William S. Burroughs – no other name rings so loudly in the annals of extraordinary literary vagabonds of the 20th century. While his friend, Jack Kerouac may have found greater acclaim among stoned poets and hitch-hikers, it is Burroughs who was the true vagabond, though one with a trust fund to help him fund his movement and addictions.
Born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs lived to the age of 83 and died August 2nd, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas. He was a founder of the ‘Beat’ movement and a giant in 20th century American popular culture. Even if you’ve never heard of Burroughs – you’ve seen him or been exposed to his work. If you don’t believe me – ask yourself if you’ve ever seen the cover of the Beatles album – Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – Burroughs is on it.
Burroughs influence affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. His 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays had nothing less than a profound effect on pop culture.. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.
He was born to a wealthy family and left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University where he studied English and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. It was being turned down by the US Navy during World War II that led him to begin experimenting with the drugs that became such a key part of his life. He dropped out and became an addict and later befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The three of them were the basis of the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation which in turn led to the age of the Hippies.
Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a work fraught with controversy that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” because of his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War,” while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.”
He traveled to Europe after Harvard, which proved a window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. It was there, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazi government.
Burroughs married her, in Croatia, against the wishes of his parents, to allow her to gain a visa to the United States. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs.
He deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger, right at the knuckle, to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story “The Finger.” Yes, Burroughs was most definitely a queer.
Paris and the ‘Beat Hotel’
Burroughs moved into a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1959 when Naked Lunch was still looking for a publisher since Tangier, Morocco with its easy access to drugs, small groups of homosexuals, growing political unrest and odd collection of criminals became increasingly unhealthy for Burroughs.
In Paris, he met with Ginsberg and talked with Olympia Press. In so doing, he left a brewing legal problem, which eventually transferred itself to Paris. Paul Lund, a former British career criminal and cigarette smuggler whom Burroughs met in Tangier, was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France. Lund gave up Burroughs and some evidence implicated Burroughs in the possible importation into France of narcotics. Once again, the man faced criminal charges, this time in Paris for conspiracy to import opiates, when the Moroccan authorities forwarded their investigation to French officials. Yet it was under this impending threat of criminal sanction that Maurice Girodias published Naked Lunch, and it was helpful in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence, as a literary career, according to Ted Morgan, is a respected profession in France.
The ‘Beat Hotel’ was a typical European-style rooming house hotel, with common toilets on every floor, and a small place for personal cooking in the room. Life there was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who lived in the attic room. This shabby, inexpensive hotel was populated by Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for several months after Naked Lunch first appeared. Burroughs used the $3,000 advance from Grove Press to buy drugs.
The London years
Burroughs left Paris for London in 1966 to take the cure again with Dr. Dent, a well-known English medical doctor who spearheaded a painless heroin withdrawal treatment using an electronic box affixed to the patient’s temple. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would take this same cure over a decade later from Dr. Dent’s nurse, Smitty.
Burroughs ended up working out of London for six years, traveling back to the United States on several occasions, including one time escorting his son to Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison after the younger Burroughs had been convicted of prescription fraud in Florida.
Burroughs took a large advance from Playboy to write an article about his trip back to St. Louis that was eventually published in The Paris Review, after Burroughs refused to alter the style for Playboy’s publishers.
In 1968 Burroughs joined Jean Genet, John Sack, and Terry Southern in covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. Southern and Burroughs, who had first become acquainted in London, would remain lifelong friends and collaborators. In 1972, Burroughs and Southern unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen in conjunction with legendary insane American game show producer Chuck Barris.
In the 1960s Burroughs joined and left the Church of Scientology. In talking about the experience, he claimed that the techniques and philosophy of Scientology helped him and that he felt that further study into Scientology would produce great results. He was skeptical of the organization itself, and felt that it fostered an environment that did not accept critical discussion.
Mexico and South America
Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana’s Angola state prison. Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge’s statute of limitations. Burroughs also attended classes at the Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish as well as “Mexican picture writing” (codices) and the Mayan language with R. H. Barlow.
In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release him.
Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial.
After leaving Mexico, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called yagé, which promised the user telepathy. A book, composed of letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, was published in 1963 by City Lights Books.
