William Burroughs - The Source

John Dineen takes a look into the life of renegade writer William Burroughs and how his influence has seeped into music's consciousness...

Posted on Mar 29th, 2011 in Features and Interviews, William S. Burroughs / By John Dineen
William S. Burroughs For some people William Burroughs was merely a wife-killing, drug addicted pornographer of paranoid obscenity. Others, like the great novelist J.G. Ballard, considered him the greatest writer of the 20th century. He was a man who not only divided opinion but, such was his influence on popular culture, demanded opinion. It may seem odd to discuss a novelist in terms of their influence on popular music but only if you misunderstand music’s tribal and political nature.

Since the birth of rock and roll through to dub step, music has always been as much about representing subcultures as representing sounds. Rock and roll represented a youthful reaction to fifties austerity; punk mined and celebrated alienation and nihilism; hip-hop, the ghettoization of urban life. The list is potentially endless but emphasises the point that music, more so than any other art form, embraces and encourages subcultures and engenders cultural and political identity in its follower; it has always done this by embracing influences from outside of music. Where would Public Enemy be without Louis Farrakhan, Captain Beefheart without the Dadaist movement or Rage Against the Machine without Chomsky? They would probably not exist and it is in this context that William Burroughs has had a profound influence on music.

For around the first forty years of his life, William Burroughs was not even a writer, let alone one culturally significant enough to influence musicians. However, it is Burroughs’ early life in all its astonishingly weird depravity that forged the legend we know today. Before Burroughs published ’Naked Lunch’ in 1959 and thus became a full time writer his life and perhaps more importantly his psyche had already been stained by many curious events. Born the scion of a wealthy industrial family Burroughs was always slightly different; a school teacher described the infant Burroughs as resembling a sheep- killing dog and as he came to understand his homosexuality, his alienation only deepened. Unrequited love at school led to self- mutilation via chemical explosion and the first example of Burroughs tendency for extreme reaction to disappointments. This early sign of weirdness was followed by the gay Burroughs marrying a Jewish girl to facilitate her escape from the Nazis whilst he was studying medicine in Vienna. Burroughs was deemed psychologically unfit by the army during World War II and so developed a heroin addiction whilst working as an exterminator and as a private eye. It was at this time that Burroughs met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who saw Burroughs as an outlaw guru. Burroughs also managed to marry for the second time during this period and fathered a son before he moved his family to Texas to become a marijuana farmer. Inevitable legal problems led to exile in Mexico where a drunken Burroughs managed to accidently kill his wife, Joan, during a William Tell style shooting game. Burroughs dealt with this new trauma by abandoning his son to his own parents whilst jumping bail in Mexico and heading to the Amazon in search of Yage, the most powerful drug known to man. After experimenting with Yage, Burroughs headed for Tangiers, Morocco, long a safe haven for decadent and legally troubled Westerners. It was in Tangiers amidst an intoxicating cocktail of Heroin, strong marijuana and willing young rent boys that Burroughs finally committed to writing, producing his masterpiece; ‘Naked Lunch’.

Burroughs quixotic and shocking life story should not be dismissed when assessing his legacy. Granted, he was not the first and certainly not the last writer to live a controversial life, but in his case it defined him to such a degree that it was many decades before his literary achievements were taken seriously. This helps to explain why he was so readily embraced as an icon by musicians. Like the early rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry, Burroughs represented the ultimate opposition to the conservatism and austerity of the post-war years. He represented the unacceptable in such an iconic and extreme way that he couldn’t fail to influence the younger generation who shared his ideals for cultural liberation. Frank Zappa was inspired by his satirical anti-authoritarianism, The Rolling Stones by his druggy mythologizing, and The Beatles, who immortalised Burroughs on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, were enamoured by his experimentation. The legend of Burroughs and the authenticity of his rebellion was just as inspirational to the sixties generation as anything he wrote. His iconoclasm like that of Che Guevara had become more important than his actual work.

