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I got more flavour than the packet in macaroni

A bowl of macaroni and cheese

Image: Mariana Ibanez via Unsplash

  • Track: Bug Powder Dust
  • Artist: Bomb the Bass feat. Justin Warfield
  • Album: Clear
  • Year: 1995

I started reading William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch over two months ago. It’s not a particularly long book, it’s just that reading it is a bit of an endeavour. It’s like feeling your way through a grim labyrinth blindfolded. It’s thought-provoking, brilliantly written and frequently funny. But it’s also a repulsive, weird fever dream full of criticism of ‘50s America that I have little hope of appreciating. At first I couldn’t put it down, but now I can’t pick it up again.

As a pretentious 18 year old student I remember forcing a bunch of friends to watch David Cronenberg’s loose film adaptation. We had no idea what was going on, but we sat slumped, glued to the screen with grim fascination. I thought the book might shed some light on typewriters turning into cockroaches and mainlining insecticide, but it hasn’t. Maybe it all comes together in the second half of the book. I should find out by spring.

I imagine the Cronenberg film was in Tim Simenon’s mind when he came up with this track three years later. It opens the excellent Clear album, and if you’ve got the US version, closes it too: courtesy of an excellent remix by Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister. The tune’s obviously pretty addictive: other remixes abound, most notably by the Chemical Brothers and (my favourite) La Funk Mob.

I’d never really thought to find out who performed the vocals. Turns out it’s one Justin Warfield, half of She Wants Revenge, who I’ve never heard of. Still, good to know. As an ode to Burroughs, the track is chock full of references to Naked Lunch and some of his other work. So expect the similes to come with a hefty dose of surrealism. But there’s a surprising variety of other references too – frequently musical, often referencing late ’60s and early ’70s counterculture. Warfield displays impressive lyrical dexterity and a fondness for clever wordplay. And it turns out that Alex Winter from Bill and Ted directed the video.

So without further ado, let’s jack up on our bug powder and take a trip through the mind of an insecticide junkie.

The lyrics

View full annotated lyrics on genius.com

[Intro (sample from the Cronenberg film)]

I think it’s time to discuss your philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavours

[Verse 1]

Check it, yo!
I always hit the tape with the rough rough styles
You heard the psychedelic and ya came from miles
Keep my rhymes thick like a Guinness brew
So you could call me black and tan when I’m wreckin’ a crew

Any hip-hop track that opens with ‘check it, yo’ instantly makes me sit up and take notice. This is also how I start most work meetings. This marks the second appearance of Guinness in the database, after Abdominal compared a dead little person to the widget found in cans of the black stuff. It (sort of) makes sense in context.

For those not in the know (i.e. me) black and tan is a revolting-sounding drink made from Guinness and pale ale. 

I’m like Bill Lee writing when he’s in Tangiers
And now I’m on a soul safari with my Beatnik peers

Here’s the first of many Naked Lunch references to litter the track: Bill Lee being Naked Lunch’s protagonist, and Burroughs’ pseudonym. He wrote Naked Lunch in Tangiers while under the spell of serious drug addiction, and boy does it show.

Analog reel and a little distortion
Smokin’ on suckers you could say I’m scorchin’
I never been the type to brag but beware
I’ll make a man burn his draft card like it was Hair

Here’s another classic counterculture reference for you: Hair being the famous  anti-Vietnam war musical where they all get naked or something. I’ve not seen it.

Send ya up the river like you lookin’ for Kurtz
I got the mugwump jism up in every verse

A contemporary of the film version of Hair was 1979’s Apocalypse Now, referenced in this simile. Marlon Brando memorably portrayed Colonel Kurtz in that. It’s a fine film, but I wouldn’t recommend eating magic mushrooms and watching the four-hour director’s cut. Trust me on that one.

[Verse 2]

I always hit the apple when I’m going to shoot
So you can call me William Tell or Agent Cooper to boot
Mr. Mojo Risin’ on the case again
So tell your mother and your sister and your sister’s friends
Like an exterminator running low on dust
I’m bug powder itchin’ and it can’t be trust

A clever set of lyrics, which merit a closer look. Crackpot Burroughs famously killed his wife Joan Volmer while attempting to shoot an apple from her head. From crackpots to crack shots: William Tell and Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper both being notable fictional examples.

Warfield slips in another 60s/70s counterculture reference with Mr. Mojo Risin’, which I never knew until today was an anagram of Jim Morrison. 

One of the main plotlines in Naked Lunch involves an insect exterminator getting addicted to bug powder dust. Look, it’s a weird book, if that wasn’t obvious enough already.

Interzone trippin’ and I’m off to Annexia
I gotta get a typewriter that’s sexier
My name is Justin and that’s all that’s it
And I’ll be spittin’ rhymes wicked like it ain’t no shit

More references you’ll only understand if you’ve read the book. Bill Lee’s typewriter gets sexual gratification from being used – I’d say it makes sense in context, but I’m not really sure that’s true.

Yes, it’s a slightly dodgy simile, but I’ve had some top quality bug powder dust and I’m feeling generous. It’s going in.

