Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The Date: February 14, 1965
The first thing I think about when I consider William Burroughs’ St. Valentine’s Day Reading is the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. On that date, five members of the Bugs Moran Gang and two others were shot at SMC Cartage Company on the North Side of Chicago mostly likely under the orders of Al Capone. The crime was never solved.
Burroughs was fascinated by the underworld and no doubt the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre played into his reading in 1965, which featured a tape-recorded version of the last words of Dutch Schultz. Schultz was murdered at the Palace Chophouse in Newark by Mendy Weiss and Charlie “The Bug” Workman in 1935. Famously, Schultz slipped in and out of consciousness for 22 hours after the shooting as police stenographers recorded his dying words. Burroughs viewed the transcript as a natural cut-up. The cut-ups were all about revealing hidden links — ones that Burroughs believed were a form of prophecy and time travel.
While writing about Dutch Schultz, Burroughs was pleased to discover that Schultz had arranged the murder of Mad Dog Coll in 1931 on 23rd Street. Coll was 23 years old. Dutch Schultz died on October 23, 1935 and Charlie Workman served 23 years of his life sentence before he was paroled. The number 23 haunted Burroughs and he kept a scrapbook dedicated to the number. This interest in numerology began when Burroughs met a Captain Clark in Tangier who piloted a ferry to Spain. Clark navigated the route for 23 years without incident, yet after talking to Burroughs the ferry sank. That same night a flight from New York to Miami, Flight 23, crashed. The plane was piloted by a Captain Clark. And the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred on 2122 North Clark Street.
Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the death of Joan was also on Burroughs’ mind as he dictated the dying words of Dutch Schultz on St. Valentine’s Day? St. Valentine’s Day was not associated with romantic love until Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s linked the day with the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Later, as the day became increasingly commercialized, the martyred St. Valentine was tied to marriage as well. A priest during the reign of Claudius, Valentine secretly arranged marriages for young soldiers to their brides despite the fact that Claudius had outlawed such ceremonies. Claudius discovered Valentine’s secret ceremonies and had him executed. Further embellishments suggested that the doomed Valentine wrote the first Valentine’s Day card to his beloved on the eve of his execution. Thus St. Valentine became a martyr for marriage. As I have suggested in my piece on the death of Joan, the William Tell shooting can be viewed as a perverse wedding ceremony, a shotgun wedding of sorts in which Joan is sacrificed on the altar to free Burroughs from family obligations into a life of creative freedom. Joan may have been, like St. Valentine, a martyr tied to love and marriage.
Much has been made of the fact that the last words of Dutch Schultz fascinated Burroughs due to its cut-up qualities, but equally haunting is the forgotten fact that Joan did not die instantly after she was shot. Accounts vary but it is generally agreed that Joan clung to life for up to an hour. She received blood transfusions in an effort to save her life. As Joan was shot, she emitted a death rattle like a snore. She lost consciousness, but possibly, like Dutch Schultz, she muttered some last words in her final hour. If she did speak on her death bed, Burroughs did not transcribe her words. Did she curse her killer? Did she say good-bye? Maybe she remained silent. What is clear is that Burroughs did not speak of it.
The Time: Sunday 4:00pm
The American Theatre for Poets held poetry readings on Sunday afternoons. Plays were performed on Saturday nights. Given that Burroughs’ reading occurred not just on Valentine’s Day but on a Sunday, the liturgy comes to mind. Dutch Schultz died at the age of 33, the same age as Christ. “The Priest they called him.” Is the fallen Burroughs giving a Black Mass? Is he asking for forgiveness for his sins? Or is this all coincidence?
Venue: American Theatre of Poets at the East End Theater on 85 E. 4th Street, near Second Avenue.
East 4th Street was known as Off-Off Broadway Row, the epicenter in New York City for experimental theater. The Fourth Street Theatre, located at 83 E. 4th Street, housed theater productions and poetry readings. The New York Theater Workshop was at 79 E. 4th Street. In 1958, the Royal Playhouse was located at 62 E. 4th Street. La Mama Experimental Theatre Club was at 74A E. 4th Street. La Mama became a landmark, staging work by Diane Di Prima, Harold Pinter, and Sam Shepard among others.
