Nothing Here Now But the Lost RecordingsTags: Carl Weissner, Claude Pelieu, Cut-Up, Jan Herman, Mary Beach, William Burroughs
The Lost Tapes of Carl Weissner, Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach, 1967-1969
by Edward S. Robinson
For academics and fans alike, the archives of the pivotal beat triumvir of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac have long been a source of fascination and a continued wealth of lost texts. Despite the excavation of a large number of letters and minor works, alongside significant manuscripts such as the Burroughs / Kerouac collaboration And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks (written in 1945, but not published until 2010) there is nevertheless a sense that the well may be beginning to run dry.
It is perhaps for this reason that interest in the extended “Beat family tree” which has branches that extend far and wide is finally beginning to grow. While largely (and unjustly) neglected thus far, the so-called “European Beats” made a substantial contribution to the dissemination of the cut-up method. Many of these writers were introduced to the technique by Burroughs himself through his many contributions to underground zines in the 1960s, when his project had been specifically to “recruit” practitioners far and wide in order to “spread the virus” and spearhead an assault against linguistic programming and rational thought. Amongst these, Carl Weissner, Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach stand out for their contributions to the cut-up canon. Many of their works were produced with Burroughs’ direct involvement in some capacity: for example the “Counterscripts” which preface Pélieu’s 1967 novel With Revolvers Aimed… Finger Bowls, and Weissner’s The Braille Film (1970) and the “Tickertape” introduction to the three-way collaboration between Weissner, Jürgen Ploog and Jan Herman, Cut Up Or Shut Up (1969), and not forgetting the Weissner / Pélieu / Burroughs pamphlet So Who Owns Death TV? (1967). These publications are relatively sought after and are commanding increasingly high prices on the collectors” market. However, to date, the archives of these authors remain largely unexplored.
A few months ago, I received an email from Gary Lee-Nova. Aware of my research into these writers, he wondered if I might be interested in hearing a tape he had in his possession, the details of which he explained as follows:
Since the early 1970s, I have had a five-inch reel, ¼” audiotape recording in my collection. I obtained the tape from Richard Aaron of AM HERE BOOKS which at the time, was based in Switzerland.1
Gary reported that the tape was well-preserved, had been carefully stored and played only once while in his collection, but the recording quality very much reflected the technology of the time, noting:
To my ear, it sounds like it was recorded in a small shed made of sheet metal; a bit tinny. I’ve heard other old tape recordings that sound like they were recorded in a wet, cardboard box.
His intention was, then, to convert the audio to digital files and re-equalize the recording in order to render it as listenable as possible and to “bring about as pleasant a sound of the reading voices as possible.”2
Naturally, I was extremely interested. I knew that Weissner had been heavily involved in a number of recording projects in the late 1960s, as he recalled in a 1988 interview with Jay Dougherty, recounting,
I documented a good part of the New York poetry scene on tape for the German Avantgarde Archive, which is run by an old friend of mine. I think I wound up with about a hundred hours of tape. It was a good cross-section: Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Diane DiPrima, Ray Bremser, Jack MacLow, Dick Higgins, and Alison Knowles. Ron Tavel. Jack Micheline. John Wieners. Ed Sanders.3
In the same interview he also remembers being “totally fascinated with William Burroughs’ cut-up thing” which led him to “all these cut-up collaborations with Burroughs, Nuttall, Pélieu, Mary Beach. Tape experiments and whatnot.”4 However, I had never actually heard any of Weissner’s recordings myself. What’s more, here was a bone fide rarity, compiling a number of recordings catalogued as being in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections in the Northwestern University Library, Illinois, and others that appear to be unlisted.5
I did not have to wait long before the suspense was over and I received not only a digital copy of this rare tape, but also photographic evidence of the source, including a high-resolution reproduction of the sheet attached to the box, which contained the full track listing that Gary had provided in his email.
The Contributors and the Material Facts
The facts: the tape contains four separate recordings. There is a gummed piece of paper attached to the box bearing the typed details of the recordings, which read as follows:
CARL WEISSNER reading from THE BRAILLE FILM (San Francisco, 1970) followed by tape experiments (New York / San Francisco 1967/68).
MARY BEACH reading from ELECTRIC BANANA (Darmstadt 1969) followed by
CLAUDE PELIEU, MARY BEACH and CARL WEISSNER reading from their resp. notebooks & works in progress – a spontaneous cutup experiment – recorded by Carl W., Honolulu, 12 Dec. 1968 60 min.
Beneath this track listing is Weissner’s signature.
