Casey Rae | William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll | University of Texas Press | June 2019 | 28 minutes (4,637 words)
Naked Lunch is inseparable from its author William S. Burroughs, which tends to happen with certain major works. The book may be the only Burroughs title many literature buffs can name. In terms of name recognition, Naked Lunch is a bit like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which also arrived in 1959. Radical for its time, Kind of Blue now sounds quaint, though it is undeniably a masterwork.
Burroughs wrote the bulk of his famous novel Naked Lunch in Tangier, Morocco between 1954 and 1957. During those years, Burroughs was strung out and unhappy, living off of his parents’ allowance and getting deeper and deeper into addiction. He had friends but rarely saw them, preferring to spend days at a time staring at his shoes while ensorcelled in a narcotic haze.
In the wake of Naked Lunch’s surprise success in the early 1960s, Burroughs began employing cut-ups in his writing. The technique informed his Nova trilogy of the early 1960s, which included The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. Cut-ups gave him the perfect weapon to fight against the tyranny of the Word, and he could even create his own viruses.
Crushed at his rejection from covert service, Burroughs went back to New York City, where his father managed to get him a job at a struggling advertising agency where he would work as a copywriter. This wasn’t exactly what he wanted to be doing with his life, but it did give him an opportunity to play around with words for the purpose of influencing mass behavior. Burroughs never went back to the ad game after the firm went under, but it’s fair to call the experience formative. Like the cartoonist Robert R. Crumb, whose earliest gig was as a greeting card illustrator and whose later psychedelic comics still bore what he called “the cuteness curse,” Burroughs retained something of Madison Avenue’s unvarnished vernacular. Ad copy was also familiar to Dylan, who grew up around sales slogans in his father’s electric appliance shop. Experiences like this tend to rub off in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Take the lyrics to “It’s All Right, Ma,” from Bringing It All Back Home:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
It is perhaps ironic that Bob Dylan and many of his contemporaries criticized materialism while making a very good living selling records and performing in cities around the world. As Burroughs might say, traveling salesman makes for a great cover.
If it is challenging to get a clear read on Burroughs, it is equally difficult with Dylan. Another son of the Midwest, Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, six months before the United States entered World War II. He enjoyed a quiet and uneventful childhood, or so the official story has it. Anyone even passingly familiar with Bob Dylan knows his reputation as chameleon and enigma. Whether the “real Dylan” even exists, or who that person might be, is beyond the purview of this book. And yet Dylan, like most classical heroes, has an origin story, and his connects directly to Burroughs. “I met Bob Dylan when he was just starting in New York,” Burroughs said in a BBC interview in 1982. “He said he was going to become a star. . . . He seemed to be very definitely planning his career, and it has worked out.”
Like Burroughs, Dylan is a mirror: we see what we want to see in his work, and sometimes what we don’t.
Dylan and Burroughs have more in common than Midwestern proximity (such as it is). Much like Burroughs wanted to be a writer from an early age, the young Dylan — then known as Robert Zimmerman — nurtured his creative ambitions over other pursuits. “I always wanted to be a guitar player and a singer,” he told Cameron Crowe in 1985. “Since I was ten, eleven or twelve, it was all that interested me. . . . That was the only thing that I did that meant anything really.” According to Minnesotan musician Tony Glover, Dylan first discovered Burroughs in late 1959, after Glover lent him a copy of Naked Lunch. Though it would be several years before the influence began showing up in his work, it seems likely that the book’s hallucinatory prose made an impression on the young songwriter.
After graduating from high school in 1959, Dylan set out for Minneapolis, where he attended classes at the University of Minnesota while playing coffee shop gigs in Dinkytown — then an enclave for artists and musicians, many of whom no doubt modeled themselves after the Beats. It was during this time that Dylan became drawn to recordings by Big Bill Broonzy, Roscoe Holcomb, and Leadbelly — the latter of whom Kurt Cobain claimed to have discovered via Bur-roughs. According to Dylan, America of the early 1960s was “still very straight, post-war and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic.” Finding alternatives took both dedication and diligence. “Whatever was happening of any real value was happening away from that and sort of hidden from view,” Dylan noted. He became obsessed with the new artistic underground, of which Burroughs’ work was a cornerstone. “It had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley, Pound, Camus, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings,” he said, expressing fondness for “expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers . . . Burroughs, Nova Express . . . it all left the rest of everything in the dust. . . . I knew I had to get to New York though, I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.”
