Weekend links 148

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Quantum Entanglement by Duda Lanna.

An hour-long electronica mix (with the Düül rocking out at the end) by Chris Carter for Ninja Tune’s Solid Steel Radio Show.

• “…a clothes-optional Rosicrucian jamboree.”: Strange Flowers on the paintings of Elisàr von Kupffer.

• A Paste review of volume 2 of The Graphic Canon has some favourable words for my contribution.

It is an entertaining thought to remember that Orlando, all sex-change, cross-dressing and transgressive desire, appeared in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s sapphic romance The Well of Loneliness. The two novels are different solar systems. The Well is gloomy, beaten, defensive, where women who love women have only suffering and misunderstanding in their lonely lives. The theme is as depressing as the writing, which is terrible. Orlando is a joyful and passionate declaration of love as life, regardless of gender. The Well was banned and declared obscene. Orlando became a bestseller.

Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf’s androgynous fantasia.

Jim Jupp discovers the mystical novels of Charles Williams.

Michael Andre-Driussi on The Politics of Roadside Picnic.

Les Softs Machines: 25 August 1968, Ce Soir On Danse.

• At 50 Watts: Illustrations and comics by Pierre Ferrero.

Soviet posters: 1469 examples at Flickr.

Oliver Sacks on drugs (again).

• At Pinterest: Altered States.

• Farewell, Kevin Ayers.

Darkest London

Why Are We Sleeping? (1969) by The Soft Machine | Lady Rachel (1969) by Kevin Ayers | Decadence (1973) by Kevin Ayers

Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine

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Jarek Piotrowski is a Polish-born Canadian artist whose exhibition of hand-cut PVC mats at Galerie8, London, borrows a title and inspiration from William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. From the usual slab of gallery-speak:

Drawing on the subversive William S. Burroughs novel The Soft Machine (1961), Piotrowski’s work explores themes of the human body under siege, repetitive rituals and institutions of control. Through an immersive installation of paintings, cut-outs, experimental music and live performance, structure and order are broken down and unanswered fundamental questions of human nature confronted.

These creations no doubt look better in situ than in photos. The close-up below makes me think of Brion Gysin’s meshed calligraphy and the slots in his Dreamachines. Piotrowski talked to Dazed Digital about the Burroughs influence:

I don’t necessarily have a favourite part of the book, I like it as a gesture in itself completely rather than a particular part. I think of it more as an entity, but I do particularly like the phrase, ‘two assholes and a mandrake’ – it is a beautiful picture that I find quite intriguing.

Soft Machine runs to March 11th, 2012.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Looking for the Wild Boys

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Calder & Boyars, 1972. Design by John Sewell.

This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction—the others are entertainment.

Mary McCarthy defending The Naked Lunch in the New York Review of Books, June, 1963.

Mary McCarthy’s view—echoed a year later by Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard in the pages of New Worlds magazine—has never been popular or even particularly acceptable. William Burroughs gets touted as an sf writer by other writers, and John Clute gives him an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but Burroughs’ sf scenarios are guaranteed to offend those readers who prefer their narratives presented in a neat, linear form with detailed explanations of How The Future Would Actually Work, or the physics behind some piece of imaginary technology. The books which immediately follow The Naked LunchThe Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express—all feature sf scenes or ideas. The latter was deemed sufficiently generic to prompt Panther Books in the UK to publish it three times as “Panther Science Fiction” although given the severe criticism that Moorcock sustained for trying to broaden the horizons of readers in the late 60s I don’t expect sales were encouraging.

