The most transgressive of the Beat writers, William S. Burroughs was also something of a clandestine agent in the development of rock ’n’ roll—a spectral figure who haunted the cultural underground and helped usher it into the mainstream. Naked Lunch, Junkie, and The Wild Boys remain fixtures of bohemian bookshelves the world over. From the Beatles to punk to today’s remix scene, Burroughs helped accelerate an evolution in sound that continues to reverberate across genres and eras.
Burroughs’ biography has become as legendary as even his most celebrated novels. Here was a homosexual drug addict, born in the Gilded Age, who killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell and wrote infamous prose featuring orgasmic executions, shape-shifting aliens, and all manner of addicts, sadists, and creepy crawlies. But there exists a real person within the legend, a man who exhibited genuine kindness and hospitality to those who knew him, including many of the musicians appearing in William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll.
It’s not hard to see how Burroughs’ writing—exploding with disquieting, even ghastly, imagery—might serve as fodder for music genres like punk, heavy metal, and industrial. To be sure, it is within these subcultures that the majority of present-day Burroughs acolytes are found. But his anti-establishment attitude and unconventional personal habits also found favor with such artists as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, and countless other musical innovators. This playlist captures only a sliver of the artists who were directly influenced by Burroughs; the descriptions below are a sliver of that sliver. To get the whole story, you’ll want to grab a copy of the book.
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“East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”—Duke Ellington
William S. Burroughs was actually not much of a music aficionado. Well, that was his standard line, anyway—the reality is that he had many friendships with musicians and felt affinity for rock ’n’ roll’s anti-establishment attitude and shamanic potency. Nevertheless, his personal tastes were more in line with the songs he heard growing up, including this 1927 composition from Duke Ellington, which name-checks Burroughs’ childhood hometown. Ellington’s big band music is raucous and sly, with bold melodies and a streetwise swing. It’s not hard to picture Burroughs’ fictional stand-in, William Lee, skulking through urban streets as this tune blares from open tenement windows. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” was covered by Steely Dan some four decades later, which is not their only connection to Burroughs—the band members were huge fans who took their name from a state-of-the-art dildo described in Naked Lunch.
“Tombstone Blues”—Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan became a Burroughs obsessive when he first got his hands on a copy of Naked Lunch as a young man. The author’s quicksilver abstractions opened up new creative possibilities for Dylan, whose work only became more abstract, caustic, and surreal. “Hey, you dig something like cut-ups? I mean, like William Burroughs?” Dylan asked interviewer Paul J. Robbins in a conversation published in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1965. D. A. Pennebaker’s early Dylan biopic Don’t Look Back shows the songwriter giving a how-to on cut-ups, which Dylan claimed he didn’t actually use for lyrics due to the need to rhyme. That’s debatable, but we do know that Dylan sought out Burroughs for a face-to-face encounter in a small café in Manhattan’s East Village in 1965—a meeting recounted in William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll. Not long after, Dylan aggravated the folk music cognoscenti with an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. That same year saw the groundbreaking album Highway 61 Revisited, which contains the song “Tombstone Blues.” Another Burroughs fan, Iggy Pop, spotted what might be a reference to Burroughs: “I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill / I would set him in chains at the top of the hill / Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille / He could die happily ever after.”
“Eleanor Rigby”—The Beatles, Revolver
In 1966, Burroughs was 52 years old and living in Great Britain. It’s hard to picture this taciturn relic of the jazz age serving as inspiration to the psychedelic minstrels of the mid-sixties. And yet the fabbest of the fab, the Beatles, put Burroughs on the cover of their kaleidoscopic masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His wan visage appears alongside several dozen luminaries, including Mae West, Aleister Crowley, Lenny Bruce, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Jung, to name a few. Burroughs’ experiments with tape manipulation were inspiring to Paul McCartney, who set the author up with a makeshift studio in a flat owned by Ringo Starr. Burroughs and McCartney would chat about computers making the music of tomorrow, as the future Knight of the Realm listened to Burroughs’ sonic experiments such as the 20-minute “K-9 Was in Combat with the Alien Mind-Screens.” As McCartney told Q Magazine in 1986, “I used to sit in a basement at Montagu Square with William Burroughs and a couple of gay guys he knew from Morocco doing little tapes, crazy stuff with guitar and cello.” Burroughs even got to witness McCartney composing “Eleanor Rigby.” Of the Beatle, Burroughs later said, “I could see he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and prepossessing. Nice looking young man, fairly hardworking.”