The Recordings, Side 1: Carl Weissner
The first three tracks or sections in the digital reproduction represent the first side of the tape, and all feature Weissner reading from The Braille Film. The sound quality varies across the three parts, suggesting that they were recorded in different locations and / or at different times, perhaps using different equipment.
The first track — in its digital form — has a duration of two minutes and twenty-nine seconds and features a straight recording of Weissner reading a segment of text. The reading is largely clear, although occasional words are a little difficult to distinguish through a combination of microphone positioning and enunciation. The piece contains a thin thread of narrative, beginning ostensibly with the scene of an execution, while also incorporating “classic” cut-up elements, in the form of references to virus and mutation and biological and technological synesthesia, such as “faded lips, palpitating emphysema lungs” and “infra-red veins” which are representative of the “composite bodies” that populate Weissner’s (anti-)novel.6 Interestingly, this section of text does not appear in the published version of the book, which appeared in 1970 on Jan Herman’s Nova Broadcast Press.
The second section is louder and clearer than the first, with a trebly sound which occasionally tweets at certain frequencies. It has a running time of almost twelve minutes. It features Weissner delivering a measured reading of a section of The Braille Film that begins on page 92. The delivery is deadpan, almost Burroughsian in many respects. The meter is reminiscent of those which appear on Call Me Burroughs, and, like Burroughs, Weissner adopts different voices for dialogue. To hear him raise the pitch of his voice and deliver the lines “Why, it is possible? Something’s touching me on the ass…!” in the tone of a posh woman in a state of affronted surprise cannot fail to amuse, while his rendition of an upper-class British accent for her “gray companion” is remarkable for its accuracy.
Significantly, there are portions of text — the occasional sentence here and there — which are read here that do not appear in the final published version. The interest here lies not, perhaps, so much in the details of textual variations or edits per se (although scholars of major authors, including Burroughs, are often given to analyzing such variant and alternative edits in great depth), but in the way that this evidences the theories that lie at the heart of The Braille Film in live practice. Much of The Braille Film is given to demonstrating the ways in which the media, authors, historians, all manipulate text — and film — to achieve specific ends. Minor, often subtle edits, a change of camera angle or focus, the cropping of an image, all contrive to alter — potentially quite dramatically — the way the audience receives and perceives a “text.” As such, the minor alterations Weissner makes to his own text show the author effectively manipulating, adjusting, altering his own text, and in doing so, in some small way, the course of history is changed. This marks a central theme of The Braille Film, and also stands in parallel with Burroughs’ theories concerning the idea of “history as construct”:
We think of the past as being there unchangeable… the past is ours to shape and change at will. Two men talk… if no recording of the conversation is made, it exists only in the memory of the two actors. Suppose I make a recording… and alter and falsify the recording, and play the altered recording back to the two actors. If my alterations had been skilfully and plausibly applied the two actors will remember the altered recording.7
The third track is of lesser quality, and sounds as though Weissner’s voice has been recorded down a drainpipe or processed through a flange effect. This is, in fact, intentional, as he recounts: “I remember producing the effect of talking down a drain on purpose: I talked directly into an empty whisky bottle when I made that recording (Wong’s Cabaret, etc.) in Jan [Herman]‘s room on Bush Street, San Francisco, ’68.”8 Seemingly recorded in two takes, the material does undeniably suffer on account of the recording quality. Nevertheless, Weissner’s flat delivery stands in stark contrast to the sex acts he details within this section, which again, is not included in the published version of the book. However, it is worth noting at this juncture that Weissner produced a number of texts entitled The Braille Film; the 1969 German language collection of works edited by Weissner, entitled Cut-Up, which featured works by Burroughs, Mary Beach, Harold Norse, Jürgen Ploog, Claude Pélieu, Brion Gysin and Jeff Nuttall, features a number of short texts by Weissner gathered under the main heading of The Braille Film. While some of these “Composite Soundtrack” pieces do also appear in the book, they do so in re-edited forms. This may appear somewhat confusing, as The Braille Film was written directly in English, yet the texts which appear in Cut-Up, published a year earlier — are in German. However, as Carl explained, “the stuff in the antho was translated (sort of) from the English ms.” As such, this recording provides an insight into the evolution of The Braille Film as a book that emerged from an array of texts written over a period of time and then pieced together: a large-scale textual collage of smaller cut-ups.
