- Downtown New York's Prodigal Sun
Known as the king of the Beats, godfather of punk, guiding saint of social misfits, and a symbol of anti-censorship, counterculture, and queer cultural history, William S. Burroughs attained newfound fame in the United States within the perfect storm of Downtown New York's cultural explosion in the late 1970s. Resonating with Burroughs's own incredulous life story, the "Downtown scene," geographically located in the East Village and Lower Eastside of Manhattan, is a paradoxical tale of adversity yielding unprecedented creativity. In a state of urban bankruptcy, the experimental doit-yourself amateur thrived while the music genres of punk, disco, hip-hop, no wave, and new wave mixed with conceptual, performance, and street art practices. Burroughs's influence upon Downtown New York is evident in numerous examples and quotations. He provided bands with names and song lyrics, artists with the "cut-up" method, and for many, general "junkie" idolatry. Even though the majority of Downtown scenesters were some forty years his junior, Burroughs became required reading—and seeing—Downtown.
Like the Downtown milieu, the Burroughs universe is also a highly social and creative network. Burroughs provides practices, pathways, and senses of identity for young cultural producers, cutting across the past, present, and future. Noted in Casey Rae's scrupulous history, William Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll (2019), for the innovators of popular music history, from proto-to post-punk to alt-rock, all roads seem to lead to Burroughs. Rae's Burroughsian rock lineage includes Downtown New York legends such as Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and Laurie Anderson. Burroughs affected their creative journeys and careers, which subsequently spawned their own trajectories of fan inspiration. Burroughs's cross-generational influence upon Downtown New York was mostly due to his residence at "the Bunker" (1976–1981), and the events of the Nova Convention (1978). Moreover, a coterie of young fan boys and girls from within the Downtown scene promoted these sites and became responsible for constructing Burroughs' new public image.
After living twenty-five years abroad in locations from Mexico City to Tangier to Paris to London, Burroughs moved back to the city of his Beat roots in 1974. At sixty, Burroughs desired financial stability and critical recognition in the United States after falling into relative obscurity following Naked Lunch's obscenity trial in 1965. He was broke and, to his dismay, accepted a teaching job at The City University of New York. Two years into his return, he moved to the Bunker, an old YMCA at 222 Bowery just a few blocks from the iconic punk and new wave venue, CBGB. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Bowery was known for its prostitution and saloons, often catering to a queer clientele. In the 1970s the street became famous for its "Bowery bums" and accessible drugs. One of the downsides to this period was Burroughs's own relapse in 1979–1980. Dubbed his "punk phase," young junkies affiliated with the music scene scored heroin for him, turning the Bunker into a shooting gallery.
The former men's YMCA locker room, windowless and sparse, soon became Downtown dinner party central. As salon, the Bunker was a site for intellectual conversation and cultural exchange across generations and high and low cultures. It was entertaining, fun, and revolved around Burroughs as host. Like Warhol's Factory before it, the Bunker was its own world, operating with its own set of rules and creating its own star system built on "love and tension," with Burroughs at its center. Victor Bockris, a Downtown hipster who frequented the Mudd Club, worked for Andy Warhol, and appeared on episodes of Downtown's preeminent public access television show, Glenn O'Brien's TV Party (1978–82), would make a career out of historicizing cultural giants such as Burroughs, Lou Reed, and Keith Richards. Bockris coordinated and curated the Bunker's social activities so that Burroughs could mingle with cultural icons, from the well-established Mick Jagger to the up-and-coming Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Bockris's book, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (1981), loosely documents the Bunker's...