Credit: CBS/Marcelo Noah

How William S. Burroughs shaped the way David Bowie wrote songs

There’s a relatively new saying which, despite lacking a degree of grammar, is a neat summary of the love the Starman and rock icon David Bowie and legendary beat writer William S. Burroughs shared: real recognise real. However, things were a little bit more one-sided than that. 

Burroughs, one of the foremost writers within the Beat movement that boasted Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among its agitators, may have been a fan of David Bowie, even expressing as much when the pair met, but Bowie idolised Burroughs. In fact, the Thin White Duke was such a fan he even employed one of Burroughs most famous techniques to give his songwriting an extra push. 

As well as being the chameleon of rock, one of the most engaging musical stars of the 20th-century and beyond, Bowie was a master lyricist. He was able to blur the line between the autobiographical and the fantastical, offering his audience a multi-coloured and textured sound. One way in which he does this is by using the “cut-up method”. 

For any Burroughs fans, this method will be well known. It involves either writing out or finding some script and cutting it up and rearranging the words. It allows for some of Bowie and Burroughs’ finest expressions. In the clip below you can see Bowie back in 1970 conducting such a session: “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.”  

The cut-up method encouraged Bowie’s imagination throughout his career with the star often leaning on the sessions to spark his creativity and deliver some of his most outlandish ideas. The singer, always technologically savvy, even created a computer program that would take inputted words and jumble them for a quicker alternative to cutting and sticking newspapers to the wall. 

It’s become a somewhat well-known part of Bowie’s career and has seen him questioned many times over the years. In an interview in 1997, Bowie offered up another reminder of how he went about it. “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 randomise everything.” 

The singer continues, “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.” Provocation is something that Bowie has always held dear and this method allowed Bowie to thread his dynamic personality throughout almost every song. 

Below witness the master at work as he devises one of his masterpieces, all born out of the idea of William S Burroughs’ ‘cut-up method’.

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