Burroughs, William S.
Novelist, multimedia artist
William S. Burroughs is one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Books like Naked Lunch, Junky, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, Cities of the Red Night, and The Western Lands pushed the form of the novel to its outermost limits and introduced previously-unexplored or taboo themes such as drug addiction, homosexuality, and systems of control. Published to great critical and legal controversy—Burroughs’first books were routinely banned for obscenity—his work early on won a small audience of writers, critics and enthusiasts that quickly grew. By the 1970s, Burroughs’ influence was being felt throughout the arts, by filmmakers, visual artists, and in particular musicians.
His affect on music was beginning to be felt early in the decade when groups like Soft Machine and Steely Dan took their names from Burroughs’ books. Interestingly “heavy metal,” the name given to the music of groups like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, was an expression coined by Burroughs around 1960. But it was the punk and new wave movements that adopted Burroughs as their godfather. His highly critical view of government, the mass media and middle class life in general matched the rebellious sensibilities of groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Caberet Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. It eventually became de rigueur for rock stars to visit—and be photographed—with Burroughs. His guests ranged from Frank Zappa to Lou Reed and from Blondie, to U2.
Burroughs did not begin collaborating with popular musicians until the 1980s. However he began working systematically with tapes in the mid-1960s. The tape work grew out of writing techniques he developed, the fold-in and the cut-up: pages of writing would be folded or physically cut into pieces and recombined to form new juxtapositions of word and image. Burroughs tookthose ideas a step further with tape recordings. He recorded texts written by himself an other authors. He then rewound or fast-forwarded through the tape. At random points he inserted other texts, radio broadcasts, even noise recorded in the streets. Those tape “cut-ups” —like the written one—broke down the associational patterns of thought and enabled the creation of new, previously unthought patterns to emerge. Burroughs believed those associational patterns were largely imposed by outside powers like the mass media. Breaking down those patterns, Burroughs theorized, would be an important step in freeing man from the forces of control all around him. A selection of Burroughs’ tape experiments was released in 1981 by Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge on the album Nothing Here Now but The Recordings.
Burroughs’ first album was a spoken word recording entitled simply Call Me Burroughs. On it he read from Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Unlike his friend Allen Ginsberg, who sang his own and others poems and songs at readings and on several recordings, reading was Burroughs’ essential modus operandi. He read excerpts of his work on several Giorno Poetry Systems albums; at public appearances he usually read selections from published or work-in-progress. In his frequent collaborations with musicians, Burroughs only sang on two pieces—” ‘T Ain’t No Sin” on Tom Waits’ The Black Rider and a thoroughly bizarre version of the Marlene Dietrich hit “Falling in Love Again” on Dead City Radio. Music made its first appearance on a Burroughs’ albums with Breakthrough in the Grey Room, which included pieces by the Master Musicians of Jajouka; one of his first appearances on a music album was the cut “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak released in 1983. Their association went back at least five years to their earlier work together with Giorno Poetry Systems and the Nova Conference. On “Sharkey’s Night” Anderson’s music provided the backdrop to Burroughs’ deadpan monologue. He appeared later in Anderson’s film Home of the Brave, in which he was her dance partner to the song, “Language is a Virus.” That piece, based directly on theories formulated at the time of his cut-up experiments, was just one example of the influence Burroughs was beginning to have on music at the time.
Born as William Seward Burroughs, February 5, 1914, St. Louis, MO (died August 2, 1997); married llse Klapper, Joan Vollmer. Education: Attended Harvard University, received BA.
Met students Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in New York City, mid-1940s; published first book, Junkie, 1953; wrote Queer, early 1950s; first sections of Naked Lunch published, 1958; wrote cut-up novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, published, 1961-64; collaborated on series of films, including Towers Open Fire, with Anthony Balch, 1963; tape recorder experiments, 1964-68; appeared at Nova Convention, 1979; appeared on Saturday Night Live, 1981; published Cities of the Red Night, 1981; published Queer, 1985; appeared as old junkie in Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy; published The Western Lands, 1987; released Dead City Radio, Island Records, 1990; released Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, IslandRecords, 1993; released “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” with Kurt Cobain, Tim/Kerr Records, 1993; released The Black Rider, with Tom Waits, Island Records, 1993.
