How William S. Burroughs Used the Cut-Up Technique to Shut Down London’s First Espresso Bar (1972)

As we’ve noted before, the English coffeehouse has served as a staging ground for radical, sometimes revolutionary social change. Certainly this was the case during the Enlightenment, as it was with the salons in France. And yet, by the early 20th century it seems, coffee shops in London had grown scarcer and more humdrum. That is until 1953 when the Moka Bar, the UK’s first Italian espresso bar, opened in Soho. On his blog The Great Wen, Peter Watts describes its arrival as “a momentous event”:

London’s first proper coffee shop—one equipped with a Gaggia coffee machine—opened at 29 Frith Street. This was a place where teenagers too young for pubs could come and gather, and it is said by some that the introduction of this coffee bar prompted the youth culture explosion that soon changed social life in Britain forever.

“By 1972,” Watts writes, “coffee bars were everywhere and the teenage revolution was firmly established.” Places like the Moka Bar might seem like the ideal place for countercultural maven William S. Burroughs—a London resident from the late sixties to early seventies—to hobnob with young dissidents and outsiders. Burroughs, who so approvingly refers the possibly apocryphal anarchist pirate colony of Libertatia in his Cities of the Red Night, would, one might think, appreciate the budding anarchism of British youth culture, which would flower into punk soon enough.


But rather than joining the coffee bar scene, the cantankerous Burroughs had taken to frequenting “plush gentlemen’s shops of the area, not to mention the ‘Dilly Boys,’ young male prostitutes who hustled for clients outside the Regent Palace Hotel.” And he had grown increasingly disillusioned with London, fuming, writes Ted Morgan in Burroughs biography Literary Outlaw, “at what he was paying for his hole-in-the-wall apartment with a closet for a kitchen” and at the rising price of utilities. “Burroughs,” Morgan tells us, “began to feel that he was in enemy territory.” And he thought the Moka coffee bar should pay the price for his indignities.

There, “on several occasions a snarling counterman had treated him with outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy, and served him poisonous cheesecake that made him sick.” Burroughs “decided to retaliate by putting a curse on the place.” He chose a means of attack that he’d earlier employed against the Church of Scientology, “turning up… every day,” writes Watts, “taking photographs and making sound recordings.” Then he would play them back a day or so later on the street outside the Moka. “The idea,” writes Morgan, “was to place the Moka Bar out of time. You played back a tape that had taken place two days ago and you superimposed it on what was happening now, which pulled them out of their time position.”

Burroughs also connected the method to the Watergate recordings, the Garden of Eden, and the theories of Alfred Korzybski. The trigger for the magical operation was, in his words, “playback.” In a very strange essay called “Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden,” from his collection Electronic Revolution, Burroughs described his operation in detail, a disruption, he wrote, of a “control system.”

Now to apply the 3 tape recorder analogy to this simple operation. Tape recorder 1 is the Moka Bar itself it is pristine condition. Tape recorder 2 is my recordings of the Moka Bar vicinity. These recordings are access. Tape recorder 2 in the Garden of Eden was Eve made from Adam. So a recording made from the Moka Bar is a piece of the Moka Bar. The recording once made, this piece becomes autonomous and out of their control. Tape recorder 3 is playback. Adam experiences shame when his discraceful behavior is played back to him by tape recorder 3 which is God. By playing back my recordings to the Moka Bar when I want and with any changes I wish to make in the recordings, I become God for this local. I effect them. They cannot effect me.

The theory made perfect sense to Burroughs, who believed in a Magical Universe ruled by occult forces and who experimented heavily with Scientology, Crowley-an Magick, and the orgone energy of Wilhelm Reich. The attack on the Moka worked, or at least Burroughs believed it did. “They are seething in there,” he wrote, “I have them and they know it.” On October 30th, 1972  the establishment closed its doors—perhaps a consequence of those rising rents that so irked the Beat writer—and the location became the Queens Snack Bar.

