In William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Casey Rae takes a look at the many ways in which the author of Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine left his mark on the music world. Despite apparently having little interest in music, Burroughs somehow managed to influence the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, and countless other legendary musicians.
For decades, artists sought him out for ideas, inspiration, and approval. Burroughs was more than happy to talk through his bizarre theories and share his ideas about cutting up reality and using sonic weapons. His ideas, which tended to fuse magic and technology, appealed to some of the most brilliant minds of the late twentieth century.
Casey Rae has uncovered a vast, vast number of links between Burroughs and the music world, and he has put together an extraordinary book. It’s partly biographical, jumping between different periods in Burroughs’ life, but always comes back to the topic of music, looking primarily at meetings between Burroughs and major musicians. It covers a lot of ground, and will inform and delight anyone interested in the Beat icon.
I recently spoke with Rae about his new book:
For me, your book was fascinating largely because I thought I knew most of this stuff, but it turns out there was so much more. I knew that he’d influenced Bowie, but I had no idea how deep that rabbit hole went… or that Cobain had visited him and they’d done a song together, but I really didn’t realize how much of an impact Burroughs had had on him. What was the most interesting part of the research for this book?
It was a similar realization for me, actually. My introduction to Burroughs was in the mid-1980s, around the time that he was being embraced by that generation’s underground musicians, writers, and filmmakers. I already had an inkling that he was connected to certain artists—for example, as a 14-year old getting into rock ‘n’ roll, I devoured the salacious Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, which mentioned Burroughs attending one of their performances. A few years later, I was turned on to his novels by some older, cooler friends. That was when I began to appreciate Burroughs’ unique literary voice, along with his outlaw persona, which is catnip to delinquent intellectuals. In that respect at least, I can put myself in the shoes of some of the musicians in my book, such as the punk rock autodidact Richard Hell. And of course, Kurt Cobain was a musician of my generation, and I was thrilled when I discovered their collaboration. Over the years, I maintained a fondness for Burroughs, mostly because his work initiated me into a world of challenging and provocative art, which allowed me to appreciate musicians and writers who I would later discover were also Burroughs fans. When I initially began my research for this project, I was blown away by how many connections there were between Burroughs and the music community. My book covers a pretty dizzying number of intersections, including pivotal real-world exchanges between Burroughs and the likes of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Paul McCartney, to name a few. But the big reveal for me personally was how Burroughs’ approach to creativity—his worldview and praxis—informs our very present. This includes not only the cut-up method, but also his occult philosophies, which were based in a radical effort to undermine the establishment. That outlook clearly informed punk and industrial music. I further argue that some of Burroughs’ work is eerily predictive of darker social phenomena on sites like 4Chan and Reddit, where self-styled “edgelords” practice a kind of memetic nihilism that Burroughs described well before the Internet came along. Some of these revelations are uncomfortable, but I believe they’re worth exploring from a contemporary socio-political vantage point.
You mention that Burroughs had a knack for showing up in people’s lives just when they needed to encounter someone like him. Do you think there was something that drove these musicians to seek him out, and if so, what was it that got all these very different people at different stages in their careers, to hunt down an old junkie author?
Burroughs was a kind of Zelig figure for certain music artists. He appears out of the mists in all these different eras and scenes. As his icon became established in the underground—junkie author who accidentally killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell, etc.—certain artists began seeking him out to bolster their own outlaw bona fides. Of course, Burroughs was often a more willing partner than he let on, and it’s clear that he was genuinely fond of some of his acolytes, such as Patti Smith, with whom he shared a lifelong friendship. But there’s more to the story than epic hangs with the Pope of Dope, or else I couldn’t have written this book. The fact that an artist as boldly visionary as David Bowie would employ Burroughsian techniques right up to his final album Blackstar is a testament to the durability of his creative approach and aesthetic sensibilities.
From your book, it seems that Burroughs’ ideas really permeated the music world. The list of people who took inspiration from him – McCartney, Bowie, Dylan, Jagger, and most of the punk scene, to give a few examples – is staggering, and presumably they passed along his ideas to the next generations. Do you think that his ideas are still rattling around in the heads of today’s musicians?
