A Brief Survey of William S. Burroughs References in Pop Culture

Today would have been the 98th birthday of legendary author William S. Burroughs, one of the most influential writers not only in the literary realm, but in the cultural landscape at large. Extremely prolific, he wrote 18 novels (or novellas), six short story collections, and four essay collections, and has five published books of correspondence and interviews, as well as appearing in several films and collaborating with musicians. The man had a finger in just about everything, at least culture-wise, and his legacy has lived on in the minds of his still-rabid fans — not only has he been cited as an influence by just about everybody, he gets name dropped left and right, and it seems like almost every band has lifted a song title, album title, or their own name from his prose. To celebrate the birth of the great man, we’ve collected some of Burroughs’s most prominent references in pop culture for your perusal. Click through to explore the web of Burroughs’s influence, and then we suggest taking another look at Naked Lunch, possibly as a Superbowl alternative.

Aside from the numerous recordings and album releases that Burroughs directly participated in (one of our favorites is “Sharkey’s Night” on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak), Burroughs is constantly referenced by bands, who seem to think of him particularly often when deciding on names. As critic Spencer Kansa put it, “his cosmic yobs, hipster jargon, drug induced visions and novel titles have been inspiration to a slew of bands and films.”

For instance, Steely Dan is named after a dildo in Naked Lunch (“Mary is strapping on a rubber penis: ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama,’ she says, caressing the shaft.”), and that book also inspired the band names of Thin White Rope (how Burroughs describes semen in the novel), The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust.

Clem Snide is a recurring character throughout Burroughs’s works.

Soft Machine took their name from Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine as did Dead Fingers Talk, and more than one band has riffed off the title Nova Express.