I’m sitting at a bar halfway down Naked Lunch, high on William S Burroughs, when it dawns on me. There is no naked lunch in Naked Lunch. I pick up my phone to google it and stumble upon a video of a very dapper Burroughs dining with a freakishly pale Andy Warhol. They’re talking about chicken fried steak at the table, and I feel like I’m in the middle of an old Tarantino film, and the video ends. It ends with Nico singing Chelsea Girls at the Chelsea Hotel long after the rest of the Chelsea girls have died, and I feel gratified somehow that I stumbled upon these eight minutes caught on film, and herein lies some of the magic of Naked Lunch.
Courtney Love sent Kurt Cobain a heart-shaped box filled with a tiny porcelain doll, three dried roses, a miniature teacup and seashells with the scent of her perfume lingering inside. Yoko Ono sent John Lennon a postcard. “I’m a cloud,” it said, “watch for me in the sky.” John was in the Himalayas meditating with the Maharishi. He went back to London and invited her home, and the rest is history.
But let’s rewind here. Let’s go back a few days. John had gone to the opening of Yoko Ono’s exhibition because he had heard that there was going to be a happening that involved climbing into a bag with someone. But when he got to the gallery, he realized that the opening wasn’t until the next day. The show was just being installed. So he looked around. He saw a pair of bent nails in a plastic box. He saw an apple titled APPLE. He climbed a ladder that led to a painting and found a magnifying glass by the side. He picked it up, peered into the painting and found three little letters that said, YES. So there. That’s how you win a man in one step.
Filmed by Preetha Jayaraman
When Marcel Duchamp bought a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J L Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue, hauled it back to his studio on West 67th and wrote R Mutt 1917 on it, he didn’t know that his readymade toilet fixture would become the most influential artwork of the 20th century. He called it The Fountain and entered it in an exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists, and after much deliberation whether it was art or not, the board banned it from the show. It didn’t take long for the piece to gain notoriety, and soon, the porcelain urinal wasn’t just an ordinary article of life but became an artistic representation of a new thought for that object.
Talking of urinals, I’m reminded of the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. He was the kingpin of the 2005 Avignon Theatre Festival, and everyone from a waiter at the Fourchette to a professor at the Fac had an opinion about him. His play, Histoire des Larmes had audiences tongue-tied and like the Emperor flaunting his new clothes, Jan Fabre’s lead character strutted his stuff and pissed on stage while the front row (those with the pricier tickets and a clearer view of the puddle) applauded. I sat in the magnificent Palais des Papes, disgusted and sleepy (it was an awfully boring production too) and wanted to scream, “Mais il fait pipi!”
I could forgive Fabre his pipi, but it is his legendary Bic art that I cannot. Here, he goes to the Chateau du Tivol in Mechelen and covers it with his ballpoint scribble. We’re talking about ginormous amounts of scribble here, not to mention ballpoints and paper, that he used to wrap up the chateau like a Christmas present. He then went on to make a 16mm film of the work: a speeded-up recording of the castle over the course of 24 hours, filmed from a single angle. I saw the film and I have to confess that it blew my mind. The royal blue ink reflected the sunlight in myriad ways as dawn slowly merged into dusk, but I was appalled all the same. Coming from a country where I was taught not to waste paper from the day a pen was thrust into my wobbly little hand, it piqued me more than it pleased me.
Art, it certainly was, but at what cost?
Peter Carey’s Bliss has absolutely nothing to do with bliss. It’s about a man who thinks he has died and gone to hell. Well, Harry Joy dies temporarily of a heart attack and he’s resuscitated. He wakes up in the hospital and discovers that his wife is sleeping with his partner, his son is selling drugs, and his daughter is selling herself to him to buy them. And just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for the joyless Joy, he ends up in a madhouse. So naturally, the poor chap thinks he’s in hell. Hell is a state of mind, and you don’t go there when you die. You crumple up like paper in an old book and go underground, and for myself, I want a little nook at Père Lachaise before Jim Morrison’s lease runs out.
“I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book,” said Lou Reed to The Rolling Stones, “then you have the Great American Novel.” The Gift, with its hallucinatory rock instrumental in the background, is one of the most horrifying short stories ever written. Lady Godiva’s Operation reads like Sylvia Plath. Venus in Furs led me to Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella by the same title. The Raven pushed me to reread Edgar Allen Poe. If you haven’t already, read Reed.
Always be a poet, even in prose. That’s good advice from the father of prose poetry, Charles Baudelaire. He also said, always be drunk. Some of us are always poets. It’s a twisted gene that we inherited from a loony ancestor, and it’s not recessive. It’s pretty dominant, although we aren’t. We’re uncontrolling, unassuming folks who let people be. We like to look at the sky, at the wandering clouds, and when we spot a sad old man walking down the street, we sigh. But we’re no angels, you and I. We’re whimsical, lackadaisical. We’re playful, pathologically unfaithful, and we follow Baudelaire’s advice to a tee.
The legend goes that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in 21 days. It was supposedly a drug-fuelled rush while his wife put bowls of soup and mugs of coffee at his desk. The spontaneous confessional prose describing his hedonistic road trips across America with Neal Cassady was typed onto a “scroll”: sheets of tracing paper that he cut into long strips and taped into a roll that fit into his typewriter, allowing him to type incessantly for days on end.
Twenty-one says? Seriously? I was very skeptical and I decided to dig deep. I stumbled upon a novel called Kerouac’s Scroll, a site called Kerouac Cafe, a bookshop called the Beat Book Shop that held a 12-hour nonstop public reading of the book, and a YouTube clip where Kerouac reads out his famously long and stupefying last line himself. What I unearthed was that the novel didn’t sprout from a purple haze. Kerouac diligently kept notes throughout his adventures and worked on several versions of the novel before putting it down on the monumental scroll. Seven typescript versions of the manuscript have been found. Then it took him a couple of years and rejection letters to find a publisher. When he finally did, he was asked to cut the book down to a third its size. Then he wrote the book in 21 days.