William S. Burroughs and Kurt Cobain: A Dossier

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In honor of what would have been Kurt Cobain’s 40th birthday on 20 February 2007, RealityStudio offers this dossier documenting the relationship between Cobain and William S. Burroughs. Cobain greatly admired Burroughs, instigating their collaboration on The “Priest” They Called Him and visiting the Beat legend at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. And while Burroughs does not seem to have been especially impressed with the music of Nirvana, he was greatly saddened by Cobain’s suicide. Here is the story.

At Timberland Library [high school senior Kurt Cobain] discovered S.E. Hinton and William Burroughs, whose work would have an increasing influence on Cobain’s life. He read Burgess admiringly and J.D. Salinger without complaint. Cobain hated Scott Fitzgerald, whose critical resurgence was in decline, neither liked nor understood Faulkner and couldn’t talk about Hemingway without losing his temper.

— Christopher Sandford, Kurt Cobain

Allen [Ginsberg] wasn’t always a good judge of talent. The Kerouac School rejected Kurt Cobain’s application, but they accepted mine. Go figure. Life isn’t just unfair, it’s weird.

When the tour hit Rotterdam on the first of September [1991], it was almost with a nostalgic wistfulness that Kurt approached the last show. He was wearing the same T-shirt he’d had on two weeks earlier — it was a bootlegged Sonic Youth t-shirt — which had gone unwashed, as had his jeans, the only pair of pants he owned. His luggage consisted of a tiny bag containing only a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which he had found in a London bookstall.

Kurt’s got a literary bent, and jokes that he likes “anything that starts with a B. I think I like Burroughs best, and I’m into Bukowski and Beckett.” He’s a fan of William Burroughs’ dense style, and admires the “cut-up” writing technique he pioneered in the ’40s, calling it revolutionary.

— Katherine Turman, Smells Like… Nirvana

In the autumn of 1992 Burroughs and Cobain collaborated on The “Priest” They Called Him. (Listen to an excerpt.)

Cobain himself was an acknowledged fan of Burroughs’ oeuvre and first met with his hero in culture-space on a recording entitled The “Priest” They Called Him. This EP is constructed from a reading by Burroughs (recorded at his home in Lawrence, Kansas on 25 September 1992) overdubbed with Cobain’s guitar accompaniment (recorded in November 1992, at Laundry Room Studios in Seattle). Cobain later faxed Burroughs asking if he would play a crucifixion victim in a video for Nirvana’s forthcoming “Heart-Shaped Box” single. Burroughs declined but a meeting between the two was arranged and took place at Burroughs’ home in October 1993.

Cover of CD by Kurt Cobain and William S. BurroughsInterviewer: How did you get on with William Burroughs when you recorded together recently?

Cobain: That was a long distance recording session. [Laughs] We didn’t actually meet.

Interviewer: Did he show a genuine awareness of your music?

Cobain: No, we’ve written to one another and we were supposed to talk the other day on the phone, but I fell asleep — they couldn’t wake me up. I don’t know if he respects my music or anything; maybe he’s been through my lyrics and seen some kind of influence from him or something, I don’t know. I hope he likes my lyrics, but I can’t expect someone from a completely different generation to like rock’n’roll — I don’t think he’s ever claimed to be a rock’n’roll lover, y’know. But he’s taught me a lot of things through his books and interviews that I’m really grateful for. I remember him saying in an interview, “These new rock’n’roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly.” I’d never heard about Leadbelly before so I bought a couple of records, and now he turns out to be my absolute favorite of all time in music. I absolutely love it more than any rock’n’roll I ever heard.

Interviewer: The song you’ve recorded together makes references to shooting up, and Burroughs’ own history of drug-taking is no secret. Were you worried that this collaboration might throw the spotlight on press rumours that you’ve had considerable experience with hard drugs yourself?

Cobain: I don’t think it’s any secret any more, it’s been reported so much for so long. I really don’t care what anyone thinks about my past drug use — I mean, I’m definitely not trying to glorify it in some way. Maybe when I was a kid, when I was reading some of his books, I may have got the wrong impression. I might have thought at that time that it might be kind of cool to do drugs. I can’t put the blame on that influence but it’s a mixture of rock’n’roll in general — you know, the Keith Richards thing and Iggy Pop and all these other people who did drugs. I just thought it was one of those things that you do to relieve the pain, but… As I expected before I started heroin, I knew at the beginning that it would become just as boring as marijuana does. All drugs, after a few months, it’s just as boring as breathing air. I’ve always lied about it because I never wanted to influence anybody, I didn’t want anyone to consider the thought of doing drugs because it’s really stupid.

I’ve collaborated with one of my only Idols William Burroughs and I couldn’t feel cooler.

