The Beat Generation’s influence on culture at large is indisputable, but the mark it left on rock music isn’t quite as well known. The work of William S. Burroughs, one of the three titans of the subversive literary movement alongside Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, has left a subtle, psychic imprint on some of the world’s most influential rockers from Kurt Cobain to Jimmy Page.
In Casey Rae’s new book, William S. Burroughs & The Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll (out June 11 via University of Texas Press), the author, professor and director of music licensing at SiriusXM Radio dives into the legendary writer’s legacy on rock n’ roll. From the legendary Lower East Side scene where Patti Smith and Lou Reed skulked to the birth of grunge, Rae explores Burroughs’ renowned cut-up method and music samples, the drugs that dominated the rock scene and his writings, his occultist beliefs, controversial legacy and more through the lens of musicians who would come to define rock music today. Melding personal reflections with scholarly research and interviews with those close to Burroughs, Rae has unearthed a trove of information sure to shake the foundation of even the most die-hard Burroughs junkie or rock fanatic.
Billboard spoke to Rae about researching the book, his unique approach to Burroughs’ legacy and the Beat legend’s influence on rock music at large.
When did the idea for this book first come into your mind?
I first encountered Burroughs in the 1980s. He went to a Led Zeppelin show in 1975 and profiled Jimmy Page for Crawdaddy, which earned a fleeting mention in band biography Hammer of the Gods. Not long after, some older, cooler friends turned me on to Naked Lunch. From there, I was hooked. There was generational reinforcement through bands like Sonic Youth, Ministry and Nirvana, all of whom had a Burroughs fixation. For me, it came down to his writing: I read every Burroughs piece I could get my hands on. The impressions stuck with me, and I started poking around for connections between Burroughs and the world of rock ‘n’ roll. I thought it would be interesting to recast his biography through the lens of his influence on musicians, to really consider the themes and methods underpinning his work, and how his worldview and creative approach found favor with artists working in a medium for which he had no inherent affinity. That’s when it became clear that there was a book here.
How did you start going about finding links between Burroughs and the musicians discussed in the book? Did you start with Kurt Cobain, with the coven of now-luminaries (Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, etc.) that joined Burroughs in his Bowery bunker?
I definitely had a sense of Burroughs’ importance to Cobain—I bought a copy of their collaboration, “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” when it was released in 1993, and I recall spotting Burroughs in Ministry’s video for “Just One Fix.” Many of Burroughs’ own recordings were being reintroduced around that time—his tape experiments, readings, and collaborations Bill Laswell’s Material and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. There were also appearances on underground rock and poetry compilations assembled by his friend John Giorno and bands like Swans, Hüsker Dü, Butthole Surfers and Nick Cave. As to the earlier connections, I knew Burroughs was on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, and about his long-term friendship with Patti Smith. I’m also a huge David Bowie fan and was aware that he used cut-ups in his writing. Once I started looking deeper—the little factoids, like Steely Dan taking their name from a high-tech dildo from Naked Lunch—I discovered a whole universe of connections.
One could argue, looking at Ginsberg and Kerouac, that Burroughs was the darkest of the trinity of OG Beats—as a young Beat reader, he was certainly the hardest one for me personally to dig into. How did this darkness manifest in his understanding of the troubled minds of rockers and their understanding of him?
I can appreciate that. I mean, Burroughs is not for everyone. And I completely understand why people choose not to acknowledge him based on his killing of his wife Joan Vollmer, which was ruled an accident, but is nonetheless difficult to reconcile given his overt misogyny and firearms fetish. I don’t shy away from this in my book. The fact that Burroughs had this influence within the music world allowed me to investigate the darkness from a different vantage point, one that I hope expands people’s understanding of a complex individual.
How does a modern audience reckon with Burroughs’ legacy, and his misogynistic attitudes, in the 21st century, especially considering his William Tell killing of Vollmer?
It can’t really be reconciled. I wish I had been better able to convey the awfulness of Joan Vollmer’s killing and Burroughs’ quasi-abandonment of their son, who would have faced immense challenges in recovering from the trauma. It’s heinous, and hopefully that comes across. I’ve considered all of the deflections: Burroughs and Vollmer had a deep bond, he was inebriated, she had a death wish, etc. The plain fact is that he aimed that gun and pulled the trigger—whether it was an accident doesn’t change the outcome. He didn’t forgive himself, and I’m not forgiving him either. The difficulty with many of the figures who have been deemed significant to the development of art and culture is that they did horrible things in their personal lives. Burroughs is one of them, and I invite readers to be with me in that discomfort.
Occultism played an equal part in Burroughs’ use of the cut-up method—how integral would you say it was to his practice as a whole, and specifically to musicians who sought him out?
Burroughs believed in a universe where there were no accidents or coincidences, and yet he was obsessed with changing reality. In his view, magic is any technique used to affect the external world through one’s will. This is the bulk of what he discussed with Jimmy Page. In the mind of the sorcerer, everything is a magical operation. Burroughs didn’t invent cut-ups—his friend and muse Brion Gysin stumbled into the method and shared it with him. For Burroughs, cut-ups were both a means of creative production and a scrying mirror. David Bowie called the cut-up method “a kind of Western tarot.” Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones flirted with the technique. And later, Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV advanced Burroughs and Gysin’s artistic and magical worldview in the post-punk underground, helping to invent industrial music along the way.
What current musicians do you think would seek out Burroughs were he still around today? You subtly nod at Lana Del Rey in the introduction.
No offense, but I don’t know if they’d let Lana into the Bunker; maybe if she showed up with Father John Misty. You don’t actually have to look very far to find contemporary musicians who carry what I call the Burroughs gene. Howlin’ Rain come to mind, and the vinyl sleeve of Cass McComb’s latest record is literally fashioned after Burroughs and Gysin’s dream machine—an optical device involving flickering light that is said to produce states of altered consciousness. In terms of who these days might seek him out in person, I imagine it would be the same type of raconteurs…I guess that means Jack White.
With sex and drugs being defining parts of rock culture, it would seem natural rockers would gravitate toward an erudite Dionysian junkie like Burroughs. Would this still be true of the rock scene now?
Drugs are definitely a part of the Burroughs mystique, though I don’t have any insight into whether it’s an enticement for today’s artists; I hope not. It is important to make clear that Burroughs did not write encouragingly about drugs—he wrote authentically of the realities of addiction. As a persona, Burroughs was hip in a totally alien way; he had a strange kind of charisma that coupled with his writing may have inspired some people to emulate his lifestyle. That just isn’t going to work for everyone. I’m not sure it worked for him. In my book, I ponder whether Cobain would have tried heroin had he not encountered Burroughs. We can look at some of his other early idols, like Iggy Pop, for clues. So the answer is a firm maybe. Once again, Burroughs evades conclusive judgment.
Having finished this book and explored the intricacies and complexities of this man who influenced culture at length, what is your personal impression of Burroughs?
It is clear to me that he was very dear to those who comprised his small circle of friends. Those I spoke to remember him as kind, thoughtful, interesting and interested. Much of Burroughs’ suffering was self-inflicted. I have empathy for him, although this is irrelevant to his experiences. I’d be happy if the book gives people an opportunity to come to their own conclusions about at least one aspect of his legacy—and enjoy a ripping yarn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.