The famous beat writer William S. Burroughs once said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” It is a statement that holds more than a grain of truth. It is quite literally impossible to envisage a world where artists like The Beatles simply never came into being.
Music’s power to reach out from the sequestered clutches of ‘culture’, grab the world at large by the lapels and shake it like a Skoda going over a cattle grid is not only profound but essential. However, it is no revelation that musicians are constantly trying to distil and impart in five minutes of song the source material that inspired them in prose and print.
In Bob Dylan’s memoir, he talks about the huge impact that authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky had on him as a young man. The world of literature allows art to meet with its reader one on one and the gut-punch of introspective inspiration is central in spawning music and the evolution of the arts.
As Bob Dylan once said, “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”
Below, we’re taking a look at the prominent writers that changed culture irrevocably and brought the world of music along, clinging to the coattails of progress through prose and poetry in motion.
The writers who shaped the music industry:
Jack Kerouac once said, “The only truth is music.” It is a short epithet that illuminates his love for the art form and his zest for the soul made sonic or elucidated in print. On his piano backed jazz album he eulogises the formative bebop musician Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. He describes descending into a dark, dingy, dive bar and having it bloom into kaleidoscopic light like a flower beckoned from bud into blossom by the half-note-sun of Parker’s blistering playing. Charlie Parker “burst his lungs to reach the speed of what the speedsters wanted, and what they wanted was his eternal slowdown. […] Musically as important as Beethoven, yet not regarded as such at all.”
Kerouac’s passion for Parker, jazz in general, and a lust for the rhythms of life are eternalised in his seismically seminal novel On The Road, where on the inside sleeve is a quote from Bob Dylan saying, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” David Bowie, too, was so stirred up by Kerouac’s life-giving words that he packed up his belongings from the sleepy suburbs and embarked on London life, dizzying himself in the beat otherworldliness of Bond Street that left an indelible variegated hue on his work.
Kerouac may not have been the first to dip his pen in ink and paint the poetry of the street, but he propagated it with such uncompromised profuse intent that the world of culture would never be the same again.
The writer not only reinvigorated public passion for jazz, the life source of rock ‘n’ roll, but he spawned the beat movement. In the Greenwich Village folk scene of New York or Bond Street in London, young long-haired bohemians would usually have a copy of Kerouac sticking out of their back pocket just to say they were in the know.
The beat movement that Kerouac would be crowned king of brought the world Bob Dylan, Odetta, Paul Simon and just about influenced every single musician that followed in the 1960s. Behind the movement and the counterculture that followed was Kerouac’s singularity and a steadfast view to conform to a sovereignty of one. Kerouac’s failings and successes were personified by uncompromising creative intent and a desire to be an artist, unlike the ‘entertainers’ of old. Teetering on the brink of destitution, his outlook, like many of the beats around him, was that if he was going to fail, he would fail on his own terms, unlike his forebearers. In many ways, that is the mantra that alternative musicians and artists live by to this very day.
William S. Burroughs
The beat author was a central figure amidst the music industry. His friendship with David Bowie and other prominent musicians meant that his impact was felt in an almost direct sense.
Bowie and a range of other artists were not only inspired by the inherent weirdness of his work and its refusal to conform to conventions but also his word cut-up technique would be used by many artists to overcome writer’s block.
Perhaps the finest distillation of these matters coming together in one song has to be Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust anthem ‘Moonage Daydream’. “I’m an alligator / I’m a mama-papa coming for you,” has to be one of the most unforgivably original and ecstatic opening lines in music, but in truth, it could easily be taken from the pages of Burroughs.
His most prominent impact on music, however, is the extreme daring of his prose. When Junkie was released in 1953 it served as an incendiary attack on decency and controversially challenged American ideals of what can be spoken about in art, much in the same way that fellow New York denizens The Velvet Underground would do over a decade later.
The point when music became political requires a finetuned investigation of its own, but there is no doubting that in the 1960s music firmly entered the civil rights movement and protest songs took on a life of their own. Perhaps the most central artistic figure within the movement was James Baldwin.
Baldwin once wrote, “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”
Baldwin had an uncanny knack of being able to judiciously dissect the murky and lift off the fog, making the complex simple and the politically nettlesome morally unambiguous. The impacts of his work on civil rights and egalitarian politics meant that – in the same manner, that he declared of musicians – his triumph was ours too.
During his career, Baldwin bravely took the arts to the frontline. The notion of the male tweed-clad poet with a pipe and a pint of warming bitter is a far cry from the figure that Baldwin cut of a peaceful revolutionary braving firehoses and batons in Birmingham. In his wake, was a battalion of musicians inspired by his affirmation that creativity can bring about change. In this regard, his work not only led to an exponential increase in forthright protest music, but it has ties with the inception of rap and other genres that told the unmitigated truth of the streets and exultantly alleviated suffering in doing so.
All in all, Baldwin championed a notion via his passion for the power of expression that when times are unsettled, music makes the path clear; it may not make the path simple, but it certainly blows off the frivolous details masking the potholes and guides us around unseen junctures like illuminating headlights. Sadly, unlike his beatnik contemporaries like Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs his relevance is not confined to influence, but more so to the fact that the same messages he was disseminating in poetical tones back in the middle of the last century still need reiterating today.
Find his 478-track record collection playlist below.
