Celebrate William S. Burroughs’ 100th Birthday With 12 Cultural Icons on His Influence


There are about a hundred tags one could pin to William S. Burroughs, from lunatic to revolutionary, and just about everything in between. He is one of the most misunderstood artists of the last century — and also one of the most influential, his dirty fingerprint smudged all over the culture, from noise music to the films of David Cronenberg. Today, on his 100th birthday, we’re looking back at some of the icons who Burroughs had an impact on. It’s an impressive roster of names, but these 12 barely scratch the surface when it comes to just how far his influence stretches.

The advice that William gave me was “build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

Patti Smith

So that’s very much the third being, a new state of being. Burroughs always used to talk to me about how you short-circuit control. And Jaye and I talked a very long time about that. And we decided that DNA was very much the recording — the tool of control. Perhaps even DNA is a parasite and we’re just the vessels at its disposal.

Genesis P‑Orridge on Burroughs’ influence on P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s Pandrogyne project, an attempt to evolve into a new gender through becoming a single being they called Breyer P-Orridge

It was very exciting, really. It felt like a literary summit. Burroughs took pictures of everyone standing on the porch. Took me out into the garage and showed me his shotgun paintings. Showed me the garden. Around three o’clock he started fondling his wristwatch as we got closer to cocktail hour. He was very learned and serious. Obviously an authority on a wide variety of topics. Knew a lot about snakes, insects, firearms.

— Tom Waits on going to Kansas to hang out with Burroughs

Burroughs was the perfect incarnation of late 20th-century western angst precisely because he was an addict. Self-deluding, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and yet curiously perceptive about the sickness of the world if not his own malaise, Burroughs both offered up and was compelled to provide his psyche as a form of Petri dish, within which were cultured the obsessive and compulsive viruses of modernity.

— Will Self

But even then I could sense that he was able to do something really remarkable with words, and that was what kept me reading Burroughs, was the extraordinary things he could do with the English language that I never encountered anywhere else.

William Gibsonon reading Burroughs as a teenager

Burroughs’s work tends to affect people like a Rorschach test. It separates cultural conservatives from avant-gardists, social reactionaries from libertarians. Or, to use one of Burroughs’s favorite distinctions, members of the Johnson Family from the Shits. Johnsons have a live-and-let-live, mind-their-own-business mentality. Shits have an uncontrollable need to pass judgment on and be right about everything. In today’s censorious climate, police work dominates the pages of the book reviews: this writer has the wrong attitude and must be done away with.

— Gary Indiana

“I’m reading Naked Lunch and Burroughs endlessly is railing about Matriarchy. He’s such a reverse lesbian.” — Eileen Myles

The first time I recall sitting in his living room and he had a number of Guns and Ammo magazines laying about and he was only very interested in talking about shooting and knifing. Not exactly a subject dear to me but it was amazing hanging out.

Thurston Moore on meeting William Burroughs

“He was the first person that was famous for things you were supposed to hide.” — John Waters

“In other words: today in the United States, we are living in the worlds of Burroughs’s novels.” — Kathy Acker

Although the taboos of a society may well reveal its deepest preoccupations the reactions to one aspect of the work of William Burroughs, both pro and con, have tended to distract attention from the rather more serious issues that it raises. The first mythographer of the mid-20th century, and the lineal successor to James Joyce, to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance – exile, publication in Paris, undeserved notoriety as a pornographer, and an absolute dedication to The Word (the last characteristic alone sufficient to guarantee the hostility and incomprehension of the English reviewers) – Burroughs nevertheless reaches certain conclusions not only about society at large but also about our notions of reality, of the hierarchies of the mind and senses that underpin our consciousness, that seem to me to be questionable.

— J.G. Ballard

I’ve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half…I’m still kind of mesmerized by it. Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.

— Kurt Cobain, Rolling Stone interview, October 1993