For episode 50(!) of the Ultraculture podcast, we're at long last revisiting the legacy of William S. Burroughs, one of the twentieth century's most dangerous writers.
My guest is the Washington DC-based academic, musician and music business executive Casey Rae. Rae is currently the Director of Music Licensing for SiriusXM radio, prior to which he was the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, a national advocacy organization for musicians. He is also an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Communications Culture and Technology graduate program, as well as a doing faculty duties at Berklee College of Music. He has testified before Congress, advised government agencies on cultural policy, published articles in leading law journals, appeared on NPR, CNBC, Bloomberg News, SiriusXM, and written op-eds for the L.A. Times, New York Times, Billboard, The Hill and more. He records music under the name The Contrarian and releases straight fire from his avant garde label Lux Eterna.
Casey joined me on the show to discuss his new book WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS AND THE CULT OF ROCK 'N' ROLL, which begins with Burroughs' early days in St. Louis, Missouri, and follows him through the eight decades of his life, focusing on his relationships with and impact on such iconic musicians as Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and many more. Throughout the 1960s Burroughs’ life intersected with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, who sought out Burroughs to induce a creative catalyst. In the '70s he directly inspired David Bowie, became an aesthetic cornerstone to Lou Reed, and a paternal figure to Patti Smith. In the 1980s, and up until his death in August, 1997, Burroughs was a mentor and guru to the likes of Debbie Harry of Blondie, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain, with whom he recorded the musical collaboration, The Priest, They Called Him, in 1992. Burroughs altered the destinies of an astounding array of musical acts in the latter half of the 20th century, and Casey Rae has outlined a compelling case for Burroughs’ critical influence on rock music, which will be supported by interviews, research, and original reporting.
Casey had many kind things to say about me and mentioned that some of my own writing about Burroughs on the Ultraculture blog had been immensely helpful to his own research, and I figured this was a great opportunity to revisit an author who has been of immense influence to my career.
Burroughs was my favorite author in my late teens. This was not because of the drugs and pornographic overdrive, which quickly become a kind of tedious backdrop in Burroughs’ books, a bit like the repeating stock backgrounds in Road Runner cartoons. I was far more interested in Burroughs’ analysis of society as a control structure, and his relentless drive to cut through the hypocrisy of American imperialism. Burroughs did more than any other author, I believe, to lay bare the propaganda methods by which America controls the world.
As time went on, Burroughs also developed a deep and sincere fascination with the occult, along with his compatriot Brion Gysin. Burroughs’ extended personal researches into both the nature of control and of the tactics of occultism and mind war were just good journalism, into the areas considered truly taboo by nearly all of the people on the planet, and provided one of the many stars guiding the path of my early life.
Even more inspiring, perhaps, was his dedication to embodying the ultimate outsider and wearing cultural taboos like a three piece suit, with zero concern for the thoughts and prejudices of the society he belonged to. Now that is something that I still take inspiration from, in this most sickeningly conformist of cultural landscapes.
Reading Burroughs as an adult is not the same as reading him as a teenager, however. What appears edgy to a young person all too often appears as a record of inexcusable personal failure to an adult. Moreover, while Burroughs’ writing may have carried a certain heroin chic vibe in decades past, we now live in a heroin addicted country, vast swathes of which have been destroyed by what the media calls an “opioid crisis,” and which I call a Cold Opium War conducted by corporate elites against now-unneeded manufacturing workers whose jobs were long since sent overseas.
In that sense, Burroughs is more relevant than ever. His accounts of addiction are now, heartbreakingly, daily experience for 2 million Americans, and 15 million worldwide, according to the NIH. That means that Americans, proportionately, make up a shocking majority of the world’s addicts. This is in no small part due to the antics of pharmaceutical companies. OxyContin has changed the face of addiction, dragging it into the lives of those who would never have been touched before. The story of the individual who becomes an OxyContin addict, sometimes after having it prescribed for a surgery—or someone who has OxyContin passed on to them by somebody who was prescribed it—who then turns to cheaper street heroin, and then dies after a fentanyl-laced hot shot is now not only routine but unremarkable.
Burroughs provides an excellent guide here, because he lived this existence, and he can tell us more about it, and the vast networks of control that create and perpetuate it, than any other writer living or dead.
By way of demonstration, here’s Burroughs from the introduction to Naked Lunch, 1959:
"I have seen the exact manner in which the junk virus operates through fifteen years of addiction. The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below (it is no accident that junk higher-ups are always fat and the addict in the street is always thin) right up to the top or tops since there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on basic principles of monopoly:
"1—Never give anything away for nothing.
