When I had a college radio show, I often played spoken word pieces by William Burroughs. His odd cadence and bizarre subject matter made the strangeness of 3 a.m. that much more strange. I’d broadcast the pieces into the dark quiet of the night, ghostly fog in the evergreens and the occasional glowing possum eyes outside the studio window. After the heady description of a heroin high or alien sex, I’d follow up with something loud, dissonant and experimental. That’s what student loans are made of.
William Burroughs instigated the Beat Generation and embodied the movement’s proclivity for drugs. His book Junky basically made drug use glamorous. When he lived in New York, his house (The Bunker) was like a supermarket for narcotics. Burroughs was incredibly prolific and kept writing and speaking until his death in 1997. His work influenced Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and more. Punk and heavy metal owe him a debt. He was open about sex and his own homosexuality in an age of repression.
For his 100th birthday, the BBC made a documentary about his work, life, and legacy. For his 101st, This American Life rebroadcasted it. It’s an unsentimental and fascinating hour of radio. Take a listen.