— Kurt Cobain, Journals

Courtney returns, so we head back downstairs and, after a little difficulty trying to get the tape deck to work, myself and Courtney sit cross-legged on the floor. An avalanche of records surrounds us; Sub Pop singles of the month, Kleenex, Opal, Mudhoney, even Suede is here, PJ Harvey’s “Rid Of Me” is on the turntable, and a few books are scattered on the carpet; John Steinbeck, Jean Paul Sartre, William Burroughs’ Queer. Kurt grabs a book by Leonard Cohen, looks at us bemusedly and retreats upstairs.

— Brian Willis, “Domicile on Cobain Street,” NME, 24 July 1993

What “Heart-Shaped Box” meant to Kurt is best surmised by the treatment he wrote for the song’s video. Kurt envisioned it starring William S. Burroughs, and he wrote Burroughs begging him to appear in the video. “I realize that stories in the press regarding my drug use may make you think that this request comes from a desire to parallel our lives,” he wrote. “Let me assure you, this is not the case.” But exactly what Kurt hoped to achieve by casting the writer was never clear. In his attempt to convince Burroughs to participate, he had offered to obscure the writer’s face, so that no one other than Kurt himself would know of his cameo. Burroughs declined the invitation.

Cobain visiting BurroughsThe journals sketch the evolution of the video’s symbol-laden, elliptically autobiographical narrative. At first, it was to star William Burroughs, whom Cobain evidently revered as a long-lived defier of convention (overlooking the fact that Burroughs survived only because he switched from heroin to marijuana early on) and for his aleatoric compositional technique, morbid mythology, and sardonic W.C. Fieldsian cynicism. Here was the first scene, expressing Cobain’s sense of himself as repository of Burroughs’ artistic spirit: “William and I sitting across from one another at a table (black and white) lots of Blinding Sun from the windows behind us holding hands staring into each others eyes. He gropes me from behind and falls dead on top of me. Medical footage of sperm flowing through penis. A ghost vapor comes out of his chest and groin area and enters me Body.”

Burroughs wouldn’t do the video, so Cobain used a generic old man on a cross and pecked at by crows. To him, birds also symbolized old men advocating death: “Me–old man,” he writes. “Have made my conclusion. But nobody will listen anymore. Birds [are] reincarnated old men with tourrets syndrome . . . their true mission. To scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth . . . screaming bloody murder all over the world in our ears but sadly we don’t speak bird.” Clearly, Cobain spoke bird.

In October 1993 Cobain met in Burroughs in Lawrence, KS.

During this first week of the tour, Alex MacLeod drove Kurt to Lawrence, Kansas, to meet William S. Burroughs. The previous year Kurt had produced a single with Burroughs titled The “Priest” They Called Him, on T/K Records, but they’d accomplished the recording by sending tapes back and forth. “Meeting William was a real big deal for him,” MacLeod remembered. “It was something he never thought would happen.” They chatted for several hours, but Burroughs later claimed the subject of drugs didn’t come up. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant. “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”

Image of Kurt Cobain and William BurroughsBurroughs describes the meeting… “I waited and Kurt got out with another man. Cobain was very shy, very polite, and obviously enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t awestruck at meeting him. There was something about him, fragile and engagingly lost. He smoked cigarettes but didn’t drink. There were no drugs. I never showed him my gun collection.” The two exchanged presents — Burroughs gave him a painting, while Cobain gave him a Leadbelly biography that he had signed. Kurt and music video director Kevin Kerslake originally wanted Burroughs to appear in the video for “In Bloom.”

“I’ve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half,” Cobain says with a discernible relief in his voice. “I’m still kind of mesmerized by it.” He ticks off the reasons for his content: “Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.

Rolling Stone Interview, 25 October 1993

Cobain killed himself on 5 April 1994.

In Lawrence, meanwhile, William Burroughs sat poring over the lyric sheet of In Utero. There was surely poignancy in the sight of the eighty-year-old author, himself no stranger to tragedy, scouring Cobain’s songs for clues to his suicide. In the event he found only the “general despair” he had already noted during their one meeting. “The thing I remember about him is the deathly grey complexion of his cheeks. It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs is one of those who feel Cobain “let down his family” and “demoralized the fans” by committing suicide.

— Christopher Sandford, Kurt Cobain

A group calling itself “Friends Understanding Kurt” faxed a press release to various news organizations, claiming a “string of suicides associated with the [dream] machine since the 1960s.” The press release stated after he obtained one of the devices, “Kurt immediately commenced a habitual, perhaps maniacal use of the Dream-machine, then took it with him to his and Courtney’s shared Seattle mansion where he stationed himself with the device in a room above the garage.” It stated the Dream Machine was found in the room where Cobain died, although police and medical examiner reports contradict that. Nevertheless, the claims were widely published. William S. Burroughs, who knew Cobain and had collaborated with him, dismissed such speculation as “nonsense…” The Cobain story was ultimately proved to be a hoax.