The fourth and final track on side one is given to Weissner’s “Tape Experiments (New York / San Francisco 1967/68).” With a running time of eight minutes and ten seconds, it comprises a selection of segments of recordings from a range of courses cut together. Most of the different samples stand separate from one another: a few seconds of the radio, a few more of the television, a few more seconds of Weissner reading. The pieces are, as one would probably expect, of variable quality, although there are some interesting delay effects and overlays, plus an unsettling — not to mention slightly disorientating — loop of a crowd’s recorded laughter, which are noteworthy from an experimental perspective.
Beginning at the 1:21 mark, between a loop of what sounds like coughing accompanied by a droning hum in the background and a segment of narrative delivered in an eerie, echoed whisper, Weissner reads a permutational piece that effectively recreates Burroughs’ “Recalling All Active Agents.” In Weissner’s recording, the words are changed to “Calling All Erogenous Agents” and additional words and phrases are also incorporated. While recorded in 1960, Burroughs’ recording remained unreleased commercially until 1986, when Sub Rosa issued the compilation Break Through in Grey Room, evidencing that Weissner had access to Burroughs’ personal archive during the time they worked on their various collaborations. This demonstrates just how keen Burroughs was during his “cut-up period” to “spread the virus.” His prodigious output through the underground press and in his numerous collaborations, in conjunction with his liberal sharing of his methodology and frequent incitement for others to utilize the cut-up technique, evidence just how strongly he believed it was possible to revolutionize writing and all word-based media. Recordings such as those made by Weissner show how infectious Burroughs’ enthusiasm was.
Other sections of these “Tape Experiments” are more developed and sophisticated, and contain a number of layers of audio simultaneously. Possibly generated in part by ambient sounds, the hum of electricity or even the amplified recording device itself, between 1:30 and 3:00 and from 7:15 to the end, long, low notes, drones and hums provide a backdrop to snippets of dialogue and also to longer readings from texts, with an almost musical tonality. In many ways, these sections are the most remarkable of all, in that they sound very like contemporary experimental / ambient records, illustrating just how ahead of their time these tape experiments really were.
Leading the Electronic Revolution
It is perhaps because of their continued relevance that Burroughs’ audio experiments, conducted in the 1960s, continue to be a source of great interest on both a literary and technical level. Burroughs’ interest in the applications of audio was well documented, particularly in The Job and Electronic Revolution, which would prove seminal for experimental music pioneers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Burroughs’ own recordings, however, remained in the vaults. Initially recorded for the purposes of his own personal research, the tapes were not intended for public consumption. It wasn Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle who convinced Burroughs to allow him to release a selection of these experiments commercially. After spending many long hours going through the tapes, Orridge compiled the hour’s worth of material that was released as Nothing Here Now But the Recordings on Industrial Records in 1980.9
Nevertheless, Burroughs’ influence on music, particularly the music of the avant-garde, precedes the public release of his experimental recordings, primarily on account of his book Electronic Revolution (1970, 1972, 1976), which expounds the theoretical contexts of some of his practical experiments with audio. Along with Cabaret Voltaire and Coil, Throbbing Gristle were among the first to explore the possibilities of using tape loops, cut-ups, samples and “found sounds” to make music. It was in the work of these bands that Burroughs’ influence on music became truly tangible.10 “A lot of what we did, especially in the early days, was a direct application of his ideas to sound and music,” recalls Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk.11 This was true of many of the bands involved in the Industrial scene that exploded on both sides of the Atlantic between 1978 and 1984. They immersed themselves in studio experimentation and the application of techniques first explored by Burroughs and Gysin some 20 years previous. The reason for the delayed spread of the Virus in sound recordings was largely due to the lack of technology to facilitate widespread experimentation prior to 1978. But once Burroughs and Gysin had made the “breakthrough,” it was almost inevitable that their ideas would spread. Kirk regards Electronic Revolution as “a handbook of how to use tape recorders in a crowd… to create a sense of unease or unrest by playback of riot noises cut in with random recordings of the crowd itself” adding, “that side was always very interesting to us.”12 The book’s great impact on the underground music scene is indubitable, serving as a catalyst for a new wave of avant-garde musical experimentation.