Like Burroughs, Dylan is a mirror: we see what we want to see in his work, and sometimes what we don’t. Dylan operates under multiple identities and seems to invent a new one with each record release or interview. One thing is for certain: the eager mimic with a thing for trains who first came to New York in 1961 is not the artist who emerged from his encounter with Burroughs in 1965. At least not judging by the difference between his self-titled 1962 debut — a charming but hesitant acoustic folk record — and Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home, both of which arrived the year he met Burroughs.
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Greenwich Village in the early 1960s was a hotbed of creativity, especially in music, where the sounds emanating from the Lower East Side — including jazz, blues, and folk — helped usher America into a new era, one in which the repression, prejudices, and injustices of earlier decades were rejected by a broad and intersectional movement united in pursuit of progress. These trends continued throughout the decade and beyond, with multiple cultural, social, and civic sectors undergoing rapid transformation. This revolution naturally required a soundtrack. Before psychedelia and free love, there was the sound of fingerpicked guitars and harmony vocalists singing cardinal narratives of American hardship and perseverance.
The rebellious youth of the early 1960s were hip to marijuana and also turned on to traditional American music — from bluegrass and Appalachian ballads to gospel spirituals and Delta blues to protest songs and workers’ anthems. The kids went gaga for what they perceived as a more authentic sound than the saccharine pop they heard on the AM dial, with its focus on boy-girl relationships. Soon these same radios would broadcast folk heroes like Peter, Paul and Mary and Shirley Collins. This didn’t always go over well with participants in the American folk revival, who saw themselves as part of a commerce-rejecting vanguard. Theirs was a revolution of the human spirit, one that sought freedom for all peoples, regardless of race or class. And their brightest hope was a reedy-throated kid named Bob Dylan.
Dylan arrived on the scene with a beat-up acoustic guitar and a voice that David Bowie later compared to “sand and glue” in his “Song For Bob Dylan” from Hunky Dory (1971). That track is both an echo and parody of an early Dylan number written for Woody Guthrie that appeared on his self-titled debut. Within a few short years, Dylan found himself at a creative crossroads. He was infuriated by those who wanted to place limits on him or force him into a mold. Burroughs’ lifestyle and intellectual product, all slashing wordplay and Billy the Kid attitude, looked like freedom. Dylan’s talent and ambition bred resentment within the scene that gave him his initial boost. More than a few of his fellow artists viewed Dylan with a combination of jealousy and skepticism. Traditionalists thought he was hopelessly self-absorbed; even his supporters fretted over his growing recognition beyond the cloister. Dylan was desperate for a new identity. Inspired by Burroughs, the young folkie set about cutting up and rearranging the character of “Bob Dylan” into exciting, confounding, and ever-changing forms.
Burroughs’ quicksilver abstractions opened up new creative possibilities for Dylan, who had only recently taken a more impressionistic approach to songwriting. “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. Burroughs had left Tangier that spring and returned to New York, where he hoped to get clean and benefit from what Ginsberg assured him was his emerging status in the counterculture. Ginsberg was already on friendly terms with Dylan, but not yet the groupie he’d become. “Tell him I’ve been reading him and that I believe every word he says,” Dylan told Ginsberg about Burroughs. But what wisdom could an aging, junkie author impart to a twenty-four-year-old on the verge of superstardom? Maybe he could teach Dylan how to disappear in plain sight. Help a wet-behind-the-ears agent learn what makes a good cover story. Give him tips on keeping it straight in his head. It was time to make introductions.
After encountering Burroughs, Dylan’s work became even more abstract, caustic, and surreal.
Burroughs and Dylan took their meeting at a small café in Manhattan’s East Village, the precise location of which has been lost to time and memory. “He struck me as someone who was obviously competent,” Burroughs later told Victor Bockris. “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 said he had a knack for writing lyrics and expected to make a lot of money.” Personally, Burroughs had little use for money beyond its utility in purchasing narcotics and avoiding hard labor. But he could easily spot élan, which Dylan had in spades. “He had a likable direct approach in conversation, at the same time cool, reserved,” Burroughs later recalled to Bockris. “He was very young, quite handsome in a sharp-featured way. He had on a black turtleneck sweater.” Although they only met once in person, Burroughs left a mark on the younger artist. According to critic R. B. Morris, “There’s no doubt that he was greatly influenced by Burroughs’ wild juxtaposing of images and scenes, as well as subject matter.” After encountering Burroughs, Dylan’s work became even more abstract, caustic, and surreal.
