Rock Stars

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

William Burroughs and Patti Smith in blowjob position

An installment in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

Let’s start with a category of photos that does not make the list: Burroughs and rock stars. So let’s go all Casey Kasem and put on blast all those pix of Burroughs and Patti Smith. Why the fuck does it look like that Patti is always trying to give Uncle Bill a blowjob? Head on his lap waiting for the command to kneel and deliver. Patti, why must you prostrate yourself before Bill like he is your domineering pimp? I understand that Burroughs’ pimp hand, which was his writing hand, of course, was strong as fuck, but, Patti, you should lie down for nobody. Anyone who put on wax an album as sublime as Horses is the equal of any artist in any genre.  

William Burroughs and Patti Smith standingIn another photo, Smith stands behind Burroughs. Is Patti standing up for herself? The woman behind the throne. The true source of power behind a doddering king. That would be an interesting reading and one I would welcome, but there is not an element of command on Patti’s part; this is more like the stereotypical stand-by-your-man stuff. Patti as loyal but submissive wife. That song is so played out; Patti, you can and have done better. Do you remember how you transformed and transcended “Gloria” and made her your own? Smith is a creative force of nature and has taken on gods and fought them to a standstill on their own turf before.

Guitar Solo as Porno

Guitar as woman
Listen to her wailin’
Picasso was an asshole
I heard a
Rich man say
As Hendrix
Ate a peach
At Monterey
Tribbing as tribute
Hot shot frottage
At the Old Grey
Whistle Test
Punks thought
Patti was a turn on
Even if she was not
Plugged in
I do not care
What they say
She sure
as hell
Made some noise

Why should Burroughs be treated any differently? When Patti first came to New York City she aspired to be a groupie and Burroughs was one of her great love affairs. A one-way street for poor Pats. I know, I know, the adoring fanboy is part of Patti’s shtick, be it Keith Richards, Arthur Rimbaud, or Burroughs. I do not find this cute because when you look at the photos of Burroughs and Patti, it is so obviously a pose. The pictures are as staged as reproductions of a crime scene. And Patti the Poseur is Patti at her worst. At the Nova Convention, the real Patti came out bearing fangs, as when she threw a hissy fit upon learning that Frank Zappa was the headliner and she had to have her ego stroked before her performance. Patti knows she is the Queen Bitch to Burroughs’ Godfather of Punk. So why the annoying routine on Patti’s part? Would it be so terrible if there was a pic of Burroughs kissing her bare ass in the toilet stall at CBGB?

William Burroughs and Kurt CobainAnd that is what is so grating about some of the photographs of Burroughs with rock musicians. The air of submission of them all. It is borderline S&M-type shit. For Kurt Cobain to come bearing a giant hypodermic needle across his shoulders, crawling on his bloody knees, and lovingly placing his burden upon Burroughs’ doorstep in Lawrence gets to be too much when you know there have been hundreds of lowly pilgrims before him. Cobain was not a mere follower; he was not a bottom to Burroughs; he was a trailblazer who changed the course of rock music forever. He took his source materials and made them his own. There should be no anxiety of influence with Kurt, nor with Patti for that matter. But no doubt this anxiety exists and it has a powerful hold on all those who came searching for Burroughs. Just ask Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Michael Stipe and so on and so on.

William S. Burroughs and Madonna

And then there are those who bask in Burroughs’ presence trying to get some of his shine. I think of all the sucker fish hovering around the Great White Burroughs looking for some chum. Madonna and Bowie are the biggest offenders here. In the Rolling Stone interview and photo session, Bowie is trying so hard to get some of Burroughs’ spotlight that you swear you can see his glam make-up streaking down his face. And Madonna, well, you just expect her to vogue her ass off, but the pic of her and Burroughs is such an obvious attempt on Madonna’s part to get away from the kid’s table and sit with the adults. She is hoping for some legitimacy and authenticity but the pervading sense that the entire scene was staged for the paparazzi destroys all possibility of hat.

