William S Burroughs:
1972, cult US writer William S Burroughs subjected the Moka coffee
bar to weeks of para-psychic bombardment - 'playback' - involving
the making of recordings and pictures. Eventually, it closed
and was taken over by the Queen's Snack Bar.
on, Wild Bill's hex induction programme seems as potent as ever:
after a decade of this site photographing and archiving old London
cafes, the majority of them have now gone for good. Playback
is a bitch...
FEEDBACK FROM WATERGATE
TO THE GARDEN OF EDEN
"I have said that the
real scandal of Watergate is the use made of recordings. And
what is this use? Having made the recordings as described what
then do they do with them?
ANSWER: THEY PLAY THEM BACK
They play these recordings
back to the target himself is the target is an individual from
passing cars and agents that walk by him in the street. They
play these recordings back in his naborhood. Finally they play
them back in subways, restaurants, air ports and other public
PLAYBACK is the essential ingredient.
I have made a number of experiments
with street recordings and playback over a period of years and
the startling fact emerges THAT YOU DO NOT NEED SEX RECORDINGS
OR EVEN DOCTORED TAPES TO PRODUCE EFFECTS BY PLAYBACK. ANY RECORDINGS
PLAYED BACK ON LOCATION IN THE MANNER I WILL NOW DESCRIBE CAN
No doubt sexual and doctored
tapes would be more powerful. But some of the power in the word
is released by simple playback as anyone can verify who will
take the time to experiment ...I quote from some notes on these
Here is a sample operation
carried out against The Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street London W1
beginning on August 3, 1972 ...Reverse Thursday ...Reason for
operation was outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisoned
Now to close in on The Moka
Bar. Record. Take pictures. Stand around outside. Let them see
me. They are seething around in there. The horrible old proprietor,
his frizzy haired wife and slack jawed son, the snarling counter
man. I have them and they know it.
"You boys have a rep for
making trouble. Well come on out and make some. Pull a camera
breaking act and I'll call a Bobby. I gotta right to do what
I like in the public street."
If it came to that I would
explain to the policeman that I was taking street recordings
and making a documentary of Soho. This was after all London's
First Expresso Bar was it not? I was doing them a favor. They
couldnt say what both of us knew without being ridiculous...
"He's not making any documentary.
He's trying to blow up the coffee machine, start a fire in the
kitchen, start fights in here, get us a citation from the Board
Yes I had them and they knew
it. I looked in at the old Prop and smiled as if he would like
what I was doing. Playback would come later with more pictures.
I took my time and strolled over to the Brewer Street Market
where I recorded a three card Monte Game. Now you see it now
Playback was carried out a
number of times with more pictures. Their business fell off.
They kept shorter and shorter hours. October 30, 1972 The Moka
Bar closed. The location was taken over by The Queens Snack Bar.
Now to apply the 3 tape recorder
analogy to this simple operation. Tape recorder 1 is the Moka
Bar itself it is pristine condition. Tape recorder 2 is MY RECORDINGS
of the Moka Bar vicinity. These recordings are ACCESS. Tape recorder
2 in the Garden of Eden was Eve made from Adam. So a recording
made from the Moka Bar is a piece of the Moka Bar.
The recording once made, this
piece becomes autonomous and out of their control. Tape recorder
3 is PLAYBACK. Adam experiences shame when his DISCRACEFUL BEHAVIOR
IS PLAYED BACK TO HIM BY tape recorder 3 which is God.
By playing back my recordings
to the Moka Bar when I want and with any changes I wish to make
in the recordings, I become God for this local. I effect them.
They cannot effect me. And what part do photos take in this operation?
Recall what I said earlier about written and sopken word. THE
WRITTEN WORD IS AN IMAGE IS A PICTURE . The spoken word could
be defined as any verbal units that correspond to these pictures
and could be in fact be extended to ANY SOUND UNITS THAT CORRESPOND
to to the pictures ...
