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Person of Interest – William Burroughs

The confessions of an unredeemed William Burroughs junkie: I first became addicted to Burroughs when I read an interview with him in Rolling Stone back in the mid 1980s. I had a taste of him before that through David Bowie, Gary Numan, Laurie Anderson and other artists that he had influenced. Since then I have read most of his books, listened to a lot of recording and watched a few documentaries.

My favourite book by William Burroughs is The Western Lands (1987). This is his final novel, although Burroughs lived longer than even he expected and managed to write a few more novellas, this is clearly intended as his final novel. I love how The Western Lands critiques his most famous early work, Naked Lunch and the pathos of writing his own death as a lonely cat obsessed old man.

My favourite spoken word CD by William Burroughs is Spare Ass Annie and other tales (1992) with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But my favourite musical collaboration with William Burroughs is on Laurie Anderson Home of the Brave. It was my first encounter with him and it contains my favourite concept from Burroughs is that “language is a virus from outer space.” I’m not sure where Burroughs got this idea from the “logic bacilli” of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestos or the “spooks” of Max Stirner or somewhere in Buddhism. It is the softwear/hardwear distinction, the “meme” of Richard Dawkins, expressed in a beatific poetry.

My favourite movie appearance by William Burroughs is Gus Van Sant’s Drug Store Cowboy (1989) as an old priest – it was a roll that was perfect for him. He did appear in other movies; he plays an unnamed old man with a gun in the comedy Twister (1989) – another roll that was perfect for him.

My favourite work of visual art by William Burroughs is… no, I’m not going that far. I’m not that much of a fan but I do have three books on his art. As Burroughs said: “Something worth doing is worth doing badly.” As far as celebrity painting goes Burroughs successfully integrated his personality with his art practice. And writing about art in Painting and Guns (Hanuman Books, 1992) is certainly worth a read.

Burroughs has influenced so many artists from Jack Kerouac to Keith Haring. His influence has been wide from literature, to music to the visual arts. Many new forms of media emerged during his long life from tape recorders, 16 mm film, computer art and spray cans. This makes him the seminal artist of punk, graffiti and music sampling. He exemplifies the Beat idea of the person as multi-dimensional, free, individual, artists working across art forms and media.

At the request of Alan Ginsberg Marcel Duchamp passed on the mantle of the godfather of the avant-garde to Burroughs with a kiss.

I will end this post with Burroughs “Words of Advice For Young People” – it is good advice, worth following and delivered with an elegant brutality.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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