in authority, and that’s what they responded to. The shop played loud rock’n’roll over the speakers which sounded out into the street years before other shops were doing the same kind of thing. And I mean loud.
After about six months or so, they both got expelled from school and then began hanging around the shop during the weekdays as well. They’d go out for sandwiches and hot teas. Sometimes they would accompany David [Britton] to wholesalers like Abel Heywoods, just around the corner, and help carry stock back to the shop, and then help stock the shelves.
What was he interested in?
Ian was interested in counter-culture and science fiction. David remembers them being enthusiasts about Michael Moorcock, whose hard-edged fantasy writing and lifestyle was a great influence, very rock’n’roll. Ian liked Jerry Cornelius and The Dancers at the End of Time. Steve was more into Elric and Hakkmoon, he thinks.
I’m afraid Joy Division never meant anything to me (unlike Mike [Butterworth], who sees something of worth in them). My cronies and I thought it was “crying shit in your underpants” music. Student angst. A glib dismissal, I knew at the time, but it was a comfort to think like that. Despite what [Jon] Savage says I’m pretty sure that Ian wasn’t much of a reader. A skimmer at best, but with the ability to read the right stuff and quote from it. For a Macclesfield lad, quite an achievement, I suppose. Of course, 30 years on from my meetings with him, the world has put him in a different perspective. Fair enough. JD have stood the test of time and have proved to be something far more substantial than I at first perceived. But can one be wrong, and also be right? Is it “Transmission” or “Papa Oom Mow Mow“? But at least it’s better to have JD representing Manchester music than Freddie and the Dreamers.
Burroughs in 1979: Junky (Again)
[The late 1970s were a strange period in Burroughs’ life. He had done innovative work exploring the intersection of word and image with collaborators such as Brion Gysin (The Third Mind), Malcolm Mc Neill (Ah Pook Is Here), and Bob Gale (The Book of Breeething), but the publication of these works was compromised by financial obstacles. He was greatly worried about his son Billy, who had undergone a life-threatening liver transplant. At the same time, Burroughs had become the gray eminence of the music scene. A month before the Plan K gig, he was going to Broadway to see Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Frank Zappa. Plans were being made for a musical of Naked Lunch.
Ironically, with all the scenesters hanging about and with his partner James Grauerholz away in Kansas, “Burroughs,” noted biographer Ted Morgan, “started chipping.” For the first time since he had returned to New York in 1974, Burroughs was a junky — again.]
Situated on the Rue de Manchester in the Molenbeek district, Plan K was a labyrinthine former refinery built in the 1850s, six storeys high and adding up to 4,300 square metres… Disused by 1979, the industrial landmark was leased and renovated by choreographer Frédéric Flamand and his avant-garde dance troupe (called Plan K), seduced by the cloistered, industrial, pre-Hacienda architecture and the potential of 22 large rooms as a multimedia performance space. With the object of mixing diverse audiences and promoting new synergies, Flamand sought to combine dance, theatre, music and audiovisual art, so that the Plan K complex — like Brussels itself — would become an international cultural crossroads…
For several years Plan K succeeded famously, the place to be and the place to see. Many early musical bookings at Plan K were arranged by urbane journalist / economist Michel Duval together with Annik Honoré, then working as a bilingual secretary at the Belgian Embassy in London. Annik’s relationship with Joy Division lead to the rising Factory band being booked to appear at the formal Plan K opening on 16 October 1979. This more than lived up to Flamand”s multimedia ambition, and offered music, dance, film and readings across several consecutive nights. The focal point was celebrated addict and avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs, author of Junkie, Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, as well as The Third Mind, a collaboration with fellow cut-up pioneer Brion Gysin. Gysin also appeared on the bill, as did Kathy Acker, along with sundry other readings and lectures. Films included the infamous 1970 Mick Jagger vehicle Performance and two Burroughs shorts by Antony Balch, while the Plan K dance troupe performed a piece called 23 Skidoo. Although the “rock concert” featuring Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire was billed second from bottom on the Marc Borgers-designed poster, healthy import sales of Unknown Pleasures and the Cabs’ several singles on Rough Trade ensured a healthy audience of two or three hundred in the ground floor concert hall.
I organised the famous Plan K gig and I did interviews of Burroughs and Joy Division. The interviews took place at Plan K hours before the event. Burroughs was very affable and courteous… I remember that both Ian and Rob Gretton [Joy Division’s manager — ed.] were into Burroughs and also obviously the Cabs [Cabaret Voltaire] for the “cut up.” I remember very clearly Ian falling in the arms of William Burroughs at the end of the show. Whether they spoke really I don’t know.
Joy Division “capitalized on the chance to play at Plan K in Brussels on October 16th, with the more experimental Cabaret Voltaire, both groups supporting a reading from idolized American author and poet William S. Burroughs. (Ian was rebuffed by Burroughs, which hit him hard as he was a great fan.) At Plan K, Ian either met or reacquainted himself with Annik Honoré…”
I have no memory of seeing William Burroughs in Brussels or Ian telling me anything about it later… At the time I was living in London and I came back to Brussels for a very short time for the concert (and I remember on top of it having some kind of flu). Although I had known Ian for a few months, we were not going out together yet (this was on 26th October so after the concert in Brussels) and therefore did not spend all the time with them (and I stayed at my parents).
