A critical analysis that celebrates the transgressive author as rock avatar, cultural visionary, and literary adventurer.
The terms of the title could have been flipped, for this book focuses on what might be called “the cult of William S. Burroughs” and the ways that his influence and legacy have permeated the culture of rock as a whole. Longtime music critic Rae, the director of music licensing for SiriusXM, not only makes the case that the triumvirate of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were equally and deeply under the influence of the novelist, but also that his influence can be seen across the spectrum of rock, at the opposite poles of progressive and punk. Indeed, he argues that the creative forces of Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, and the Clash all worshipped at Burroughs’ altar. Moreover, Burroughs anticipated the internet, where we are “bombarded with fragmentary words, sounds, and images shot through the digital ether,” his cut-up strategy with words and tape anticipated hip-hop sampling. “Once you start looking,” writes Rae, “Burroughs is everywhere. It’s like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ with a killer soundtrack. But instead of a chipper youth with a striped sweater, we’re spying a wan junkie in an old fedora.” Occasionally, the author overreachs in his analysis, suggesting that Burroughs must have influenced where he may have and that his influence was crucial at pivotal moments when it was perhaps coincidental at best. Would Dylan have become Dylan in a world without Burroughs? Most likely. Yet David Bowie clearly learned much about dissociative artistry and shifting personae from Burroughs (as well as from Dylan), and Kurt Cobain plainly considered himself an acolyte. Maybe more rock stars romanticized his life and addiction than actually read his books, and some tried “to boost their own hipness through association,” but Rae builds a convincing case that Burroughs has been underacknowledged in rock history.
A book that nudges a legendary legacy from the cultural margins toward the mainstream.