William Burroughs and Mick JaggerI have to respect Mick Jagger. In the photos of him and Burroughs, there is a definite sense that Jagger does not really give a fuck who Burroughs is (if he even really read Burroughs in the first place) and that Jagger views himself as the alpha male lording over the Bunker like a visiting dignitary. The British royalty bit played to the max. I also like the photo of Burroughs and Joe Strummer. Joe is just hanging out having a beer, shooting the shit, like the good ole boy he was. Joe Strummer, pub rock til the day he died!!!

William Burroughs and Joe Strummer (photograph by Victor Bockris)

The photos of Burroughs with rock stars are some of the most famous and iconic pics of Burroughs that exist. These are the shots that are thrown up repeatedly on Facebook and Instagram. The clickbait that generates likes and emojis, but there is no real content here. They are the product of a celebrity culture that, sadly, Burroughs himself courted. Personally I do not believe that Burroughs cared little for the rock star attention and merely played along to be nice. Burroughs played the role of Pope and Godfather much too well. Burroughs as Godfather of Punk is a star turn worthy of Brando. Burroughs enjoyed the offerings of expensive drugs and empty platitudes and dare I say he became seduced by a celebrity culture that overtook the latter part of his career. The Burroughs of the fabricated collectible. The Burroughs of Nike and Gap ads. MTV videos. Burroughs became a rock star himself. Living in a world of photo ops, meet-and-greets, and lip-synched concerts. By the end one thinks of Joe Louis, former champion of the world, greeting gamblers at a Las Vegas casino. Burroughs once a contender to the crown of the Greatest Living Writer reduced to a curiosity to be gawked at. The pics of Burroughs with rock stars are a harsh reminder of how far Burroughs had fallen from the days when he was el hombre invisible and yet seemed to be present everywhere including the placement of his mysterious, elusive image on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. This was a side of Burroughs that could not be fully captured on film. A presence just outside the frame, captured as mere shadow, not a pop culture celebutard fully exposed (and exploited) in front of the camera.

William Burroughs and his shadow

Read further installments in The Visible Man: A Coffee Table Zine of Photographs of William S. Burroughs

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 6 April 2019.

4 thoughts on “Rock Stars

  1. I never think of Genesis as a rock star and to be honest he totally slipped my mind in writing this. It is a good point. There are many photos of Burroughs and Genesis out there. But I see Genesis as a performance artist who works with music. I also think that the fact that Genesis saved, preserved, and put out Burroughs’ audio experiments in Nothing Here Now But the Recordings makes Burroughs as much in Genesis’ debt as the other way around. You cannot say that for too many rock stars if any.

  2. Quite harsh judgements here, I think, particularly regarding Patti. I see doting daughterly affection, warmth. (People do give blow jobs out of love, sometimes, on rare occasions. Not all devotion is cloying). Burroughs looks generally disinterested alongside rock stars- Cobain a lost boy in the presence of a diffident, distant grandfather. The Bowie and Jimmy Page pics are not present, very much meetings of equals (and studio shots). Nor is the snap of a Lou Reed, on a visit to The Bunker, who offended William, by Victor Bokris’ account – the forced smiles in this one are quite amusing, when one knows the context. Isn’t Madonna beautiful in the image, radiant. By the 1990s of course, it was required that William Burroughs name be dropped by all and sundry, but by then one could simply watch Drugstore Cowboy and get a handle on the media package of trenchcoat, hat, drugs, deviancy – and, presto, one’s indie band suddenly acquired more gravitas than The Wonder Stuff or similar. Burroughs was a Rock Star himself – his Image preceded him. He has a big hit debut (actually second album), then spends the advance on drugs and other pursuits prohibited by the accepted adult processing, and delivers increasingly experimental follow-ups.

  3. Your point on Patti is noted and one I have heard from more than one reader. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Be on the look out for a post on a great Patti Smith item where I revisit my Rock Star piece.

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