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Carolyn Cassady – Neal, Me and Jack makes three

By Spencer Kansa

In 1951, Jack Kerouac began work on a roman a clef whose breathless prose would help define an era and seduce generations to come, On the Road. Based on his road trip adventures from the previous decade, Kerouac drew upon his battered notebooks and unique recall to get it all down. Typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper, his stream of consciousness spilled out in one long inspired flow and soon a soulful vision of America arose from its pages.

Reflecting a romantic flipside of American society, its story is told through the impassioned narration of Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a spiritual quest across America, searching for the divine and finding it in the places he haunts, jazz music he eulogises, and people he touches souls with. A post-War gathering of malcontents lusting for life, mystical illumination, love and meaning amidst the crass materialism, sterile conformity and atom bombs.

Feted on its release six years later, the book’s success created a literary legend out of Kerouac, and immortalised his best boon buddy Neal Cassady, the dynamic inspiration behind the novels freewheeling hero, Dean Moriarty.

In 1990, Cassady’s widow Carolyn set down her own inside take on the Kerouac and Cassady mythos in her highly acclaimed autobiography Off the Road. In her role as a defender of their legacy, she has railed for years against what she sees as the inaccurate and shoddy mistreatment of Kerouac and Cassady’s lives by unscrupulous Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters, whom she charges have too often reduced them to little more than glorified juvenile delinquents.

Excerpted from a series of interviews that were conducted at her apartment in Belsize Park, London, between February and May of 1998, the following segment focuses on Carolyn’s romances with the two charismatic soul brothers, and lifts the veil on their complex sexual psyches.

So let me get this straight, you weren’t physically attracted to Neal but you were to Jack. You loved them both but you werent in love romantically is that right?

Well there were times with Jack that I was, but I knew there was no point because there was Neal but yes. I don’t know what was going on with Jack ha ha. Neal could be romantic when it suited him but it wasn’t much for me except when he was trying to get back into my good graces ha ha then he could turn it on ha ha ha. That’s what got all the other girls.

But it seems incomprehensible that you and Neal got married and yet you werent physically attracted.

No, but as I said the reason I thought he was the one, aside from the karmic thing, was because he didn’t make passes. He was the only man I’d run into who didn’t have one thing in mind. So I thought this must be serious ha ha. That and he acknowledged that I had a mind. Course he knew what he was doing, he’d psyched me out immediately. He knew that wasn’t the way to come on.

You wouldnt have had any truck with that.

No, he could tell I must have gone through that and so he made a different approach and it worked ha ha, and then he was sorry ha ha ha. It worked too well ha ha. Whereas Jack would make passes at you and he wouldn’t mean to actually, the chemistry was there but there wasn’t any chemistry with Neal.

Well you seduced Jack the first time didnt you?

Not really, I just let it happen that’s all. We avoided each other like crazy because we had felt it in Denver and he said ‘too bad’ and it was discouraged because we were principled and nothing more was done about it. In those days we didn’t carry on. Now its ‘go ahead and seduce her’ ha ha, ‘why bother stopping it?’ But in those days we had principles so nothing was done. So eventually, what with the scene with Neal, I just thought ‘might as well let it happen.’

Thats quite a delicious feeling anyway isnt it, having that sexual frisson in the air and not acting upon it?

Oh well yeah it’s nice to be admired and wanted sort of, but I’d rather not ha ha ha. You can’t go on with it, you can’t do anything about it, but it did make us closer. I think I said in the book in those days the man had to make the first move and I also knew that Neal would get over it ha ha ha. But had it been anyone but Neal we wouldn’t have resisted. But the things Neal wrote in those letters about what I did with Jack aren’t true, they’re from jealousy. Yet the whole world’s gonna think they are. It’s one of those things you have to put up with. It’s difficult to read those letters. In some ways it’s my word against his.

You particularly weren’t happy with the way the director John Byrum depicted the love triangle between you Neal and Jack in the film Heartbeat were you?