The audio-visual cut-up technique Burroughs used in his attack against the Moka Bar was a method derived by Burroughs and Brion Gysin from their experiments with written “cut-ups,” and Burroughs applied it to film as well. At the top of the post, see an interpretive “meditation” based on Burroughs’ use of audio/visual “magical weapons” and incorporating his recordings. Above is “The Cut Ups,” a short film Burroughs himself made in 1966 with cinematographer Antony Balch, a disorienting illustration of the cut up technique.

Not limited to attacking annoying London coffeehouse owners, Burroughs’ supposedly magical interventions in reality were in fact the fullest expression of his creativity. As Ted Morgan writes, “the single most important thing about Burroughs was his belief in the magical universe. The same impulse that lead him to put out curses was, as he saw it, the source of his writing.” Read much more about Burroughs’ theory and practice in Matthew Levi Stevens’ essay “The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs,” and hear the author himself discourse on the paranormal, tape cut-ups, and much more in the lecture below from a writing class he gave in June, 1986.

via The Great Wen

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ideasthesia: An Animated Look at How Ideas Feel

Danko Nikolic, a researcher at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, has come up with a theory called “ideasthesia,” which questions the reality of two philosophical dualities: 1.) the mind and body, and 2.) sense perception and ideas. Nikolic’s research suggests that these dualities may not exist at all, and particularly that sense perception and ideas are inextricably bound up in one another. If you want to better understand “ideasthesia,” I can’t recommend reading the term’s Wikipedia page. It’s tough sledding. But you can make it through Nikolic’s TED-Ed video released last month. It still requires you to wear a thinking cap. But if you’re reading this site, you’re probably willing to put one on for five minutes.

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Discover the Church of St. John Coltrane, Founded on the Divine Music of A Love Supreme

For some time now, people like poet Robert Graves and countercultural guru Timothy Leary have assumed that ancient religion and mysticism were the products of mind-altering drugs. But in the case of one modern religious experience—the inspiration behind John Coltrane’s holy four-part suite, A Love Supreme—it was the distinct absence of drugs that lit the flame. Like many recovering addicts, Coltrane found God in 1957, after having what he called in the album’s liner notes “a spiritual awakening.” Seven years later, he dedicated his masterpiece, “a humble, offering,” to the deity he credited with “a richer, fuller, more productive life.” No rote hymnal, chant, or psalter, A Love Supreme offers itself up to the listener as the product of intensely personal devotion. And like the ecstatic revelations of many a saint, Coltrane’s work has inspired its own devotional cult—The Church of St. Coltrane.

Presided over by Bishop Franzo King and his wife Reverend Mother Marina King, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco reminds people, says Bishop King in the short documentary at the top of the post, “that God is never without a witness. St. John Coltrane is that witness for this time and this age.” Dig. The vibe of the Coltrane congregation is “a rapturous out-of-your-head-ness” writes Aeon magazine in their introduction to another short film about the church. And just above, you can meet more of the worshippers—of the music, its creator, and his god—in “The Saxophone Saint,” yet another profile of St. Coltrane’s prodigious religious influence. The congregation, NPR tells us, “mixes African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes” and of course music, and A Love Supreme is “the cornerstone of the [Bishop King’s] 200-member church.”

King cites the titles of the suite’s four movements—“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—as the basis for his form of worship: “It’s like saying, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ It’s like saying Melody, harmony and rhythm.’ In other words, you have to acknowledge and then you resolve and then you pursue, and the manifestation of it is a love supreme.” The Kings founded the church in 1969, but their introduction to the power of Coltrane came four years earlier when they saw him perform at the San Francisco Jazz Workshop, an experience they describe on their website as a “sound baptism.” Since its inception, they tell us, the church “has grown beyond the confines of San Francisco to include the whole globe. Every Sunday, the congregation includes members and visitors from throughout the world.”