The American Theatre of Poets evolved out of the New York Poets Theatre, which had been established by Alan Marlowe, James Waring, Leroi Jones, Diane Di Prima and others to provide an outlet for drama, poetry and dance created by the multitude of artists in their circle. By 1965, the theater specialized in one-act plays by New York School poets accompanied by set design by a host of local artists. The American Theatre moved around a bit, but found a home at 85 E. 4th Street, The Downtown Theater. By the time Di Prima and company moved in, the theater was renamed The East End Theater. The building was actually the Ukrainian Labor Home, a home base for Ukrainian socialists. Known around the neighborhood as the Ukrainian Dance Hall, the tenement building had a large dance hall on the first floor, and a bar and a club upstairs. The American Theatre for Poets rented the dance hall, which held about 129 people. The bar would be open at intermissions. Burroughs read in this dance hall. Alan Marlowe spent quite a bit of energy fixing the space up and Frank O’Hara declared that it was “a jewelbox of a theater” on par with European art theatres. Today, the KGB Bar and the Red Room Theater are at this location, continuing the long tradition of experimental poetry and theater at this location. The KGB bar has a nice history of the location.
Burroughs’ return to the East Village must have come with bittersweet memories. In 1953, Burroughs had stayed in Allen Ginsberg’s third-floor apartment (No. 16) at 206 E. 7th Street in the shadow of St. Brigid’s Church and near Tompkins Square. It could be argued that Burroughs the writer was conceived here and not in Mexico City. In this cramped apartment, Queer and The Yage Letters were put together with Ginsberg’s assistance and the initial notes to Naked Lunch were jotted down. The view from the fire escape proved pivotal in the development of Interzone and The Composite City. Yet ultimately, the Lower East Side must have been a place of great sadness for Burroughs, since Ginsberg had rejected his “tired, old cock” here, thus spurring Burroughs into exile in Tangier. Maybe that is why Burroughs stayed in the Chelsea Hotel and the financial district (210 Centre Street) during his return to New York in 1964/1965. There were too many ghosts haunting the Lower East Side.
In the 1970s, Burroughs would live six blocks south at 222 Bowery. Leroi Jones and Hettie Cohen (Jones’ first wife) lived right around the corner from the Theatre at 27 Cooper Square at 5th Street. In 1965, Jones would leave Cohen and his children to become a black radical. He would relocate to Harlem. Diane Di Prima lived at 35 Cooper Square. She had an affair with Jones in this period and had a child with him. The Floating Bear was edited and published in this apartment.
The American Theatre for Poets issued a program to be distributed at Burroughs’ reading. It is a simple mimeo publication that looks just like an issue of Floating Bear. I suspect Diane Di Prima printed them up on her mimeograph. Around this time, Di Prima acquired an offset press and began Poets Press. The press operated out of 35 Cooper Square. The Beautiful Days was the first publication of the press with poems by A.B. Spellman and an introduction by Frank O’Hara. Di Prima self-published Seven Love Poems from the Middle Latin and Huncke’s Journal in 1965. The program, however, is clearly mimeo. The paper has a nice shimmer to it as silver sparkles appear on the paper. The seven-page program reprinted the official deathbed transcripts of Dutch Schultz as transcribed in shorthand by police stenographer F. J. Lang. As a result, I do not consider this version of Dutch Schultz an original Burroughs piece. Interestingly, the transcript of the last words of Dutch Schultz had appeared in The New York Times in 1935. In a sense, the paper of record printed a cut-up years before Gysin and Burroughs rediscovered the technique. This is hinted at in the Burroughs program, which concludes with a reprinting of The Coldspring News. This cut-up piece had appeared in a newspaper three-column format in The Spero in 1965. The version published in the program is not in the original three-column format but the references to the newspaper remain in the title and the listing of Burroughs as editor.
On Saturday February 13, 1965, the American Theatre for Poets presented New York poet Barbara Guest’s play, Port: A Murder in One Act (collected in the June 2008 issue of Chicago Review). According to Di Prima, production for this play was disorganized at best and subsequently Di Prima became more involved in directing the plays. By 1965, the plays of the American Theatre were more East Coast, more New York than ever before. I wonder if the selection of a murder-mystery was a comment on the mysterious circumstances of the William Tell shooting?
The next day Burroughs read selections from Naked Lunch and Junkie, but the most interesting part of his reading was the tape-recorded cut-up derived from the deathbed ravings of Dutch Schultz intercut with news articles on Vietnam and air crashes. This reading shows Burroughs at his most Pop. Harry Gilroy, reviewing the reading in the New York Times, describes the audience’s shock and nervous laughter. In reviewing another Burroughs reading at Wynn Chamberlain’s apartment in April, Gilroy again focussed on the bewildered audience reaction. At this time, Burroughs was interested in Happenings and participated with Brion Gysin and others in such events.