Someone contacted me from some email group about something that Cabaret did when we played in Europe with Joy Division at a festival on the outskirts of Brussels called the Plan K, where in fact I actually met William Burroughs. It was a big festival on about three floors and was like this 60s happening — it was great. It was an old sugar beet plant: there was a stage on one floor, they were showing some Brion Gysin films, all sorts of things, performers, dance, readings — Brion Gysin and William Burroughs were on one floor just reading. Cabaret Voltaire were playing downstairs so we went over in a big furniture van.
The audience was very diverse: a serious group of intellectuals (French, Belgian, and American), a few posers, five tourists, more than three hundred rock fans. When Cabaret Voltaire, originally from Sheffield, went onstage at around 10:30 PM, the sound system wasn’t right and the sound coming out of the speakers was oversaturated…
Joy Division (from Manchester) made up for it. Though they were capable of even better, their set was incomparable. Those who have never seen Ian Curtis, the singer, on stage can only imagine a sort of epileptic with a mad, hallucinatory gaze, working his arms like a broken windmill and mouthing his lyrics in a bleak but exasperated tone.
Ian Curtis Meets William Burroughs
On October 16 the group journeyed on their own to Brussels Raffinerie du Plan K, an old sugar refinery converted into an arts centre. The evening culminated in a reading by beat legends William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin from their collaboration The Third Mind. “To be honest, we all liked that kind of stuff, but we didn’t go on about it,” says [Stephen] Morris. “We didn’t go around in black or wearing sunglasses inside. But occasionally [Ian Curtis] would reveal that part of himself. I remember he went smooching over to Burroughs. We were like, “Great, we’ve got a crate of double-dead-strong beer, can we get another?” He was off getting his book signed.
The next day we go to the gig and Ian was really made up that Burroughs was on, reading, and Ian’s a big fan. He wanted to tell Burroughs what a great person he thought he was. Ian went over and then somehow hoped that Burroughs might know something about him or his lyrics, but he just blanked him really, as if he was anybody in the crowd.
In Belgium we did this t.v. show, it was a compilation of various things. There was us, Cabaret Voltaire and William Burroughs who was reading from his new book The Third Mind. Afterwards we got introduced to him and I asked if he had any spare [books] but he hadn’t. As well as that there was these guys on the show making nasty noises on violins and shouting every so often, really awful.
I think that the Burroughs intervention was done in the upstairs space at Plan K. Je n’en ai pas de souvenirs ou alors celui d’un petit monsieur (qui me semblait très vieux) dans un coin qui lisait des choses dans un brouhaha avec un mauvais éclairage bleu et blanc. [I only recall a small man (who seemed very old) in a corner reading in the midst of a brouhaha poorly lit by blue and white lights.] I remember the Joy division gig and I found that very hard (I know it is not politicaly correct to say that now). I didn’t like them live. But Cabaret Voltaire was incredible.
On arriving at Raffinerie de Plan K, I was impressed at the size of this huge hall, which was previously a sugar refinery. It was filled to capacity with some 10,000 people [more probably 300 — ed.] all there for poetry and literature. I was overwhelmed yet again that such an interest even existed and that these readings could be such a big draw. I remember coming in the back entrance and be[ing] escorted in the cavernous underbelly of the building to a waiting room filled with notable writers from around the world. There was Steve Lacy, Joy Division, Kathy Acker, Cabaret Voltaire and many more…
It came time for Bill to enter the hall. Bill sat down at the table as he often did when reading publicly with his manuscripts open before him as though it was his desk at work or wherever he wrote. Sitting there like “the chairman of the board,” he began to read from The Third Mind his collaboration with Brion Gysin, Viking, New York, 1978…
The formalities of the readings and the hoopla ended but we didn’t stay long to party and celebrate each other’s laurels with pats on the back. No Bill, [Soyo] Benn [Posset] and I high-tailed it back to the hotel so that we could expedite our journey back to Amsterdam and tame the monkey on our back. No cold shivers or shakes as Bill’s formidable knowledge of pharmacology had already tempered that back at the drug store. Yet we all knew where the real party was and it wasn’t here in Belgium, it was in the den of an opiate-induced hallucination and calmed by the thrilling rush of the heroin cursing through our veins. Amsterdam beckoned and we answered its clarion call by parting our hosts, friends, and celebrations with sudden dispatch. At first light I got the car, went by Le Plan K to pick up Bill’s cheque, and then we drove through the Belgium countryside with urgent speed, hastened like a galloping horse to be near our sweetheart the white nurse, or the black tootsie roll. Stopping along the way only to relieve ourselves and eat something — Bill was good that way he always took care of his body even as a junkie.
