Benoît Delaune, born in 1973, is a musician and teacher. He wrote his PhD about William Burroughs and the use of the cut-up technique in the ‘Nova Trilogy’. He also wrote a short biography of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, as well as theorical texts and articles about the collage/montage aesthetics in literature, cinema and music. Between 1998 and 2003, he led a micro-publishing structure, Les éditions de la Notonecte, which released books by Claude Pélieu, Mary Beach, FJ Ossang and others. As a musician, he played in many avant-garde bands, close to free-rock and improvisation. Nowadays he plays guitar, composes and creates artworks for his new band, Orgöne. He's also working on books by Claude Pélieu and Alain Jégou.
Benoît Delaune: Rock and Counterculture
I read that you once had a strong interest in the work of Fernando Arrabal – did that extend to the others in the PANic movement, Topor and Jodorowsky? Is that where your interest in counterculture writing started?
My interest in counterculture began early. As a teenager, my first interest was music, mostly rock and jazz. I began playing guitar at 12, in 1986. At 15 I began to read poetry, mostly French poets from the XIXth century: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Corbière, as well as a bit of Surrealist poetry … and this reading was mixed with listening (and reading) to rock music and rock lyrics, from Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, MC5, etc. To me those lyrics were some kind of poetry mixed with music and to get further into the music I felt I had to read and analyse the lyrics – and also to read and analyse more ‘classic’ poetry, which led me to these poets, to Surrealism, Dada and the poètes maudits. That was my first step into counterculture writing.
I was able to put a link between that rock music from the 60s-70s that I liked and counterculture writers in 1991, when I was 18. The first shock was reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, then Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. And then, at 19-20, I read a lot of Burroughs and Kerouac. Many of those great books were sold out at that time in France, or available only in expensive collections, so I had to dig into second-hand bookshops for pocket books from the 70s. A lot of those writers were, during the 70s, released in France by Christian Bourgois in his 10/18 collection. So, in second-hand bookshops, I was always hunting for the 10/18 books, which had a very specific artwork.
Then, also in a second-hand bookshop, I found a strange 10/18 book named Viva La Muerte by Arrabal, with a Roland Topor drawing. In this novel (originally titled Baal Babylone and renamed when the movie Viva La Muerte, based on this novel, was released), I found it a paradoxal kind of writing: half naive-childish, half complex, with a strange narrative process. Some of it reminded me of the nouveau roman style and the repetitive writing also reminded me of the cut-up novels of Burroughs. So, as a student in literature, for my first big work of research, I hesitated between a study of Burroughs's cut-up novels and Arrabal's novels from the 60s. I chose Arrabal because, in that pre-internet era, I was able to find more stuff on him and I felt it would be easier to study and analyse.
I was interested in the PANic movement. I even found the Superwoman 45-rpm by The Panics, who were supposedly created or helped by Alejandro Jodorowsky. In France, during the 80s, Topor was almost everywhere: as a child I watched a TV programme called Téléchat, which was very strange, often nonsensical, close to Lewis Carroll, sort of a strange dadaist thing … It was created by Topor. Topor also contributed to comedy TV programmes called Palace and Merci Bernard.
You play for a band called Orgöne, and have written a book about Captain Beefheart, called Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band(s), published in 2011. What attracts you to Don Van Vliet’s music? Do you like Frank Zappa too?
I discovered Frank Zappa's music at almost the same time as the writings of Burroughs, Arrabal, Claude Pélieu, etc. At first I felt that his albums from the late 70s and 80s were boring, much too virtuoso stuff … And then I fell in love with his second album (with The Mothers Of Invention), from 1967, Absolutely Free. I really liked the collage/montage aesthetic in it. It reminded me, of course, of the cut-up technique, and also some works by Stockhausen, and the ‘atonal’ piece of Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire. At that time I was really looking after this aesthetic thing of collage/montage.
Then, buying a book about Zappa, I read about Beefheart, but as the writer considered him as an ‘evil twin’ of Zappa and was really putting him down, I didn't go into Beefheart at first. I just knew the ‘Bongo Fury’ record, which is a collaboration between Zappa and Beefheart, but sounded much more like Zappa than Beefheart.
