Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#14: “The Invisible Generation” poster. International Times 5.5. First edition in silver ink. An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles. (NB: Can anyone provide a better image of the poster?)
William Burroughs, notoriously known as el hombre invisible, is quite conspicuous on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP released in 1967. There he is smack dab, front and center, between Marilyn Monroe and Mahavatar Babaji. (Burroughs is listed as number 25 in the most common decode map of the cover that I know of. Tommy Handley, a wartime comedian, — “It’s That Man Again” is not the Man for whom Burroughs waits — is number 23.) Juxtaposed between a sex symbol and an Indian saint. This is a visual cut-up Burroughs could appreciate suggesting he is a mutation of the two: a psychedelic icon. Sgt. Pepper may well be the most famous shout out related to Burroughs in rock, but it was definitely not the first. (For example, in 1965 Bob Dylan did so discreetly on the album cover of Bringing It All Back Home, which featured Ira Cohen’s ex-pat little mag out of Tangier, Gnaoua, a mag dominated and defined by Burroughs’ cut-ups, as was Dylan’s songwriting of the period.)
And it was definitely not the last. Decades after the fondly remembered Golden Era of Rock, Burroughs would be revered by the general public as a rock star — even if he was more apt to sing a 1930s German show tune à la Marlene Dietrich — and in turn he was worshipped by the rock gods. Let’s not forget that in the pages of the Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy Burroughs held court with David Bowie and Jimmy Page. In terms of the rock pantheon, Burroughs is in the company of Rimbaud and Bukowski. Yet unlike them, Burroughs actually influenced the course of rock music: he not only gave heavy metal its name, he also provided many of its philosophical underpinnings; he was the Godfather of punk; he was also a major influence on the grunge aesthetic. It could be argued that Burroughs influenced every major shift in rock music from the late 1960s onwards: psychedelia, heavy metal, prog rock, art rock, punk, no and new wave, grunge, industrial. Rap might appear to be an exception since Burroughs only appears in its shadows as a cult of personality, yet he lords over it conceptually. What is sampling but a sonic cut-up? Burroughs was scratching and inching tape in the early 1960s. Rock icons from Bowie to Lou Reed to Iggy Pop to Kurt Cobain took communion from the Priest. Let me remind you that these dudes are not the following kind; they were trailblazers in terms of their musical output and in their lifestyle.
Pink Floyd, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Grateful Dead, all the major acid bands of the 1966-1968 period, the sweet spot of the psychedelic era, inspired an iconic rock poster. Burroughs was no exception. The Invisible Generation poster, designed by wunderkind Michael English and published as a separate item between Issues 5 and 6 of the British underground newspaper, International Times, does not get lost in the purple haze. Years later its silver ink still shines brightly and has yet to fade. English teamed with Nigel Weymouth to form the psychedelic wonder twins, Hapshash and the Colored Coat. Wonder Twin powers activate! Form of a poster for the UFO club! This underground club (think euphoria as well as little green men), where the Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd was briefly the house band, opened on December 23, 1966, in the basement of 31 Tottenham Court Road by International Times founder, Hoppy Hopkins, along with Joe Boyd. The Burroughs-influenced Soft Machine quickly replaced Pink Floyd. Besides showcasing music, the UFO threw fabulous light shows and screened experimental movies, including those of Burroughs.
Like Dali and Duchamp before him, English designed shop windows; in English’s case, he painted the storefronts for ultra-hip boutiques like Hung on You and Granny Takes a Trip. These displays were constantly changing in order to keep up with fickle British tastes. And at the time, the Brits were the Western world’s tastemakers. Not surprisingly, English presents Burroughs at his most psychedelic. Here Burroughs walks the walk down Carnaby Street and talks the talk of the trendy Swinging London counterculture. What’s it all about?
The IT poster was printed in silver in a run of 200, on December 24, 1966, the day after the UFO Club opened. Christmas clearly came early for Brit hipsters. Were you naughty (The Stones) or nice (The Beatles)? You had to do your last-minute shopping at the Indica Bookshop in order to get one. Two days later a second printing of 1,600 was run in gold ink. Like Warhol and his Factory workers, English was a master of the silkscreen. The poster features text by Burroughs as well as a word machine based on Burroughs’ writing that was designed to be cut out from the poster, assembled, and used to create one’s own cut-up texts. The poster contextualizes issues of activity and passivity. Posters, be it for a rock show or a Dada manifesto, are ideally a dynamic format; it is not merely about contemplation or fantasy, but about inciting action. Be it taking in a band or taking to the streets. Or merely buying something. The elements of style, the Strunk & White of posters, discourage the passive tense. Yet often that is not a poster’s ultimate fate. I am looking at you Farrah Fawcett!!!
