Monday, 28 April 2014

Interconnections: From William Burroughs to Steely Dan to William Gibson (Part Two)


Burroughs had his own career as a recording artist, releasing a series of spoken-word albums; his first official LP, in 1965, produced at and issued by the English Bookshop in Paris (42, rue de Seine on the Left Bank), was Call Me Burroughs. The Beatles apparently all had copies of the record, as well as art dealer Robert Fraser and members of the Rolling Stones. He also experimented with tape ‘cut-ups’ in much the same way as his writing – the recordings he made with Ian Sommerville in London were eventually released as Break through in Grey Room in 1986. 1990 saw the acclaimed release of Dead City Radio, an album which served as a musical vehicle for Burroughs’ spoken words; the following year, the film version of Naked Lunch, directed by David Cronenberg, helped to consolidate his relevance to a new generation. Throughout his career, he regarded collaboration as an essential part of the creative process; he later worked with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain, R.E.M., Patti Smith, Tom Waits and also, appropriately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Sonic Youth paid overt homage in a series of albums, and were among those to visit Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas (in 1993). 

An American writer based in Canada, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer popularised the science fiction ‘Cyberpunk’ sub-genre [1], marked by a fascination with technology. Gibson has confessed that “I had to teach myself not to write too much like Burroughs”, though his own work remains highly acclaimed and influential. His novels are also known for their frequent allusions to Steely Dan, a band whose name was itself taken from Naked Lunch. While suggesting the use of the name shouldn’t be taken too literally, Donald Fagen conceded that “we have certainly picked up on some of his world view. I admire Burroughs a lot.” 

Gibson has described Steely Dan’s music as “among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late 20th-century pop”. Direct references to their songs in his work include Barrytown (a location), The Gentleman Loser (a bar), Here at the Western World (another bar), and Klaus and the Rooster (characters). Steely Dan, formed in New York, were ostensibly a conventional seventies soft-rock act. They were nonetheless labelled “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies” by Rolling Stone magazine – possibly owing to the sometimes sinister effect of their cryptic, often obscure lyrics hidden within smooth jazz-rock arrangements, suggesting subversive intent; according to Danny Weizmann (in Too Cool), they “pushed the most potent lyric pills since mid-Dyl[an].” 

Gibson is an outwardly conventional figure in appearance (as Burroughs was); he is an innovator in terms of ideas, if not language. The last twenty years particularly have seen him moving beyond traditional sci-fi in a series of novels exploring what happens to humanity in an increasingly technologically-dominated society, tackling the nature of ‘virtual reality’ and the role of the Internet in shaping the modern world, addressing the insidious nature of corporate advertising and branding. Gibson investigates the implications for the very near future, in effect commenting on contemporary life; in this respect he shares an affinity with English author J.G. Ballard, another admirer of Burroughs, who also moved beyond the conventions of science fiction. Gibson’s work has been characterised by critic John Clute as “SF for the new century.” Whilst the Steely Dan references have lessened in recent years, he still titled his 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, a nod to Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and their counter-cultural legacy. That book also featured a mysterious character known as the ‘Tao man’, who Gibson has explained as “some sort of avatar connected to the late William Burroughs. An unconscious expression of Burroughsness.”

However, there is always a flip-side to these rich interconnections: Billy Idol paid a dubious homage to Gibson with his 1993 Cyberpunk album, featuring a track entitled ‘Neuromancer’; an enterprise mildly described by Gibson as “very silly.” Also preferably ignored are the subsequent adoption of Deacon Blues (a dire 1980s band appropriating a Steely Dan song title), and The Wild Boys (another Burroughs title and, extending the connection, dismal Duran Duran hit; a group whose own name derived from the 1968 science fiction film Barbarella). In his later years, all manner of unlikely musicians, without any obvious connection to him or signs of influence, began to see a Burroughs photo-opportunity as an ideal means of establishing their own counter-cultural credentials – chief among them Sting and the ubiquitous Bono. While the music of Steely Dan and the novels of William Gibson have a devoted following, they are essentially cult interests. Despite the avant-garde origins and often challenging nature of his work, it is Burroughs who has permeated popular culture, for better or worse.

The influences and the influenced: Call Me Burroughs (Original Cover Design: Tientje Louw, Cover Photo: Harriet Crowther); Neuromancer (Front Cover Illustration by Steve Crisp); Cyberpunk (Cover Art by Mark Frauenfelder)

[1] OED definition: A genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology; it has been said that “without Naked Lunch there would probably be no cyberpunk” (Richard Kadrey and Larry McCaffery, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, 1991)

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