On Brion Gysin’s work and influence. Andrew McKenzie Q&A part four

In the fourth and final part of this question and answer series, Andrew M. McKenzie spoke to CTS Ryan about Gysin’s work, its themes, and influence. McKenzie met Brion Gysin and has been involved in many related projects, including editing the book Brion Gysin – His Name Was Master.

This is the fourth part of four. Part one is a Gysin-tinged Q&A, mostly about McKenzie’s life and work. Part two covers the 80’s Dreamachine kit and part three focuses on the book, Brion Gysin – His Name Was Master.

Pictured: Early drafts by William Burroughs, part of his Vaduz archive, that became part of The Third Mind book

You first heard of Gysin through a book in a public library?

It was ‘The Third Mind.’ Although I found William Burroughs first – the book of his I read was ‘The ticket that exploded’. I don’t think anybody had ever had it out from the library, it had been there for about 20 years or something. I remember reading it and just wondering “how did he get it published?”.

It’s such a long time since I’ve seen it – I think there’s a bit that mentions Gysin. Of course, at that time, getting hold of Burroughs’ books was hard enough, but Gysin was just almost impossible – and then a copy of The Third Mind came along. I had it for a week, and for that week I don’t think I read anything else.

Gysin was an even more obscure figure, because he hadn’t published as much as Burroughs had. Gysin was still this sort of shadowy unknown figure, at least where I lived. And it wasn’t for a long time that I found out that he also wrote books on his own. There were these mentions of these colleges and tiny little scraps of calligraphy or something like that. It wasn’t possible to really find out anything, but, of course, because he was so obscure it made it more attractive anyway.

Did the cut ups in ‘The ticket that exploded’ influence the sound experiences you went on to make as The Hafler Trio?

 It had the direct effect of [making me] think, “well obviously you don’t need to tell stories in a straight way”, and there’s some mention of tape recorders. 

I already had two semi functioning tape recorders. I was already doing a kind of cut ups with these two cassette recorders. One recording and one playing just like it talks about in the Electronic Revolution.

At that point I thought I was just messing around with something that nobody else would possibly be interested in. Then I find out there’s a whole bunch of people all over the world doing it.

“… more than Burroughs, Gysin really was multimedia long before there was such a thing as multimedia.”

I think that it was the attitude more than any sort of technical thing.

That you should be open to investigating any area which seems to be relevant rather than confining yourself to, well, “you know I’m an artist, therefore I shouldn’t be looking at film, I shouldn’t be reading anything, I should just be painting” or “I’m a writer, I shouldn’t be talking about this or that.”

I just didn’t see, maybe as a result of reading this very long shelf full of miscellaneous books, I never saw the differences between any of these things. They all overlapped and that is probably the thing that had the most influence.

And as we know later on, you know, more than Burroughs, Gysin really was multimedia long before there was such a thing as multimedia.

Not only was he a poet, he was a writer and not only was he a writer, he was a painter and not only was he a painter, he was a calligrapher, and so on and so on. You can say, that’s a weak position – if you specialise in something that always succeeds more – but I’m not sure I agree. It depends on how you define success.

Beat Museum / Bardo Hotel

Pictured: Beat Museum – Bardo Hotel. Chapter 2. Brion Gysin Special. 1977

Which aspects of Gysin’s work interests you?

When he actually pushes himself – that interests me. The bits that I really don’t like are the bits where he rests on his laurels – which happens. Sometimes you don’t notice it because he’s such a great storyteller and all the rest of it. But there are times when he’s on automatic pilot.

I’ll give you one example. There were some extracts of The Last Museum published long before the book was actually published – some parts in one of the Soft Need magazines. And if you read that and then you read what finally came out, it’s like night and day. The first versions are much more raw and much more provocative and wide ranging. Over time he became so obsessed with getting his book out that he cut a lot of corners to get it published.

“There’s this sort of flopping backwards and forwards between self-pity and nigh-on genius. It’s a weird mixture to me – always has been.”

He actually suppressed himself. He censored himself and made things a bit more normal. If you read some of the original chapters that were published before – they’re wild. To me, he’s a very mixed bag. Sometimes it really hits very, very hard and sometimes I think it misses completely.

This is one of the criticisms of him that I don’t have, but it’s one of the things that people say: “if only he had specialised in one thing, then maybe he would have had this success that he so obviously wanted”. 

