As iconic as he remains, William S. Burroughs has been the most difficult of the Beat writers for the average reader to latch on to. His best known work, like Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, and The Nova Trilogy, are compellingly messy affairs: part science fiction, part psychosexual fantasy, part heroin withdrawal hallucination.
What people have instead found connection with is his long, craggy appearance and his intoxicating speaking voice. Which is why albums featuring Burroughs reading his own work, either dictated straight or with musical accompaniment of some sort, have been cycling in and out of the world since the release of Call Me Burroughs in 1965.
The producer that has connected with Burroughs’ voice and words more than anyone is Hal Willner. Known primarily for his wide-ranging tribute albums to monumental musical figures like Kurt Weill and Charles Mingus, Willner has made two efforts in the past to meld Burroughs in with avant-garde sounds.
The fascinating 1990 collection Dead City Radio found the author growling out passages from his own work and the Bible while artists like John Cale, Sonic Youth and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen spit out everything from noir-ish jazz to skin searing noise. On Spare-Ass Annie and Other Tales from three years later, Burroughs fought to be heard over the postmodern productions of Bay Area duo The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (featuring a pre-Spearhead Michael Franti).
As well, Willner helped produce an abridged audiobook of Naked Lunch, released in 1995, that featured backing music from an experimental jazz ensemble including guitarist Bill Frisell and violinist Eyvind Kang. But it’s one that quickly went out of print. Those particular recordings couldn’t stay hidden forever, apparently, as they’ve been resurrected by Willner with some help from garage-punk maestro King Khan for Let Me Hang You.
Well, some of the recordings at least. Naughty boys that they are, Khan and Willner have plucked out only the filthiest bits from Naked Lunch for this project. It’s a coy move, but a knowing one as well. That’s what the original book is best remembered for: playing with taboo language and scenarios that got it banned in Boston and Los Angeles in the early ‘60s.
They also wisely keep Burroughs and his potent, often hilarious words central in the mix. The musical accompaniment is mostly understated, remixing the original recordings by Frisell and Wayne Horvitz and adding in new elements from a gang of modern players. On a creepy track like “Manhattan Serenade,” it’s the addition of some chimes, warping keyboard melodies, and a post-production coating of reverb that simmers and threatens. Kang’s Moroccan-inspired violin track sinks back in the mix, raising in tension and volume only as Burroughs’ story of baboon torture gets more intense.
Khan and Willner also welcomed in some contributions from new players, including an Australian garage rock band The Frowning Clowns. Theirs is the most exciting addition to the mix. We’ve already heard the moody soundscapes and drowsy electronic beats already. Time to throw a little swagger into the mix. To that end, the Clowns give the delightful “Clem Snide The Private Asshole” a lot of Nuggets-like shimmy, as if Burroughs were doing a reading at Z Man’s happening in Beyond The Valley of the Dolls.
Let Me Hang You isn’t the complete recasting of Naked Lunch’s vision or the mythos surrounding its author like David Cronenberg’s film adaptation for the book was. It doesn’t really need to be either. The goal, I’m imagining, is to push his words under the nose of new readers and let them deeply inhale the fetid odors. That’s another reason why sticking to the prurient segments of the book makes perfect sense. There’s no better way to excite people’s interest than by painting something as taboo. Longtime Burroughs fans will flock to this as well, but it’s the new people that come to the fold that are going to make a record like this stick.