The role William S. Burroughs played in shaping literature is well known. But his influence on rock and roll hasn't been as well-documented. Casey Rae's William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll single-handedly changes that ... Rae deftly maps out how one of America's most controversial literary figures — a homosexual drug addict with a penchant for guns who shot his wife in the head — transformed the lives of many notable musicians ... [Rae] writes with the passion of a teenager discovering new sounds, and the control and self-assuredness of a seasoned academic ... creates a complex, rich picture of Burroughs' life, focusing on his meetings with musicians and the way his techniques and ideas infiltrated them and changed the way they looked at the world as well as their own work. While doing this, Rae stays true to history and always presents Burroughs' duality; shaman and madman, writer and hermit, traveling man and depressed genius ... adds to the Burroughs canon in a unique way. Rae is a professional and an academic, but the writing here, especially when dealing with music and some of the most traumatic moments in Burroughs' career, flirts with literary fiction without even abandoning the real of nonfiction ... makes it easy to see why Burroughs was so influential on avantgarde creators.
So there’s a brilliant idea behind Casey Rae’s William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll, which is that if you simply follow Burroughs through the rock ’n’ roll years you’ll see him achieve a flickering ubiquity — lurking here, eavesdropping there, photobombing the whole parade. It becomes a kind of alternative history.
The book is at its best when tracing the lyric and sonic collages of art rock and its offshoots to Burroughs’s groundbreaking use of literary cut-ups—the snipping and reassembling of texts to form new texts. Rae goes further, in fact, arguing provocatively that although Burroughs died in 1997 at age 83, he freakishly presaged the fractured, distracting memes and bytes of today’s Web mind ... There is a structural repetitiveness, perhaps an unavoidable one, as Rae toggles back and forth between Burroughs’s bio and those of the musicians. Still, it is fun being a fly on the wall during meetings of these colossal hipsters.
Rae dwells especially on Cobain’s relationship with the writer, highlighting their creative kinship and how deeply affected Burroughs was when the young musician took his own life. Readers who are already versed in Burroughs’ biosphere may not find a lot that is new in Rae’s history-heavy text, though his focus on Burroughs’ inspiring connections to literary rock stars of exceptional talent and renown makes for a welcome addition to the Burroughs shelf.
Occasionally, the author overreachs in his analysis, suggesting that Burroughs must have influenced where he may have and that his influence was crucial at pivotal moments when it was perhaps coincidental at best ... Maybe more rock stars romanticized his life and addiction than actually read his books, and some tried 'to boost their own hipness through association,' but Rae builds a convincing case that Burroughs has been underacknowledged in rock history ... A book that nudges a legendary legacy from the cultural margins toward the mainstream.