Casey Rae’s fascinating new book argues that the twentieth-century American writer William S. Burroughs was “a clandestine agent in the development of rock and roll” (3). Using a wealth of biographical materials, Rae tells the story of the legion of rock artists who were inspired by Burroughs’s life and work and carried the writer’s themes and techniques into their own musical practice. The list includes iconic “classic rock” groups as well as a host of cult heroes.
The book certainly makes a case that, at the very least, Burroughs was a presence whenever rock music broke new ground. The Beatles’ landmark concept record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Check: there’s a wax statue of the writer in the second row of figures depicted on the legendary album cover, to the right of the Marilyn Monroe cut-out. Prior to Sgt. Pepper, Burroughs’s boyfriend Ian Sommerville even made tape edits for Burroughs in Paul McCartney’s basement recording studio in Montagu Square. Ten years later, at the height of UK punk rock, the Sex Pistols release their broadside against the monarchy, “God Save the Queen.” Burroughs, the author of his own polemic on the subject, “Bugger the Queen!”, cheers the band on from the sidelines with a congratulatory telegram. Punk and metal fuse and become grunge a decade or so later, with Nirvana becoming a figurehead for the movement. Later, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's front man and chief songwriter, will seek out Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, and collaborate on a spoken word/noise project.
Rae’s book weaves stories about Burroughs’s life and artistic career with tales of the many rock stars inspired by the writer, several of whom sought him out; that list includes artists such as Bob Dylan and Genesis P-Orridge who might otherwise appear to have little in common. Rae’s book is well researched; readers of Ted Morgan’s or Barry Miles’s biographies of Burroughs will find much that is familiar here, but a few surprises as well. Both Victor Bockris, who met and chronicled Burroughs during his stay in New York in the 1970s, and James Grauerholz, the writer’s long-time companion and publicist, generously shared information from their archives.
Rae’s book is meant to explain why generations of rock musicians have been obsessed with the writer. Some of his speculations on the subject are more convincing than others; for instance, Rae’s assertion that Burroughs and the many rock musicians he inspired “burn with a desire to break out of the ordinary” (11). This raises the question: who doesn’t want to “break out” of the ordinary? Rae is on firmer ground when he notes that rock culture and the Beat writer shared certain obsessions, such as drugs, as both a way to get high and as a means to explore altered states and cultivate an outsider identity. Burroughs’s drug addiction was the fount of a lifelong meditation on addiction as a means of enabling authority and on the various institutions and social structures the writer designated under the term of “Control.” And yes, both the writer and many of the rock artists that he inspired regarded sex and drugs as a means of promoting social revolution. Many of the musicians chronicled here (and Rae himself) recall reading Burroughs’s controversial novel Naked Lunch (1959), a fragmented narrative full of scenes of graphic violence and transgressive sexuality, as marking a new epoch in their lives.
Rae is an engaging storyteller and often an enlightening one. His chapter on David Bowie traces the musician’s fascination with the “cut-up” and his incorporation of Burroughs’s technique in his songwriting, a practice that persisted long after Rolling Stone magazine arranged a meeting between the two men in late 1973. Focusing on the cut-up provides a unique, and unifying, perspective on a musical career otherwise notable for a bewildering series of style, fashion, and genre changes. But there is a constitutive tension in Burroughs’s art; his work twinned personal obsession and the will to impersonality. Shotgun paintings, word cut-ups, tape manipulations: all these various aesthetic practices were means to an end for Burroughs. The goal was to deconstruct reason, intentionality, even personhood. This means that Rae’s biographical approach can only take him so far into his subject.
For this reason, Rae’s strongest work is in the chapter “Magic and Other Dark Arts”; concentrating on magic provides him some room to move beyond biography. Rae’s account of Burroughs, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic Youth focuses on the shared obsession of these artists with modern “magick.” Belief in the occult inclined all three artists to view music through the lens of ritual, as a means to alter or enhance consciousness. Rae traces the history of occult ideas in music back to Symbolist artists of the late nineteenth century, such as Erik Satie, who viewed art and magic as complementary efforts to transform reality. At times, the many colorful vignettes about Burroughs or rock star excess in the book obscure Rae’s stated aim, to illuminate the various “social, political, and technological transformations” that had an impact on Burroughs and rock musicians alike since the 1960s (11).
Debates about historiography, however, seem a bit beside the point; Rae’s book is primarily a labor of love. Rae notes of David Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch that “it’s safe to assume that more than a few of [the] kids” who saw the movie “formed bands—the author of the book you’re reading among them” (253). One often gets the sense reading the book that Rae is channeling his younger self, hoping to interpellate new readers and listeners to the Burroughs canon. Before the rock musicians that Rae chronicles here became stars, they were “just kids” inspired by Burroughs to take risks in both their life and art. I can relate; I can only imagine how excited I would have been to read a book on this subject when I was in my 20s, in the 1980s. For one thing, it might have helped me recognize continuities between the “classic rock” artists of the 1960s and the punk and post-punk rock revolutions. I missed these connections because I took what the new generation said in the rock press about the old guard too literally; I didn’t understand the extent to which younger artists downplay or repress their ties to the past. But as Rae’s book makes clear, Burroughs was a crucial link between successive generations of rock musicians interested in artistic and social experiment.
Are Rae’s ideal readers still out there? Are there young people who might be inspired by the story of Burroughs’s connections with rock history, now that rock music itself is largely a “cult,” as Rae’s book title admits? Burroughs’s legacy as a queer militant still resonates, but the genealogy that Rae traces here is not particularly inclusive; there are only a few women (Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson) and African American musicians (DJ Spooky and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). Perhaps the power of the book is tied to its moment; it wouldn’t be the first time that deep historical reflection on a subject came at the end of an epoch (in this case, the rock era). At any rate, I’m grateful for Rae’s study and recommend it highly, not only to those (still) interested in Burroughs and rock music, but to anyone curious about the possibilities for creative synergy between the arts. I also hope there will be other books on this topic, including some that situate rock music and William S. Burroughs in a broader context than either individual biography or rock history.