An old diary of mine from my love affair (marriage) surfaced at Sanctuary today. I read it. I miss being loved by a husband very much… there were pictures of Kurt in there… pictures of Kurt walking with William Burroughs. I really miss him.

A source that wishes to remain anonymous provided these pictures of a painted collage that Burroughs sent to Cobain for his 27th birthday, less than two short months before the singer’s death.

Painting by William Burroughs Painting by William Burroughs Painting by William Burroughs

Published by RealityStudio on 18 February 2007. You can download a Russian version of this dossier translated by Boyroid, who also provided a letter that Kurt Cobain sent to Burroughs asking him to appear in a Nirvana video.

76 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs and Kurt Cobain: A Dossier

  1. Courtney threatened she’d leave him and take Frances, during an intervention, if he didn’t quit drugs. She was already fooling around on him. I believe she wasn’t, nor could ever be, involved in the relationship in the way that he was as he was devoted to her…how many times do u hear him referring to his Wife and family…and I think it became such a mess with his natural depression and physical ailment, addiction, a new band direction necessary to carve out, his upbringing about to revisit him in the upcoming break-up and he killed himself rather than try to go on without his family. Brokenhearted.

  2. I don’t believe Kurt Suicided. No fingerprints he was so drugged out he wouldn’t have been able to pick up a gun. I think he bought it for protection. Someone knows who killed him and she knows who she is. RE-OPEN THE CASE IT WASN’T A SUICIDE…………he wouldn’t have done that to Frances Bean. He will always be missed.

  3. wow, as much as i loved this band.. you all make me sick to see everytime i watch a video or read an article that has anything to do with 90’s era music, there are always 200 idiots arguing over whether or not Kurt Cobain was murdered. just give it a break. we are never going to know, just be happy the man is no longer suffering the way he was, suicide or not. He left us some great fucking music that will be here for the next GenerationX! he will always be here in spirit, and lets hope that now his spirit can rest easy. FFS. get a life or something.

  4. god damn, people are stupid. you really think that Kurdt, murdered or not.. Would really want you to argue over it? I don’t believe he would..

  5. Yeh is shame anything Nirvana related ends up with same old suicide / conspiracy nonsense.
    Good band with lot of energy who had some good songs and an artistic minded frontman – shame any discussion about them tends to end up so muddied with the other rubbish.


    as evil is alwais banal and stupid here they come
    the sinner ones that perfers to pass on away ion such a fact, such a murder of a talented person.
    Figure it out WHAT THE DISCOGRAPHIC LABELS are doing about thei gold cows !see what they do until they are not much more raisingB-millions for them!
    You eediots (above David and nauseated)prefers to pass by and let all the facts covered with dust ee..h ?

    I think this Burroughs -Cobain link is ok because Burroughs always trated with tha evil concept and the Kurt case has giver worldwide a practical scene.
    From under the bridges to Ecstatic vip Star to death?
    you make him so stupid?
    he was only so weak. and loveless.and heroineless.


    ah ah and Dave Ghrol is such an example of what Kurt wouldn’t have done for $$$ at all.

    SO WHAT?

  7. I deeply thank this website for this article.

    Aside from all the speculations on Cobain’s tragic death, I have to say that I grew up listening to Nirvana since my pre-teenager years and then William Burroughs’ writings entered in my life – and despite their many differences, I can sincerely see some parallels about the use of the lyrics Cobain used inside “In Utero”, and in some of his visions (notice please how both Burroughs and Cobain, in their periods of taking heroin, got the same fascination for the organic functions of the human body and how they observe it as almost an alien phenomenon…) – it was lovely to know he was worried to meet Burroughs, and it was lovely for Burroughs to give him a painting for his birthday and start what it seems a sincere and good friendship out of the business and a private, lovely, confidential meetings and opinions exchange.

    It could have been a wonderful things if the two would have choose to work together on another level, together, shoulder to shoulder.

    Love to both of them, and thanks again for this website.

  8. We new he was a dead man when he married Courtney. He was fragile, she is a hard bitch.

    God bless you Frances Bean.

  9. I get that he made an album with Burroughs, and that’s why he’s here. But, if he hadn’t killed himself (or whatever), he would have faded away like most of the “grunge” acts of the day. Maybe he’d end up like Dave Grohl doing some other band or maybe touring endlessly with “Nirvana” (with him as the only original member) doing a parade of hits for tired old fake hipsters?

    Who cares?

    Compared to Burroughs, Cobain had little to offer the world of arts.

