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Rock's Backpages: Blondie In Conversation With William S. Burroughs
The Quietus , August 2nd, 2010 08:42

This month's feature from Rock's Backpages sees Victor Bockris' getting Blondie and William S. Burroughs around the dinner table for a chat about Concord, UFOs and why the English are the worst people in the world

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NOTE: I taped this dinner party for William Burroughs, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein for my book With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker. It was in the fall of 1979, shortly after Blondie had released Eat to the Beat, which contained that strange track called 'Victor'. I was trying to introduce Bill Burroughs to my punk rock friends, because I thought there was a rich connection between the beats and the punks (See my book Beat Punks). Debbie and Chris were perfect examples of this cross-pollination. Like me, they came from beatnik roots that had been watered by the British Invasion rock of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and its US division Bob Dylan. Anyway, Bill dug it special and we laughed and laughed until I fell out of my chair. As soon as I finished the Burroughs book I started writing Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie, with Debbie and Chris. - Victor Bockris, August 2010.

ANXIOUS TO ATONE for our wicked implication of a rift in America's finest nouveau pop combo, New Music News brings you a real live interview with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (who sends his socks to a laundry). However in true form this is rather an off-the-wall interview, for Victor Bockris managed to invite himself to a dinner date the Blondies had arranged with William Burroughs. If you are too young or too dumb to know who Burroughs is, a brief perusal of your local bookshop's shelves will tell you that he's one of America's greatest modern authors.

He invented the infamous "cut-ups" writing technique by reshuffling the words of his novels, The Naked Lunch to make three more books, Dead Fingers Talk, Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded and has had several other best sellers, including Nova Express and The Wild Boys. Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs was in the vanguard of the Beat Movement, and at the time of the interview Burroughs had just returned from a conference in Italy and completed a new novel, Cities Of The Red Night. For his part, Chris Stein is in the studio producing the Lounge Lizards and Walter Stedding & The Dragon People whilst Debbie reads scripts for a possible movie role and vacuums their apartment. Cosy, huh?

NMN: Debbie and Chris just came back from London and they always fly on the Concorde.

Debbie Harry: Sometimes we do. If the record company pays for it we do. It's great! It's the greatest.

What are the other people like on the flight is what I want to know!

Chris Stein: We chased Lord Somebody out of his seat. He was smoking a cigar in the No Smoking section so we told the Steward to chase him, and the Steward came back to us later and said "that guy told me 'Don't you know who I am!'" and it was Lord So-and-So.

DH: Yeah. Lord and Lady So-and-So.

Nicholas Roeg said all the people look like old business men.

CS: Yeah, mostly completely businessmen.

DH: No! We saw Willie Nelson! Wasn't Willie Nelson on the flight?

William Burroughs: Well I don't know. Who is Willie Nelson?

DH: Country and Western Guy. And I saw this blind guy. One big huge blond guy sat there and we didn't know what was wrong with him, but he was like so fucked up he just sat there in the seat and he was like you know "GUUUUUYUUUUURRRRGGGHHH!" And they led him off the plane at the end. We didn't even know he was blind, we just thought he was completely stoned, we thought he was so stoned that he couldn't even get around. They drink a lot on that flight to. Free booze. You can drink forever.

WB: I don't know anything about the Concorde. What's it like?

DH: It shoots up in the air like a rocket ship. It takes three hours from London to New York.

WB: Unless you're looking for a tax write off, I can't see why anybody would...

DH: Well it is an experience because there's like a club of people that are like fans of the Concorde and because there are such a small number of planes in the fleet of Concorde planes and they only carry 100 people at a time, it's a real thrill. And remember when they show those things on the moon launches, how the rockets jettison different parts? The plane sort of does that when it shoots into a higher surge of power. The plane sort of goes thwoom! and approaches space, and everything is sort of nice. It makes you want to be an astronaut.

WB: Well I would leave the piloting of the plane to someone else, but I sure would like to go on it. I don't believe any of the stuff about "I won't go on unless I know how to pilot the plane," although I used to be a private pilot, a very private pilot. It's easy as driving a car to fly a simple plane. I'm not talking about a big airplane or anything like that, but one of these jobs that land at 24 miles per hour and cruises at 65 miles per hour.

