FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Dancing with Dr. Benway

Photograph Source: Re-cropped derivative work: Burn t (talk) Burroughs1983_cropped.jpg: Chuck Patch – CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail