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When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joined to begin new recordings in 1972, they decided to call their band "Steely Dan," taking the name from a dildo—"Steely Dan III from Yokohama"—that makes a brief appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch.
And from that stray bit of information, one could begin to construct a genealogy, a tree of inspirations and references, that takes us to a very strange place. Start with the fact that English-language rock ‘n' roll, from the 1960s through the 1980s, remains the best-selling, most-listened-to music in the history of the world. Add the fact that just about every influential rocker has mentioned Burroughs's books, with half of them trekking across America at one point or another, on pilgrimage to meet the man. And we arrive at the conclusion that William S. Burroughs is the single most influential novelist who ever lived.
Maybe it's here that we need to start clawing our way back up to sanity from the darker depths of willful imagination. A literature with Charles Dickens in it—or Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick—doesn't need to look to Burroughs's Junkie (1953), The Soft Machine (1961), and The Wild Boys (1971) to find influential novels.
Yeah, nearly every pop artist with avant-garde ambitions has proclaimed Burroughs's transformative effect on their music, from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, Patti Smith to David Bowie, Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer to Michael Stipe. But much of that praise for the elderly Beat writer comes across a little thin and aspirational: a desire to be thought to have been influenced by him, more than, you know, actually being influenced in some particular way.
When Madonna went down to "The Bunker" (Burroughs's home in an old converted YMCA in the Bowery) to be photographed with the novelist, what was she doing? Cultivating her image, more than anything else. And yet, in that fact, something of the strange star-power of the author can be glimpsed. Something worth contemplating.
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