In Europe rock ‘n’ roll came over like a benevolent gift from America after the horrors of the war, but in many ways, a cultural revolution was already underway thanks to bold creatives like Szymbroska who made sure that youth had a voice and women had a place in art and politics.
Her work had a quality that all musicians seem to crave: it was ahead of its time. The sheer caustic force of her words calls out for the vicious violence of a searing guitar. Szymbroska’s emboldened stance and innovative way with words was key to experimental European genres like Krautrock and electronic music.
Her poetry didn’t skirt around the issues of the war and subsequent terrorism; she eviscerated the subject with a pure brute forcefulness that the European rockers who followed would have to attempt to catch up to.
How could an aspiring musician read a poetic verse like – “They think as long as it takes, and not a second more, since doubt lies lurking behind that second…” – and not want to set it to music.
In recent years the legacy of Sylvia Plath has, unfortunately, became embalmed in the melodrama of morbidity. Plath herself had the best answer to this when she wrote, “Even amidst fierce flames / The golden lotus can be planted.” This meddling of beauty and darkness can be seen continually throughout music. Plath is far from the first to illuminate a dirge with the sanguine hue of hope and beauty, but her brutal way of doing so and the very notion of her boldness as a female artist in oppressive times had a reverberating impact on culture at large.
In the same sense as Kerouac, she wrote firmly from the perspective of youth, a trait that rock ‘n’ roll would seize upon. Plath clearly never wrote with a yearning notion of acceptance or appraisal from her peerage in mind. She wrote with the passionate sincerity that only youth can harness.
A plethora of artists have eulogised her as inspiration from Patti Smith to Nick Cave, many more have mentioned her directly in a song from Lana Del Rey to Lady Gaga and even the latest wordsmiths on the scene Fontaines D.C. have written lines such as, “None can pull the passion loose from youth’s ungrateful hands,” which she would have proudly housed in an anthology of her own.
Plath came along and seized the seething passions of youth, thrived on naïve recklessness, and made the sort of art that usurpers the status quo, and spawns a new generation of its own in a way that was prognostic of punk at its best.
Vonnegut’s anti-war novels would become central texts within the counterculture movement. He looked at the world in the most colourful way possible without losing sight of what was black and white, and as such, he made it clear to contemporaries that political discourse did not simply belong to those in ties.
This paradoxically clear yet kaleidoscopic view of the world was propagated in simple prose, and as filmmaker Bob Weide puts it: “What high school kid isn’t gonna gobble [that] up!”
His impact on music might not have been quite as direct as some of the others on this list, but in terms of turning people onto the arts and elucidating complex philosophies in the most joyously engaging way, he inspired legions of fans to engage in the cathartic practice of creativity. And he informed many more about the vital voice that art has when it comes to political change.
As he put it himself, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” We might eulogise our musical heroes to the point that they sit on a shaman-like pedestal, but at the end of the day, that’s all they’re doing too.
Vonnegut made art that inspired change with great humour and a zeal for life that encouraged musicians to follow suit.
John Cooper Clarke
In the paraphrased words of Hunter S. Thompson, Dr John Cooper Clarke is one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die. The eponymous punk poet was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poetry of street, but rather than plant flowers amidst the cobbles, Clarkey took note of a notion that the nearly-forgotten folk artist Rodriguez put it forth in lyrical form: “Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”
Clarke is not concerned with planting flowers; he simply wants to laugh at the comic book. His poetry consists of wild wordplay that achieves a level of satire that nobody outwardly hoping to philosophise street life could ever wish to achieve. He makes it clear that encapsulation comes by proxy. And with a bludgeoning lyrical wit, he makes a mockery of bromidic, banal poetry pronounced with faux-poignancy and a stiff upper lip.
He was not only there at the birth of British punk, but his nurturing presence within it added some much-needed style to the snarling substance. He has been ever-present in the world of music ever since.
Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys has been a disciple of Clarke’s throughout a career that has seen him become established as one of the most prominent literary songwriters of recent times. Turner took up where his hero John Cooper Clarke had left off, who in turn had been inspired by the soot-covered sonnets of Baudelaire, making Al and a slew of other artists just the latest in a long line of loveable reprobate reveller’s from the demimonde to propagate the poetry of the street, much like the forbearing Clarke, his wordplay very much the ingrained language of youth culture. A language that Clarke helped make funny and spat out snarls from the side of his mouth, that has been emulated ever since.
Dr Hunter S. Thompson
The writings of Hunter S. Thompson are deeply ingrained with the world of music and the culture surrounding various music scenes. His pure daring and determination to stay well within the mad and groovy demimonde was a freak ethos that musicians have tried to follow forevermore.
As a writer, he engrossed himself in the world of pop culture rather than trying to observe it from a far, and that stretches way beyond his Gonzo style of journalism. He wanted to be in and amongst what was happening not just to place himself in the story or capture a moment from a ground-level perspective. He wanted to change what needed changing and celebrate what he thought was right. In short, this was reflected in the collaborative artistic milieu of the sixties and seventies.
There is of course no way to prove this, but I would be surprised to find a musicians bookshelf that doesn’t include a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – it is pure kerosene for music. This relationship flowed both ways, as Thompson put it himself: “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
When you add to that proposition that he also had impeccable taste in music (see his favourite albums of the 1960s playlist below) you have yourself an influential figure in the field of literature and music.