No, and I told him ‘you’ve ruined my life, all you seem to do is let me hang around and watch you make a movie and tape my mouth shut’ and I did except for one time, and he did this three times in three scenes, where Jack and I are canoodling and Neal is out playing ball with the kids or something. Three times this scene. So after the first one Sissy Spacek and I were at the station wagon going to the next location and I said to her ‘y’know I promised not to say anything, but that was the hardest scene I have had to watch y’know, Jack and I loved Neal, we would never have done anything like that in front of him. The lack of humanity, as well as the showing off’ and she said ‘oh my God’ and burst into tears, and she had to do it two more times and it was that kind of thing, ‘whose turn is it tonight fellas?’ Because we didn’t admit it to ourselves much less anybody else, we were ashamed of it. So Jack and I never looked at each other when Neal was in the house because we cared for him. But the consciousness of people today is ’well it was a three-way…’

A ménage a trios!

Which it was! But it was certainly not acknowledged or discussed at all.

No, it wasnt like a Jules et Jim scenario.

Of course not ha ha. Actually Byrum had just seen Jules et Jim actually and this was what he wanted to do, in fact they almost made the T-shirts ‘Jules and Jim go to North Beach’ ha ha ha. I said ‘look it’s been done and it’s been done well, you can’t possibly do that, why not do my book?’

Speaking of movies, I always thought the person who shouldve played Neal years ago was Paul Newman – whenever I watch him playing Fast Eddie in The Hustler I always think of Neal.

Yeah, I think that’s more like Neal than anybody else. Newman’s handsomer but it’s the right blue eyes and the smile that would have been nice back then.

But also in Visions of Cody, that Denver pool scene always reminds me of that film.

Well I think they had thought of it as well ha ha, so I hear.

There’s a picture in your book where Neals tossing the hammer, and in profile he really looks like Paul Newman.

Yeah, well of course he had this broken nose but he had those bright blue eyes, that’s what’s so accurate. And Jack too had bright blue eyes.

But that rarely comes across because most of the photographs of him are in black and white. To have blue eyes with black hair, thats a great combination.

Oh my, a fatal combination ha ha ha. In fact there are few actors that have that combination. But Jack was swarthier and more handsome, more like a Clark Gable, he was fleshier is what I mean, had those fleshier cheeks. And he was a little ruddier than Neal who was quite pale.

Jack and Neal look very contemporary looking dont they, in the way that James Dean still does?

Well they never grew their hair ha ha ha. The one thing they did is have their hair cut, which is contemporary now. Now that men have started cutting their hair again and pulling their pony tails back. But the most popular picture of Jack is the one where he’s just come out of the shower, where his hair’s all messed up and that’s the one they used over and over. After that of course he just got drunker and drunker, but when I knew him he never had a hair out of place. He always had a comb. Boy he was always so finicky about his hair ha ha ha.

Well it was his crowning glory.

Right. It’s a shame because I like long hair and beards but Neal abhorred them. I’ve got a picture of him where he shaved his head. He came back from New York and got stoned and shaved it all off. I know about the beards because he had very sensitive skin and wouldn’t shave. Jack would be unshaven of course if he was drinking or they were working on the railroads. But I don’t think Jack ever grew a beard or a moustache or anything, he wasn’t very vain really. But it was an awfully quiet period for men in terms of being colourful. It was still very muscle-bound. Jack was more sort of agile but his muscle had turned to flab by the time I knew him. He wasn’t doing any exercise ha ha.

Jack is also often accused of suffering from a Madonna/Whore complex.

