Tag Archives: William Burroughs

Comics at the British Library

Action 1976-77, by Jack Adrian and Mike White. Action, used with permission from Egmont UK Ltd.

The British Library’s current exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art And Anarchy In The UK is one of their best for a while. A thematic study of seditious comics in the UK, it covers a lot of ground without over-cramming – a consistent fault of BL exhibitions to date. And while exhibitions devoted to books can get a little frustrating – essentially, you are staring at hundreds of book covers you cannot read – comics work perfectly as you can read a single page and at a glance grasp an awful lot about the concept from the artwork and a couple of panels, such as this from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s London classic From Hell.

From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell published by Knockabout Ltd. 1999 (c) Knockabout

Another plus is that the exhibition never makes excuses for its content matter so we are spared yet another analysis of why comics are for grown-ups. Instead it shows that comics have always been for grown-ups, right back to George Cruikshank (whose work is presented in a tremendous juxtaposition with an OZ strip about Edward Heath). The exhibition also takes a bold step by looking at the historical inspirations for comics writers’ love of magic and fantasy, with exhibits including John Dee’s spell book, the first draft of Crowley’s Diary Of A Drug Fiend and one of his tarot cards. These items are somewhat tenuous, but they are also marvellous and suggest an area a future BL exhibition could explore.

Original painting of Aleister Crowleys tarot card 'The Universe', on loan from The Warburg Institute. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

There are several items with particular London resonance or import. I was fascinated by Riot, a book written in the immediate aftermath of the 1981 Brixton riot about which I’d love to know more. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of Batman with Spring-Heeled Jack. There were also several contemporary strips, including Janette Parris’s Arch, about life in Archway, and Katriona Chapman’s contribution to Ink + Paper about renting in modern London. Oh, and there was a comic written by William Burroughs during his London sojourn.

Riot

Riot

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack

IMG_2515

Other countercultural exhibits included a beautifully bound copy of IT, with the cover a reprint of a Situationist comic the publishers had found stuck on their office door (or a lamppost, I forget which) and a comic about the Nasty Tales trial, the IT spin off that was charged with obscenity.

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973, cover art (c) Dave Gibbons and Richard AdamsThere’s also loads of stuff on Batman and Superman, with particular reference to the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, while Moore’s Lond0n-set V For Vendetta is a recurring motif. And there’s a decent amount of 2001, including Judge Dredd’s helmet and a never-reprinted Judge Dredd strip about a war between fans of Burger King and fans of McDonald’s – featuring a psychotic Ronald McDonald – that has never been reprinted for fear of a law suit. I also learned that tedious busybody Dan Dare of the Eagle had originally been created as an intergalactic space vicar, which probably explains why I never much liked the man.

Judge Dredd's helmet loaned by DNA Films - producers of 'Dredd'. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

Now do you want to hear the flaws? There were only three I really noticed. One was the design, which was never quite as weird and psychedelic as I’d have liked (though that may be why I am not an exhibition designer). Another was that there wasn’t enough about the artists, who while by no means neglected were never quite given the attention and praise they deserve. And finally I’d like to have seen more about the development of the grammar and rules of comic book art – how artists have torn up the traditional episodic, thought-and-speech-bubble panel-based framework – which was addressed only superficially towards the end. These though, are little more than quibbles. Go see.

V for Vendetta mask on a manequin in Comics Unmasked. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

 

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Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Beats in London

When Ned Polsky wrote Hustlers, Beats And Others his pioneering sociological study of the Beat subculture as it was in 1960, he was scathing of their literary value. ‘Most beat literature is poor when it is not godawful,’ he opined. ‘And this is certainly true of its best-publicised examples, which have been surpassed by even the minor Victorians: James Thomson’s poetic howl of urban despair, The City of Dreadful Night, is greater by far than anything Ginsberg offers, and in on-the-road literature the genuine gusto of George Borrow is preferable to the faked-up fervour of Kerouac.’