Recordings and pictures are
tape recorder 2 which is access. Tape recorder 3 is playback
and 'reality'. For example suppose your bathroom and bed room
are bugged and rigged with hidden infra red cameras. These pictures
and recordings give access. You may not experience shame during
defecation and intercourse but you may well experience shame
when these recordings are played back to a disapproving audience."
William Seward Burroughs
1914 - 1997
Burroughs was born into an
upper-middle-class Midwestern family shortly before the outbreak
of World War I.
His Yankee paternal grandfather
helped to perfect the adding machine, while his Southern maternal
uncle did public relations for John D. Rockefeller and Adolf
Later, information technology,
media manipulation and politico-economic despotism would be among
the most regular targets of Burroughs' aggressive satire.
He attended Harvard from 1932
to 1936, where he became aware of the writer who would prove
to be his anti-type, fellow St. Louis native T.S. Eliot. Upon
graduation Burroughs' parents sent him on a European tour, during
which he began to study medicine in Vienna.
Prior to becoming a professional
writer, Burroughs worked regularly as a pest exterminator, and
imagery drawn from that job appears in many of his novels and
memoirs. He also studied anthropology and occasionally fenced
stolen goods and sold narcotics, all experiences that led directly
to his experiments with and later addiction to morphine and heroin.
He considered much of his work
to be a "mythology for the space age" that would suggest
alternative visions of living to people trapped in the plastic
nightmare of addictive global capitalism.
Burroughs died of a heart attack
on 3 August 1997 at the age of 83; English novelist J.G. Ballard,
a long-time devotee of Burroughs' work, praised the "weird
genius" of his "magnificently paranoid imagination"
and eulogised him as "the most important and original writer
since the Second World War".
William Seward Burroughs outlived
his contemporaries and his disciples, survived addiction and
poverty, death, infamy and even his final adoption as a Grand
Old Man of American Letters to have the last dry, rasping laugh
in his familiar monotone drawl.
Burroughs is, one of the most
influential post-war writers in english; he casts his long, lean
shadow over literature, science fiction, rock music and film-making
without ever losing his terse, laconic nihilism .
Burroughs was a paradoxical
rebel. He was born the son of a wealthy businessman - his father
invented the adding machine and revolutionised business - and
grew up in the heart of middle American suburbia in St, Louis,
Missouri; where he felt like an outsider. He would be an outsider
all his life.
He was certainly not a drop-out
-he studied English at Harvard, but he found his home with drop-outs,
criminals, rentboys and poets as the lynchpin of the Beat generation.
He met Kerouac, Cassady and Ginseberg in New York and group swelled
to include junkies and poets. He was ten years older than the
others, and became their mentor.
His intelligence and his love
of danger contrasted with his "strange because ordinary-looking"
conservative persona. His library became their reading list:
Celine, Cocteau, Spengler. A year later, he was an addict and
remained one on and off for the rest of his life.
Burroughs was homosexual. He
was not gay, he hated his homosexuality, and thought it a weakness,
but he was reconciled to it. When Ginsberg talked of 'becoming'
straight, Burroughs was contemptuous. A man had to be true to
himself whatever he was.
Burroughs was a romantic nihilist
- sex was something violent and tender in his head, in life he
was romantic, vulnerable, obsessed. Once, when a boyfriend left
him, he cut off the joint of his little finger with a secaturs,
stanched the wound and put the finger in his pocket.
He fell in love with Ginsberg, but the relationship never worked.
His continual doomed relationships with inappropriate people
led to his ambiguous relationship with Joan Vollmer. They, had
a son, Billy, and moved to Texas but Burroughs had begun to loathe
America and the 'family' moved to Mexico City.
Bill and Joan were addicts.
He forged prescriptions to get morphine, drank heavily, carried
a gun and slept with mexican rent-boys. In 1951, Joan was killed
in an accident when they were loaded, playing their "William
Tell game" Bill shot her in the head.
