Friday, October 11, 2019

The Cult of Rock and Roll: Six Degrees of Art, Poetry and Music

William S. Burroughs (right) with Jimmy Page, guitarist/composer of Led Zeppelin.

A writer with the incredibly apt but real name of Alexander Kafka, who frequently writes about literature for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, penned what I’ve long felt was an ideal characterization of beat legend William S. Burroughs: “Burroughs was an ethereal intermediary between here and the fiery beyond, pausing to give us the purgatorial skinny.” That skinny was transmitted, of course, in haunting and disturbing novels such as Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. However, it is through his influence on every other aspect of 20th-century culture in all media that his spectral presence as a witness was most perhaps most long-lasting.

Music for instance. What do Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Jim Carroll, Jerry Garcia and a few even more disparate musicians all have in common? William Burroughs. Kafka cleverly referred to them all as the writer’s amped-up apostles, and indeed they were, chiefly as a result of his outlaw status but also partly because of his unique and innovative literary techniques. All of the above musical artists, to one degree or another, were influenced by not just the Burroughs style and ethos but also the surreal potential to manufacture new and fresh meanings as the result of aleatory alignments of thought, image and text.

In other words, chance is the fool’s name for fate: just let chance be your friendly guide through the underworld of truth-seeking and let your music follow the flow of random associations which might just have an even deeper actuality than those under your conscious control. A technique most famously utilized by the actual surrealists in the early 20th century, the same motif has been absorbed and adopted as a stylistic device by numerous artists who have since become legends in the 21st, Patti Smith being a fine example of one of the more high profile of his acolytes. “Because the night” is one of the most memorable lines of hers for me, simply because it renders truth so crystal clearly while also being largely opaque and impenetrable.

Casey Rae, the author of this captivating new book, William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll, is the director of music licensing for SiriusXM and a longtime music critic whose work has been featured in a wide array of publications, among them The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Billboard and many other industry outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, in addition to having his own personal history as a musician with multiple bands in the 1990’s. Thus his take on the powerful sway of the literary sorcery of Burroughs has professional as well as personal power.

Most importantly, perhaps, Rae correctly identifies what at its highest and finest levels rock and roll really is: a cult. But a great and good cult, a transformative one that parallels and maybe even rivals the outlaw status of the early beat traditions that Burroughs, along with Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac, championed from the wide-open wilderness far outside the literary establishment they shook up so forcefully. They did to literature, for instance, more or less what Reed, Dylan, Bowie and Smith, to pick only the most important giants for the moment, did for and to music: grab it by the throat and force it to listen in a whole new way.

Chris Stein, co-founder with Deborah Harry of the New Wave band Blondie, another pair of musicians deeply influenced by Burroughs and his mythical ethos, provided a testimonial which summed it up pretty well, I think: “William S. Burroughs was as much a quiet rock star as he was an artist or a writer. His inroads into audio, spoken word and music created paths that we all still follow. Casey Rae’s book is a labor of love that offers a map to understanding Burroughs’ complex relationship to music and other art forms.” Well said, and accurate: a map to understanding a quiet rock star.

Rae’s highly readable book is all about connections. Burroughs’ fiction and essays are legendary, but his influence on music’s counterculture has been less well documented, until now. Examining how one of America’s most controversial literary figures altered the destinies of many notable and varied musicians, The Cult of Rock and Roll reveals the transformations in music history which can all be directly traced back to him. A heroin addict and a gay man in a closeted era, Burroughs rose to notoriety outside the conventional literary world, and his masterpiece, Naked Lunch, was banned on the grounds of obscenity. But its non-linear structure was just as daring as its content.

Burroughs with Tom Waits, ragged hobo beat troubadour, in 1990, the year of their collaborative and experimental theatre venture with Robert Wilson, The Black Rider.

I believe the most important and influential musician/composer who can be traced back into the Burroughs trajectory is probably the brilliant and mercurial Bob Dylan, whose ‘65 and ‘66 masterpieces Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are both stunning and exemplary examples of the inheritance. Many listeners are still, in fact, trying to interpret the true meanings of these poetic monoliths. And the same is true of another member of Uncle Bill’s exotic tribe of outcasts, Lou Reed, the ferocious co-founder of Velvet Underground and the genius behind 1972’s Transformer and 1974’s Berlin, in which a similar vein of obscurely mined dream resources has been shared with us via his appreciation for Burroughs.

In what is definitely an insider’s saga and behind-the-scenes exposé, Rae chronicles the parallel rise to fame of both Burroughs as the ultimate counterculture grandfather and the most incisive musical artists of the '60s, '70s and '80s, when it became a rite of passage to hang out with the author. To drink with him, do some drugs with him, listen to music with him, and also often incorporate his droll and sarcastic baritone voice into spoken-word pieces they crafted together. At the same time, of course, they were also simply utilizing his notorious cut-up method, literally fusing random ideas and fragments into revolutionary lyrics to match their equally evolutionary musical styles. The Beatles’ casual and informal use of this method gave them some of the shimmering material for both Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, for instance.

Burroughs deeply explored the outer limits of the occult with Bowie and Page, and gave advice on how to survive being famous while still extolling the virtues of street life to Reed and Smith, although he wasn’t able to help Nirvana’s founder Kurt Cobain survive his own demons. He was, however, a helpful demonic counselor for anyone and everyone who approached him in the correct manner: as the Pope of Dope and King of Grime.

