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William S. Burroughs And The Cult Of Rock 'N' Roll

Casey Rae | William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll  | University of Texas Press | June 2019 | 28 minutes (4,637 words)   Naked Lunch is inseparable from its author William S. Burroughs, which tends to happen with certain major works. The book may be the only Burroughs title many literature buffs can name. In terms of name recognition, Naked Lunch is a bit like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue , which also arrived in 1959. Radical for its time, Kind of Blue now sounds quaint, though it is undeniably a masterwork.Burroughs wrote the bulk of his famous novel Naked Lunch in Tan­gier, Morocco between 1954 and 1957. During those years, Burroughs was strung out and unhappy, living off of his parents’ allowance and getting deeper and deeper into addiction. He had friends but rarely saw them, preferring to spend days at a time staring at his shoes while ensorcelled in a narcotic haze.In the wake of Naked Lunch’s surprise success in the early 1960s, Burroughs be­gan employing cut-ups in his writing. The technique informed his Nova trilogy of the early 1960s, which included The Soft Machine , The Ticket That Exploded , and Nova Express . Cut-ups gave him the perfect weapon to fight against the tyranny of the Word, and he could even create his own viruses.Crushed at his rejection from covert service, Burroughs went back to New York City, where his father managed to get him a job at a struggling advertising agency where he would work as a copywriter. This wasn’t exactly what he wanted to be doing with his life, but it did give him an opportunity to play around with words for the pur­pose of influencing mass behavior. Burroughs never went back to the ad game after the firm went under, but it’s fair to call the expe­rience formative. Like the cartoonist Robert R. Crumb, whose earli­est gig was as a greeting card illustrator and whose later psychedelic comics still bore what he called “the cuteness curse,” Burroughs re­tained something of Madison Avenue’s unvarnished vernacular. Ad copy was also familiar to Dylan, who grew up around sales slogans in his father’s electric appliance shop. Experiences like this tend to rub off in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Take the lyrics to “It’s All Right, Ma,” from Bringing It All Back Home : Disillusioned words like bullets bark As human gods aim for their mark Made everything from toy guns that spark To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark It’s easy to see without looking too far That not much is really sacred It is perhaps ironic that Bob Dylan and many of his contemporar­ies criticized materialism while making a very good living selling records and performing in cities around the world. As Burroughs might say, traveling salesman makes for a great cover.If it is challenging to get a clear read on Burroughs, it is equally difficult with Dylan. Another son of the Midwest, Robert Zimmer­man was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, six months before the United States entered World War II. He enjoyed a quiet and uneventful childhood, or so the official story has it. Anyone even passingly familiar with Bob Dylan knows his reputation as chameleon and enigma. Whether the “real Dylan” even exists, or who that person might be, is beyond the purview of this book. And yet Dylan, like most classical heroes, has an origin story, and his connects directly to Burroughs. “I met Bob Dylan when he was just starting in New York,” Burroughs said in a BBC interview in 1982. “He said he was going to become a star. . . . He seemed to be very defi­nitely planning his career, and it has worked out.”> Like Burroughs, Dylan is a mirror: we see what we want to see in his work, and sometimes what we don’t.Dylan and Burroughs have more in common than Midwestern proximity (such as it is). Much like Burroughs wanted to be a writer from an early age, the young Dylan — then known as Robert Zimmerman — nurtured his creative ambitions over other pursuits. “I always wanted to be a guitar player and a singer,” he told Cam­eron Crowe in 1985. “Since I was ten, eleven or twelve, it was all that interested me. . . . That was the only thing that I did that meant anything really.” According to Minnesotan musician Tony Glover, Dylan first discovered Burroughs in late 1959, after Glover lent him a copy of Naked Lunch . Though it would be several years before the influence began showing up in his work, it seems likely that the book’s hallucinatory prose made an impression on the young song­writer.After graduating from high school in 1959, Dylan set out for Min­neapolis, where he attended classes at the University of Minnesota while playing coffee shop gigs in Dinkytown — then an enclave for artists and musicians, many of whom no doubt modeled themselves after the Beats. It was during this time that Dylan became drawn to recordings by Big Bill Broonzy, Roscoe