William S. Burroughs - Let Me Hang You

by Kevin Orton Rating:6 Release Date:2016-07-15

Twenty years ago William S. Burroughs was approached by Hal Wilner to do a spoken word record featuring selections from Burroughs' seminal, Naked Lunch. While Burroughs needs no introduction, Wilner is best known as the man who helped usher in the tribute album trend, most notably with Lost in the Stars and Stay Awake. The likes of Bill Frisell and Wayne Horowitz were enlisted. Alas,nothing came of it. It sat in a vault collecting dust for two decades. In 2015, Wilner decided to revisit the abandoned project comissioning King Khan, a musician both he and Lou Reed admired. Khan brought in musician and multi media artist, M Lamar whose work has been self-described as  “Negrogothic”. For trivia fans, Lamar is the twin brother of transgender actress Laverne Cox (of “Orange is the New Black” fame).

This is far from the first William S. Burroughs spoken word album. I doubt it will be the last. But of all I’ve heard so far, this is the least successful. In many cases the music is at odds with Burroughs’ narrations. Serving as a distraction as opposed to enhancing. It has nothing to do with the music itself, which is interesting. Its just that often times its too high in the mix, frankly. For instance, ‘Clem Snide’ “private asshole” beautifully reminds me of The Velvet Underground at their most experimental. ‘Sister Ray’ meets ‘Murder Mystery’. However, it lures the ear away from Burroughs recitation.  That said, ‘Gentle Reader’, is the most successful merger of sound and voice.

Never a narrative writer, Burrough’s Naked Lunch is comprised of a series of surreal vignettes with Burroughs acting as stand-up comic, in an empty club, skewering societal ills and social mores with all the grumpy panache of a whiskey priest. Deliberately cartoonish depravities, torture machines, and outlandish characters are the order of the day. Similar fare can be found in Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and Justine. So much so in fact, I  can't imagine de Sade wasn't a massive influence on Burroughs. Like de Sade, Burroughs’ subversive techniques are often perceived and misunderstood as being pointlessly perverse, meant to shock and little more. And while Burroughs was most deliberately out to shock and disturb, yet as with de Sade, there is an outrage beneath the debauchery. One could even call that outrage, moral. Outrage at hypocrisy, sexual repression, bigotry and war. Burroughs’ unique brand of satire was a phantasmagoric, vice ridden and utterly viscious satire on post WW II America. An eviscerating slash at the dark underbelly of the "I Like Ike" era. What he was typing on his Smith- Corona was the equivalent of the gruesome and beguiling images Francis Beacon was conjuring on canvas. Burroughs’ world is an outrageous collage of sexual fantasies, bureaucratic absurdity and acts of wince inducing violence. Suffice to say if Let Me Hang You has a recurring theme, it’s one of trannies and johns being hung. Not only figuratively, but literally.

‘Disciplinary Procedures’ satirizes torture and sexual repression, featuring the ramblings of a junkie back alley abortionist.  ‘Leif the Unlucky’ (pronounced “life”) is all about a one eyed walking calamity whose eye is eaten out by a vulture while he’s passed out drunk. Suffice to say, things go from terrible to even worse.

One of Burroughs’ most notorious routines from Naked Lunch inspired the name of a certain 70’s Yacht Rock band. ‘Let Me Hang You’ features a transvestite hooker named AJ and her companion remembering the good old days with a strap on dildo named Steely Dan. “What happened to Steely Dan?” AJ’s companion asks. “He was torn in two by a bull dyke” is the reply. After AJ tortures and maims a trussed up Johnny, AJ’s companion hangs her, dragging her shitting and screaming to the gallows. Freud would have had a field day. Yet, I confess I’m disappointed that my favorite routine from Naked Lunch has been overlooked. The one that begins, “Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? He had this carnival act you dig…”

“I am not American Express” Burroughs discloses. No, indeed he is not. Let Me Hang You is not for for the prudish or squeamish. He is deliberately out to shock and repulse the reader. Yet as a testament to his strength as a writer, Burroughs makes it nearly impossible to look away. And when you do, he’s branded a nightmare on your brain.  

So I am not here to criticize the material. Admire it or loathe it, Burroughs' work stands on its own. Yet, unlike Burroughs' other spoken word records, like Dead City Radio, here the music too often jars and distracts. Not that I’m down on the music itself, mind you. It’s quite compelling. Perhaps too much so. But I’m in inclined to wonder how better Let Me Hang You would be, if things were brought things down in the mix more.

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