William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Casey Rae, University of Texas Press 2019
The American novelist, William Burroughs was one of the preeminent cultural outlaws of the twentieth century. He was best known for works like Junkie, Queer, The Naked Lunch, Nova Express and Cities of the Red Night, deranged and often hilarious trips through narcotic paranoia, mutant sexualities and surrealist landscapes of perverse psycho-political control. A foremost member of the Beat Generation writers, alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs’ artistic output came from a life characterised by extremes.
Along with being an unrepentant drug addict and absentee father, he is notorious for accidently killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, during a drunken game of “William Tell”, where he tried to shoot a gin glass off of her head. Burroughs, who was openly gay, claimed that guilt from this catastrophe drove him to be a writer.
He spent time in prisons and psychiatric wards, was almost recruited as a spy by the precursor to the CIA and, to his credit, saved the life of a Jewish women, Ilse Klapper, by marrying her so that she could escape from Nazi Germany. An undeniably great writer, Burroughs, the man remains problematic and sinister, a fact nakedly acknowledged in his own work.
As Casey Rae documents in this new book, Burroughs’ influence is most visible in popular music. In the 1960s, his tales of imaginative and pharmacological excess captured the minds of young people trying to create a more socially liberated culture.
His writings drastically impacted the work of the boomer triumvirate of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with his gravedigger image infecting millions of unsuspecting homes when he was featured on the cover of The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Meanwhile, in the darker corners of the culture, his candid approach to the low-life inspired groups like The Velvet Underground, whose lead singer Lou Reed added a new level of sophisticated transgression to rock.
The book carries this thread through to Burroughs’ death in 1997. Along with detailed accounts of his profound impact on the careers of David Bowie, Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain, it explores his influence on post-punk and industrial artists like Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth.
During the 1990s, the commercialisation of alternative rock, and David Cronenberg’s brilliant film adaptation of Naked Lunch, made Burroughs a ubiquitous figure. His somber visage appeared in fashion ads, and in a final indignity, his last filmed appearance was in a U2 video.
Rae ends the book by situating Burrough’s work within an increasingly fractious and confusing internet culture. He argues that the writer prefigured meme culture, with his books highlighting how the forces of control and repression manipulate language and symbolism.
However, his oeuvre also offers counter-approaches for artists to break these mystifying spells. In an era of fake news and social media enabled alternate realities, Burroughs’ warped visions maintain their sick gravitas.