Nothing Here Now But The Recordings: Listening to William Burroughs

About a month ago I was in Berlin. Every night I had a very strange dream. I was watching an American chat show filmed in front of a live audience. Except it wasn’t live, not exactly, but had the woozy shimmer of an old videocassette.


After a storm of applause James Brown appeared and began to shriek and grunt just like he did when he was alive, like a kettle on fire. Only these were not his usual yelps and squeals, those familiar words he tricked out into sound effects, ‘Baby! Please! Come on!’ They were names and areas taken straight from the fiction of William Burroughs. Like an evil emcee he called out for the Subliminal Kid, the Mugwump Crew and everybody out there in Interzone. There followed a blizzard of noise, sitcom whoops and shrieks of pleasure. The Godfather of Soul, in my dream, was back from the dead. I hadn’t read Burroughs for a long time but this dream became a brainworm, a loop that would never stop, a needle stuck in the same spot forever. I had never exorcised him completely: Burroughs had been echoing around my head. I had never felt the need to go back because he haunted me, appearing in films and on records, when I dreamed and when I woke and inside all the dislocated, hazy states I entered into at his word.  I wanted to go back into the Interzone now, which still glowed in my memory like radioactive waste, to repel the ghost of my dream. After hearing James Brown scream, I began to think of Burroughs’ work as a set of recordings, full of strange and fascinating sounds: a cacophony of gunshots, static, wolf howls, radio noise, joujoka pipes or, cutting randomly into Naked Lunch, ‘explosions of matter in cold interstellar space’. Somewhere, for an encore, James Brown listing them all like the symptoms that appear with nightmarish clarity on the bodies of Burroughs’ phantom junkies or, in his own slow and threatening drawl, describing toxic substances made by occult systems sinister beyond words. Transcribing Burroughs’ ghostly sounds with the care of the addict laying out his spike, junk and spoon would provide a record of his work but not the kind that excites me. Burroughs’ work is fascinating because he hears the future and finds hidden noises in the writing of the past. He taps into the illicit frequencies of a strange and frightening world. Stay tuned, coming up, we listen to the recordings of William Burroughs, tracing their echoes in the past and future. We go, just like the voice says, through the silver smoke of dreams.


Burroughs spoke often, in a soundbite pirated from Wittgenstein, about the pre-recorded universe and a reality made up of master tapes. Playing the tapes of literature back in the reality studio, we can trace phantom calls in Burroughs’ voice. Hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the nod from opium, taking in a vision like a radio receiver, transmitted out of who knows where, a dream poetry that vanishes like smoke as he wakes: it is the pleasuredome of Kubla Khan, and on this tape you hear a ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’. Coleridge can’t get it together so all we hear is a partial recording. The dome was never built in air. Cut into the tape of The Tempest where Caliban describes the narcotic ‘noises of the isle’ in a moment of drunken reverie. With their tranquilising sound effect they ‘give delight and hurt not’. Listen to the ‘weird drone of incantations’ moving along the evil river that snakes its way through Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Cross-fade into the future, into the jungle where Burroughs lies incapacitated by ayahuasca. In the teeth of a demonic audio hallucination, he hears the terrifying cries of ghostly animals, while the green world around him produces a ‘vibrating soundless hum’. He has tuned into that illicit frequency, beyond the reach of the ordinary ear.


Rewind and you get the transmission of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, recorded and broadcast by the BBC in 1939. Finnegans Wake is the writing of a dream: it’s a book that never begins or ends but loops in a never-ending ‘recirculation’ of sound and voices, fading with ‘the night’s ear ringing’. As Joyce slyly points out, ‘tis endless now’: the tape loop lets you go backwards and forwards forever, like the siren song that swoops around Ulysses in a flight of  ‘endlessnessnessness’. In Finnegans Wake, through the darkness of night and the blindness of radio, we hear words transformed, spliced into one another, echoing and swooning in a dream of language. Acid-dazzled teenagers said Finnegans Wake sounded like the audio visions induced by LSD, as if Joyce’s ears were, unknowingly, able to hear hallucinogenic sounds that would become audible to others only after his death. And the song which gives Joyce’s night book its name is about a figure back from the dead, another addict, who falls and rises (like James Brown, in fact). The wake concludes with Joyce sweeping the ether in search of listeners, ‘Calling all…’, ‘calling all…’ he says, sounding like the voice on the recordings made by Brion Gysin, friend to Burroughs and accidental inventor of the cut-ups, as it reels off ‘calling all active agents, recalling all active agents, calling all active agents re:’, in a manic babble of panicked, pitch shifted voices. It’s as if we’ve fed a microphone through a wormhole and made recordings in the swarming darkness of a schizophrenic’s ear.