Whilst his reputation as an outlaw icon was inspirational, we should not underestimate the direct influence of his writing. Alongside his Beat generation contemporaries, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs opened the doors for sex, drugs, alternative lifestyles and radical politics to be palatable concerns in mainstream culture. The Beat generation pioneered the idea of a counter-culture and began a genealogical line that runs through the Hippies, the Punks and all the way through to today’s anti-globalisation movements. Aside from his counter-culture associations, we can see his individual influence just as pervasively. Burroughs first book, ‘Junky’, a sardonic and deadpan account of his experiences in the New York drug underworld had a massive impact. Such hip middle class kids as Lou Reed and Marrianne Faithfull were so enamoured by the book that it led their own fetishisation of drugs and crime into full scale drug addictions. It would be impossible to imagine much of The Velvet Underground’s work, but particularly ‘Heroin’ or Faithfull’s ‘Sister Morphine’, without Burroughs influence. Whilst ‘Junky’ set the template for serious drug writing, and ‘Queer’ similarly for gay writing, it was with ‘Naked Lunch’ that the full force of Burroughs’ ideas and concerns came to fruition.

Superficially, ‘Naked Lunch’ is a disconnected string of vignettes featuring astoundingly uncompromising scenes of sex, drugs, death and peerless weirdness. Scratch beneath the surface and you find a surprisingly coherent set of satirical parodies that are more in the tradition of Jonathon Swift than the Marquis de Sade. Through the metaphor of addiction Burroughs explores government control systems, the corruption of power, the manipulations of the free market and very much more. It is this book and the ever more fantastical ‘Nova Trilogy’ that followed that set Burroughs’ reputation as the most extreme and experimental author of his generation. We can see the direct influence of these books in some band names from the era, such as Steely Dan (a dildo in ‘Naked Lunch’) or The Soft Machine (the second book in the ‘Nova Trilogy’). Burroughs supposed glamorisation of sex, drugs and death had a large influence upon David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars could not be more Burroughsian if it tried and Bowie himself readily acknowledges the debt. Burroughs’ explorations of control systems and what could be called logical paranoia can clearly be heard in the works of many seventies progressive bands such as The Soft Machine and Can, but particularly on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Animals albums.

Satire and humour are key aspects of Burroughs oeuvre that are often overlooked by the casual reader, but certainly not lost on artists like Frank Zappa and Devo. Frank Zappa’s lyrics can often read like condensed, frivolous versions of Burroughs’ satirical routines from ‘Naked Lunch’. Devo were such huge fans that they based their whole ideology around the Burroughsian concept of de-evolution. Burroughs’ satire and humour are often laced with a quite nihilistic approach to drugs and politics. It was this aspect of Burroughs’ writing that particularly appealed to the punk generation, who embraced him as the ultimate punk writer. Patti Smith, Joe Strummer and Blondie were all acolytes and through their patronage Burroughs’ influence spread to a new generation that extended all the way to the grunge movement and particularly Kurt Cobain.

The first half of the 20th century saw an explosion in experimental culture from James Joyce through the Surrealists to John Cage and much more in between. William Burroughs was perhaps the last great avatar of this tradition and it is certainly true that no artistic figure since has been so famed for experimentation. Some of Burroughs’ techniques have been just as influential as his ideas and it is perhaps surprising how many have translated to music. Burroughs’ most famed invention was the cut-up technique, which he created and pioneered in collaboration with the artist Brion Gysin. The cut-up technique involves taking a text and randomly rearranging phrases to create new and unexpected juxtapositions. David Bowie was the first musician to experiment with this technique which is quite apparent in much of his early seventies work but particularly on the album Diamond Dogs. Many have followed Bowie’s lead, with the cut-up technique informing the lyrics of such acts as Throbbing Gristle, REM, Nirvana and Radiohead, particularly on their album Kid A. The cut-up technique has not only influenced lyric writing but also music production. Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder claimed that, “The manipulation of sound, the physical act of cutting up tapes, creating tape loops and all that - has a strong reference to Burroughs." Burroughs was fascinated with sound recording and film and experimented extensively with applying the cut-up method to sound collage and narrative film. This led to him pioneering the spoken word album, which on the classic Dead City Radio, saw Burroughs collaborate with such musicians as Phillip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Cale and Sonic Youth, who provided soundscapes for his prose. The influence of Burroughs’ experiments with radical editing and random juxtapositions can be seen in much of mainstream music and film today and is no longer seen as radical.

Burroughs may have died 14 years ago but his influence defiantly lives on. Burroughs’ fingerprints can be seen on the films of Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu and in the music of wannabe hipsters such as The Klaxons, The XX and Clem Snide. Few musicians, let alone writers have had such an impact upon music or such an influential cultural legacy. This cultural legacy will soon be celebrated again with the release of the documentary ‘The Man Within’ later this year which will surely highlight Burroughs’ continuing relevance to contemporary culture and cement his position as the Godfather of the counterculture.