TWriter William Burroughs was a marginal figure until he was 50, far too strange for popular tastes. Part of the original trio of Beat writers along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he was both awarded and condemned for his work: his 1959 novel. Naked lunch briefly banned by the city of Boston following a trial for obscenity; Norman Mailer testified in his defense. But in the late 1960s and ’70s, a new generation of musicians made him a countercultural hero, including Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Richard Hell, Jimmy Page, and Patti Smith. Later, Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth would declare themselves Burroughs’ slaves.
Casey Rae looks at her impact on musicians and how her fingerprints can be found throughout popular culture. The movie Bounty hunter took its title from a Burroughs novel, and the Steely Dan band got its name from a dildo in Naked lunch. The term “heavy metals” was taken from The soft machine, Burroughs’ 1961 book that also provided its name to a Canterbury jazz and folk fusion band. His face looks impassive from the cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and lent his squeaky accent to the albums of Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Elsewhere, Bowie, McCartney, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones adopted Burroughs’ “cutting” methods, a literary technique in which text is randomly rearranged.
Burroughs, who died in 1997, could be irascible and lonely, but he was generous to younger artists. Wherever he went, it wouldn’t be long before a musician came to his door to pay tribute to him. While some, like Reed and Dylan, were granted a single audience, others were welcomed into their inner sanctuary and became confidants. He bonded with Bowie, who had just killed Ziggy Stardust when they met, and was close friends with Patti Smith, who adored the Beat writers and said of Burroughs, “He’s up there with the Pope.” After meeting Cobain, with whom he collaborated on the 1993 single “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him“Burroughs told the singer’s tour manager, “Your friend hasn’t learned his limitations and he won’t be able to if he continues.”
Perhaps surprisingly Burroughs didn’t care much for music, although he had other things in common with these young upstarts. Like them, he had drawn disgrace for his supposedly dangerous influence on the young. He also enjoyed their disruptive and anti-establishment spirit, and could relate to those, like Cobain, whose only method of coping with the demands of the outside world was through the heavy use of drugs.
Along with those influenced by Burroughs, the book also tells the story of the man himself, of his upper-middle-class childhood soured by an incident with a babysitter that may or may not have involved sexual abuse (Burroughs never told the full story), to his years traveling the world and living diversely in London, Paris, New York, Mexico City and Tangier. Rae’s tale is compelling, capturing the strangeness of Burroughs’ itinerant lifestyle, his bizarre obsessions (weapons and the occult, mostly), and his herculean appetite for drugs.
Rae makes no secret of her admiration for the writer, noting that he carries “the Burroughs gene … I remain attracted to his fierce intellect and black humor, as well as his refusal to settle.” As such, he is interested in highlighting Burroughs’ goodness and has a tendency to downplay his most troubling aspects, most notably his misogyny (Burroughs said he believed the women were a biological mistake). He quickly goes over the matter of the writer who accidentally killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, as part of what they called their “William Tell routine,” in which Vollmer would place a shot glass on top of his head for Burroughs to shoot. , only this time he missed and shot him in the forehead. Describing this fatal party piece, Rae looks at Vollmer’s “unkempt” and “thinned out” hair, as a result of his various addictions and a polio attack, and continues to observe how his “once attractive face [had] he aged well beyond his twenty-seven years. ” It is not mentioned whether, after years of drinking and abusing heroin, Burroughs remained fresh and young.
Rae shows little interest in disrupting the writer’s legend as a charismatic outlaw. Clearly, he’s not the first person to pass Burroughs. Liberal-leaning, peace-loving musicians who similarly worshiped him overlooked his enthusiasm for guns, which did not diminish after he shot Vollmer. After his death, Burroughs was buried with a ballpoint pen, a heroin wrap, and his beloved .38 Special flat-point revolver. It was, according to his wishes, fully charged.
• William S Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’Roll is published by White Rabbit (£ 14.99). To purchase a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
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