Today, February 5th is William S Burroughs‘ birthday. He was born in St Louis, Missouri, on February 5th, 1914. We feature today a reading that he gave at Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, August 9 1983, reading selections (mostly) from his recently-completed novel, The Place of Dead Roads. The transcription will be given in two parts, the first part today, the second tomorrow. For more Burroughs on the Allen Ginsberg Project – see, for example – here and here
Audio for this reading may be heard – here
WSB (following unrecorded introduction): Well I have indeed… can you all hear me? – Yes – I have indeed given a number of readings here and I never am quite sure whether I’m repeating myself or not, but I’ll be trying to interleave in some new material. Those of you who heard Peter Orlovsky’s radio plug about Hassan-i–Sabbah [sic].. He was a spiritual leader, not a chieftain in the usual sense. He was the head of the Isma’ilian sect here (which still exists) and he taught assassinations of carnate demon opponents as the way to paradise for Western Man (which, however, is not to be conceived as a permanent paradise). His modus operandi was to place one of his agents in proximity to the potential opponent and then, when the enemy made a move against Hassan-I-Sabbah, the agent, activating from a distance, assassinated the target. So the Old Man held the Fortress in Alamut (that’s what’s now? Iran) for forty years, against all comers, with about three hundred followers.
I’ll be reading mostly from The Place of Dead Roads, a novel I have just completed. The original title of this book was The Johnson Family. “The Johnson Family” was a turn-of-the-century expression that designates good bums from thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honored his obligations. His word is good and he’s a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. Now this planet could be a reasonably pleasant place to live if everybody could just let everybody mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago, “Some people are shits, darling”. I was never able to forget it.
I recollect Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville and your reporter sitting at a table in Tangiers having a coffee, and then a man walked by, Spanish, middle-aged obviously poor, shabbily dressed and carrying one of those nameless parcels wrapped in brown paper. Nothing special, no halo, but our mouths dropped open in unison. “My God! that’s a harmless looking person!” He passed. I never saw him again but I got the message. That man was a Johnson. He shone with a holy light, in contrast to others of another persuasion who seemed to dominate and populate the planet, rushing along to the police station to lodge a complaint or inform on someone, leaving little squirls and squiggles of hate and fear and malevolence in the air behind them, literally kept alive by the hope of doing some harm to somebody. And then the vision of a man, a reasonably well-intentioned person, a Johnson. The book postulates that man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to stagnate in present form any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole (I’m speaking here, of course, of biologic not religious design, our imperative). This species is in a state of arrested evolution. So my protaganist sets out to organize the Johnsons into a world-wide space program, and he soon finds himself in conflict with very powerful and deadly forces.
“Old man Bickford, cattle, oil, real estate. He owns a big piece of a big state, one of the poker-playin”, whisky-drinkin’, evil old men who run the United States of America. To these backstage operators, presidents, ambassadors, cabinet members are just jokes and errand boys. They do what they are told to do, or else. His subordinates never know why they have fallen from favor. That is for them to figure out. Jess Sanford knows he’s in trouble for no reason when The Old Man steers him into a little side room with one chair. The Old Man sits down and smiles. – “Yunno, Jess, I got an intuition about you – I think you’d make a mighty fine President.” – Jess turns pale, “Oh no, Mr Bickford, I don’t have the qualifications!…” – “I disagree with you I think you do have the qualifications – you got a good front and a big mouth.” Now Jess knows he talked too much in front of the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong place. “Please, Mr Bickford… I got a bad heart. The job would kill me!” – Bickford’s smile widens. “Think about it, Jess, just think about it. I wouldn’t want to see you make a mistake.”
Mr Hart, a newspaper tycoon who’s obsessed by immortality, his own of course, and solidly based on the mortality of others, acting on the simplistic assumption that death cannot die, he sets out to be death. He learns to kill through his newspapers and he teaches his editors the tricks, as they crawl up his ladder. “Now, you jes’ move this tenement file over here and fry some more niggers”. Chuckling over roasted babies, car accidents and riots, like a Southern lawman feeling his nigger notches. (You see the action, B.J. this ol’ (Southern tycoon) with his dark side and scary shit).
