A while ago I came across a link to an album called The "Priest" They Called Him. The cover of the album is a gritty, yellow-drenched photograph of a blurry priest with a horrendous posture. I would have overlooked it if the bright red text across the photo didn't catch my eye. It read William S. Burroughs in the top left corner and Kurt Cobain in the top right. Well, that had my attention.
The "Priest" They Called Him is a short story that Burroughs published in 1973 as part of the collection Exterminator! It's a Christmas story, in the sense that it takes place during Christmas season, not in the sense that it reaffirms your faith in humanity and fills you with pleasant, warm nostalgia. No, not in that sense at all. It's about a broke junky selling a pair of severed legs he acquires to buy some heroin.
William Burrough's voice is an instantly recognizable, rickety, creaking croak that demands attention and inspires shudders. The recording was done in 1992 when the writer was 78, only five years before he died. Like the audiobook of Naked Lunch that Burroughs narrates, the reading is sublime. The words he came up with could only sound more depraved when being read by the man who wrote them.
Kurt Cobain's contribution to the project was purely musical, with a solo guitar piece that lasts throughout the reading (a little less than ten minutes long). The first thing you hear on the track is a dissonant screech approximating the melody of the Christmas carol Silent Night, with the last note drowned in burbling noise. For the rest of the recording, the listener is subjected to vicious wailing and groaning from the Nirvana frontman's guitar and amp. It's a harsh noise piece that most people would go out of their way to avoid if presented on its own, although here it is regulated to the background and fairly easy to ignore if necessary. It makes for a ideal partner to the morbid words. Cobain also recorded his part in 1992, and died two years later.
The "Priest" They Called Him was released in 1993 as a CD, 10" vinyl single, and a 10" picture disc with the two artists' faces on the record. At the very least the recording is an unlikely pairing of two cultural icons, and for someone with any interest in Burroughs and Cobain, this is something that needs to be heard. What seems like a mismatch at first takes only a few seconds to prove itself as a very appropriate arrangement.