The Wild Boys, published in 1971 (1972 in the UK), was Burroughs’ first novel after Nova Express, and his first book of fresh material after mining the stack of writing that birthed The Naked Lunch and the titles which followed. The novel is subtitled A Book of the Dead (as in the Egyptian or Tibetan Books of the Dead), and is certainly science fiction although I’ve never seen it marketed as such or noticed any sf reader include it in a list of notable genre novels of the period. My Calder & Boyers hardback offers a précis of the fractured narrative:

The year is 1988. The Wild Boys, adolescent guerilla armies of specialized humanoids, are destroying the armies of the civilized nations and ravaging the earth. The wild boys, who began in the pre-present past as petrol gangs, dousing their victims with petrol and setting them on fire for kicks, have grown to an army, dedicated to violence. One of them is used in a cigarette commercial. He becomes a new cult figure, a demi-god responsible for great destruction, and it is left to strong man Arachnid Ben Driss to exterminate the wild boys. He slaughters them, but the battle continues underground until all civilization collapses, revealing a future of horrifying dimensions. The originality of the theme and the very special Burroughs style together make this one of the most unusual science fiction novels ever, a prophetic exploration of the future, that should quickly establish itself as one of the classics of the present time.

That’s accurate, up to a point, although like many book blurbs it misrepresents the content somewhat. It also neglects to say how funny the book is. For anyone with a black sense of humour Burroughs has always been a great comic writer, and The Wild Boys has some prime examples, not least the opening chapter, Tío Mate Smiles, which is best appreciated in the author’s own reading.

Having gone through the novel in the past week, and going through its follow-up/appendix/remix Port of Saints at the moment, a couple of things occurred to me. The first was the way The Wild Boys strongly prefigures later works like Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads. This is a fairly obvious point but it’s one that hadn’t fully clicked until now. The Wild Boys takes the problems of repressive control systems posed in the first few novels and offers a possible solution: a homoerotic utopia/dystopia where gangs of teenage boys hide out in depopulated regions, waging war against the rest of humanity with sex, magic and a mastery of weapons, including biological and viral varieties. While doing this they are steadily mutating so they can leave behind all human concerns with nation, family, laws and written language. Cities of the Red Night was Burroughs first novel after The Wild Boys and presents a less radical proposal, ranging through time with its anarchist pirate colonies and the six cities of the title. In The Place of Dead Roads Kim Carsons has his band of outlaw cowboys, The Wild Fruits, and the book gives us the conflict between the Johnsons—those who “mind their own business”—and the Shits: lawmen, politicians, tycoons, all the usual agents of Control.

Continue reading “Looking for the Wild Boys”

Soft machines

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Seven (1973) by Soft Machine. Design by Roslav Szaybo.

You’re the great, grey man whose daughter licks policemen’s buttons clean,
You’re the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine.

Mick Jagger, Memo From Turner (1968)

By coincidence this month I’d been re-reading some William Burroughs when I picked up a nice box set of five Soft Machine albums, part of a series of reissues that Sony have been doing recently. They’re very cheap and sound excellent, and also have the additional benefit of being a card slipcase holding the discs in card sleeves so there’s no nasty plastic packaging. The set comprises the Third (1970), Fourth (1971), Fifth (1972), Six (1973), and Seven (1973) albums. I have the band’s first two studio albums already so this has been an opportunity to get fully acquainted with the rest of their output up to the point where the machine started to run out of steam.

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The Soft Machine (1968) with die-cut sleeve. Design by Byron Goto, Eli Allman, Henry Epstein.

Third and Fourth are freaked-out jazz fusion recorded when Robert Wyatt was still on drums; Fifth, which I had for years on vinyl, is post-Wyatt fusion of a more polite variety, great compositions but it sounds lightweight compared to Miles Davis’s On The Corner which was released the same year. Six, which I’d hardly heard at all, is a set of live recordings and four superb studio tracks. Seven is the weakest of the lot but it prompts this post on account of the cover which I always liked the look of when flicking past it in record shops. Seen today it still looks surprisingly advanced for 1973, and the intention behind the design is still mysterious. I used to regard it as vaguely “futuristic” despite knowing that the music was nothing of the sort. The accumulation of abstract symbols contained by a human head implies either a score for some aleatory composition (which again is belied by the short jazzy pieces within), or can perhaps be read as a “soft machine”, especially if one considers that the popular idea of electronics at this time involved patch-boards and banks of flashing lights. Ten years later with synthesizers in common use this kind of semi-cybernetic imagery was a lot more topical.