Houses of the Holy like Jimmy Page
But the song remains the same so I’m stuck in a rage
Just like Jane when she’s going to Spain

I think I’m going away tomorrow, just a fool in the rain

These two need some unpicking. I do love a complex simile, and find it more satisfying than trying to understand Naked Lunch

This one is again about ‘70s rock, Houses of the Holy being Led Zeppelin’s fifth album. Jimmy Page wrote the album’s opener The Song Remains the Same, proving that Warfield has done his research.

Genius reckons that the second one might be a reference to a Jane’s Addiction song, but I’m more convinced by the idea it’s about writer Jane Bowles, a friend of William Burroughs who lived (and died) in Spain.

Light up the candles and bless the room
I’m paranoid and snow blind, just a black meat fool

Consistent simileage so far: four in this verse, just like the first. Time for the chorus now, which features a simile of its very own (which we only count once in the final tally).

[Chorus]

Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover

Over to Genius for this one:

John Stanley Hart is a wealthy American businessman in Burroughs’ graphic novel Ah Pook Is Here. Hart tries to disguise his vulgarity and wealth in an attempt to secure immortality from Mayan codices on death.

Given that I had to look up ‘Mayan codices’ I’ll probably just leave that as it is.

Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover

[Verse 3]

Never been a fake and I’m never phoney
I got more flavour than the packet in macaroni

I thought this might be transcribed incorrectly, thinking it should be ‘packet of macaroni’. But what do I know eh? Because Kraft mac and cheese does indeed come with a packet of dried concentrated cheese powder (dust). Yummy – and probably also quite addictive.

Rock drippin’ from my every vowel
I’ve got the soul of the sixties like Ginsberg’s Howl

A nice reference to poet Allen Ginsberg, one of Burroughs’ beatnik contemporaries. His most famous work is probably Howl, which was apparently inspired by a terrifying peyote vision because of course it was. Maybe I’ll try and fail to read that next.

Shootin’ mad ball and I’m always jukin’
Take you to the hole and I’m surely hoopin’
Top of the pops like the Lulu’s show
I’ll take a walk on Abbey Road with my shoes off, so

From basketball to Lulu in two lines. That’s got to be a hip-hop first. Top of the Pops was of course a very long-running music show in the UK. Lulu is of course a very long-running singer, who presented a not-very-long running show Happening for Lulu in – you guessed it – the late ’60s.

I’m going to assume you don’t need the Abbey Road reference explaining.

I got a splinter though, damn, you know man it hurt
I got a Vegemite sandwich from Men at Work
I keep minds in line, but time sublimes
So when you search you find something like a gold mine

It’s odd that in a track chock-full of ’60s and ’70s musical references we suddenly find a nod to 80s antipodean rockers Men at Work. But there we have it. It helps detract from the mundanity of that gold mine simile anyway.

A psychedelic meanderings in the poem
I got a pen and pad any place that I roam
Waiting for the sun on a Spanish caravan
Solar eclipse and I’m feeling like starin’ man

I’m a bit torn by this one – does ‘feeling like doing something’ really count as simile? It’s tempting to preserve the four-similes-a-verse structure and lose this one, but like I say I’m in a generous mood. So in it goes. Did you spot the other two Doors references?

[Chorus]

Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover
Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover

Warfield lets himself down in the fourth verse, frankly. Just one simile to look at, but at least it’s  a funny one. I’ll swerve pointing out most of the other drugs/film/music references as it’s getting a bit tiresome and they’re not that interesting.

[Verse 4]

Who’s that man in the windowpane?
Got somethin’ on his tongue and it’s startin’ to stain
Sho’ nuff equipped so I can get down
Step up on my ladder and you’ll get beat down
Hash bar style so I’m seein’ day glo
Wakin’ up the dead with Serpent and the Rainbow
Jeff Spicoli roll me another hay
The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh with Dr. J
Shockin’ your ass like a faulty vibrator
Hear me now, but you’ll probably get the vibe later

Snigger. I did consider making this the title of today’s post, but decided against it after a cursory image search.

The rest of the track is made up of more obscure pop-culture references I’ve never heard of. See how many you can unpick. As that’s it for the similes, I think I’ll wind it up. 

Who knows where the wicked wind blows
Que sera sera I’ll just leave it alone
Great Space Coaster, toast of the town, tinker
Makin’ midgets with my man Dr. Shrinker
Pass the hookah, throw down the pillows
Cloth on the ceiling, blow rings that billows
Kick off the shoes and relax your feet
Now roll up your sleeve for this lyrical treat

[Chorus]

Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover
Bug powder dust an’ mugwump jism
The wild boys runnin’ ’round Interzone trippin’
Letter to control about the Big Brother
Tryin’ like Hart to not blow my cover

[Outro (also from the Cronenberg film)]

I think it’s time for you boys to share my last taste of the true black meat; the flesh of the giant, aquatic, Brazilian centipede

It’s a great track, and much less of an ordeal than reading the book. With a nice round 15 similes and almost 3.5 similes a minute, it’s a solid mid-table performance for Bomb the Bass and Justin Warfield. Mugwump jism all round!

The stats

Similes:15
Words:717
Words per simile:47.80
Length:4m 18s
Similes per minute:3.49
Probability of me finishing The Naked Lunch in 2022:0.20

Leave a comment. Bonus points for similes.