Tag Archives: Cultural History

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Casey Rae

David Bowie and William Burroughs, photo by by Terry O’Neill 

I didn’t read much as a child. As a late teen, I discovered good literature via my love for Rock & Roll. And I continue to do so as an old man.

I had a need to find the sources of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed’s references in their lyrics and interviews. Once I found The Beats, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, and Hubert Selby, the flood gates broke and unleashed a “word hoard” that has drowned me. But, I believe, literature is a good way to die. Or live.

The writer who has influenced all the rockers that I mentioned before is WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS.

Paul McCartney chose him to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And through Paul, Burroughs was a big influence on The Beatles’ avant-garde development in the mid 60’s. Bob Dylan read Naked Lunch (1959) and it influenced his lyrics and poetry collection, Tarantula, which is like reading Burroughs’s later cut-ups. Lou Reed was very influenced by Burroughs’ subject matter in Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, reflected in many songs such as “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Heroin.”

Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs, photo by Victor Bockris

Bill lived a very hard and lonely life. But an exciting life.

Born in 1914 in St. Louis to a prominent family, Harvard educated, but bored and a total misfit, he began hanging with seedy people in seedy places. Bill was a founding member of The Beat Generation that began in the late 40’s with the meeting of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

He began doing morphine around age 30 and was a heroin junkie for a large part of his life. This made for him a very peripatetic life around the globe (Tangiers, Paris, London) until he landed in NYC in the mid 70’s. He was always running from the law. He was in his early 60’s and managed to get another bad heroin addiction in NYC. His assistant helped him move to Kansas to get away from drugs. He was on the methadone program and smoked weed until his death at age 83.

This book is not a biography but a travel through Burroughs’ life and those that choose him as a friend and an influence. And the list is long of musicians that sought Bill out at his place in NYC (known as “the Bunker”) or to his modest home that he owned, late in life, in Lawrence, Kansas. David Bowie (pictured above), Iggy Pop (pictured below), Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, members of Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth to name a few. Many just mined his writings for their band name (Soft Machine, Steely Dan, and Mugwumps – an early version of The Mama and Papas – to name a few), or for song titles/lyrics.

Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs

This book explores every musician inspired by Bill’s very wild life and writings. The irony in such a book is that Bill had no interest in Rock & Roll or Punk Rock (which he is oftentimes called the Godfather of Punk Rock). But he took a great interest in the musicians that visited him. And he formed a few friendships with men young enough to be his grandsons.

He was very fond of Kurt Cobain, who visited him 6 months before Kurt committed suicide. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”

I have read a lot about Burroughs’ life and some of his books, yet there are stories told here that I have never heard before. For example, there’s a very funny one about his first visit from Al Jourgensen, the leader of the band Ministry.

William S. Burroughs is a writer that you should know and this book is a good way to begin. Or if you already familiar with him, it is a good book to add to your knowledge of him.

Reviewed by Tom,Main Library