It seems odd that I might identify with William S. Burroughs.
His new biography reminds me of that fact. Call Me Burroughs by Barry Miles was released just recently and it seems to be something of an authoritative text. I plan to read it (I know, I know. One more for the pile.) and attempt to determine what draws me to the granddaddy of all Beat writers. But I have my hunches.
At face value, my life is positively bland in comparison to Burroughs. But then I suppose most people's would be. I have no destructive addictions (at least none that have fully debilitated me), I've never been to Tangiers, and I've never killed anyone (and neither did Burroughs, at least not on purpose.) I've never tried banishing my inner demons through sweat lodge shamans, but maybe I should. Writers such as Franz Kafka and certainly William Gibson would seem more in line with my experience and disposition.
And yet...and yet...
Burroughs was an iconoclast to say the least. He held those regarded as "experts" with suspicion at best and contempt at worst. He wanted to throw out all convention. I can only imagine what his response would have been to the graduate writing workshops I attended. Or worse...what he'd say of the writing classes I teach. Doubtless he would scarcely stomach them. No, his calling was to render the dreary realism of the world in such a way that you could laugh. Albeit it's gallows humor, but you chuckle nonetheless. That is when you get done blushing.
I also can't help but identify with his sense of alienation. As Burroughs said, "after one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say 'I want to see the manager.'" For all of his bizarre-ness in prose and willful verbicide, he might have been more in-tune with reality than most anyone else. He took a look around, puked, and cried to anyone who would listen, "I don't belong here and you probably don't either."
The appeal might also be hidden within the first sentence of that previous paragraph: aliens. Yes, Burroughs had an interest in them and UFOs. He met with Whitley Strieber, talked UFOs and Communion, and bemoaned the fact that he was never selected for abduction. "Why are abductions and contacts always to mediocre or inferior minds? Why don’t they come and see ME?" Why indeed, Mr. Burroughs. Why indeed?
Then again, it might be Burroughs' long-lasting influence on rock and roll to which I'm truly indebted. Burroughs hobnobbed with many of my musical idols, not the least of which being David Bowie (pictured above with Burroughs), Michael Stipe, and of course Bono. In fact, check out U2's post-apocalyptic video for "Last Night on Earth." WSB shows up at the very end.
Those three aforementioned song writers have oft expressed gratitude towards the cut-up method. If Burroughs had anything to do with influencing them, he'd be just fine in my book...even if I'd never read anything by him.
But of course I have read him. The man had an innate sense of style. Check this bit out from the article I linked from the The Atlantic at the outset of this post. It describes Burroughs'...
"...quasi-magical revenge attack on a Boulder deli from which two of his opiated friends had recently been thrown out. First, Burroughs arranged for a surreptitious tape recording to be made inside the deli—ambient noise, kitchen clatter, waitress-customer banter—and then, days later, with equal surreptitiousness, he played it back from a cassette recorder inside his coat as he sat at one of the tables. As Miles writes: “Over the next hour he increased the volume so that you could just about hear it, but no one appeared to notice.” Yet subliminal damage was being inflicted: discontinuous time streams, information feedback. “After forty-five minutes … one of the waiters threw down his apron and stalked out, followed by the owner, arguing loudly. The owner returned and began to scream at the serving staff, sending two of the women running to the ladies’ room in tears."
Whatever the case, I need to read the bio, I need to finish that scholarly paper on Burroughs and cut-ups that I did the research for oh so long ago, and I need to "write my way out of" everything else.
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