William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Critic Casey Rae depicts William S. Burroughs as a wise sage whom the wild creatives seek out for his wisdom... well, almost.

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll
Casey Rae
University of Texas Press
Jun 2019

In the introduction to William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, critic Casey Rae describes Burroughs’ influence as taking different forms among a variety of musicians, “like a space-borne virus from one of his books, hopping from host to host, medium to medium, each strain transforming culture in profound, sometimes obscure, ways.” Burroughs, who famously said “language is a virus from outer space,” would be pleased not only with his influence but also with Rae’s description.

These are stories of intersections — the engagements between Burroughs and an array of rock stars from Kurt Cobain to David Bowie, from Paul McCartney to Jimmy Page. Rae depicts Burroughs as a wise sage whom the wild creatives seek out for his wisdom… well, almost. A strength of this book is that he doesn’t write from the perspective of a fan: none of the characters in these stories are idealized. Rather, it is their strangeness and their flawed human nature that are central to the narrative.

For those familiar with Burroughs, this comes as no surprise. For those new to Burroughs’ life and work, Rae weaves the notorious stories into his narrative: the accidental shooting of Burroughs’ wife, Joan Vollmer, his unrelenting addictions, his life as a gay man in a time when homosexuality was yet another illegal activity, his preference to live in an underground bunker in New York City — all inherent to Burroughs’ identity.

Choosing not to build Burroughs’ biography chronologically enables the reader to get to know him gradually and to see both his experiences and his influences simultaneously. The stories of Burroughs meeting the rock stars he influenced are not arranged chronologically, either. The book begins with Kurt Cobain, who collaborated with Burroughs on a two-song picture disc titled The “Priest” They Called Him. Rae argues that Cobain’s admiration of Burroughs was rooted not only in his eclectic creativity but also in his ability as a survivor: as a 79-year-old heroin addict who grappled with notoriety and fame, Burroughs outlasted the challenges to which Cobain eventually succumbed.

Woven into the discussion of Burroughs’ influence on Bob Dylan is a historical glimpse of the Beats. Burroughs appears as the character Old Bull Lee in the Beat Generation manifesto, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road [Viking, 1957] which Rae delightfully describes as “something like a proto-GPS for restless bohemians.” Kerouac’s sudden fame arrived with the publication of On the Road, nearly simultaneous with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl“.

Along with Burroughs, Rae considers the three writers as the Beats’ original trinity. It was Ginsberg who eventually arranged Dylan’s meeting with Burroughs, at a cafe in the East Village. Despite this brief encounter, Burroughs had an enduring influence on Dylan, who threads Burroughsesque cut-ups through his lyrics.

Brought to Burroughs’ attention by painter Brion Gysin, who worked with cut-ups involving slicing up sections of newspapers and reorganizing them, letting the new combinations elicit new meanings. Cut-ups are alluring not only as a remedy for writer’s bloc, but also because they invite mystery and randomness into the creative process, almost as a way of clicking into the collective unconscious. Burroughs and Gysin spent the 1960s and ’70s turning cut-ups into what Rae describes as “a populist revolution”. The practice had an enormous impact on David Bowie, who used cut-ups to inspire lyrics for songs on Diamond Dogs in 1974 as well as his final albums, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016).

The connections between Bowie and Burroughs go beyond the use of cut-ups. As he does with other artists, Rae pulls together similarities between their experiences, lifestyles, and creative endeavors. Both men channeled their personal tragedies into artistic expression. Both dealt with drug addiction, although Bowie preferred cocaine where Burroughs indulged in heroin. Both were critiqued for their negative influence on young people, and both had a deep interest in the occult. Despite these similarities, the two reportedly only met once, when they sat down for an interview for Rolling Stone in late 1974.

Rae’s treatment of other artists who were influenced by and interacted with Burroughs follows a similar narrative scheme. The collage of stories helps to build a sense of Burroughs as a guru of rock culture, even though he was not a musician. His influence carried over to punk as well, and Rae discloses that Burroughs rejected the title “godfather of punk”, although it was certainly earned.

His Bunker — a windowless building that was once a YMCA — was a short distance from CBGB and Burroughs had frequent visits from Patti Smith, Television’s Richard Hell, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia was a lifelong Burroughs enthusiast, and his role as a hesitant cult leader provides an effective mirror for Rae to talk about Burroughs reluctance to embrace a similar role.

In his acknowledgements, Rae thanks rock biographer Victor Bockris, who published extensively about Burroughs, as well as James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime companion and executor of his literary estate. That both writers gave Rae access to much anecdotal history enhances his credibility and allows him to carry those Burroughsesque literary viruses to another generation of hosts.

RATING 8 / 10