Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#23: The Dead Star. Nova Broadcast #5 published by Jan Herman (1969). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
Sometimes you have to start at the very beginning in order for anything to make sense. Thus this list has to start with The Dead Star published by Jan Herman in 1969 as Number 5 in the Nova Broadcast series. I have written about Jan several times in the Bunker; I have done a podcast on The Dead Star; I have hosted a panel about Jan as a publisher. Readers of the Bunker might be sick and tired of it, but you just cannot stop thinking and talking about your first time. It is said that a junkie chases that first shot for the rest of his life and I have been chasing the rush I felt in purchasing The Dead Star for going on two decades. No other collectible I have bought, Burroughs or otherwise, has given me the sheer thrill of possession that I felt upon walking out of Skyline Books onto 18th Street in New York City with The Dead Star in my hands. It bordered on the sublime. I no longer feel that same ecstasy when unfolding The Dead Star as I sit my library, but I feel something much more mellow and soothing. Is this love that I am feeling? Maybe not love, but instead the comfort of being in the company of an old friend. I no longer have a torrid love affair with this Burroughs collectible but instead a long-term relationship and, like all friends, it keeps on giving.
Nova Broadcast #5 was my entrance into a whole new world, not just of collecting, but also of writers and artists. Through it I met and corresponded with Jan Herman, Carl Weissner, Robert Bank and others. It was an introduction and calling card into a community. The most powerful collectibles are those which are personal. The best collectors are not just fans and appreciators of the artists and writers they collect but also their friends and supporters. It is not just financial partnership. If a collector’s motives are pure and not about pure profit, he can become part of an artist’s inner circle. Collectors are not muses, but enablers who encourage a lifetime addiction to art and literature.
Some might argue that Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag #13, which also featured The Dead Star, is a much more interesting and desirable Burroughs collectible than Jan’s treatment. I am not so sure I agree. My Own Mag will show up much later on this list, but I have always felt that The Dutch Schultz Issue of My Own Mag represented the failure of mimeography as a medium. I feel Jeff Nuttall (and Burroughs) had his greatest successes elsewhere. On the other hand, the Nova Broadcast Dead Star is a resounding success, and ironically that very success lays the foundation for its own failure of a sort.
Jan’s Dead Star is a prime example of what is known as the democratic multiple, which crudely speaking is the concept popular among Fluxus and Pop artists that art could be cheaply produced, cheaply distributed, and cheaply sold on a mass scale to a public of Joe Sixpacks instead of to those living the life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. In some cases, design and layout was simple and uniform, almost generic. The Nova Broadcast Series fits in that category, but their simplicity is deceiving. I have written about Jan’s use of the fold. Other design touches are a little more subtle. The Broadcasts have largely the same covers which differ only in color. The Dead Star is purple and white, which is a nice nod to the cover of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch. The devil’s art is in the details.
Many place Ed Ruscha’s artist books which feature parking lots, swimming pools and gas stations — and in some cases also utilize the fold — at ground zero for this proposed revolution in art. Ideally, such work would not have an aura and would be readily and affordably accessible to a wide general audience. The dream of the democratic multiple was that art would be available in magazine racks at the supermarket but works by Ruscha and others found their way into the gallery and the museum. Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip has proven that the art market can fetishize anything and everything. The book now sells for over $5000 and is out of reach for the average Joe.
I have a love-hate relationship with this dynamic. I find it depressing that revolutionary impulses like the democratic multiple and the Mimeo Revolution have become art objects to be locked away and put behind glass, like exotic zoo animals, but I find myself agreeing again and again with what art criticism (and through its lead the art market) puts in its menagerie. Art critics seem to appreciate literature in a much more exciting and creative way than literary critics ever do. For example, the best criticism of the Mimeo Revolution and Burroughs’ cut-ups are from the Art Department perspective not the English Department. Literature professors are still reading the Grove cut-up trilogy in an effort to unlock the mysteries of Burroughs’ technique and not the C Press Time, The Dead Star or his little magazine appearances, let alone the thousands of cut-up experiments, including hundreds of combinations of text and image, in the NYPL. See Tomasz Stompor’s review of Rona Cran’s Collage in Twentieth Century Art, Literature and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, and Bob Dylan. Studying the Restored Texts by Oliver Harris will not correct this failing.
The Dead Star, which was run in an edition of 2,000 via offset printing provided by the good graces of City Lights’ commercial printer, has not succeeded — or should I say failed on the same fantastic level as Ruscha’s Sunset Strip. Collectible copies can still be had for around $40. Yet Jan’s work as a publisher is slowly finding its way into exhibitions and museum holdings as examples of artist books and magazines. This is in large part due to his Fluxus connection, particularly through Dick Higgins, who ran Something Else Press, where Jan served as right-hand man in the Press’ last years. In the case of Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, Jan for all intents and purposes took control of the press and published this book entirely on his own. And on his own dime.
If interest is measured in terms of value, the Nova Broadcast Series is an affordable means to get your foot in the artist book door before the art market catches on to what Jan accomplished. It was precisely this bang for the buck appeal that led me to buy The Dead Star in the first place. Decades later the pamphlet remains a great place for the beginning collector to get initiated into the Burroughs game.
Jan is not a one trick pony. His literary magazine, The San Francisco Earthquake, is one of the great, if underappreciated, literary magazines of the 1960s. Burroughs’ appearances therein are some of his most revolutionary and challenging pieces to ever appear in a magazine setting. To see Burroughs in the context of The San Francisco Earthquake is to appreciate just how taken up with the ferment of the 1960s he truly was. For a brief period late in the decade, Burroughs deceived himself into believing that a revolutionary change was not just possible but imminent. Burroughs was a notorious skeptic and the last person to jump on popular bandwagons. So I have always taken the fact that Burroughs got caught up in the hype of the Long Hot Summer to be evidence of just how close to the edge of total destruction things seemed in 1968. That brief window in which one could drop the flower pot of revolution would explode and shatter in a supernova of violence, wasted chances and disillusionment, but The Dead Star captures a flickering moment when change in art and change in society was all but assured. A dying star burns brightest and Jan’s monumental pamphlet still shines over four decades later, even if its revolutionary fire has been replaced by the aura of the art object.