A dour punk in a sharp suit, William Burroughs – born 100 years ago today – was the Beat Generation’s most dangerous, subversive talent. A gay heroin addict who dabbled with scientology and accidentally killed his wife and the mother of his only child by shooting her in the head, he was one of 20th-century counterculture’s most visible and controversial figures. A literary troublemaker, he wrote bleakly comic tales which were subject to obscenity trials in the States thanks to their dwelling on sodomy and drugs but which later saw him elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Unsurprisingly, the world of rock and roll was enthralled with the man. A host of musicians wanted to work with him and some, such as Tom Waits (watch a clip from The Black Rider above) and Kurt Cobain, got the chance.
Others took inspiration from his books or the cut-up technique he occasionally used to write them and some were happy just to stand next to him for a few seconds and get a picture – usually with Burroughs looking massively unimpressed.
Musicians flocked to him in a quest for authenticity, as a way to lend their own careers not only a certain darkness and gravitas, but also to give them back that sense of danger which can often be lost when major labels wade into the creative mix. Though the look on his face often seemed to say otherwise, Burroughs was happy to comply and associate himself with artists both up and coming and established.
A fringe member of Manhattan’s no wave scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was often spotted hanging out at seminal rock club CBGBs despite being at least 30 years older than the regular punters, or rubbing shoulders with Debbie Harry, a young Madonna, Patti Smith. Joe Strummer of The Clash and Lou Reed, as well as with members of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. “It was very curious and intriguing, and it was very musical, what he wrote. It was somewhat like reading Kerouac,” said fan Thurston Moore of Burroughs’ appeal, in a recent interview with NME (read in full in this week’s magazine). “He had a complete knowledge of literature but also a disregard for regulations.”
Steely Dan and The Soft Machine took their band names from Burroughs’ work, the first naming themselves after a dildo in 1959’s The Naked Lunch, and the latter nabbing the title of his 1961 book. However, Burroughs preferred to associate himself with an edgier kind of performer, including Thurston Moore. Burroughs’ boyfriend inviting Sonic Youth as well as REM to his house in Kansas when the two bands were on tour together. Burroughs showed them his guns. Thurston returned after the death of Kurt Cobain, who had worked with Burroughs on an EP called ‘The “Priest” They Called Him’ in 1992. “They’d done that recording together. I always remember William talking to me about it. He had this look in his eye like: ‘Why would anybody take their own life?’ He couldn’t make sense of it,” remembers Moore. The EP saw Cobain’s guitars backing the sound of Burroughs reading his own poetry.
Burroughs also collaborated with the equally imposing Tom Waits, the two working on ‘The Black Rider’ a musical based on a German folk story for which Burroughs provided the words and Waits and the music. And not only did he cover REM’s ‘Star Me Kitten’ (hear above), but Burroughs also dabbled in rap, recording with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on his own ‘Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales’ spoken word album.
His last ever filmed appearance was in the video for U2’s ‘Last Night on Earth’, but thankfully, associating with Bono is not Burroughs’ lasting legacy, for his influence has stretched far beyond his death in 1997. Faris Badwan of The Horrors and Willis Earl Beal are both confessed Burroughs fans and Klaxons famously referenced his short story collection ‘Interzone’ in their single ‘Atlantis To Interzone’. His photos are currently on display in London’s Photographer’s Gallery in an exhibition which teams him up with Andy Warhol and David Lynch, and on the night of Friday February 7, and interactive, immersive ‘spectacular’ called ‘Interzone’ takes place in a secret location in London, meaning more of us can get a little William Burroughs style danger in our lives.