Like many of the posters announcing shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco, English’s rock posters were instantly collectible. The limited print run, the precisely timed release, and the different inks make clear that the Invisible Generation poster was intended to be so. As a result, it was destined to be pinned up on the dorm walls of London art school students rather than actually put to use. And herein lies the central problem with psychedelic art and music, and the International Times poster in particular. It is a wallflower rather than proclaiming “Up against the wall, motherfucker!” By merely hanging on the wall and inviting itself to be appreciated as art, it is in danger of becoming yet another brick in it. Burroughs distrusted psychedelics for precisely encouraging this passive impulse. He felt they could be used as an agent of control to create a generation of lotus eaters and navel gazers. Likewise with the Beat Generation, Burroughs’ Invisible Generation could easily be packaged by the media as another Pepsi Generation. It is not exactly clear which side of the wall the IT poster hangs on. Is it a cleverly concealed bomb or just a prize in a Cracker Jack box?
Surely, the psychedelic era changed how things looked and sounded; it changed lifestyles. There were important cultural shifts, for example in ecology and spirituality. But ultimately, was there a corresponding change in political and economic systems? Did not the song remain the same? Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss. Strong on design and appearances, Flower Power failed to change how underlying systems of government and economics were constructed and operated. Counterculture capitalism, which fueled the psychedelic era, is still a consumer culture even if the products are more colorful and handmade.
Cut-up texts were not intended to be passively consumed products. Ideally, Burroughs viewed the cut-up as a radical technology to be put into practice by literary outlaws and tape-recorder-wielding guerillas. He did not want passive readers; he wanted revolutionaries agitating against the Word. In a letter to Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach:
Have you seen International Times? I have given them an article on tape recorder experiments which should appear in the next issue and I hope to get a large number of people experimenting with tape recorders to turn up some results. Basic premise is, “what we see and experience” is to a large extent dictated by what we hear and anyone with a tape recorder is in a position to decide what he hears, and what other people hear or overhear as well.
Burroughs wanted experiments and results. Science not literature. The Word and the IT poster must be cut up in order to become useful and revitalized. The poster, unless it is put to use, is an inert tool or, worse, a toy. Unfortunately, few took Burroughs up on his literary challenge. Even fewer took up tape recorders. Carl Weissner and company are the exceptions that prove the rule. Only in the current networked technoverse has the general populace caught up with Burroughs by detourning the government’s and the police’s surveillance apparatus against itself with iPhones.
Sadly, whether you activated the word machine or hung it on your dorm wall, the ultimate fate of the poster was the same. They were destroyed. Given the fact that there were 1600 copies of the second printing run, you would think more copies would have survived. This might suggest that the poster was put to use and the machine was allowed to run wild. Yet maybe the poster was just thrown away after graduation. I had several posters hanging on my walls at various times. Today I do not own a single one of them. They got put in the trash when I outgrew them. Which is better: destruction through use or destruction through neglect? It also begs the question: was the cut-up just a fad? The Invisible Generation poster and all the hype surrounding its publication suggest this was the case for a public with short attention spans. Consumers are attracted to shiny objects. The poster was in silver and gold ink for a reason. Shortly after the poster was issued, even Burroughs would famously return to narrative. Clearly he never abandoned the cut-up technique but he did play with the word machine much more sparingly and with more purpose. It went into Burroughs’ closet of literary effects to be brought out on special occasions.
Almost fifty years later, the few remaining Invisible Generation posters still hang on the wall. No longer in a dorm room; they now hang at the book fair or the gallery space. I have only seen the poster in person once. At the NY Book Art Fair at PS1 in the booth of high-end British bookseller Maggs Bros. I was stuck by how large it was, and how striking its design. It is visually mesmerizing, despite all the text, which was difficult to read. In any case, I found myself contemplating it like a painting, rather than actually reading it. As for putting it to use, forget it. I have to admit it seems criminal to cut-out the word machine. The poster is flat-out cool, but its coolness as an object dooms it to failure.
That failure is precisely why it makes my list because, as elaborated above, it captures a key problem with not just the poster as a format but also with Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Despite Burroughs’ best intentions, the cut-up was not actively practiced. Cut up or shut up!!! Over the years most readers passively and quietly appreciate the novels. Or fail to read them at all. The cut-up has proven more influential as a catalyst in music than in literature.
Posters also dramatize a problem inherent with the act of collecting, particularly collecting counterculture or radical items. Collecting by its nature takes objects out of use and separates them from their intended function for the purposes of passive appreciation. No matter how revolutionary such an item, like a poster, might have been, to take it off the streets or take it out of active circulation is to effectively kill it. Yet it should be remembered that the passive tense does not only creep in with the passage of time. The Invisible Generation poster, despite all of Burroughs’ radical intentions and its hyperactive typography, was dead on arrival. But what a beautiful corpse!