William S. Burroughs Radio

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Burroughs’ Connection to Modern Music

The elder statesman of literature’s Beat Generation — and, by extension, of the American underground culture — few figures outside of the musical sphere exerted a greater influence over rock & roll than novelist William S. Burroughs. A provocative, controversial figure famed for his unique cut-up prose aesthetic, Burroughs lived the rock lifestyle years before the music itself was even created; the ultimate outsider, he existed on the dark fringes of society in a haze of drugs, guns, and violence, remaining a patron saint of hipsterdom until his dying day. Ultimately, Burroughs’ hold on the popular culture was extraordinary: few artists failed to credit him as an inspiration, and while bands like Steely Dan and the Soft Machine adopted their names from his turns-of-phrase, younger artists like Kurt Cobain and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy lined up to offer musical support for his occasional excursions into spoken word performing.

William Seward Burroughs was born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, MO, the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company. A homosexual bookworm with a fascination for guns and crime, he attended Harvard University, but largely rejected all the restraints of mainstream society, opting instead to pursue a life in New York City’s underworld of organized crime. Upon becoming a heroin addict, Burroughs fell in with junkie drifter Herbert Huncke, leading to his introduction to other future Beat paragons like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr; he also met Joan Vollmer, who became his common-law life. While older than the others, Burroughs had yet to begin writing as Kerouac and Ginsberg had; at first indifferent to literature, he finally completed 1953’s Junky, an autobiographical tale of addiction published in pulp novel format by Ace Books. Queer, a similarly upfront examination of homosexuality, was rejected by the publisher and did not surface for several decades.

By the mid-’50s Burroughs, Vollmer, and their children had relocated to East Texas to live on a farm; as his descent into heroin addiction worsened, he found himself hounded by authorities, and eventually the family fled to Mexico. The marriage became the stuff of tabloid headlines when, attempting to impress friends with his shooting skills, Burroughs enlisted Vollmer to participate in a William Tell-like target demonstration; a faulty shot left Vollmer dead and sent Burroughs wandering the globe, finally drifting to Tangier. Following the success of their respective On the Road and Howl, both Kerouac and Ginsberg had become media sensations, with the Beat Generation emerging in full force; they tracked Burroughs down in Africa, finding him hopelessly addicted to heroin yet somehow able to write brilliant and wildly experimental fragments of prose. Kerouac began typing up the material and even gave it a title, Naked Lunch.

Upon its 1959 publication, Burroughs became a celebrity; the novel was the subject of a high-profile obscenity trial, and even today it remains his best-known and most influential book. Beginning with 1961’s The Soft Machine, he began experimenting with a “cut-up” method of writing, literally cutting and pasting together various random fragments of text for maximum reader disorientation; in 1965, Burroughs began expanding into other forms of media, recording the LP Call Me Burroughs, a collection of spoken word readings of material culled from Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine. While remaining a prolific literary voice on the strength of work like 1971’s The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead and 1973’s Exterminator!, aside from compilation appearances he did not issue another major recording prior to 1975’s William S. Burroughs/John Giorno; Nothing Here Now But the Recordings, compiled by Psychic TV’ s Genesis P. Orridge, followed in 1981, as did another collaboration with Giorno, You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With.

Always a major cult figure, by the late ’80s Burroughs had become something of a pop culture icon, a symbol of decadence and ominous genius; a supporting role in Gus Van Saint’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy brought him his widest mainstream exposure to date, and virtually every hipster worth his salt name-checked him as an influence. After 1987’s Break Through in Grey Room, Burroughs recorded 1990’s Dead City Radio, a collection of performances backed by Sonic Youth, John Cale, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and others. In 1992, he guested on Ministry’s “Just One Fix” single, and the following year recorded ‘The Priest, They Called Him’ with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. In 1993, Burroughs recorded his final LP, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, with the members of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his sampled voice was also heard on recordings from diverse acts including the Jesus and Mary Chain, Laurie Anderson, and Material. With Tom Waits, he also co-wrote The Black Rider. The last major surviving figure of the Beat Generation, Burroughs died of a heart attack on August 2, 1997 in Lawrence, KS. 

THE WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS/BEATLES CONNECTION

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Click image for original post on Dangerous Minds

We all know that writer, William S. Burroughs is one of the “people we like” on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, but did you know that Burroughs was around when Paul McCartney composed “Eleanor Rigby”? Apparently so. Over the weekend, I noticed the following passage in the book With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker by Victor Bockris:

”Ian met Paul McCartney and Paul put up the money for this flat which was at 34 Montagu Square… I saw Paul several times. The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his “Eleanor Rigby.” Ian recorded his rehearsals. I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and very prepossessing. Nice-looking young man, hardworking.”-Burroughs

The connection here was, no doubt, author Barry Miles. Miles started the Indica Bookshop in London with McCartney’s financial backing. Miles states in his book In the Sixties that Burroughs was a frequent visitor to the shop. When the Beatles started their experimental label Zapple, with Barry Miles at the helm, the idea was to release more avant garde fare, such as readings by American poets Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Brautugan and comedian Lenny Bruce. McCartney set up a small studio that was run by Burroughs’ ex-boyfriend, Ian Sommerville, who also lived there, and this is why Burroughs would have been around.

