There are some striking similarities between the attitude and ethos that the beat novelist and cult icon William S. Burroughs put into his work such as Junky and Naked Lunch that the punks of New York City could and likely still can identify with. His no-holds-barred approach and visceral storytelling made him a hit with musicians across the city in the seventies, including Blondie’s own Chris Stein.
The other ventricle in the beating heart of Blondie, Stein’s contribution to punk’s movement into popular music is undoubted but what has always impressed about the somewhat more reserved member of the band is his wide range of artistic endeavours. Whether through photography or producing films, Stein has always appeared as a composed curator of the arts. It’s fitting then that he should find such favour with a similarly well-mannered man such as Burroughs.
We’re revisiting the moment when Burroughs and Stein sat down for a vintage piece of television—discussing the nature of war. It’s not exactly your everyday piece of footage, but the people being recorded aren’t exactly everyday people. The clip comes from 1987 and is just before the grunge generation, led by Kurt Cobain, cottoned onto Burroughs’ work and the man himself—it catches the writer at a philosophical moment.
“What’s your favourite war, Bill?” asks Stein. The informality is to be expected, the two men have crossed paths many times before. They shared dinner back in 1978, an experience captured by Victor Bockris which saw Stein, Burroughs and Debbie Harry wax lyrically about everything from the French’s efficiency to haunted Bowery apartments. Stein also enjoyed an experience which greeted many of Burroughs’ guests—target practice.
“I was lucky I got to hang out with Burroughs,” Stein remembered in a recent interview with The Guardian in 2018. “He became a mentor. I had a long illness and didn’t leave Manhattan for three years, so the first place I went afterwards was to go stay with Burroughs in Kansas. It was like the old days of hosting a salon. Me, Mick Jagger and various others would go visit.”
What would await the rock stars was a writer with a keen wit and wicked sense of gun ownership. “Bill was a peaceful guy but a big proponent of firearms,” Stein continued. “It was ironic that he had that accident and killed his wife [Burroughs accidentally killed his wife in a tragic ‘William Tell’ skit, gone wrong]. Everyone who went there would go out and shoot with him. You’d do target practice, then he’d take the target down and sign it for you as a souvenir.” By the time he was sat across from Burroughs in quite possibly one of the worst TV sets we’ve ever seen, the two were on more than first name terms.
Back to ‘Bill’s’ favourite war and the extraordinary writer replied with a typical twist, paraphrasing a Hindu spirit he says: “She said this is a war universe. It’s always war.” Instantly, Stein’s ears prick up, “If there wasn’t any war, people would have nothing to do with themselves,” summarises Burroughs.
“Do you think war is a natural lifeforce like earthquakes or something like that?” he asks. “There’s a very interesting theory that earth is an organism like Gaia [from Greek mythology], the Earth Goddess,” at this point, for no apparent reason, an extra breaks the camera line and walks straight through the middle of the interview. Whether it’s for comic effect or artistic edge or was a genuine accident is unknown but it’s pretty bizarre.
“Nature’s always in this tremendous flux, constantly,” continues Stein after a reset. “Destroying itself, eating itself up—y’know the ocean eats the land away. So maybe war is just a natural version.” Burroughs can’t help but interject, exclaiming: “It is. It is change, change, war is change. Or rather, you should say, you can’t have change without war on some level. It doesn’t have to be going out with guns and clubs or anything else. There’s biologic war, psychological war—there are weapons that take generations to get there.”
The irreverence of this conversation’s setting and soundtrack, despite its intrinsically destructive content, is what is so enjoyable to watch. Two very esteemed artists sit across from one another in what looks like a back corridor, discussing some incredibly philosophical notions and the entire interview feels like a dream. For that reason alone it’s one minute and forty-seven seconds of joy.