The novels of William S. Burroughs, notably the notorious Naked Lunch, written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, have exerted a disproportionate influence on counter-cultural artists, authors, film-makers, and musicians over subsequent decades. Among those influenced by Burroughs are the 1970s pop group Steely Dan, who took their name from a rubber appendage in Naked Lunch; it is possible to trace a line through that band to contemporary science fiction author William Gibson in the 1980s and 90s, a writer known for references to Steely Dan lyrics in his work. It is but one instance of the continued relevance of Burroughs in cultural life, a legacy primarily illustrated through the medium of popular music.
“It is a book unlike any other. Famous, infamous, derided, and banned but also recognised as a work of genius. For fifty years, it has tantalized, shocked, baffled, and inspired. It simultaneously holds a significant place in postmodern literature while retaining its iconic, underground allure, resisting diverse critical attempts to define and explain it. It is an aberrant concoction, stylistically brilliant and structurally disorientating, obscene and blasphemous and yet satirically cathartic and redemptive.”
[Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen, Preface to Naked Lunch @ 50: anniversary essays, 2009]
Burroughs came to prominence in parallel with the Beat Generation , which he described as a “sociological movement… a cultural revolution”, and is often cited as Godfather and Mentor of the Beats (though a reluctant pioneer himself, never keen on being allied with any group or cause). His reputation was forged with Naked Lunch, published in 1959, which completes the seminal trilogy of Beat works (after Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road). His work has become a byword for the transgressive in modern literature; his status as an iconoclastic figure was recognised in his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper in 1967, together with numerous major cultural figures. He is credited with introducing the terms ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘heavy metal’ to popular culture – in The Soft Machine, the character Uranian Willy is described as “the Heavy Metal Kid” – a reference initially taken up by the band Steppenwolf, which came to be used for an entire musical genre.
Whilst acknowledging that many readers would find it ‘disgusting’, contemporary critic Mary McCarthy declared in her New York Times review that the almost-plotless Naked Lunch “must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction.” Avant-garde and experimental it may have been, but many readers must have been not only ‘disgusted’, but thoroughly confused, “as Burroughs's alter-ego William Lee and a shifting cast of protagonists drift in and out of heroin-laced visions of scoring drugs, sexual obsession and degradation, bizarre political plots, and even stranger medical experiments.”
Naked Lunch (whose title was suggested by Kerouac) can be seen as a synthesis of Burroughs’ myriad interests: philosophy, science, language, consciousness, mind travel, altered states and pharmacology. Recognised as a radical, subversive artistic statement, the book was subjected to censorship and faced charges of obscenity (it was banned after a trial in Boston in 1962, a verdict overturned four years later); it repulsed mainstream western society – read as a reaction against its values – challenging the use of language as a means of political, sexual and social control. For Burroughs biographer Barry Miles, it remains “a devastating attack on the hypocrisy, greed, racism, addiction to power and mindless suburban consumerism of the postwar American way of life.”
The origins of Burroughs’ pioneering works lie with Brion Gysin, a British-Canadian poet and painter, and his invention of the cut-up technique – using random juxtapositions of text which are literally cut into pieces and re-assembled. This was adopted by Burroughs when the two were living at the Beat Hotel, Paris (9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, in the Latin Quarter) in the 1950s; he acknowledged Gysin as “the first to create cut-ups.” Burroughs had been attempting to edit Naked Lunch for several years, and finally completed it using this technique. Each of the cut-up novels which followed Naked Lunch – The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express – proved especially influential; David Bowie has by his own admission made use of the method in his lyric writing. Another musician active in New York in the mid-to-late 1970s, David Byrne of Talking Heads, has described the cut-up technique as a means of “achieving a freedom from the strictures of conventional language and thought”.
Naked Lunch & Soft Machine UK Corgi covers, courtesy of www.beatbookcovers.com
With his transgressive fiction and anti-authoritarian stance, Burroughs is regarded as a significant influence on punk – during the 1970s he lived close to its major venues in New York’s Bowery district, CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, where he could often be found, and wrote a column for rock magazine Crawdaddy. Several musicians active in that scene took inspiration from the work of Burroughs – for example, both Iggy Pop (explicitly in his song ‘Gimme Some Skin’) and Patti Smith (in her debut album Horses). In addition, the lyric of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ has its source in the ‘operation rewrite’ section of Burroughs’ novel The Ticket That Exploded – the character of Johnny Yen, strip teases, torture films and “hypnotising chickens” can all be found here. His enduring influence extended to the UK in the same period, where it can also be located in Joy Division’s 1979 song ‘Interzone’ – the imagined setting of Naked Lunch – which also became the title of a respected British science fiction magazine founded in the early 1980s [a publication whose Leeds origins will be explored in a future post].
 OED: a movement of young people in the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected conventional society, valuing self-expression and favouring modern jazz. Wikipedia: Central elements of “Beat” culture included rejection of received standards, innovations in style, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and explicit portrayals of the human condition.