If you pull at the loose threads of the ‘90s, one of the most striking things about the time period is how its pop culture got deeply weird. The decade was full of odd occurrences, like the re-emergence of author and Beat Generation figurehead William S. Burroughs into the pop arena. Though he had appeared earlier on Material’s Seven Souls reading excerpts of The Western Lands, it was 1990’s Dead City Radio, which paired Burroughs with Sonic Youth, John Cale, and Donald Fagan, among others, that was something of a breakthrough. It hit at the right moment, when the underground had a renewed interest in the Beats. Burroughs subsequently collaborated with a motley collection of folks, including Kurt Cobain (The “Priest” They Called Him), REM (“Star Me Kitten”), Ministry (“Quick Fix”), and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales). While none of the records were big sellers, they helped introduce Burroughs to a new generation.
In 1995, longtime associate and producer Hal Willner got Burroughs to record an abridged audiobook of Naked Lunch, his most well-known and famously impenetrable novel. As with previous records, the readings were accompanied by musicians, this time around by guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, pianist Wayne Horvitz, and violist Eyvind Kang. The audiobook was released by Warner Bros. before quickly going out of print. Fast forward to 20 years later when the project was handed over to Arish Ahmad Khan, better known as garage-rocker King Khan, to revisit the project. With contributions from Australia’s Frowning Clouds and vocalist and composer M. Lamar, Khan has recast the audiobook as a new album, Let Me Hang You (Khannibalism/Ernest Jenning Record Co.).
With help from Willner, the three-hour recording was cut down to a 13-track, 40-minute record. To give it some type of framing, the album focuses on what’s referred to as the “unspeakable portions,” i.e. the dirty stuff. Musically, Khan didn’t start from scratch as the album includes remixes of Frisell, Horvitz, and Kang’s contributions. In a way, the approach is similar to the cut-up technique that Burroughs began using not long after Naked Lunch’s publication. With the existing material rearranged into a new construct, Let Me Hang You, is much less Khan-meets-Burroughs than one would think. Instead, Khan favors the abstract rather than trying to adapt the recordings to his regular MO. Only those moments featuring Frowning Clouds nod towards Khan’s roots, with the two most obvious examples being the lean lo-fi workout of “Clem Snide” and the last two minutes of “Disciplinary Procedure,” which finds a groove slowly building.
The focus, as one might expect, is mainly on Burroughs’ voice. His gravelly croak is the audio equivalent of a cracked, leather-bound book. But what one might not expect is that Burroughs is as much voice actor as he is a reader. There is an underlying sense of amusement as Burroughs leans into the lurid details of what is the perviest story time you can imagine. On the original Naked Lunch recordings, Willner prodded Burroughs to pick his favorite passages with an eye towards the dirty. To put it mildly, Burroughs had a lot from which to choose, thus Let Me Hang You is not the type of thing you’re going to play idly in the background at work lest you crave a visit from HR.
While the story of Let Me Hang You is interesting, at the end of the day it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t any good. But how much you will enjoy it may vary. If you want Burroughs telling stories with a musical backing, then you’re fine. If you want memorable tunes, it falls short. Want Naked Lunch? Well, you’ll get some of it. If you want wiggy abstraction, then it’s here for sure. While it’s true that the novel was designed around a vignette framework, most of the tracks are too short to gain any real narrative momentum. It’s best to come to this record with modest expectations. It’s a good companion to Burroughs’ other recorded work, and if nothing else, a snapshot of what’s made his work so enduring.