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The Soft Machine Volume Two (1969). Design by Byron Goto, Henry Epstein.

The first two Soft Machine albums both showed literal renderings of Burroughs’ “soft machine” idea albeit couched in the naked-woman-as-decoration style of the late 60s. Six has a horrible cover with an airbrushed attempt at a soft machine, one of those pictures common to the 1970s that you’re amazed was approved by band and record company.

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V2 by The Vibrators (1978). Design by Roslav Szaybo.

The design for Seven is credited to Roslav Szaybo, an in-house designer at CBS. Looking through Mr Szaybo’s other credits there’s little that resembles his Soft Machine cover until you arrive at the sleeve for V2, the second album by British punk band The Vibrators. This was another cover I always liked for similar graphical reasons to the Soft Machine sleeve; they also share a similar stencil typeface. Musically they’re worlds apart, of course, although William Burroughs’ influence on music carried on into the punk era (another Brit punk band named themselves Dead Fingers Talk) and beyond. It’s an influence reaching from the mid-60s with Soft Machine and his appearance on the cover of Sgt Pepper, into the 1990s with the many recordings he collaborated on or inspired from Bill Laswell, Hal Willner and others. His influence generally may have fallen off since his death in 1997 but it’s still a remarkable achievement for someone who never seemed to care much for music beyond the popular tunes he heard as a boy.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Weekend links 57

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A 1973 Ballantine edition of William Burroughs’ novel with a cover illustration from Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) by Salvador Dalí. Via the Burroughs Book Covers archive.

The Sel Publishing House, Turkey, published a new translation of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs in January, an edition which is now under investigation by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office following a report by the (deep breath) Prime Ministry’s Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications. The Council lodged a number of complaints, among them assertions of “lacking unity in its subject matter,” “incompliance with narrative unity,” “using slang and colloquial terms” and “the application of a fragmented narrative style.” Details here. Does Turkey still want to join the EU? Because this kind of persistently illiberal bullshit (see the earlier treatment of Orhan Pamuk) isn’t helping their case at all.

• Related to the above: Evan J Peterson reads Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the toilet of a Seattle gay bar; Ginsberg himself reads Kaddish and other works here.

• More illiberal bullshit: LGBT activists arrested during royal wedding; Queer Resistance released a statement about the arrests. MPs, activists and trade unionists condemn new attacks on the right to protest.

The Dorian Gray That Wilde Would Want Us To Read. Harvard University Press publishes an uncensored and annotated edition of Wilde’s novel. Kudos for using Caravaggio’s Narcissus on the cover.

One weekend in late 1967, they all decamped to a hotel suite in California’s Ojai Valley for a brainstorming session. Amid clouds of pot smoke, they talked all weekend with the tape recorder running. [Jack] Nicholson then took the tapes and turned the conversations into a screenplay; according to Rafelson, he structured it while on LSD.

Revisiting The Monkees’ psychedelic movie, Head.

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Kraftwerk icons for Windows and Mac OS X by Dave Brasgalla.

Robert Louis Stevenson gets his revenge on sneaky literary agent – 120 years later. And Michael Moorcock imagines tales of unseen Mervyn Peake pictures.

Painting doesn’t look so good on the web. It looks better in life. Sculpture looks better in life. What you end up with is just a reproduction. Whereas with film or with sound or with poetry, you get the deep primary experience not the secondary experience. The web delivers those primary experiences very well.

Ubuweb’s Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed.

• Arkhonia’s Another Dispatch in a World of Multiple Veils is now a free download.

• The story of This Is The Sea: An interview with Mike Scott of The Waterboys.

Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers.

Haeckel Clock, a free app for the iPad.

What is totalitarian art?

Porpoise Song (1968) by The Monkees | Hope For Happiness (1969) by The Soft Machine | I’m A Believer (1974) by Robert Wyatt.