Many, many times you catch him, sort of moaning about this and how he never got the recognition. And then the next moment he’s talking about something in completely brilliant terms. 

There’s this sort of flopping backwards and forwards between self-pity and nigh-on genius. It’s a weird mixture to me – always has been. 

Long before there was multimedia, one of the things that was fascinating just to read about were the experiments with the projections. His walking in and out of the projections (that Somerville helped him with) – this kind of thing is absolutely fascinating. When he’s forgetting about the fact that he’s trying to make a career. 

Gysin and his image

Pictured: Brion Gysin in a poetry appearance at “Le Domaine Poetique” at the Galerie du Fleuve, Paris, 1960. Detail from a photo attributed to Nicolas Tikhomiroff

What about Gysin’s paintings?

I was always very interested in calligraphy. First of all it was Japanese calligraphy, these days it’s Tibetan calligraphy. This whole idea of putting calligraphy into paintings and making landscapes out of words – this is absolutely fantastic because it creates a world out of something which is not normally considered. It’s viewing the word as a as a different thing. For quite some time I did try to decipher what he wrote. Some of it is just his signature and some of it is him writing various messages.

And, of course, a large part of that is supposedly based on some kind of magic, some kind of simple sympathetic magic, and whether that’s true or not, I think is debatable, but at the same time just the very idea was very interesting to me.

This idea of being able to create some kind of spell by very simple operations. Again, a world you could go into – the depth of his pictures – especially some of the more involved calligraffiti things. These are actually kind of worlds that you can go into, in a way.

Burroughs, of course, has this sort of conversation with Gysin, which is printed in several different places, where it’s Burroughs sort of looking at the paintings and going into them. That has a relevance to a lot of people, especially my age, who grew up in houses which had very detailed patterned wallpaper. When you couldn’t sleep, you would do exactly the same thing. You would go into these patterns on the wall and you would go into these completely different worlds. So it wasn’t anything that I didn’t know.

It was just fascinating to see somebody actually do this rather than try to represent something. You actually allow access to another world, rather than just painting a picture of that world.

Permutation I-II-III-IV by Brion Gysin, 1959

Pictured: Permutation I-II-III-IV by Brion Gysin, 1959 (black and white photo). The painting William Burroughs was looking at in his Ports of entry essay.

Gysin’s occult aspect… is there an occult? Can spells be cast?

There are different levels to this. If you are part of a society that believes in such things – if all the people you know believe in a particular thing, well, yes, of course.

Voodoo, for example. In Haiti it is, supposedly, an extremely advanced kind of magic, and yet the British walk in there with guns and they don’t know anything about this, so the magic doesn’t work against their guns, does it? If you don’t believe in it then obviously it’s not going to have very much of an effect.

There’s a grey area though where there are certain kinds of sympathetic magic which have a certain resonance, so a bit like, and this is a very rough comparison, but we know about electrical fields and we know about magnetic fields and we can’t see them. But it’s quite easy to demonstrate with a bunch of iron filings and a magnet that you can see even the shape of that field, and you can affect matter where it looks like it’s being done with nothing.

There are certain kinds of operations which do have this, but it’s nowhere near what people claim for it, because it sounds very attractive. It’s a very attractive thing to put out there. And also, as has been pointed out, the whole idea of magic is very much ego driven. In that if you are a magician, you’re saying basically, you have powers that nobody else has. This is kind of fatal really, because if those powers are accessible then everybody can access them.

There’s an old saying that magicians guard an empty safe – there’s nothing to be found really – it’s all smoke and mirrors, but – and this is the big but – magic is very much the idea of suspending disbelief just for a moment. I’m talking about conjurers. David Copperfield’s in this big theatre in Las Vegas and he flies around the stage and he picks up a woman and he flies around with her and then he puts her down. Now, everybody knows he can’t fly. But for one second, one moment, you watch this man do this and you have no idea how he’s doing it. And there’s a part of you goes: “Wow”. Now that works. That is the level at which magic really works. You can say well it’s a trick, but it has a real effect.

It’s not that the magic really works on this physical fundamental level, but it works on another dimension, which is just as real, even though it’s not literally true. This is the most important point about the whole magical operation: it is smoke and mirrors, but the effect that it creates in people is very real.