A 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live led to Burroughs first full-blown musical project. The last piece he read was “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” from Nova Express. Music coordinator Hal Willner played “The Star-Spangled Banner” as background. The juxtaposition of the national anthem with Burroughs’ blackly satiric version of the sinking of the Titanic worked. Six years later, at the suggestion of Allen Ginsberg, Willner approached Burroughs about recording an entire album of similar material. Dead City Radio would be “the image of a true and great American writer with The Star-Spangled Banner’ behind him … a timeless album that would sound as if it could have been recorded tomorrow,” as Willner wrote in the album’s liner notes. One of the high points on the record is Burroughs’reading of “A Thanksgiving Prayer.” He gives thanks for everything most shameful in American life and history—the ruin of the environment, the slaughter of the Indians and buffalo, hate crimes— backed up with the kind of syrupy strings one is used to hearing behind inspirational platitudes mouthed on late night TV. In fact, Willner used old tapes of the NBC Symphony Orchestra on most of the cuts. Other musical contributions were made by John Cale, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Sonic Youth, and Blondie’s Chris Stein.
Willner also co-produced, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, which came out in 1993. Parts of the project closely resemble Dead City Radio’s string arrangements; the rest of the music was constructed by the Disposable Heroes of Hihoprisy, a collaboration suggested by Burroughs’ secretary, James Grauerholz. The union of Burroughs and hip-hop suggests the extent of the writer’s influence: just as in the 1960s Burroughs had openly appropriated texts by other writers for his cut-up novels, music like rap, hip-hop and electrónica cut-up and appropriated the work of other musicians by means of sampling technology.
In 1993, Burroughs also released a record with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “The Priest They Called Him.” The piece, originally published in the book Interzone, tells the story of a sick junky looking for a fix on Christmas Eve. Interestingly the piece appears under the title “The Junky’s Christmas” on Spare Ass Annie. The two are a study in contrasts. “Junky’s Christmas” is awash with nostalgia, sentimentality even. The sound behind “Priest” is the junk-sick feedback wall of Cobain’s guitar doing to “Silent Night” what Jimi Hendrix did to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in the words of Rolling Stone’s Al Weisel. And six months before Cobain’s violent suicide, according to Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie, Burroughs remarked of the Nirvana guitarist “There’s something wrong with that boy. He frowns for no good reason.”
Perhaps the most fruitful of Burroughs’ musical collaborations was The Black Rider, a piece for stage directed by Robert Wilson with music and songs by Tom Waits. The premise for the play was an old German folk tale about a hapless marksman, Wilhelm, who makes a deal with the Devil to win a shooting contest and thereby the hand of the girl he loves. The Devil offers some magic bullets guaranteed to hit whatever the shooter desires. The catch: The Devil reserves the right to aim the last bullet however and without meaning to Wilhelm kills his new bride. The story has a sinister parallel to Burroughs’ own life. In the early 1950s in Mexico, he killed his wife trying to shoot a wine glass off her head in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs wrote the libretto forthe “opera” and his texts formed the basis of the songs Waits wrote. “William Burroughs was as solid as a metal desk and his text was the branch this bundle would swing from,” Waits wrote in the Black RiderWner notes. “His cut up text and open process of finding a language for this story became a river of words for me to draw from….” In addition to his brilliant vocal on “T Ain’t No Sin,” he contributed the lyrics, drawn from his own hard experience, for “Crossroads:” “Now, George was a good straight boy … but there was bad blood in him someway he got into magic bullets and that leads straight to Devil’s work, just like marywanna leads to heroin You think you can take those bullets of leave ‘em, do you? Just save a few for bad days.” The Black Rider, unlike Burroughs earlier musical albums, was more than a hodgepodge selection of earlier writing. The pieces were new, they were unified by the play’s story, and the music was composed by an artist as much as genius in his realm as Burroughs is in his, Tom Waits.