Stinging stuff – and that faked-up charge must have hurt – but times change, and while the Beats are still an acquired taste, one can’t image George Borrow being the subject of a special exhibition at the British Library, as is currently the case with Jack Kerouac.

On The Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll is a small but welcome look at the basics of Beatery, offering an overview of the main protagonists – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso (the only one Polsky rates) – and trying to explain where they fitted within the American literary tradition. The exhibition is illustrated by photographs, many of the American landscape as explored in On The Road, but also of the writers themselves. I particularly liked this shot of William Burroughs, dressed like a fugitive Nazi, hand shielding eyes from the sun as he stares back with clinical impassivity. Burroughs is possibly the most photogenic writer there has ever been.

The main exhibit, though, is the extraordinary scroll on which Kerouac wrote a key draft for On The Road. You do not have to like the book – and I don’t, particularly – to appreciate the sheer thrilling insanity of this object, 120 feet of closely typed pages, filled with ‘spontaneous prose’ and occasional pencil marks. I have never seen a manuscript like it.

Kerouac’s second novel has been described as the book that ‘started
a whole new youth culture of which drugs were an accepted part’, so sodden is it in dope and speed. It was based on a series of road trips Kerouac took with
Neal Cassady (the pair are reinvented as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively) between 1947 and 1950, and most of the characters are based on Kerouac’s friends. Mythology states that it was written in a three-week
splurge fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, but Kerouac actually began it as early as 1948, when he also came up with the title. He spent a while searching for a voice, but eventually settled upon a stream-of-consciousness, jazzy, impressionistic style. This was inspired by a 40,000-word letter written to him Cassady, a charismatic sociopath described by his biographer as ‘a slim hipped hedonist who could throw a football seventy yards, do fifty chin-ups at a clip and masturbate six times a day’. Cassady was trouble; he was also said to have ‘one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known’, by a friend of writer Ken Kesey.

Kerouac sat down to write his famous ‘scroll’ draft on 2 April 1951 on a 120-feet sheet of paper that had belonged to Bill Cannastra, a wild-living friend who had been decapitated after sticking his head out of a New York train window.
Kerouac spent many years rewriting the manuscript as he tried to find a publisher, and it was eventually brought out by Viking in September 1957 – Kerouac belatedly considered renaming it Rock and Roll Road
to catch the spirit of the time – and immediately received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, which claimed it was ‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat’.

On The Road is one of the most important books of the post-War era, but it’s questionable how much it influenced English culture given that it is such a specifically American book on such an American topic written in the American vernacular. London was more taken by Burroughs and Ginsberg, both of whom would spend extensive time in the city while Kerouac only visited for a few days in the 1940s when serving in the Navy. By 1959, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Horovitz and the rest of the British counterculture scene were soon discussing, publishing, imitating and eulogising the Beat poets. 

Being more of a philistine, though, I prefer the exploitation stuff. Tony Hancock frequently mocked Beatnik culture, notably in The Poetry Society.

Hancock: You see, Sidney, we are a collection of kindred spirits who are all revolting against the Establishment.

Bill: How long have you been at it?

Hancock: Three days.

I also like Colin Wilson’s often sardonic but hugely charismatic novel, Adrift In Soho, which has that time-honoured plot of a young ingenue coming to London and getting drawn into a curious sub-culture, in this case the Beats. It is apparently currently being made into a film.

But the pull of the Beats, that desire to be different, was probably best expressed by Hancock again, in the opening scenes to his film, The Rebel. ‘Where are we going?’ It’s what Kerouac was asking, and it’s what Hancock wanted to know as well. Well, where?

Bowie, Burroughs and the stage production of Ziggy Stardust

In December 1973, Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas brought together David Bowie and William S Burroughs in London for an interview. The piece was published in February 1974, around the time Burroughs returned to America, having finally had enough of the English climate and licensing laws. A wonderful photograph by Terry O’Neill captures the two icons together.

