Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Charles Gatewood's "Sidetripping": William Burroughs, the loup garou of Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. In New Orleans or Metarie, and from Jefferson Parish to Baton Rouge, the krewes and their kings will be parading until long after sundown. Revelers are urged to beware loup-garou, who as Cajun children all know, is the werewolf who is always out to snare them. Tomorrow begins the 40 days of fasting and pennance before Easter known as Lent in the Catholic church. Until the streets are cleared of their final guests at midnight, laissez bon-temps rouler!

In the early 1970s photographer Charles Gatewood compiled a book of images he titled
Sidetripping, 90 photographs that capture the oblique angles of human nature: glimpses that more often require a second look, a quick scene captured out of the corner of the eye that one may have only imagined. The book was republished in a new edition by Last Gasp in 2002.

Here is an excerpt from Gatewood's memoir, Dirty Old Man, about his frustrating attempts to get the book published. On assignment in London with Rolling Stone writer Robert Palmer to do a feature story on William Burroughs, in 1972, Gatewood approached Burroughs with the assembled photographs. The literary loup-garou agreed to write Gatewood an introduction to the book, and the photographer was overjoyed.

On the last day of our visit, I showed William Burroughs my Sidetripping book-dummy. He liked my bizarre photos, especially the naked “St. Sebastian” boy being led away by uniformed cops at Mardi Gras. He also liked my photo of a drunk fraternity boy pissing on Bourbon Street. “Wild boys,” said William. “Fine work.”

I knew Burroughs believed in verbal sorcery and the power of word-magic. Certain word combinations could be deadly, he said. Words had power. Words could kill.
“I want to make photographs that kill,” I told him.
Sidetripping is published,” said Burroughs, “viewers will die, for sure.”
My palms got all sweaty. “Would you write an introduction to the book?”
“Why certainly,” said William. “I’ll be delighted.”
Oh my! William S. Burroughs would introduce my book! Never mind that I didn’t have a publisher — I would certainly find one now!

In April, 1972, Burroughs sent me his three-page introduction to
Sidetripping. I read the text with great excitement. It began splendidly, with a sly carny come-on:
"Step right up for the greatest show on earth. The biologic show. Any being you ever imagined in your wildest and dirtiest dreams is here and yours for a price. The biologic price you understand money has no value here … "
After quoting from New Scientist magazine (a piece about brain research), Burroughs continued:
"Charles Gatewood the sidetripping photographer takes what the walker didn’t quite see, something or somebody he may have looked quickly away from and the photo reminds him of something deja vu back in front of his eyes."

Burroughs went on to compare photographers to thieves — a nice touch. He also told how a writer named Dunne in his 1924 book
An Experiment With Time found that some incidents in his dreams referred to future time:
"Point is he discovered that his dream referred not to the dream itself but to the account and photos in newspaper."

This was a cool observation — I’ve experienced pre-cognitive dreams too, many times. ...
Sidetripping ends with a frat boy pissing in the street as his drunken friends watch:
"Look at the boy’s face. Smiling in the ruins. Dying? So what? We shall overcome. Ambiguous familiar in his face death child with a wide grin ambiguous familiar. AH POOK PISSED HERE."
What kind of ending was that? And who the hell was Ah Pook?

I really couldn’t criticize William’s text — could I? After all, he’d written it as a courtesy, for free. It was all I had. It would have to
I cut the Burroughs text into sections, and plugged the text into my Sidetripping book-dummy. There were gaps, for sure, plus that weird ending — but the surreal text did bounce off my raw photos in some powerful ways. At any rate, William Burroughs’ name now graced the cover of my book, and that was a big step forward. ...

As it turned out, the images in Sidetripping were more confrontational than even the mysteries in Burroughs' text. In a 1996
interview Gatewood explained to Joe Donahoe:

I decided to do a photography book that would show all the madness and ask the basic question "Who is really crazy here?" I've got straight mainstream types, like here's a business man and his wife drunk at Mardi Gras, just regular folks [the "regular folks" stagger inanely, the man has the plastic rings of a Budweiser six-pack looped through his belt support, the woman plows into him with an unnatural looking motion, both have the expression and appearance of rural serial murderers]. Here's a couple of hippies drunk on Bourbon Street [two hippie kids appear out of the dark. Madness can't be said to have claimed them. Two more well mannered young people you couldn't ask for]. Here's some policemen beating up a Yippie. Here's some hard hats out to kill some freak.

There's an old Dylan song that goes "You write for your side, I'll write for mine." So I just wanted to put it all down and let others sort it out. I put a lot of Mardi Gras stuff in here. That's an event where people can get together and celebrate their deviance. That's where I first saw heavily tattooed and pierced guys.

Gatewood writes in a postscript at the RealityStudio site: "In 2011 am producing a deluxe William Burroughs book with Dana Dana Dana editions in San Francisco. It will be a handmade artist’s book containing all the best photos from our 1972 shoot, plus previously unpublished photos of William Burroughs with Jimmy Page in 1975. The book will be similar to A Complete Unknown, my limited edition artist’s book about Bob Dylan. Only 23 copies of (the Burroughs book) will be produced."


However you celebrate, enjoy Mardi Gras 2012 and don't let
loup-garou get his paws on you! For a French-Canadian folktale about the night prowler beast, here's a link to Rowland Robinson's 1894 book of stories, Danvis Folks.

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