William S Burroughs - Playback

William S Burroughs: www.thirdmind.org

William S Burroughs: Playback

In August 1972, cult US writer William S Burroughs subjected the Moka coffee bar to weeks of para-psychic bombardment - 'playback' - involving the making of recordings and pictures. Eventually, it closed and was taken over by the Queen's Snack Bar.

Thirty years on, Wild Bill's hex induction programme seems as potent as ever: after a decade of this site photographing and archiving old London cafes, the majority of them have now gone for good. Playback is a bitch...


"I have said that the real scandal of Watergate is the use made of recordings. And what is this use? Having made the recordings as described what then do they do with them?


They play these recordings back to the target himself is the target is an individual from passing cars and agents that walk by him in the street. They play these recordings back in his naborhood. Finally they play them back in subways, restaurants, air ports and other public places.

PLAYBACK is the essential ingredient.

I have made a number of experiments with street recordings and playback over a period of years and the startling fact emerges THAT YOU DO NOT NEED SEX RECORDINGS OR EVEN DOCTORED TAPES TO PRODUCE EFFECTS BY PLAYBACK. ANY RECORDINGS PLAYED BACK ON LOCATION IN THE MANNER I WILL NOW DESCRIBE CAN PRODUCE EFFECTS.

No doubt sexual and doctored tapes would be more powerful. But some of the power in the word is released by simple playback as anyone can verify who will take the time to experiment ...I quote from some notes on these playback experiments...

Here is a sample operation carried out against The Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street London W1 beginning on August 3, 1972 ...Reverse Thursday ...Reason for operation was outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisoned cheese cake...

Now to close in on The Moka Bar. Record. Take pictures. Stand around outside. Let them see me. They are seething around in there. The horrible old proprietor, his frizzy haired wife and slack jawed son, the snarling counter man. I have them and they know it.

"You boys have a rep for making trouble. Well come on out and make some. Pull a camera breaking act and I'll call a Bobby. I gotta right to do what I like in the public street."

If it came to that I would explain to the policeman that I was taking street recordings and making a documentary of Soho. This was after all London's First Expresso Bar was it not? I was doing them a favor. They couldnt say what both of us knew without being ridiculous...

"He's not making any documentary. He's trying to blow up the coffee machine, start a fire in the kitchen, start fights in here, get us a citation from the Board of Health."

Yes I had them and they knew it. I looked in at the old Prop and smiled as if he would like what I was doing. Playback would come later with more pictures. I took my time and strolled over to the Brewer Street Market where I recorded a three card Monte Game. Now you see it now you dont.

Playback was carried out a number of times with more pictures. Their business fell off. They kept shorter and shorter hours. October 30, 1972 The Moka Bar closed. The location was taken over by The Queens Snack Bar.

Now to apply the 3 tape recorder analogy to this simple operation. Tape recorder 1 is the Moka Bar itself it is pristine condition. Tape recorder 2 is MY RECORDINGS of the Moka Bar vicinity. These recordings are ACCESS. Tape recorder 2 in the Garden of Eden was Eve made from Adam. So a recording made from the Moka Bar is a piece of the Moka Bar.

The recording once made, this piece becomes autonomous and out of their control. Tape recorder 3 is PLAYBACK. Adam experiences shame when his DISCRACEFUL BEHAVIOR IS PLAYED BACK TO HIM BY tape recorder 3 which is God.

By playing back my recordings to the Moka Bar when I want and with any changes I wish to make in the recordings, I become God for this local. I effect them. They cannot effect me. And what part do photos take in this operation? Recall what I said earlier about written and sopken word. THE WRITTEN WORD IS AN IMAGE IS A PICTURE . The spoken word could be defined as any verbal units that correspond to these pictures and could be in fact be extended to ANY SOUND UNITS THAT CORRESPOND to to the pictures ...

Recordings and pictures are tape recorder 2 which is access. Tape recorder 3 is playback and 'reality'. For example suppose your bathroom and bed room are bugged and rigged with hidden infra red cameras. These pictures and recordings give access. You may not experience shame during defecation and intercourse but you may well experience shame when these recordings are played back to a disapproving audience."


William Seward Burroughs 1914 - 1997

Burroughs was born into an upper-middle-class Midwestern family shortly before the outbreak of World War I.

His Yankee paternal grandfather helped to perfect the adding machine, while his Southern maternal uncle did public relations for John D. Rockefeller and Adolf Hitler.

Later, information technology, media manipulation and politico-economic despotism would be among the most regular targets of Burroughs' aggressive satire.

He attended Harvard from 1932 to 1936, where he became aware of the writer who would prove to be his anti-type, fellow St. Louis native T.S. Eliot. Upon graduation Burroughs' parents sent him on a European tour, during which he began to study medicine in Vienna.

Prior to becoming a professional writer, Burroughs worked regularly as a pest exterminator, and imagery drawn from that job appears in many of his novels and memoirs. He also studied anthropology and occasionally fenced stolen goods and sold narcotics, all experiences that led directly to his experiments with and later addiction to morphine and heroin.

He considered much of his work to be a "mythology for the space age" that would suggest alternative visions of living to people trapped in the plastic nightmare of addictive global capitalism.

Burroughs died of a heart attack on 3 August 1997 at the age of 83; English novelist J.G. Ballard, a long-time devotee of Burroughs' work, praised the "weird genius" of his "magnificently paranoid imagination" and eulogised him as "the most important and original writer since the Second World War".



William Seward Burroughs outlived his contemporaries and his disciples, survived addiction and poverty, death, infamy and even his final adoption as a Grand Old Man of American Letters to have the last dry, rasping laugh in his familiar monotone drawl.