The appeal of Electronic Revolution is obvious. While those who had followed Burroughs’ writing through the cut-up experiments would have been able to admire the many qualities of the writing, and even the methodology behind it, to the extent that it was possible to “write like Burroughs,” Electronic Revolution revealed new possibilities, demonstrating the potential for the written word to develop and mutate in new directions off the page. It also represented a “call to arms” for dissenters, providing as it did directions for sonic terrorism with the potential for “real” results:
…make recordings and take pictures of some location you wish to discommode or destroy, now play recordings back and take more pictures, will result in accidents, fires, removals. Especially the latter. The target moves. We carried out this operation with the Scientology Center at 37 Fitzroy Street. Some months later they moved to 68 Tottenham Court Road, where a similar operation was carried out…13
Like Naked Lunch and The Third Mind, Electronic Revolution is a “how-to” book, a handbook, with instructions for the replication of the author’s techniques to achieve specific effects. “Riot sound effects can produce an actual riot in a riot situation. Recorded police whistles will draw cops. Recorded gunshots, and their guns are out.”14 Burroughs explained the function of site-specific recording and playback thus:
…playback on location can produce definite effects. Playing back recordings of an accident can produce another accident… We carried out a number of these operations: street recordings, cut in of other material, playback in the streets …(I recall I had cut in fire engines and while playing this tape back in the street fire engines passed.)… (I wonder if anybody but CIA agents read this article or thought of putting these techniques into actual operation.) Anybody who carries out similar experiments over a period of time will turn up more “coincidences” than the law of averages allows.15
It was the capacity to achieve a specific desired effect, as Burroughs’ empirical testing of the theories demonstrated, which proved a significant factor in the book’s appeal to a certain audience. Although Burroughs believed that “the influence of fiction is not direct,” he always intended for his writing to have a tangible effect upon the reader in some way — after all, “if your writing had no effect, then you would have something to worry about.”16 That an early Cabaret Voltaire gig where Burroughs’ instructions were put into practice ended in a riot is testament to the effectiveness of the method.17
It is abundantly evident from hearing these brief examples of Weissner’s experimental recordings that Carl, like Burroughs, recognized the value of applying the cut-up method to audio tape.
The Recordings, Side 2, Part. 1: Mary Beach and Electric Banana
Side two begins with Beach reading from Electric Banana. This is a straightforward spoken-word recording, and Beach’s proper-sounding enunciation stands very much at odds with the colloquial and coarse elements of the prose, particularly within the dialogue. If anything, this heightens the impact of the reading and of the text itself. Beach’s performance is largely clear and confident, with only occasional stumbles, and the lines “wild screams of boys jacking off… on street corner of Madrid” causing some slight difficulty. Rather than detracting from the listening experience, such details remind us that this is a real, live reading captured on tape. While the readings Burroughs recorded for Call Me Burroughs were recorded over several takes and carefully edited to present an almost mechanically precise recording, free of background noise or errors, the scraping chair and other background sounds that can be heard during this twelve-minute recording are integral to its spirit, which is natural and immediate. The text itself is brutal and prosaic, a veritable blizzard of violence and sex, an orgy of drug consumption.
As with Weissner’s readings from the then-unpublished Braille Film, so Beach’s Electric Banana was yet to be published, at least in its original language. (A section did appear in the Weissner-edited anthology Cut-Up in 1969, the year of this recording, and the full text was published in translation in Germany the following year, although it would be another five years before Cherry Valley Editions would publish an English language edition.) Once again, as with Weissner’s readings, the version Beach reads here is different from the published version. Beginning with a section that starts on page 12 of the Cherry Valley Edition, Beach omits a number of words, alters the tense of others and reads “I was apparently the only one interested in what was going on,” whereas the published version reads “I was not the only one.” Skipping most of page 13, she segues “Bromo-Seltzer trickling, foaming over blue headlights” into “Nothing but my own brain counts now.”
The reason I draw attention to what may appear to be rather minor details is because, in the first instance, they enable us to observe the evolution of the text and the way additions and excisions were made over a period of time. Perhaps most importantly, however, we must consider the variations within the context of the theories which surrounded the cut-ups, specifically the ideas relating to textual manipulation. The underlying belief that words are malleable — Burroughs likened words to physical mediums such as paint — means that altering the position of a word within the broader context of the sentence and the paragraph in which it is located, and the way different juxtapositions of words can produce radically different meanings or present very different images in the reader’s mind’s eye, is key.
That the published text is, arguably, more explicit — and more Burroughsian — than the version Beach reads here is also noteworthy. The line “lips hovering over the ivory prick raised ready to strike like a snake — Iron exploding on a white moon, cool floods of white sound” would be published as “lips hovering over the ivory prick raised ready to strike like a pink cobra — Iron exploding on a white moon, cool floods of jissom & a white sound.” Whether or not this necessarily adds to the text’s impact is questionable, but one thing that is placed in sharp relief by this recording is Beach’s eye — and ear — for a Surreal image, and I would contend that some of the images conveyed in the recorded, earlier version of the text, are stronger or more striking than those which appear in the later revision.
