Burroughs and Waits make for a perfect and leveled sober-media-intake. If those two tortured, haunted, ethically-questionable souls can’t make you take a long, hard stare at your less-than-visible problems then I don’t know who will. James Frey? Maybe.
Junky is still one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, and nothing that terrible even happens in it. There’s nothing quite like Burroughs’ own-brand of nihilism. Junky is an incredibly simplistic, pulpy novel about Burroughs’ self-insert ‘William Lee’ (kind of like Hunter S. Thompson’s Raoul Duke) and his decent into opiate addiction.
No… no that’s not quite right. Burroughs doesn’t descend; he’s already at rock-bottom before he learns what junk is. That’s what makes it so striking. Other novels and artistic works of this variety, such as de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream fixate on the pathos of substance abuse; the surrendering of the soul to a bodily bondage of need, relief, and subsequent need. Most often, the primary theme running through all these works is that of ‘lost potential’ or even ‘innocence lost’, if the author is halfway empathetic towards those who have lost some degree of themselves to a substance which imprisons them.
In Junky, Burroughs never once indulges in self-pity. He talks about his rich upbringing casually, never pining after the life he could have lived, and matter-of-factly declares himself a junk addict and career criminal. What is even more fascinating is that Burroughs doesn’t revel in his iniquity, either. He takes no pride from being a junky, nor does he experience shame. He simply; Is.
What makes Burroughs so very unsettling is the unavoidable feeling that he simply doesn’t care about anything at all. Not in an ‘everything is worthless/smash everything’ way though. Burroughs, maybe more than most other writers in his era and perhaps more so then even today’s artists, sees and outlines what he considers the arbitrariness of Western society, the petty gauges by which we measure morality, vitality and importance. What appeals to Burroughs about the junk-life, I think, is the lack of pretense. Living as a junky allows Burroughs to move through life without adopting any of the meaningless rules, judgements and social-contracts that sober society mandates. There is no good or evil in Burroughs world, only different shades of junk-sickness and the necessary actions that must be taken to curb said sickness, regardless of what they might entail.
Waits is a bit less miserable, but not much. I’m not sure how he managed to do it, but Waits succeeded in putting on vinyl what being drunk sounds like, to me at least. The bawdry, masculine, surreal hopelessness of it all. Waits somehow manages to record all of those strange little tales that go in and out of your head when you’ve drunk yourself clopsy. Most forget them, so well done him.
I’ve always found Waits useful for depression. The Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombone and Bone Machine albums have gotten me through more than one long, aching evening, and have succeeded in transforming my sullen mood into a fanciful and imaginative one. It was Waits I think who taught me that my misery could actually be one of my greatest advantages.
I don’t have as much to write about Waits, as I’m less of a nerd about music than I am about books.
Luckily it’s pretty easy to talk about them in the same breath, if only due to The Black Rider, which I would consider to be Waits’ weirdest album, and he’s released some oddballs in his time. A collaboration with William Burroughs, The Black Rider is… well I’m actually not sure, having listened to it several times. Is it a play? Is it a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist? Is it about junk, or is it going deeper?
Whatever lessons there are to be gleaned from The Black Rider, on a purely aesthetic level it already achieves greatness. It’s a very unsettling album, which is cloaked in a kind of darkly-violent fairytale. Waits has always had a bit of a ‘carnival/circus’ vibe to him, often inhabiting the role of a kind of ringmaster or compare and bellowing camp, vicious declarations from a megaphone. This synchs with Burroughs perfectly.
I think… I think perhaps one of the things which most unites Burroughs and Waits is their perception of archetypes. Characters in Waits’ songs and Burroughs’ books rarely have any touched-upon complexity, and so come to represent their most up-front characteristics, be they booze, wild living or junk addiction. I think the terrible secret Waits and Burroughs share is that past all the introspection and growth and personal developments, we really all are what we eat.