Who can we hear calling back? It’s Samuel Beckett, whose famously acute sense of hearing lets him listen to the voices of the dead. (Beckett, like Burroughs, was fascinated with tape recording technology, standing transfixed in front of a reel-to-reel recorder as a performance of his Molloy was played back, probably hearing the faint sound of Krapp’s Last Tape slowly unspooling in his ear). We can make out the haunting sound of Embers, an unspeakably eerie radio play written in 1959 (incidentally the year of Naked Lunch’s publication). Located on a beach in some unknown place, it consists of the attempts of its main character Henry to communicate with his dead father, unresponsive and unreachable in the darkness, to tell a ghost story set in ‘a white world’ where there’s ‘not a sound’ and finally, with more success, to communicate with the spectre of his wife, Ada. The special chill of unease Embers induces isn’t just down to the text, full of phantoms, dead children and terrified screams though it is: a deep and shiver-stricken debt is owed to the sinister ambient noise which drifts and murmurs near the threshold of hearing, breaking and receding like a wave upon a beach. As this ghostly sea sound whispers into your ear, Beckett obliquely admits its origin deep down in the underground world of the legendary Radiophonic Workshop. ‘That sound you hear is the sea’, Henry mutters, ‘I only mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea’.  One of the play’s producers who collaborated with Beckett to work towards this deeply unsettling sea sound remembered he was after ‘a dreamlike effect, not too far from nightmare’. Scanning for other signals that have the same intensity as Embers we hear the Radiophonic Workshop’s disquieting series ‘Dreams’, where interviewees describe recurring nightmares over more unsettling synthesiser chimes, and we hear, in the near silence, late at night, a description of Beckett: ‘as a child he was terrified of the dark’, and these words sound like something from another place, we’re slowly fading into the childhood of William Burroughs, coming through the crackle now, loud and-


(Momentary interference: Beckett’s work, too, is full of strange sounds, constructed and interconnected like a huge and terrifying network for haunted, manic and slowly suffocating voices that make the black air around them buzz with their whispers, howls and cries. Point of disconnection: Samuel Beckett, silent and spectral before any recording medium, never made it onto a chat show. William Burroughs was on Saturday Night Live in 1981 but only to read from his work. Nobody asked any questions.)



Burroughs’ first work Junky is another book of ghosts, dreams and nightmares. In the prologue to Junky, he recalls the dreamlike inertia of his suburban childhood with the detachment of someone listing household cleaning products. Junky is, strangely considering its subject matter, a very straight book, struck by a fearsome lucidity. Burroughs said, ‘writers are just like everybody else: they file reports’, and this is an uncut report or recording, without phantasms, mugwumps or other monsters, reliant only on the photographic accuracy of his memory. Indeed, Burroughs’ account is the only thing left of a world that is, as he says, ‘gone forever’, recalled in hazy, slow motion moments. It’s a recording of a dead world, soundless and still, like something drowned, until opium’s mentioned, and sound drifts in. ‘Opium gives you sweet dreams’, the maid of the Burroughs’ home tells him, and suddenly we’re drifting back into the past, through the silver smoke, to Coleridge’s dream of Kubla Khan, and Burroughs can see his whole future laid out: ‘I will smoke opium when I grow up’, he decides, so there won’t be any more nightmares.


The first time I heard William Burroughs’ voice (inside my head) came during my childhood, which was sadly symmetrical with Burroughs’ own, shaken by feelings of otherness and isolation and often bored into a kind of catatonia. It was Christmas Day 2004 and somebody had given me Naked Lunch as a gift. I read it and felt sick, a winter fever slowly heating up page by page. I reached the hospital where Doctor Benway’s disembodied voice sounded like ‘music down a windy street’. Here a man has his reflexes tested by the good doctor and soon begins to froth at the mouth uncontrollably despite, Benway tells us, ‘a complete absence of brain activity’. Then ‘the man drops to his knees, throws back his head and barks’. The imagined sound of this human bark shot through me. I threw the book down and ran to the bathroom to be sick. But I was hooked. Language was a virus. I heard the voice itself much later, through the illicit network that soon infected my computer and gobbled up its insides. It was a voice with icicles in its veins, strangely untethered from the earth. The same feeling comes over me each time I hear it, a sensation that I’m listening to a voice which is, in a secret way, closer to a ghost than anything else. Junky concludes with Burroughs looking for the ‘final fix’ of yage, heading towards the Amazon jungle. He and his work return transformed: an entire unmapped terrain is described with the visionary intensity of an incantation, coming through a voice and body bewitched by evil spirits. His early work as a pure recording medium (let the spectral suggestion of that word flicker for a moment) is abandoned. Now ‘the whole room is exploding out into space’.