DH: They have these little two-seater helicopters now for just about the same price as a car. You know those executive helicopters for about $12,000.

WB: Helicopters are difficult and dangerous to fly. They're much more dangerous than regular planes.

CS: You know what hang-gliding is?

WB: Of course I know what hang-gliding is. In Boulder I was surrounded by hang-gliders. They used to take off across this plateau. You can be 10,000 feet in about half an hour outside Boulder so these guys are up there taking off the cliffs. It's very dangerous. All my pilot friends say no, no, no, it's like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. A lot of people have been killed, worse yet injured, terribly injured. You know people say "Oh well suppose you do get killed." Well there are a hell of a lot of worse things that could happen to you than get killed. But it must be an absolutely great feeling if you can come down alive because I have seen them up there and at first I thought they were buzzards.

CS: My friend told us he saw a guy dangling from a hang-glider hanging from the electric wires in California.

Have you ever had a bad electric shock? You've had them, obviously.

WB: No, I haven't had any electric shocks.

Not even just touching a toaster with a knife or something?

WB: No, not even that. The most I've had is walking around on the rugs. That's what we used to do as kids, shuffling around the rugs. But I don't know about these shock treatments. I know a lot of people who've had them and I didn't see anyone who was permanently improved.

Bill just returned from Italy. He said it's very calm over there and there's no tension at all.

DH: Yeah, they like this new Pope.

WB: Well nobody tried to kneecap me or anything like that.

DH: Well they like this Pope.

WB: Did you read Day of The Jackal? Remember that great scene in The Day of The Jackal where De Gaulle got through because of this time fuck up and the grenade had just shattered the glass and he gets up just brushing glass off himself and says "Encore un fois." Really magnificent. "Once again." He was a completely fearless man.

Everybody hated him in England because he was so...

DH: So French?

Don't you think the French are the most awful people in the world?

CS: I wouldn't agree with that.

DH: Yeah, but I like that.

WB: I think in many ways the English top them.

DH: AAAHHHAAA defend yourself!

WB: America will also have... you know we can produce...

A close second.

WB: ...American monsters, the industrialists and so on.

But the French are so long-winded.

WB: I wouldn't say long-winded at all. The French are utterly ruthless.

DH: No, but they're so secure...

In their Frenchness?

WB: No, they're pretty efficient. The people that protected De Gaulle, they were professionals, they knew their business. The people that were supposed to be protecting Kennedy didn't know their business – obviously! You see a good bodyguard knows if there's something going on before it happens. They're paid to.

DH: We've had bodyguards. They're sort of nice. They do go on instinct a lot.

WB: And of course if the trouble is coming from real professionals with guns, see that was what De Gaulle was up against. He wasn't up against nuts, he was up against armed men who knew all about, and had access to, every kind of weapon.

DH: But they work with the police too. See that's one of the things that I think Kennedy suffered from, because his own echelon was so separated from everyone else's, it's like he went into enemy territory. There was no cooperation between him and the police.

WB: Of course it has all the earmarks of the CIA and Mafia job combined. There's all these stories about De Santo Traficante. Santo Traficante! What a character! Imagine anybody being called Saint Trafficker, Saint Pusher! That's exactly what it means, and somebody was talking he said "what are we gonna do if Kennedy gets elected?" He said "He isn't gonna get elected, he's going to be hit." So Kennedy had contracts out on him apparently from several sources.

DH: Yeah but those were like not even his they were just like his family name.

WB: I'll tell you, he was too honest a man. He was a lot better than Nixon. See Nixon is a man that had the morals of a private detective. He had no integrity. Kennedy did. Kennedy had some integrity and he felt that there were some things that he might actually baulk at. He said "Goddam it I'm not going to do this." You don't feel that there was ever anything Nixon would draw the line on.

WB: I understand people being miserly but a lot of people, particularly wealthy people, have an absolute complex about anyone asking them for even the smallest loan.

DH: I used to live with somebody like that. Remember Chris! Somebody who really had a lot of money but was really uptight about lending money. You know what I mean?

