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Music

The imposing presence of William S. Burroughs on pop culture

@TomTaylorFO

The final words of the prologue to William S. Burroughs seminal novel Junky, read: “I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. Junk is a way of life.” Just to contextualise that, the novel Junky (or sometimes Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict) was published in 1953—three years later Elvis Presley’s gyrating ways led to a decree by CBS that he was to be filmed strictly from the waist up in future. The point is, such liberated prose was far from the norm. 

Heroin, however, was absolutely everywhere. The opiate crisis in America was underway and the current epidemic is, in part, due to the ‘sweep it under the rug’ ideology of the conservative past. Burroughs wasn’t having any of it, and he set about reflecting the life of an addicted in unabated ink, or as his fellow beat activist James Baldwin put it: “The disastrously explicit medium of printed language.”

Deemed shocking and unprintable by some, Junky nevertheless crept into the demimonde and was savoured by its denizens. By no means was the book the first of its kind – salacious texts can be found throughout history – but what seemed notable about this particular book was that it literally looked to enter the world it was capturing. The publishing house, Ace Books, primarily catered for subway readers printing what was called pulp. Burroughs looked to shoulder into the crowd of comics and detectives to bring them something that Lou Reed and the likes would later refer to as ‘the real shit, man’. In short, it was essentially a rock ‘n’ roll novel.

There was something about the dark side that Burroughs put forward in such an illuminating fashion that reverberated throughout the entire art world. Amid all the well-dressed folks – to lend a David Bowie lyric – he held a light to an era “when a nation [hid] its organic minds in a cellar”. Wild texts in the past were often goadingly gritty provocateurs written by aristocratic artists adapting a dark persona, but Burroughs was an ordinary man not pretending to be anyone else, his language did that for him.  

His words looked to capture the world around him, he was lifting the curtain in his own unique way. As David Bowie put it: “I have always been drawn to the Bill Burroughs of this world, who produce a vocabulary that is not necessarily a personal one, but something that is made up of ciphers and signifiers which are regurgitated, reformed and re-accumulated.” If that pop culture that followed Burroughs was aimed towards capturing the zeitgeist, then Junky and the likes were pretty good sketches of the underground that avant-garde rock would soon inhabit. 

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Lou Reed’s fractured narratives of New York or Berlin and beyond would paint a similar kaleidoscopic picture. His literary ways defined him as a truly original songwriter, and as the cliché goes, one who was perhaps too far ahead of his time. Lou Reed eventually met his other idol, Burroughs, in 1979. At that fateful meeting, he asked, “Can a pupil ever do better work than his teacher?” To which Burroughs humbly replied, “In this case, I believe so.”

Even this acceptance of second-hand influence is a way in which Burroughs seemed to infiltrate music, art and cinema. He wrote his novels almost with a reluctance. He was happily avant-garde in the truest sense: standing outside the mainstream in a progressive—if others followed in his footsteps then fare thee well, otherwise beat it. Thus, experimental films and artists like Andy Warhol soon crept down the same crooked path. 

In a much more 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 and jostle some inspiration loose. 

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, not to mention one of the best, but in truth, it could easily be taken from the pages of Burroughs in his experimental phases. 

As Bowie once said of the cut-up technique he borrowed from his idol: “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of “story ingredients” list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Aside from the mechanism of the technique itself, the idea of the words containing art themselves was a revelation that is still being realised. This postmodernist twist is a paradigm of Burroughs and his daring innovation that has had a huge impact on culture and continues to do so to this day. He was very much, as he was, and that was trailblazing enough in itself.