Holcomb, and Leadbelly — the latter of whom Kurt Cobain claimed to have discovered via Bur-roughs. According to Dylan, America of the early 1960s was “still very straight, post-war and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic.” Finding alternatives took both dedication and diligence. “Whatever was happening of any real value was happening away from that and sort of hidden from view,” Dylan noted. He became obsessed with the new artistic underground, of which Burroughs’ work was a corner­stone. “It had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley, Pound, Camus, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings,” he said, expressing fondness for “expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers . . . Burroughs, Nova Express . . . it all left the rest of everything in the dust. . . . I knew I had to get to New York though, I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.”Like Burroughs, Dylan is a mirror: we see what we want to see in his work, and sometimes what we don’t. Dylan operates under multiple identities and seems to invent a new one with each re­cord release or interview. One thing is for certain: the eager mimic with a thing for trains who first came to New York in 1961 is not the artist who emerged from his encounter with Burroughs in 1965. At least not judging by the difference between his self-titled 1962 debut — a charming but hesitant acoustic folk record — and High­way 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home , both of which ar­rived the year he met Burroughs. Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.Sign up Greenwich Village in the early 1960s was a hotbed of creativity, especially in music, where the sounds emanating from the Lower East Side — including jazz, blues, and folk — helped usher America into a new era, one in which the repression, prejudices, and injus­tices of earlier decades were rejected by a broad and intersectional movement united in pursuit of progress. These trends continued throughout the decade and beyond, with multiple cultural, social, and civic sectors undergoing rapid transformation. This revolution naturally required a soundtrack. Before psychedelia and free love, there was the sound of fingerpicked guitars and harmony vocalists singing cardinal narratives of American hardship and perseverance.The rebellious youth of the early 1960s were hip to marijuana and also turned on to traditional American music — from bluegrass and Appalachian ballads to gospel spirituals and Delta blues to pro­test songs and workers’ anthems. The kids went gaga for what they perceived as a more authentic sound than the saccharine pop they heard on the AM dial, with its focus on boy-girl relationships. Soon these same radios would broadcast folk heroes like Peter, Paul and Mary and Shirley Collins. This didn’t always go over well with par­ticipants in the American folk revival, who saw themselves as part of a commerce-rejecting vanguard. Theirs was a revolution of the human spirit, one that sought freedom for all peoples, regardless of race or class. And their brightest hope was a reedy-throated kid named Bob Dylan.Dylan arrived on the scene with a beat-up acoustic guitar and a voice that David Bowie later compared to “sand and glue” in his “Song For Bob Dylan” from Hunky Dory (1971). That track is both an echo and parody of an early Dylan number written for Woody Guth­rie that appeared on his self-titled debut. Within a few short years, Dylan found himself at a creative crossroads. He was infuriated by those who wanted to place limits on him or force him into a mold. Burroughs’ lifestyle and intellectual product, all slashing wordplay and Billy the Kid attitude, looked like freedom. Dylan’s talent and ambition bred resentment within the scene that gave him his ini­tial boost. More than a few of his fellow artists viewed Dylan with a combination of jealousy and skepticism. Traditionalists thought he was hopelessly self-absorbed; even his supporters fretted over his growing recognition beyond the cloister. Dylan was desperate for a new identity. Inspired by Burroughs, the young folkie set about cut­ting up and rearranging the character of “Bob Dylan” into exciting, confounding, and ever-changing forms.Burroughs’ quicksilver abstractions opened up new creative possibilities for Dylan, who had only recently taken a more impres­sionistic approach to songwriting. “Hey, you dig something like cut-ups? I mean, like William Burroughs?” Dylan asked interviewer Paul J. Robbins in a conversation published in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1965. Burroughs had left Tangier that spring and returned to New York, where he hoped to get clean and benefit from what Ginsberg assured him was his emerging status in the counterculture. Ginsberg was already on friendly terms with Dylan, but not yet the groupie he’d become. “Tell him I’ve been reading him and that I be­lieve every word he says,” Dylan told Ginsberg about Burroughs. But what wisdom could an aging, junkie author impart to a twenty-­four-year-old on the verge of superstardom? Maybe he could teach Dylan how to disappear in plain sight. Help a wet-behind-the-ears agent learn what makes a good cover story. Give him tips on keeping it straight in his head. It was time to make introductions.