It’s always thought that John Lennon was the far-out Beatle, but it was Macca who was obsessed by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Morton Subotnick, not Lennon (he got there later via Yoko).

The story is also confirmed in Barry Miles’ own Biography on Burroughs called ”Please Call Me Burroughs”. The studio was in fact Ringo Star’s apartment, converted in a studio since it was inhabited most of the time. 

BBC Documentary Burroughs Narrated by Iggy Pop

Click for Burroughs' Dead City Radio
Click for Burroughs’ Dead City Radio

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19 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs Radio

  1. Wow, you write longer than I do…LOL!!!…Information overload, not sure how everything will sink in but, well, I’ll try 😉

    What a genius, this guy. I admit I’ve heard his name but I was not really familiar with what he was and what stuff he did. Thanks for this piece then…So, he was a homosexual. I am then curious about any arrangement he might have had with the wife, then. Oh well, it is only nowadays that we’ve learned about bisexuality, etc. So he could be that. Not that it matters. Just curious.

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    1. PS I am currently reading one of his biography titled “Please Call Me Burroughs/A life”by Barry Miles and it is over 700 pages, written in tiny characters and I’m enjoying every page as I go through it. If you want to learn more about the tragedy that happened when Burroughs and his wife Joan decided performing their William Tell act before their friends, just go to an earlier post I made and you can also compare it ti other sources. I know there was a film made from the point of view of a close friend of Joan and her family that puts Burroughs as a very cruel and infamous character which I kmow he could sometimes be but I am definitely convinced that he didn’t do it on purpose. I would be very interesting in knowing your feelings about it. Here is the link: https://tobedamit.com/2014/06/08/william-burroughs-and-the-william-tell-legend/. (It is a rather short post btw haha!)

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    2. Yep, I read that one that first day I visited your blog. Well, I certainly do not approve of the drugs and I am not sure if he was cruel or not, but I hope he wasn’t. But it doesn’t matter if i approved because it was in the past, the guy is gone, and me probably ending up not liking him won’t mean an iota to him.

      On a more personal note, I tend to look at how an artist has lived his life (not at what he is, for example, like Burroughs being a homosexual, which does not bother me) and if he has changed ways before I “invest my feelings on him,” so to speak. Of course, that doesn’t always work and I’ve had my heart broken several times (like with the womanizing Jack Neo, because I think what he did, or maybe still does, is a great disrespect of his wife and women in general), but c’est la vie. No denying they are geniuses, though.

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    3. PS if ever one day you want to read one of his novels I strongly suggest ”Cities of the Red Night”. You don’t have to read the whole trilogy. Just this one is fine. I think some of the stuff expressed in there MIGHT highly interest you. Here is a brief protion of it: http://home.swipnet.se/~w-37337/l0dg3/rednight/. I’m just saying since some people recognize his influence and are looking for a way to get to know him a little more without knowing where to start. I guess he’s not your cup of tea and that is fine with me. Have a wonderfull day erm..How should I call you??

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    4. I can’t say he’s not my cup of tea (I’ve liked writers and artists who are of the same genius level as he was). I’ll have to find out first and maybe one day I’ll get the chance to. If ever, I’ll remember you and make sure to read or hear him.

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    5. I LIKED your comment because you totally stood up for someone you believed in. I would like to say, though, that I was referring to Jack Neo, not Burroughs, when I mentioned about a disrespect of women… 😉

      As for the cause of Joan’s death, I do think it was a very silly — and considering the outcome, very stupid — thing to do, except I don’t think I ever said anything about it. :p

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  2. Yes I understand it’s a lot but you’d be suprised to know that this is only a very very small portion of his influences and works. This would be referring only to the ”musical part” but the guy wasn’t a musician!! He was above all a writer and he started to write very late in his life (after his wife died) and he had lots of problems to be published because precisly he was one of the first writing openly about homosexuality, which was still illegal in many country (the US being one of them) and drug abuse in all its forms. About the arrangment he had with his wife well. I can certainly answer that one because it is the same and only one that he always had with anyone: ”You do what you want and I do what I want”. That being said he had only very few heterosexual periods. He was more homosexual than… well, anything else. Burroughs is my idol because he predicted so many things with such an acute precision. Burroughs’ influence is to my opinion one of the most underestimated one in various domains of today’s world. He never hid the fact that he was homosexual and that caused his first novel ”Naked Lunch” to be censored and forbidden and he had to fight in court over and over for it to be published. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made a movie called ”Naked Lunch”. It is a very weird movie but would be a very gentle introduction to Burroughs if you wanna have a better idea of his writings and his life…. Oh and btw Burroughs is also known to be the first one to use the term ”Heavy Metal”…. If you start digging about this guy you will be very surprised about all the things you are going to discover. I am glad (if) I got you somehow interested. This guy means a lot to me. He was such a visionnary and his life story is simply incredible. This guy is one hell of a character!!! Thanks for your interest!!! 🙂 . You made my day. Have a nice one yourself!!!

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