"2—Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait).
"3—Always take everything back if you possibly can.
"Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy… The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies his client… Junk yields a basic formula of ‘evil’ virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of ‘evil’ is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act any other way. Dope fiends are sick people who cannot act other than they do. A rabid dog cannot choose to bite. Assuming a self-righteous position is nothing to the purpose unless your purpose be to keep the junk virus in operation. And junk is big industry."
Now, for contrast, here’s a section from the Associated Press article “Filing: OxyContin maker forecast ‘blizzard of prescriptions’,” from January 15, 2019.
“A member of the family that owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma told people at the prescription opioid painkiller’s launch party in the 1990s that it would be 'followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,' according to court documents filed Tuesday.
"The details were made public in a case brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that accuses Purdue Pharma, its executives and members of the Sackler family of deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids and pushing prescribers to keep patients on the drug longer. The documents provide information about former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler’s role in overseeing sales of OxyContin that hasn’t been public before.
"The drug and the closely held Connecticut company that sells it are at the center of a lawsuit in Massachusetts and hundreds of others across the country in which government entities are trying to find the drug industry responsible for an opioid crisis that killed 72,000 Americans in 2017. The Massachusetts litigation is separate from some 1,500 federal lawsuits filed by governments being overseen by a judge in Cleveland.
"But the company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts allegations are also part of the evidence exchanged in those cases. While the Massachusetts filing describes their contents, the documents themselves have not been made public, at the company’s request.
"According to the filing, Richard Sackler, then senior vice president responsible for sales, told the audience at the launch party to imagine a series of natural disasters: an earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane and blizzard.
"'The launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white,' he said, according to the documents.
"'Over the next twenty years, the Sacklers made Richard’s boast come true,' lawyers in the attorney general’s office wrote. 'They created a manmade disaster. Their blizzard of dangerous prescriptions buried children and parents and grandparents across Massachusetts, and the burials continue,' they wrote.
"The complaint says the Sackler family, which includes major donors to museums including the Smithsonian Institution, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern in London, was long aware its drug was dangerous and addictive but pushed more sales anyway."
If you live in America, or likely many other places in the world, none of this will be news to you. In fact, it’s very likely that opioid addiction has touched your life in some way, or that you have lost friends or relatives to it. That is the nature of the epidemic—or, rather, the planned genocide. Let’s call it what it is, as Burroughs would have.
This weekend, I lost another friend to heroin, likely due to a fentanyl surprise. He was an attractive, intelligent, strong, and very very loving man in his thirties who was a sweet friend. Too sweet, perhaps. He had been chasing oblivion for years, in various ways, to run from a childhood of severe sexual abuse, an all too common story. An on-the-job injury had also prevented him from working, and precipitated an addiction to first pills, and then smack. Also an all too common story. The last time I saw him he was selling kratom out of his tiny apartment, wasting away. He had been in an opiate hole for days after watching his elderly cat die, leaving one other stray cat as his companion. Now he is gone. I hope he has found rest.
I have lost two friends in my life to heroin overdoses. I have “lost,” in the broader sense of the word, many, many, many more to heroin and methamphetamine addiction, in as much as the person I loved was possessed and replaced by something else. Ketamine, cocaine, and even mismanaged psychedelics and cannabis—and certainly alcohol—have also scored their own casualties from the sidelines, often in conspiracy with the other enemy combatants.
One of the worst things about heroin in particular is that, unlike cocaine, it is a drug of the sensitive, introverted and hurt. It is not so much a drug as it is a cave that people vanish into to escape their trauma, which few then re-emerge from. It also, as ex-addict friends have told me, not only prevents them from properly processing their trauma—only putting the trauma into temporary suspended animation—but also drives the people they love out of their life, further isolating them, removing bit by bit the lifelines that could have truly helped.
It is a truly wonderful thing that Bayer Pharmaceutical gave us in heroin, and that Perdue Pharma gave us in Oxy. More wonderful still that the entire world system now runs, at least in part, on heroin addiction and its subsequent profits, as the endless territorial wars over the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia amply demonstrate, as do the regular dirty backdoor deals between the US government and the cartels. Or, simply, the day to day white collar business of good old American pharmaceutical industry, hard at work murdering the very people that built this country, all whom are being replaced by much cheaper AI and outsourcing anyway. Just more useless eaters.
In this regard, Burroughs has a lot to say to us. A whole lot.
Please enjoy the podcast, and be healthy. It can be a bad world out there, and for far too many of us, has been already.