Mmm.. that turns out to assess him ha ha. Well I saw a lot of examples of that in Tristessa, because she’s a whore. But the thing that seriously impressed me reading it over was how vividly he describes his surroundings, no matter how miserable he is, every puddle, every crummy everything he gets down. It just makes such a vivid impression on his mind so you’re drawn into that horrible, creepy place but he doesn’t judge either his surroundings or these dreadful people that’s he’s involved with. Absolutely no judgment at all. But you see that he has loved this woman and he respected all women because of the Madonna thing. Also I was thinking about the tenderness, he was such a sensitive, tender hearted person and the compassion he felt for her is amazing, and he never says anything that isn’t admiring. He gives you clues that she must’ve been ghastly, but to him she’s the Madonna thing. Course they never did sleep together but his attitude towards whores was – and I think that’s why the only time he enjoyed sex – if at all – may have been because he rationalised the fact that they wanted it and they were asking for it and they were earning a living.

So he was helping them ha ha ha.

Justifying it yes. So he was just doing them a favour ha ha. So that way I think he could probably relax more.

Maybe because he figured that they were bad girls and so he could do bad things with a bad girl.

Well something like that, although I don’t think he ever thought anyone was bad. Even though he tells you about these men’s lives and things, he never judges or condemns them. Of course all the time I’m reading it and he describes this rooftop room I’m thinking ‘my God that’s where he wanted me to come!’ I mean he was trying to persuade me to join him. Oh I’m glad I didn’t go ha ha. But as Luanne (Henderson, Neal’s first wife) said ‘you never felt as though Jack was completely participating in the (sex) act’ ha ha. Part of that was he was always the observer no matter where he was, even when he was involved he wasn’t ever totally involved, he never surrendered. He couldn’t because he was just totally wrapped up in himself and in writing, that’s all he did. And in one letter he wrote to me he said “no woman owns me – not even you who should” and I always knew that of course. There was no way that he could ever be a husband, and I had to let him be completely free. I mean he lived in his head all the time. Yet he always wanted a home and a family. It was still a dream that he never lost, but it was all in his head!

There is a difference between loving somebody and being in love isnt there?

Yes I certainly know and with Neal I loved him but I wasn’t in love.

But the way you describe him, he is physically attractive.

Yes, but see I was a sexual cripple in that department too so that made a difference, but the chemistry wasn’t there with Neal, but I admired him artistically and aesthetically.

Like you would in an art class.

Right. I’m really sensitive to physical things but there’s been chemistry without that, it has nothing to do with aesthetics, there’s some sort of strange attraction we can’t explain and we call it chemistry.

But with Jack you were in love?

Yeah he knew and I knew. I loved him lots and lots. But that didn’t diminish my love for Neal, he knew I loved Neal, as he did, and that was important for him. That’s why he felt so safe too and why he could be more himself with me and Neal cos for one thing we weren’t asking him for anything. He knew I was safe and wasn’t gonna make demands or ask to marry him or anything. So that the best thing you could do was listen to him and that was fun. I loved hearing him talk and figure things out, and of course we exchanged ideas, but he didn’t have to approve of my opinion. But I don’t think he could ever surrender which is what you sort of have to do if you’re going to mate with someone. So we were very close and compatible, but I always felt that he was a separate entity, that I’d always be an outsider, an appendage. But also Jack talked about sex a lot and wanted Neal to write him about sex and he puts a lot in his books and I’m sure he thought about it a lot, but actually it probably was that sin thing at the back of his mind that he couldn’t really enjoy it or participate in it.

Thats what I meant about being with the prostitutes, it’s easier for him because for these women – sin is their business.

Yes, it’s easier, right. He could rationalise that, whereas with respectable women, I don’t know how he did it ha ha ha. But it wasn’t on his mind all the time either as it was with Neal. I think Jack mentioned sex so much because it was such a problem, such a dilemma and a guilt thing. He was always asking God “why did you create us just to die” ha ha ha. Y’know that was his problem. His God was not a loving father but the horrible judge.

The fire and brimstone type.

Yes. That you were born a miserable rotten worm and were never gonna get any better.

So thats why he embraced Buddhism.