That diverse assembly recently filled the sanctuary of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral for a service in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on Monday, December 8th. Just above you can see Bishop King open the service. His inspired delivery should convince you, as it did New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman, that “the Coltrane church is not a gimmick or a forced alloy of nightclub music and ethereal faith. Its message of deliverance through divine sound is actually quite consistent with Coltrane’s own experience and message.” Hear for yourself in the film below of Coltrane playing A Love Supreme live in Antibes, France, the only live performance of the piece he ever gave.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Noam Chomsky Almost Appeared on Saturday Night Live During the 90s


Image by jeanbaptisteparis

There are those guest hosts on Saturday Night Live who immediately become exemplary cast members they fit in so well. I’m thinking mostly of Alec Baldwin. Then there are those—certain pop stars and athletes—who are too awkward even to make for unintentional humor. Sometimes the show will choose a host for obvious cultural or political reasons, whether or not that person has any sense of humor whatsoever. Lorne Michaels even once considered asking notoriously stiff then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney to host in 2012, a prospect that excited no one except maybe Romney.

Given the show’s many questionable choices, it’s maybe not too surprising that it would consider asking an academic to host. Some extroverted public intellectuals, like Cornell West and Slavoj Zizeck, are natural entertainers. But that they would think of Noam Chomsky—known for his rumpled sweaters and incisive, unsparing geopolitical analysis, delivered in the driest monotone this side of Ben Stein’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off character—is, well, pretty odd.

It does make a little bit more sense considering that they only asked Professor Chomsky to play himself on the show, not deliver a monologue or do impersonations. According to his assistant Bev Stohl, the show called sometime in the late 90s and told her that the “writers had written a loose script for Noam. The only thing he needed to do was show up on the set and play it straight, answering the questions that were put to him. Sort of like, ‘I’m Noam Chomsky, and I play myself on TV.’” Mostly, writes Stohl on her blog, “I liked the idea of Noam appearing in mainstream media, something that was just beginning to happen in small ways in the 1990’s.”

And how did Chomsky himself feel about the request? It seems he was vaguely familiar with the show and open to the idea. His wife, on the other hand, was not. “After a brief exchange” with her, writes Critical Theory, “he informed Stohl that ‘Carol says no.’” We’ll never know if we were “robbed of either the greatest SNL skit ever” or spared “another terribly unfunny segment,” but the question of whether Chomsky can be funny is still an open one. Matthew Alford at The Guardian writes that during the Q&A after a lecture he attended, “Chomsky was successful not only at conveying his radical political message but also at raising belly laughs from the audience with dark-laced, insightful humour about his politics.” Alford says he measured “a laugh every couple of minutes—very high for a public intellectual but of course not close to the professional comic’s benchmark of one gag every 20 seconds.” He offers some typical Chomsky-an one-liners, such as:

“[The Bush administration’s] moral values are very explicit: shine the boots of the rich and powerful, kick everyone else in the face, and let your grandchildren pay for it.”

“If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher ‘you’re an asshole’ which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say ‘that’s idiotic’ when you get a stupid assignment… you will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.”

And “It’s to the point where Ronald Reagan could put on his cowboy boots and cowboy hat and declare a national emergency because the national security of the United States was in danger from the government of Nicaragua… whose troops were two days from Texas.”

Above, you can catch a glimpse of the lighter side of Chomsky.

via Critical Theory

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Cage Performs Water Walk on US Game Show I’ve Got a Secret (1960)

Back in 2011, we featured John Cage’s 1960 television performance of his piece Water WalkIts video quality may have left something to be desired, but now, thanks to the YouTube channel of Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, you can watch the entire ten-minute segment in much crisper quality than most surviving programs from that era. This unlikely happening occurred on I’ve Got a Secret, the long-running occupation-guessing game show whose guest roster also included chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, “fifth Beatle” Pete Best, and fried-chicken icon Colonel Harland Sanders. For this particular episode, wrote Dan Colman in our earlier post, “the TV show offered Cage something of a teachable moment, a chance to introduce the broader public to his brand of avant-garde music.”

For Water Walk, Cage rounded up a variety of “instruments” all to do with that liquid — a bathtub, a pitcher, ice cubes in a mixer — and the unconventional symphony they produce culminates in the Rube Goldbergian mixing of a drink, the sipping of which the composition dictates about two and a half minutes in. Naturally, Cage being Cage, the piece incorporates audience reaction noises; when host Gary Moore warns him that certain members of the studio audience will laugh, Cage responds, “I consider laughter better than tears.”