When you go to the cinema and you watch a horror film for example, or something very dramatic, you know that it is light on a screen, right? It’s not really there, it’s not really happening, and you know that, but you willingly enter into this particular state. And when the monster jumps out of the shadows, you jump three feet in the air as well. Even though you know it’s just light on a piece of cloth.

And that is why you can say, well, “magic is just a lie”, but it’s just like every novel is not literally true, but it contains truth. Magic itself is not true, but contains truth. So maybe that makes it a bit clearer.

Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville

Pictured: Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin in front of a Dreamachine. Photo attributed to Nicolas Tikhomiroff

Can we tie this back into Gysin – what was he using these magical ideas for?

I think several reasons. I think he was definitely not averse to impressing people by playing a few tricks on them.

I got to know his personality very well by editing this massive book of interviews.

There was a part of him which was very vain and he did like people looking up to him and he did like people thinking that he was a magician and he had special powers and all this other kind of stuff. And of course he was a very unusual individual who had quite a colourful history. But like so many people, he didn’t think that was enough, and he felt he had to puff it up a bit.

“… are we talking about quantum entanglement, or are we talking about voodoo?”

That’s not actually a criticism. I mean most people do that. When people write a CV they always exaggerate a bit to make themselves look good. And he was no different in that regard.

The whole magical thing was a kind of a flavour that he would put into these things, but there was definitely a recognition that there were certain things which were possible in very intense situations, like when he lived in Morocco.

Certain things were possible that are not possible outside of that environment. In that sense, in a way he never really left there. And, of course, a lot of the drug use makes a lot of this stuff far more impactful. It makes it more intense, it makes the experience far more vivid.

But there’s also a kind of a primitive belief that if you stick a pin in this particular doll that the other person on the other side of the world will feel a pain where that pin was in the model. That’s no different, in reality, these days than saying there’s something called quantum entanglement. Where if you take a molecule and you split it apart and you treat one part of that molecule in one way, the other half will do exactly the same thing, even though there’s no physical contact. Gysin knew about a lot of this kind of stuff – that was going on or being developed in the 40s and 50s and so on.

It depends on what level you’re at, the way you view it. Are we talking about quantum entanglement, or are we talking about voodoo?

In some ways they are exactly the same thing viewed from different angles. Magic is one way of looking at the phenomenal world and all the things which are inexplicable in it. And there are other ways to do that as well, whether they’re religious or whether they’re philosophical or they’re scientific or whatever.

Magic to me, is just one way of looking at the situation. And it has its own language. It has its own metaphors. It has its own procedures. It has its own culture. And now I’m not just talking about conjuring, I’m talking about the more occult versions of it. They are attempts to render some kind of sense in a world which appears on the surface, not to have much.

If you think there are unseen powers, then of course it makes a lot more sense. The world is a bit more coherent. Maybe that’s not a very straightforward answer, but it’s the best one I can give you today, I think.

Did Gysin have an intellectual framework for his art? A set of ideas that he could apply to his paintings that would help people to enter into the painting? Was he consciously using cut ups or another set of ideas and then applying them to his paintings deliberately to produce a transcendent effect?

I don’t get that impression. I mean, maybe one day we’ll discover some notebook, but I just don’t think he was that systematic. Like, the discovery of the cut ups is through chance, you know. I think he found a particular hole where the oil was, and he just kept on drilling in that particular hole and he got better and better at that particular part of it.

I don’t think he primarily did it for other people. Anyone can do a similar kind of thing and you do go into a kind of trance when you’re making such things [especially] with the help of copious quantities of hashish, I’m sure that was part of what he was up to.

He may, towards the end, have had some sort of illusion that these things could be commercially successful. I think they’re much more hermetic than a lot of people might think. He didn’t always paint exactly the same thing or in the same way, and some of them are quite clearly supposed to be landscapes, but some of them are meant to be viewed in a particular way and you have to be in a particular state in order to access them.

You could argue that he was sort of sending out feelers into the world to find people who could actually look at them in that particular way. That’s one point of view – I don’t really know the answer whether it’s right or not, but it’s certainly one possibility.

A large part of any artist who cares about their image, and he definitely did, wants other people to like him. He wanted to be loved, you know, and he wanted to find other people who had similar points of view and who he could actually communicate with on a real level.

