Marshall McLuhan – “Notes on Burroughs” (1964)

November 9, 2008 at 11:01 am (Reviews & Articles, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)

Written about William S. Burroughs for The Nation, Dec. 28, 1964 (pages 517-519)…


1. Today men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare. Burroughs has dedicated Naked Lunch to the first proposition, and Nova Express (both Grove Press) to the second. Naked Lunch records private strategies of culture in the electric age. Nova Express indicates some of the “corporate” responses and adventures of the Subliminal Kid who is living in a universe which seems to be someone else’s insides. Both books are a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electric environment.

2. Burroughs uses what he calls “Brion Gysin’s cut-up method which I call the fold-in method.” To read the daily newspaper in its entirety is to encounter the method in all its purity. Similarly, an evening watching television programs is an experience in a corporate form — an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative. Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age. If the corporate life is to be rendered on paper, the method of discontinuous nonstory must be employed.

3. That man provides the sexual organs of the technological world seems obvious enough to Burroughs, and such is the stage (or “biological theatre” as he calls it in Nova Express) for the series of social orgasms brought about by the evolutionary mutations of man and society. The logic, physical and emotional, of a world in which we have made our environment out of our own nervous systems, Burroughs follows everywhere to the peripheral orgasm of the cosmos.

4. Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the “content” of the new industrial environment. That is, Nature became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. Artists, being experts in sensory awareness, tend to concentrate on the environmental as the challenging and dangerous situation. That is why they may seem to be “ahead of their time.” Actually, they alone have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age. More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automaton, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order.

5. During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks.

6. Burroughs disdains the hallucinatory drugs as providing mere “content,” the fantasies, dreams that money can buy. Junk (heroin) is needed to turn the human body itself into an environment that includes the universe. The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his “content.” He programs the sensory order.

7. For artists and philosophers, when a technology is new it yields Utopias. Such is Plato’s Republic in the fifth century B.C., when phonetic writing was being established. Similarly, More’s Utopia is written in the sixteenth century when the printed book had just become established. When electric technology was new and speculative, Alice in Wonderland came as a kind of non-Euclidean space-time Utopia, a grown-up version of which is the Illuminations of Rimbaud. Like Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud accepts each object as a world and the world as an object. He makes a complete break with the established procedure of putting things into time or space:

That’s she, the little girl behind the rose bushes, and she’s dead. The young mother, also dead, is coming down the steps. The cousin’s carriage crunches the sand. The small brother (he’s in India!) over there in the field of pinks, in front of the sunset. The old men they’ve buried upright in the wall covered with gilly-flowers.

But when the full consequences of each new technology have been manifested in new psychic and social forms, then the anti-Utopias appear. Naked Lunch can be viewed as the anti-Utopia of Illuminations:

During the withdrawal the addict is acutely aware of his surroundings. Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination. Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life. The addict is subject to a barrage of sensations external and visceral.

Or to give a concrete example from the symbolist landscape of Naked Lunch:

A guard in a uniform of human skin, black buck jacket with carious yellow teeth buttons, an elastic pullover shirt in burnished Indian copper […] sandals from calloused foot soles of young Malayan farmer […]

The key to symbolist perception is in yielding the permission to objects to resonate with their own time and space. Time and space themselves are subjected to the uniform and continuous visual processing that provides us with the “connected and rational” world that is in fact only an isolated fragment of reality — the visual. There is no uniform and continuous character in the nonvisual modalities of space and time. The Symbolists freed themselves from visual conditions into the visionary world of the iconic and the auditory. Their art, to be visually oriented and literary man, seems haunted, magical and often incomprehensible. It is, in John Ruskin’s words:

… the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connections; of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character. (Modern Painters)

The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.

8. There are considerable antecedents for the Burroughs attempt to read the language of the biological theatre and the motives of the Subliminal Kid. Fleurs du Mal is a vision of the city as the technological extension of man. Baudelaire had once intended to title the book Les Limbes. The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film. Later in The Human Age Lewis explores the psychic mutations of man living in “the magnetic city,” the instant, electric, and angelic (or diabolic) culture. Lewis views the action in a much more inclusive way than Burroughs whose world is a paradigm of a future in which there can be no spectators but only participants. All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure.

9. The Burroughs diagnosis is that we can avoid the inevitable “closure” that accompanies each new technology by regarding our entire gadgetry as junk. Man has hopped himself up by a long series of technological fixes:

You are all dogs on tape. The entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.