In music, film and television
Burroughs not only appears on the cover of The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but has many more musical connections. Burroughs participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage, and Philip Glass) and You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He is featured in a spoken word piece entitled “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s album Mister Heartbreak. In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson’s 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave, and made a cameo appearance in it. He also recites the lyrics of R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten” for a special version of the song on the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files soundtrack.
In 1990, Island Records released Dead City Radio, a collection of readings set to a broad range of musical compositions. It was produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, with musical accompaniment from John Cale, Donald Fagen, Lenny Pickett, Chris Stein, Sonic Youth, and others. The remastered edition of Sonic Youth’s album Goo includes a longer version of “Dr. Benway’s House,” which had appeared, in shorter form, on Dead City Radio.
In 1992 he recorded “Quick Fix” with Ministry, which appeared on their single for “Just One Fix.” The single featured cover art by Burroughs and a remix of the song dubbed the “W.S.B. mix.” Burroughs also made an appearance in the video for “Just One Fix.” The same year he also recorded the EP The “Priest” They Called Him; Burroughs reads the short story of the same name, while Kurt Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortion. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is featured on the cover as the titular “Priest.” In 1992 Burroughs worked with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, with the duo providing musical background and accompaniment to Burroughs’s spoken readings from several of his books.
Burroughs appears near the end of U2’s music video “Last Night on Earth”, pushing a shopping cart with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of his eyes.
In 2000, Spring Heel Jack released the album Oddities, on which appears the band’s remix of Material’s Road to the Western Lands, featuring Burroughs, which had originally appeared on the remix album Seven Souls.
Numerous bands have found their names in Burroughs’s work. The most widely known of these is Steely Dan, a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch.Also from Naked Lunch came the names The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust. The novel Nova Express inspired the names of Grant Hart’s post-Hüsker Dü band Nova Mob, as well as Australian 1960s R&B band Nova Express. British band Soft Machine took its moniker from the Burroughs novel of the same name, as did protopunk band Dead Fingers Talk, from Hull, England; their only album was titled Storm the Reality Studios, after a quote from Nova Express. Alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a Burroughs character. Thin White Rope took their name from Burroughs’s euphemism for ejaculation.The American extreme metal band Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky took their name from the 1989 text “Apocalypse”, in which Burroughs describes “art and creative expression taking a literal and physical form.”
Burroughs played Opium Jones in the 1966 Conrad Rooks cult film Chappaqua, which also featured cameo roles by Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, and others. In 1968, an abbreviated—77 minutes as opposed to the original’s 104 minutes—version of Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan was released, subtitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version, produced by Anthony Balch, featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and narration by Burroughs. He also appeared alongside Brion Gysin in a number of short films in the 1960s directed by Balch. Jack Sargeant’s book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema details Burroughs film work at length, covering his collaborations with Balch and Burroughs’ theories of film.
Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz. He gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on November 7, 1981, in an episode hosted by Lauren Hutton.
Burroughs subsequently made cameo appearances in a number of other films and videos, such as David Blair’s Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder by Klaus Maeck. He played an aging junkie priest in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. He also appears briefly at the beginning of Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (based on the Tom Robbins novel), in which he is seen crossing a city street; as the noise of the city rises around him he pauses in the middle of the intersection and speaks the single word “ominous”. Van Sant’s short film “Thanksgiving Prayer” features Burroughs reading the poem “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” from Tornado Alley, intercut with a collage of black and white images.
A documentary titled Burroughs, directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues. Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories “A Junky’s Christmas” and “Ah Pook is Here” were used on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated films.
Filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen used footage of Burroughs taken during a 1983 tour of Scandinavia in the documentary Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road. A 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, was made for Independent Lens on PBS.
As a fictional character
Burroughs was fictionalized in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road as “Old Bull Lee.” He also makes an appearance in J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical 1991 novel The Kindness of Women. In the 2004 novel Move Under Ground, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Neal Cassady team up to defeat Cthulhu.
Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and is described as a person devoid of anger, passion, indignation, hope, or any other recognizable human emotion. He is presented as a polar opposite of Allen Ginsberg, as Ginsberg believed in everything and Burroughs believed in nothing. Wilson would recount in his Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth having interviewed both Burroughs and Ginsberg for Playboy the day the riots began as well as his experiences with Shea during the riots, providing some detail on the creation of the fictional sequence.
Can there be a more iconic vagabond of the 20th century than William Seward Burroughs?