(Momentary interference: As a child, I was, like Burroughs and Beckett, very scared of the dark. I was usually lured into a fearful sort of sleep by voices reading stories. There was no one else in the tiny room where I lay every night, scared by shadows and strange, disembodied sounds, only the lulling speech of phantom actors held on cassette tape. Shaking for a reason still unknown I listened to the voices from Victorian ghost stories, Conrad and the Brothers Grimm: one set of frightening sounds had replaced another.


When I was hunting out recordings by Burroughs for this piece, I discovered that Burroughs’ Junky was part of this same cassette series. Its inclusion feels strangely correct and even resonant with the rest of my bedtime listening material. Junky is, after all, a kind of ghost story: the autobiography of a spectre (‘a ghost in daylight on a crowded street’ is how he describes the addict), haunted by its past. It’s Burroughs at his most ghostly, reading in a blank voice that seems to come directly from the dead and hollow space of permanent boredom. After meeting Kurt Cobain, who was being slowly obliterated by his own heroin addiction, Burroughs remarked that the poor boy was already a ghost. Listening to Junky, you feel Burroughs is in a very similar state).


After Naked Lunch, Burroughs is everywhere. This illicit frequency can worm its way into the strangest places and unlikeliest of ears. In 1975, David Bowie, in the middle of his cocaine Nosferatu phase, appeared on the cosy Dick Cavett talk show. Between sniffs and twitches, he speaks in a mouse-like voice about ‘black noise, something Burroughs was very interested in’. Imagine the panic for Middle America! Coiled on the couch before them is this pale oddity who might, Cavett feared, ‘bite my neck’, playing a malevolent, cut-up funk music that sounds like Aleister Crowley channelled through the body of James Brown. He’s talking about a sonic weapon that can obliterate a city and citing Burroughs as an authority. Instantly, Burroughs became a set text for the weird children everywhere who soon turned into punks. Burroughs’ tape experiments were disseminated by Genesis P-Orridge, leader of the infamous ‘wreckers of civilization’, Throbbing Gristle, and the word virus, now carved into black wax, began to greatly intensify its rate of infection. Tape after tape could be filled with musicians speaking of Burroughs’ as an influence, sometimes not only in their choice of drug but, much more excitingly, on their sound. Richard H. Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire has said ‘we were trying to directly apply his ideas to music’, and as per the instructions given in Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution, Cabaret Voltaire would start concerts by playing the sounds of rioting crowds to their audience, trying to work them into a state of frenzy.


P-Orridge and Burroughs both appear in Decoder, a delirious banquet of post-punk dislocation, where the writer’s work crackles at high volume through the toxic industrial air. Burroughs’ work provides an index of Decoder’s fetishes: the adoration of the urban wilderness, sexual and technological alienation and a pervading sense of the future as a frightening place to be, run through with its bloodstream like morphine. Appropriately, Burroughs plays a tape recorder salesman. The tape recorder was a magical object for Burroughs: like a potent narcotic, it allows the user to radically transform his or her experience of time and space, to overwrite the master tapes played by the forces of Control. P-Orridge appears a techno-gnostic in a derelict building and, on the same wavelength as Burroughs, tells of the piracy of the future with magical prescience, ‘information is like a bank. Our job is rob that bank’. In one spellbinding scene, the witches’ spell from Macbeth is read by a drowsy Christiane F. (the teenage junky whose adventures were transformed into a film, soundtracked by pieces from Bowie’s icy, majestic Berlin Trilogy) and followed by Burroughs’ cut-up hex ‘Word Falling, Photo Falling’. There’s an evil glitter in his voice, a kind of glee I can’t find in any other recording: snarling then serene, sinister and spaced out. Play back words from The Yage Letters: ‘That night I had a vivid dream in colour of the green jungle and a red sunset I had not seen before… a composite city’. This space sounds like a premonition of the Interzone, the ghostly city of the red night. We watch the pirate video of a dream and at its end the city is filmed in lysergic technicolour. In the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, everything is aglow. Spooky stuff.