We can forego the entire legacy of Cain (the inventor of gadgets) by applying the same formula that works for junk — “apomorphine,” extended to all technology:

Apomorphine is no word and no image — […] It is simply a question of putting through an inoculation program in the very limited time that remains — Word begets image and image IS virus —

Burroughs is arguing that the power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences:

Shut the whole thing right off — Silence — When you answer the machine you provide it with more recordings to be played back to your “enemies” keep the whole nova machine running — The Chinese character for “enemy” means to be similar to or to answer — Don’t answer the machine — Shut if off —

Merely to be in the presence of any machine, or replica of our body or faculties, is to be close with it. Our sensory ratios shift at once with each encounter with any fragmented extension of our being. This is a non-stop express of innovation that cannot be endured indefinitely:

We are just dust falls from demagnetized patterns — Show business —

It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal. To end the proliferation of lethal new environmental expression, Burroughs urges a huge collective act of restraint as well as a nonclosure of sensory modes — “The biological theater of the body can bear a good deal of new program notes.”

10. Finnnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end it is occupied with the theme of “the extensions” of man — weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast:

The keys to. Given!

Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian. It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision.

11. It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home. Burroughs is not asking merit marks as a writer; he is trying to point to the shut-on button of an active and lethal environmental process.

Marshall McLuhan

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Robert Plant – “Pictures at Eleven” (1982)

November 9, 2008 at 9:15 am (Kurt Loder, Reviews & Articles)

Kurt Loder’s review of the debut solo album by Robert Plant, from Rolling Stone, Aug. 16, 1982…


If Robert Plant were young and hungry instead of nearly thirty-four and famous, this album might have been a real barn-burner. As it is, even though there’s nothing new going on in these grooves, the sheer formal thrill of hearing someone who knows exactly what he’s doing makes Pictures at Eleven something of an event almost in spite of its modest ambitions. Plant’s freak-of-nature voice – the definitive heavy-metal shriek – has seldom been more sympathetically showcased, even with Led Zeppelin. You still can’t make out a lot of what he’s saying, but his vocals are distinguished by a fullness and fluidity that’s richly satisfying. The production, by Plant, is artfully simple, and the band he’s put together to back him – Robbie Blunt, the fine guitarist from the Steve Gibbons Band; bassist Paul Martinez; Jezz Woodroffe on keyboards; and Phil Collins and Cozy Powell, who share drum duties–sounds like it could kill onstage.

Blunt, in particular, deserves a steady star gig. Not only is he an ace instrumentalist in the metal tradition (check out the schizo guitar lashings on the raving “Mystery Title”), but he also cowrote, mostly with Plant, the album’s eight tracks, and so presumably was responsible for such outré touches as the dense, ensemble lines toward the end of “Worse than Detroit.” One hopes that the Plant-Blunt collaboration will bear further fruit, because it’s a winner. “Burning down One Side,” the leadoff track, is a dead-on-target hit–a neck-wringing riff spiced with effortlessly atmospheric guitar leads–while the charming “Fat Lip,” a bluesy riff located at the other end of the emotional spectrum, could almost give laid-back a good name again.

Elsewhere, Plant trots out his trademark bellow for “Slow Dancer” and the aforementioned “Mystery Title,” and enlists the high, reedy tones of saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft (noted for his work on the Gerry Rafferty hit, “Baker Street”) for the slightly unfocused “Pledge Pin.” There are longueurs: “Moonlight in Samosa,” for instance, is sort of like “Stairway to Heaven” without the sonic liftoff, and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” (“I see the sunlight in your eyeeeeeeeeee …”) is just sort of stupid. But when the good stuff on an album cuts all the other cock-rock competition in sight, only a curmudgeon would complain. (RS 376)

Kurt Loder

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Julian Cope – “World Shut Your Mouth” (Video – 1986)

November 9, 2008 at 9:03 am (Julian Cope, Music)

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Carl Perkins, George Harrison & Dave Edmunds – “Your True Love” (TV – 1985)

November 9, 2008 at 8:00 am (Music, The Beatles)

Rockabilly legend (& huge Beatles influence) Carl Perkins performing w/ George Harrison & Dave Edmunds…

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Ike & Tina Turner – “River Deep Mountain High” (1966)

November 9, 2008 at 7:48 am (Music)

Tina performing Phil Spector’s greatest creation…

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William S. Burroughs, Jr. – “Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr.” (2006)

November 9, 2008 at 1:35 am (Reviews & Articles, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)