You can learn more about this intersection of far forward-thinking artistry and the midcentury televisual mainstream in Laura Paolini’s piece “John Cage’s Secret,” available at “At that moment in 1960, a rupture was being deepened,” Paolini writes. “High art and low were becoming more and more comfortable with one another over the airwaves. At this moment, as the screens glow their blue auras into the homes of North America, everyone sees something they haven’t seen before. And everyone has an opinion about it.” And those opinions, I like to think Cage would have said, only extend the art further.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Defeat the US with Math: An Animated North Korean Propaganda Film for Kids

Yes, North Korea won yesterday. Threatening 9/11-like violence, the DPRK scared Sony and America’s four largest theater chains into pulling the plug on the release of The Interview. And, just like that, Americans lost their right to watch their own propaganda films — even dumb funny ones — in their own theaters. But, don’t despair, we can still watch propaganda films from North Korea on YouTube — like the vintage animation for children above. You don’t need to understand what’s being said to get the gist. Take your schoolwork seriously, bone up on your geometry, and you can launch enough missiles to force America into submission. True, geometry doesn’t put you in a good position to hack corporate computers. But seemingly you can get that help from China.

via The Week

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Watch Adam Savage Build Barbarella’s Space Rifle in One Day

In a new video by Tested, Adam Savage (model maker, industrial designer and television personality) shows you how to build a replica of the space rifle from the 1968 sci-fi film Barbarella. To design the replica, Savage had only one document to work with — a photograph showing Jane Fonda holding the gun, which originally appeared on the cover of a 1968 issue of LIFE Magazine. The 77-minute video above takes you inside Savage’s build process, moving from start to finish. If DIY is your thing, you won’t want to miss it.

via Digg

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Lennon or McCartney? 550 Artists Answer the Essential, Timeless Question

Lennon & McCartney — the two musicians came together and composed the most important songbook of the last 50 years. Early on, John and Paul wrote many of their songs together — songs like “She Loves You” and “Eight Days a Week.” Later, as they describe it here, the dynamic changed: one would write the bulk of a song; the other would give it a listen and work out the kinks, adding the right melody, or removing a particularly corny verse. Although the two shared writing credits for all Beatles songs, Lennon principally wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” and “Come Together.” McCartney gave us “Eleanor Rigby,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and “Penny Lane.” Depending on which you like, you might put yourself in the Lennon or the McCartney camp.

Along the way, we’ve all been asked to take a side, and that applies to musicians too. Above, you can find a 34 minute compilation where musicians and artists — from Lady GaGa to David Byrne — make their pick. And below, in the comments, you’re invited to tell us where you fall — with John or Paul, and why?

Or who is going to offer up George, who, for my money, released the best of the Beatles’ solo albums?

via Metafilter

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Patti Smith’s Musical Tributes to the Russian Greats: Tarkovsky, Gogol & Bulgakov

In 2010, Patti Smith won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, making her, by my count, the only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member to land that prize. Of course, she’s also the only person I can think of who has appeared in both a movie by Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) and an episode of Law and Order. And she’s definitely the only rocker out there who has a personal invite from the Pope to play at the Vatican.

Back in the mid-‘70s, Smith fused the noise and urgency of punk rock with spoken word poetry and created something unlike anything before or since. She performed with such intensity on stage that she looked like a modern day shaman in the midst of an ecstatic revelry. Yet she had a literary sensibility that made her stand apart from most of her fellow proto-punks at CBGBs. (The Ramones are awesome but no one is going to parse the lyrics of “Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat.”) The B-side track of Smith’s first single, “Piss Factory,” describes the unrelenting tedium she experienced working at a factory before she swiped a copy of Illuminations by French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

While making Film Socialisme with Godard, she conceived of her latest album, Banga, released in 2012. When she started writing songs, she was, as she said in an interview, very interested in Russian culture.