“Casino Boogie”—The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards—the latter of whom was persuaded by Burroughs to try the infamous “apomorphine cure” for heroin addiction—used the cut-up method on choice Stones lyrics, including “Casino Boogie” from the 1972 album Exile on Main Street. “It’s in the style of William Burroughs,” Jagger explained to Uncut in 2010. “We just wrote phrases on bits of paper and cut them up. This is the conceit.” And reflecting on the 1983 single “Undercover of the Night,” Jagger said, “I’m not saying I nicked it, but this song was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, a freewheeling novel about political and sexual repression.” Burroughs was hot and cold on the Stones, but he did attend the band’s tax exile farewell party in 1971. “I remember Keith Richards talking to me and I couldn’t understand one word he said,” Burroughs recalled. He did reserve some praise for Jagger, however. “I had admired his work, what I’d heard of it, and I also admired him because of the pressure he was under,” Burroughs said. “There’s something about Mick that arouses great antagonism in a certain kind of person, the cabdriver-hardhat-redneck strata throughout the world, and to be able to stand up to that and be able to maintain his equilibrium and cool, as he certainly has, is quite something.” At one point in the 1970s, Jagger was even considered for the lead in a film adaptation of Naked Lunch, but the project never got off the ground (the David Cronenberg-directed version arrived in 1991 with Paul Weller as Burroughs stand-in William Lee).
“Take Me With You, My Darling, Take Me With You”—The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka
Burroughs was a longtime appreciator of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a group of Sufi musicians based in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. Burroughs initially encountered the Master Musicians while living as an ex-pat in Tangier in the 1950s, and promoted their music for the rest of his life. In 1968, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones surreptitiously recorded the Master Musicians while on a trip to Morocco. Jones tinkered with the tapes in the studio right up to his death in 1969, experimenting with effects, splicing audio, and playing sections in reverse. Even though the Stones had already booted Jones out of the band, they released Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka on their own vanity label in 1971. Liner notes were provided by Burroughs, who described the record as “the primordial sounds of a 4,000-year-old rock ‘n’ roll band.” The music of the Master Musicians is intense and entrancing, with piercing tones from a reed instrument called the rhaita and the relentless thrum of hand drums. This is the sound of Burroughs’ fabled Interzone—a treacherously liminal locale from Naked Lunch.
“Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”—David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Burroughs’ influence on David Bowie was profound and enduring—so much so that an entire chapter of William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll is devoted to the topic. Bowie was a dyed-in-the-wool Burroughs fan who embraced the author’s outré prose and creative methods. “That guy messed me up when I first started reading him in the late ’60s, and I’ve never gotten over it,” he recalled. Throughout his career, Bowie employed Burroughs’ cut-up method in his lyrical compositions. “It seems that it would predict things about the future, or tell me a lot about the past,” he remarked in 1974. “I suppose it’s a kind of Western tarot.” Bowie was particularly fascinated by Burroughs’ lifestyle. A drug user and homosexual at a time when society treated both activities with outright enmity, Burroughs spent much of his life dodging authorities and rankling the establishment on multiple continents. Bowie’s identikit aesthetic was informed by Naked Lunch, which boasts a coterie of characters who morph and evolve with little adherence to narrative logic. He looked to The Wild Boys for his Ziggy Stardust persona, which also borrowed from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. “They were both powerful pieces of work, especially the marauding boy gangs with their Bowie knives,” the singer said. Bowie was also interested in Burroughs’ occult outlook, where random chance is used to uncover and amplify subconscious intent. The two artists first met in 1975—their conversation becoming the basis of an article in Rolling Stone—and Bowie continued to revere the author until his own passing in 2016.
“Heroin”—The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
Burroughs was an essential part of Lou Reed’s creative makeup. A shrewdly insightful writer, Reed rendered potent truths about the human condition in terse, economical prose. Like Burroughs, Reed chronicled desperate characters and squalid situations while refraining from moral imposition. The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” captures the anxiety of the addict, and is a direct descendant of Burroughs’ Junkie. Even more obvious is “Heroin,” a micro-symphony of self-destruction: I have made the big decision / I’m gonna try to nullify my life / ‘Cause when the blood begins to flow / When it shoots up the dropper’s neck / When I’m closing in on death / You can’t help me now, Reed mumble-sings as drummer Maureen Tucker mimics an accelerating heartbeat. Reed said Burroughs was “the person who broke the door down . . . he alone had the energy to explore the interior psyche without a filter.” He claimed Burroughs “changed my vision of what you could write about, how you could write,” which makes perfect sense to anyone who has heard his work with the Velvets and solo. Burroughs and Reed had mutual friends but the two didn’t actually meet face-to-face until 1979. By then, Burroughs had become a fixture in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There, in his windowless, three-room apartment at 222 Bowery, he held court among the musicians, intellectuals, writers, and junkies littering the scene like discarded show posters strewn across the sidewalk of nearby nightclub CBGBs. The Reed-Burroughs confab—at turns hilarious and provocative—is covered in detail in William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll.