Play back a sample of Burroughs from his essay ‘Les Voleurs’, written during his time in London when he was taking the cut-ups further, splicing faces, voices, trying to disrupt the workings of the reality studio: if you need a jungle, ‘take background footage from Conrad, take Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and give it to your heroine’. In ‘The Invisible Generation’, he writes  ‘take any text speed it up slow it down’, so the text can be manipulated endlessly like a reel of magnetic tape or the invisible material that makes digital noise. The cut-up becomes the magic key to the radical activities of hip hop, drum n’ bass, and future music everywhere because, as every clever child knows, you ‘cut into the past and the future leaks out’. The sampler resurrects all recorded ghosts and lets them riot somewhere dark and new, rich and strange.  Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ is a cut-up of unequalled ferocity: its first ten seconds sound like the warzone produced by one hundred TVs set on different stations: we catch footage of riots, a re-run of Soul Train, uncut static, and even footage of Public Enemy themselves. Like Burroughs making and remixing his routines over and over again, Public Enemy sampled their own work and the white noise of media frenzy that accompanied their every move. This track burns (cutting into Burroughs’ description of a recurrent DMT hallucination) ‘like white-hot bees through your flesh and bones and everything’. They were plagued by paranoid visions of phone tapping and police surveillance, bugging out as an isolated unit of black radicalism, a resistance cell throughout the slow motion catastrophe of Ronald Reagan’s time in office. What exactly is a terrordome? It sounds like somewhere in Burroughs’ fiction, a dystopian world of endless noise, tyranny and nightmares, or somewhere flickering through Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition. It’s where the air is on fire.


Looping back to Caliban we hear the din of ‘a thousand twangling instruments about mine ears’. James Brown returns, grunts and sizzles, a loop bristles like a caged animal beneath him, pressed up against gameshow shouts, skips and twitches: the heat is closing in. Burroughs’ fantasy of textual terrorism is precisely the process undertaken with total focus by the Bomb Squad (the Public Enemy production team, operating, like so many of the Control forces in Burroughs’ novels, under an ominous name): take a break from James Brown (five JB tracks shoot and seethe in the mix of the Terrordome), cut that into feedback and screams to make this black noise. Coleridge’s pleasuredome is transformed into the terrordome, built in air at last, pulsating in a state of total fury, as if it’s always on the brink of explosion. The constriction of copyright law that came in the wake of hip hop’s unstoppable, light-fingered ‘theft’ of other recordings cut all transmissions from the terrordome. The producer who leaves samples ‘uncleared’ or present without approval from the proper corporate bodies is a criminal, stealing that phantom thing- sound. Hip-hop switched up: reports from its pleasuredomes and spectral urban spaces soon blacked out the work of the Bomb Squad, but its activities are everywhere. Musical, cinematic and literary piracy is, we know, happening all the time. Now listen to ‘Les Voleurs’ a second time: ‘everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief. Pure, shameless, total. We are not responsible. Steal everything in sight.’


We can hear the last words now: ‘hurry up please its time’. The final silence falls in the closing pages of The Western Lands where you find the writer who ‘has reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words’. This is Burroughs’ last work, a recording made as the tape runs out and approaches the Land of the Dead. He ends with the words that ring around the pub in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’: ‘hurry up, please, it’s time’. Eliot, another ‘inspired and dedicated thief’ ends this part of his poem with a soundbite from Ophelia, the teenage suicide who exits calling ‘goodnight, sweet ladies, goodnight’, drifting away, mad with grief. Rewinding, as time is called inescapably, insistently, we hear a field recording contorted into poetry: a voice chattering away about medication, teeth and domestic monotony. It breaks off to call ‘goodnight, Bill’, which rings in Burroughs’ ears. In a recording issued after his death, Burroughs reads these last words, ‘hurry up, it’s time’. He’s saying goodnight.


(Momentary interference: In 1972, James Brown recorded a slow, wounded track called ‘King Heroin’. Over some burnt out horns, in an equally subdued voice, he describes a dream he ‘had the other night’ where he ‘saw a real strange, weird object, standing up and talking to the people… it was heroin, that deadly drug that go in your vein’. James records King Heroin’s speech and plays back its taunting voice (‘behold, you are hooked!’) to scare away those who might be tempted. This is a familiar routine. I hear him calling out again to wild applause in another recording of a dream. William Burroughs and James Brown fitted together all along.)


I remember it was the dead of night and this track came on: a strange kind of hymn. I met the voice in the dark and felt as if I was under a spell, entranced by a huge and hypnotic sound. It starts with a vast malevolent noise, like darkness falling over a freezing planet. The sub-bass rumble you hear in rooms wired by David Lynch, alongside the low apocalyptic pulse, breathless gasps and ectoplasmic shivers. Two passages of incredible intensity from its beginning and end made my ear shiver, bewitched by a rapturous kind of listening I’ve only experienced once since, a feeling of magic and ecstasy bordering on fright. The final incantation in his book of spells is another incredibly lucid scene, set somewhere through the blue haze of memory where ‘shadows are falling on the mountain’. Burroughs is reading an elegy for his work in the voice of a ghost. Out of the past and away to the future. Play it back. Listen. Nothing here now but the recordings. Hear them go out into air, into thin air…


This is the expanded version of a talk delivered by Charlie Fox at Maggs Bros on Wednesday 9 May 2012, as part of an evening on W. S. Burroughs organised by The White Review 



is a writer based in Bristol, UK. He is currently working on a project about recluses.



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