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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When William S. Bur­roughs Joined Sci­en­tol­ogy (and His 1971 Book Denounc­ing It)

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

William S. Bur­roughs Explains What Artists & Cre­ative Thinkers Do for Human­i­ty: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

William S. Bur­roughs’ Short Class on Cre­ative Read­ing

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

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