Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#15: Suck 5 & 6 (1971). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
“[C]omplete breakdown of censorship. There are shops all over town now where you can buy pictures of naked boys with hard ons step right up and take your prick displayed on the counter. And there is also a selection of home movies with the actors hard on the cover. What is different from movies like ‘The Men’ is that this is legal and therefore competitive. Instead of horrible looking Soho Jews there are beautiful kids jacking off etcetera. We could cut these movies in with the Cut Ups and show the result publically. We could cut the sex films in with newsreels and street shots and pop singers. How long this God sent opportunity will last I don’t know. No doubt our creeping opponents will try to crack down on ‘smut.’ If that happens we can put a protest riot in the streets.” William S. Burroughs, Letter to Antony Balch (Sept. 10, 1968)
“What news? The only sex-film quickie to make these days is a couple or two couples or four couples or sixteen couples fucking and I hear such are shown on the screens of NY every day, now. Also, gents entirely transparent clothing is available or, at least, has been shown by someone. How are you keeping up?” William S. Burroughs, Letter to Antony Balch (Dec. 9, 1968)
Hardcore pornography: What upstanding citizens saw as the work of the devil, Burroughs viewed as a gift from God. In my mind, one of the more WTF what-ifs of Burroughs’ entire career is what if Burroughs and Balch had made that “sex-film quickie” in 1968? As I will show below, in The Wild Boys and in a European sex paper, Burroughs wrote the script then he got stage fright faced with all the work involved. Apparently even Burroughs had his limits. Directing porno flicks was a horizon that he gazed upon longingly but which he did not tread beyond. But for just a moment think of it, a Burroughs gay porno/cut-up film that would have been shown in the sleaziest grindhouses of Time Square, or better yet, as an endless loop in a peep arcade. Burroughs as an experimental Toby Ross. What a mindfuck! If done right, if done at all, Burroughs would have taken his place with iconic underground porn auteurs like Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures), Barbara Rubin (Christmas on Earth), and Andy Warhol (Blow Job and Blue Movie). Personally, I feel Burroughs deserves to be in their company already, based on the trilogy of PG cut-up flicks that he made with Antony Balch in the mid-1960s. These are important examples of underground filmmaking. Then again, I think Burroughs demands inclusion in any conversation of just about any creative form of the 1960s underground. Obviously literature, but also film, art (his scrapbook collages), sculpture (the Dream Machine), photography. As for dance, Burroughs sat that one out.
Even if Burroughs did not make a porno, the Golden Age of porn of the late sixties through to 1980, when video began to take over the industry and the moral backlash initiated by the Reagan administration motivated a clean-up process in major cities like New York, received the gift that keeps on giving from the pornographic writing of Naked Lunch. The Naked Lunch trial was one of a long line of censorship precedents that culminated in the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Redrup v. New York, which legally protected written pornography in even its lowest and non-socially redeeming forms. After that ruling, the sewers overflowed and Time Square peep arcades sprouted like mushrooms in the shit pile, and the grindhouse theaters openly showed hardcore fucking of all persuasions in all types of innaresting arrangments, including live sex shows. So when you are watching David Simon of The Wire‘s latest show on the wildlife of the Deuce before The Lion King came in and Disneyfied Sodom, give some dap to Burroughs and AJ’s Annual Party for getting the party started.
I can think of no other major writer of the 20th Century with such a close relationship to pornography as Burroughs. Henry Miller comes to mind. Not surprisingly, porno mags are a crucial part of Burroughs’ bibliography. Sure, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski appeared in men’s magazines, but they just served as readily available outlets. For Burroughs, pornography is a major element of his theoretical and philosophical stance. Bukowski would scoff at the suggestion that his writing even had one. Bukowski’s obscenity was largely profit driven. He wrote dirty stories because the porno rags paid well and that is what readers wanted. Burroughs, on the other hand, wrote his own porno vision of the world, to which he felt audiences had cast a blind eye but nonetheless must be forced to acknowledge. For a sustained period, Burroughs used Mayfair, the British equivalent to Playboy, as a platform from which to disseminate his most radical and revolutionary ideas. Yes, Burroughs clearly took the Mayfair gig for the paycheck, but as his letters and interviews, such as The Job, suggest, Burroughs felt himself to be a pornographic prophet in this period. As Jaguar, another British mag of the period, asked concerning Burroughs: Pornographer or prophet? In true Burroughsian fashion, the answer is not one of either/or, but instead both/and.
Book collecting is also a perversion. A tolerated one to be sure. Collectors are looked upon with humor like the dirty old men of The Benny Hill Show. Good for a chuckle. Yet collecting is pure pornography. Just see how book collectors fondle and caress their books. How they gaze at them full of desire while undressing them of their dust jackets. Smelling deeply of their leather bindings. This is the world of fetish. There are elements of control and possession. Even rape. Many collectors kidnap their books from the world and lock them away forever. Book collecting can also be an expression of homosexual desire. (Burroughs collected guns, knives and canes.) In fact, it expresses the full range of sexuality. As such, the collecting of Burroughs men’s magazine appearances is the most meta of collections.
And I strongly recommend beginning collectors to walk on the wild side. First all, they are rather cheap when compared to Burroughs’ first editions and the rarer little magazine appearances. Digging around on the internet and at flea markets and yard sales (I remember rooting through trash cans during spring cleaning as a kid looking for old Playboys and Penthouses) can turn up these publications for under $30. Burroughs highspots include the large run of Mayfair titles from 1967 to 1970 (over 20 issues in all), which featured the monthly “Burroughs Academy Bulletin” column. Roy Pennington bootlegged several of these columns in his proto-punk zine, The Mayfair Acadamy More or Less, by his Urgency Press in 1973. A wonderful collectible in itself and another porn-related Burroughs highspot. Rest assured, we will see Roy again on this list. One of the more interesting Burroughs interviews appeared in a 1971 issue of Penthouse, which despite being reprinted in Burroughs Live, is worth getting in order to experience the interview in the context of its original release. Context is sometimes more important than content, which is why there will always be collectors searching out for first editions and first appearances rather than buying reprints and collected editions. Some items like Roy’s bootleg re-contextualize in interesting ways as they re-issue. The June 1961 issue of Swank contains one of the most significant Burroughs pieces in a porn mag or otherwise. I have written about “The Word” on RealityStudio before, setting out its importance in the publication and textual history of Naked Lunch. The same can be said for the three issues of National Screw from 1977, which provided the briefest of peeks at the hot action that would have been the complete illustrated Ah Puch Is Here by Burroughs and Malcolm Mc Neill.
I would recommend getting these porn mags now, as they are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. Once again this is because this filth is being considered in terms of art and design. Vintage porno mags were all over the NY Book Art Fair at PS 1 this fall. As one dealer said to me as we were looking over a full spread of a woman taking a huge cock up her ass: “Screw hired some really great designers in the mid-1970s. The covers and layout were really good.” I am being serious here. Abrams, which has been publishing art books since 1949, put out in 2012 Sex Press: The Sexual Revolution in the Underground Press 1963-1979. Abrams has published similar books on the underground newspaper and the Punk press. In such circles as well as in academia, hardcore porn mags and films are being recognized as a crucial if problematic part of not just the sexual revolution but the larger cultural revolution of the 20th century.
Clearly in the early decades of the 21st, in the age of the internet and the digital revolution, society is going through a thorough pornification. Porn is big business and a force of technological innovation. (Brion Gysin stated that painting is fifty years ahead of writing. The same holds true for porn. For example, porn is at the cutting edge in exploring the possibilities of the digital revolution. The porn industry provides a case study into the trials and tribulations of monetizing the internet. It also provides a model for DIY archiving. Much of the history of pornographic film, particularly starting with the rise of video, is readily available on the internet, archived in free databases such as Pornhub or Tube8. Many of these videos were uploaded by amateur archivists and porn fans. Could such activities be a model for libraries and institutions on how to preserve and store not just new media artworks but also more traditional paper-based holdings? In any case, clearly it provides inspiration for developing archives and libraries outside of the institutional and, maybe even, corporate establishment.) The laws and mores of porn are seeping into the daily lives of the general population whether they are in contact with hardcore pornography or not. Elements of porn have taken over mainstream culture. Depictions of alternative lifestyles, like that of gays and transsexuals, which in the past could only be experienced through pornography, are now on magazine covers and TV programs everywhere. The Kardashians are the first family of porn and proof of pornography’s crossover.
