How William S. Burroughs Influenced Rock and Roll, from the 1960s to Today

It can be dif­fi­cult to know what to do some­times with adding machine heir and Naked Lunch and Junky author William S. Bur­roughs. In the trick­le-down acad­emese of con­tem­po­rary jar­gon, he is a “prob­lem­at­ic” fig­ure who doesn’t fit neat­ly inside anyone’s ide­o­log­i­cal com­fort zone, what with his unre­pen­tant hero­in addic­tion, occult weird­ness, con­spir­a­cy mon­ger­ing, and exten­sive first­hand knowl­edge of crim­i­nal under­worlds.

There was no one bet­ter qual­i­fied to mid­wife the coun­ter­cul­ture.

NME’s Leonie Coop­er calls Bur­roughs “a dour punk in a sharp suit,” and lists some of the high­lights of his biog­ra­phy, includ­ing his famous acci­den­tal shoot­ing of his wife and moth­er of his only child—an event that did noth­ing to dimin­ish his love of guns. “He wrote bleak­ly com­ic tales which were sub­ject to obscen­i­ty tri­als in the States thanks to their dwelling on sodomy and drugs but which lat­er saw him elect­ed to the pres­ti­gious Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters.”

The main­stream­ing of Bur­roughs hap­pened in part because of his appeal to musi­cians, from Paul McCart­ney, Mick Jag­ger, and David Bowie to Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Throb­bing Gris­tle, and Ministry’s Al Jour­gen­son. “Musi­cians flocked to him in a quest for authen­tic­i­ty.” Although the dead­pan Bur­roughs usu­al­ly appeared “mas­sive­ly unim­pressed” by their atten­tions, he was “hap­py to com­ply and asso­ciate him­self with artists both up and com­ing and estab­lished.”

David Bowie went fur­ther than seek­ing a pho­to op or one-off col­lab­o­ra­tion, adopt­ing Bur­roughs’ cut-up tech­nique as his pri­ma­ry method for writ­ing lyrics, a tech­nique also put into prac­tice at var­i­ous times by The Bea­t­les, Cobain, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Oth­er artists, like Steely Dan and The Soft Machine, took their names from Bur­roughs’ work but shared lit­tle of his night­mar­ish sci-fi-cult-noir sen­si­bil­i­ty.

Bur­roughs “pre­ferred to asso­ciate him­self with an edgi­er kind of per­former,” col­lab­o­rat­ing with R.E.M., Waits, and Cobain and “hang­ing out at sem­i­nal rock club CBG­Bs” in the 70s and 80s. He became a friend and men­tor to artists like Pat­ti Smith, Lou Reed, and Thurston Moore. Although Iggy Pop is often referred to as the “god­fa­ther of punk,” that title might as well belong to William S. Bur­roughs.

Dur­ing the birth of rock and roll in the 50s, Bur­roughs was a most­ly unknown fringe fig­ure. By the late six­ties, his influ­ence became cen­tral to pop­u­lar music thanks to The Bea­t­les, Led Zep­pelin, and The Rolling Stones. But he would not be tamed or san­i­tized. An ear­ly gay hero who sided with out­siders and under­dogs against cor­po­rate machines, he was defi­ant to the end, leav­ing a lega­cy that con­tin­ues to inspire anti-estab­lish­ment artists, even if they’re unaware of their debt to him.

In the new book William S. Bur­roughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Casey Rae, you can learn much more about Bur­roughs’ major influ­ence on rock and roll in the 60s, 70s, 80s, “when it became a rite of pas­sage to hang out with the author or to exper­i­ment with his cut-up tech­niques,” as the book descrip­tion notes. His direct influ­ence con­tin­ued into the punk revival of the grunge era and has become “more sub­lim­i­nal” since his death in 1997, as Rae tells Jim DeRo­gatis and Greg Kot in the Sound Opin­ions inter­view above. (Scroll to the 14:50 minute mark.)

It’s hard to find con­tem­po­rary artists who aren’t influ­enced by the artists Bur­roughs influ­enced, and who—wittingly or not—haven’t inher­it­ed some of the Bur­rough­sisms that are every­where in the past fifty-plus years of rock and roll his­to­ry. Hear a playlist of Bur­roughs-adja­cent songs ref­er­enced in Rae’s book at the top of the post (open­ing with Duke Elling­ton’s “East St. Louis Too­dle Oo,” lat­er cov­ered by Steely Dan), and learn more about Bur­roughs’ musi­cal adven­tures at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

William S. Bur­roughs Drops a Posthu­mous Album, Set­ting Read­ings of Naked Lunch to Music (NSFW)

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

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

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