Yes, but see that is a snare, a delusion, because of course he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m sure that he loved all the imagery and what not, but the thing that caught him was that all this was nothing ha ha ha. So all his sensory stimulus, that he was so guilty of, the Buddhists said ‘it’s empty, it’s nothing’ so that became his reassurance. ‘It doesn’t even matter anyway and then were all gonna die’ but he never got that quite together because Buddha doesn’t believe in death so that for a Catholic was strange. But it gave him this out. This ‘oh well it doesn’t matter.’ Of course he didn’t follow anything else in the Buddhist tradition but that load of old escapism was very appealing to him. He certainly wouldn’t say he was a Buddhist at all, but he and Ginsberg were good at pronouncing all the names and getting the concepts ha ha.

They read the books ha ha.

Yes, ha ha. They read the books but didn’t quite get the message.

Author’s Bio:

Spencer Kansa has written for a variety of publications including Hustler, Mojo, Erotic Review, and The NME. His interviews with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Herbert Huncke feature in Joe Ambrose’s book Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan (Headpress). He is the author of Wormwood Star, a biography of the American artist and occult icon, Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake of Oxford). His novel, Zoning, will soon be published by City of Recovery Press.  For more info:

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William Burroughs – Heavy Metal Guru

by Spencer Kansa.
”Tell him I’ve been reading him and I believe every word he says.”

Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg on William Burroughs in 1965.
I remember sitting across from William Burroughs at the dining table in his modest, porch-fronted clapboard house in Kansas, trying to take it all in, thinking this was the coolest thing I had ever done. As we sat sharing a joint – small “bomber” variety – Burroughs clocked the emblem on my baseball cap and asked in his drawling cowboy voice what the symbol meant. “Ah, it means I’m a Public Enemy” I replied. Burroughs smiled knowingly; as ever, he understood.
As perhaps one of the most important literary influences on modern music and pop culture, William Burroughs’ nightmarish dystopian visions and anti-authoritarian world view has infused and informed the work and ideas of a pantheon of rockers: Bowie, Dylan, Jagger, Lou, Iggy, Patti, Zappa, Kurt, Sonic Youth etc.

The cut-up technique he made famous has had a precursory impact on the fragmented sonic canvas of hip-hop, and was the catalyst behind the scrambled images of U2’s ZOO TV. His cosmic yobs, hipster jargon, drug induced visions and novel titles have been inspiration to a slew of bands and films: Soft Machine, Steely Dan, Bladerunner, Dead Fingers Talk, Wild Boys, Interzone, The Mugwumps, Johnny Yen, Nova Mob, Thin White Rope et al. Burroughs’ grey, spectral presence graces the iconic cover of Sgt Pepper’s, and even Duran Duran paid their own rather dubious homage to El Hombre Invisible when they based their promo-video Wild Boys on Burroughs’ futuristic story of a savage band of adolescent guerrillas.
Yet, the “heavy metal” guru – Steppenwolf purloined the phrase for their rock anthem Born To Be Wild from Burroughs’ sci-fi novel The Soft Machine, in turn giving name to a whole sub-genre of rock – viewed such reverence with knowing bemusement. A teenager in the 1920s, Burroughs always preferred Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin. However, in an interview with Jimmy Page, Burroughs did concede that “Rock can be seen as one attempt to break out of this dead and soulless universe and reassert the universe of magick.”
The cut-up technique in particular has carved a through-line in modern music and has resulted in Burroughs holding a subversive sway over pop culture for four decades. The cut-ups were discovered serendipitously by Burroughs’ main gazane, the maverick Canadian painter Brion Gysin, while the two men were residing at the bohemian Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in September 1959.

While slicing through some boards with a Stanley knife to mount some of his drawings, Gysin noticed that he had cut through the layers of newspapers underneath and that when he peeled away the top layers he could read across the different pages – which combined stories from across the various columns – providing a new juxtaposition of words and images. Gysin had announced that “writing was fifty years behind painting” and the cut-up technique allowed the writer to borrow the painter’s tool of montage.

