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.