William S. Burroughs “Real English Tea Made Here” 3 x CD (2007)

CD coverThe idea of a three disc set of Burroughs’ cut-up experiments may sound more task then enjoyment but I have found this archival dig to a be a treasure.   This is a bit different the what is known on “Nothing Here Now but the Recordings” – the only previous collection of his cut-up recordings.  Whereas that 1981 LP focused on shorter pieces with more quick edits, “Real English Tea” features longer pieces, up to 44 minutes in length, that show a more casual approach to juxtaposing material.  Many alternate between radio news broadcasts and Burroughs’ own reading of newspapers or original material leaving large passages of each to present an idea.  These more large scale collages work more often with complete sentences and rather than looking to break through between the words.  It is more about atmosphere in these experiments.  Long sections of music figure into several; more so than the familiar shortwave noises used in the “Towers Open Fire” soundtrack.  Where the later most prominently return here is in an alternate version of that piece which shows curious variations and in “The Piper Pulled Down the Sky”, seemingly recorded at about the same time.  What strikes me about all of these is that they are closer to his readings.  The cuts here are only the more obvious signs of what was otherwise seamlessly put into his writing and read in one voice, not then revealing its sources so quickly.  Of course most extreme and best known examples of this is the trilology of cut-up novels “The Soft Machine”, “The Ticket That Exploded” and “Nova Express” but forever after it remained a signature of his writing style which kept his narrative from a straight and narrow line.   Dates of the recordings are hard to pinpoint at this removed vantage point but estimates in the accompanying essay suggest around 1964 and 1965, and mostly in New York despite any suggestion from the title.  These dates come with an air of authority as they are put forward by c0-curator of this anthology Barry Miles, a name that should be familiar to Burroughs scholars.  His involvement might explain the more literary nature of the recordings here in comparison with the more sound based ones by selected by members of Throbbing Gristle for the above mentioned earlier LP release.  He is also a prime position to clue us into what some the texts may come from or refer to.  Of course nothing in great detail, as that would take away from the subjective impact of hearing the recordings.  It does enough to place these recording in the perspective of Burroughs’ timeline specifying which writings point to and benefit from these experiments, as well as to point out that Burroughs is actually commenting on things that immediately precede his interjections.  Too much analysis would detract from the open associations which would seem to be the envisioned advantage of this method — the ability to discover previously unseen connections.  These recording now include an unavoidable patina of nostalgia as well for the world documented in them as well as most listeners earlier experience reading Burroughs’ words.

For me, age seems to have brought a better understanding of, and there appreciation of, Burroughs’ cut-up works.  Reading sections of the cut-up trilogy and similar works now I find can follow the thread of imagery which was impossible to convey otherwise and impenetrable to my younger mind.  Perhaps it is a greater disordering of my senses over the decades, or maybe in a better light it is a greater attention to the other possibilities inherent in the limited symbols which we have at our disponsal to rearrange in an effort to hopelessly convey all of human experience (Joseph Campbell to the contrary seemed happy to acknowledge, and even celebrate, how much of experience was ineffable).  William S. Burroughs came together as a writer in the time that James Joyce introduced the world to the stream of thought in writing and obviously saw that there were further regions left unmapped on the printed page beyond this.  This set of CDs gives a view into how he pushed this envelope and better observed the multiple lines of thought in his head as they mixed with the sights and sounds of the world around him that grabbed his attention.  He was after all to later point out that walking down the street was in itself an internal cut-up because of the number of different stimuli and thoughts colliding in one’s head as different events appeared and unfolded. So for me at this point of my depth of engagement with the man’s work, I can appreciate and gain from multiple listenings of his set and I am sure that there are others like me.  I applaud Colin Fallows for making this set available as well as co-steering this project with Barry Miles, whose scholarly attention to Burroughs over the decades I have alluded an appreciation of to above.

This work is lovingly presented as three discs in card sleeves contained in a slipcase with a 16-page booklet.  While Miles’ essay takes up a portion of the booklet, it also features many rare and unpublished black & white photographs of Burroughs from Paris, London and Tangier taken by Brion Gysin, Barry Miles and Ian Sommerville respectively.  It is Ian’s photo on a back cover of the booklet which appears to given the set its title.  Much to my pleasure it is a compact package and fits among jewel cased discs perfectly.

Audio Research Edition – ARECD301