Hear a Great Radio Documentary on William S. Burroughs Narrated by Iggy Pop

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Images via Wikimedia Commons

William S. Burroughs is one of the most mythologized American authors of the 20th century. When you recall the details of his life, they read like the biography of a fictional character. He was an unabashed heroin addict yet he dressed like a dapper insurance salesman. He was openly, militantly gay at a time when homosexuality wasn’t even mentioned in polite society. He shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City while playing an ill-conceived game of William Tell and then spent years in Tangiers indulging in every possible vice while writing Naked Lunch, which happened to be one of the most controversial books of the century. And his writing influenced just about everyone you consider cool.

This week is the 101st birthday of Burroughs. To mark the occasion, This American Life aired a BBC documentary on Burroughs’s life. The show is narrated by Iggy Pop whose voice, in announcer mode, bears an uncanny resemblance to Sam Elliot. Pop relates how Burroughs influenced Kurt Cobain, punk rock and Bob Dylan, and how he himself lifted lyrics from Burroughs for his most popular song, and unlikely Carnival Cruise jingle, “Lust for Life.”

As Ira Glass notes, the documentary paints a clear picture of why he is such a revered figure – going into detail about his writing, his hugely influential “Cut Up” method, his obsession with cats – while never buying into his mystique. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of the doc is a damning appraisal of Burroughs’s cool junkie persona by author Will Self, who was himself an addict for a couple of decades. You can listen to the whole episode above.

Related Content: 

William S. Burroughs Reads His First Novel, Junky

William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-up Writing

William S. Burroughs Explains What Artists & Creative Thinkers Do for Humanity

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William S. Burroughs on Saturday Night Live, 1981

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.


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  • K.C. Locke says:

    Entertaining, informative, but it skips like a flat stone across a lake much larger than it can reasonably span. For some reason, Ira Glass’s commentary is just excruciatingly irritating, and Will Self speaks with the kind of sneering contempt and condemnation that can only be summoned by the “recovering” addict for the junky who has failed to reform yet also failed to be miserable. Iggy Pop does a splendid job as our host.

  • peter Simonson says:

    What date is it on your website

  • peter Simonson says:

    What date

  • Steven C. C. says:

    Will self makes a good point regarding Joan “I would rather have the woman than the books” in regard to Joan’s death being the catalyst for William’s writing. I agree with him. (Unless you believe art is more important than life?)
    The what, how and why Burroughs became the writer he was is as important as the what, how and why both Iggy and Will Self became the men that created their own work …it’s just besides the point, it’s about the work and if it is any good.
    The drug side of William Burroughs (as with all artists) is boring and self indulgent. Using it as a metaphor for control at large in the work was interesting but it’s only a very small part of what makes the mans work so interesting after all this time and why it continues to influence new generations.
    Burroughs was an interesting character and he worked with many other great artists throughout his life. He understood the value of collaboration and experimentation with others…breakthroughs take place…
    I read the Barry Miles book on William “A Life” not so long ago and it was a good read, yes the drugs were mentioned but it also highlighted the consequences to William for using them. Outside of that it was interesting to read about the shaping of William and who and what influenced him. I started reading the published letters of William recommend by my friend and they provide lots of insight into this unique man. But again it still goes back to the work and if it is any good and in my opinion yes, it is.

  • zoe wilding says:

    I was lead to believe that Steely Dan was Dan Steel’s name messed around with. Couldn’t get through Naked Lunch. The only thing that fascinated me was the concept of the “Dream Machine”. I’d rather have Quentin Crisp, at least he had a sense of humour..

  • thewaymouth says:

    And even David Bowie briefly cuts in with his use of the “Cut Up” artistic method… The program fails to mention two of my favorite works of his: his recorded reading of his poem, “A Thanksgiving Prayer” (1986), as well as his wonderful performance in “Drugstore Cowboy” (US film, 1989). Otherwise this program is magnificent… Iggy Pop is over the freaking top brilliant.

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