When writer Kathy Acker died of breast cancer on November 30, 1997, she left behind an impressive catalog, including 10 novels, countless essays and short

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Spoken Words

A posthumous CD release captures the spark of a talent gone too soon.

When writer Kathy Acker died of breast cancer on November 30, 1997, she left behind an impressive catalog, including 10 novels, countless essays and short stories, an opera libretto, and a screenplay. Her work, which contained graphic depictions of sexuality and often "borrowed" texts from other authors, ignited controversy; Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and Empire of the Senseless (1988) were banned in Germany and Canada, respectively, while Harold Robbins' British representatives once threatened to sue Acker's UK publishers after she rendered his rhapsodic smut anew as vicious political satire. The author held the power of language in the highest regard, executing her prose with intense attention to structure and meaning. Regardless, her work—which typically included characters who abruptly change gender or identity, sudden shifts in narration, and actions and settings dictated by dream logic—confounded many readers. Redoing Childhood

by Kathy Acker

(Kill Rock Stars, $11) With Kill Rock Stars' posthumous release of the CD Redoing Childhood, Acker offers a less daunting avenue for entering her literary realm. Produced by Hal Willner (whose credits include William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and the all-star Edgar Allen Poe anthology Closed On Account of Rabies), the disc features the writer reading an extended excerpt from her 1993 book My Mother: Demonology atop a shifting musical background. The material can be challenging, with a cast including former President George Bush, French writer Georges Bataille, and Acker's dancing school instructor, Miss Savage, yet the author's compelling delivery holds the listener's attention through many twists and turns. "Just to her voice in general, there was something so lush and luscious and embracing and sexy," recalls longtime friend Ira Silverberg, who served as Acker's editor, publicist, publisher, and agent at various junctures, and helped Willner edit Redoing Childhood for length. "She pulls you into her work in a way which is amazing, because she's not the easiest person for most people on the page. But what she does with spoken word allows you to enter her world and her thoughts and structure in a way that makes the work a lot more accessible." Recorded in the early 1990s in San Francisco, where Acker resided at the time, the sessions paired the author with an unusual array of collaborators. Along with atmospheric backing tapes by UK avant garde pianist David Cunningham (ex-Flying Lizards) and turntable manipulations by Willner, contributions were also culled from improvisational sessions held with lesbian hardcore punk quintet Tribe 8 and a trio rounded up by woodwind player Ralph Carney (Tom Waits/Oranj Symphonette). "The amazing thing was that virtually each [take] was done nonstop," says Carney. "We had to improvise over this poem for a whole hour, each time we did it." Later, fading different permutations and combinations in and out of the mix, Willner edited the music and reading into a whole. Although release of Redoing Childhood was delayed several years, this was neither the first nor the last time Acker entered the studio. Her spoken word pieces can be found on early Giorno Poetry Systems LPs like 1980's Sugar, Alcohol, & Meat: The Dial-A-Poem Poets. And in 1996 she issued Pussy, King of the Pirates (Quarterstick Records), an album made with her friends in UK punk ensemble the Mekons. Drawing on her novel of the same name, Acker supplied lyrics and narration (recorded later in Chicago), while the band composed and sang the shanties. "Kathy was in San Francisco, faxing us the lyrics as we were building the tracks," guitarist Tom Greenhalgh remembers. "That was OK for us, 'cos we work collaboratively anyway; an extra person providing lyrics is fine." Acker's distinctive writing style suited the band's many-headed aesthetic surprisingly well. "It wasn't tough at all. We fitted like a velvet glove." Acker once claimed she drew her greatest literary inspiration from William S. Burroughs, who also made records, with artists including Kurt Cobain, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Laurie Anderson. But the two approached reading and recording very differently. "Burroughs was a performer in the vaudevillian sense," observes Silverberg, who also worked extensively with the Naked Lunch author. "It was about the punctuation, the one-liners. Whereas Kathy had rock star energy about her. There was much more of a flow, which had less to do with the punctuation of the actual sentences than with her almost reinterpreting her own work in a lyrical way. If you look at the texts in her books, and how she recorded them, she did it with a different eye to editing. "Kathy was making records in a much more musical fashion than William was," he adds. "People later came into William's work and laid music over, but Kathy just got it, especially with [Redoing Childhood]." The immediacy with which Acker connected with the musicians was apparent in the studio, too. "When Tribe 8 was playing, she was in there jumping up and down," chuckles Carney. "She wasn't doing cartwheels, but she was definitely into it."

 
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