It took me a while to figure out how to memorialize William S. Burroughs.
There’s something about Burroughs that makes words seem ridiculous, especially trite sentimental words about death. This is the writer, after all, who’d coined the phrase “Language is a virus.” When Burroughs’ fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg died a few months earlier, the emotional response flowed easily, as Ginsberg’s own literary style was warm and highly personal. With Burroughs it would be more tricky.
I had gathered a few pieces that I wanted to work with. The first was the transcript of a telephone interview conducted by poet and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, which Lee had sent me along with three surprisingly great photos he’d taken when visiting Burroughs at his home in Kansas. The second two were short tributes I’d solicited from two writers who’d known Burroughs personally, Robert Creeley and Carolyn Cassady — not because the pairing of these two people had any special significance in the life of Burroughs, but mainly because I happened to know both their e-mail addresses. Carolyn Cassady’s reply was extremely curt and not very complimentary to Burroughs, but I considered her point of view as valid as any other, and it did not seem unfitting that there should be some divisiveness within a memorial to this highly controversial personality.
The fourth piece is, I think, the most remarkable: a personal account of the Tibetan/Egyptian-inspired after-death ceremony, a bardo, conducted by Burroughs’ closest friends and partners shortly after his death. This was written by Patricia Elliott, who’d been Burroughs’ close friend, and who originally posted it to the BEAT-L internet mailing list.
Unsure how to make these pieces fit together, I finally decided to follow Burroughs’ own example and give up on trying to
reconcile the individual parts. Burroughs had found meaning in the “cut-up” style of writing, in which sentences and paragraphs from various sources are spliced together intuitively but not logically, often revealing hidden meanings within. Getting into the spirit, I took inspiration from his title “Naked Lunch” and Ginsberg’s related title “Reality Sandwiches” and decided to call this whole project “Sliced Bardo”. That’s it, and here it is.
As James Grauerholz says in the final section, facing the fire: Let’s burn it.
“Give the director a serpent deflector
a mudrat detector, a ribbon reflector
a cushion convector, a picture of nectar
a viral dissector, a hormone collector
what ever you do, take care of your shoes”
— Phish, “Cavern”
“If I don’t explain what you want to know
You can tell me all about it at the next Bardo”
— David Bowie, “Quicksand”
Many thanks to Lee Ranaldo, Robert Creeley, Carolyn Cassady and Patricia Elliott.