How David Bowie Used William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unforgettable Lyrics

Why do David Bowie’s songs sounds like no one else’s, right down to the words that turn up in their lyrics? Nov­el­ist Rick Moody, who has been privy more than once to details of Bowie’s song­writ­ing process, wrote about it in his col­umn on Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day: “David Bowie mis­di­rects auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion, often, by lay­ing claim to reportage and fic­tion as song­writ­ing method­olo­gies, and he cloaks him­self, fur­ther, in the cut-up.” Any­one acquaint­ed with the work of William S. Bur­roughs will rec­og­nize that term, which refers to the process of lit­er­al­ly cut­ting up exist­ing texts in order to gen­er­ate new mean­ings with their rearranged pieces.

You can see how Bowie per­formed his cut-up com­po­si­tion in the 1970s in the clip above, in which he demon­strates and explains his ver­sion of the method. “What I’ve used it for, more than any­thing else, is ignit­ing any­thing that might be in my imag­i­na­tion,” he says. “It can often come up with very inter­est­ing atti­tudes to look into. I tried doing it with diaries and things, and I was find­ing out amaz­ing things about me and what I’d done and where I was going.”

Giv­en what he sees as its abil­i­ty to shed light on both the future and the past, he describes the cut-up method as “a very West­ern tarot” — and one that can pro­vide just the right unex­pect­ed com­bi­na­tion of sen­tences, phras­es, or words to inspire a song.

As dra­mat­i­cal­ly as Bowie’s self-pre­sen­ta­tion and musi­cal style would change over the sub­se­quent decades, the cut-up method would only become more fruit­ful for him. When Moody inter­viewed Bowie in 1995, Bowie “observed that he worked some­where near to half the time as a lyri­cist in the cut-up tra­di­tion, and he even had, in those days, a com­put­er pro­gram that would eat the words and spit them back in some less ref­er­en­tial form.” Bowie describes how he uses that com­put­er pro­gram in the 1997 BBC clip above: “I’ll take arti­cles out of news­pa­pers, poems that I’ve writ­ten, pieces of oth­er peo­ple’s books, and put them all into this lit­tle ware­house, this con­tain­er of infor­ma­tion, and then hit the ran­dom but­ton and it will ran­dom­ize every­thing.”

Amid that ran­dom­ness, Bowie says, “if you put three or four dis­so­ci­at­ed ideas togeth­er and cre­ate awk­ward rela­tion­ships with them, the uncon­scious intel­li­gence that comes from those pair­ings is real­ly quite star­tling some­times, quite provoca­tive.” Six­teen years lat­er, Moody received a star­tling and provoca­tive set of seem­ing­ly dis­so­ci­at­ed words in response to a long-shot e‑mail he sent to Bowie in search of a deep­er under­stand­ing of The Next Day. It ran as fol­lows, with no fur­ther com­ment from the artist:











































Chthon­ic is a great word,” Moody writes, “and all art that is chthon­ic is excel­lent art.” He adds that “when Bowie says chthon­ic, it’s obvi­ous he’s not just aspir­ing to chthon­ic, the album has death in near­ly every song” — a theme that would wax on Bowie’s next and final album, though The Next Day came after an emer­gency heart surgery end­ed his live-per­for­mance career. “Chthon­ic has per­son­al heft behind it, as does iso­la­tion, which is a word a lot like Iso­lar, the name of David Bowie’s man­age­ment enter­prise.” Moody scru­ti­nizes each and every one of the words on the list in his col­umn, find­ing mean­ings in them that, what­ev­er their involve­ment in the cre­ation of the album, very much enrich its lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence. By using tech­niques like the cut-up method, Bowie ensured that his songs can nev­er tru­ly be inter­pret­ed — not that it will keep gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of intrigued lis­ten­ers from try­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Jump­start Your Cre­ative Process with William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

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

How Jim Jar­musch Gets Cre­ative Ideas from William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Method and Bri­an Eno’s Oblique Strate­gies

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

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Linda Heck says:

    FYI, you’re get­ting it half right- read Bur­roughs giv­ing prop­er cred­it to the orig­i­na­tors of “his” tech­nique:

  • thyer says:

    Thanks for this!

  • Hugh Weldon says:

    There is no ‘tech­nique. Any­one can do it or could do it before any­one pre­sent­ed it as such. It rarely pro­duces ‘mean­ing’. Occa­sion­al inter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions are not mean­ing in any deep sense. Any­way Bowie used it rather dif­fer­ent­ly than Bur­roughs who gen­er­al­ly played around with columns of text rather than indi­vid­ual lines. It is real­ly hard­ly worth writ­ing about. Lots of pop lyrics are just ran­dom inco­her­ent ideas which might as well have been ‘cut up’ any­way.

  • Cole says:

    Hey, your right and wrong, while the words may not make much sense or mean­ing the real skill or tech­nique is putting them togeth­er to make a mas­ter­piece like David Bowie did.

  • RideYourPony says:

    It’s very arguable that Bowie’s best lyrics were pro­duced using this tech­nique. He didn’t start using it until 1974, so Hunky Dory, Zig­gy Star­dust, Man Who Sold The World, and Alladin Sane were all writ­ten in the con­ven­tion­al song­writ­ing man­ner. For my mon­ey these albums over­all have more mem­o­rable lyrics than the mate­r­i­al from Young Amer­i­cans on.

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