As Burroughs put it in his usual laconic and understated style when characterizing his cut-and-splice method of prose/poetry construction: “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” Rae is equally adept at capturing some of the essential ethos that made Burroughs such a permanent outsider icon to rock and roll outlaws seeking his blessing. “Slice the atom or slice the page and see what happens,” Rae opines in his study. “Burroughs would alarm the literary establishment much as the Trinity detonation shocked the residents of Los Alamos. As it turns out, ‘The Bomb’ is also a decent metaphor for the self-annihilation of the junk fix. Like drugs, music can make the world around us disappear. Whether it’s a powerful live performance or a captivating record album, we are reduced to dumbstruck awe, as those observing the Trinity nuclear tests must have been. Jimi Hendrix bends a note beyond the stratosphere in napalm bursts of kaleidoscopic sound. The air shudders; we are consumed by the blast. The bombs keep falling and the hits keep coming: Naked Lunch in 1959, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964; Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Patti Smith at St. Mark’s Church in 1971. Each incident produced tremendous cultural shockwaves. These chain reactions continue to ripple into our future, yet we can return to the past at anytime, simply by rewinding the tape.”

David Bowie. (Photo: Michael Putland)

Anyone who has ever listened to Bowie’s early rock music – such as Aladdin Sane from 1973, before he became the consummate pop star, or Patti Smith’s Horses, from 1975, in which she predicted some of the punk ethos still a couple of years away – especially anyone who has been under the listening influence of something stronger than red wine, can attest to the molecular-altering power of music designed to entice us into alternate universes. Dimensions of feeling shared by literary and musical innovation.

But it would be a mistake to imply that drugs are either a good idea or a creative prerequisite to creativity, and Rae never falls into that folly. He merely reports on the massive interconnections between music and words, between the beat ethos, and the hippie mythos, and the punk pathos.
Intoxication, however, from whatever source, always seems to loom large.

I certainly agree with the assessment expressed by the erstwhile Mr. Kafka of The Washington Post that this book is at its finest when following the contours of the lyrical and sonic collages of “art rock” in the way they echo and evoke Burroughs’ slice-and-dice method of composition in literary form: “Rae goes further in fact, arguing provocatively that although Burroughs died in 1997 at the age of 83, he freakishly presaged the fractured, distracting memes and bytes of today’s Web mind.” Except that I don’t think this was a provocative judgment; I actually believe that Burroughs somehow saw, or at least sensed, the future (perhaps owing to the way he claimed to cut into the present, now the 20th-century past) in a visionary way that allowed him to suggest several audacious and outlandish claims. To Burroughs, art was a universal and timeless, deconstructive subversion of the establishment reality that he called “Control,” and in that respect the American journalist Kafka is just as insightful as his famous namesake, the Czech Franz, who also believed that reality (especially his) was something oppressive and smothering, something that needed to be fought against by any means necessary.

For Burroughs, it was the anarchic energy he transmitted in his 1971 novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, in which he depicted a homosexual youth movement whose objective was the downfall of western civilization, set in an apocalyptic late 20th century. For musical artists such as Reed and Bowie, however, the weaponry consisted of themselves, since they were the very wild boys being characterized. To them, Burroughs had been writing about them, and now they were here to provide a fresh commentary on the collapse itself.

This was to be accomplished in part via Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity and 1972 Ziggy Stardust albums and in Reed’s case by using the soundtrack of sheer feedback mayhem unleashed by in his unnerving double 1975 album Metal Machine Music. In my opinion, though, Bob Dylan was by far the furthest ahead of the curve stylistically, with the stream-of-consciousness technique he embodied so perfectly in songs like one of his masterpieces from 1965, “Desolation Row”:

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he when off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row. 

Such lyrics sound as if they may have first seen the light of day in a novel like Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, and who knows? Maybe they did. After all, Robyn Hitchcock’s art-rock band took its very name from that novel’s title. And Steely Dan took its name from a steam-powered pleasure device featured in Naked Lunch. Inspiration, as always, makes for strange bedfellows indeed. But still, the subterranean connections run deep.

Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975.

And the most prescient rock-music press could read, see and hear them clearly. Rolling Stone magazine arranged for Burroughs to interview Bowie in 1974 and Crawdaddy commissioned him to write about Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in 1975. In both those cases the stiff old gent hit it off well with his young hip acolytes, discussing their shared interest in the magic of Aleister Crowley and the mysteries of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy-accumulating box. Ironically, Burroughs’ last public appearance, in 1997, was in another famous rock band’s music video, “Last Night On Earth” by U2. Rock musicians just seemed to love his cool grey eminence. After all, the term “heavy metal” was also borrowed from his Wild Boys novel.

Among the many other musicians in the rock pantheon who gravitated toward his aloof transgressive inspiration fountain were Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, Richard Hell, Nick Cave, Mick Jagger, Cabaret Voltaire, Steppenwolf, Duran Duran, Iggy Pop, Joy Division, Radiohead, and still most importantly for me, Dylan of course, who borrowed some of Uncle Bill’s cut-up technique and “routine-style” delivery for his surreal novel Tarantula in 1966. As a matter of fact, if you mix together a cocktail of Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley, what you end up with is none other than Bob Dylan.

Casey Rae puts it most succinctly in this marvelous book about the intersection of several cults at the same time: “Like Burroughs, Dylan is a mirror: we see what we want to see in his work, and sometimes what we don’t want to see.” In 1965, shortly after Burroughs had left Tangier and taken up with Allen Ginsberg in New York, where he hoped to kick his longtime heroin habit, Dylan, a 24-year-old genius on the verge of super-stardom, remarked to the legendary beat poet of Howl fame something he wanted passed on to Burroughs: “Tell him I’ve been reading him and that I believe every word he says.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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