The indestructible Iggy Pop, himself a Burroughs acolyte, notes the Dylan connection in a BBC Radio profile of the author. “He’s even in Dylan’s ‘Tombstone Blues’!” Pop exclaims, before firing up the track, which includes a verse believed to reference 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.” To Dylan, Burroughs was impossibly hip — James Joyce with nasty habits, T. S. Elliot with a cane sword. Dylan’s evolution from shy folkie to idiosyncratic icon was greatly accelerated by his immersion in the rhythm and meter of Burroughs’ writing. As scholar James Adams notes, “Without Burroughs and his experiments, Dylan might not have been pushed to compose lines that resemble cut-ups but still emerge from some more personal, purposeful, honest, and human place like those Dylan wrote in 1965.” Take, for example, the lyrics from “Gates of Eden,” which evoke the illumination made possible by cut-ups:
With a time rusted compass blade
Aladdin and his lamp Sits with utopian hermit monks
Side saddle on the Golden Calf
And on their promises of paradise
You will not hear a laugh
All except inside the Gates of Eden
Burroughs also inspired bravery. In July 1965, Dylan drove a stake through the heart of acoustic purism with an electrified set at the Newport Folk Festival. This was an unforgivable offense in the eyes (and ears) of the folk cognoscenti, but for Dylan, it was all about following his instincts. At twenty-five, he was a creative sponge, and the East Village offered plenty in the way of sop. It is likely that Dylan attended a pair of readings Burroughs gave at the East End Theater in the same YMCA building that Burroughs would call home a decade hence. The author recited sections of Naked Lunch and Nova Express — works that Dylan claimed as an influence. In 2016, Dylan would win a Nobel Prize, which included recognition for his 1965 novel, Tarantula. The book owes much to Burroughs, including, perhaps, its title, which may have originated in a bit of stagecraft described in a New York Times review of one of Burroughs’ readings:
Mr. Burroughs, a lean, formal man who sounds something like the late Will Rogers as he reels off dry jokes, read a story that conveyed the idea that various bizarre characters were in a port seeded with atomic mines. The people wanted to leave, but Mr. Burroughs’ audience did not. Warmed by such interest, he livened up his one-syllable-at-a-time reading with sudden bursts of dramatic activity, eventually ripping down a white-sheet backdrop and uncovering a painting of horrifying tarantulas.
Dylan was also a self-admitted practitioner of cut-ups, though it is unclear how often he employed the technique. He claims not to have used them in his songs due to the need to rhyme. On the other hand, there is evidence that some of his compositions featured cut-ups, such as the line “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” from “Visions of Johanna,” released the year after his meeting with Burroughs. Dylan denies that Tarantula was a cut-up work, which seems dubious to anyone familiar with the technique or the book itself. Nevertheless, recently released bonus footage in D. A. Pennebaker’s quintessential early Dylan biopic, Don’t Look Back, shows Dylan giving a how-to on cut-ups, complete with the four-panel arrangement. This shows that Dylan was familiar with Bur-roughs’ then-new creative approach. In some ways, Dylan’s shadowing of Burroughs is like a junior operative on a training mission with an older spy. As Dylan wrote in “Desolation Row,” from Highway 61 Revisited:
Now at midnight all the agents
And the super human crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
As a creature of the Village, Dylan was also exposed to the underground literature of the day, known as “mimeo magazines” — a kind of precursor to the “zines” of the 1990s. These homemade publications contained the works of avant-garde writers and artists from all corners of the underground. More well-known contributors like Burroughs and Dylan used mimeos as a venue for new ideas or works-in-progress. Dylan was a fan and occasional stringer for rags like Broadside, offering early songs and poems. He also enjoyed mimeos from around the world, including Gnaoua, which originated in Tangier and featured several pieces by Burroughs: “Notes on Page One,” “Pry Yourself Loose and Listen,” “Just So Long and Long Enough,” and “Ancient Face Gone Out.” The same copy of Gnaoua graces the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home LP, laid out among other objects dear to the songwriter.
Like Cobain, Dylan’s Burroughs obsession may have inspired him to try hard drugs. As he said in a 1966 interview, “I had a heroin habit in New York City. I got very, very strung out for a while. I mean really, very strung out. And I kicked the habit.” Did Dylan make this up to seem more like an outlaw, someone with a dangerous backstory, like Burroughs? Maybe, but he maintained the story for at least a decade. “I had taken the cure and had just gotten through / staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you,” he sings in the song “Sara” from his 1976 album Desire.
Dylan was also a self-admitted practitioner of cut-ups, though it is unclear how often he employed the technique.
