William S. Burroughs & the Wreckers of Civilization
by Matthew Levi Stevens
Sometime in 1973 William S. Burroughs received in the mail to Duke Street an apparently irate letter, complaining:
“Dear William S. Burroughs, I’m so tired of you and Allen Ginsberg exploiting the fact that you know me – telling everybody just so you can get into parties free. Will you please cease and desist?”
A little while later he received a small booklet called To Do With Smooth Paper, which he acknowledged with a postcard. Subsequently, he received a shoebox containing a plaster-cast of a left hand, minus the thumb, on which had been written “Dead Finger’s Thumb.” Intrigued, Burroughs wrote back, and before long was extending an invitation to visit to a young man going by the unlikely name of Genesis P-Orridge.
Born Neil Andrew Megson in Manchester in 1950, the psychedelic prankster and would-be Beatnik who called himself Genesis P-Orridge had discovered the Beats when an English teacher going by the nickname “Bogbrush” had introduced him to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and then shortly thereafter he found a copy of Burroughs’ Dead Fingers Talk in a motorway services shop. This was in 1965, and before long young Megson, like so many others of his generation, was busy turning on, tuning in and dropping out as fast as he could: growing his hair, hitchhiking to London to see The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, and spending time in the commune of David Medalla’s Exploding Galaxy. By the early 70s, Megson had become Genesis P-Orridge (changing his name legally by Deed Poll) and had thrown himself with abandon into the newly-emerging world of Be-Ins, Happenings, and Performance Art — with a sideline in collaged Mail Art.
In April 1972, an arts collective in Toronto calling itself General Idea started to issue a magazine called File (a satire on Life), which included a kind of contacts section catering to the international Mail Art scene, in which artists and writers could request imagery to work with, named “The Image Bank” in a nod to Burroughs’ Nova Express. It was inevitable that P-Orridge would come across a copy in London:
I was looking through it and noticed “William S. Burroughs, Duke Street, St. James” and his request was for “Camouflage for 1984.” And I thought “oh, he won’t still be at this address, but I’ll send something anyway” and so I sent him a small book of about 30 pages, and each page was hand drawn calligraphic collages, and it was called “To Do With Smooth Paper” — and I was really shocked, about a week later I received a postcard that said “Thank You for the smooth paper, William S. Burroughs” — Shock horror, and excitement all at once! And I thought “wow, he really exists — and he writes back, too!”
Around this time P-Orridge was visiting London from the North of England, preparing to relocate, and would stay in the studio space of an artist friend Robin Klassnik. (As it happened, the address was 10 Martello Street, in Hackney, the basement of which would later become Throbbing Gristle’s rehearsal-cum-recording space, the infamous “Death Factory.”) After the incident of “Dead Finger’s Thumb” — apparently a cast of the left hand of the folk singer Donovan (although P-Orridge says “the story of how I acquired that isn’t that important!”) — there had been a further exchange in which P-Orridge sent Burroughs the phone number of his London friend. Arriving for his next visit a couple of weeks later, Klassnik informed P-Orridge:
“Some stupid bloke rang up asking for you, pretending to be William Burroughs — so I told him to piss off and put the phone down on him!”
Eventually, after a further exchange, Burroughs wrote to P-Orridge, sending his phone number and instructing him that the next time he was coming down to London he should call, arrange to get a cab round to Duke Street, and Burroughs would pay for it.
And so it was that on his next visit P-Orridge found himself whisked from Victoria Station in a taxi to Dalmeny Court, Duke Street St. James, and upstairs to the small, spare flat. The lift opened straight into the hall, which also contained an Orgone Accumulator. In the small living room there was a desk, filing cabinets, and a typewriter — more like an office where somebody worked than a home in which they lived, P-Orridge thought. There were Brion Gysin paintings on the wall, the first P-Orridge had ever seen, a photo of Allen Ginsberg with the stars-and-stripes top-hat, and a pen drawing that P-Orridge had sent, which he was touched to see that Burroughs had put a hand-woven Moroccan ribbon around. There was a colour TV with a remote control — also the first P-Orridge had ever seen — a Sony tape recorder, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels.
