‘Fight tuberculosis, folks.’ Christmas Eve an old junkie selling Christmas seals on North Clark Street, the ‘Priest’ they called him. ‘Fight tuberculosis, folks’
Thus begins today’s offering, William S. Burroughs / Kurt Cobain The ‘Priest’ They Called Him, a groovy 10″ record I picked up when it was released in May 1993, not so much because I was into Nirvana (which I was, of course) but because I was REALLY into William Burroughs. Still am.
There was something about Burroughs that just registered with me straight up, something about the whole art-as-life/life-as-art schtick and just the sheer huge flamboyance of his life. I mean here we have a man who had, amongst a great deal of other things, cut off his left little finger to impress a man, shot his wife, was a regular user of opiates for roughly 55 years, trekked the Amazon looking for the legendary drug Yage and in between wrote some of my favourite books and stories. All the while looking beautifully presented in suit and hat (mostly) – I do like a man who makes a sartorial effort. The David Cronenberg film of Naked Lunch being Mrs 1537 and my first proper date.
I could go on and on, I own shedloads of Burroughs and have strong opinions about it, the repulsive, the hilarious and the incredibly touching – I think Queer, is such an immaculately judged book about love and privation. William Burroughs never gets the kudos he deserved as a writer and the best English language satirist since Jonathan Swift*, possibly because I think his life loomed large over his work and critics were suspicious of that sideshow**.
But you’re not here for my literary opinions are you? Burroughs always meshed well with rock/pop musicians of all stripes, the Stones sought him out in the 60’s, he’s one of the cut-outs on the cover of Sgt Pepper, Lou Reed / Bowie / Laurie Anderson and the whole CBGBs set all beat a path to his door. Whether it was Burroughsian cut-up techniques for lyric writing / injecting their works with creative chaos, or just seeking a little reflected outlaw glamour, they flocked around him. On vinyl there’s a spoken word thing, or two, an excellent collaboration with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, another one with Bill Laswell / Material, Tom Waits Black Rider, Bomb The Bass Bug Powder Dust and best of all Ministry. Steely Dan, Soft Machine and Nova Mob all owe their names to him too.
Starting with a jagged, screeching rendition of ‘Silent Night’ Cobain plays fine, noisy, impressionistic guitar throughout this track’s 9 minutes. The contrast with Burroughs’, mostly, deadpan narration is acute. It would have been interesting if Cobain had lived whether he would have pursued more arty projects like this one, I’d like to think so; although I can’t remember too much fuss about The ‘Priest’ They Called Him when it was released.
The story is a reworked version of the 1940’s story ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, which was shaped into ‘The ‘Priest’ They Called Him’ in 1967. In the former a young junky called Danny the Car Wiper struggles through various schemes to get a fix on Christmas Day, he does eventually score from an unpleasant, corrupt doctor but gives his shot to a kid in the next room from him suffering from kidney stones, in return he receives ‘the immaculate fix’ and overcome by the ‘vegetable serenity’ of junk ends on the nod. In the later version the old junky is known as the ‘Priest’ and he eventually gives his shot to a Mexican kid with leg cramps in the next room, he too receives ‘the immaculate fix’ for his sacrifice, however the wording is deliberately ambiguous leaving you unsure whether this has killed him^.
In both stories the protagonist finds a suitcase containing a pair of legs (female in the first version) and there is, I think, a deliberate play in the second version of the fix being used to heal the leg symptoms of the Mexican boy. Like all Burroughs you are left grasping at whether this means anything, or everything at all, or even whether that matters in the slightest. It’s one of the reasons I like it, you have to leave your cognitive compass at the door and just let yourself go; which is precisely why so many people don’t like it.
There’s no B-side here, just etching’s of both parties’ signatures on the back^^. What a missed opportunity! Burroughs and Cobain didn’t meet, their parts were recorded at separate times and places – surely they could have stuck them in the same studio and jammed through a couple of numbers for the flip side? Personally I’d love to have heard Burroughs’ sepulchral croak on a cover of UFO’s ‘Doctor Doctor’, or even a cover of VU’s ‘Heroin’? I know he’d have made a great job of ‘Walk On the Wild Side’. Why was I not consulted?!
A little piece of Nirvana trivia here folks, the tall junkie figure in classic Burroughs overcoat and Trilby on the cover? none other than Chris Novoselic.
Your Bonus Lego Of Dubious Morality
*the image Burroughs peddled of the enduring gentleman junkie does, of course, miss out a lot of the truly horrendous aspects of addiction and compulsion, some of which the money from his grandfather’s legacy protected him from – but that’s the point, he was selling an image. Please don’t think I’m oblivious to that, heroin kills, no matter how nice a hat you’re wearing.
**I’m a big fan of his essays and factual writings, only Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and (sporadically) Norman Mailer / Hunter S. Thompson did it as well in my opinion.
^I think it did.
^^whoever ‘Kurtis Donald Cohbaine’ is.