So, when I finally listened to Beefheart and Trout Mask Replica, at the end of the 90s, it was a real shock. What really thrilled me was that Beefheart's musicians were playing collage/montage music, but directly ‘live’, without the use of studio techniques: no overdub, no cut and paste. At the time of my discovery of Beefheart, in popular music there were many bands playing what was called ‘math rock’, and this music was really connected to Beefheart's music, this ‘cut and paste’, parataxic aesthetic. So, this led me to listen more deeply to Beefheart, and finally to write a study about his music. This study became the first try of my short biography, Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band(s).
Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was a feeling that there was a close relationship between rock music and poetry – the poetry of rock. Do you feel that is still the case in the 2000s?
Well, it depends on what you call ‘rock poetry’ or ‘the poetry of rock’. I always considered rock music as a whole: music AND lyrics. And I feel that, often, the best rock lyrics are simple or even ‘poor’ lyrics. I very much prefer the lyrics of Iggy Pop on the Stooges's first album (which use, say, only 100 or 200 simple words), than the works of rock guys who want to be considered as poets and write very long and complex texts – they miss the aim.
I don't know, in 2020, if there still is some ‘rock poetry’. I guess that it's always here. With my band, Orgöne, we try to write ‘dreamy’ lyrics, about ‘ancient astronauts’, about the myth of Egypt and pan-Africanism/Afrofuturism. We try to create some ‘mysterious’ lyrics, that is, simple lyrics, but with different levels of meanings.
You have produced some collages with distinct space themes. Are they often used as cover art for Orgöne albums?
I made some collages during the 90s but was never satisfied with them. At that time, I had met Claude Pélieu, and I had this huge shadow on my shoulder, as Claude was a far-out and crazy collagist. But, one of my first collages work was based on cheap French comics of the 70s, about cosmonauts and Eastern Island statues.
When I began to play with my fellow musicians, and that we decided to name ourselves Orgöne (a twisted way to pay homage to Burroughs, remembering the ‘orgone box’ scene in On The Road), we had to find a proper kind of artwork. So I went back to those collages, mixing lost cosmonauts with Egyptian landscapes, or Egyptian gods with space stuff. This kind of imagery is used, now, by many bands on the ‘stoner rock’ scene – but I began to compose those kind of collages very early, and I still find this very powerful: this is part of my imaginary inner landscape, I couldn't understand why or analyse it – it's a part of me.
You have translated some of Beat poet Bob Kaufman’s work into French, and there is an interesting case of some Kaufman poems that was originally published in French, and which you translated back into English. How did that come about?
This is a strange story, as usual. At the end of the 90s I bought The Ancient Rain by Kaufman, and I was frustrated: there was no French translation of this book, and the only people who were able to translate his poetry were Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu. So, as Kaufman's poetry really is hard to understand for a poor English-reader like me, I was angry not to be able to fully understand this poetry. The poems seemed nevertheless brilliant. After Claude and Mary passed on, I thought maybe I would never see a French translation of this beautiful little book. So I decided to translate, just for me, one or two texts. Then, my dear friend Alain Jégou got sick. In 2010 we had planned to one day do a music/reading event. Alain would read some of his poetry and poems by Kerouac and Kaufman, and I would play ‘free-rock’ guitar. In 2011, as I knew that Alain was really feeling bad, I sent him those first drafts of translation, of the poems ‘The American Sun’ and ‘All Those Ships That Never Sailed’. Alain was really happy, told me that it worked, that I had managed to translate Kaufman' distinctive voice, and asked me for some more. So, the idea of translating Kaufman came from Alain and from this idea of public readings of Kaufman's poems. Then, Bruno Sourdin also told me that it was a good idea, that it was a way of ‘finishing’ Mary and Claude's works on Kaufman's translations. So I decided to work on the entire book, to try and translate it. This translation took me almost 10 years (as I'm not a professional translator).
