William S Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’Roll by Casey Rae evaluation – countercultural hero | Books
T.The writer William Burroughs was a marginal figure until his 50s, too strange for popular taste. As part of the original trio of Beat writers alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he was immediately hailed and sentenced for his work – his 1959 novel Naked Lunch was briefly banned by the city of Boston after an obscenity trial; Norman Mailer testified in his defense. In the late 60s and 70s, a new generation of musicians turned him into a countercultural hero, including Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Richard Hell, Jimmy Page and Patti Smith. Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth later joined Burroughs’ Thrall.
Casey Rae examines his influence on musicians and how his fingerprints can be found throughout popular culture. The film Blade Runner got its title from a Burroughs novel, and the band Steely Dan was named after a dildo in Naked Lunch. The term “heavy metal” comes from The Soft Machine, Burroughs’ 1961 book, which also gave its name to a Canterbury jazz-folk fusion band. His face looks rocky on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the Beatles, and he’s given his creaky note to albums by Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Elsewhere, Burroughs’ “cut-up” methods – a literary technique that randomly rearranges the text – have been adopted by Bowie, McCartney, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
Burroughs, who died in 1997, could be indescribable and withdrawn, but he was generous with younger artists. Wherever he went, it wouldn’t be long before a musician showed up at his door to pay homage. While some, like Reed and Dylan, received a single audience, others were welcomed and confidante into his inner sanctuary. He linked up with Bowie, who had just killed Ziggy Stardust when they met, and was close friends with Patti Smith, who adored the Beat writers and said of Burroughs, “He’s up there with the Pope.” After meeting Cobain, with whom he worked on the 1993 single “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” Burroughs told the singer’s tour manager, “Your boyfriend hasn’t learned his limits and he won’t be able to do it if he continues . ”
Perhaps surprisingly, Burroughs wasn’t particularly interested in music, although he had other things in common with these young upstart. Like her, he had attracted opprobrium for its supposedly dangerous influence on young people. He also enjoyed her disruptive, anti-establishment spirit and was able to relate to those like Cobain, whose only method of dealing with the demands of the outside world was through profuse drug use.
Along with characters influenced by Burroughs, the book also tells the story of the man himself from his upper-middle-class childhood who was affected by an incident with a nanny who may or may not have involved sexual abuse (Burroughs never told the full History). in his years traveling around the world and living various in London, Paris, New York, Mexico City and Tangier. Rae’s account is compelling and captures the weirdness of Burroughs’ wandering lifestyle, his bizarre obsessions (mostly guns and the occult), and his herculean appetite for drugs.
Rae makes no secret of his admiration for the writer, noting that he “carries the Burroughs gene … I am still drawn to his wild intellect and black humor and refusal to conform.” As such, he’s keen to highlight Burroughs’ kindness and has a tendency to downplay his more troubling aspects, especially his misogyny (Burroughs notoriously said he believed women were a biological flaw). He’s quick to blow through the fact that the writer accidentally killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, as part of their so-called “William Tell routine,” which saw Vollmer put a shot glass on her head for Burroughs to shoot – only this time he missed her and shot her in the forehead. Describing this deadly party piece, Rae notices Vollmer’s “unkempt” and “thinning” hair due to her various addictions and a bout of polio, and then observes what her “once seductive face” is [had] well past her twenty-seven years old ”. There is no mention of whether Burroughs stayed fresh and youthful after years of drinking and heroin abuse.
Rae shows little interest in disrupting the writer’s legend as a charismatic outlaw. Obviously, he’s not the first to give Burroughs a pass. The liberal-minded, peace-loving musicians who adored him similarly glossed over his enthusiasm for weapons, which continued after the shot at Vollmer. After his death, Burroughs was buried with a ballpoint pen, a packet of heroin, and his beloved .38 Special Snubnose Revolver. It was fully loaded to his liking.
• William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll are published by White Rabbit (£ 14.99). To purchase a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.