That same year, Burroughs turned down an offer to join Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which also featured Ginsberg. There were plans for Burroughs to appear in the film of the tour, giving a how-to on cut-ups using Dylan lyrics and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe as source text. Burroughs claimed that he didn’t want to be another one of Dylan’s hangers-on, but the real reason he skipped out was because Dylan didn’t offer him a per diem. And so their meeting in the spring of 1966 was, as far as anyone can confirm, the only time Dylan and Burroughs met. Their lone appointment nevertheless galvanized the songwriter, who, like his onetime hero, did not look back. An exceptional agent, Dylan would adopt many cover stories over a long career: vagabond, fortune teller, hedonist, actor, evangelical, radio host, lingerie pitchman, and Nobel Prize winner among them.
Like a junkie Mary Poppins, Burroughs floated back to England, where he would soon enter the stories of a pair of game-changing acts, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His uncanny ability to show up at crucial times in other artists’ careers is Zelig-like. But Burroughs never told his young charges how they should live their lives. As Poppins herself says in the P. L. Travers classic, “Don’t you know that everyone has a fairyland of their own?”
* * *
In 1966, Burroughs was fifty-two and living in Great Britain, where he had come to reside six years prior. Moving like a thin, gray mist through the fog of Swinging London, he made no attempt to mingle with the spiritual seekers and acid eaters on every High Street corner. And yet, without so much as trying, Burroughs left his mark on a number of young artists and intellectuals bristling at the drab postwar world of their parents. 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 seminal album, 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. Hardcore Beatles fans know that songs like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Good Morning, Good Morning,” and “A Day in the Life” are informed by avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Fewer are aware of how Burroughs’ tape experiments encouraged Paul McCartney to try new approaches in the studio. In fact, even before the Beatles entered Abbey Road to produce their masterpiece, Burroughs was making recordings in Ringo Starr’s flat using equipment provided by McCartney.
The success of Sgt. Pepper helped take Burroughs-style cut-ups out of the underground and on to the hi-fi, completely changing how we relate to recorded sound. First there was audio tape, then digital samplers, and finally, the Internet, where distinctions between high and low art are obliterated in a relentless stream of memes and mash-ups. In today’s online world, source material only matters inasmuch as it reveals something in juxtaposition. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon betrays strange synchronicities when played as the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. Donald Trump’s sniffles are spliced together to form dope beats. DJ Girl Talk subverts pop music by mixing together songs by Elton John with Notorious B.I.G. Today’s time-warp culture jammers may not realize it, but they are the direct descendants of Burroughs, who played doula to the future through his work with cut-ups.
The painter Brion Gysin stumbled onto cut-ups in 1958. One day he was trimming canvases and discovered that he’d also sliced a newspaper into sections, rearranging them in the process. He began playing with different combinations, achieving a broad range of permutations with just a few text sources. Gysin correctly intuited that cut-ups had the potential to transform his friend Burroughs’ approach to writing. The pair would spend the next two decades advancing cut-ups as a populist revolution. The literary world, with its fixation on authorship, remained resistant. “Writing is 50 years behind painting,” Gysin frequently countered. To Burroughs, anything or anyone that served as a filter for self-expression was just another form of Control. Gysin’s and Burroughs’ dreams of a future liberated from gatekeepers eventually came to fruition with the Internet, where the de-authoring of text, sound, and image is commonplace. Of course, the network and its billions of users also present a tremendous opportunity for Control. What would Burroughs have thought about mass digital surveillance, corporate data mining, and algorithm-powered propaganda?
The original cut-up method still works like a charm. The beauty is in its simplicity. Anyone can perform a cut-up. You can do it right now, with this book, provided you have a physical copy. Exhibit A, performed with the text from this very page:
Interspersing sounds from a range of users also presents tremendous television broadcasts, for example. A thought about mass digital surveillance effects could be achieved with two tape recorders. The original cut-up method still works.
Simply take a page and slice it into four quadrants, then reassemble the sections. Do it with a magazine or newspaper, a brochure or Scientology tract. Cut ’em up and stick ’em back together. See how the random combinations reveal new narratives. You may even catch a glimpse beyond the here and now. As mentioned earlier, Burroughs was fond of saying, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Well, that leak is now a deluge.