Then, in September 2017 I was in Paris for a colloquium about European Beat Studies. I talked about Claude and Mary, about Claude's poetry, about their role as French translators and ‘literary agents in France, for Kaufman, Burroughs, Ginsberg, etc. After my speaking, someone came to me, Tate Swindell. He told me that he was working on a ‘Complete works’ book of Kaufman in the USA. He asked me about Kaufman, I just told him about my translation work. He was convinced that I could help him, as I was in touch with Claude and Mary, he was sure I must have information, etc. I wasn't convinced at all, but some days later, he sent me a message, with precise questions, about the French editions of Kaufman. And I then realised he was right, I could help him a little, as I had almost everything from Kaufman that was published in France.
Tate had realised that some poems were translated and released in France, and that the original manuscripts were lost. So, to help him find back the manuscripts, I ‘re-translated’ those texts, from French to English. In this work I was helped by my own translations of Kaufman: sometimes I could ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the exact English word that Kaufman should have used, behind the curtain of the French translation.
You have been active in either republishing, or promoting the republishing, of work by Claude Pélieu, including bringing the original manuscript of his Automatic Pilot to light. When did you first encounter Claude’s work and what are your memories of him?
I encountered the writings of Claude through his translations (with Mary) of Ginsberg and Burroughs. Then I found, in a second-hand bookshop, his poetry books Jukeboxes and Tatouages mentholés et cartouches d'aube, that 10/18 released in 1972 and 1973. It was the kind of poetry you could talk to. Before reading those books, I couldn't imagine that poetry could be about ‘acid rock’ and MC5. His poetry in these books was, at times, naive and simple, like Prévert, and in the same time very hard, talking about Kent massacre, counterculture events and protagonists. There was a feeling of immediacy. This guy talked the same language as a youngster like me, 20 years later. It was truly amazing. Most of all, it was the kind of poetry I thought I would have written if I were a poet.
Three years later, when I was doing my PhD on Burroughs, I went to the university library and searched about everything about him. I found a notice about a little book by him, released by a French publisher named SUEL. I wrote to that publisher, and Lucien Suel answered, very kindly. We began to talk, by snail mail, and, knowing I was doing my PhD on Burroughs, he gave me several contact details: those of Burroughs himself, and of Claude and Mary, plus Bruno Sourdin. So, I wrote to Claude, asking shyly about the French translations of Burroughs. That's how I met Claude. I was really impressed to be in touch with that guy who wrote such a powerful poetry.
I wrote to him, I think in October 1996, and got an answer some days later … I couldn't believe my eyes. Very quickly, Claude asked me about France, about me … in fact he didn't really care about my research on Burroughs, he was just … well … a friendly guy, happy to communicate with a youngster from France. That's the most important thing about Claude: it was all about friendship, trust. Claude acted like a sea-light, a guide, ‘passing’ the light. He insisted I contact FJ Ossang, Alain Jégou … I didn't know about those guys, but Claude kept insisting. I wasn't a writer, I was just an amateur rock musician, a student in literature, so I had nothing to prove, I wasn't a writer in search of an older ‘mentor’. I guess that's why Claude trusted me.
When Burroughs died and Claude wrote a text about his old friend, he dedicated the text to me, and sent me the original typescript. It was an honour for me. I didn't know what to do with this text, to help promote it, so I typed back the text on my computer and sent him this printed version.
Then Claude sent me almost everything he wrote, asking me to type them on my computer. I was anxious about this, as he always sent me the original texts by the post and never kept a copy. Feeling that he didn't care with those original ones, even guessing that if I sent them back he would lose them or maybe throw them, I began to keep everything, to make copies and to type everything.
Then, the question was: what could I do with all those texts? Claude told me that there was no more French publishers wanting to release his books. So, I took the decision to start a micro-publishing structure to release those texts, as Lucien Suel did with his SUEL editions. People like Alain Jégou were helpful, giving me addresses of people that could be interested. That's how my micro-publishing structure began, with the name La Notonecte.
We released four books from Claude. At last, Claude had a total freedom on those books. For example, one day I found, by chance, a text by Claude, from 1965, in the Cahier de l'Herne, about Céline, titled Boomerang. I sent Claude a copy, and he then told me, ‘oh, by the way ...’ there was another text by him in the Cahier de l'Herne about Ezra Pound. Then Claude sent me another text he wrote about Céline in 1967; some days later he sent me a new text, sort of a postscript to his texts about Céline, titled Boomerang 30 années plus tard. He then wrote to me that ‘it could be funny to have a book with all those texts’. That's how we did it. I gave Claude total artistic freedom. The books sold not so bad, considering we were a totally independent structure and that it was poetry.