There was also a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Mick Jagger, which prompted P-Orridge to ask “Why did you do that stupid interview with David Bowie?” — to which Burroughs replied “Advertising!”
Burroughs had a live-in companion, a young Irishman called John Brady, that he had met cruising nearby Piccadilly Circus and invited to move in with him. Says P-Orridge:
…he was living in London, and it was an Irish hustler called John who was sharing the apartment with him — who used to hang out in Piccadilly, y’know, doing something or other sexually to get money! And William always seemed to prefer young hustlers because there was no need for an emotional attachment. There was no danger of being embroiled beyond a controllable point. So I think that that was one of the reasons that he began to almost exclusively look for sexual pleasure among professional young hustlers. There was too much fear of pain to go into a relationship, a form of love.
It could be a precarious arrangement at the best of times, with the middle-aged writer often at the mercy of his Dilly Boy’s drunken temper, but for today things were civilized enough: Johnny “the Sailor” staying long enough to meet P-Orridge and take a photo of him and Burroughs together before going out, leaving them alone to talk.
My very first question to him, a living, breathing, Beatnik legend in the flesh was… “Tell me about magick?” …William was not in the least surprised by my question. “Care for a drink?” he asked.
P-Orridge had asked Burroughs whether or not he still used cut-ups in writing, and he replied “No, I don’t really have to anymore, because my brain has been rewired so it does them automatically!” Putting on the TV to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E., he explained “Reality is not really all it’s cracked up to be, you know…” and began hopping through the channels on the TV with the remote — at the same time mixing in pre-recorded cut-ups from the Sony tape-recorder — until P-Orridge was experiencing a demonstration of cut-ups and Playback in Real Time, Right There Where He Was Sitting:
I was already being taught. What Bill explained to me then was pivotal to the unfolding of my life and art: Everything is recorded. If it is recorded, it can be edited. If it can be edited then the order, sense, meaning and direction are as arbitrary and personal as the agenda and/or person editing. This is magick.
Burroughs went on to describe his theories about the pre-recorded universe, quoting Wittgenstein, and describing with obvious relish his experiments with tape recorders at both the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 and, closer to home, on the streets of London, where he used “Playback” to wage psychic warfare against the Scientology HQ and the infamous Moka Coffee Bar. In addition to the street-recordings, cut-up with what he called “trouble sounds” (i.e. police sirens, screams, sound effects of explosions and machine-gun fire taped from the TV), Burroughs had also taken photographs of his targets. As part of his explanation, he showed P-Orridge one of his journal scrapbooks in which he had posted two photos: a simple black & white street-scene, with the relevant building clearly visible, and then another beneath it from which he had carefully sliced out the “target” with a razor-blade, gluing the two halves of the photo back together so as to create an image of the street with the offending institution removed. The same principle could clearly be applied to photos of people that you wanted to “excise” from your life, he said.
After much talk of street-recording and playback, working their way steadily through the hard liquor, eventually they went for a meal — Burroughs taking P-Orridge to dinner at the nearby Aberdeen Steak House on Haymarket. “They had all these foreign waiters, and they were all like ‘Good eeevening, Meester Weelliam’ — and it was just like something out of one of his books!”
P-Orridge states that Burroughs’s closing remark to him that first meeting was “How do you short-circuit Control?” and later memorialised the meeting in a poem that he sent, illustrated with a drawing of “Uncle Bill,” to the Mail Art magazine Quoz, which in part reads:
Poem for Uncle Bill:
UB who UB
Supposedly an evil power
An old man
Sometimes it showed
Till it slurred
Passing a Rolls Royce
E promise to buy you one
Complete with chauffeur
We agreed to eradicate
A few phenomena and parted.
A legacy of that first encounter that would have a major bearing on P-Orridge’s next project was Burroughs’ use of tape recorders. Forming the group Throbbing Gristle with Chris Carter, Peter Christopherson, and then-girlfriend Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge would help to invent a new genre of music that they dubbed “Industrial.” The idea was to strip back music even further than the “back-to-basics” of Punk to create a kind of Garage musique concrète, in which the processing and manipulation of found sound was a key part of the semi-improvised mayhem that was as often sonic assault as it was about the alchemy of sound. Their launch at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London’s The Mall saw an unprecedented backlash in the press in response to their confrontational shock tactics and uncompromising “anti-music.” The Daily Mail of 19th October 1976 infamously quoted the Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn that “These people are the wreckers of civilization!”
