Steve Buscemi and Elliott Sharp Talk William S. Burroughs, the 80s New York Scene, and the Creative Influence of Exhaustion
Elliott Sharp and Steve Buscemi
(Courtesy ISSUE Project Room / Photo by Cameron Kelly)Actor Steve Buscemi and contemporary classical composer and musician Elliott Sharp have been fans of William S. Burroughs since Burroughs was walking New York City’s streets, and the aspiring performers were graduating high school and exploring the city for the first time. Buscemi and Sharp met at a performance space on the Bowery in 1981, and they’ve been involved with the experimental venue Issue Project Room since it’s founding in 2003. In 2014, in honor of Burrough’s 101 birthday, these three particularities collided in a performance given by the two friends of collaged word and sound, taken from Burroughs’ writing. The documentation of this event was just released under the title "Rub Out the Word” by experimental music label Infrequent Seams. Buscemi and Sharp returned to Issue Project Room for a repeat performance in celebration of the event. They spoke with Artinfo about their admiration for the writer, and the creative influence of exhaustion.
How did you two first begin collaborating?
SB: Well, really how I know Elliott is through my wife, Jo Andres. We all used to live in the East Village and Jo used to do these performances that incorporated film and slides and...
ES: Smoke and spray, they were really incredible.
SB: Yeah, creating these almost holographic images in a low-tech way. She worked with a number of great musicians that were there at the time, including Elliott.
ES: I worked on quite a bit of music for her, and we always had a great time. Well actually, Steve, the whole scene around Bowery Project, that’s where we first met in about 1981.
SB: You’re completely right! Of course.
ES: Above this liquor store Bowery and Grand were three dancers — they had a group called called Kinematix. If I can remember, their names were Mary, Robin, and Tamar. In fact, if you saw the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video, well, those are the girls that are “having fun” in the video. Anyway, that’s a diversion. But, yeah, so much was happening in that scene. I think one of Sonic Youth's first shows was a Bowery Project show.
SB: Yeah, wow, I almost forgot that’s really where we met.
So you've known each other for 35 years and collaborated occasionally. How did the first Issue Project Room performance riffing on Burroughs come about?
ES: We both have worked with Issue Project Room since the beginning when it was literally in a garage. On a record of mine in 2004, “Radio Hyper-Yahoo,” I worked with a number of different poets and writers, and that’s when Steve and I first had the idea to do something with Burroughs...
SB: I didn't know when we performed here, that first time, that it that it would be a record.
ES: That came up after the fact because I heard the recording and I thought, wow, we really got good quality with the raw audio.
How does that first performance differ from what you presented this evening?
SB: Tonight was like a shortened version of that. It seems like whenever I do this… I can't remember what I was up to before the last performance but I remember I was really exhausted. It was longer and towards the end, with my voice, I was actually struggling. And tonight I have a cold, I’ve just come from doing two films back to back out of town. So I was just saying to Elliott, it feels like every time I do this there’s an added measure of difficulty, and he’s like, "yeah, but it really works!"
ES: It does! It adds a quality… I always feel like when I'm playing, if it’s too easy, it’s not right. I want to sweat it, a little. I don't want to do what I already know. You want to do something that you've never heard before or tried before. I'm used to being on tour when you are always exhausted, and you always feel terrible. That’s some of the best work.
And you hear the effort on the record, too.
So, explain to me what you’re physically doing with Burroughs text. What were your sources and how did you adapt it?
ES: It was basically a lot of what I found of Burroughs online. You know, both us have been big fans of his for such a long time. For me, since high school. It’s probably in my DNA.
So I took a bunch of text and ran it through a cut-up machine — something you can find online; it’s like software you can plug text into, and, with an algorithm, it’ll feed it back to you in different chunks and in a different order.
SB: And then on the night, it’s very performative. I'm listening to what Elliott is doing and it guides and affects me — if I'm going to be speaking softly or louder; faster or slower. And I think Elliott is doing the same thing.
It’s a relationship.
ES: But that’s the thing about improvisation — you hear outside yourself. If I feel like I'm thinking about what I'm doing too much, it doesn't work. Sometimes you have what I think of as like an accountant that works in the background while you're in the zone. But the accountant is saying oh yeah now you have to turn this off or now you have to listen for this word that’s coming. As long as the accountant doesn't intrude too much, you know? Because they always talk too much and wear really bad clothes.
What effect has Burrough’s work had on each of you? What is your relationship to him?
SB: He is one of the writers I’ve always read. I'm from New York. I grew up mainly in Long Island, but when I moved to the city I discovered the Beats and read Burroughs. It’s so interesting because he sits outside the Beats, in some ways, because he was older than Kerouac and Ginsburg, and all of them sort of revered him. He didn't become a writer really until he was more or less in his thirties. I think they influenced and inspired him to actually sit down…
ES: Yeah look at "Naked Lunch." That actually wouldn’t have happened if Ginsberg hadn't gone through literally boxes and boxes of papers and organized things into coherence. Although some might argue against calling it coherence.
SB: Exactly. And after I’d been in New York a while and read these works, I eventually met someone, who didn't know Burroughs himself but had met James Grauerholz, who started out as his assistant, then became his lover, and then ultimately became his manager, and then the keeper of his estate, and so on. And, through them, I got to meet Burroughs about six months before he died, in Lawrence, Kansas, and hung out with him and asked his blessing to give an adaptation of "Junkie" and "Queer." Which he did.
I wanted to ask about that. It’s been rumored for a while.
SB: It’s a movie I've been trying to do for some time. At first I was going to direct, now I'm going to produce it, but I've passed it on to another director. But it’s still out there, it’s still happening.
ES: Burroughs was also one of these strange anti-heroes for me in high school. I graduated high school in 1969, so it wasn't too long after the courts decided that “Naked Lunch” wasn't pornography. But still, if you could find it in a locked case. Someone in school had a copy and we would pass it around — that and Terry Southern and some others. But we were like, ah shit, this is incredible compared to what we were supposed to be reading.
SB: Right, yeah that was how it felt.
ES: And it just always grabbed me. Then I first met Ginsberg in 1971 at the Panther 21 Demonstration in New Haven and Jean Genet was speaking, though I didn’t meet him. But with Ginsberg, our paths crossed a number of times and I met Burroughs once through him on the street. I never got the chance to really talk with him about anything. But the building where my studio is on 7th street is the building where the famous picture of Kerouac is and where Allen had an apartment for many years. When I first moved in you’d see him there, with like a film crew or something.
SB: It’s funny to think about it now, but we used to see them around. You’d run into Ginsberg at like, you know, at like a Polish diner or something.
ES: Oh yeah like everywhere.