“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
– William S. Burroughs
The SydArthur Festival, in search of the Ur-Elders, resounds with a Burroughsian truth that rock’n’roll only in its later years has become able to comprehend: that the statement of the True Artist will be made when it is made, and not when the money of the patron dictates that it will be made. Burroughs was 43 when his first book was finally published. Like the 59-year-old T. C. Lethbridge, whose visionary works tumbled forth at a remarkable bait; like the 78-year-old Grandma Moses, whose art commenced only upon her becoming a septuagenarian; William Burroughs appears to the outside world to have been something of a late starter. Outrageous untruth! No career author, he. Burroughs’ place in the SydArthur Festival occupies some kind of granite sub-flooring in the basement. He was like Lenny Bruce: dirty, obscene, amphetamined-up, low-lifed-down: behaviour that was preparing the world for rock’n’roll. Who can think of another non-rock’n’roll figure who plays such a role of elder statesman to rock’n’rollers? Nobody! Patti Smith sat at his feet. The Velvet Underground paid homage to him in ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’. He hung out with everyone from Genesis P-Orridge to Lemmy.
It was the renegade ways of his experimental writing that revealed to the outside world that Burroughs possessed nothing less than Odinist powers: he dared to dictate new methods with new rules. And his methods captured the voracious imaginations of the hippies, of the punks, and all the rest of the unreconciled refuseniks of the world. His methods were charming, useful and very carefully laid out. Judicious use of these methods by other artists would bring forth in them something of the spirit that Burroughs prescribed, delivering from that artist something holy, yet wholly of themselves. A lawmaker! Ironic, considering Burroughs had, in 1952, fled Mexico and a homicide trial, making himself a literal outlaw. But, in the West, the law moves in mysterious ways. For Burroughs, it gave him an authentic appeal. Queer was as much the work of a hermaphrodite as it was of a homosexual. Gender fluid before his time, William Burroughs was Bonnie and Clyde. He was Verlaine and Rimbaud. He was Sid and Nancy. He lived the life of a perpetual adventurer and psychic explorer, hung around with great men, and influenced remarkable people. A true unsavoury genius.
Today let’s practice cut-ups. Make Burroughs proud by tearing first a page from the Bible, second a page from the Koran, third a page of Cosmopolitan and finally a page from any appliance instruction leaflet. Cut strips of text and on your kitchen table sort them out into poetry.