I don’t know if he ever found anybody like that, to be honest, knowing what I do of his biography. I’m not sure he ever found anybody who he thought was on the same level as him.

A large part of why anybody does anything like that in public is to try and find other people who are like you. Kindred spirits, or whatever.

Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in Basel, 1970s

Pictured: Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in Basel, 1970s

For a while he and Burroughs were as thick as thieves, but I don’t think Burroughs ever had the artistic sort of side of things. He had to wait until Gysin died before he basically took Gysin’s way of making paintings and then shooting them.

Burroughs is a very dishonest man in a lot of ways. I don’t think he had a lot of respect for other people.

Gysin made friends with all of these highfalutin people, in French society especially. But I don’t think that was because he liked these people. He was doing it for the gossip, but also to get access to the money.

Not very well publicised, but he knew Tristan Tzara for example and used to meet him occasionally.

From his quasi-surrealist time he knew a lot of these famous people, but I don’t think they liked him very much because he wasn’t really a painter. He was a painter, but not a full-time painter. He was a writer, but not a full-time writer. And so on. So what was he? He didn’t really fit in with them either.

He also burned a lot of bridges. He was apparently a very vicious drunk. When he got drunk he would go completely wild. I think a lot of people felt that they couldn’t invite him to these chic parties because “you never know what Brion is going to do”. So he became a sort of pariah because of that.

When he tried to get himself ingratiated into Moroccan society there were some incidents where he was invited to these parties and he made a complete fool of himself.

There’s many factors, but I don’t think his face fit, basically. A bit too flamboyant, a bit too larger than life.

For your contemporaries, why do you think cut ups were so interesting?

Several things. One, it’s very irreverent. You get to take anything and you just cut it up and you use it and it is this mystical operation. Like Gysin reported, the first time you do it, you can’t help laughing because it should be nonsense and it comes out meaning something really profound and you can’t help laughing your head off. Nothing is sacred anymore, so that is very attractive.

Second thing; it’s an easy way to generate material. It’s not you anymore, you just fold this page or you cut this page into pieces and you put it back together and bingo, you’ve got something really interesting that nobody else would have come up with. And that gives a kind of freedom, in a way, that’s beyond taste.
You could take anything which was completely banal, like a newspaper report, and suddenly great poetry comes out of it.

People like shortcuts, they like to be able to do things faster and easier.

That’s why the most popular books in the book shops these days are how to do things in three minutes flat. Instead of it taking three years, it can now take three minutes and people like shortcuts so all you have to do is cut this thing up and now you’ve got literature and that’s very attractive as well. It’s a mechanical operation, it’s no longer something you’ve got to think about. You no longer have to wait for the creative hand of God to tap you on the shoulder. You can force it by doing this mechanical operation.

So there’s lots of things which are attractive about it, but like most things, I think it has a sell by date and what has happened as far as I’m concerned and Burroughs even talks about this later on in his career, that actually we live like that now anyway.

As soon as MTV and the like came along the way that things were edited was basically a cut up.

There’s no other way to really look at it. These fast cuts and backwards time sequences and all these flash forwards. Today it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s a perfectly standard operating procedure to do these techniques in major films. So it’s been assimilated like most of these avant garde things eventually do.
Cut ups have become assimilated into the mainstream, and they are not shocking anymore.

They used to be shocking, but these days it’s another texture. Just like the surrealists became another thing that you can use in your advertising campaign.
At the time people wanted to burn the galleries down, you know. But who would get upset about that now?

Time moves on and these things become assimilated. These weird sounds that people were making, you know, 30-40 years ago; people win Oscars for film soundtracks like that now. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way that things happen. These things become assimilated.
The longer they’re around, the more normal they become.

I haven’t thought about a lot of these things for a long time.

David Bowie cutting up lyrics

Pictured: David Bowie cutting up lyrics

Was using a Dreamachine valuable, to you?

Well, yes, but it doesn’t live up to the excessive claims that people make for it.

It’s interesting, it’s a curiosity. If you were to take a truckload of drugs and sit down in front of it, I’m sure that other things would happen, but “the great drugless turn-on of the 60s” – that’s not what it was. It was never going to be that because it’s not that dramatic and it takes a long time for just about everybody to really get something out of it.

Most people are not prepared to sit there for an hour or two hours in front of it – without, you know, the assistance of some sort of substance.

