The writer William Burroughs was a fringe figure until his 50s, too weird for popular tastes. Part of the original trio of Beat writers alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he was at once feted and condemned for his work – his 1959 novel Naked Lunch was briefly banned by the city of Boston following an obscenity trial; Norman Mailer testified in its defence. But in the late 60s and 70s, a new generation of musicians turned him into a countercultural hero, among them Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Richard Hell, Jimmy Page and Patti Smith. Later on, Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore would all declare themselves in Burroughs’ thrall.
Casey Rae surveys his impact on musicians and how his thumbprints can be found all over popular culture. The film Blade Runner took its title from a Burroughs novella, and the band Steely Dan was named after a dildo in Naked Lunch. The term “heavy metal” was taken from The Soft Machine, Burroughs’s 1961 book that also provided a jazz-folk fusion band from Canterbury with their name. His face looks stonily from the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he lent his creaky drawl to albums by Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Elsewhere, Burroughs’ “cut-up” methods – a literary technique where the text is randomly rearranged – were adopted by Bowie, McCartney and the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
Burroughs, who died in 1997, could be irascible and reclusive, but he was generous with younger artists. Wherever he went, it wouldn’t be long before a musician pitched up at his door to pay homage. While some, such as Reed and Dylan, were granted a single audience, others were welcomed into his inner sanctum and became confidants. He bonded with Bowie, who had just killed off Ziggy Stardust when they met, and was close friends with Patti Smith, who worshipped the Beat writers and said of Burroughs: “He’s up there with the Pope.” After meeting Cobain, with whom he collaborated on the 1993 single “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”, Burroughs told the singer’s tour manager: “Your friend hasn’t learned his limitations, and he’s not going to make it if he continues.”
Perhaps surprisingly Burroughs didn’t care much for music, though he had other things in common with these young upstarts. Like them, he had attracted opprobrium for his allegedly dangerous influence on young people. He also enjoyed their disruptive, anti-establishment spirit, and could relate to those, such as Cobain, whose only method of coping with the demands of the outside world was through copious drug use.
Along with those Burroughs influenced, the book also tells the story of the man himself, from his upper-middle-class childhood soured by an incident with a nanny that may or may not have involved sexual abuse (Burroughs never told the full story), to his years travelling the world and living variously in London, Paris, New York, Mexico City and Tangier. Rae’s account is compelling, capturing the strangeness of Burroughs’s itinerant lifestyle, his bizarre obsessions (guns and the occult, mostly) and his Herculean appetite for drugs.
Rae makes no secret of his admiration for the writer, noting that he carries “the Burroughs gene … I remain drawn to his fierce intellect and black humour, as well as his refusal to conform.” As such, he is keen to highlight Burroughs’s kindnesses, and has a tendency to play down his more troubling aspects, most notably his misogyny (Burroughs notoriously said he believed women were a biological mistake). He breezes swiftly through the matter of the writer having accidentally killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, as part of what they called their “William Tell routine”, in which Vollmer would place a shot glass on top of her head for Burroughs to shoot – only this time he missed and shot her in the forehead. Describing this fatal party piece, Rae notes Vollmer’s “unkempt” and “thinning” hair, a result of her various addictions and a bout of polio, and goes on to observe how her “once alluring face [had] aged well beyond her twenty-seven years”. Whether, after years of drinking and heroin abuse, Burroughs remained fresh-faced and youthful is not mentioned.
Rae shows little interest in disrupting the legend of the writer as a charismatic outlaw. Clearly, he is not the first person to give Burroughs a pass. The liberal-leaning, peace-loving musicians who adored him similarly glossed over his enthusiasm for guns, which didn’t wane after he shot Vollmer. After his death, Burroughs was buried with a ballpoint pen, a wrap of heroin and his beloved .38 Special snubnose revolver. It was, in accordance with his wishes, fully loaded.
• William S Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’Roll is published by White Rabbit (£14.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.