Greil Marcus on William S. Burroughs

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Excerpt from Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, 1997

By Greil Marcus

Discovered by [Constance] Rourke as an eighteenth-century heirloom, the mask is what in the nineteenth century came to be called the deadpan, the poker face: precisely what the coachman wipes of the rider’s face. The mask hides the voice no less than the face, and the voice it makes you might call Yankee Midwestern, though it is also Appalachian, mountain-still, a speech made as much of silences as of words, and the silence is the edge. So what? says the voice; it is dulled, unimpressed, as Rourke says, unsurprised. Those who use this voice claim they can’t be surprised even by the weatherthat is, by godand that’s their claim on life, why they expect you to listen to them, regardless of whether what they’re saying makes sense. The voice is flat: so flat that with the slightest inflection it can say anything, imply anything, while seeming to do no more than pass the time.

This is the sound of bluesman Frank Hutchison, who Bob Dylan would return to in 1993 for the version of “Stack A Lee” he offered on World Gone Wrong (“a romance tale without the cupidity,” Dylan wrote); it is the sound of drugstore speech in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1949; it’s the sound of William Burroughs waiting out a blizzard in a depot fifty miles north of Wichita. “Yes, that’s ol’ junkie Bill, over by the stove there, just whittlin’ on his penis,” says the stationmaster, while Bill mumbles to himself:

. . . . the buyer has a steady connection: the man within, you might say, or so he thinks. I’ll just set in my room, he says: Fuck ’em all, squares on both sides; I am the only complete man in the industry. But a yen comes on him like a great black wind, through the bones. . . . The buyer had lost his human citizenship, and was in consequence a creature without species, and a menace to the narcotics industry, at all levels . . .

If you listen to Burroughs as he read these words into a tape recorder in Paris in 1965, what you hear is prairie-flat and Babbitt-plain, a world conspiracy lined out in the modest tones of a small businessman describing a small job. Just beneath the surface, or played back in memory, it’s all music”Fuck ’em all” expanding into great curl, “Fuck ’em awwwllll,” then the q in “squares” rounding, nearly flipping the word on its backand simultaneously an anthropological document, no exile’s art statement but a field recording, “American Vernacular, Kansas/Missouri (Science Fiction).” “The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French,” Mark Twain wrote in “How to Tell a Story.” “The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter. . . . The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” That is Bob Dylan all through the basement tapes, and more precisely, as if in summation of both manner and matter, in “Lo and Behold!”; that is Burroughs on Call Me Burroughs, his Ishmael’s album of Naked Lunch readings that was a talisman of cool in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960sand, cast as blues on a lap slide guitar, that was Frank Hutchison. On the old-timey lps and precious 78s of the folk revival, he was an even cooler talisman, to some.

Suggested Listening

Frank Hutchison Sings “Stack A Lee”

Bob Dylan Sings “Stack A Lee”

William Burroughs reads Naked Lunch

Excerpt from Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, 1997, pp 51-53. Posted by RealityStudio on XXX YYY 2014.

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