The Recordings, Side 2, Part. 2: Claude Pélieu, Mary Beach, Carl Weissner
The second track on side two has a running time of six minutes and twelve seconds. It comprises two separate readings, beginning with Claude Pélieu reading a brace of short pieces in a segment which has a duration of fractionally under five minutes, with a calm, smooth delivery. He speaks exclusively in French, which renders comment from me on the contents of the piece extremely difficult. On a purely technical level, however, Pélieu’s voice is clear, despite there being significant “snow” on the recording. Beach then reads briefly from a work in progress, which would appear to draw on cut-up articles from medical journals, with references to schizophrenia, liver disease and hepatitis, in juxtaposition with images of apocalypse, life-drawing and dissection. The sound quality suggests that it was recorded during the same session as Pélieu’s piece.
The final section, which runs for eight minutes, begins with a collaborative piece, in which all three authors read in turn, although in no discernible sequence: Beach and Weissner in English, Pélieu in French. The result is certainly interesting, as each speaker delivers one or two lines from their text, their styles of delivery contrasting dramatically with one another — Pélieu’s style is laid-back and steady, while Beach’s delivery is akin to that of a newsreader, and Weissner has a controlled intensity in his voice. On a formal level, this intercutting of each author’s work effectively creates a new composite text that amalgamates three pre-existing texts. Described as a “spontaneous cut-up experiment,” its use of longer phrases in juxtaposition function more like those which form “The First Cut-Ups” that appeared in Minutes to Go than the choppier, more fragmentary cut-ups that would subsequently become the more popular form. However, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe this eight-minute sound collage as a real-time audio fold-in.
These recordings are fascinating and valuable in their own right, on a number of levels and not least of all because of the names involved in their production. While perhaps not possessing the commercial or mass appeal of discovering a “lost” recording of Burroughs, in the context of the broader Beat “scene,” Weissner, Pélieu and Beach are all significant writers, while Beach’s role in the publication and circulation of some of the most experimental works of the late 1960s and early 1970s, through her Beach Texts & Documents imprint was substantial. While it seems unlikely at the time of writing that further recordings from Weissner’s archive will surface — or find their way to me — it is extremely exciting to speculate about what gems may be in existence. At the very least, this tape affords a fascinating insight into a brief yet extremely fertile time in the ever-evolving, ever-mutating history of the cut-ups and the Beat generation.
Download the Lost Tapes
- Side 1, Track 1 (Weissner)
- Side 1, Track 2 (Weissner)
- Side 1, Track 3 (Weissner)
- Side 1, Track 4 (Weissner)
- Side 2, Track 1 (Beach)
- Side 2, Track 2 (Pélieu and Beach)
- Side 2, Track 3 (Pélieu, Weissner, and Beach)
1. Email from Gary Lee-Nova, 8th November 2010.
3. Jay Dougherty. “Translating Bukowski and the Beats: An Interview with Carl Weissner” in Gargoyle 35, 1988, p. 73.
4. Ibid., p. 70.
5. See the finding aid to the Weissner archive at Northwestern University Library.
6. Carl Weissner, The Braille Film. San Francisco: Nova Press, 1970, p. 26.
7. William S. Burroughs and Daniel Odier, The Job. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 35.
8. Carl Weissner, email to K. Seward, April 2011 (edited for capitalization).
9. Industrial Records, IR0016. Reissued as part of The Best of William S. Burroughs at Giorno Poetry Systems 4 CD box set. New York: Mercury Records, 1998.
10. Although David Bowie famously applied the cut-up technique in the formulation of the lyrics to his album Diamond Dogs, this example of Burroughs’ influence being applied on a technical level within music is wholly isolated. Moreover, Bowie still only applied the technique to words on the page as Burroughs has in Minutes to Go, The Third Mind and the Nova trilogy. The cutting and splicing of audio represents a developmental departure from this.
11. Biba Kopf: ‘spread the Virus: How William Burroughs infected the world of music”, in My Kind of Angel: I. M. William Burroughs, ed. Rupert Loydell. Exeter: Stride, 1998, p. 72.
12. Ibid., p. 72.
13. William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution. Gottingen: Expanded Media Editions, (2nd edition) 1970, p. 74.
14. Ibid., p. 67.
15. Ibid., p. 74.
16. “The Nova Convention” by Richard Goldstein, reproduced in Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997. Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2001, p. 436.
17. Biba Kopf: “Spread the Virus: How William Burroughs Infected the World of Music” in My Kind of Angel: I. M. William Burroughs, p. 72.