Burroughs claimed her death
conjured a demon in him and made him a writer. Queer , describing
their life in Mexico, was published in 1952, as a 'cautionary
tale' about the evils of drugs. But Burroughs, encouraged by
Ginsberg to "hold nothing back" made his real debut
with "Naked Lunch".
It's impossible to describe
the shock the book created. There is no narrative, simply episodes
played out by characters fantastical and . It was - though few
recognised it - a grotesque Pilgrim's Progress; a debauched Heironymous
First published in Paris by
a pornographer, later by Grove Press in the US, it was the subject
of the last great American pornography trial. Burroughs was championed,
by Norman Mailer, as "the only living American writer who
may conceivably be possessed of genius".
His writings came from his
dreams and his life. He was living in Tangier and the sweltering
hole of pushers, paedophiles, junkies and corrupt cops fused
with his imagination and his sexuality to become a land he called
Interzone, using "cut-ups" - literally, cutting up
and rearranging at random and rewriting the new text - and "fold-ins"
- folding other writings: novels, newspapers, wherever, into
his work . It was, as Anthony Burgess wrote, as though "someone
who has looked into hell and reported what he saw".
Burroughs early books caught
a sense of paranoia, of conspiracy and of excess that was wild
and perversely liberating. He bacame a rock icon before rock
existed. His writings were a savage, blackly funny satire on
power and excess.
He was attracted to rock life
- though he was indifferent to the music - as it was attracted
to him. Paul McCartney was the first to encounter Burroughs at
the recording sessions for Revolver, but others followed to sit
at his feet - literally in Lou Reed's case, who sat tongue-tied
Burroughs was fascinated and
bored by them. He thought Reed dull, arrogant and boorish. Mick
Jagger was disciple - more out of fashion than real enthusiasm
- and was set to collaborate on a screen version of Naked Lunch
in 1969, but thought better of it, and ended up in Performance.
Bands borrowed their names
from Burroughs' work: The Soft Machine (Burroughs name for the
human body) and Steely Dan (a dildo in Naked Lunch). Bowie was
fascinated by Burroughs cut-up techniques and used them in his
By the arrival of punk, Burroughs
was the natural grandfather of all punks. He was anti-establishment
establishment. He craved power and loathed it, he thought Democracy
'cancerous' and everyone an agent of power hunger factions.
He himself was "an agent
of Hassan I Sabbah, the master of the universe (Nothing is true,
everything is permitted)." Punks flocked to him for wisdom:
David Byrne came and Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.
He wrote lyrics for Patti Smith, who became a friend, admiring
what she called "the most brilliant mind in the world".
Frank Zappa who had met Burroughs
many times and read the "talking asshole" sequence
at a benefit gig later tried to produce Naked Lunch as an off-Broadway
Burroughs later books, though
dreamlike and nightmarish by turn, were less explosive. There
were standard plots: Cities of the Red Nights was a bizarre thriller,
The Place of Dead Roads a hallucinatory western, but his imagery
remained fertile and was pillaged by punks and metalheads, and
hugely influential in the beginnings of grunge.
Thurston Moore was a devoted
fan who made his pilgrimage, Kurt Cobain was another awed disciple.
There were other, stranger collaborations: notably Spare Ass
Annie where Burroughs read stories and Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy
created the soundtrack and a singular, musical collaboration
with Tom Waits: The Black Rider.
Burroughs was paranoid and
desperate to control his world: he flirted with the supernatural,
psychoanalsis, anything that offered power, even Scientology,
and he is the least-read, most-influential writer of his time.
His imagery has seeped into film and music, into novels and dreams,
into the way we hallucinate the world.
The Moroccans called him el
hombre invisible :a man so ordinary he could walk by without
being noticed; he has moved through our culture in his estate-agent's
suit and left traces in every mind his work has touched.
Melody Maker, June 97)