In the last four years of his life, Burroughs did not work on any other musical projects. Less than a year after his death in August 1997, a four-CD set of readings he did for Giorno Poetry Systems was released.
Call Me Burroughs, 1965, re-released on CD on Rhino 1999.
Nothing Here Now but The Recordings, Industrial Records, 1981.
Laurie Anderson: Mister Heartbreak, Warner Brothers, 1984.
Break Through In Grey Room, Sub Rosa, 1987.
Dead City Radio, Island, 1990
(with Kurt Cobain), “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him,” Tim/Kerr Records, 1993.
Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Island Records, 1993.
(with Tom Waits), The Black Rider, Island, 1993
Best of William Burroughs —From Giorno Poetry Systems, Mouth Almighty/Mercury, 1998
Caveney, Graham, Gentleman Junkie, Little Brown and Co., 1998.
Billboard, April 25, 1998.
New York Times, November 14, 1993.
Opera News, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 25, 1993.
Time, December 6, 1993.
Additional information obtained from the liner notes of The Black Rider and Dead City Radio.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs
An innovative and controversial author of experimental fiction, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) is best known for Naked Lunch (1959), a bizarre account of his fourteen-year drug addiction and a surrealistic indictment of middle-class American mores.
William S. Burroughs is the grandson of the industrialist who modernized the adding machine and the son of a woman who claimed descent from Civil War General Robert E. Lee. In 1936, he received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University. In 1944, after abortive attempts at, among other things, graduate study in anthropology, medical school in Vienna, Austria, and military service, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and began using morphine. The meeting of these three writers is generally regarded as the beginning of the Beat movement; the writers who later became part of this group produced works that attacked moral and artistic conventions. The escalation of Burroughs's drug addiction, his unsuccessful search for cures, and his travels to Mexico to elude legal authorities are recounted in his first novel, Junkie: The Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953; republished as Junky). Written in the confessional style of pulp magazines under the pseudonym William Lee, the novel received little critical notice. In 1957, Burroughs traveled to London to undergo a controversial drug treatment known as apomorphine. Following two relapses, he was successfully cured of his addiction.
Ostensibly the story of junkie William Lee, Naked Lunch features no consistent narrative or point of view. The novel has been variously interpreted as a condemnation of the addict's lifestyle, as an allegory satirizing the repressiveness of American society, and as an experiment in literary form, exemplified by its attacks upon language as a narrow, symbolic tool of normative control. Consisting of elements from diverse genres, including the detective novel and science fiction, Naked Lunch depicts a blackly humorous, sinister world dominated by addiction, madness, grotesque physical metamorphoses, sadomasochistic homosexuality, and cartoon-like characters, including Dr. Benway, who utilizes weird surgical and chemical alterations to cure his patients. Escape from the imprisoning concepts of time and space are dominant themes in this work and in Burroughs's later fiction, reflecting the addict's absolute need for drugs and his dependency on what Burroughs termed "junk time." Burroughs explained the book's title as "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
Naked Lunch represents a selection from the wealth of material Burroughs had been writing for many years. The remaining work makes up the bulk of his immediately subsequent novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). During the process of writing these works, Burroughs, influenced by artist Brion Gysin, developed his "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques, experiments similar in effect to collage painting. Collecting manuscript pages of his narrative episodes, or "routines," in random order, Burroughs folds some pages vertically, juxtaposing these with other passages to form new pages. This material, sometimes drawn from the works of other authors, is edited and rearranged to evoke new associations and break with traditional narrative patterns. In the surrealistic, quasi-science fiction sequels to Naked Lunch, Burroughs likens addiction to the infestation of a malignant alien virus, which preys upon the deep-seated fears of human beings and threatens to destroy the earth through parasitic possession of its inhabitants. The title of The Soft Machine, a novel emphasizing sexuality and drugs as a means of normative control throughout history, indicates the innate biological device which allows the virus entry into the human body. Mind control through word and image is the subject of The Ticket That Exploded. In this novel and in Nova Express, Burroughs suggests a number of remedies to the viral infestation. Although he expresses a cautious optimism, the crisis remains unresolved, and humanity's fate is uncertain at the saga's end.
