A couple of years before his death, William S. Burroughs recited some of his favorite and most obscene passages from Naked Lunch for what became an abridged audiobook with an avant-garde soundtrack. Now the producers of those sessions have collaborated with garage rocker King Khan and other experimentally inclined artists to retrofit the author’s craggy-voiced narration with striking new recordings for an album dubbed Let Me Hang You.
One particularly jagged track on the record is “Clem Snide the Private Ass Hole,” an excerpt from the middle of the experimental novel. As Burroughs stiltedly reads his own bizarre prose in which the titular Snide recites every lurid, gritty detail he notices while watching a junky “female hustler,” Khan and his fellow musicians play a brittle, upbeat groove and funky, bluesy guitar solos. It makes for a stark contrast to phrases like “My asshole is occluding,” and it’s altogether surreal when accompanying passages that appear to be results of Burroughs’ “cut-up” writing technique, where he wrote pages, snipped them apart and rearranged them.
“When I wrote the music for ‘Clem Snide,’ I was mainly inspired by the black-and-white photography of Miron Zownir and the storytelling songs of the Velvet Underground,” King Khan tells Rolling Stone. “I wanted to make an obvious ‘nod’ to Lou and bring his spirit into this twisted miasma.”
In 2015, producer Hal Willner, who worked on the original sessions with editor and Let Me Hang You co-producer James Grauerholz, brought Khan into the project. Khan in turn brought in experimental artist M. Lamar (twin brother of Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox) and Australian garage rockers the Frowning Clouds into the mix to work around the original Naked Lunch recordings by Naked City members Bill Frisell and composer Eyvind Kang.
Willner recalled in a recent New York Times interview that the producers and Burroughs had chosen the passages because “we found [them] very funny in an outrageous way.” Khan, who identified with Naked Lunch’s depiction of drugs after watching his father become addicted to cocaine, told the paper that the project came at a good time as he was “making a lot of strange music.”
The drama in Burroughs performance, however, was innate to the work. Although he refuted the notion that he “acted out” the book’s characters in order to write them, in a 1965 interview with The Paris Review, he said he acted out some of the voices when he was completing the novel in Paris and that some of the novel came from improvisation. “[Naked Lunch’s] Dr. Benway dates back to a story I wrote in 1938 with a friend of mine, Kells Elvins, who is now dead. … and we did definitely act the thing out,” he said. “We decided that was the way to write. Now here’s this guy: What does he say? What does he do? Dr. Benway sort of emerged quite spontaneously while we were composing this piece. … Many of my characters first come through strongly to me as voices. That’s why I use a tape recorder.”
Let Me Hang You will come out on July 15th via Khannibalism/Ernest Jenning Record Co. It is available for preorder.