Beat Writer William Burroughs Dead At 83

William Burroughs--considered the first Beat author and a tremendous

influence on such musicians as Patti Smith, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Kurt

Cobain--died Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas after suffering a heart

attack. He was 83.

Burroughs was best known for his 1959 novel Naked Lunch. Hailed by

many as a 20th century masterpiece but also initially condemned by some as

garbage, Naked Lunch flouted traditional literary techniques to limn

a scatological tale of heroin use. The book soon became the subject of a

precedent-setting obscenity trial, and was finally published in the United

States in 1962.

The author's work found a particular sympathetic ear among musicians. Poet

and singer Patti Smith knew Burroughs and cited him as an influence.

Steely Dan took their name from a dildo in Naked Lunch, and the

British prog-rock band Soft Machine assumed their moniker from the

1961 Burroughs novel of the same name.

In more recent years, the author

collaborated on albums with Cobain (The Priest They Called Him), as

well as with Michael Franti (Spearhead, the Disposable Heroes of

Hiphoprisy) on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales. Last year, R.E.M.'s

Michael Stipe honored Burroughs at a tribute in Kansas.

Eventually Burroughs' reputation moved beyond that of a literary talent.

After his best years of writing, he became a more general figure of popular

culture. U2 tapped him to appear in a video; he had roles in the films

Drugstore Cowboy and Twister; Nike cast him in a commercial.

William Seward Burroughs was born in 1914 in St. Louis, the grandson of the

inventor of the adding machine. In 1936 he received an English degree from

Harvard and soon thereafter moved to New York City. It was there that

Burroughs developed the heroin habit that would inform his work for the

rest of his career. His first novel, the 1953 paperback Junkie (with Burroughs using the pseudonym "William Lee"), was

neither a condemnation nor an exultation of addiction. Rather, it

described the junkie's world in astonishingly frank detail.

Heroin "is a good servant but a bad master, and few can keep it in its

place," Burroughs later told Washington Post writer David Streitfeld.

During the 1940s in New York, Burroughs became friends with Allen Ginsberg

(Howl) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road). Together, the three

writers became the core of the Beat movement. They eschewed critical

editing in favor of a stream-of-consciousness style. Naked Lunch

(whose title was suggested by Kerouac) was arranged in seemingly random

order with startling transitions.

Although Burroughs later admitted he was gay, for five years in the '40s

and '50s he maintained a common law marriage with Joan Vollmer. Her death

at Burroughs' own drunken hand was said to have colored his future work

even more than his drug addiction.

All the way up to his death, the author was fascinated with guns. In 1951,

he and Vollmer were in Mexico when he attempted to shoot a glass from atop

her head and missed, killing her. He later said the event forced him into

literature. "I have had no choice but to write my way out," Burroughs wrote.

After living in both London and New York, Burroughs moved to Lawrence in

1981. He lived there in good health until Friday, when he suffered a heart

attack. He died at Lawrence Memorial Hospital the next day.