Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#6 – Call Me Burroughs LP – The English Bookshop (1965). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
Your finger runs along a series of spines searching for a hot track. Ah, there is one. You pull out the sleeve. A few taps. Lift the arm. Drop the needle. The snap, crackle and pop, this hiss are a prelude; there is an air of anticipation. Then you slump back as the warm sound that can only come from vinyl washes over your entire body and soul. The lives of vinyl junkies are full of ritual. Like with Bukowski collectors, I am envious of those deeply into music.
I have a friend who is a major Beach Boys collector specializing in the band’s formative years. He has been chasing those good vibrations for decades. His collection formed the basis for an obsessive and exhaustively researched book on the topic. I find that his level of obsession is not unusual among those drawn to the siren song of popular music, be it 78 collectors, Beatlemaniacs, Dylanologists, or punk enthusiasts. I just finished reading The Dylanologists, a book about those who worship at the Church of Bob. Dylan was no sub-genius and his legions of followers (usually dudes) are fucking touched alright. Hey, I realize I am a Burroughsian and may be perceived as over the top, but these guys are downright insane. That is how it is with obsessives, you always compare yourself to the other guy and you never consider yourself “that guy.” You always assure yourself that your personal quirks are normal. At least you are not a weirdo.
That said I am extremely envious of “that guy” and his dedication, drive, and passion. There are those who build a life with and around collecting. They archive to survive. Then there are those who have burnt out in their efforts to prevent history from fading away. Preservation leading to self-destruction. Like many, I am fascinated by the cult of 27: Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Not surprisingly I find the self-destructive aspects of collecting darkly seductive. Hording is alluring. Like a car crash.
I am not a vinyl junkie. Of course, I have a small collection of vinyl. Who doesn’t? A mix of the Velvet Underground, Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones, the MC5, the Stooges, the Fugs. But the majority of my collection is spoken word. Let’s be clear there is no dedication, drive, or passion behind this collection. I largely gathered what I did in a relatively short period of time, mostly out of boredom. I was sick of waiting for little magazines from the mid-1960s like Chicago Review, Albatross or Icarus. In fact, I am still sick of waiting for them. For the collecting junkie, such nausea is a form of withdrawal that only possession of the item in question can cure. I have a friend who is a vinyl dealer and he had some Burroughs LPs: “Jed, you interested? Wanna taste?” Why the hell not? Wouldn’t you? What harm could it do? Everybody else does it, why shouldn’t I? This led to collecting spoken word albums generally. For a little while I got pretty into it but then inevitably I ran into some stoppers. The Dot Kerouac LP, the Burroughs Ali’s Smile. And that sickness seeps in again. I could not wrap my head around spending thousands of dollars on a piece of vinyl. Now, a book dealer I know recently had a form letter on Dot letterhead that instructed record retailers to send back or destroy any copies of the Kerouac LP they may have received in error. I have written about the story of this elusive LP; it is legendary, mythic, but there was never any firm documentary evidence about the event surrounding its destruction. Only anecdotes and hearsay. Well, here is evidence; here is Exhibit A. I find this sheet of paper much more interesting than the Kerouac LP itself. Let’s face it, I am a paper guy, but there are some days I wish I was a taper. Reading The Dylanologists confirms this impulse. I want to be touched like that.
Do not get me wrong I have a fair representation of Burroughs on vinyl, CDs, and even some cassettes, but I have never, ever felt compelled to chase down every single instance of Burroughs’ voice that was recorded. For me, I encountered Burroughs’ voice on paper (and in my head) while reading Naked Lunch in the summer of 1990. That event changed my life. But just as important as Burroughs’ writing is to his popularity, the seductive power of his voice cannot be underestimated. It could be argued that dropping the needle on a Burroughs LP injected Willy Lee into mainstream consciousness as much as any of his novels. There is no denying the appeal of his voice. It is the voice of a barker or a preacher. Or a grifter. As Ian MacFayden has demonstrated in an incredible essay, this voice is the most important element of the Burroughs con. Is there some guy whose whole life revolves around the sensation he feels when a Burroughs record spins? Somebody out there with a comprehensive archive of Burroughs’ voice — all the known recordings? And is he feverishly chasing down any hint of an undiscovered recording? This would be a world of bootlegs and tape trading, like that which exists with The Grateful Dead or Dylan.
