For John Dillinger
November 26, 2014 11:56 AM   Subscribe

William S. Burroughs’ “The Thanksgiving Prayer,” Shot by Gus Van Sant [YouTube]
“Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986” first appeared in print in Tornado Alley, a chapbook published by William S. Burroughs in 1989. Two years later, Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Milk) shot a montage that brought the poem to film, making it at least the second time the director adapted the beat writer to film.
For John Dillinger

In hope he is still alive
Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts
Thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcass to rot
Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
Thanks for the AMERICAN DREAM to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
Thanks for Kill a Queer for Christ stickers
Thanks for laboratory AIDS
Thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
Thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
Thanks for a nation of finks — yes,
Thanks for all the memories all right, lets see your arms you always were a headache and you always were a bore
thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.
—William S. Burroughs
posted by Fizz (14 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
previously and previouslier
posted by exogenous at 12:11 PM on November 26, 2014

My bad exogenous, if it needs to be delete because its a double, then do so.
posted by Fizz at 12:16 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gus Van Sant made this Burroughs inspired short in film school at RISD. 1975?
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:29 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

This, the Junky's Christmas, and David Sedaris' Six To Eight Black Men constitute the bulk of my holiday traditions. Uncle Bill helping us get in the spirit. Mazel Tov!
posted by endotoxin at 2:55 PM on November 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

It made me even sadder.
posted by francesca too at 4:12 PM on November 26, 2014

Thanks for laboratory AIDS

Well, nobody bats a thousand.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:20 PM on November 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I still love this poem, and the older I get the more I appreciate it. Particularly the bits about the Indians. I watched the Top Chef episode for Thanksgiving yesterday and they had rounded up some real live Wampanoag to decorate. And with all due respect to the modern real live people there, with real Native heritage, it just felt really awkward. Was a bit reminded of how Fiestas in Santa Fe had to change the Reconquista pageant after they couldn't find any local Indians who'd agree to participate anymore.

I'd typeset this line differently, but then again I've never seen the poem in print:
Thanks for all the memories
All right, lets see your arms
You always were a headache and
You always were a bore
The Rap Genius annotated version isn't bad.

(And yeah, the laboratory AIDS bit sticks in my craw too. A lot of Burroughs stuff does, really, you have to be willing to read past a lot of silly and sexist stuff to appreciate the good parts.)
posted by Nelson at 4:23 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

laboratory AIDS

The poem is from 1986, the year HIV got its name. Not that one ought to reach for conspiracy theory first in attempting to understand something mysterious, but AIDS was way more mysterious and sinister back then.
posted by atoxyl at 4:53 PM on November 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

And I mean just think about who wrote this and the life he lived and the eras he lived through. Gay men and IV drug users have been dropping dead all over the place for several years, because of a brand new disease. You're William S. Burroughs and you're 72. Is it really that crazy of you to suggest some dark intentionality behind the epidemic?
posted by atoxyl at 5:03 PM on November 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

Was the background music some stock sound or was it composed for this video?
posted by fgdmorr at 6:33 PM on November 26, 2014

The audio for this is on the album Dead City Radio. That Wikipedia page says "music by Frank Denning". I'm not sure who that is, and part of me thinks it may have been some found / appropriated music. This forum post mentions a Frank Denning making filler music for NBC.

I'm kind of up on the AIDS-is-germ-warfare conspiracy of the 80s, and certainly appreciative of both the loathing it implies for the US government and also the general horribleness of the early AIDS epidemic. But even in that time it always felt like irresponsible hyperbole to me. There was enough real reasons to be mad at the government's response to AIDS, not to mention enough real questions about what HIV/AIDS really was, that this particular sentiment just seemed inflammatory. OTOH the whole point of Burroughs point is to be inflammatory, and I like the line in that context.

The "Thanks for a nation of finks" line always struck me as being a particularly Burroughs-ish thing to say, a funny phrase from his period.
posted by Nelson at 7:03 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

From the liner notes for Dead City Radio, by producer Hal Willner:

"Most of the music on the record was recorded about thirty years ago by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I've been aware of these recordings for about ten years. The more I worked with the Burroughs' tapes, the more I realized authentic American music was needed and the NBC library was perfect."

Note that this was written around 1990. Willner was music coordinator for Saturday Night Live back in '81. He was hip enough to get Sonic Youth, John Cale, and Donald Fagen to contribute music as well.

I love this album. My friend Brian got the tape from his uncle or his dad and brought it to my house back when were were in like the sixth or seventh grade. That was my first exposure to Burroughs and I was hooked. We rented Cronenberg's Naked City from Blockbuster and watched it late at night, trying to puzzle out what it meant. I've read lots of his stuff over the years, but I always come back to the stories on this album, and especially this poem. It was basically my introduction to well-articulated defiance.
posted by Maaik at 8:39 PM on November 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I strongly believe the best way to first get to know his work is through his readings and spoken word pieces he does in combination with various musicians. For me, it was his voice that unlocked his written work for me. I can't imagine trying to read his work without almost hearing his voice in my head, setting the pace and tone as I read.

I was first introduced to him when I given a promo CD of him reading Naked Lunch for an upcoming audiobook read by him. I started with Junky, and The Yage Letters, and picked up the Spare Ass Annie album created with the The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and I was really hooked.

Here's some more of his readings and 'routines,' as he called them. Most of these are old standards to those who are familiar with his work, but if they're new to you, know that there are dozens and dozens of hours of his work over the years strewn about the internet.

Words of Advice for Young People
The Road to the Western Lands

Spare Ass Annie
The Impasse of a One God Universe

Dr. Benway in the Operating Theater
Why I Stopped Wanting to Be President
posted by chambers at 10:06 PM on November 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches

Thanks for Ferguson, for county prosecutors protecting the cops.

(Amazing how uncle Bill is still right on point, 18 years later. Coincidentally he was born in St. Louis.)
posted by Nelson at 8:08 AM on November 27, 2014

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