Mr Hart has two house rules, his showplace. Everybody must appear for dinner exactly at eight p.m, not one minute later, and the word death may never be mentioned in his presence. Kim wangles an invitation and turns up for dinner fifteen minutes late in a skeleton t-shirt. ”I’m afraid he has no sense of humor” Kim decides.
Mr Hart decides that Kim and the Johnson family pose a vile threat to his immortality which he sees as a shining inviolate thing. Hart, Bickford and many others, for a variety of reasons, paw the ground uneasy, like animals smelling danger. From royal families to snake-handlers, to the moral majority and temperance unions, to the mafia, from John Birchers to snippy-eyed tea-cup faggots, from the super-rich to rednecks, the Pentagon, the Kremlin, multinational corporations, the Klu Klux Klan, the Vatican, intoning in unison. “He must be stopped.. He’s making waves”
Kim remembers his father’s last words – “Stay out of churches, son. And don’t ever let a priest near you when you’re dying. All they got a key to is the shit house. Swear to me you will never wear policeman’s badge.” Kim decides to go west and become a shootist.
Kim training as a shootist begins – He meets a wise old assassin, Whispering Kes Mayfield – “Uncle Kes, This is Kim Carsons”. – The old man spoke in dead dry whisper. ”Yeah, your eyes know a lot more about shootin’ than you do. yeah. Just learn to stand out of the way. City boy, did you ever see a dog roll in carrion?” – “Yes sir, I was tempted to join him, sir” – “Did you ever see a black snake pretend to be a rattlesnake? – “Yes sir, he coiled himself and vibrating his tail in dry leaves. Brrp! – “Kim, if you had your choice, would you rather be a poisonous snake or a non-poisonous snake?” – “Poisonous, sir, like a green mamba or spitting cobra” – “Why?” – “I’d feel safer, sir” – “And that’s your idea of heaven?, feeling safer?” – “Yes, sir” – “Is a poisonous snake really safer?” – “ Oh, not really in the long run, but who cares about that, he must feel real good after he bites someone” – “Safer?” – “Yes, sir, dead people are less frightening than live ones. It’s a step in the right direction” – “Young man, I think you’re an assassin”
A special meeting to reconsider our Mafia policy. Present directives advocate containing the animal in a folkloric ghetto of godfathers, red wine and garlic and button men wallowing on their filthy mattresses. Let them burn each other’s olive oil, throw dead rats into rival pasta vats, and murder each other with impunity. These simple people have a rich folklore. A similar policy was advised by a knowledgeable anthropologist with regard to a headshrinking and feud killing among the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador. He recommended that no attempt be made to control or sanction these practices, since their culture would languish without the sustaining incentive of ritual warfare. And he concluded his report “They have nothing else to do”. Now feuding will keep a man occupied a whole rich, satisfying life so he can belch out with his last breath like a fulfilled old Mafioso don – “Mmm, Life is so beautiful!”
One old fuck has shrunken down fifty-two heads. Back to the simple basic things… life in all its rich variety of an old shit house, when a man knowed where his ass was. Those were the days, eh? Singing waiters, hit-men, wise old dons belching garlic.
A trembling waiter serves the table of button men from the rival Calamari family. They spit clam spaghetti into his face. “That isn’t our pasta!” They shove wads of pasta down the throats of the terrified uptown diners. “Is especialitay from the maison!.. Wha’sa matter with you? Is not nice?” They storm into the kitchen overturning caldrons of spaghetti. The cook sobs head in hands, ”Mia spaghetti! Mia spaghetti!” The insult must be avenged a la Siciliana. “I’ll Santa his Lucia!”, growls the offended capo. Hit men impersonating singing waiters invade the Santa Lucia restaurant. Swaying from side to side like drunken sailors they bellow out “Santa Lucia” as they slop boiling minestrone over the guests and throw spaghetti into the air like streamers. The bestial retarded son of the capo beats three Calamari to death with a baseball bat, chasing them through the restaurant, spattering the horrified diners with blood and brains. “Life is so beautiful! Why you go home?” “SANTA LUCIA” They bow to the empty restaurant. Our policy has only been then to contain the honored society in its self-decimating urban concentrations and to head off any legislation designed to make liquor, drugs and gambling illegal, thus opening the door to a flash of gold teeth and evil belch of garlic. Now it seems we will teach them to stay on their own side of the fence.
