William S. Burroughs is perhaps known best for his novel The Naked Lunch, his “cut-up” theory of writing, his general Beatnikocity, or the fact that he accidentally killed his wife during a “William Tell routine” down Mexico way. But Burroughs also contributed a considerable body of work to the spoken word genre and vigorously experimented with the performance of the written word.
Burroughs worked on dozens of solo and collaborative spoken word albums and videos, as well as many multi-genre or interdisciplinary recording projects. He partnered with some of the biggest names in music, film, and TV. He collaborated with Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, R.E.M, and Kurt Cobain. Gus Van Sant’s 1991 short film “Thanksgiving Prayer” is a montage of images overlapping a video of Burroughs reading his poem “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986.” Burroughs appeared as a “guest performer” on Saturday Night Live in 1981, reading excerpts from The Naked Lunch and Nova Express while sitting at an institutional metal desk with a spotlight glaring on him. The scene suggested an interrogation, which was appropriate in the sense that Burroughs often relied on a stark, deadpan delivery and frequently invoked anti-authoritarian political commentary and disturbing observations on the more vulnerable and deplorable aspects of human nature.
In 1993 Burroughs teamed up with industrial hip hop artists The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to create Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, a 15-track CD featuring Burroughs reading previously published selections from his body of work–and ad libbing a few brief new ones during interludes–over original beats thrown down by The Disposable Heroes. The result is not exactly a hip hop album per se, but it is a wonderfully unsettling combination of the creepily hypnotic and the soothingly discordant…with some of the trappings of hip hop thrown in.
Michael Franti and Rono Tse formed The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1990 after their previous group, The Beatnigs, split up. Both groups combined elements of rap, punk, and industrial with an array of samples and sound effects to create a rhythmically powerful and driving style of music that didn’t fit comfortably within any of the genres it borrowed from. Both groups also focused on politically subversive subjects in their lyrics, which probably made them a good fit for working with Burroughs. If you’re not familiar with The Disposable Heroes, imagine a darker, more somber Public Enemy or Gil Scott-Heron with Nine Inch Nails or Ministry playing faintly in the background and you’ll have a reasonable impression of their debut album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury. And to be fair, it’s way better than that description might suggest.
The music for Spare Ass Annie is reminiscent of The Disposable Heroes other work but is somewhat more muted, relying on prominent bass lines and drum beats with melodic backing choruses, occasional horn accompaniments, and sparse psychedelic guitar. Franti joins Burroughs on a few of the vocal tracks, and Ras I. Zulu introduces “Uncle Bill” on “Did I Ever Tell You About The Man That Taught His Asshole To Talk?” Throughout the album Burroughs reads in his trademark droning, nasally voice that one contemporary reviewer of Spare Ass Annie described as “Vincent Price-like” for The Chicago Tribune. Even though it sometimes seems like Burroughs is trying to navigate between a bemused disdain for the world and debilitating exhaustion, there is something mesmerizing about it.
Island records released the album, and some prominent players from the literary and music scenes came together on the planning and production. Franti and Tse produced Spare Ass Annie with Hal Willner, an industry stalwart who’s worked with Marianne Faithful, Lou Reed, and Lucinda Williams, among others. Kim Buie and James Grauerholz are thanked in the liner notes “for bringing this group together.” Buie is a long-time music insider and executive, and Graueherholz is a writer and editor who later penned a biography of Burroughs and became the literary executor of his estate.
The Spare Ass Annie CD came with a label proclaiming Burroughs “the spiritual godfather of The Beats (past and present)” and a Parental Advisory warning, of course. Though the CD appears to be out of print, digital downloads and new and used copies are still available online. You can also listen to the full album below via YouTube (note the track listings are in reverse order for some reason).
Bonus: Rumor has it the vocal track from “The Junky’s Christmas” on Spare Ass Annie is the same one used in the short claymation film of the same name, which was made in 1993 by directors Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel and later produced by Francis Ford Coppola and distributed by Koch Vision on DVD in 2006.
Darien Cavanaugh received his MFA from the University of South Carolina. His fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Sou’wester, The Dos Passos Review, Memoir (and), The Minnetonka Review, The Blue Collar Review, Struggle, Pank, The James Dickey Newsletter, Megaera, The Pickwick Press, Gertrude, I-70 Review, Kakalak, The Gap-Toothed Madness, The Blue Earth Review, and The San Pedro River Review, among others. He is the Founding Director of The Columbia Broadside Project, a member of the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum, a reporter for War is Boring, a writing instructor at the Tri-District Arts Consortium, and a bartender at The Whig, North America’s greatest dive bar.
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