In 1970, Burroughs announced his intention to write a second " mythology for the space age." Although his recent novels have generally received less acclaim than Naked Lunch and its sequels, critics have discerned a remarkably straightforward approach to these works, which rely less on cut-up strategies and horrific elements and more on complex, interrelated plots and positive solutions to escaping societal constraints. As Jennie Skerl noted: "In Burroughs's recent fiction, pleasure and freedom through fantasy balance the experience of repression, bondage, and death that the earlier works had emphasized." The universe of The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) is similar to that of Burroughs's earlier books but is epic in proportion, encompassing galactic history and the whole of humanity in its scope. Time and space travel figure prominently in Cities of the Red Night: A Boys' Book (1981), in which detective Clem Snide traces the source of the alien virus to an ancient dystopian society. The Place of Dead Roads (1984) transfers the conflict to near-future South America, where descendants of the wild boys ally themselves with Venusian rebels in an escalating battle for galactic liberation.
Burroughs's novel Queer (1985) was written at the same time as Junkie and is considered its companion piece. According to Burroughs, the book was "motivated and formulated" by the accidental death of his wife in Mexico in 1951, for which Burroughs was held accountable. The novel centers once again on William Lee, chronicling a month of withdrawal in South America and his bitter, unrealized pursuit of a young American male expatriate. Harry Marten stated that the book functions as "neither a love story nor a tale of seduction but a revelation of rituals of communication which substitute for contact in a hostile or indifferent environment."
Burroughs is also well known for his nonfiction works. The Yage Letters (1963) contains his mid-1950s correspondence with Allen Ginsberg concerning his pursuit in Colombia of the legendary hallucinogen yage. Further correspondence is collected in Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957 (1982). During the mid-1960s, Burroughs became an outspoken proponent of the apomorphine treatment, claiming that its illegal status in the United States was the result of a conspiracy between the Food and Drug Administration, police, and legal authorities. His arguments are presented in Health Bulletin, APO 33: A Report on the Synthesis of the Apomorphine Formula (1965) and APO 33, a Metabolic Regulator (1966). Burroughs's observations on literary, political, and esoteric topics appear in a collaborative venture with Daniel Odier, Entretiens avec William Burroughs (1969; revised and translated as The Job: Interviews with William Burroughs), and in his collection The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985). The Third Mind (1979), written in collaboration with Brion Gysin, is a theoretical manifesto of their early "cut-up" experiments. Burroughs has also written a screenplay, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970).
Burroughs's controversial novels have provoked extreme critical reactions, ranging from claims of genius to allegations that he is little more than a pornographer. While his work can be offensive, it has elicited much serious criticism, and Burroughs is regarded by many scholars as an innovative, even visionary writer. Critics credit Burroughs's hallucinatory prose and antiestablishment views with inspiring the Beat movement and such counterculture groups as hippies and punks. Among other accomplishments, Burroughs has, perhaps more effectively than any other author, rendered the nightmarish, paranoid mindset of the drug addict. Harry Marten observed that Burroughs "has been mixing the satirist's impulse toward invective with the cartoonist's relish for exaggerated gesture, the collage artist's penchant for radical juxtapositions with the slam-bang pace of the carnival barker. In the process, he has mapped a grotesque modern landscape of disintegration whose violence and vulgarity is laced with manic humor."
The former heroin addict lived in the quiet town of Lawrence, Kansas with several cats and a collection of guns until his death from a heart attack on August 2, 1997. Although his business affairs were handled by his staff at the high tech William Burroughs Communications, the writer himself still used a typewriter. One of his more recent publications, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959 was used both as a journal and a sketchbook for his early work.
Bartlett, Lee, editor, The Beats: Essays in Criticism, McFarland, 1981.
Bowles, Paul, Without Stopping, Putnam, 1972.
Bryant, Jerry H., The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background, Free Press, 1970.
Burgess, Anthony, The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, Norton, 1967.
Burroughs, William, Jr., Kentucky Ham, Dutton, 1973.
Burroughs, William S., Junky, Penguin, 1977.
Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, Holt, 1981. □
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Burroughs, William S.
