William S. Burroughs Reads & Sings His Experimental Prose in a Big, Free 7‑Hour Playlist


Image by Chris­ti­aan Ton­nis, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I don’t have any data, but I think it’s close enough to fact to say that expo­nen­tial­ly more peo­ple have heard of William S. Bur­roughs—have even come to revere Burroughs—than have read Bur­roughs. The phe­nom­e­non is unavoid­able with a fig­ure as huge­ly influ­en­tial through­out the last half of 20th cen­tu­ry coun­ter­cul­ture. His close asso­ci­a­tion with the Beats; his influ­ence on the 60s through Frank Zap­pa, The Bea­t­les, and more; his pop­u­lar­i­ty among punks and 70s art rock­ers and exper­i­men­tal­ists; his close affin­i­ty with 90s “alter­na­tive” bands, Queer writ­ers, and post­mod­ernists; his impor­tance to the drug­gy rave sub­cul­tures of the 90s and oughties…. In almost any cre­ative coun­ter­cul­ture you wish to name from the 50s to today, you will find enshrined the name of Bur­roughs. He was “indeed a man of the 20th Cen­tu­ry,” writes Chal Ravens at The Qui­etus, “he was alive for most of it, after all—and his life and works form the very fab­ric of the coun­ter­cul­ture, seep­ing into lit­er­a­ture, paint­ing, film, the­atre and most of all music like a drop of acid on a sug­ar cube.”

In Bur­roughs’ case, the life and work are insep­a­ra­ble. His “quixot­ic and shock­ing life sto­ry should not be dis­missed when assess­ing his lega­cy,” writes Beard­ed mag­a­zine. That strange life, which did not include writ­ing until he turned 40, “defined him to such a degree that it was many decades before his lit­er­ary achieve­ments were tak­en seri­ous­ly” by the estab­lish­ment. Nonethe­less, in the 50s, “Bur­roughs opened the doors for sex, drugs, alter­na­tive lifestyles and rad­i­cal pol­i­tics to be palat­able con­cerns in main­stream cul­ture.” While such themes became palat­able through the artists Bur­roughs influ­enced, his own writ­ing con­tin­ues to shock and sur­prise.  Bur­roughs may have moved in and through so many of the cul­tures named above, but he was not of them.

He appeared even to the Beats as a men­tor, an “out­law guru,” and he wrote like a man pos­sessed. Bur­roughs, The New York­er remarks, wrote in the “voice of an out­law rev­el­ing in wicked­ness,” a voice that “bragged of occult pow­er….. He always wrote in tones of spooky authority—a com­ic effect, giv­en that most of his char­ac­ters are, in addi­tion to being gaudi­ly depraved, more or less con­spic­u­ous­ly insane.” Bur­roughs in fact described his impulse to write as a kind of insan­i­ty or pos­ses­sion. The most out­ra­geous sto­ry about him—that he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in Mex­i­co in a sup­posed William Tell-like stunt—is true. In the intro­duc­tion to 1985’s Queer, Bur­roughs con­fessed:

I am forced to the appalling con­clu­sion that I would nev­er have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a real­iza­tion of the extent to which this event has moti­vat­ed and for­mu­lat­ed my writ­ing. I live with the con­stant threat of pos­ses­sion, and a con­stant need to escape from pos­ses­sion, from con­trol. So the death of Joan brought me in con­tact with the invad­er, the Ugly Spir­it, and maneu­vered me into a life long strug­gle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

Per­son­al obses­sions with death, addic­tion, legal and social con­trol, the occult, and his trou­bled sex­u­al­i­ty drove all of Bur­roughs’ work—and drove the themes of 20th Cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al revolt against con­for­mi­ty and con­ser­vatism. But though he may have been “a man of the 20th Cen­tu­ry,” Bur­roughs’ most imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors come large­ly from the 19th: in deca­dent poets like Arthur Rim­baud, trou­bled adven­tur­ers like Joseph Con­rad, fear­less satirists like Ambrose Bierce, and gen­uine out­laws like Jack Black (who wrote in the 20s of his crim­i­nal exploits in the 1880s and 90s). It is in part, per­haps, his trans­mis­sion of these voic­es to post­war artists and writ­ers and beyond that grant­ed him such author­i­ty. Bur­roughs’ writ­ing always car­ried with it the voic­es of the dead.

Bur­roughs was obsessed with voices—recorded, cut-up, rearranged; he believed in their pow­er to dis­rupt, influ­ence, and cor­rupt. Fit­ting­ly, he left us acres of tape of his own omi­nous monot­o­ne: read­ing his work, offer­ing com­men­tary on tech­nique, spin­ning bizarre, half-seri­ous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, and dis­tort­ing lit­er­a­ture beyond all recog­ni­tion through his cut-up tech­nique. Though we all know Bur­roughs’ name, we can now—no mat­ter our lev­el of famil­iar­i­ty with his writing—become equal­ly famil­iar with his voice in the playlist above, fea­tur­ing sev­en hours of Bur­roughs record­ings from five spo­ken word albums avail­able on Spo­ti­fy: The Best of William Bur­roughs, Spare Ass Annie and Oth­er Tales, Dead City Radio, Break Through in Grey Room, and Call Me Bur­roughs. (If you don’t already have it, down­load Spo­ti­fy here to lis­ten to the playlist.)

Though “we should not under­es­ti­mate the direct influ­ence of his writ­ing” on counter- and pop cul­ture, Beard­ed mag­a­zine points out (see this list for exam­ple), we should also not dis­count the spooky influ­ence of Bur­roughs’ haunt­ing record­ed voice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

William S. Bur­roughs Reads Naked Lunch, His Con­tro­ver­sial 1959 Nov­el

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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