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.