Burroughs immediately saw the implications and potential of this discovery and began experimenting, taking a page of his own writing and cutting it into four separate parts, then rearranging the sections to form a new composition out of the text. For Burroughs, who felt restricted by the antiquated beginning, middle and end narrative structure of the Victorian novel, it was a major artistic breakthrough and the perfect vehicle that he had been looking for. Significantly the cut-ups mirrored Burroughs’ own fragmented, mainline existence and as he pointed out, they were also a far more honest representation of how the mind really works. Burroughs explained: “someone walks around a block and paints a canvas of what he has seen. Well he’s seen someone cut in two by a car, reflections in shop windows, passing faces, a jumble of fragments. So the cut-ups are closer to the actual facts of human perception. LIFE IS A CUT-UP.”
Although Mick Jagger had shown interest in starring in a mooted film version of Naked Lunch back in the late 60s and Lou Reed’s smack-soaked sado-sex songs trawled similar subterranean territory – the Velvets even penned an ode to Burroughs, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” on their Loaded album – the most vocal and visible disciple of Burroughs in rock was David Bowie. Although Bowie admitted to only to having a passing knowledge of Burroughs’ work – he had just read Nova Express – when the two men were brought together for a joint interview by Rolling Stone magazine in 1973, by the time Bowie went to work on his next venture, the future-shocker Diamond Dogs, his own cut-up efforts had been put into action and helped set the fractured tone of that forbidding, Orwellian opus.

During the following Diamond Dogs tour across America, Bowie was filmed by the BBC for the Cracked Actor documentary. With paper and scissors in hand, Bowie was filmed as he cut up and re-arranged a page of ideas: “I don’t know if this is the way that Gysin or Burroughs do their cut-ups, but this is how I do mine,” he explained, adding that the technique was “a western form of Tarot.”

Throughout the rest of the 70s Bowie continued with the cut-up lyrics, particularly on the trio of albums he recorded with Brian Eno: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Bowie also incorporated Eno’s own version of the cut-ups, a deck of playing cards called Oblique Strategies, on which were written a selection of musical instructions that they could randomly pick whenever they were stuck for a new idea, or looking for a new musical direction to take. The card commands helped create a series of “planned accidents” on tracks of those seminal albums.
After a decade’s hiatus Bowie returned to the cut-ups on his 1995 avant-rocker, 1. Outside. This time, however, technology had caught up, and thanks to a computer programming pal, Bowie could now feed a whole stack of information into his Apple Mac and hit a randomiser button, which could cut-up and scramble the contents and spew the results back out to him. Talking on Canadian television that year Bowie paid tribute to Burroughs and the cut-ups saying: “Burroughs particularly touched me. The way he cut-up the world and reassembled it. I felt more comfortable in that environment, that kind of chaos. That fragmentation for me felt a truer picture of reality.”
“He’s up there with the Pope”- Patti Smith on Burroughs.
His legend preceding him, Burroughs returned to New York in the mid-70s, landing smack (ahem) in the middle of the emerging CBGB’s punk scene. More arty and literate then their UK counterparts, Burroughs’ mystique and mythic reputation was idolised by many of the scenes’ leading lights, particularly punk’s own poet laureate Patti Smith, whose performances Burroughs admired and whose classic album, Horses, owed much to Burroughs own homo-erotic prose. Holding court at his famous “bunker on the Bowery,” Burroughs received a steady stream of rock n roll admirers, including Joe Strummer and Richard Hell. Though Burroughs understandably dismissed the “Godfather of Punk” tag that had been foisted upon him, he did send a telegram to The Sex Pistols supporting their anti-monarchist anthem God Save the Queen, declaring: “I’ve always said that England doesn’t stand a chance until you have 20,000 people saying ‘Bugger the Queen!’…This is a necessary criticism of a country which is bankrupt.”