This review was written by Tom Bowden for Education Digest in 2006. WSB, Jr., better known to all as Billy Burroughs, was of course the son of William Burroughs. He wrote a couple of excellent books in his youth (“Kentucky Ham” and “Speed”) about his various addictions and estrangement from his father. This book was an unfinished attempt at a sequel to those two books. It was pieced together (by David Ohle) from various sources (including the unfinished manuscript of “Prakriti Junction”) and further establishes Billy’s talent at writing. He died on March 3, 1981, of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage associated with micronodular cirrhosis. He was only 33 years old…


The son of a heroin-addicted father and an alcoholic mother addicted to Benzedrine, William S. Burroughs, Jr. had the kind of start in life most of us would rather avoid. Things went downhill from there when he was four after his father shot and killed the mother in Mexico. His older sister (whom he was to never see again) was sent to live with his mother’s parents, and Billy was sent to live with his father’s parents. His father skipped the country and lammed it to Tangiers, where he remained addicted to various opiates, smoked lots of dope, and wrote what would become a seminal 20th century classic of avant-garde fiction, Naked Lunch.
Growing up in the comfortable upper middle class surroundings of Palm Beach, Florida, and sent to private schools, Billy, as the son of privilege, nonetheless flailed about, an emotional misfit. His father, always distant before the shooting, he saw only on short, occasional visits to the U.S. after the shooting. (The book’s cover is particularly chilling, showing a picture of father and son, Billy appearing to be six or seven years old, with the father’s arm coming from around and behind the boy, but with his hand frozen just inches above his son’s shoulder. Whether the picture was snapped in mid-pat or just before Burroughs, Sr. gripped Billy’s shoulder, the picture nonetheless captures the emotional distance between the two.)
Cursed from Birth is a sad but compelling autobiography of a self-destructive soul (Billy) who acts as if he is fated for his particularly grueling death: hemorrhaging from cirrhosis of the liver (his second one) by the age of 35. Pieced together from notes toward a third novel he was too drug-addled to finish, and complimented by numerous interviews with people who knew him — including Burroughs, Sr., Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and others — Cursed forms a mosaic not unlike a shattered mirror reassembled.
Billy begs for money, steals from his grandmother, gets stoned with his dad, and endures a liver transplant that never quite heals and leaves him in chronic pain:

The wound, as I called it, was three inches across, eighteen inches long, and as deep as my backbone. I was gutted like a Halloween pig. It couldn’t be stitched up because of infection danger and had to heal from the inside out. When the nurse first saw it, she said, “Oh my God!” Which scared me to death. Just what I needed. And it had to be washed out with saline at least three times a day and disinfected. Slosh it in with a squirting machine, suck it out with a vacuum machine. The first time I looked down at what they were doing, I said it, too: “Oh my God!” I didn’t look down there again for weeks.

For the pain they gave me only enough Demerol to maybe cure a headache — 25mg. I used to mainline 400 and go for a walk.

And in between the bouts of pain, the half-hearted attempts to find work, the failed marriage and love affairs, is lots and lots and lots and lots of drinking.
I read Cursed from Birth as a fan of the author’s father. I wrote my master’s thesis on him in 1988, for which I also interviewed him (before he decided to “turn on the charm” to strangers, as he phrases it in his Last Words). I suspect most readers of Cursed will read it for the same reason — to find out more about the father — even though Billy’s first two books, Kentucky Ham and Speed, are still in print. From that angle emerges a man quite at odds with his public persona. (For all his hard-ass talk, Burroughs, Sr. struck me as actually quite shy.) We find a father doing everything he can — within the realm of letting his son take responsibility for his own behavior — to help his son through hard times, who sobs uncontrollably at the hospital when his son undergoes the liver transplant that could kill him (not that Billy had many options at that point in his dissolute life), who is angrily frustrated by his son’s steadfast insistence on blaming everybody else but himself for his troubles.
Cursed from Birth also stands on its own merits as a document chronicling abuse, addition, apathy, desperation, self-destruction, and death. No one comes out of this autobiography an angel, and nobody comes out wholly evil, either. Everyone here does their share of dumb things and good, motivated by conflicting desires and opinions as to what is best, what is right.
Recommended reading.

