A Brief Survey of William S. Burroughs References in Pop Culture


Today would have been the 98th birthday of legendary author William S. Burroughs, one of the most influential writers not only in the literary realm, but in the cultural landscape at large. Extremely prolific, he wrote 18 novels (or novellas), six short story collections, and four essay collections, and has five published books of correspondence and interviews, as well as appearing in several films and collaborating with musicians. The man had a finger in just about everything, at least culture-wise, and his legacy has lived on in the minds of his still-rabid fans — not only has he been cited as an influence by just about everybody, he gets name dropped left and right, and it seems like almost every band has lifted a song title, album title, or their own name from his prose. To celebrate the birth of the great man, we’ve collected some of Burroughs’s most prominent references in pop culture for your perusal. Click through to explore the web of Burroughs’s influence, and then we suggest taking another look at Naked Lunch, possibly as a Superbowl alternative.

Aside from the numerous recordings and album releases that Burroughs directly participated in (one of our favorites is “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak), Burroughs is constantly referenced by bands, who seem to think of him particularly often when deciding on names. As critic Spencer Kansa put it, “his cosmic yobs, hipster jargon, drug induced visions and novel titles have been inspiration to a slew of bands and films.”

For instance, Steely Dan is named after a dildo in Naked Lunch (“Mary is strapping on a rubber penis: ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama,’ she says, caressing the shaft.”), and that book also inspired the band names of Thin White Rope (how Burroughs describes semen in the novel), The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust.

Clem Snide is a recurring character throughout Burroughs’s works.

Soft Machine took their name from Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine as did Dead Fingers Talk, and more than one band has riffed off the title Nova Express.

Steppenwolf took the now-ubiquitous phrase “born to be wild” from The Soft Machine, and according to legend, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs was inspired by Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique.

Burroughs also figures on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The British slipstream fiction magazine Interzone, which debuted in 1982, was named after a place in Naked Lunch (and one of Burroughs’s short story collections).

The interzone, Burroughs’s “metaphorical stateless city,” was also referenced in the widely remixed “Atlantis to Interzone” by the Klaxons and in the title of The Interzone Mantras, a 2001 album by Canadian rockers The Tea Party. Plus, Joy Division’s debut album features a song called “Interzone.”

In the 1984 film Repo Man, Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee, both Burroughs characters, are paged — a secret in-joke that is repeated in Dark City.

The metal band Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky took their name from Burroughs’s 1989 essay “Apocalypse.”

The left-wing magazine read in Watchmen is called “The Nova Express,” after Burroughs’s novel, and there’s even a reference-heavy game connected to the same title.

A November 2004 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation included a villain named Dr. Benway, one of Burroughs’s amoral recurring characters.