Gangster funerals, airline crashes, and Vietnam. Sound familiar? It should. The Dutch Schultz recording echoes the Death and Disaster series initiated by Andy Warhol in 1962 and concluded in 1965. Burroughs’ obsessions parallel Warhol’s closely. The Dutch Schultz cut-ups make me think of Warhol’s Gangster Funeral (1963) or his Electric Chair silkscreens. The 1962 silkscreen 129 Die in Jet touches on Burroughs’ fascination with airline crashes, such as that involving Captain Clark. Furthermore 129 Die compares in form and content with Burroughs’ scrapbook pages, particularly Tornado Dead: 223. Warhol used a June 4, 1962 Daily Mirror front page for this silkscreen. In fact, Warhol used newspaper and magazine imagery for much of the Death and Disaster series. In this period both Warhol and Burroughs manipulated and detourned mass media images for artistic and political effect.
For me nowhere are the similarities between Burroughs’ and Warhol’s artistic obsessions more noticeable than in Warhol’s Death and Disaster thermofaxes of 1964-1965. Much of this imagery came from tabloids. This is Warhol at his most literary and most involved with the New York literary scene. Warhol thermofax work appeared in Fuck You, a Magazine of the Arts (the infamous Couch cover) and in connection with New York poets like Ron Padgett (2/2 Stories for Andy Warhol) and Ted Berrigan. Berrigan published C: A Journal of Poetry, and Issue 9, which featured Burroughs’ work, was published on the day of Burroughs’ reading.
The Death and Disaster thermofaxes were collaborations between Gerard Malanga, who provided poems, and Warhol, who provided the images. These pieces merge text and image much like Burroughs’ cut-up scrapbooks such as Time or APO-33. The Dead Star by Burroughs as published by My Own Mag or Jan Herman‘s Nova Broadcast reads like Burroughs’ spin on Warhol’s Death and Disaster thermofaxes. Unpublished and largely unseen Burroughs works of the period have even more of a Warholian feel. “Birdie Does the Watching” or “Sturdy Steel Snap-Tight,” pictured in the landmark and hugely important monograph Ports of Entry, in particular, have the gritty, raw photocopy look of Warhol’s thermofaxes.
At one time, Warhol was closely involved with major figures of The American Theatre for Poets. Alan Marlowe and Diane Di Prima were filmed by Warhol and entered Warhol’s circle, but the major point of intersection was dancer Freddie Herko, an intimate of Warhol, Marlowe, and Di Prima. Herko committed suicide in his final “performance,” dancing out of Johnny Dodd’s apartment window on October 27, 1964. Warhol had little to do with the members of the American Theatre after Herko’s death, and this suicide served as an end of an era for the New York art and dance scene, much like the shooting of Warhol would for the art and film scene in 1968.
Despite the fact that by 1965 Warhol had moved on to other interests, I see Warhol present at least in spirit at Burroughs’ reading at The American Theatre. Perhaps those silver flecks on the cover of the program are a sly reference to Warhol. Probably not. I must admit that I consider Warhol and Burroughs the most interesting and important artist and writer of the post-WWII era, particularly in the 1960s. I find the Death and Disaster series to be Warhol’s finest achievement and the cut-ups of the same period to be Burroughs’ creative pinnacle. In short, I see Burroughs and Warhol everywhere. In that case, the program serves as a mirror, and my own interests and obsessions are merely reflected back from the mimeographed page.
At the reading, a tape was recorded of Burroughs. It is unclear to me if this refers to the Dutch Schultz tape itself, a recording of that tape, or a selected recording of Burroughs’ other readings on that day. It is merely a selection and not the whole reading. OU, a magazine run by Henri Chopin, which published the Electronic Revolution in 1971, issued a 10? LP in 1972 and 1973, which includes this recording. The 1972 LP (OU Revuedisque 40-41) provides 10’15” or 9’45” (accounts vary) of Burroughs’ reading on Side A and was included in each of the 500 copies of the magazine. The 1973 LP (OU Revuedisque 42-43-44) contain a slightly shorter portion of the reading at 8’40” and was tipped into the each of the 500 copies of the magazine. Like Aspen, OU came in a box and was a multimedia affair. In both cases, LPs were available separate from the magazine. In 2002, the complete recordings of OU were released on 4 CDs (1500 copies), which contain both versions of the reading. I have tracked down a standalone copy of OU Revuedisque 40-41 (roughly 75 copies were available in this format), which also contains recording of J.A. da Silva, Brion Gysin, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin.
The program for the reading was reprinted in whole or in part in little magazines on rare occasion. Those that I am aware of include:
Krea Kritiek 5 (May 1965) (The Transcript of Dutch Schultz)
Intrepid 14/15: The William Burroughs Special (Winter 1969) (the entire program)
If anyone attended the Valentine’s Day reading and has photos or reminiscences, please contact RealityStudio to share. Thank you.