After Claude's death, I remained loyal to his will and legacy. I tried to help, as much as I could, to promote his books and writings. It was, and still is, all about friendship. I owe so much to Claude. I was just a 23-year-old lad when I first wrote to him, but he always was open-minded and sincere. And, most of all, with Claude I learned to be sincere, honest. He taught me kindness, in a way – even if he could sometimes be very harsh to some people.
Three months before his passing, Claude told me that he wanted me to release a book with his ‘American texts’. He meant Automatic Pilot and other texts from the 60s. I didn't even have a copy of Automatic Pilot. Some years later, Alain Jégou found the book and sent me a copy. I then realised that it was a translation by Mary, that the original text was in French. In 2008, thinking that the original text was lost, Alain and I decided to ‘retranslate’ the English version into French. We had a professional translator working on it, and then, word by word, I spent thousands of hours comparing this retranslation with other texts of Claude from the same era, to try to trace the original text. Then, the original typescript surfaced in December 2019, in a bookshop, someone selling his archives. To protect this very important text from collectors and US universities, I put almost every penny I had (I'm not a rich guy) and bought it. I know that Claude would be very angry to know that I had to pay so much to finally have access to this text… But it was the only way to save this manuscript from greed and collectors’ craziness.
So, nowadays, as I always did with Claude, I'm typing up this text on my computer and preparing a possible edition. Pilote Automatique is a milestone of French poetry. This is the only text by a French writer that were a part of the Beat Generation texts, the only French ‘Beat’ text, in a way. This is an incredible, crazy, long epical and lyrical screaming poem, a long howl about speed, urban landscapes, sex, love, knocking one's head again the walls of ‘normality’, the poet feeling that Paris streets were nothing but an air-tight cell. I know a whole lot of texts that Claude wrote one or two months before this one, and … Pilote Automatique is really different and astonishing. This is the text where the young fellow Claude suddenly and unexpectedly became the Poet Pélieu.
Soon, I'll be going to the Bibliothèque nationale de France: they accepted to buy the typescript back. So, I will have my money back, and I'll be sure that it is now safe, and the property of the French state. Then, I'll try to have Pilote Automatique released here in France.
Some years ago the Bibliothèque nationale de France also bought letters and texts by Claude from 1961-1963. Claude's first wife, Lula, decided, before Claude's passing, to release those letters and texts. In 2012, after many years, the book Un Amour de Beatnik was released. I was in charge of the notes, critical stuff, etc and did a lot of research on Claude's life between 1954 and 1964. It was amazing. I managed to talk (mostly by phone or mail) to many people who knew Claude during that era. I hope I managed, in my introduction, to paint a realistic portrait of the young Claude Pélieu, an angry young painter and drawer who became a very influential writer and poet. This work was becoming urgent, as many people were getting older, with fading memories. I discovered some unexpected facts!
I recently spent several hours reading the proofs of the Jukeboxes rerelease, by the publisher Lenka Lente. Guillaume Belhomme, who runs Lenka Lente, is another mercenary. He's doing an astonishing and absolutely necessary job. It was really an extreme pleasure for me to help Guillaume. Reading the proofs of Jukeboxes, man, was such a moving moment … It was like having Claude next to me, over my shoulder, laughing out loud and yelling about the situation of the day here in France, with a lot of strikes, demonstrations, police stuff … Jukeboxes sounded really of the day, it was like a chronic of the actual situation here in France.
Do you feel that Claude’s work is still important now, in 2020, in France as well as in other (English-speaking) countries? Do you feel that Claude’s work – for reasons of language as well as others – has been sidelined by Beat ‘experts’?
As I just said, Jukeboxes in 2020, doesn't sound outdated at all. This is a very strange situation: the forces and powers, collective and individuals, that Claude described, are almost the same nowadays. His poetry sounds as necessary today than in 1972. That's maybe why Claude’s is still a sort of ‘hidden treasure’ today. His poetry, in a way, still sounds ‘dangerous’.
