In the documentary The Man Within, Patti Smith describes William S. Burroughs’ literary work as the “new bible” and as being “up there with the Pope”. Burroughs became famous as one of the Beat Generation founders through his work with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and he lived a fascinating life. He was openly gay before it was accepted, a marijuana advocate, gun nut, and a heroin addict. He famously killed his wife in a game of William Tell by shooting her in the head—a death that was ruled accidental. Her death, he said, made him want to write his way out.
Burroughs’ books infiltrated popular culture via artists and musicians who were ardent fans. (“Heavy Metal,” for example, is a term taken from his novel The Wild Boys.) He met or collaborated with musicians like Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Mick Jagger, and Philip Glass. He also bought heroin from the same supplier as Keith Richards, lived in Ringo Starr’s flat in London during the ‘60s, collaborated with Paul McCartney, toured with Joy Division—when Ian Curtis tried to get his autograph, Burroughs yelled at him to get away—and hung out with David Bowie and Kurt Cobain.
The author created the mold for being a transgressive artist. So in honor of his 103rd birthday, here are 13 bands and songs influenced by Burroughs.
1. Steely Dan
might sound like a dorky jazz band, but their inception isn’t so PG. Influenced by the Beat Generation, particularly by Burroughs, they took their band name from a steam-powered dildo that appears in Naked Lunch. In the novel, the Steely Dan dildo squirts out milk and also gets eaten by a “bull dyke” at some point.
2. Cabaret Voltaire
The manipulation of sound in Cabaret Voltaire’s early days—the physical act of cutting up tapes and creating tape loops—was influenced by Burroughs cut-up method (in which a text is literally cut into pieces and rearranged). They even opened for Burroughs during his “Plan K” readings, the same tour Joy Division joined.
3. “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Born to be Wild” is a reference from the Burroughs sci-fi novel The Soft Machine. The literary references don’t stop there, because the band name itself is pulled from Herman Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf.
4. “Wild Boys” by Duran Duran
based the song “Wild Boys” on Burroughs’ futuristic story of a savage band of adolescent guerrillas of the same name.
5. “Atlantis to Interzone” by The Klaxons
Based on the mythic area of the same name in Burroughs’ novels, “Interzone” is a homage to both Burroughs and Joy Division.
6. “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” by The Velvet Underground
was an English major in college and struggled with his homosexuality growing up, so it’s no wonder he looked up to Burroughs. The Velvet Underground penned the ode “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” on their Loaded album in homage to the author. Other literary references include The Velvet Underground’s band name, which was taken from Michael Leigh’s novel of the same name about the secret sexual subculture of the early 1960s. The title of another song, “Venus in Furs,” is also a literary reference to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book of the same name about a dominatrix and sadomasochistic sex.
7. “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop is a big Burroughs fan, and he even narrated a great piece for BBC One about the author’s life. So it is no surprise that Iggy references the Burroughs novel The Nova Machine in his hit song “Lust for Life”. Johnny Yen, a character in The Nova Machine, is a “Boy-Girl Other Half strip tease God of sexual frustration” who “hypnotize[s] chickens.” In “Lust for Life,” the lyrics state:
Here comes Johnny Yen again/With the liquor and drugs/And the flesh machine
And further on in the song:
Oh love love love/Well that’s like hypnotizing chickens.
8. “Interzone” by Joy Division
Ian Curtis was a huge fan of the literary avant-garde. He borrows the word “Interzone” from Burroughs, which is the mythic, twisted land where anything goes from the controversial novel The Naked Lunch.
9. “Tombstone Blues” and Tarantula (Book) by Bob Dylan
This song’s reference to Burroughs has long been disputed; however, there is good evidence to believe that it’s true. Bob Dylan was a diehard fan of Burroughs work, and around the time this song came out, Dylan met Burroughs. He is even quoted in a letter to Allen Ginsberg in 1965, saying, ”Tell [Burroughs] I’ve been reading him and I believe every word he says.” Dylan has even said he had experimented with the cut-up method (he talks about this in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back), but never employed it because he found it difficult to create rhymes. Although Dylan does emulate Burroughs’ unique “routine style” in his own book, Tarantula.
10. Kid A and The King of Limbs by Radiohead
was in a fit of writer’s block—and also suffering from a mental breakdown—while writing lyrics for Radiohead’s fourth album. So he employed a variation of the cut-up method—using aphorisms, phrases from conversations with people or things he heard and then wrote on scraps of paper, and supposedly pulling them out of a hat during band rehearsals. Kid A would become one of the most groundbreaking albums of the 2000s and Radiohead’s first number one album in the United States. Radiohead also used a computer algorithm randomizer to make sound loops for their seventh album, King of Limbs—much like David Bowie, another Burroughs fan, did in his 1995 album Outside.
11. “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana
In 1993, Kurt Cobain wrote Burroughs to ask if he would appear with Nirvana in the video for “Heart Shaped Box” for their album In Utero, but Burroughs declined. In his journal, Cobain wrote that birds are “reincarnated old men with turrets [sic] syndrome.”
Cobain had previously collaborated with Burroughs for the spoken word disc The “Priest They Called Him. Cobain said in an interview that, ”[Burroughs] taught me a lot of things through his books and interviews that I’m really grateful for. I remember him saying in an interview, ‘These new rock’n’roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly.’ I’d never heard about Leadbelly before, so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music.” Cobain also claimed he wrote his lyrics using the cut-up method.
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver by The Beatles
The Burroughs connection to the Beatles has never been clear, despite having used his image in the Sgt. Pepper album cover—itself a cut-up of different famous people. In the book With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker ?by Victor Bockris, However, Burroughs is said to have met with Sir Paul McCartney while McCartney was recording “Eleanor Rigby” for Revolver. They met to make an album with tape loops for Apple Records that never came to fruition. With Revolver, the Beatles experimented with sampling sounds and creating tape loops and putting them into songs; one example is in “Tomorrow Never Knows”: the high pitched sitar sounding noise is actually a screaming Paul McCartney.
13. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie
was such a fanboy of Burroughs that he interviewed him—a meeting that was captured by Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas at the author’s home in 1974. Bowie got the look of Ziggy and the Spiders from Burroughs’ The Wild Boys and from Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, saying, “They were both powerful pieces of work, especially the marauding boy gangs of Burroughs’ Wild Boys with their bowie knives. I got straight on to that. I read everything into everything. Everything had to be infinitely symbolic.”
The cut-up method also influenced Bowie’s songwriting style. Throughout the ‘70s, Bowie continued with the cut-up lyrics, particularly on the albums he recorded with Brian Eno: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Bowie even created a computer program to employ the cut-method through a computer algorithm for his 1995 album Outside.