“Land: Horses”—Patti Smith, Horses (Legacy Edition)
Patti Smith was not only influenced creatively by Burroughs, she was also part of his inner circle and remained a close friend until the author’s death in 1997. Though her music wasn’t precisely punk, Smith heralded the New York scene in the early-to-mid-1970s. Her fearless performances helped restore rock’s primal drive, which had been diluted by musicians more concerned with instrumental virtuosity than connecting with audiences. Smith, too, was obsessed with Burroughs. “He’s a hard guy to get into bed, that’s why I like him,” she said. She initially encountered Burroughs as a visitor to the infamous Chelsea Hotel, where the older writer would stay while in town. “Burroughs showed me a whole series of new tunnels to fall through,” she said. “He was so neat. He would walk around in this big black cashmere overcoat and this old hat. So of course, Patti gets an old black hat and coat, and we would walk around the Chelsea looking like that.” Smith would go on to sprinkle Burroughs references in her work, including “Land: Horses,” which features a character named Johnny on loan from The Wild Boys. Over the years, Smith and Burroughs developed an affectionate relationship. “I had the biggest crush on William,” she said. “Really, a big one. And I used to even daydream about, you know, he would fall in love with me and we’d get married.” Smith also keenly observed Burroughs’ stealth influence on music and culture. “He’s another Bible . . . so many things come from him,” she said.
“Six Six Sixties”—Throbbing Gristle, 20 Jazz Funk Greats
Formed in 1975, Throbbing Gristle terrorized British society with an incendiary mix of abrasive sound and provocative theatrics. Members Genesis P-Orridge, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Chris Carter invented an entirely new genre—industrial music—and their modus operandi owed everything to Burroughs. Using tape recorders to play back abrasive noise alongside electric instruments in intensely jarring performances, the band blended the primal energy of punk with occult ideas. Throbbing Gristle borrowed imagery from humanity’s history of mass violence and donned paramilitary outfits embossed with a menacing symbol of their own invention. Burroughs took a shine to the group, going as far as to write a letter of support for a cultural grant and offering further assistance when P-Orridge faced charges for sending postcards that UK authorities deemed obscene. “He helped us when we got all the legal action against us, with a lot of recommendations and advice, of what to do and what not to do, and to be polite, and not try and turn it onto a big battle,” P-Orridge said. Few have done more to advance Burroughs’ magical mindset than P-Orridge, who maintains a worldview directly imparted by the author.
“The Priest They Called Him”—Kurt Cobain and William S. Burroughs
“Heart-Shaped Box”—Nirvana, In Utero
“There’s something wrong with that boy,” Burroughs said following a meeting with Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain in 1993. “He frowns for no good reason.” Cobain initially discovered Burroughs as a teenager, furtively reading dog-eared library copies of Naked Lunch and Junkie in between ditching class and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t just a lifestyle crush; he was also taken by Burroughs’ pioneering work with cut-ups. In an interview shortly after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” catapulted Nirvana into the mainstream, Cobain referred to Burroughs as his favorite author and called the cut-up approach “revolutionary.” On the 1991 European tour for Nevermind, Cobain’s sole piece of luggage was a small bag containing Naked Lunch, which he had recently rediscovered at a used bookshop in London. Cobain even released a record with the author in 1991. “The Priest They Called Him” features Cobain’s junk-sick guitar weaving webs of feedback around Burroughs’ laconic croak to arresting affect. Not long after, Cobain asked Burroughs to appear as a crucifixion victim in the video for “Heart-Shaped Box.” Burroughs declined the offer—he would not be depicted as dying on film—but he did give Cobain a standing invite to visit him at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Nirvana tour manager Alex MacLeod recalled a visit that took place in 1993: “William made him feel at ease very quickly. There was definitely a connection on an artistic level. I think William saw a lot more in him than Kurt even realized.” Burroughs was fond enough of Cobain to send him original artwork on his birthday; sadly, this did not become tradition, as the younger artist killed himself in 1994.
Casey Rae is the director of music licensing for SiriusXM and a longtime music critic whose work has been featured in a wide array of publications. His commentary on technology’s impact on creators has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Billboard, and other media outlets. An adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a course developer for Berklee Online, Rae is also a musician and played with several bands in the 1990s.