It’s interesting, but it’s not dramatic. People want it to be dramatic. They want to see things, they want to look at this thing and go on some sort of psychedelic adventure.

But I have not come across anybody who had that kind of experience unless they were using some kind of stimulus. So it’s obviously very interesting on lots of different levels, but not on the ones that it gets all the publicity for, in my opinion.

Did you ever see anything, using one?

Yeah, I mean you get sort of shapes. After a while, especially with the sound, the visions would start to go 360 degrees, for example. But they were never more than patterns.

We are pattern seeking animals. We always look for patterns, like when people see Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, like a Rorschach test.

Obviously you’re going to see patterns because your brain won’t handle just looking at random things. It’s going to see crosses, it’s going to see the eye of Isis. It’s going to see archetypal patterns because that’s what you grab onto.

A large part of it is people convincing themselves they’re going to see things, which doesn’t mean they don’t see things, it’s just that they want to.

And then there’s the other people, for them it’s a kind of a totem pole or something like that.

It’s interesting for a lot of reasons, but not for the reasons that I think most people associate with it. Which is a shame, because I think people’s expectations of it have kind of spoiled the whole thing.

Rather than people seeing it for what it is, there’s this great hope that it’s going to blow them away completely.

I haven’t seen anybody have that experience, I’ve not had anybody write to me and tell me that they’ve had that experience.

I’ve read a lot of people repeating the claims that other people have made, but I’ve not seen any evidence for it, doesn’t mean to say it’s not there, it just must be very uncommon.

Drawings by participants of what they saw beneath their closed eyelids

Pictured: Drawings by participants in the Dreamachine immersive experience

If we took away the expectations, what would be the value to the majority of people? A sense of their own consciousness?

Yes, I think that, and I think it does interact (in whatever way that is) with the alpha waves – in which case you’re getting a very small taste of what meditative states can be like. So you’re getting a sneak preview of what can be possible with other means, which are disciplines.

People like shortcuts, they like instant things. To sit on a mat and meditate for 30 years is obviously not as attractive as sitting in front of a tube which has a light bulb in it and then being promised a sort of a visionary experience. So that’s another attraction of it, that it’s instant.

But certainly it slows you down. People don’t jump up and down after looking at the Dreamachine. They’re in a very rested, contemplative mood. And that can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

It may cause them to reflect on things inside themselves, instead of always trusting on things which are external to them. So maybe they get interested in a kind of inner vision rather than an external vision. That might be a very positive side effect, in my opinion.

Gysin said that, to be traditionally successful, just stick on one track and stay there. How do you feel about that?

Well, it seems to be true. I can’t think of many people who do many different things and are wildly successful, because it’s hard to pigeonhole.

Especially these days when people want sort of instant everything, it’s a bit hard to explain. I mean, just how long did it take me to say all those different things [that I do]? And that’s not all, you know.

People like to have; “oh, it’s a painter”, “oh, it’s a writer”, “oh, it’s this, it’s that”.

People who do different things are normally given quite negative names like, you know, dilettante or something like that. But my whole thing is that I don’t see any differences between these things. For me there is no cut off point.

What interested me, in the beginning anyway, was the fact that you could have somebody making a record, and that record would reference a writer, and that writer would reference a film, and that film would reference, and so on and so on.

And I never really saw the differences between these different disciplines. They all influence and sort of shine light on each other. So maybe if I had just picked one of these things and stuck to it, there would be “success”. But I mean, it’s just never occurred to me.

It’s partly bloody-mindedness and partly stupidity, so I have no doubt that if I had just continued to make the same record over and over again, my life would have been a lot easier, but would have been a lot less interesting.

You think the interesting life is worth it?

Well, not purely on its own sake. I think the motivation is the most salient point. If you are making, let’s say, experimental music records so that you can pay the rent, you’re not going to make much money unless you do something like make the same record over and over again. That has never, ever been something I was even vaguely attracted to. And the people who do so, I don’t find very interesting either. It’s like mining the same mine until it’s completely exhausted, ignoring the fact that there may be some gold about two metres away.

I do calligraphy, right? And the whole thing about how the ink touches the paper and how the paper is made and where the ink comes from, or the different approaches of different countries embodies a particular philosophy. If you go into these things deeply enough, a whole world opens up, and if you just, stay with doing the one thing, you may come out the other end with some kind of enlightened state. But if you don’t see the interconnectedness of all of these things, then you’re not seeing things in context. And the context is, of course, what gives things meaning.