I posit that the Burroughs’ influence is so pervasive as to almost be subliminal. One of the points I try to hammer home, however ham-fistedly, is that the Internet itself is a cut-up. Any and all information online—including entertainment artifacts—are available to-remix, mash-up, distort, illuminate, or obscure. Burroughs’ favorite maxim, “nothing is true; everything is permitted”—attributed to eleventh century Persian mystic Hassan i-Sabbah—may as well be the mantra of the Internet. On a certain level, this influence is profoundly destabilizing—just look at the erosion of common notions of veracity, or the loss of nation-state monopoly on security. In terms of creativity, this is Burroughs’ world all the way. Contemporary music-making is almost entirely based around the arrangement of sound on what Burroughs called the “time-track,” which to me, is Pro Tools. Recombination is the prevailing music production aesthetic. Back when Burroughs was doing audio cut-ups, this work was laborious and time-consuming. Burroughs disciples like Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle helped advance this approach through subsequent technological developments that eventually gave rise to digital sampling. I think it’s safe to say that the musical pioneers who were impacted by Burroughs in turn influenced a lot of what we hear and see today. In that way, we’re all children of Burroughs, whether we realize it or not. And he’d probably say that realization is irrelevant—it’s the results that count. If you’re willing to accept the validity of his magical worldview, you might conclude that Burroughs is the consummate sorcerer of the 20th century.
Ginsberg absolutely adored being around pop and rock stars, and gravitated towards them, but it seems that the opposite was true of Burroughs. They all came to him. He comes across in your book as very courteous with them, but do you know if he particularly enjoyed being around all these people, or was it just politeness?
Burroughs’ Midwestern manners were legendary. Just about everyone I talked to for the book noted how polite and courteous he was. I mean, this is a guy who would remember to send Kurt Cobain a birthday card. And throughout the 1970s, he welcomed plenty of celebrity guests to the Bunker in New York’s Bowery neighborhood. That period has been well-chronicled by Victor Bockris, who was an invaluable asset when I was writing my book. The whole CBGB scene was very aware of him, and some, like Chris Stein of Blondie, became real friends. Burroughs also engaged with musicians when he was in London in the 1960s, notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And when he moved to his final home in Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1980s up to his death in 1997, he continued to have visitors, including members of Sonic Youth, Ministry, R.E.M., and Nirvana. It is true that he didn’t have much affinity for the actual music these people made. Yet he did see some of them as kindred spirits—fellow provocateurs, if you will. Burroughs wasn’t the type of person to gravitate to the spotlight, but he certainly knew how to make use of these associations to advance his ideas. It’s possible that he picked up a few tricks from Ginsberg in that regard. But overall, I think he had his own weird charisma that, without deliberate effort on his part, seemed to draw certain people into his orbit.
Dylan seemed to be influenced by Naked Lunch, Bowie by The Wild Boys, Lou Reed by Junkie, and I think you quoted Mick Jagger as having taken ideas from Cities of the Red Night. Do you think that there were different books of his that appealed to different sorts of musician?
It became pretty clear to me when I was writing this book that everyone has their own Burroughs, including me. I probably read Naked Lunch and Junkie first, but really gravitated to the essays and interviews collected in books like The Job and The Adding Machine. Bowie was seemingly taken with The Wild Boys, with the rampant boy gang hooliganism and outré imagery. Reed was plainly inspired by the gritty reportage of Junkie. Throbbing Gristle and COIL were impressed with his ideas around the weaponizing of recombinant media as a means of undermining consensus reality. Jagger probably just wanted to look cool. But McCartney took cut-ups quite seriously, and even set Burroughs up in a flat owned by Ringo Starr as a place to conduct audio experiments. So again, Burroughs is both a cipher and a prism in which we see our own creative ambitions reflected. Whether it’s his written words or audio recordings, his methodology or philosophy, there seems to be enough innovation and ambiguity to inspire an incredibly broad range of expression, musical and otherwise.
William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll is out June 11th, 2019, from University of Texas Press.