Yet there was a time when pornography was tied not primarily to consumer culture but to revolution. Like with the counterculture, on the surface, the revolution in pornography seemed to have been all about hair. Making the pubic public. Feminist Germaine Greer proved herself to be a bushy haired streetfighter in the pages of Suck. But there was more to it than that. It was not about appearances but about taking action and about how you acted during the act of sex. In comparing Suck with Screw, Al Goldstein’s sex paper, Greer states:
I would like to explain why I think SCREW . . . is counterrevolutionary. . . . SCREW is still into the whole tits and ass scene, you know? There’s no chance that SCREW could ever chance what I call the grammar of fucking because the sex with which SCREW deals is screwing and I’m not into screwing. The word means so many things. It means screwing up and screwing down and that’s not what you do with your cock and that’s not what you do with your cunt, you don’t really screw. People can’t believe that. They really think they are nailing something down. And I don’t think SCREW goes any way toward rescuing the people who take it – up the cunt or up the ass or in the ear – rescuing them from degradation or devaluation. . . . The trouble is that the women’s liberation movement doesn’t even see that SUCK IS doing something different because they can’t even see the difference between the semantics of sucking and screwing. People despise their sexuality so much.
This was a time when pornography was as at home with the avant garde and the counterculture as with organized crime and skid row. This avant pornography seeped into the suburbs. I remember digging around in the closets of my home in the Drexelwood subdivision of Reading, Pennsylvania, as a teenager and finding a small stash of vintage smut. The Black Cat editions of Warhol’s Blue Movie and I Am Curious (Yellow) as well as Ralph Ginzburg’s hardcover mag, Eros, with its nude photos of Marilyn Monroe taken by Bert Stern just six weeks before her death. Today, these publications have become collectible, particularly the Warhol, which featured over 100 stills from the film. Visiting my parents in my twenties, I was discussing the Ginsberg obscenity trial with my stepfather, who remembered it distinctly as occurring in Philadelphia, not San Francisco, and it took me a while to realize that he was talking about the Ralph Ginzburg trial over Eros not Allen’s over “Howl”. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy indicted Ginzburg (maybe the Monroe photos put him over the edge) and Ginzburg was convicted in the District, Circuit and Supreme Courts. Ralph was sentenced to five years and actually served eight months. In Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese presents a scene where Travis Bickle takes Cybill Shepherd on a date to a porno movie at Times Square. The scene is supposed to demonstrate how disturbed Bickle is but I have always thought that the scene is not as crazy as it seems. In the early 1970s, porno movies, like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, were part of a date night for more curious (yellow) and adventurous suburban couples. Before AIDS, sexual exploration was not the exclusive domain of a promiscuous underground. Plato’s Retreat, a members-only sex club in New York City run by Larry Levenson, who happened to be a high school friend of Al Goldstein, catered to a well-to-do bridge and tunnel crowd of heterosexual couples and bisexual women. Its initial location was a former gay bathhouse where Bette Midler performed, but in its new incarnation gay men and sex amongst men were strictly prohibited. Only the hedonistic atmosphere of the former bathhouse remained.
This was also a time when a true skeptic like William Burroughs could watch a couple fucking on screen and think that the entire world was going to change. Sex was dirty and sick, just like the humor of Lenny Bruce. Suck: The First European Sex Paper was in on the joke. The paper was founded in Amsterdam in 1969 by Bill Levy, Heathcote Williams, Germaine Greer, Willem de Ridder, Susan Janssen, and Lynne Tillman. Suck co-hosted the Wet Dreams Festival, the first film festival devoted to pornographic films. Suck was as nasty a publication as there was at the time, but with a revolutionary spirit, creative layout and design. Suck also featured a sick, black humor that now has those in art and literature circles, like Abrams, placing the paper in the company of more artistically appreciated underground papers, such as IT and Oz, or punk zines, like Search and Destroy. Individual issues of Suck now approach $250 and a complete run is in the four figures.
Burroughs appeared in Issues 5 and 6. While I recommend buying the entire run if possible, I have placed Suck 5 and 6 on my list. Suck 6: The Special Family Issue, like the Oz Kids Issue, crosses the boundaries of good taste into possibly the criminal. “Adults only, kids!” The issue is especially important considering the letters quoted above. Burroughs served as a judge at the Wet Dream Festival and in Suck 6 he provides “a new look at sex films” as well as a large selection from the then unpublished Wild Boys, presented as “Burroughs’ Blue Movie” along with explicit photos of twinks Mark and Johnny. Burroughs did not make his “sex-film quickie” but Burroughs’ Blue Movie in Suck 6 could be considered as a working script. As could “The Penny Arcade Peep Show/The Wild Boys Smile” selection from Suck 5.
