Born as William Seward Burroughs, February 5, 1914, St. Louis, MO (died August 2, 1997); married Ilse Klapper, Joan Vollmer. Education: Attended Harvard University, received BA. Education: Attended Harvard University, received BA.

William S. Burroughs is one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Books like Naked Lunch, Junky, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, Cities of the Red Night, and The Western Lands pushed the form of the novel to its outermost limits and introduced previously-unexplored or taboo themes such as drug addiction, homosexuality, and systems of control. Published to great critical and legal controversy Burroughs' first books were routinely banned for obscenity his work early on won a small audience of writers, critics and enthusiasts that quickly grew. By the 1970s, Burroughs' influence was being felt throughout the arts, by filmmakers, visual artists, and in particular musicians.

His affect on music was beginning to be felt early in the decade when groups like Soft Machine and Steely Dan took their names from Burroughs' books. Interestingly "heavy metal," the name given to the music of groups like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, was an expression coined by Burroughs around 1960. But it was the punk and new wave movements that adopted Burroughs as their godfather. His highly critical view of government, the mass media and middle class life in general matched the rebellious sensibilities of groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Caberet Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. It eventually became de rigueur for rock stars to visit and be photographed with Burroughs. His guests ranged from Frank Zappa to Lou Reed and from Blondie, to U2.

Burroughs did not begin collaborating with popular musicians until the 1980s. However he began working systematically with tapes in the mid-1960s. The tape work grew out of writing techniques he developed, the fold-in and the cut-up: pages of writing would be folded or physically cut into pieces and recombined to form new juxtapositions of word and image. Burroughs took those ideas a step further with tape recordings. He recorded texts written by himself an other authors. He then rewound or fast-forwarded through the tape. At random points he inserted other texts, radio broadcasts, even noise recorded in the streets. Those tape "cut-ups" like the written one broke down the associational patterns of thought and enabled the creation of new, previously unthought patterns to emerge. Burroughs believed those associational patterns were largely imposed by outside powers like the mass media. Breaking down those patterns, Burroughs theorized, would be an important step in freeing man from the forces of control all around him. A selection of Burroughs' tape experiments was released in 1981 by Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge on the album Nothing Here Now but The Recordings.

Burroughs' first album was a spoken word recording entitled simply Call Me Burroughs. On it he read from Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Unlike his friend Allen Ginsberg, who sang his own and others poems and songs at readings and on several recordings, reading was Burroughs' essential modus operandi. He read excerpts of his work on several Giorno Poetry Systems albums; at public appearances he usually read selections from published or work-in-progress. In his frequent collaborations with musicians, Burroughs only sang on two pieces " 'T' Ain't No Sin" on Tom Waits' The Black Rider and a thoroughly bizarre version of the Marlene Dietrich hit "Falling in Love Again" on Dead City Radio.

Music made its first appearance on a Burroughs' albums with Breakthrough in the Grey Room, which included pieces by the Master Musicians of Jajouka; one of his first appearances on a music album was the cut "Sharkey's Night" on Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak released in 1983. Their association went back at least five years to their earlier work together with Giorno Poetry Systems and the Nova Conference. On "Sharkey's Night" Anderson's music provided the backdrop to Burroughs' deadpan monologue. He appeared later in Anderson's film Home of the Brave, in which he was her dance partner to the song, "Language is a Virus." That piece, based directly on theories formulated at the time of his cut-up experiments, was just one example of the influence Burroughs was beginning to have on music at the time.

A 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live led to Burroughs first full-blown musical project. The last piece he read was "Twilight's Last Gleaming" from Nova Express. Music coordinator Hal Willner played "The Star-Spangled Banner" as background. The juxtaposition of the national anthem with Burroughs' blackly satiric version of the sinking of the Titanic worked. Six years later, at the suggestion of Allen Ginsberg, Willner approached Burroughs about recording an entire album of similar material. Dead City Radio would be " the image of a true and great American writer with 'The Star-Spangled Banner' behind him ... a timeless album that would sound as if it could have been recorded tomorrow," as Willner wrote in the album's liner notes. One of the high points on the record is Burroughs' reading of "A Thanksgiving Prayer." He gives thanks for everything most shameful in American life and history the ruin of the environment, the slaughter of the Indians and buffalo, hate crimes backed up with the kind of syrupy strings one is used to hearing behind inspirational platitudes mouthed on late night TV. In fact, Willner used old tapes of the NBC Symphony Orchestra on most of the cuts. Other musical contributions were made by John Cale, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, Sonic Youth, and Blondie's Chris Stein.

