I met William S. Burroughs 10 years ago when I was an MC at the Nova Convention — a “countercultural” extravaganza celebrating Burroughs’s contribution to American art and thought. There were panel discussions (Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary) and performances by lots of people including Patti Smith, Frank Zappa (who read the talking-asshole section of Naked Lunch) and, supposedly, Keith Richards.
A lot of kids had come to see Keith and as the evening of performances wore on they were getting pretty restless. I remember this well because it was my job to go out onstage and “keep the ball rolling,” which got harder and harder. Actually, Keith had cancelled a week before the event and the promoters had “announced” this by tacking up a minuscule piece of notebook paper in the lobby which said, in extremely light pencil: “Keith Richards will not be appearing tonight.” Apparently no one had seen this note and the crowd was starting to pound the floor and chant “KEITH! KEITH! KEITH!” completely drowning out Phil Glass’s piano solo.
Finally, Burroughs walked out onstage, wearing a porkpie hat and carrying an old briefcase. He sat at a big desk, taking his time. “Good evening…” There was something so familiar about that voice. He started talking about drugs and alienation and other things these kids thought they’d invented themselves. There was an eerie silence in the theater. That voice! There was something very “beyond” about that voice: half midwestern salesman/half Egyptian mummy. It came from a strange world something like this one — but not quite.
“I was traveling with The Intolerable Kid on the Nova Lark…” I can hear him now. He was sly, dangerous, incisive. But most important of all, he was wildly funny — the kind of funny that features daredevil leaps of logic that turn the world inside out, the kind of funny that sets you free. The crowd went crazy: Granddad! Where had he been all our lives?
BURROUGHS FIRST appeared in 1950s America like an old black-sheep uncle who shows up one day from nowhere and starts banging on the door, “It’s Uncle Bill! Let me in!” And the family scurries around, bolting the doors. “It’s Uncle Bill! What should we do? Pretend we’re not here!” This was in a country where people were primarily concerned with mowing their lawns, attending PTA meetings, and keeping a tight lid on things — a self-satisfied place that resembled the ’80s far more than the ’60s or ’70s.
It seems like every 10 years or so Burroughs rises up from his grave, says one thing, and drops back down again. And it’s always right. Perfectly cast as a junky/priest in Drugstore Cowboy, he intones the last word on the decade, muttering something like, “The right wingers are using drug dealers as scapegoats.” And you realize, “My God! He’s right again!”
I LIKE TO THINK of William Burroughs as Ronald Reagan’s evil twin. Both are midwestern con men/ham actors with a gift for gab. And while Burroughs was writing his cantankerous classic, Naked Lunch, Reagan was busy perfecting his “just folks” delivery in the service of General Electric.
Ron landed the big job, of course, because of his voice. That voice! The way he leaned into the microphone and talked right to us. So personal. “Good evening everybody…” (conspiratorial little chuckle). And it was like the two tears of kitsch: the first tear says: Look at all you wonderful Americans. And the second tear says: And look how sensitive we all are for noticing.
A couple of months ago, Ronald Reagan delivered his official oil portrait to the White House. Apparently under the impression that he was still in office, he heartily thanked “Vice-President Bush” for the hospitality. Of course, Reagan was right. He is still the president.
“Greed,” agree most of my friends. “Greed sums up the decade.” I guess I’d add the things that flow out of greed — disease, hunger, and fear — because this is what Reaganomics looked like when it finally arrived in the real world. And I don’t even have to go out of my way to see it. I just walk out my door and there it is. Every night there are four men trying to sleep in 30-degree weather in the new loading dock dormitory — a dorm that wasn’t here last year. Old women are rifling through garbage bags hunting for scraps. Delivery boys ring all 10 doorbells at once, which was really irritating until one day I realized: they can’t read. So then how come there hasn’t been a major riot in this town? How come they don’t just burn the place down? Fran Liebowitz suggested going up to the South Bronx to find out. “On second thought, forget it,” she said. “I’ll tell you why. They’re too stoned to stand up. That’s why.”
SO WHAT EXACTLY is going on here? I can’t pretend I know. When I think about the ’80s I don’t really think about trends. I think about the people I love and the people I miss.
I miss Robert Mapplethorpe. I loved his work because he was willing to look at taboos — big taboos — the kind that scare people, like: What do sexuality and religion have in common?