In some languages which are more context based than the English languages, context is basically everything. Which is why going from, let’s say, English to Tibetan is so hard is because Tibetan is very much based on the idea of context. So in this context it means this, and in this context it means this, which means there’s probably never going to be a sort of Google Translate for Tibetan because you can’t do it. It doesn’t work like that. You don’t have a list of words which mean this and then on the other side you have another list of words and the other language which means this. There is no one to one correspondence in most cases.

That worldview which is embedded in certain languages, these are things you can explore, but only if you know what the context is.

Just specialising – there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me I was always interested in the connections and seeing a more complete perspective. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but that’s how I feel about it anyway.

Andrew M. McKenzie

Pictured: Andrew McKenzie

To have worked so much on Gysin-related projects, you must think highly of him?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. I got to know his voice very well, but when I was researching the biography there were some things which came up and I was like ohhh.

But taken as a whole, I think it’s very useful that such a figure exists. Because he was definitely of the old world and he definitely did combine lots of things together.

There are some aspects of him that I don’t like at all, but overall, I think it’s actually worth it.

He left a lot of things unfinished. And he also pretended a lot of things which, when you come to examine them, they’re not quite what he says they are. There’s a hint of self aggrandisement which I don’t find particularly nice, and he’s blowing his own trumpet a lot.

He’s razor sharp with his observations about things and people, which is really quite something. But on the other side, he has this self pity; “I never made it and you know, I was never given the credit for this and I’m living here in this tiny apartment.”

It becomes monotonous. The word is whining, actually.

He was unrecognised for what he was, so it’s not like he was wrong about it, it’s just that he went on about it a bit too much.

But the very fact that he was able to do what he did with limited means. I have very mixed feelings, let’s put it that way.

You say he mentioned he was of the old world in the [His Name Was Master] tapes – could you give us a sense of that?

He talks about Russia and he talks about people coming off the Steppes – that was interesting.

He points out that, you know, the art world is run by genteel old ladies, and stuff like that.

The way that he sees these things is not a way that people would look at it today. It’s a little bit camp and it’s a little bit like gossip. But history is gossip, basically, and he’s very, very good at that.

There’s a number of incidents in the book where he talks about some historical event. And you go, “well, I never thought about that like that”, but he’s right.

“You know that everybody who writes history has an agenda. But until it happens to you…”

History is basically someone’s point of view and what’s weird about it is that you know this intellectually. You know that everybody who writes history has an agenda. But until it happens to you, when you read a book about something that happened, and you were there, and somebody’s talking about it – you realise just how all history must be like this.

All history must be the product of somebody being peeved at somebody else and then writing them out of history or not including them all. You know, some kind of imagined slight or something like that. And he could see that. That’s a very interesting perspective, I think.

Was Gysin a misogynist?

I think yes. A lot of his habits and his customs and his ways of speaking tell you that. You know, within about five minutes of listening to him speak, you can tell that he’s an old fashioned kind of soul. Part of the gay culture of that time was basically very anti women. It’s just a fact.

Also, he had a thing about women, because like he says in the His Name Was Master book, most of the big artists – their managers were their wives. And I think he was also jealous of that because he never had anybody to do that for him.

It’s fairly clear when he talks about Max Ernst’s wife or Gala Dali – he makes no bones about the fact that these people basically cut throats for their husband’s careers and to inflate the prices of their paintings.

And [Gysin] never had anybody to do that. He was obviously jealous of that because he thought he deserved it and he didn’t have anybody to do that. Who was going to be Gysin’s wife?

He did have Felicity Mason, so it’s not like he hated all women and wouldn’t talk to them. I think it was Sue, [Barry] Miles’ wife, he was also quite close to as well.

The major part of it is that old world, but also a certain kind of resentment, let’s say. Yet again, he saw other people of his generation, people he actually knew personally, become superstar artists and he didn’t.

Brion Gysin performing during the first light show of Le Domaine Poetique at the Galerie du Fleuve, Paris, 1959

Pictured: Brion Gysin performing during the first light show of “Le Domaine Poetique” at the Galerie du Fleuve, Paris, 1959. Detail from a photo attributed to Nicolas Tikhomiroff

What do you think Gysin would have thought of Donald Trump?

