Drawn to the Beat


Review: ‘William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll’ by Casey Rae.

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joined to begin new recordings in 1972, they decided to call their band “Steely Dan,” taking the name from a dildo—”Steely Dan III from Yokohama”—that makes a brief appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch.

And from that stray bit of information, one could begin to construct a genealogy, a tree of inspirations and references, that takes us to a very strange place. Start with the fact that English-language rock ‘n’ roll, from the 1960s through the 1980s, remains the best-selling, most-listened-to music in the history of the world. Add the fact that just about every influential rocker has mentioned Burroughs’s books, with half of them trekking across America at one point or another, on pilgrimage to meet the man. And we arrive at the conclusion that William S. Burroughs is the single most influential novelist who ever lived.

Maybe it’s here that we need to start clawing our way back up to sanity from the darker depths of willful imagination. A literature with Charles Dickens in it—or Robinson CrusoePride and PrejudiceThe Scarlet LetterMoby Dick—doesn’t need to look to Burroughs’s Junkie (1953), The Soft Machine(1961), and The Wild Boys (1971) to find influential novels.

Yeah, nearly every pop artist with avant-garde ambitions has proclaimed Burroughs’s transformative effect on their music, from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, Patti Smith to David Bowie, Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer to Michael Stipe. But much of that praise for the elderly Beat writer comes across a little thin and aspirational: a desire to be thought to have been influenced by him, more than, you know, actually being influenced in some particular way. read more

10 Comments on Drawn to the Beat

  1. Influence? Yeah. Sort of similar to de Tocqueville – most who quote him have never read him.
    Same with the “leftists” who babble about the Bible.

    I never read Burroughs but if its as turgid as Kerouac (which I only got through a couple of pages), I’m not going to try.
    Saw the movie, that was enough.

    izlamo delenda est …

  2. It’s typical that ideas are passed around in certain groups like a spreading virus.
    Agree with Tim, I couldn’t finish the 1st chapter of Kerouac’s book on the road. Why it was found so popular is a mystery to me. It drew as much interest as someone describing a day spent painting his house.

  3. I found William S. Burroughs’ writing repellant. Good thing they only played at fetishizing him, though some of them may have taken a more R&D approach.

  4. There is a franchise operation called “Lunchbox Wax”, that offer Brazilian waxes to, you know where. The first time I saw one, I stood there staring incomprehensibly.

    I wonder if the company name was inspired by Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch”.

    It would be better for us to go back to Victorian standards than what we have now.

  5. Not that I have read it, but I read (somewhere else) that “on the Road” pretty much plagiarizes another book, especially the opening which is almost word for word.

    This adoration reminds me of the line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Dangling Conversation”:

    “You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost.”

    They aren’t reading them because those pieces are enlightening but rather because it is what the cool kids do.


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