Originally created 08/17/97

Book notes: All hail rockers of literature



A couple weeks ago, William S. Burroughs died. Mr. Burroughs is best known as the author of Naked Lunch, a gruesome, hallucinatory atom bomb of a book.

He is also known as a leading figure of the Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Mr. Ginsburg died April 5, and Mr. Kerouac died an early, alcoholic death in 1969. Mr. Burroughs, the oldest and the most notorious drug user, somehow lived to 83.

Elsewhere, this page contains stories about books about rock stars. Mr. Kerouac, Mr. Ginsberg and Mr. Burroughs were rock stars - or at least, as close to being rock stars as those who engage in the solitary art of writing are going to be.

They rose in the time of Elvis Presley and helped set the table for the counterculture of the 1960s. These days it's hard to think of an author many rebel kids would aspire to be like, whom they would hold up as a hero.

Mr. Ginsberg was the closest to actually being a rock star. He influenced so many people who wrote songs, including Bob Dylan, who influenced the world. Near the time of Mr. Ginsberg's death he was planning an MTV Unplugged special in which he would perform with Mr. Dylan and (the hopelessly overrated) Beck.

Mr. Burroughs was an inspiration for a different kind of music. The term "heavy metal" came from his work. David Bowie, Lou Reed and Patti Smith cited Mr. Burroughs as an important influence.

Mr. Burroughs also hung out with the Rolling Stones. He appeared in a rock video for U2 and was paid homage by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. last fall.

But what made these men rock stars wasn't their associations, or the phrases the rock world appropriated. It was in part their notoriety, and in part the way their writing felt.

They wrote the sort of books that you should fall in love with as a teen-ager. As you grow older, they don't quite seem to be the explosive godsends you once thought they were. Maybe you appreciate them in a different way, or maybe some of the work just seems immature. Not quite grounded in the real world. Maybe through older eyes, the writing seems self-indulgent, irresponsible, delusional and even disgusting.

We need more writing like that.

Some people will never get past the fact that these writers did not lead the sort of lives they would want their children to emulate. At perhaps his lowest point, Mr. Burroughs, in a drug-addled state, killed his second wife by shooting her in the forehead. Reportedly, he was attempting to re-create the William Tell story and missed the glass perched on her forehead.

Some people will never see how a man like that could be a hero. Pass me a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, and I'll explain it to you.

In his own world, Mr. Burroughs was part of the same cultural force as Elvis. One's influence, popularity and skill dwarf that of the other, but they helped open the same can of worms.

With Mr. Burroughs' passing, literature's original rock stars are gone.

Hail, hail.