WB: Yeah, they get a whole production going as soon as anyone asks them for money. Like suppose somebody I know very well says "I need $5 for a day Bill to go do this, that and the other," I wouldn't think twice about it, but if you ask a rich person and he then says "Oooohh, well I don't happen to have it on me." I've also had them say "I DON'T LEND MONEY."

DH: Well, what do you lend?

WB: By that time they're in the house...

DH: How about your watch? Would you lend me that?

WB: ...and closing the door. They don't want to know about this. "Have you no pride!"

DH: Are you a good cook?

WB: Well I am reasonable, yes.

DH: I mean do you open cans or do you buy things and make them?

WB: Well no, I cook tastily for as many as ten people.

Debbie, that's what I'm saying. Do you cook big dinner parties in your house for as much as ten people?

CS: Debbie could do it, she's pretty good, right?

DH: I could do it, I enjoy it, yeah. Have you been to Portugal?

WB: Er, no. Well I just have been across the border a couple of times but I don't know Portugal at all. It's funny because it looks like no other place. I was in Lisbon and the people don't look like any other people I ever saw. The architecture doesn't look like any other architecture. And I remember when a Portuguese fishing boat would suddenly blow into Tangier on some kind of wind they couldn't get off, you'd see them a block away, you could spot a Portuguese. They're a strange sort of slightly uncouth looking archaic people dressed in these old clothes, some of them very beautiful, some of them awful looking.

DH: Well that's also true of The Atlanteans and Druid descendants, right?

WB: But they were so distinguished you could just look down the block and say "there is a Portuguese man" – strange looking people.

Nobody seems to want to live anywhere except New York.

CS: Well the more I travel around the less I want to live in other places. You live next door to where we used to live on The Bowery.

DH: We used to live in a haunted building.

WB: What haunted it?

DH: On top of the liquor store we lived in an old doll factory that had employed child labour.

CS: When we moved into the place things went berserk they were flying around all the time.

DH: Fires...

CS: It was three floors, a real big floor through.

WB: Were you fixing it up?

CS: No it was totally destroyed, but I found these old things in there from the Forties, old plaques.

DH: There were bullet holes in the windows from the Mafia when they had the place.

WB: Well now what were these psychic phenomena that occurred? Tell me about it.

DH: There was an entrance that came up from street level, a narrow long staircase that was very dark, and at the top of the staircase there was a flat wall with a doorway in it and Chris decided to paint this wall black because he thought it would make it nice, and there was a loud knocking and he saw a little boy.

CS: Flashed on a little kid. It was more like a feeling than actually seeing. It was more a presence...

WB: Did you have any impression of the child's age?

CS: Eight, nine.

WB: Was there anyone in the vicinity of this whole operation that young?

CS: No, there were no little kids around.

WB: 'Cos as you probably know about poltergeists they almost always manifest themselves through young people.

DH: We had our adolescent bass player who was constantly having nervous breakdowns and stuff like that.

WB: Well that's it, that's it.

CS: But Gary was almost electrocuted.

WB: Wow! Sounds like real poltergeists.

CS: I came into the room and there he was clutching this lamp and he was going "nnnuuueee", and I knocked it out of his hand. He was standing there his clothes were getting fried, and then he was in shock for hours.

DH: Yeah, it took him a couple of days to get calm.

CS: We all almost got killed one night. The whole place cost us $350 a month 'cos there was no heat at night and there was only one bathroom. I used to have to go down about eight in the morning to get the boiler going, then it would start up and go the whole day until they would close the liquor store at six, then there would be no heat until the next morning. Well one night the flame in the boiler went out and all the gas just got pumped up through the radiators, and when Debbie and I woke up we had black soot around our nostrils.

DH: The cats woke us up though, that was the most amazing thing. The cats woke us up.

CS: We would have been dead in another half an hour.

WB: I'm lucky I'm a light sleeper see, the slightest thing wakes me up.

DH: I think I'm a light sleeper.

CS: It's really not true though, she goes out to sleep, she sleeps good.

DH: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. But our cycles are completely the opposite, so that when he's sleeping really well, I'm usually awake.