A celebration of all things Burroughsian, entitled The Nova Convention, took place in New York in the winter of 1978 with a glittering galaxy of rock stars and counter-culture figures taking part. Frank Zappa read Burroughs’ Talking Asshole routine, Patti Smith covered for Keith Richards – who cancelled due to his drug bust in Canada – while Brion Gysin, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary all participated in seminars. Music came courtesy of minimalists Phillip Glass and John Cage, while Laurie Anderson co-mastered the ceremonies.
Though Burroughs had disbanded cut-ups by the eighties they were kept in pop consciousness due to the sterling work of industrial music pioneers, Throbbing Gristle, whose magus Genesis P Orridige released a collection of Burroughs’ audio cut-up experiments on the album Nothing Here but the Recordings. Recorded in London, Paris and Tangier throughout the 1960s, the album showcased Burroughs’ spooky, Dalek-like tone and introduced a generation to how the cut-ups sounded. Dubbing street noise from Tangier to London, cut in with garbled short wave radio, Joujouka music, newspaper reports, and excerpts read from his own novels, these sonic collages were Burroughs’ own subversive brand of musique concrete. Even more than the novels, Genesis P Orridge was interested in Burroughs’ concepts, in particular his idea of using these audio cut-ups as a political tool against hierarchies of control. Burroughs postulated that by selecting the appropriate random sounds, bastardized speeches, siren drones, animal noises and gun shots, a team of operators strategically placed with tape recorders could playback such recordings, inciting a riot at a demonstration, or a political rally.
In tandem the evolution of hip-hop from Bronx block parties to rebel rousing on wax was bearing all the hallmarks of a musical extension of the cut-ups. The way in which Burroughs would construct a new piece of writing by synthesizing two pieces of text and information presaged the way in which a DJ would mix between two records, fusing a third new soundtrack amalgamated from both decks, hence the DJ term “cutting.” Burroughs idea of weaving other authors’ work into his own writing anticipated the whole sampling process. So in the same way as Burroughs, through utilising the cut-up technique, broke down the old structures of the novel, creating a new literary landscape, rap, through musical cut-ups and manipulations of sound dismantled the old song structures, creating a revolutionary new sonic canvas in the process. Burroughs appreciated this new aural architecture and when pressed on the subject admitted to me that “rap music has great potential.”
Throughout the last two decades of his life, Burroughs himself made many interesting forays onto vinyl. In the late eighties he topped the bill on the Smack My Crack and Like a Girl I Want to Keep You Coming Poetry Systems albums, put out by his Bunker buddy and fellow spoken word troubadour, John Giorno. Reading his Words Of Advice For Young People and Just Say No To Drug Hysteria routines respectively, Burroughs  appeared alongside a who’s who of eighties cult figures, like Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch, as well as more established names like Debbie Harry, David Byrne and Tom Waits.

In 1990, Burroughs entered into a full fledged collaboration with Tom Waits when the grizzled singer scored the musical The Black Rider, based on Burroughs’ book of the same name. This Faustian fable was given its theatrical premiere in Hamburg to critical acclaim, and on the subsequent album Burroughs sung the old jaunty jazz number Taint no Sin.

That same year, Island Records released a new Burroughs collection, Dead City Radio. With atmospheric accompaniment from the likes of John Cale, Donald Fagen and Sonic Youth,  old time movie strings courtesy of producer Hal Wilner – who had previously provided background music for Burroughs when he made a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live, reading his Titanic farce, Twilight’s Last Gleamings – the album’s highlights included Satanic Bill’s downright perverse rendering of The Lord’s Prayer, his anti-American tirade, A Thanksgiving Prayer, and best of all, his croaky, vodka sodden rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s swan song, Falling In Love Again.