Well, I think he would have known people that knew him. When I was researching the biography I did find out that his fingers went into a lot of pies and he definitely had contacts with some people that you wouldn’t expect.

Some of the people that he knew were actually quite high up, but you have to remember that this was in the days when, again this is going to sound really strange, there was a kind of a gay fraternity and there was a sort of an international jet set, which is mentioned briefly in the book, of gay people who all kind of knew each other.

There is a supposed quote by David Hockney from the 60s saying there are – I don’t know how many it was – but “there are there are 20 gay men who rule the world and I know them all”.

It wasn’t by him. It was actually put out as a kind of a test to see whether these things would be accepted, by William Levy, who we mentioned before as being the guy who killed Somerville, apparently, according to Burroughs, by writing a nasty article about him.

I think Gysin would have known people that know Trump. And I’m pretty sure that he would have known people who have not yet been identified as connected with Trump.

He definitely knew some very influential people, let’s say.

Would Gysin have supported Trump?

I think part of him would have. He would not have out-and-out campaigned for him, but I’m sure there are certain things about Trump that he would have supported.

From sticking my nose in that book and in those tapes and stuff, there is a kind of a conservatism in there. It’s hidden pretty well, but there is a kind of an old-fashioned conservatism in Gysin.

Maybe! I don’t really know, obviously.

You’ve said you preferred Gysin to Burroughs. Why is that?

Because of what we’ve been talking about – that he did many different things.

Also, this is going to sound a bit weird, but I don’t care. I think [Gysin] was a bit more grown up than Burroughs. I find Burroughs rather childish most of the time. Gysin doesn’t really let his own obsessions cloud the picture, so to speak. Burroughs is all about these fantasies and all these other kinds of things. And it’s all about him, whereas with Gysin there is a large amount which is about him, but he is very much in touch with things which are not him.

“The great artists are the people who were able to get out of the way of themselves…”

When I was going to write this biography of [Gysin], I had a title for it; ‘The man who tried to disappear’.

In a lot of what he does, especially when we’re talking about the projections. Which of course, that doesn’t fit anywhere – I mean, how are you going to sell a projection of a person onto another person in a stage show? It’s almost ludicrous.

That was one of the things that really struck me, he was trying to get out of the way, let’s say.

The great artists, I think, are the people who were able to get out of the way of themselves and let whatever creative spirit they were in touch with, come through untainted.

In the same way as a radio, is not a very good radio if you can hear the radio. You want to hear the programme that comes through it. The more interference there is with that signal, the worse the radio is. Gysin, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, seems to me to be more of that spirit than Burroughs is.

Burroughs is much more self centred; “what can I get out of this?”

Whereas Gysin, he’s trying to explore and he’s quite aware that the things that he finds are not actually his.

With any artist there’s going to be some kind of ego involved at some point. But, for me, Gysin is much more about allowing the creative spirit to come through rather than putting his stamp on it.

That to me is far more illuminating and useful than Burroughs – not to put Burroughs down all the way because of course some of what he did was really good.
As a person, the feeling I get when I have to look at [Burroughs] or read him or come in contact with something he’s done – I just don’t want anything to do with him.

Gysin, I think he had his own unpleasant side, but his vision was a bit wider. Sometimes he was successful and sometimes he wasn’t, but you can’t be successful all the time, and anyone who pretends that you can is basically lying.

Do you think Gysin will be remembered?

Not for ever and ever. He’s marginalised already. This guy who painted some stuff, but he wasn’t a full time painter and he did this Dreamachine kinetic thing. But he also did these projections, and he also did this poetry, and he also did this writing.

It’ll be a while before it fades, I think eventually he’s going to have a place and it’s going to be an interesting side note or something like that.

Like some of the surrealists. Everybody has heard of the big ones. And then you discover that there [were other characters] and they didn’t do very much.

Unless someone takes something that he did and publicises it in some unexpected way that makes him a household name.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s a bit more than a footnote, but very often the footnotes are the most interesting things in books.

At some point somebody will say “it’s time to re-evaluate Brion Gysin and his work” but the fact that you can’t pigeonhole him so neatly is going to forever prevent him from being very well known.

I think it’s a strength that someone has this broad range, but most people don’t agree. They think it’s a weakness, but I know which one I prefer.

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