Earlier this month, Bloomington-based enthusiasts of the American writer William S. Burroughs put together an observance of the centenary of his birth. The Burroughs Century—celebrated with concerts, films, art shows, and a symposium–made it clear that there is no shortage of Burroughs fans in Bloomington, in spite of the fact that the legendary author neither lived in the city nor had any significant ties to it during his lifetime. Nonetheless, one of the exhibitions included in the Burroughs Century assembles artifacts that document the author’s presence in Bloomington—both in person, and on the page. Everything is Permitted: the Life and Work of William S. Burroughs is currently on view at Indiana University’s Lilly Library.
What could William S. Burroughs, author and spoken word artist famous for his distinctively shocking subject matter, and the Dancing Cigarettes, a now-defunct legendary local band, possibly have in common? For starters, both are often described as transgressive.
That’s the word that Rebecca Bauman uses to characterize Burroughs’ work. One of the curators of the show at the Lilly, Bauman claims that it was difficult to put together a traditional exhibition with such transgressive materials to work with. It’s also the word Tim Noe, former multi-instrumentalist for the Dancing Cigarettes, uses to describe the post-punk band’s vibe.
It’s kind of amazing to me that a person who was openly gay, and who wrote about his drug addiction, was appearing in the middle of Indiana.
In 1981, these two artistic forces came together to perform a gig at the Bluebird nightclub. Paul Sturm, a self-described Dancing Cigarettes fanatic, was there. “It was a packed house,” he remembers, “and that was in the older Bluebird, so there was a lot less space. Everyone showed up knowing they were going to have a good time. The Dancing Cigarettes never disappointed me. They were always a very energetic and a very creative band. It was a great partnering – whoever booked the show and put in the Dancing Cigarettes as the closing band was genius.”
The promo poster for the gig reads, “Twilight Tones: Modern Music for Cool Fools. Literary madness with William Burroughs. With Jon Giorno and the Dancing Cigarettes.” This poster is one of countless objects currently at the Lilly Library for the Burroughs show, which also features the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In that novel, Kerouac wrote of his impressions of Burroughs, who appears in the book as “old Bull Lee.”
Old Bull Lee: Mentor, Muse
“It would take all night to talk about old Bull Lee,” Kerouac writes, ” let’s just say now he was a teacher, and it may be said that he had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning, and things he learned were what he considered to be and called the facts of life, which he learned not only out of necessity, but because he wanted to.’
Jim Canary, head of conservation at the Lilly and the other curator of the show, elaborates: “[Kerouac] talks about [Burroughs] dragging his thin body around the world and picking up bits of knowledge everywhere. Jack really captured Burroughs with those words. They met when Jack was at Columbia in New York, and they ended up collaborating on writing together. Jack gave the title for Naked Lunch.”
Kerouac was just one of a succession of younger artists who saw Burroughs as a sort of crotchety grandfather-artist figure, and flocked around him for inspiration and collaboration. Besides Kerouac, Burroughs’ countless acolytes included Lydia Lunch, Kurt Cobain, and, of course, the Dancing Cigarettes.
Your writings have been an aggressive influence on our own material, read the Dancing Cigarettes’ invitation to Burroughs.
Tim Noe, the former member of the Dancing Cigarettes, describes Burroughs as an inspiration for him personally, and for the band as a whole. “There were six people in the band, and I would say at least two-thirds of the members of the band were directly influenced by his work. To me, he was an iconic figure. I had read several of his books at that point, and the idea that I would actually meet him, or even play on the same stage, just seemed far-fetched.”
Transgression In The Heartland
Noe said that his background and that of his fellow band members fueled their attraction to Burroughs. “By and large, most of the band came from a rural or small-town kind of environment in Indiana – very homogeneous, and very conservative. I don’t want to dis all Hoosiers, but [they’re] just not your typical kind of William Burroughs fan. So, I think that he is a perfect example of someone we would listen to, turn to, read, whatever – because it was such an affront. It was transgressive; it was shocking. There’s a spirit of transgression that was essential to that particular band at that particular time, that he was obviously a very potent representative of.”
There’s a letter on display at the Lilly that shows exactly how the band felt about Burroughs. They sent it to him before he came to Bloomington. It says, “All of us feel it important that the information contained in your work reach a larger audience. Your writings have been an aggressive influence on our own material.” They also gave him a copy of ER, a zine produced by one of the band’s friends that mimicked Burroughs’ cut-up technique and featured experimental Xerox art.
…he was cadaverous and frail; a strong wind could blow him away. He was just kind of gray…and wearing this awful, cheap suit that probably came from a Goodwill store.
Even the name of the zine was a cut-up: “The name ER came from a ripped up vintage magazine,” explains a longtime Bloomingtonian, who prefers to remain anonymous. “The cover had been ripped, and an ad underneath was showing through the torn page, and it said ‘er.’ That was all you could read. So they said, ‘we will make a magazine and we will call it ER.’”
A big Dancing Cigarettes fan, the local woman was also present at the 1981 gig that brought together her favorite band with the infamous author.
I had never seen a famous quote-unquote author before,” she admits, “so I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised that he wasn’t some sort of superhuman god. He was not very tall, not very big – he was very cadaverous. He looked very frail; he looked like a strong wind could blow him away. He was just kind of gray; his skin and hair and fingers were all gray, and he was wearing this awful cheap suit that probably came from a Goodwill store. And his shoes were even awfuler – they were ‘70s tan leather gumshoes that were really, really scuffed. The Dancing Cigarettes were great; we loved them. They were our heroes.
The band didn’t play as well as usual, Noe recalls, out of extreme nervousness. They were all in awe of Burroughs.
It’s kind of amazing to me,” Noe marvels, “that a person who was openly gay, and who wrote about his drug addiction, was appearing in the middle of Indiana. I found that kind of astonishing. But at the same time, he was from the Midwest originally – he was from St. Louis, I believe – so, there’s something that’s kind of recognizable about him in one way, that he has a Midwestern flavor that he couldn’t escape.
Everything Is Permitted: The Life and Work of William S. Burroughs
An exhibition of artifacts exploring William S. Burroughs' relationship to Bloomington. Kerouac's original scroll of On The Road is on view through Feb. 22.
Lilly Library, Indiana University, 1200 E. 7th St., Bloomington
Jan 20-May 13, 2014