In 1992, the concept album The Western Lands was released by renowned producer and Burroughs fan, Bill Laswell. Based around Burroughs’ novelistic investigations into the seven souls concept of the Ancient Egyptians, Laswell crafted an equally exotic and ambient soundgarden. That same year Burroughs collaborated with industrial noise meisters Ministry for the 12” Just One Fix. Over slabs of industrial beats Burroughs intoned an appropriate smack-it-up sermon, and also provided the abstract cover artwork Curse on Drug Hysterics.

The following year another more high profile collaboration rose to prominence fuelled by the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. The Priest They Called Him was an alternate version of Burroughs’ The Junkies Christmas, and pitted his yuletide yarn against swathes of Cobain feedback in a cute cash-in. Although recorded separately, a meeting was held between the two men at Burroughs’ home a year later. Picking up on the troubled vibe of his houseguest, Burroughs later confided to his assistant: “there’s something wrong with that boy, he frowns for no good reason.”

Far more substantial was the collaboration released that same year between Burroughs and Michael Franti’s Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy rap group: Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales. Delivering his infamous Dr Benway and Talking Asshole routines against a funky backbeat, the album contained many precious moments, including MC Zulu’s amusing boxing style announcement introducing Burroughs in his thickest Jamaican patois: “Check dis out. From Lawrence, Kansas, reading from Naked Lunch and weighing slightly over 100 pounds, Uncle Bill.”

A few months later self proclaimed “Beatnik rapper” Justin Warfield paid his own Hip Hop tribute to the original drugstore cowboy, bigging up Burroughs for his “spiritual, musical and earthly inspiration” on his (B-Boys on acid soaked) debut LP, My Field Trip To Planet 9. This filmic album and his subsequent collaboration, Bug Powder Dust with Bomb the Bass supremo Tim Simenon, were littered with Burroughsian and Beat references, and speaking to me Warfield drew many parallels between the Be-Bop inspired Beat era to today’s generation of mic-slingers.

Justin Warfield told me,

The Beat writers got a lot of the rhythms of their speech from saxophone players, and a lot of white writers at the time, like Kerouac, adopted black culture, jazz and drug culture, into their work, but beyond that, Ginsberg said it was more to do with people who were just enamoured with each other. Ginsberg has a great rhythm to him because his poetry has a pulse to it, a bigger backbeat. He really flies off the handle, and it’s pretty wild, but Burroughs has a special rhythm all his own, his literary style is a big influence on me as a hip hop lyricist. I don’t think most people in the rap world are hip to the cut-ups, but if they checked out Burroughs and Gysin they’d certainly see the connections between the two.

Burroughs’ post-apocalyptic dreamscapes also infiltrated the visual Arts and inspired celebrated New York graffiti artists like Keith Harring and Jean Michel Basquiat. Appreciating art-as-crime/crime-as-art, legend has it that Burroughs himself was once caught by a transit cop, aerosol can in hand, spray painting AH POOK IS HERE – the Mayan God of the dead – upon the walls of a New York subway station.

In the wake of Burroughs’ death in 1997, Mercury Records released the 4 CD Box Set: The Best of William Burroughs. Unravelling in almost chronological order this sprawling spoken word box set spanned forty years of Burroughs’ repertoire, and served as a perfect platform for his lacerating diatribes against the phoney war on drugs: “Our pioneer ancestors would piss in their graves at the thought of urine tests to decide whether a man is competent to do his job.” Such assaults marked him out as a masterly satirist, back when that word meant something and the word fuck could not appear on a printed page. His deadpan wise-cracks ranked him up there with Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks as one of the all time great black humorists: “Doctor asks what the American flag means to me. I tell him soak it in heroin Doc and I’ll suck it.” A genuine cut-up in every sense.

With rock-n-roll credibility enshrined, it was perhaps only fitting that Burroughs last public appearance would be a cameo role in U2’s promo video for their Last Night on Earth single. The sinister image of Burroughs wheeling a giant klieg lamp around in a shopping cart proved to be a perfectly symbolic one for a man whose life and work shone arcs of light with its darkness.