In 2016 I wrote the sleeve notes for a new LP release of a long, obscure tape experiment by William S. Burroughs. Recorded in London around 1968, only a tiny number copies of the tape have ever been publicly available until now. A slightly edited version of the tape is now release by Paradigm Discs with the title Curse Go Back.
The full sleeve notes are reprinted below.
In the late 1960s, the streets of Swinging London were haunted by the grim spectre of William Burroughs. Amidst the free love, paisley and rock'n'roll he slipped like a shadow, bent on a dark magic to wreak revenge and revolution. A perpetual exile, he found himself once again hiding in the margins. He had been the godfather of the 1950s counter-culture but in the 1960s, while the counter-culture became mainstream, he remained a cult figure, a touchstone for the underground's underground.
In London he connected with the rock scene, making contacts with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. These connections remained mostly hidden from the public: leading Keith Richards on a drug cure, nights in the basement at Barry Miles' Indica Gallery. He appeared in glimpses, allusions: a face in the crowd on an LP cover, a reference in a song lyric. Meanwhile, Burroughs was adding new weapons to his writer's arsenal, with an emphasis on technology. His partnerships with the film-maker Antony Balch and electronics technician Ian Sommerville added the elements of film and audio tape to his cut-up experiments. Sommerville was hired by Paul McCartney to install two tape recorders in Ringo Starr's flat, making a small recording studio. Burroughs was invited in to make recordings, some for an album that never materialised.
Burroughs worked in the belief that his collaged, written cut-ups disrupted present time and disrupted the linear perception of reality, allowing glimpses into the future. His work with tape and film made this aspect of non-linear time more tangible, as the manipulation of sound and image makes a more immediate impression on the senses. His writing had often depicted reality as a construct that could be fabricated or distorted through recording on film; now he was proposing direct manipulation of these recordings. His putative screenplay The Last Words of Dutch Schultz was published with collaged-in photographs and technical directions for the intercutting of sound, image and disembodied voices.
Behind all this was the kabbalistic understanding of magic; that through the manipulation of an object's true name, one may manipulate the object itself. Burroughs was adding an element of science to magic, capturing true image and sound through recordings. Many years earlier, he had been impressed by Alfred Korzybski's theory of general semantics, the idea that linguistic tropes could also be found operating on the same principles in nature and psychology. Burroughs wrote his fictions on the understanding that language and the exterior world were subject to the same laws. Korzybski's theories provided a scientific basis for Burroughs' kabbalistic word collages.
It was in London that he embraced another 'scientific' source of power. Burroughs had previously encountered Scientology and found striking parallels to his own way of thinking, cast into an ordered programme of practices and techniques. Scientology's popularisation of the older idea of engrams – that behavior is conditioned by verbalisations embedded in the unconscious – tallied with Burroughs' depiction of language as a parasite or virus. The science fiction origins of Scientology were reflected in Burroughs' own writing, where his phantasmagorical agents of addiction revealed themselves as surreptitious alien invaders from space. In the late 1960s Burroughs undertook Scientology training courses in the Church's rural retreat in Sussex and pursued a deeper understanding of Scientology's other teachings, before vehemently rejecting the Church for its own forms of control over its members.
In London, Burroughs underwent a peculiar transformation, arriving as a Beat writer associated with Ginsberg and Kerouac, but leaving as a science fiction writer mentioned in the same breath with Moorcock and Ballard. Burroughs' literary concerns changed with the times, turning to revolution and space travel. In both he found a common cause – that of liberation, from societal structures, from Earth – but Burroughs wanted more. The interrelation of word and reality meant that, once liberated from the word, consciousness could be liberated from materiality, thus making the need for bodily travel, and physical immortality, irrelevant. A truly liberated human could freely travel space unbound by time or physical needs. NASA and the Russians were doing space all wrong. A real spaceman must first learn to break free from the word.
Language is a form of control, of society and individuals. In London, he applied the cut-up technique of random collages to his own writing to produce his Nova Trilogy of novels. These books (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express) created a mythology in which humans are controlled through conditioning of their needs by external forces, through sex, drugs and language. Once this mythology had been fully elaborated, he moved on to a second mythology, a prophecy of revolution against those conditioning forces he had previously described. In The Wild Boys and Port of Saints his protagonists travel through space and time, destroying, perverting and rewriting history. Burroughs travelled to Chicago in 1968 to witness the protests and riots for himself, observing the way that modes of control could be disrupted, with no fixed goal in mind. In 1970 he published Electronic Revolution, his most comprehensive statement on the role of language in political control and how cut-up methods may be used against it.
