William S. Burroughs was a writer and a wreck; a cynic and a seer, a misanthrope and a muse. He was not really the hero type; he lacked the wholesomeness those seeking heroes are looking for. Nor was he a rock star. However, his books and approach to life inspired rock musicians, guitar heroes and otherwise. Numerous songs, a few band and even album titles were either stolen from Burroughs’ writing or inspired by his characters and situations. Older than many of those musicians who looked to his life and work for inspiration and guidance, Burroughs remains essentially timeless. From his junky days in New York City in the late 1940s to his relative stardom in the 1990s, Burroughs remained uncompromising, provocative, iconoclastic and insightful. His dark vision becomes more real with each and every day. Indeed, the current political, social and environmental situation we find ourselves in seems lifted from one of the many hellish scenarios found throughout his works.
Perhaps it is this that makes him so appealing to those rock musicians who attempt to define our world and remake their own. This possibility is but one of the subjects Casey Rae imagines in his new biography of Mr. Burroughs. Titled William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n Roll, Rae’s text is a fundamentally comprehensive look at Burroughs’ influence on the songs and culture of rock music. Expectedly, there are descriptions and discussions of the relationships Burroughs had with David Bowie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain. More interesting to this reviewer were the pages Rae spends writing about Burroughs’ meetings and influences on Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and the founder of the industrial band Throbbing Gristle. All of these musicians, plus a few others Rae discusses, were drawn to Burroughs’ outlaw mystique and literary genius. Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited not only reads like an excerpt from a Burroughs’ novel, but according to Rae it even includes a nod to the man himself when Dylan sings in Tombstone Blues: “I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill….”
There was a period in Burroughs’ literary life where he worked using a method of composition known as the cut-up method. In short, this involved writing out sentences, fragments and paragraphs, then cutting the paper they were on into smaller pieces. After this part of the process was complete, the author(s) randomly take the strips of paper and arrange them. This new arrangement then becomes the text. Different claims are made about this technique, but the essential element for this review is that almost all of the rock composers discussed in William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock n’ Roll used it in at least some of their compositions. The aforementioned disc from Bob Dylan is a perfect example, especially the song “Desolation Row.” Musically, the early live work of the Grateful Dead includes elements of cut-up collage, as does some of the music recorded by David Bowie on the trio of albums that make up his Berlin Trilogy.
I became aware of Burroughs in 1968 when Esquire magazine published his article on the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The article, titled “The Coming of the Purple One,” is an indictment of the failing American republic, a history lesson and a portrait of a tragedy. The fact that the magazine also featured reportage from Jean Genet, Terry Southern and John Sack only served to further widen the lesion in my teenage American mind. The nation I was told I lived in was turning out to be quite different than the one I had seen on television during the convention. That series of articles in Esquire helped me understand why. In the latter half of the twentieth century, William S. Burroughs was better at revealing the truth than almost any journalist one could read in the mainstream press. A few years later, he came to Washington, DC with a troupe that included Ken Kesey and a few Merry Pranksters, among others. Kesey and the Pranksters showed an hour or so of the unedited footage from the bus trip made famous by Tom Wolfe. Mr. Burroughs read from his works, old and not-yet-published. I mention this as a means of getting across just how much his work influenced those who could not accept the prevailing narrative. Among those people are the musicians considered in Rae’s book.
As much a biography of Burroughs as it is a critical examination of his influence on rock music and its culture, William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock n’ Roll is an important addition to the always growing library of rock music literature. In addition, it continues the never-ending collection of materials published about the Beats and their influence. Written by a fan of the music and the work of the writer, the text provides a critical and informed analysis of both in a style that is both interesting and intellectually engaging.