Burroughs is, one of the most influential post-war writers in english; he casts his long, lean shadow over literature, science fiction, rock music and film-making without ever losing his terse, laconic nihilism .

Burroughs was a paradoxical rebel. He was born the son of a wealthy businessman - his father invented the adding machine and revolutionised business - and grew up in the heart of middle American suburbia in St, Louis, Missouri; where he felt like an outsider. He would be an outsider all his life.

He was certainly not a drop-out -he studied English at Harvard, but he found his home with drop-outs, criminals, rentboys and poets as the lynchpin of the Beat generation. He met Kerouac, Cassady and Ginseberg in New York and group swelled to include junkies and poets. He was ten years older than the others, and became their mentor.

His intelligence and his love of danger contrasted with his "strange because ordinary-looking" conservative persona. His library became their reading list: Celine, Cocteau, Spengler. A year later, he was an addict and remained one on and off for the rest of his life.

Burroughs was homosexual. He was not gay, he hated his homosexuality, and thought it a weakness, but he was reconciled to it. When Ginsberg talked of 'becoming' straight, Burroughs was contemptuous. A man had to be true to himself whatever he was.

Burroughs was a romantic nihilist - sex was something violent and tender in his head, in life he was romantic, vulnerable, obsessed. Once, when a boyfriend left him, he cut off the joint of his little finger with a secaturs, stanched the wound and put the finger in his pocket.

He fell in love with Ginsberg, but the relationship never worked. His continual doomed relationships with inappropriate people led to his ambiguous relationship with Joan Vollmer. They, had a son, Billy, and moved to Texas but Burroughs had begun to loathe America and the 'family' moved to Mexico City.

Bill and Joan were addicts. He forged prescriptions to get morphine, drank heavily, carried a gun and slept with mexican rent-boys. In 1951, Joan was killed in an accident when they were loaded, playing their "William Tell game" Bill shot her in the head.

Burroughs claimed her death conjured a demon in him and made him a writer. Queer , describing their life in Mexico, was published in 1952, as a 'cautionary tale' about the evils of drugs. But Burroughs, encouraged by Ginsberg to "hold nothing back" made his real debut with "Naked Lunch".

It's impossible to describe the shock the book created. There is no narrative, simply episodes played out by characters fantastical and . It was - though few recognised it - a grotesque Pilgrim's Progress; a debauched Heironymous Bosch.

First published in Paris by a pornographer, later by Grove Press in the US, it was the subject of the last great American pornography trial. Burroughs was championed, by Norman Mailer, as "the only living American writer who may conceivably be possessed of genius".

His writings came from his dreams and his life. He was living in Tangier and the sweltering hole of pushers, paedophiles, junkies and corrupt cops fused with his imagination and his sexuality to become a land he called Interzone, using "cut-ups" - literally, cutting up and rearranging at random and rewriting the new text - and "fold-ins" - folding other writings: novels, newspapers, wherever, into his work . It was, as Anthony Burgess wrote, as though "someone who has looked into hell and reported what he saw".

Burroughs early books caught a sense of paranoia, of conspiracy and of excess that was wild and perversely liberating. He bacame a rock icon before rock existed. His writings were a savage, blackly funny satire on power and excess.

He was attracted to rock life - though he was indifferent to the music - as it was attracted to him. Paul McCartney was the first to encounter Burroughs at the recording sessions for Revolver, but others followed to sit at his feet - literally in Lou Reed's case, who sat tongue-tied for hours.

Burroughs was fascinated and bored by them. He thought Reed dull, arrogant and boorish. Mick Jagger was disciple - more out of fashion than real enthusiasm - and was set to collaborate on a screen version of Naked Lunch in 1969, but thought better of it, and ended up in Performance.

Bands borrowed their names from Burroughs' work: The Soft Machine (Burroughs name for the human body) and Steely Dan (a dildo in Naked Lunch). Bowie was fascinated by Burroughs cut-up techniques and used them in his songs.

By the arrival of punk, Burroughs was the natural grandfather of all punks. He was anti-establishment establishment. He craved power and loathed it, he thought Democracy 'cancerous' and everyone an agent of power hunger factions.

He himself was "an agent of Hassan I Sabbah, the master of the universe (Nothing is true, everything is permitted)." Punks flocked to him for wisdom: David Byrne came and Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. He wrote lyrics for Patti Smith, who became a friend, admiring what she called "the most brilliant mind in the world".

Frank Zappa who had met Burroughs many times and read the "talking asshole" sequence at a benefit gig later tried to produce Naked Lunch as an off-Broadway musical.

Burroughs later books, though dreamlike and nightmarish by turn, were less explosive. There were standard plots: Cities of the Red Nights was a bizarre thriller, The Place of Dead Roads a hallucinatory western, but his imagery remained fertile and was pillaged by punks and metalheads, and hugely influential in the beginnings of grunge.

Thurston Moore was a devoted fan who made his pilgrimage, Kurt Cobain was another awed disciple. There were other, stranger collaborations: notably Spare Ass Annie where Burroughs read stories and Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy created the soundtrack and a singular, musical collaboration with Tom Waits: The Black Rider.

Burroughs was paranoid and desperate to control his world: he flirted with the supernatural, psychoanalsis, anything that offered power, even Scientology, and he is the least-read, most-influential writer of his time. His imagery has seeped into film and music, into novels and dreams, into the way we hallucinate the world.

The Moroccans called him el hombre invisible :a man so ordinary he could walk by without being noticed; he has moved through our culture in his estate-agent's suit and left traces in every mind his work has touched.

(Frank Wynne, Melody Maker, June 97)

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