- A Matter of Electricity:William Burroughs and Rock Music
Casey Rae admits up front in William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll (2019), a chronicle of the writer's decade spanning relationship with the rock world, that Burroughs was "not much of a music expert." However, Burroughs's fiction, biography, and above all the "cut-up" writing technique that he pioneered, inspired several generations of rock musicians. Rae portrays the writer as the "Where's Waldo?" of rock and roll, always present in the picture, even if hidden in the background. Burroughs was a presence in the "classic rock" era; his paper cut-out stands right by Marilyn Monroe's in the legendary collage cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). There's Burroughs again, at the end of the rock era, exchanging tapes with Kurt Cobain on their collaborative noise/spoken word project, The Priest They Called Him (1993).
However, the relation between Burroughs and rock 'n' roll was not built on music; it evolved alongside the counterculture movement of the 1960s. It's a commonplace to say that Burroughs's fiction in the 1950s anticipated the revolt against suburbia that would become a mass movement in America a decade later. Less attention has been paid to the correspondences between the writer's aesthetic evolution in the '60s and the central ideas of the counterculture. By the mid '60s, Burroughs is directly addressing a younger generation of readers in his polemical writing, hoping to persuade them to adopt his own idiosyncratic program for revolt. Burroughs's speculative essay on do-it-yourself taping and its subversive possibilities, "The Invisible Generation," is now frequently anthologized in media studies textbooks. However, the essay was originally published in 1966 in the International Times, the principal newspaper of the London underground, and name-checked the Beatles and their recent radio hit "Yellow Submarine" (1966). The writer's intentions were obvious; he wanted to reach the young rock audience and persuade them to not only embrace the new technology of the cassette machine, but to weaponize it, in the struggle against the Establishment.
While many counterculture groups sought to get "back to nature," others had utopian dreams about machines. In a technology enhanced, post-scarcity society, goods and information would circulate freely. "Classic rock" required electricity and state of the art equipment. "Fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here," Bob Dylan is said to have remarked about the gatekeepers at the Newport Folk Festival, right before he scandalized audiences by playing with a rock band. Throughout the 1960s, Burroughs collaborated with Anthony Balch and Ian Sommerville (also a software engineer) on a series of visionary experiments in moviemaking and sound recording. These multimedia projects opened these formats to alternative ideas, as well as break down barriers separating intellectual fields. The line between technological and aesthetic advances was similarly blurred in '60s rock music. New pedals for electric guitars like the wah pedal and fuzzbox transformed the sound of the instrument. By decade's end, rock concerts were now indelibly associated with the image of amplifier stacks towering over the stage, and high decibel sound. Rock was also the first music made with the recording studio in mind. The Beatles and The Beach Boys embraced the studio as a laboratory for creating fresh sounds. With the right equipment, any rock musician could potentially re-define the genre and produce something totally original.
It is now apparent that the 1960s was also a golden age for science fiction, a genre wildly popular among counterculture readers. Burroughs produced his own new, mutant version of the form in 1964 with Nova Express. Like many so-called "heads" of the day, the writer's own thinking comprised, in Shelton Waldrep's words, "an uneasy mixture of pseudo-science and sci-fi fantasy." The writer was invited to attend the Phun City Free Festival in Worthing, England in 1970; true to form, he uses the occasion to convert new acolytes to the gospel of technological insurrection. Rock musician and journalist (and sci-fi writer) Mick Farren recalls the comic spectacle of Burroughs among...