When you have a look back on French poetry from the XXth Century, there is an ‘official’ history: it begins with Apollinaire and then, after 1945, it's as if poetry had disappeared … There are just a few names, Bonnefoy, Char, Jaccottet … The position of Claude and other poets is a tough one: if you really study French poetry after 1945, you will find the Lettristes, the sound poets, and then a few names, like Stanislas Rodanski, Claude, Matthieu Messagier, Alain Jégou etc. Claude, like Alain, is nowadays as hidden and forgotten as Lautréamont was in the XIXth Century, which is a shame.
Claude's poetry is so specific, out there, mercenary, that it's easy to sideline him, as a ‘close to the Beats but not Beat’ poet. In France, this is ridiculous: some imbeciles here wrote that his poetry was ‘some bad Burroughs copy, much too burroughsian’, but also wrote that his translations of Burroughs were ‘much too Pélieu’. So: too much Pélieu’ or ‘too much Burroughs’? Silly questions.
You contributed to an anthology of French writings about Kerouac back in 1999, called Kerouac City Blues. The late Alain Jégou was one of the contributors. How did you get to know him?
Claude had written to me, saying ‘this guy, Alain Jégou, he's a fisherman, and also a very good poet, he lives close to you’. I was living in Rennes, and Alain in Lorient. There were 120 km between us. So, I met Alain in 1997 or 1998 I guess.
Alain was not only a contributor to Kerouac City Blues, he was the initiator. With the poet Jacques Josse, they wanted to question the influence of Kerouac, 30 years after his death.
A few months ago, I thought about Alain, about his poetry. I reread some of his early poems, which he often dismissed. I was really thrilled by the quality and power of his writing. With a friend, Pierre Rannou, and Alain's widow, Marie-Paule, we plan to build a first volume of Complete Poems, 1973-1983. This is another ‘mercenary job’ that I'm forced to do by myself, as no publisher here has the courage to do it. I miss Alain so much. This planned book is a mean to have him, in a certain way, besides me. Alain talks to me through his writings. This is why the job of finding back Alain's texts in several fanzines, typing them back, etc is a pleasant one.
What is your opinion of the Beat ‘industries’ that have sprung up in the past 20 years – the Kerouac industry, the Ginsberg industry, the Burroughs industry?
It's a paradox. The counterculture is always a means to find new paths, new ways of feeling, thinking, often in an opposite way to the industrialisation, to the capitalistic system. The individual against the mass-production and mass-thinking. So, the Beats becoming an industry … this sounds like a bad joke. But, fortunately, the texts of those writers are really very good and authentic, I think. So, even if the industry tries to use the Beats as merchandising stuff, it won't work so long. Those texts and writers are so powerful that their art won't be wasted by Industry and will survive.
Culture can be contaminated by (or can even be) industry and capitalism, but true art speaks to the heart of someone.
What projects are you busy with at the moment, in terms of writing, music and art?
I'm busy with my band Orgöne. We just signed a contract with a ‘big’ independent Italian label, Heavy Psych Sounds. We'll release our first album, a gatefold double LP. So, I'm busy with the artwork, and I'm also creating a specific series of 10 unique gatefold covers, for a very limited ‘original’ edition. That means 40 collages! We'll play some concerts during the next months, in France, maybe Germany. I also have other music projects and ideas, between free impro, basic heavy rock, electro punk, swampy blues etc. Time is lacking, alas ...
I'm also busy with Claude’s Pilote Automatique and Alain’s Complete Works 1973-1983.
In the next months, I'll have to go to Paris to talk to conferences and colloquiums. There will be an event next September, titled Cut-ups @ 60. And the biggest event will be next June: Peggy Pacini and James Horton, two beautiful people, are organising the very first official and international colloquium around Claude! I'll be there, of course. There will also be an exhibition of Claude and Mary's works. What a fantastic news! This colloquium will be a very important and historical milestone in the process of recognition of one of the greatest French poets ever, our very dear Claude Pélieu.