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William S. Burroughs was a Beat Generation writer known for his startling, nontraditional accounts of drug culture, most famously in the book Naked Lunch.
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Around the time of Lunch's release, inspired by artist Brion Gysin, Burroughs began to experiment with the cut-up technique, where random lines of text were cut from a page and rearranged to form new sentences, with the intention of freeing reader's minds from conventional, linear modes of thought. Using this technique with elements of satire and sci-fi, the '60s saw Burroughs releasing novels like The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1964),
which indicted consumerism and social repression, and the nonfiction work The Yage Letters (1963).
Burroughs played with audio cut-ups as well via tape recordings. He released his first album in 1965, Call Me Burroughs, which featured his readings of text from Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine. Burroughs not only made waves in the literary world but became a huge influence for many musical artists of the day. The acts Soft Machine and Steely Dan took their names from the writer’s work and Burroughs went on to collaborate with artists of the avant-garde like Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth and Genesis P-Orridge.
Burroughs continued his literary pursuits as well in the early ‘70s, publishing The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) and Exterminator! (1973) and penning a screenplay, The Last Words of Dutch Schulz. By the end of the decade, he worked on a book with Gysin that delved into their cut-up philosophy—The Third Mind (1978).
Burroughs would face family tragedy yet again as his son Billy Burroughs Jr., also a writer, succumbed to substance addiction and died from alcohol-related trauma in 1981.
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They were radical, rebellious, experimental…and had a way with words. Starting in the 1950s, the Beat Generation rose to prominence in America, inspiring a culture of nonconformity and social revolution. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were some of the more famous faces synonymous to the group, as was William S. Burroughs. Their musings—both "beat up" and "beatific"—left highly influential marks in literature, music, film and ecology.
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