Kim makes the Grand Tour – Kim’s first impressions of England are unfavorable. Porters and hotel clerks defer to his clothes and his luggage and they don’t see him. He says the whole thing is designed so that nobody sees anybody else, you know, and it’s all based on accent. “Well it’s convenient, isn’t it” – only in a petrified context where people would camp out for three days to glimpse the royal couple, where one store clerk refers to another as his “colleague” – my god! People know their place. God save the Queen and a fascist regime, which is a flabby, toothless fascism – Never go too far in any direction is the basic rule on which Limey-Land is built. Meanwhile, the Queen stabilizes the whole stinking shithouse and keeps a small elite of wealth and privilege on top. What English creature in the middle of nova strata does not see himself having tea with the Queen, “oh, quite at ease, you know”?
Kim was meeting Tony in Hyde Park. He got out of the cab and looked about him with loathing at the brown water and the listless ducks, the dirty scruffy pigeons. Kim was a few minutes early for his meet with Tony. It’s always advisable to get there early for an operative meet like this and check things out – Trade craft, you know. Maybe I should feed the fucking pigeons to be less conspicuous or cruise one of the obvious guardsman in civilian uniform of cheap lumpy blue suits. Most of them looked suety and stupid and deeply vulgar , the vulgarity of the spirit that only a class-rotten society can mould. No doubt about it, these are the lower classes.
Kim had thought of a country house or a shooting lodge in Scotland and he decided against it. They had forced him into a loathsome Lord of the Manor role and hows-your- wife’s-cold whimsy, or get him out altogether. Always consider the tenants when you buy on foreign soil. You’re on their turf. They were there before you came and they will be there when you’re gone.
The old Chateau – from Kim’s diary – An old Gentleman was standing by the fireplace. At the sight of me his aristocratic features lit up and glowed with incandescent charm. “Ah, you’re the young American, how glad I am to have this assignation with you. The old Count seized both my hands in his. You must come and stay with us – the Countess and me – in the old Chateau – ““Enchanté, charmé, oui oui“ – You must you must you must – “oui oui, oh yes, charmed” – “You must – but you absolutely must!” . He looked deep into my eyes with a quiet intense charm. The slimy old Count de Vile has his chateau on an island of garbage in a stagnant lagoon that reeks of sewage and coal gas. Once I arrive, there is no escape as the old turnkey showed me his rabbit hutches and asparagus beds and bee-hives and pigeon-coops and cider presses, stopping every few feet to talk with his retainers. Faint from hunger, I muttered appreciatively. Finally le Comte takes my arm, steering me inextricably back to the old Chateau. “And now would you like to see our portrait gallery, of course you would, how thoughtless of me not have suggested it before doing this rather long lull. You see the servants always eat first. It’s a family tradition going back to the Borgias. There’s an interesting story connected to it”. Five hours later we sit down to dinner. The old Count looks at me quizzically as he hones a boning knife with which he will shortly cut paper-thin slices from a seasoned local ham. I say, “Ah, something to eat at last”, but the ham is destined for a breakfast retainer.. His beautiful old hands more deftly under the flickering candlight, his voice clear and cold . “Our recipie for jugged hare dates back to the Crusades, there is an interesting story that is recorded in our family archives. I’m sure our young American guest would like to hear it while he enjoys our modest country hare”. At this point, the jugged hare materializes on my plate, a loathsome reeking mound of blackened jelly Clearly, not only the recipe but the hare itself dates back to the Crusades. I can feel his dirty footmen moving closer and brutally tellng him that his stinking hare is fit only for the consumption of an underprivileged vulture. Le Comte’s gaze was glassy as he points to me playfully with his boning knife. “Perhaps our young American friend is so accustomed to buffalo meat that our modest, unassuming little hare is beneath his notice?”. Three footmen breathing down my neck, I choke down that putrid paste of a dead animal. Invitations to the old chateau, Kim decides, must be used with extreme caution and close attention to escape routes.
to be continued