American inventor William Seward Burroughs (1855-1898) designed the world's first commercially viable adding machine, the Burroughs Registering Accountant, in 1892. Strong sales laid the foundation for the Burroughs Corporation, which was a Detroit manufacturing and computer powerhouse for much of the twentieth century.
Burroughs was born on January 28, 1855, in Auburn, New York, a town in Cayuga County. His parents were Edmund and Ellen Julia Burroughs, and he had an older brother and sister as well as a younger sibling. Edmund Burroughs was a model-maker for castings, which were used to create prototypes for new products. Burroughs left the Auburn public schools at the age of 15 to train as a bank clerk, and it was this professional beginning that inspired his later invention. Clerks had to spend long hours poring over ledger columns to find errors in addition or subtraction when the columns refused to balance, and finding these mistakes was a tedious chore which was done entirely by hand. Burroughs later went on to hold similar jobs in a retail establishment and later a lumber yard.
Moved to St. Louis
Around 1875, when he was about 20 years old, Burroughs moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and over the next decade he married, started a family, and worked for a manufacturer of woodworking tools and machinery. He began to think about his own ideas and how they might be realized, especially for an adding machine he called the arithmometer. In 1884 he found a financial backer in the form of Thomas B. Metcalf, whom he had met on visit to Metcalf's shop. By this point Burroughs's father had also relocated to the area, and the the younger Burroughs worked on the first prototypes for the adding machine in his father's model shop. By the end of 1885 he had had come up with a rudimentary device, and though it was not yet commercially ready, it did help him and Metcalf to find more backers, this time in the form of a pair of St. Louis merchants. Their new company, founded with start-up capital of $100,000, was called the American Arithmometer Company. It was incorporated in January of 1886 with Burroughs as vice president and Metcalf as president.
The funding helped Burroughs finish a new model, which he called the Burroughs Registering Accountant. It had a nine-key design, and to prevent human error the keys would lock up if two of them were pressed at once. Furthermore, the user could easily verify that the sum just entered was correct because each key would stay depressed until the user pulled the handle lever to record the transaction. It also had printing capabilities and glass panels that allowed the user to see the workings. Burroughs contracted with the Boyer Machine Company in St. Louis to serve as the manufacturer, and the initial order of 50 machines was finished late in 1887. The machines, however, proved problematic and consistently broke down, and at one point Burroughs threw several machines from the defective shipment out of his office window.
First Model Sold for $475
In 1892 Burroughs received patents for a machine that recorded each item in the tally and the final result. The first Burroughs Registering Accountant machines, in muchimproved form, went on sale that same year for a price of $475 each. The exorbitant cost did not deter its sale to banks and other financial institutions, who were its first major customers once they saw that the device was both reliable and accurate. By 1895, 284 machines had been sold and the company opened a sales office in London. Unfortunately, Burroughs—whose health had been poor for much of his adult life—did not survive to see the impressive success his company would achieve. He died of tuberculosis on September 15, 1898, in Citronelle, Alabama, at the age of just 44. He and his wife, Ida Selover Burroughs, had four children: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer, and Helen. Mortimer's son was named in honor of his inventor grandfather, and went on to become a notable figure in American letters in the twentieth century as avant-garde novelist William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).
The company Burroughs founded would sell a stunning 1,500 adding machines in 1900. It soon moved its headquarters to Michigan, where it emerged as one of the mainstays of the local economy. The name was changed from the American Arithmometer Company to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Helmed by Joseph Boyer, who had owned the original company, it then contracted to manufacture the machines. The Burroughs Corporation, as it eventually became known, went on to develop impressive new technologies that paved the way for modern information science technology, including the first widely used mainframe computers. Its successes were often overshadowed by those of its nearest competitor, IBM, or International Business Machines, Inc. The company entered a new era in 1986 when it merged with the Sperry Corporation to become Unisys.
“Introduction: William S. Burroughs,” The Franklin Institute, http://www.fi.edu/learn/case-files/burroughs/ (April 15, 2008).
World of Computer Science, Online. Thomson Gale, 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 15, 2008).
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