I like my travels to be akin with my studies, and so when I started being smitten with Bulgakov and started reading a lot of Russian literature and then watching a lot of Tarkovsky, being very immersed in Russian culture, I got some jobs in Russia. … But I’ve always done that. We have very idiosyncratic tours – I always make sure that the band does well financially, but a lot of our tours are based on things that I’m studying, and I’ll make choices as to where we go so that I can see something special.

The title track of the work, Banga, is taken from a minor character in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – Pontus Pilate’s extremely loyal dog who waited centuries for his master to come to heaven. Fun fact: Johnny Depp played drums on this track.

According to the liner notes, the album’s first single, “April Fool” was inspired by novelist Nikolai Gogol. As John Freeman notes in the Moscow Times, a number of lines from the song evoke the writer.

We’ll race through alleyways in tattered coats” is a fairly clear reference to Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” while “we’ll burn all of our poems” begs to be considered a nod to the fact that Gogol famously burned the second volume of his great novel “Dead Souls.” That work, one of Russia’s funniest and darkest, is conjured in the lines, “We’ll tramp through the mire when our souls feel dead. With laughter we’ll inspire them back to life again.

And the track “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)”, not surprisingly, evokes images from the films of cinematic auteur Andrei Tarkovsky – specifically, his metaphysical sci-fi epic Solaris along with Ivan’s Childhood. Hear the track at the top of this post, and watch Tarkovsky’s films online here.

In case you thought that the album was just about Russians, her song “This is the Girl” is about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, “Fuji-San” is a tribute to the massive 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and “Nine” is a birthday present to Johnny Depp.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Johnny Cash’s Christmas Specials, Featuring June Carter, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman & More (1976-79)

Johnny Cash, outlaw country singer and defiant man in black, comes carefully packaged for many people through the merchandising of his life and image. From t-shirts to posters, documentaries to award-winning biopics, we know about his ornery prison concerts, drug use and arrests, noble championing of the disenfranchised, and dramatic story of pain and redemption. We marveled at the mystique around the aged Cash in his late-life revival. But many of us know little about another side of the man—Johnny Cash, genial TV personality.

If you happened to have been glued to the tube during the seventies and eighties, however, you would know this Johnny Cash well from his cameo appearances on Columbo and Little House on the Prairie. You’d have seen him shilling for Amoco during the gas crisis of the early 70s—a gig he took on during a serious career slump. You’d have maybe caught his recurring role on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, his turn on 1985 mini-series North and South (as John Brown, naturally), as well as a number of film appearances. And that’s not to mention Cash’s own, short-lived variety show, which ran from 1969-71.

If this rather commercial, mainstream Cash seems at odds with the legend, wait till you see The Johnny Cash & Family Christmas Show, which ran each year from 1976-79. Here, writes Dangerous Minds, “Cash gamely refashioned himself as a family-friendly country music TV host” in the vein of Porter Wagoner. It is decidedly “far from the middle-finger Johnny Cash or Folsom Prison Blues”—closer instead to Hee Haw’s Buck Owens and Roy Clark (who appears in the first special at the top). After his marriage to June Carter in 1968, many of his ventures featured the two as a singing duo. Here, they aren’t just man and wife, but “family,” meaning “many of June and Johnny’s wide-ranging clan of relatives are featured.

We’re also treated to appearances from Tony Orlando and Cash’s spiritual mentor Billy Graham (’76), Jerry Lee Lewis (’77), Kris Kristoferson and Steve Martin (’78), and even Andy Kaufman, in character as Taxi’s Latka Gravas (’79). Yes, these may be country corny as all get-out, but they’re also really fun. We get charming, informal goof-offs with June and Johnny, lots of Vegas style comedy bits and lounge routines, and, of course, some stellar musical performances. After his dramatic late-sixties conversion, Cash remained staunchly evangelical to the end of his days. (Hear him read The New Testament here.) But rather than rail at secularists in his Christmas specials, he treats the holiday as a laid-back occasion for food (“snake ‘n’ potatoes”), laughs, friends and family, and all-star sing alongs by the fire. Hop on over to Dangerous Minds to see all four specials.

via Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness