Remembering when Kurt Cobain met his idol William Burroughs and created the most experimental work of his career
Diving back into the Far Out Magazine Vault, we take a moment to recall the moment Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain met his idol, William Burroughs.
Back in 1992, Cobain contacted one of his longstanding idols, Burroughs, a writer and visual artist who was a major player of the Beat Generation. Cobain, desperate to form a collaboration, pitched an idea to Burroughs who duly replied by sending the Nirvana frontman a tape he recorded of himself reading a short story.
That story, which was originally published in his Exterminator collection way back in 1973, would be the kick starter to some of the most obscure work Cobain would ever make. Adding some guitar backing based on ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’ and ‘Silent Night’, the pair were able to birth the concept which is now known as The “Priest” They Called Him.
The protagonist of the work, a nameless heroin addict trying to score on Christmas Eve, resulted in a limited-edition 10-inch picture disc which was released on Tim/Kerr Records in 1993. The original 10-inch record is one-sided, with cover art completely covering the disc along with a handwritten number, according to an old item description. On the reverse, autographs of Cobain and Burroughs are etched in reading: “William S. Burroughs” and “Kurtis Donald Cȯhbaine”.
The work was put together without the pair ever physically meeting. However, as their long-distance friendship began to blossom, the duo were eventually able to arrange a suitable time to meet. A long-form dossier was recently published Burroughs official website. Described by multiple sources, Cobain and Burroughs finally got to hang out:
In October 1993 Cobain met in Burroughs in Lawrence, KS.
“During this first week of the tour, Alex MacLeod drove Kurt to Lawrence, Kansas, to meet William S. Burroughs. The previous year Kurt had produced a single with Burroughs titled The “Priest” They Called Him, on T/K Records, but they’d accomplished the recording by sending tapes back and forth. “Meeting William was a real big deal for him,” MacLeod remembered.
“It was something he never thought would happen.” They chatted for several hours, but Burroughs later claimed the subject of drugs didn’t come up. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant. “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”
—Charles R. Cross, Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
Burroughs describes the meeting… “I waited and Kurt got out with another man. Cobain was very shy, very polite, and obviously enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t awestruck at meeting him. There was something about him, fragile and engagingly lost. He smoked cigarettes but didn’t drink. There were no drugs. I never showed him my gun collection.” The two exchanged presents — Burroughs gave him a painting, while Cobain gave him a Leadbelly biography that he had signed. Kurt and music video director Kevin Kerslake originally wanted Burroughs to appear in the video for “In Bloom.”
—Carrie Borzillo, Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle:
“I’ve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half,” Cobain says with a discernible relief in his voice. “I’m still kind of mesmerized by it.” He ticks off the reasons for his content: “Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.
—Rolling Stone interview, 25 October 1993
Cobain killed himself on 5 April 1994.
In Lawrence, meanwhile, William Burroughs sat poring over the lyric sheet of In Utero. There was surely poignancy in the sight of the eighty-year-old author, himself no stranger to tragedy, scouring Cobain’s songs for clues to his suicide. In the event he found only the “general despair” he had already noted during their one meeting.
“The thing I remember about him is the deathly grey complexion of his cheeks. It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs is one of those who feel Cobain “let down his family” and “demoralized the fans” by committing suicide.