William Burroughs was the beat generation’s cerebral grandfather who would lurk in the shadows and bless those lucky enough to receive his recognition. For a while, he was sort of the grand priest of dissident pop culture, who many, including Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, REM, U2, David Bowie and countless others looked up to. In fact, if you didn’t know who he was, especially in the ’70s, then you were definitely nobody cool. While Burroughs was not completely aloof, having done interviews with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, he was also highly critical and didn’t think twice about saying “no”, or, saying “fuck off, kid,” as he did to a beady-eyed Ian Curtis at one point.
William Burroughs was associated with the beat generation of the 50s; he hung out and kept correspondence with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso. He has gone to hell and back again — he’s witnessed a couple of deaths in his life, including accidentally killing his own wife during a ‘William Tell” incident. He is most known for his controversial book, Naked Lunch; a book that is more collage than a novel, more atrocity than work of art, and more cynical and paranoid than hopeful. The book is not accessible whatsoever, so therefore those who did read it, digest it and know it, were considered the epitome of cool. Mostly, he is known for his lifelong addiction to heroin and love for guns. Burroughs, with work associate, Brion Gysin, popularised the ‘cut-up’ technique which added an element of spontaneity to the creative process. This technique could be applied to just about any creative art: writing, drawing, music or film. Burroughs said of this technique, “Cut-ups allow the future to leak through.”
Naked Lunch, a book that was predominately about the pyramid of control, sought to dismantle the structure of language and the control words had on us; Burroughs would say about this: “Language is a virus from outer space.” Burroughs wrote and published books throughout his life. He experienced the prime of his notoriety in the ’50s and into the ’60s. During the ’70s, he would experience somewhat obscurity; although rock music became the predominant ‘cool medium’ of the decade, and Burroughs’ relevancy was kept intact, very much so, by these celebrities.
While Burroughs was considered the most dissident of dissidence back in the ’50s, as time has worn on, Burroughs’ vision for reality has become increasingly more accurate. Especially in the 21st century, we are experiencing an overwhelming amount of false information, fake news; a sense of a dystopian world full of control and drug monopolies wreaking havoc on societies — all things that Burroughs wrote about in Naked Lunch.
William Burroughs remains a seminal influence on musicians and songwriters to this day. We delved into five of the most prominent acts who have been in, one way or another, influenced by Burroughs.
Five acts influenced by William S. Burroughs
William Burroughs was around for the making of the masterpiece, ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Burrough’s was dating Ian Sommerville at the time, who happened to be working as a tape operator for The Beatles. Burroughs would say of the song and McCartney: “I saw the song taking shape. I saw Paul several times, nice-looking young man, hardworking.”
The Beatles’ cultural iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s artwork, featured a cut-up like-collage of influential figures. As a homage to Burroughs’ overall influence and more specifically to The Beatles’ work, Burroughs’ haunting ghost-like figure was pasted onto the album’s cover, between Marilyn Monroe and Sri Mahavatar Babaji, a Hindi guru.
Ian Curtis was an avid reader and consumer of literary works. William Burroughs’ work and cultural significance did not evade Curtis. Joy Division’s song, ‘Interzone,’ was named after a place by the same name in Naked Lunch. The Interzone is based off Tangiers in Morocco, where Burroughs spent time writing while using heroin. The film director, David Cronenberg, co-wrote and directed a film adaptation of Naked Lunch which drew from elements of the book’s content but also from William Burroughs’ life.
Joy Division were asked to perform a multi-media event in Brussels alongside the old beat writer, called the ‘Plan K’ show. Ian Curtis jumped at the opportunity to do the show and to possibly meet the writer. Burroughs gave a lecture at the Plan K show, alongside Brion Gysin, to promote their new work, The Third Mind.
According to Jon Savage’s book, This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, Peter Hook recalled: “Ian decided he was going to get a free book off William Burroughs because he’d read all Burroughs’s books and bought them… I can’t remember what he said, we weren’t near enough, and all we heard was Burroughs: ‘Oh fuck off, kid.’ We didn’t stop laughing for hours. Ian was so embarrassed.”
In late 1973, William Burroughs interviewed David Bowie for The Rolling Stone. David Bowie was hugely influenced by the cut-up technique that Brion Gysin introduced to Burroughs who then popularized it. In video footage of Bowie cutting up a sheet of lyrics, he states, “this is the way I do cut-up. I don’t know if it’s the way Burroughs does cut up or the way Brio Gysin does cut up. I’ve used this method only on a couple of actual songs. What I’ve used it for more than anything else, is for igniting anything that might be in my imagination.”
Bowie continues, “and you often can come up with some very interesting attitudes. I was doing it with diaries and I was finding out very interesting things about me and what I’ve done and where I was going.”
Bowie most famously used the technique on ‘Moonage Daydream’ to devastating effect.
A musician who came later on, and was lucky enough to be baptized and validated by the grandfather of punk and beat culture, was Kurt Cobain. It was by no accident, however; throughout high school Cobain was an avid reader of Burroughs, and of all the acts mentioned in this list, Cobain’s lyricism is the most akin to Burroughs style of writing.
Like Burroughs, Cobain focused on the grotesque, the absurd and the dark underbellies of Western society.
In the wake of the widespread success of 1991, Nevermind, Cobain successfully got in touch with Burroughs and asked to collaborate. A remote collaboration would ensue: Burroughs send Cobain a soundbite of him reading his 1989 short story, The Junky’s Christmas, to which Cobain would record a dissident guitar piece to back it up. The project would be released under Kurt Cobain’s name as a solo artist: “The Priest” They Called Him.
It is no secret or should even come as a surprise that Tom Waits is a William Burroughs fan. Tom Waits, an equally skilled writer just as he is a musician, puts a lot of stock into literature. Waits once referred to Burroughs as “Mark Twain with an edge.” Tom Waits’ 1993 album, The Black Rider, would feature three pieces that are remnants from what would have been a collaboration on an avant-garde musical collaboration on the play of the same name, written by Robert Wilson.
The album also features a spoken narrative of ‘Tain’t No Sin’ by Burroughs. The two discussed another go at collaborative work, Alice, a Lewis Carroll inspired project with Robert Wilson; it would have involved creating theatrical musical. Unfortunately, Burroughs’ declining health would prove to be detrimental.