> After encountering Burroughs, Dylan’s work became even more abstract, caustic, and surreal.Burroughs and Dylan took their meeting at a small café in Man­hattan’s East Village, the precise location of which has been lost to time and memory. “He struck me as someone who was obviously competent,” Burroughs later told Victor Bockris. “If his subject had been something that I knew absolutely nothing about, such as math­ematics, I would have still received the same impression of compe­tence. Dylan said he had a knack for writing lyrics and expected to make a lot of money.” Personally, Burroughs had little use for money beyond its utility in purchasing narcotics and avoiding hard labor. But he could easily spot élan, which Dylan had in spades. “He had a likable direct approach in conversation, at the same time cool, re­served,” Burroughs later recalled to Bockris. “He was very young, quite handsome in a sharp-featured way. He had on a black turtle­neck sweater.” Although they only met once in person, Burroughs left a mark on the younger artist. According to critic R. B. Morris, “There’s no doubt that he was greatly influenced by Burroughs’ wild juxtaposing of images and scenes, as well as subject matter.” After encountering Burroughs, Dylan’s work became even more abstract, caustic, and surreal.The indestructible Iggy Pop, himself a Burroughs acolyte, notes the Dylan connection in a BBC Radio profile of the author. “He’s even in Dylan’s ‘Tombstone Blues’!” Pop exclaims, before firing up the track, which includes a verse believed to reference Burroughs: “I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill / I would set him in chains at the top of the hill / Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille / He could die happily ever after.” To Dylan, Burroughs was impossibly hip — James Joyce with nasty habits, T. S. Elliot with a cane sword. Dylan’s evolution from shy folkie to id­iosyncratic icon was greatly accelerated by his immersion in the rhythm and meter of Burroughs’ writing. As scholar James Adams notes, “Without Burroughs and his experiments, Dylan might not have been pushed to compose lines that resemble cut-ups but still emerge from some more personal, purposeful, honest, and human place like those Dylan wrote in 1965.” Take, for example, the lyr­ics from “Gates of Eden,” which evoke the illumination made pos­sible by cut-ups: With a time rusted compass blade Aladdin and his lamp Sits with utopian hermit monks Side saddle on the Golden Calf And on their promises of paradise You will not hear a laugh All except inside the Gates of Eden Burroughs also inspired bravery. In July 1965, Dylan drove a stake through the heart of acoustic purism with an electrified set at the Newport Folk Festival. This was an unforgivable offense in the eyes (and ears) of the folk cognoscenti, but for Dylan, it was all about following his instincts. At twenty-five, he was a creative sponge, and the East Village offered plenty in the way of sop. It is likely that Dylan attended a pair of readings Burroughs gave at the East End Theater in the same YMCA building that Burroughs would call home a decade hence. The author recited sections of Naked Lunch and Nova Express — works that Dylan claimed as an influence. In 2016, Dylan would win a Nobel Prize, which included recognition for his 1965 novel, Tarantula . The book owes much to Burroughs, including, perhaps, its title, which may have originated in a bit of stagecraft described in a New York Times review of one of Burroughs’ readings:> Mr. Burroughs, a lean, formal man who sounds something like the late Will Rogers as he reels off dry jokes, read a story that conveyed the idea that various bizarre characters were in a port seeded with atomic mines. The people wanted to leave, but Mr. Burroughs’ audience did not. Warmed by such interest, he livened up his one-syllable-at-a-time reading with sudden bursts of dra­matic activity, eventually ripping down a white-sheet backdrop and uncovering a painting of horrifying tarantulas.Dylan was also a self-admitted practitioner of cut-ups, though it is unclear how often he employed the technique. He claims not to have used them in his songs due to the need to rhyme. On the other hand, there is evidence that some of his compositions featured cut-ups, such as the line “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” from “Visions of Johanna,” released the year after his meeting with Burroughs. Dylan denies that Tarantula was a cut-up work, which seems dubious to anyone familiar with the technique or the book itself. Nevertheless, recently released bonus footage in D. A. Pennebaker’ ...Read more

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