William Burroughs. Photograph:
William Burroughs. Photograph: James Hamilton

In his 1964 novel Nova Express, a pitch-black social commentary about a dystopian future, William S. Burroughs writes: “I am primarily concerned with the question of survival – with Nova conspiracies, Nova criminals, and Nova police. A new mythology is possible in the Space Age, where we will again have heroes and villains, as regards intentions towards this Planet. I feel that the time of writing is in Space, not Time.”

It was another five years until Apollo 11 first touched down on a lunar surface, and another decade after that until the Nova Convention was held, a multimedia retrospective of his work in New York City. By this point, the diabolical American genius Burroughs, variously a Harvard University alumnus, drug savant, pioneer of the gay liberation movement, gun enthusiast and creator of the “cut-up technique”, had garnered widespread praise. In attendance were cultural giants from Patti Smith, to Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, John Cage and Allen Ginsberg.

An exhibition organised by Ecstatic Peace Library at Shoreditch’s Red Gallery entitled William Burroughs: Nova Convention, will mark the artist’s centennial with photographs of the event taken by James Hamilton of the Village Voice, who captured this celebratory and historic meeting of minds at The Entermedia Theater.

One of those in attendance that day was a 19-year-old Thurston Moore, scraggly and raw, who is now a co-curator of the Red Gallery show alongside Eva Prinz. He recalls in a “teenage potted reverie … a palpable excitement of the importance of Burroughs’ return to NYC”. These days, Moore travels each year from his home in Stoke Newington to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, just as Burroughs taught there many years ago.

There, too, was a London connection. “At the Nova Convention he read this poem that he introduced by saying it had been inspired by a trip to London,” Moore recounts. “He had this whole connection to the London underground of radical poetry, people like Jeff Nuttall. He was living on Drury Lane and being part of the scene around the Indica Bookstore that Barry Miles had. He was a big part of the London scene, hanging out with Ian Sommerville, Iain Sinclair and all those guys. For me now living in London it’s something I really relate to, Burroughs’ time here, as an American in London.”

On the day of the convention itself, the poet Eileen Myles supposedly performed the so-called William Tell act where in 1951 Burroughs tragically sent a bullet through his wife Joan Vollmer’s skull, killing her instantly. But Moore explains there was plenty to revel in. “Glass’s idiosyncratic high-speed minimalist pianistics was natural, gorgeous and sublime. Zappa came out and read a Burroughs excerpt ‘The Talking Asshole’ which seemed appropriate and was mildly entertaining. Patti hit the stage in a glamorous black fur trench, purportedly on loan from some high-end clothier.

“There was always some magic in the air in NYC and it seemed like there could be no other world in 1978. Burroughs coming back to the city where he predicted the urban energy and flash lightning of punk rock was matter of pride and integrity. We owned the future.”

William Burroughs: Nova Convention is at Red Gallery, 1-3 Rivington Street, EC2A 3DT until 13 July.

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