Urged on by Gysin, Burroughs soon took cut-ups beyond the printed page. This involved interspersing sounds from a range of sources: spoken word, street noise, and radio broadcasts, for example. A simple audio cut-up involved Burroughs reciting text into a microphone and playing back the recording out of sequence. More complex effects could be achieved with two tape recorders: one to play back the original recording, the other to cut in audio from a totally different source. These days one can achieve the same results using a smartphone. Back then, however, the process required a degree of technical know-how and no small amount of attention. Burroughs would spend hours recording, rewinding, slicing, and manipulating tape in order to produce his audio cut-ups. He can be heard explaining the method on “Origin and Theory of the Tape Cut-Ups,” a track from the LP Break Through in Grey Room (Sub Rosa, 1986):
The first tape recorder cut-ups were simply extensions of cutups on paper. There are many ways of doing these, but here’s one way: you record, say, ten minutes on the recorder. Then you spin the reel backwards or forwards without recording, stop at random, and cut in a phrase. Now, of course when you’ve cut in that phrase, you’ve wiped out whatever’s there, and you have a new juxtaposition. Now, how random is random? We know so much that we don’t consciously know that we know, that perhaps the cut-up was not random. The operator, on some level, knew just where he was cutting in.
Further results can be heard on Nothing Here Now but the Recordings — a 1981 Burroughs LP originally released on Industrial Records, the label of UK noise pioneers Throbbing Gristle, and recently reissued under the Dais imprint. Here Burroughs’ sandpaper incantations are interlaced with disembodied broadcasts and so-called “electronic voice phenomenon,” or EVP. The overall product is disorienting and can hardly be described as musical. Still, one can see why Patti Smith referred to Burroughs as “a shaman . . . someone in touch with other levels of reality.”
* * *
Burroughs found a room at the Hotel Rushmore in the Earls Court neighborhood of London in 1966. Unfortunately for him, Sommerville already had another boyfriend. Still, the two kept up their audio collaborations, at least for a time. Previous sessions recorded at the English-language bookstore in Paris had recently been made public via Burroughs’ 1965 spoken word debut, Call Me Burroughs. The LP was a smash with London hipsters and was a personal favorite of Paul McCartney. In 1966, Sommerville lucked into work as an engineer on Beatles recordings and built a recording studio in a flat owned by Ringo Starr at 34 Montagu Street in London. McCartney rented the space from Starr and personally paid for the equipment with which Sommerville was meant to record material for a spoken word label operated by the band.
With its smoked glass mirrors and gray silk wallpaper, Ringo’s pad was very different from the sterile recording environments of the day. And unlike EMI Studios, where engineers still wore white lab coats, smoking hashish was perfectly acceptable. Though small, it was comfortable enough for Sommerville to also live there, which meant Burroughs — who still had hopes of rekindling their romantic relationship — was around quite often. Burroughs and McCartney would chat about cut-ups and computers making the music of tomorrow, as the future Knight of the Realm listened to Burroughs’ sonic experiments, such as the twenty-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.”
The success of Sgt. Pepper helped take Burroughs-style cut-ups out of the underground and on to the hi-fi, completely changing how we relate to recorded sound.
No doubt Beatles collectors would love to get their hands on these recordings, which have long since been lost. McCartney’s memories are now all that remain of those heady sessions. “We used to sit around talking about all these amazing inventions that people were doing . . . it was all very new and exciting, and so a lot of social time was taken up with just sitting around chatting,” he recalled. It was a productive and friendly environment for McCartney and Burroughs. “I thought, let Burroughs do the cut-ups, and I’ll just go in and demo things. I’d just written ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and so I went down there in the basement on my days off on my own. Just took a guitar down and used it as a demo studio.” Burroughs later spoke to Victor Bockris about the day McCartney penned one of his most classic compositions. “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 so I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and prepossessing. Nice looking young man, fairly hardworking.”
Burroughs inspired McCartney to cut in found sounds on Beatles recordings, including alarm clocks, automobile horns, and circus atmospherics. This, in turn, gave Brian Wilson — whose Beach Boys were locked in a kind of cross-continental musical arms race with the Fab Four — the gumption to add barking dogs and bicycle horns to his own masterpiece, Pet Sounds. The formal name for such experimental composition is musique concreté. Much as Burroughs didn’t consider himself knowledgeable about popular music, he would have twitched his lips disapprovingly at the suggestion that he belonged to a Western compositional school. Nonetheless, his direct influence is felt throughout twentieth-century and millennial music culture, more often than not at the level of composition.
* * *
Casey Rae is the director of music licensing for SiriusXM and a longtime music critic whose work andd commentary on technology’s impact on creators has appeared on NPR and in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Billboard. 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.
Excerpted from William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Casey Rae. Copyright © 2019 by Casey Rae. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of University of Texas Press and Casey Rae.
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