P-Orridge’s bandmate Peter Christopherson, operating in a defiantly “non-musician” capacity, was also an aficionado of Burroughs. The discovery of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch at the back of W. H. Smith’s one rainy Saturday afternoon had been a revelation to the 13 year old boy. Certain from a very young age that he was a homosexual but feeling stifled by his academic family background in the North of England, he would say later, quite simply, “It changed my life!”
A talented photographer who helped to design high-profile rock album covers as a day-job, in his spare time Christopherson delighted in taking photos of young male friends in what appeared to be compromising situations, carefully staged. One particular set of images was for his friend John Harwood’s boutique “Boy,” which appeared to show youths beaten and bloodied by Skinhead thugs. Another was an early set of promo photos for the Sex Pistols, taken in the public toilets at the YMCA — apparently declined by Malcolm McLaren because they made the band look “too much like psychotic rent-boys”. These kinds of extracurricular interests had earned Christopherson the affectionate nickname “Sleazy” from his bandmates — a nickname that would endure with friends and later fans throughout his life. When it came to Industrial Music, his role in Throbbing Gristle completely bypassed conventional instrumentation of any kind. Inspired by Burroughs, he would enthusiastically apply and develop such ideas as he had read about in The Job and Electronic Revolution with found sound and loops, frequently cutting up recordings live, from prepared tapes and treated radio and TV sources.
In 1977, Christopherson was in New York on business and visited Burroughs at The Bunker, taking with him a portfolio of his “boy” photos. Burroughs was really enthusiastic about the images, and talked about wanting to incorporate them in a book alongside the text he was then working on, Blade Runner. (“Nothing to do with the film,” Christopherson made clear.) Regrettably the publisher wouldn’t run to the expense. Nonetheless they bonded over a bottle of vodka, Christopherson later recalling: “I remember getting very, very drunk with him… and it was one of those times where you could sit for a long time and not say anything and feel OK about it. Maybe that has something to do with the place, which is a converted YMCA…”
But he also had a more practical idea: “I suggested that it would be great to release a record of his original cut-up recordings… we really wanted people to be able to hear what they actually sounded like.”
Genesis P-Orridge had also been suggesting the same idea:
I thought of doing the LP in 1973, it was about the first thing I suggested to him when I met him. And I wrote him letters suggesting it again and again and again for the following eight years, and suddenly one day James Grauerholz wrote back and said “Okay.” Just when I thought he was never going to do it!
So eventually it was agreed, and arrangements were made for P-Orridge and Christopherson to go over to Lawrence, where in the middle of the summer heat they spent a frantic and humid week in a motel room with inadequate air-conditioning, a rented Revox tape-recorder, going through a shoebox full of old tapes. By all accounts the actual tapes were in a pretty poor condition, and it sounds like they were duplicated for posterity not a moment too soon. As P-Orridge told Vale in an interview for Re/Search:
He just agreed to us taking the tapes away, fifteen hours of them, and editing them down to an LP. It’s a good job we got them, ’cause they were recorded over twenty years ago and the oxide was actually crumbling off the tapes as we held them.
The album, titled Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, came out in May 1981 on Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records label, serial number IR0016. It was a significant release. There had been previous records of spoken word from William S. Burroughs, starting with the classic Call Me Burroughs issued by the English Bookshop in Paris in 1965 and reissued the following year on the ESP label; and then in 1971 a recording of Burroughs reading a draft of Ali’s Smile was released in a very limited edition of only 99 copies. But this was the first time that recordings of the actual cut-up experiments with tape would be made available.
It would also be the final release on the Industrial Records label, followed by the demise of Throbbing Gristle later that year. Notifying their fans and followers with a simple postcard, reading “Throbbing Gristle: The Mission Is Terminated,” in many respects things had come full circle for the Wreckers of Civilization: passing on the baton to the next generation with the challenge, example and inspiration of the cut-up experiments of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.