Where Electronic Revolution dealt with theory, this recording, made by Burroughs sometime around 1968, shows Burroughs' thinking in practice. It documents one of the purest, longest and most intensely focused of his tape experiments. Before one can break down language's control over society, exercises such as these are needed to break down its control over one's own consciousness. It's an alchemical exercise, both in its transformative use of material and in its method, a mix of shamanistic ritual with the trappings and attitude of scientific research. The tape's repetitions and fragmentations are part of an exhaustive process of breaking down language's power over the individual, so that the individual may truly take power of language.
Burroughs uses the tape to make an uncompromising attack on the dualism inherent in language, in both content (alternating phrases of contradictory statements enforcing either/or situations) and in substance (the differentiation between word and speech). The statements are scrambled, repeated, fragmented, spoken words become detached from their associated meanings. New juxtapositions of concepts emerge and disappear, words become pure sound. The tape begins with Burroughs describing not just his method, but more general and extensive methods for manipulating the spoken word. Of the techniques he mentions, only repetition, cutting up and "dropping in" (randomly rewinding or forwarding the tape and inserting a pre-recorded fragment) are used to any great extent throughout the recording. The opening section of the tape demonstrates some more elaborate processing of words into sounds, and also establishes the verbal material on which the rest of the recording will be based.
After this introduction, Burroughs commences a long session of cutting up his words, using repetitions, permutations, drop-ins and other collage methods. The techniques used are simple, and the use of words is restricted to a small sample of concepts. At first, he focuses on existential states subjected to permutation and disruption – "To stay absent, to be nobody". The larger part of the tape settles onto objective constructs – "The pictures, the masses, the chaos". With occasional signs of fatigue, he pursues this process for as long as the tape will allow. The pace is deliberate and steady, encouraging a meditative, hypnotic state.
Perhaps most interesting is Burroughs' use of repetition: instead of looping his voice, he repeats certain words and phrases in real time, varying his intonation and pauses. At other times, snippets of tape are dropped in with his unvarying, pre-recorded voice repeating phrases. All the way through, Burroughs is trying to cut into linear time, into language, beneath the surface of the words and their meanings. A deeper knowledge of the words is sought, while alienating the listener from their semantic associations. At a critical point, Burroughs starts to repeat and elongate certain words as he pronounces them, in a way that exposes the tenuous link between what is said and what is really meant.
As Burroughs says at the beginning, we now know how to cut-up, but must also know what to cut-up. The tone of this tape may be reminiscent of some of his most evocative collages, such as "Silver Smoke of Dreams", but the material and purpose here is much more specific. The words are distilled to abstract concepts, essences of thought shaped by language. The meditative tone is to prepare the mind for action. Always a good thief ("Nobody owns words"), Burroughs appropriated and transformed other people's ideas and methods for his art. His curdled interest in Scientology served as both a catalyst and an affirmation of his philosophy of language. Already familiar with Scientology's methods, it took only a few tweaks by Burroughs to cherry-pick a few of their teachings and recast his cut-up technique into a tool envisaged for revolution, both mental and political.
It's entirely possible that Burroughs intended this tape to be as much a deconstruction of the Church of Scientology's control over him, as it is over more generalised forms of control through language. He had no compunction against selecting certain targets around Soho as worthy vessels for his more malign tape experiments. Cut-ups were possible to execute in real life as well as on tape: "as soon as you start recording a situation and playing them back on the street, you are creating a new reality." In 1972, near the end of his London stay, he secured his revenge against the two London institutions for which he held his biggest grudges. The first of these was the London offices for the Church of Scientology. In a concerted operation, he maintained a daily presence outside, recording and photographing the building while playing back tapes from the day before. This disruption in the Church's reality culminated several weeks later with them moving out and relocating several blocks away.
The other target? There was a café Burroughs didn't like. The Moka Bar was the first place in London to serve proper espresso coffee but Burroughs was affronted by their "outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake". Another campaign of taping and photos, and the shop closed down three months later.