And what would be the ultimate Burroughs LP? What if? Oh, how I love the impossible and improbable. What if there was an acetate of the Real English Tea Made Here LP prepared for release on Zapple? Not impossible. Zapple was the experimental arm of the Beatles’ Apple label. Two LPs appeared on May 9, 1969, George Harrison’s Electronic Sound and John and Yoko’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions. The Quiet One’s record actually charted at 191 on Billboard. Barry Miles ran Zapple and he was focused on spoken word. LPs by Lenny Bruce, Richard Brautigan, Charles Olson and Charles Bukowski were planned. In some cases, even recorded. The Brautigan, Olson and Bukowski LPs appeared on other labels over the years. When Allen Klein, the evil manager of the late Beatles, gained control of their financial affairs one of the first things he did was shut down this flight of fancy. Yet for a brief moment, there was a world of possibility. Ian Sommerville was hired as an engineer and Burroughs conducted sound experiments in the Zapple studios, much like the field recordings that were eventually released as Real English Tea Made Here by Miles in 2007. I would love to have seen these recordings released on Zapple.
For me the ultimate Burroughs LP is the first one: Call Me Burroughs as issued by The English Bookshop in 1965. The LP was reissued by ESP, a weird and wonderful label in its own right, the following year. For many at the time, it was the ESP disk and the ritual of listening to Naked Lunch and Nova Express as much as reading them, which got one truly hooked on Burroughs. Bernard Stollman’s brother Steve was traveling in Paris in 1965 and he negotiated the deal to bring the Burroughs LP to American listeners. In many respects, ESP is like the Olympia Press of vinyl. First of all, Stollman, like Girodias, was slow to pay and knew his way around a contract (interpret “around” as you will). Stollman was a lawyer and he has become the executor of several estates of jazz greats. ESP dealt not so much with the obscene but with the obscure and arcane, which as Louie, Louie demonstrates is often considered the same thing by the FBI. Stollman claimed ESP was under government surveillance. Stollman’s label captured on vinyl the type of music that in many cases would have been lost without his effort, initiative and financing. Acid jazz and acid folk-rock above all. Sun-Ra and the Fugs were two of the more well-known artists on ESP and they give some idea of the type of sound that Stollman preferred. ESP, named after Esperanto, the universal language, not extra-sensory perception, specialized in weird sounds and the weirdos who made them. Burroughs fit right in.
That said, I am partial to the Gait Froge issued LP with its associations to Burroughs’ early readings in Paris at 42 Rue de Seine (Call Me Burroughs was recorded by Ian Sommerville in the bookstore) as well as to the traditions of bookshops issuing LPs, like the Better Books Ginsberg LP from the same time period, and a little later the Unicorn Bookshop, which issued Ali’s Smile. Derringer Books continues this tradition today with his Wallace Berman LP. I view the English Bookshop LP as a sonic mimeo mag or better yet a zine. ESP viewed their LPs in a similar manner as evidenced by their East Village Other LP, which attempted to recreate the underground newspaper experience on vinyl. The Beatles, and Paul McCartney in particular, were very interested in this concept and Zapple was in large part created to make this happen with International Times as a model.
Call Me Burroughs was done on the cheap, DIY with a small run. Artists taking control of their own production. Distribution was not organized or even important. What mattered was that the LP existed; Burroughs’ voice was preserved and the LP was out there. Again “out there” in all its aspects. Those who needed it would no doubt find it, if they were not on the mailing list already. A decade later punk would operate in the same way. Garage rockers, like The Kingsmen, pioneered such operations in Burroughs’ day. Bookshops and garages. They are hangouts, practice spaces, and, performance spaces. Ultimately, they are alternative artists’ spaces.
I wish I could say that I wore out the grooves out on my copy of Call Me Burroughs and that I know every line by heart, but I spend more time reading and looking at the LP than listening to it. The photo of Burroughs on the front cover is iconic, as classic as that of any LP of the entire 1960s. I would put it in a list of top ten LP covers from the era. Jim Pennington has provided a little peek in on the mystery that is Harriet Crowder, who took the pic in 1960, which makes me appreciate the LP all the more. The linear notes by Jean-Jacques Lebel and Emmett Williams place Burroughs in the context of concrete and sound poetry, which again is just right. Oliver Harris in the Crowder exhibit catalogue does a great job capturing the excitement of the LP and the associations to be made in the liner notes. Call Me Burroughs is a poetry reading and has elements of performance art. Lebel through his father Robert links Burroughs to Marcel Duchamp. For someone who advocated achieving silence, Burroughs sure spoke volumes. Who knows but on the lower frequencies, that Burroughs speaks for (and to) you? Anybody out there have any feedback?