Clearly while writing The Wild Boys, Burroughs was more than causally interested in making a porno flick. The Burroughs collection at Arizona State contains much material relating to The Wild Boys, including items related to the proposed porno. The description of the material in the Arizona State archive is fascinating. What follows is courtesy of Alex Wermer-Colan and the archive.
Box 8A Item 4
The Wild Boys Film Ideas and Correspondence [J:503]
This file contains a 2 page signed introduction and 16 page typed signed prospectus for the film of The Wild Boys and 7 page signed manuscript of various scenes for The Wild Boys film project, also signed by Burroughs.
The Wild Boys film project, as outlined by Burroughs in the introductions, was an attempt, with the help of Terry Southern, to make Burroughs’ novel into a film. The project was a failure: “In the spring of 1972 while I was in New York trying to sell The Naked Lunch film script I saw a number of hard core porn films including Fred Halsted’s LA Plays Itself and Sex Garage. This gave me the idea for shooting The Wild Boys as a hard core porn film. I met with Fred Halsted and discussed the idea with and gave him a copy of The Wild Boys . . . I then discussed the project with Terry Southern and we considered working together on the script . . . during the summer of 1972 Fred Halsted came to London and we discussed a number of alternative scripts. I finally decided the whole idea was impracticable both from a financial standpoint and from a standpoint of making a good film within our budget.”
Also included in this file are carbon copies of Burroughs’ letters to Terry Southern and Fred Halsted regarding the project. At the end of the file, the clippings for show times of Fred Halsted’s film in Time Square cut out of the New York Times, May 1972, are laid in.
All of the material contained in this file is unpublished and Burroughs’ plans for creating a film based on The Wild Boys are unknown outside this file. Preserved in the original maroon legal sized folder with title written in Burroughs’ hand in ink on the front cover and illustration pasted on the front cover by Burroughs. Also see Box 20.
Wild Boy Film Ideas folder – “As I have told you the first wild boy tribes were fugitive survivors from the Terror of Colonel Driss. The government denies that any terror occurred.”
Drafts and Unpublished Film Manuscript of The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs [JACKSON 523, 526, 503], 1965
Item Descriptions: 55, 75, 78.
[523/525]: The Wild Boys (4 Files)
The first file contains the most important materials. This file contains the complete extant first drafts (1968-1972) of various passages from The Wild Boys. The MS consists of 92 pp. typed drafts, many of which bear extensive additions and alterations in the author’s hand in various colored inks, as well as several holograph pages. Because this entire MS is typed with an elite machine and is almost completely single-spaced, we estimate that it contains well over 175,000 words. Burroughs has signed various opening pages throughout the drafts and has also indicated which passages were ultimately used in the 1971 Grove Press edition of the novel. The subject matter in The Wild Boys may be seen as the final and successful extension of ideas originally essayed in The Revised Boy Scout Manual MS, “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart” MS, and Ah Pook is Here MS, all of which are contained in this archive.
This massive MS contains lengthy sections that were discarded by Burroughs in the final draft of The Wild Boys and which therefore remain unpublished. Preserved in the original maroon legal size folder with note in Burroughs’ hand in ink on front covers: “Wild Boy Overflow”.
Enclosed together with Wild Boy Film Ideas portfolio in cloth slipcase with Morocco label.
Second file. “Unpublished materials from Wild Boys also layouts and first drafts … old duplicates.” 14 pp of miscellaneous drafts of passages from The Wild Boys, mostly carbons. Notes in the author’s hand on orange file cover. Folio 22A.
Third file. “Wild Boys Hard Core Porn Movie and Chinese Bongsae Film Idea . . . Distinct file.” 26 pp. various sizes with a few holograph corrections, mostly carbon cut ups. Entirely unpublished material preserved in the original red folder with notes on front cover in the author’s hand. Folio 22.
Fourth file. “Wild Boys Film Notes Valuable.” This file contains numerous clippings and several pages of typed notes regarding The Wild Boys and used as source material for the film. Preserved in red folder with note in Burroughs’ hand on cover. Folio 35.
Reading The Wild Boys in Suck 5 and 6 pales in comparison to watching the fully realized film at Show World on the Deuce, but it was the closest Burroughs would ever get to being a porn director. A quick review of Burroughs in Suck: “It is Days of Rage meets Boogie Nights. Four spurting hard-ons.”