The lecture by WSB was fascinating — it was the first time I heard his amazing voice — but as far as the conversation between him and Ian Curtis is concerned, I wasn’t there…
How long did Burroughs read?
It was quite long, I’d say one hour.
How was he received by the audience?
Very respectfully, as far as I recall.
This was the opening night of the Plan K venue — were you impressed with the surroundings?
The idea of creating a “salle de spectacles” in an old sugar refinery was groovy — but then again I had seen the Plan K shows before in the strangest places (including a church & a sort of monument at the Parc du Cinquantenaire) — it was badly heated, industrial, I was very much into punk in those days and I sort of resented the pretentious & “intellectual” aspect of the whole Plan K concept (and their shows, a sort of local version of the Living Theater) — but then again they were trying, they were annoying the establishment, did shocking things like performing naked (ooooooohmyyyygoooood) — and that, I suppose, was good for the times — as was the idea of borrowing from WSB, which was good and very “branché” in the 70’s
Legend has it that Burroughs uncharacteristically told Ian Curtis to fuck off at the Plan K gig.
I very much doubt wether William told Ian Curtis to fuck off. I approached Mr Burroughs at the Plan K event, and mentioned I was a friend of Genesis P Orridge from Throbbing Gristle, who of course was known to William — he didn’t know me or had heard of my band Cabaret Voltaire, but was very friendly and a very polite old gentleman. I even gave him a Cabaret Voltaire badge, which he pocketed. This was the first of several occasions that I met Mr Burroughs.
Do you have any recollections of Burroughs or Curtis at the gig?
I already knew Ian quite well by the time of the Plan K event. Joy Division had played with Cabaret Voltaire at the Factory Club in Manchester, the Revolution Club in York, in 1978, and at the Futurama Festival in Leeds in 1979, and we were quite excited by the fact that Burroughs was going to be reading at the event.
My one enduring memory from Plan K was of sitting around a table with Ian, William and other band members of Joy Divison and Cabaret Voltaire. Ian asked William what he thought of Suicide (the band), William thought he meant the act of suicide, and I think said he disapproved. William was disturbed by the popping of champagne corks at the party, which he mistook for gunshots!
Do you have any recollection of Burroughs’ reading?
I did attend the reading. I recall the reading being given from a long table where William, Brion Gysin and others were seated. It looked like a political broadcast, until you heard what was being read! I can’t recall exactly what was read, but it was well received. Because it was a mixed media event it was attended not just by music fans, but also people from many areas of interest, including writers, filmmakers etc.
Any idea if Burroughs attended the musical performances?
I’m not sure, but the received wisdom was that William didn’t like stuff to be too noisy, so probably not.
Did you ever hear Curtis speak about Burroughs or his admiration for the man?
Yes, many times. I guess we bonded because of our interest in Burroughs, J.G. Ballard as well as music (Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Kraftwerk and so forth).
More generally, how would you describe the importance of Burroughs for bands such as Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire?
I can’t really speak on behalf of Joy Division, but I think it was mainly Ian who was interested in Burroughs. From a personal point of view, Burroughs was very important to me. I discovered Naked Lunch in 1974/75 and was very taken by its content, and did loads of cut-up text through until the early eighties. The anti-establishment / black humour / political satire and general contempt for society / methods of control was very appealing to a 17-year-old kid! Not the sort of stuff you show your folks! Later, I discovered the tape cut-up experiments that William did with Brion, and the films with Antony Balch, Towers Open Fire and the Cut-Ups (which were shown at the Plan K event) and saw a very big connection with the experimental sound / music and film that I was doing with Cabaret Voltaire. It was a great source of inspiration, knowing that people had done this kind of thing earlier, and I like to think that in some way I carried on that lineage / tradition with the work that I did with Cabaret Voltaire.
[Ian Curtis committed suicide on 15 May 1980.]
It seems clear that Curtis used his books as mood generators. At the same time, his wife thought “the whole thing was culminating in an unhealthy obsession with mental and physical pain.” As she recently wrote: “I think that reading those books must have really nurtured his ‘sad’ side.”
I can’t see this suicide kick.
The English boy was talking about suicide, life not worth living. This seems incredible to me. I think I must be very happy. I got like a Revelation but can’t verbalize it.
Suicide is never good. “It is a cowardly vetch, O my brothers.”
I can remember one day at the beach. I went there with one of my cousins and his friends. They were smoking hash but I didn’t. I was only listening on my headphones Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and reading The Naked Lunch. I get at chapter “A.J’s Annual Party,” and I can’t remember what happened. Everything had disappeared there were only the smell of smoke and the music in my ears. I was reading with my eyes closed. The lyrics were coming into me but I didn’t know how. That was the WSB work.
Many people took the time to contribute to this dossier. RealityStudio would like particularly to thank Annik Honoré and (in alphabetical order): Stéphan Barbery, David Britton, Michael Butterworth, Philippe Carly, Michel Duval, Richard Kirk, Patricia Leigh, Nadine Milo, Jon Savage, Ann’So, and Gilles Verlant.