Willner also co-produced, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, which came out in 1993. Parts of the project closely resemble Dead City Radio's string arrangements; the rest of the music was constructed by the Disposable Heroes of Hihoprisy, a collaboration suggested by Burroughs' secretary, James Grauerholz. The union of Burroughs and hip-hop suggests the extent of the writer's influence: just as in the 1960s Burroughs had openly appropriated texts by other writers for his cut-up novels, music like rap, hip-hop and electronica cut-up and appropriated the work of other musicians by means of sampling technology.

In 1993, Burroughs also released a record with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, "The Priest They Called Him." The piece, originally published in the book Interzone, tells the story of a sick junky looking for a fix on Christmas Eve. Interestingly the piece appears under the title "The Junky's Christmas" on Spare Ass Annie. The two are a study in contrasts. "Junky's Christmas" is awash with nostalgia, sentimentality even. The sound behind "Priest" is the junk-sick feedback wall of Cobain's guitar doing to "Silent Night" what Jimi Hendrix did to "The Star-Spangled Banner," in the words of Rolling Stone's Al Weisel. And six months before Cobain's violent suicide, according to Graham Caveney's Gentleman Junkie, Burroughs remarked of the Nirvana guitarist "There's something wrong with that boy. He frowns for no good reason."

Perhaps the most fruitful of Burroughs' musical collaborations was The Black Rider, a piece for stage directed by Robert Wilson with music and songs by Tom Waits. The premise for the play was an old German folk tale about a hapless marksman, Wilhelm, who makes a deal with the Devil to win a shooting contest and thereby the hand of the girl he loves. The Devil offers some magic bullets guaranteed to hit whatever the shooter desires. The catch: The Devil reserves the right to aim the last bullet however and without meaning to Wilhelm kills his new bride. The story has a sinister parallel to Burroughs' own life. In the early 1950s in Mexico, he killed his wife trying to shoot a wine glass off her head in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs wrote the libretto for the "opera" and his texts formed the basis of the songs Waits wrote. " William Burroughs was as solid as a metal desk and his text was the branch this bundle would swing from," Waits wrote in the Black Rider liner notes. "His cut up text and open process of finding a language for this story became a river of words for me to draw from...." In addition to his brilliant vocal on " 'T' Ain't No Sin," he contributed the lyrics, drawn from his own hard experience, for "Crossroads:" "Now, George was a good straight boy ... but there was bad blood in him someway he got into magic bullets and that leads straight to Devil's work, just like marywanna leads to heroin You think you can take those bullets of leave 'em, do you? Just save a few for bad days." The Black Rider, unlike Burroughs earlier musical albums, was more than a hodgepodge selection of earlier writing. The pieces were new, they were unified by the play's story, and the music was composed by an artist as much as genius in his realm as Burroughs is in his, Tom Waits.

In the last four years of his life, Burroughs did not work on any other musical projects. Less than a year after his death in August of 1997, a four-CD set of readings he did for Giorno Poetry Systems was released.

by Gerald E. Brennan

William S. Burroughs's Career

Met students Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in New York City, mid-1940s; published first book, Junkie, 1953; wrote Queer, early 1950s; first sections of Naked Lunch published, 1958; wrote cut-up novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, published, 1961-64; collaborated on series of films, including Towers Open Fire, with Anthony Balch, 1963; tape recorder experiments, 1964-68; appeared at Nova Convention, 1979; appeared on Saturday Night Live, 1981; published Cities of the Red Night, 1981; published Queer, 1985; appeared as old junkie in Gus Van Sant's film Drugstore Cowboy; published The Western Lands, 1987; released Dead City Radio, Island Records, 1990; released Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Island Records, 1993; released "The 'Priest' They Called Him,"with Kurt Cobain, Tim/Kerr Records, 1993; released The Black Rider, with Tom Waits, Island Records,1993.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

March 1, 2006: The New York Public Library purchased the Burroughs's archive for its Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, which also includes Jack Kerouac's literary and personal archive. Source: New York Times,, March 1, 2006.

Further Reading



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