Punk to grunge - stars embrace the icon beyond the edge

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On his 60th birthday, William Burroughs was offered a contract at City College, New York as a lecturer in creative writing. In the last of our series on the man who personified the Beat movement, we look at how a reluctant legend became an icon to a generation of musicians and misfits.

After his drab confinement in London, New York unleashed a whole new Burroughs - extroverted, networked and productive. Through Ginsberg he met a young ex-hippie turned rock'n' roll entrepreneur named James Grauerholz.

Born in Kansas, Grauerholz had made the exodus to New York, following the glory-trail of the Beats. He contacted Ginsberg, who replied with his telephone number and a request for a photograph; although Ginsberg's attempts at seduction failed, their friendship soon flourished. It was Ginsberg who realised that Grauerholz's business acumen and energy could capitalise on Burroughs' reputation. After a brief fling Grauerholz became Burroughs' secretary, organising readings and lectures that could command up to $1,000 a time. In the young man Burroughs had found a soul-mate - a friend who had both enthusiasm for his work and practicality to make sure it got done. Grauerholz became the mainstay of his life until the end, running William Burroughs Communications from his base in Lawrence, Kansas .

It was through his time spent on the reading circuit that Burroughs cultivated himself as a performer. His gravelled drawl brought out the cynical humour of his routines - the blasphemous outrage of his material contrasting with the wry understatement of its delivery. His readings manage to be both visceral and automated, as though he is ventriloquist and dummy in one. Listening to his 1970s recordings now, one can envision his latest incarnation as the junkie-priest in Drugstore Cowboy. His voice contains all the deranged tones of prophecy, yet there is a deadened flatness to it which refuses to be surprised by its own imaginings. It is the voice of a seance in reverse, hypnotised by its own mischievous alchemy.

Though busy performing and writing a column for the magazine Crawdaddy, teaching creative writing seemed to prevent Burroughs from actually doing any. As he recalled: "I also discovered that the image of William Burroughs in my students' minds had little relation to the facts. They were disappointed because I wore a coat and tie to class; they had expected me to appear stark naked with a strap-on, I presume. In all, a disheartening experience." When his teaching job finished he settled at 922 Bowery - an ex- YMCA that would become known as the Bunker.

Whilst Burroughs was working on his novel, New York was giving rise to other voices of urban disaffection - the confrontational indifference of punk. Based mainly around the St Mark's poetry and CBGB'S club scenes, punk launched an assault on musical tradition in much the same way as Burroughs had done with literature. That self-styled Rimbaud of the stage, Patti Smith, may have announced that she didn't "fuck much with the past but I've fucked plenty with the future", but the truth was that she achieved the latter precisely by doing the former. Smith's work embraced tradition with a snarling contempt, plundering her heritage with an anarchic abandon. "In heart I am an American artist and I have no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin."

Bands like The Ramones and The New York Dolls were presenting themselves as wilfully stupid, with vacant, dumb and plastic operating as their key words. Yet such poses were not so much a revelation as an accusation - an attitude whose stubborn infantilism made a mockery of the world of maturity. It is no surprise that many punk artists found an affinity with Burroughs' work, both parties finding themselves imprisoned within forms through which they articulated their escape. Dissonance became pop music's cut-up, cover versions functioned as pastiche, the junkie became a figure of defiant oblivion. Victor Bockris's collection of interviews with Burroughs during his New York years features as many rock stars as writers - Debbie Harry and Lou Reed interspersed with Susan Sontag and Tennessee Williams. Having already been (illegitimately) adopted as the father of the Beats, Burroughs now had punk laying claim to him as its godfather. Because his work had been long associated with graphic, wickedly humorous portrayals of drug addiction, violence, sexual perversion, and just about any other form of human depravity imaginable, Burroughs was quickly embraced by punk musicians as a fellow traveller in extremist aesthetics. Here was a figure whose very life was the embodiment of punk ideology, a man who had encouraged at least two generations of artists to go to those forbidden areas of artistic expression where no artist had gone before. So it was during the mid to late 1970s that the Burroughs name began appearing within the context of punk mutations (New Wave, Industrial Noise and so on). Soon Burroughs became the equivalent of a rock star himself; songs were written about him, he was interviewed for major record magazines with Devo and other rock groups, he gave readings at rock concerts headlined by figures such as Jim Carroll and Patti Smith.

Burroughs is not alone in being swept up by pop's plunder. The Beats' relationship with Bob Dylan was one of continuing cross-fertilisation, and Kerouac's ghost still haunts the music of bands like the 10,000 Maniacs. Yet no writer has proved as eclectic as Burroughs in his influence on pop, leaving his mark on a range of movements from punk to techno, hip- hop to grunge. What are we to make of such breadth, of the fact that so many signatures otherwise in conflict can co-exist upon the same icon? The answer can be found in the schizophrenia that characterises both the impetus of pop and the allure of the writer.

On the one hand, rock music is fuelled by an aesthetic of authenticity - the "walked-it- like-he-talked-it" myth of the messenger at the edge. On the other, pop feeds off the playfulness of its surface, a delight in the artifice of its own projection.

What Burroughs offers is a figure who embodies pop's repertoire of identities. Here is someone who pursued the hedonistic delights of appetite to their most rockish excesses. Burroughs' lifestyle puts the combined efforts of Keith Moon and Keith Richard to shame. If ever anyone fulfilled Walt Whitman's dictum "I was the witness/ I suffered/I was there" it is surely he. Yet he also manages to offer up the flip-side of authenticated experience - the knowing disingenuousness that constitutes rock's other beloved self. The strung-out oblivion that nurtures pop's more self-destructive fantasies comes dressed in a suit and a haircut that fuels its love of the arbiter. Having displayed his credentials as a Rolling Stone, he switches to the role of the art-school geek. If rock's momentum is Janus-like, Burroughs is able to incorporate both, by being neither.

Burroughs' suitability for pop's hall of infamy predates his musical collaborations. His profile appeared on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper sleeve - a psychedelic experiment for which Burroughs had little sympathy. Heavy Metal first made its entree into popular culture via The Naked Lunch, a novel in which Donald Fagan first encountered a dildo referred to as Steely Dan - a term he later borrowed for his band in 1972. The experimental outfit The Soft Machine took their name from Burroughs' third novel. Clearly, music had adopted him long before he put voice to vinyl.