A four-CD set highlights live performances by the late Lawrence resident.
To fully appreciate the sardonic humor and caustic satire of the late William S. Burroughs, close friend and longtime companion John Giorno contends, you really have to hear him for yourself.
It's now possible to do just that. "The Best of William Burroughs on Giorno Poetry Systems," a comprehensive four-CD boxed set released this spring (Mercury Records, $65), features the Beat icon reading selections from each of his 30-odd books.
"What it is is everything that William ever performed and the best performance of it," Giorno said, explaining that Burroughs had a specific, though constantly evolving, repertoire of excerpts that he read before audiences.
"There are only certain things you can perform," Giorno continued. "Some things are meant to be read, and they don't come across well in front of an audience. But other things are just meant to be performed."
The poet-producer founded Giorno Poetry Systems in 1965 to document the work of Burroughs and other Beat Generation writers. He's since released albums and videos featuring an eclectic array of artists, including Patty Smith, Debbie Harry, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa and Philip Glass.
He began sifting through his huge collection of Burroughs tapes eight years ago, judging the best performance of each passage.
"There's a little bit from every single book, from 'Naked Lunch,' 'The Wild Boys,' 'The Ticket That Exploded,' 'Nova Express,' up until the 'The Cat Inside,' Giorno said. "The last recording was done in Lawrence about a year and a half ago," shortly before Burroughs died.
Indeed, "The Best of William Burroughs ... " appears to be the definitive collection of live performances by a writer whose work and persona were ideally suited for the stage.
As Newsweek writer David Gates (who wrote the liner notes for the boxed set) observes, there's often a disappointing gap between a writer's "real-life" voice and the ideal voice readers imagine as they read. Not so with Burroughs.
"No major writer in the age of recorded sound has had a speaking voice that harmonized so convincingly with his literary voice as William Burroughs," Gates argues.
It's an easy argument to support. As was true of just about everything Burroughs did, when he read, he went all out.
The four discs resound with a panoply of voices and accents as Burroughs impersonates his motley gang of addicts, eccentrics and repressive power mongers with theatrical flair. These comic characterizations evolved, Gates contends, from the impromptu riffs the writer used to amuse friends.
The juxtaposition of different time periods also gives the recordings texture, Giorno said. The majority were recorded during reading tours undertaken between 1971 and 1987, but some date from the early `60s.
The selections are arranged in order of publication, forming a chronological survey of Burroughs' career, which started with publication of "Junky" in 1953. A 64-page book includes text from the books and photos spanning the writer's 83 years. But, in many cases, the readings themselves jump wildly between varying time periods.
"The performances are what happened to be randomly the best, so that every two or three minutes William's voice changes, from a great performance of 25 years ago to a great performance of the early `90s," Giorno said. "Every few minutes the sound of his voice and its melodious qualities completely change, which holds you there. You can actually listen to it endlessly because his voice keeps changing."
Giorno says the collection was completed before Burroughs died, but legal wrangling delayed release until this spring. And though the writer gave his blessing to the project, he wasn't actively involved in selecting passages.
"William wouldn't mind hearing about what you were doing, but he would never participate in the project other than to be supportive," Giorno said.
But the godfather of the Beat Generation did like the idea that his work would be preserved not just in print, but on record as well.
"He was a great performer," Giorno said. "He really liked doing readings, and he liked that he was appreciated by his audiences.''
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