Tom Bowden

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Nirvana – “In Utero” (1993)

November 9, 2008 at 1:13 am (David Fricke, Reviews & Articles)

David Fricke’s Sept. 16, 1993 Rolling Stone review of Nirvana’s follow-up to their breakthrough album Nevermind

This is the way Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain spells success: s-u-c-k-s-e-g-g-s. Never in the history of rock & roll overnight sensations has an artist, with the possible exception of John Lennon, been so emotionally overwhelmed by his sudden good fortune, despised it with such devilish vigor and exorcised his discontent on record with such bristling, bull’s-eye candor. In Utero is rife with gibes – some hilariously droll, others viciously direct – at life in the post-Nevermind fast lane, at the moneychangers who milked the grunge tit dry in record time and at the bandwagon sheep in the mosh pit who never caught on to the desperate irony of “Here we are now, entertain us.” The very first words out of Cobain’s mouth in “Serve the Servants,” In Utero‘s petulant, bludgeoning opener, are “Teenage angst has served me well/Now I’m bored and old,” sung in an irritated, marble-mouthed snarl that immediately derails any lingering expectations for a son of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

It gets better. In “Very Ape,” a two-minute corker cut from the same atomic-fuzz cloth as the band’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, Cobain gets right down to brass tacks, against a burning-rubber lead guitar squeal and the mantric rumble of bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl: “I am buried up to my neck in/Contradictionary lies.” (Nice pun, that.) The kiss-off quickly follows: “If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate/To ask someone else first.” Cobain slightly overplays his hand with the title of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Nirvana have been called many things over the past two years; that, as far as I can tell, is not one of them. But Cobain cuts right to the heart of the mire with a torrent of death-throe guitar feedback and a brilliant metaphor for the head-turning speed with which one man can suddenly sire a nation: “This had nothing to do with what you think/If you ever think at all…. All of a sudden my water broke.”

Frankly, Nirvana as a band and Cobain as the point man have earned the right to spit in fortune’s eye. Generation X is really a generation hexed, caught in a spin cycle of updated 70s punk and heavy-metal aesthetics and cursed by the velocity with which even the most abrasive pop under-culture can be co-opted and compromised. One minute, Nevermind is jackbooting Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 slot; the next, grunge jock Dan Cortese is screaming, “I love this place!” on behalf of Burger King. Even the hippies got a summer or two to themselves in the mid-’60s before the dough-re-mi boys horned in. So it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (a slash-and-burner named after the locally born actress, whose rebellious streak brought her to the brink of insanity), it is really Cobain who wants to torch the town and send the A&R hounds packing.

None of this unrepentantly self-obsessed rant & roll would be half as compelling or convincing if Nirvana weren’t such master blasters – Novoselic and Grohl deserve a few extra bows here – and Cobain wasn’t a songwriter of such ferocious honesty and focused musical smarts. Cobain essentially works according to one playbook, but it’s a winner no matter how he runs it. His songs invariably open with a slow-boil verse, usually sung in a plaintive groan over muted strumming and a tempered backbeat. Then Cobain vaporizes you with a chorus of immense power-chord static and primal howling. That, in a nutshell, is “Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are.” It also covers, to varying degrees, “Rape Me,” “Penny Royal Tea” and “Milk It” on In Utero.

But the devilry is in the details. “Rape Me” opens as a disquieting whisper, Cobain intoning the title verse in a battered croon, which sets you up beautifully to get blind-sided by the explosive hook line. In the sepulchral folk intro of “Penny Royal Tea,” Cobain almost sounds like Michael Stipe at the beginning of R.E.M.’s “Drive” – before the heaving, fuzz-burnt chorus comes lashing down with a vengeance.

Steve Albini’s production, an au naturel power-trio snort that is almost monophonic in its compressed intensity, is particularly effective during those dramatic cave-ins. The word grunge, of course, doesn’t do this kind of ravishing clatter justice. But Nirvana never bought into the simple Black Flag-cum-Sabbath hoodlum shtick anyway. From Bleach on, they have specialized in a kind of luminous roar and scarred beauty that has more to do with Patti Smith, the Buzzcocks and Plastic Ono-era John Lennon.

Actually, the icy tension of the part ballad, part punk-rock blues “Heart-Shaped Box” and the amorous chamber-punk urgency of “Dumb” (“My heart is broke/But I have some glue/Help me inhale/And mend it with you”) confirm that if Generation Hex is ever going to have its own Lennon – someone who genuinely believes in rock & roll salvation but doesn’t confuse mere catharsis with true deliverance – Cobain is damn near it. In “Heart-Shaped Box,” the kind of song Stone Temple Pilots couldn’t write even with detailed instructions, Cobain sets up a hypnotic coiled-spring tension between the frayed elegance of the verse melody and the strong Oedipal undertow of his obsession (“Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”). The last track, “All Apologies,” is another stunning trump card, the fluid twining of cello and guitar hinting at a little fireside R.E.M. while the full-blaze pop glow of the chorus shows the debt of inspiration Cobain has always owed to Paul Westerberg and the vintage Replacements.

It’s the last thing most people would expect from Angst Central, and it’s an inspired sign-off that shows how Nirvana have been reborn in the face of suck-cess. In Utero is a lot of things – brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.

David Fricke

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