The interview itself isn’t quite as captivating. Bowie had only read one of Burroughs’ books (Nova Express), while Burroughs had only listened to two of Bowie’s songs (“Five Years” and “Starman”). This is my favourite exchange:

Burroughs: What is your inspiration for writing, is it literary?

Bowie: I don’t think so.

Burroughs: Well, I read this “Eight Line Poem” of yours and it is very reminiscent of TS Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

During the two-hour conversation in Bowie’s home, Bowie did most of the talking. At one point he discusses in length his plans for a theatrical or television production of Ziggy Stardust, which had been released two years before (and in June 2012 celebrates its 40th anniversary).

It’s worth repeating this section in full, as it is one of the fullest explanations of the story behind the Ziggy concept.

Bowie: Nova Express really reminded me of Ziggy Stardust, which I am going to be putting into a theatrical performance. Forty scenes are in it and it would be nice if the characters and actors learned the scenes and we all shuffled them around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just performed it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night.

Burroughs: That’s a very good idea, visual cut-up in a different sequence…. Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All The Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole on stage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.

Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman”, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

Burroughs: Yes, I can believe that. The parallels are definitely there, and it sounds good.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein of the 1970s never collaborated, unfortunately. You can read a full transcript of the Bowie-Burroughs interview – including discussions of German porn, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, science fiction and Mick Jagger (‘Jagger is most certainly a mother figure. He’s not a cockadoodledoo; he’s much more like a brothel-keeper or a madame,’ says Bowie) – here.

William Burroughs and the strange demise of London’s first espresso bar

In 1953, a momentous event occurred in Soho. London’s first proper coffee shop – one equipped with a Gaggia coffee machine – opened at 29 Frith Street. This was a place where teenagers too young for pubs could come and gather, and it is said by some that the introduction of this coffee bar prompted the youth culture explosion that soon changed social life in Britain forever.

Inside the Moka Bar

The Moka was an instant success, selling over a thousand cups of coffee a day. The author John Sutherland recalls, ‘the Gaggia machine, a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster, would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence.  It would be swamped with steamed-milk foam and dusted with chocolate to form its ‘cappuccino’ hood… Glass cups and brown sugar (lots of it) were de rigueur.  Frankly, 50s espresso was no taste thrill.  But it felt smart as hell.’

By 1972, coffee bars where everywhere and the teenage revolution was firmly established. At this time, the author of ‘Naked Lunch’, former junkie and all-round Beat legend William S Burroughs was living in London, quietly going about his business in St James’s. He lived in Dalmeny Court, Duke Street, and loved the plush gentlemen’s shops of the area, not to mention the ‘Dilly Boys‘, young make prostitutes who hustled for clients outside the Regent Palace Hotel.

Although Burroughs was fond of the finer things in life – he got his shoes from John Lobb, hat from Locke’s and bought most of his food in Fortnum and Mason’s – he did at some point stumble into the Moka Bar, and was not impressed by what he found.

Burroughs and friend Brion Gysin in London

Burroughs at this time was getting sick of London – sick of the licensing laws, sick of the crap food and small drinks, sick of the weather, the terrible service and sexual hypocrisy. He was also sick of the Moka, which he believed responsible for an ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’.

The Church of Scientology, Fitzroy Street

Burroughs decided to mount a sound-and-image attack. He had previously launched one of these against the Church of Scientology, of which he had been a member, turning up at their headquarters at 37 Fitzroy Street every day, taking photographs and making sound recordings. He believed that ‘as soon as you start recording a situation and playing them back on the street, you are creating a new reality’ and that repeated exposure to such an attack would lead to ‘accidents, fires and removals’. After a few weeks, the Scientologists did indeed move, round the corner to 68 Tottenham Court Road.

Photo taken by Burroughs during the operation

On August 3, 1972, Burroughs turned his attention to the Moka. He would stand outside every day taking photos and making recordings by tape, and then return the next day to play the previous days recordings. Burroughs was convinced he was winning. ‘They are seething in there,’ he said. ‘I have them and they know it.’

On October 30, 1972, the Moka Bar closed.