Sunday, September 29, 2019

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll

From Greg Kot's 9-24-19 Chicago Tribune article entitled "William S. Burroughs: The Beat Author Who Became a Rock Star":

William S. Burroughs was not a musician and spent his life largely indifferent to contemporary music. But he was a rock star. The author — one of the founding fathers of the Beat movement that revolutionized literature in the 1950s — exerted a profound influence on the sound and attitude of rock and hip-hop over the last half-century.
In “William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (University of Texas Press), author Casey Rae offers the most in-depth study yet of Burroughs’ influence on and Zelig-like ubiquity within contemporary music.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at age 83, may have seemed an unlikely muse, with his gravelly voice and dour, undertaker’s bearing. But his appeal was multi-faceted. He was perceived as an outsider and an outlaw: A gay, gun-wielding junkie who accidentally killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell in the ‘40s. The tragedy scarred Burroughs and he vowed to “write his way out of it.” Over the next few decades he created a mountain of work that cast institutional authority of all varieties – governmental, religious, corporate – as corrupt and treacherous, an attack on human freedom.

In works such as “Junkie” (1953), “Naked Lunch” (1959) and “Nova Express” (1964), he distilled modern-age paranoia and the pernicious impact of technology. He also explicitly and unflinchingly described what had been viewed by mainstream society as “deviant” behavior without judging his cast of dope fiends and sexual libertines, even as he risked censure and persecution (“Naked Lunch” was initially banned in Boston and Los Angeles).

Burroughs’ experiments with “cut-up” writing, in which he merged seemingly unrelated sequences of words to create new, provocative shapes, exploded through the works of artists such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Kurt Cobain, among others. “Cut-up” also became the language of hip-hop, with its mix-and-match appropriation and recontextualizing of sound and text, and of the internet itself.

He certainly wasn’t the only author to help reshape the direction that rock and later hip-hop took [...].

But few of these authors held sway over such a cross-section of artists and musical generations as “Old Bull Lee” Burroughs. Though the author wasn’t particularly a fan of much contemporary music, he loved its subversive appeal, its ability to disrupt. His own writing merged the high-art aspirations of literature and the vulgarity of the street, and he saw much the same high-low mash-ups in counter-culture music, a conspiracy of impulses against the gray, dull middle, the agents of conformity and control.

To read Kot's entire article, click HERE.

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