So to me, one of the most grating voices of the decade belongs to Jesse Helms. I can hear him now, twanging away about Robert Mapplethorpe. “This Mapplethorpe fellow was an acknowledged homosexual. He’s dead now, but the homosexual theme goes on throughout his work.” (So when you die your themes disappear with you?) And on the B side, there’s the voice of Walter Annenberg sniffing, “I’m sick of people expressing their artistic attitudes in an unappetizing manner.”
I remember as a kid sitting in church and watching the minister point to pictures of Jesus Christ — a man who was wearing practically no clothes and bleeding profusely. “Love this man. Love his body. He loves you,” the minister was insisting. And all the men and boys were squirming. (This of course resulted in the invention of Sunday afternoon football.)
Sex, religion, death (AIDS) and money (the National Endowment for the Arts) — Helms wrapped them up in a terrifying package and waved it around Congress like a bomb in a suitcase. The conclusion? An obscenity law: We’re not going to look at this. And you’re not going to look at it either.
I suppose one of the positive things about this incessant, dramatic swing to the right is that it does tend to bring artists out of their holes. I loved being part of the crowd in front of Artists Space screaming about the First Amendment. (I do think it would help a lot, though, if American artists began calling themselves “dissidents” since the U.S. government seems to find it pretty easy, even sort of patriotic, to champion the rights of dissidents in other countries.)
I MISS FASSBINDER, too. I love his films. I love that they don’t end. They just stop. Mid-sentence. And his characters! Like huge pieces of stuffed furniture, they can hardly heave themselves around. They’re so clumsy, so inarticulate — so unbearably human. But most of all I love Fassbinder because he had empathy. I never would have expected it 10 years ago, but now I find that I value empathy over most other things (intelligence, looks, achievements, even creativity). Unfortunately, empathy is the flip side of most American pop culture, that is, hero worship. Nothing wrong with hero worship really, except that the heroes are usually a bunch of dumb wiseguys.
One of my biggest hopes for the ’90s is the decline of the buddy film. OK OK. I know they get made because there’s a huge supply of buddy/screenwriters — a coupla guys in West Hollywood and they’re sittin’ around looking for ideas. “Say, why don’t we write a film about… hey! about… a coupla guys!” I wish there were films that women could relate to a little bit more because really if I see one more movie starring these guy-duos (rival cops, escaped cons, college roommates, etc.) I’m going to scream.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE films of the last 10 years was Wings of Desire because I like to imagine various utopias and because I love to fly. About three years ago I was at Kennedy on my way to Paris when a guy came up to me and said: “I really like your music.” I said, “Thanks,” and we talked for about an hour — a fascinating conversation that rambled through dozens of topics — things like Ruiz’s speculation “What if every heartbeat you ever had had a name?” — things like that. As we were leaving I said, “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. What’s your name?” And he said, “Wim Wenders.” And I said, “Oh. Hmmm. I really like your films.” We became friends and spent some evenings in Berlin talking about angels — what they look like — what they talk like. Do they actually wear black raincoats and follow you to the library? And, most important, why were they invented? As some kind of control group?
THE MOST HOPEFUL person I’ve come across in the last decade is Wubbo Ockels, the Dutch astronaut. I met him in Germany when we were guests on a strange TV variety show, along with Tina Turner and Gidon Kremer, the Russian violinist. It was quite an evening. Wubbo was demonstrating various antigravity tricks involving tables but when I talked to him later at close range I was struck by his eyes. There were tiny hairline x’s in each eye. (His contact lenses were being monitored in a study of peripheral vision.) I saw him again in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago because he’s planning a big meeting in Groningen, Holland (July ’90) of all the astronauts and cosmonauts of the world. Wubbo said, “You’re interested in these other places. Why don’t you come and do something with us?”
The astronauts have just published a book, The Home Planet, with lots of pictures taken from outer space captioned with their personal descriptions of what it was like up there. The photographs are haunting and very unfamiliar-looking. The writing is sort of clumsy but full of awe. They wrote things like, “I never knew what round was until I saw the round, round earth turning in space. And why call it earth when it’s mostly water with just little bits of land where the animals and people are?”
But the thing that struck me most was that they seemed to agree that nobody is up there — nobody is peering down at us with high-powered binoculars. And more than that, we’re not the last survivors, the last fading fragments of life. Somehow they seem to think we’re the very first. And this belief has filled them with an overwhelming desire to convince themselves and others to try — above all — to be excellent ancestors. The ’80s? It’s too late. But trying to be excellent ancestors seems like a pretty great way to head out toward 2000 A.D. ■
The Rise of Rockism
By Robert Christgau
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 7, 2020