William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’roll by Casey Rae, 304 pgs.

Sep 27, 2019

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one based on a bunch of recent conversations. For one, I just saw Weird Al for the second time. It’s no surprise that all of Al’s Michael Jackson parodies have been scrubbed from the performance. This dovetailed into reading Emily Nussbaum’s new book, in which she discusses, among other things, the way that her perceptions of Louis C.K. changed in the wake of allegations against the comedian. Closer to home, apparently Morrissey is an alt-right asshole now, and as I mentioned in my review of Ellen Sander’s Trips in issue #112, members of Led Zeppelin assaulted Sander and had to be pulled off by the band’s manager.

So where does this leave us in terms of fandom?

Nussbaum argues for a wrestling with the past. If we take Morrissey as an example, the thought of cutting him from the conversation entirely doesn’t pain me as much as allegations against other musicians might. But I have friends (and I’m sure you do, too) who have hard choices to make regarding the weight of the man’s catalogue vs. the weight of his heel turn.

In William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’roll, Casey Rae does an exhaustive job connecting ol’ Bill to scads of musicians. The scope of Burroughs’s influence is stunning: the tendrils of his cut-up method, heroin use, and world-weariness extend from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Throbbing Gristle to Grant Hart to Nirvana and Ministry. Rae’s research connects specific songs and lyrics to Burroughs’s writing, and the stories of rock luminaries’ relationships with Burroughs are interesting throughout.

With all that said, I don’t see a lot of wrestling in this book. William Burroughs is a guy who drunkenly shot his wife to death; William Burroughs is a guy whose well-documented heroin use glamorized the drug. Rae mentions these things, but there’s not much in the way of reckoning here. To be fair, I haven’t read other Burroughs biographies, so I don’t know what’s already been covered. That said, the members of the rock scene mentioned here are drawn to Burroughs and his work like moths to bad behavior. I’m still not sure how to feel about it all now that I’ve finished reading. But I’m a Patriots fan, so what do I know? –Michael T. Fournier (University of Texas Press, utexaspress.com)