Bill told me that if you have these strange dreams or sexual visitations at night and you want to break the train of events, the thing to do is get up and have a cup of tea.

WB: If you want to. Yeah. Well, nightmares for example. I feel you fall right back into. You know the kind of dreams where you're struggling to move and you do move and you're awake. Then if you just close your eyes and don't get up you're going to have it again, but if you get up...

Most people apparently want to go on with it because most people don't get up they stay there.

WB: Well they're probably too lazy.

DH: It's because it's a physical change right?

WB: Yeah, you just get up maybe have a glass of milk or if you still have that terrible habit, smoke a cigarette, walk around a couple of times, then you may or may not break it, but nightmares will come like that, one after another, the same one of being paralysed, held down...

It almost suggests that if you feel any kind of physical tension and you can move into another dimension it would cure it.

CS: Have you ever witnessed any flying saucers? Do you know any UFO people?

WB: No I never saw one. I guess I have talked to people who told me directly that they had seen one, but I can't exactly remember. But there was this bit about the strange animal who tore up the table at a friend's house in Boulder. It was a very strange thing. He had this table out there, in this courtyard, and it was made out of an old chicken coop with a piece of plywood on top. They heard this weird howling and they found that the table had been moved and the top was neatly placed down on the floor with everything on it, which means no animal could have done it because they couldn't pull it out without spilling everything on it, and this happened a couple of more nights and then the table was completely destroyed. They rushed out there as quickly as they could and heard these unearthly screechings, but they could never get out there fast enough to see whatever it was. Logically it had to be something that could have taken the top of the table and put it down. There were no eccentrics in this very small town, so this got written up in the Boulder newspaper on cattle mutilation and flying saucers in which people had talks with aliens and so on. The aliens said they were here, I forget for what reason exactly.

CS: It's usually to stop the arms race!

WB: Well these seemed to be a little bit more, frankly, there for their own advantage, but I really forget what it was.

I find it very hard to believe because I think if there were aliens we would be in touch.

DH: Well supposedly some of them are in touch with the Pentagon.

What's the story with 'Call Me'? Giorgio Moroder wrote the music?

CS: He wrote the music and Debbie wrote the lyrics.

DH: They asked me if I wanted to and I said sure I'd love to. We went over to the hotel and he played us the movie on video and I just got my impressions of it and I tried to think of what it would be. Giorgio's original idea was to call it "man machine" because the man was just like the sex machine, and he had these lyrics he had written but he definitely wanted me to write something better.

CS: Debbie's lyrics are much more subtle than the ones he wrote. His thing was very direct like saying I am a man and I go out and I fuck all the girls. Debbie's lyrics are a lot more subtle and the movie in a way is not that blatant, it is sort of subtle.

So how did the lyrics come to you?

DH: I was just listening to Giorgio's music and I had my visual impressions from the film which really helped a lot, it's really cool...

CS: Yeah in that kind of situation it helped a lot. I was just talking to somebody about doing movie music. It's so easy to do music for a movie. Like it was so easy to do 'Union City' because the mood of the picture was all there and everything and I just had to fit the music to it.

DH: American Gigolo has some things that are really nice about it, it has a very great look. The thing that I was really fascinated by when I saw it was the muted tones and high tech look of it, so that was the first verse about colours. "Colour me your colour baby/colour me your car." It was like teasing too because the thing about the movie was that he was always – "Call me! Call me if you want me to come to you." You know, "Cover me." And it was like these little commands had this macho quality through his being a male hooker, you know that kind of demanding business. So it really fell in easy for me. I got real enthusiastic. The first verse came real fast and then the others were just there.

CS: She made up the song in the studio.

DH: I loved doing it. It was like being hired to do a jingle or something. You know, you get your assignment. And now it's a top five hit.

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Anthony
Aug 3, 2010 10:23am

Yep really enjoyed that. Anything with Burroughs tends to be pretty facinating.

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steven cowie
Aug 4, 2010 11:19am

"..of course i know what hang gliders are!" sometimes i think they expected WSB to be only concerned with mugwumps, anal sex ETC. an interesting titbit.

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