Drawn to the Beat

Review: 'William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll' by Casey Rae

William S Burroughs / Getty Images

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joined to begin new recordings in 1972, they decided to call their band "Steely Dan," taking the name from a dildo—"Steely Dan III from Yokohama"—that makes a brief appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch.

And from that stray bit of information, one could begin to construct a genealogy, a tree of inspirations and references, that takes us to a very strange place. Start with the fact that English-language rock ‘n' roll, from the 1960s through the 1980s, remains the best-selling, most-listened-to music in the history of the world. Add the fact that just about every influential rocker has mentioned Burroughs's books, with half of them trekking across America at one point or another, on pilgrimage to meet the man. And we arrive at the conclusion that William S. Burroughs is the single most influential novelist who ever lived.

Maybe it's here that we need to start clawing our way back up to sanity from the darker depths of willful imagination. A literature with Charles Dickens in it—or Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick—doesn't need to look to Burroughs's Junkie (1953), The Soft Machine (1961), and The Wild Boys (1971) to find influential novels.

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Yeah, nearly every pop artist with avant-garde ambitions has proclaimed Burroughs's transformative effect on their music, from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, Patti Smith to David Bowie, Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer to Michael Stipe. But much of that praise for the elderly Beat writer comes across a little thin and aspirational: a desire to be thought to have been influenced by him, more than, you know, actually being influenced in some particular way.

When Madonna went down to "The Bunker" (Burroughs's home in an old converted YMCA in the Bowery) to be photographed with the novelist, what was she doing? Cultivating her image, more than anything else. And yet, in that fact, something of the strange star-power of the author can be glimpsed. Something worth contemplating.

At his best, that's what Casey Rae does in his new book, William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n' Roll. Director of music licensing at SiriusXM Radio, Casey discerns that some pop artists were looking "to boost their own hipness" by seeking an association with Burroughs. But he also asks what it was about the dark, peculiar, and never popular author that made the likes of Deborah Harry, Richard Hell, and Nick Cave want to tie their names to his.

Casey has been collecting string on the topic—anecdotes, album-liner notes, stray passages from interviews—since the 1980s, and he decided to put it all to use by telling the story of Burroughs, a fairly straightforward biography of the man, but adorned with all the rockers who made him their fetish. "Burroughs is everywhere. It's like a game of ‘Where's Waldo?' with a killer soundtrack," he writes. And if he overreaches at times (R.E.M. as Burroughsian?), still there was an attraction that brought them all to Burroughs's feet. Iggy Pop and Jimmy Page seem genuinely knowledgeable about the fiction. Paul McCartney met with him to learn about cut-up art techniques in London, with the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9" as a partial result. David Bowie read Burroughs's Wild Boys to pieces. In 1992, Burroughs and Kurt Cobain collaborated on a project titled The "Priest" They Called Him.

Burroughs could be sharp in his observations about the parade of rock stars through the latter years of his life. The grandson of the founder of Burroughs adding machines, a (sometimes) recovering junkie, and a man who had long before found his own fames and infamies, he felt no need to be awed by them, and thus he could discern something of their character that others missed. "There's something wrong with that boy," he said after meeting Cobain. "He frowns for no good reason." Of Bob Dylan, he noted, "He struck me as someone who was obviously competent. If his subject had been something that I knew absolutely nothing about, such as mathematics, I would have still received the same impression of competence."

Dylan is usually cited as the doorway by which Burroughs entered popular music, but the influence is hard to pin down. A few mentions, sure. But when the analysis turns to quick transitions, strange juxtapositions, and rolling imagery, the conclusions seem a little vague. Naked Lunch opens with a very 1950s-style run-on sentence: "I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train . . ."

And yes, maybe something in that could be traced to, say, Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. But no more than could be traced to Jack Kerouac's influence. Or any of a number of other 1950s writers. A fascination with addicts is more typical of the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed (rightly, I think) was drawn to the unblinking reporting of Junkie rather than the free-form depravity of Naked Lunch.

In William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n' Roll, Rae refuses to downplay the evil Burroughs did (the murder of his wife, for example, supposedly during a pistol game of William Tell). He reads too much into the cut-up techniques for artistic creation, taking a completed work of art and randomly rearranging snippets. But he's right that Burroughs himself took it seriously, believing some occult presence guided the rearrangements.

Perhaps it comes down to nothing more than this: Much of what we think of as the revolution of the 1960s actually happened in the 1950s. The beatniks were the proto-hippies, but with a harder edge and a clearer eye. And the artists of the 1960s and 1970s, posing themselves as rebels, looked to the rebels of the prior generation as figures worthy of respect. Compared with, say, Allen Ginsberg at his gooiest, playing at Eastern mysticism, William S. Burroughs can seem admirable in his stern embrace of evil. Say what you like about him. Murderous, polymorphously perverse, and self-destructive? Sure. But never gooey. Never that.