  10. stupid bedazzler…Nirvana have change the face of music whatever you think…It makes me laugh when you try to analyse Cobain with the eyes of someone who lives in 2013. Cobain can only be treated in the 90’s. He is the fruit of that past time, no more no less…Thinking that he could “fade away” doesn’t mean anything….There isn’t any artist nowadays that can feet his shoes….it’s just facts! What make him so BIG is that, famous or not, this guy would have kill himself like all fragile REAL artists (van gogh,poet Arthur Raimbaud, Tenessee williams and many more….)

  11. I got into Nirvana when i was 15 after a horrible situation, and losing someone very close to me. I was amazed and drawn in to the melancholic vocals, and raw riffs and sounds That i could absorb myself in, i also loved just letting go of everything and truly going wild to their songs that felt like they were wrote for the purpose of individuality, that it doesnt matter if you’re ugly, fat, skinny, quiet, popular, sad, happy!!! i know and have read comments on here that Cobain was no idol etc, but then if he and Nirvana could help teenagers lost, hurting and without direction feel passionate about life, isnt that something special? So in love with the idea that Burroughs and Cobain were friends, and that friendship could have transpired into something magical. Both were artistic, soulful and thinking-outside-the-box creative. After reading ‘And the Hippos Will boil in their tanks’ got an insight into the everyday life of Burroughs and the othet beats.
    Kurt Cobain was a beautifully faced artist with a sad troubled soul, and his ending obviously puts a romanticised edge to his story. and enevitably when ever Nirvana or he are mentioned, the debate of murder/suicide comes up because fans feel personally involved. And looking at the facts, easily both theories are equally believable. Either way, the biggest tragedy is that he is gone, Nirvana are no more, and instead of great emotional and passionate music, and possible future collaborations between Burroughs and Cobain, we are left, with 1 direction, Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus…wearing tee’s of Nirvana clearly never having listened to one of their songs to know, she is the epitome of everything they hated.

  12. sS to all of you stop-byers, take a look into this. PLease google ‘the obituary of Sgt. Don Cameron (who was the hea DT on the case/scene of the crime), he is the man, also, who was alleged to have told Ms. Love to (paraphrase) ‘if no else knows about it, I would keep it to myself’ (regarding the second suicide note. Notice he was a high ranking member of the Scottish Rights, a member of a unique FM lodge. Check it out.

    Check out the MYSTERIOUS circumstances around the death of Dt. Antonio Perry who was involved w/ Mr. Cobain and Ms. Love in the months/year(s) before Mr. Cobain’s death. This is, of course, part of a string of mysterious deaths that occurred following the death of Mr. Cobain, from the Bassist of Hole, to A. Hoke aka ‘El Duce’.

    Look into, if you can, the background of Leland Cobain and Wendy, Kurt’s mom. For sure after the luke warm reception of “bleach”, Nirvana’s first album it was obvious that something had to be done in order to get Nirvana to national/international recognition, and Sub-Pop, the back alley Seattle record company was not in ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM Geffen Records. So deducing what we can from “Rosemary’s Baby”, something has to be done, agreements have to be made, sacrifices have to be committed to in order for someone to attain ‘that’ level. If KC did or did not in fact pull the trigger, he was complicit, or in other words Knew that his days were numbered. Look at the recordings or manuscript from the Unplugged in New York in 1993, Kurt vocalized his wish to have the aura of the stage set-up like a funeral. The question is why? What did he already know? And why did he begin to consume so much heroin towards the end of his life, in order to ease the pain of something specific? As noted by photographers, he showed up hours late for his Photo shoot in NY (and subsequently at Roseland Ballroom, if I am not mistaken) the day he shot the picture of him w/ White sunglasses and winter/ear cover hat. Maybe, maybe not at all… but it does seem plausible.

  13. Were Leland and Wendy part of the occult and introduced Kurt to it as well? Funnier things happen in forgotten little towns; no different, in the middle of nowhere (Aberdeen), Washington… maybe, maybe not at all.

  14. just wanted to say i consider both WSB N KURT COBAIN THE REAL THING THATS ALL N LOVE THEM BOTH

  15. Wow I was kind of enjoying that string and kind of wincing at the same time…then I read shane Armendingers’s claim to proof of Kurts Bisexuality as evidenced by the fact that no straight men get obsessed with William Burroughs….fuck me I know lots of straight men who totally obsess over him or more so his work (which is what Kurt clearly did love) and that of the Keroak and Ginsberg as well. And he clearly longed for acknowledgement from William…but that’s not really sexual now is it? What a tool, conversation killer for me.

  16. I enjoy songwriting and I am Cobain’s age. I’ll never forget that fateful day. I started listening to Nirvana and recently heard songs I had never heard before because back then I had no money, and now I subscribe to music streaming. But listening to these songs fills me with stunned admiration, yet makes me sick to my stomach, not because of anger, but because of an empty hole due to great beauty left unfinished. When listening to Live at Leads, it’s like he’s reaching into your chest. It’s breathtaking. Well, Mr. Cobain, I wish you could have grown old with us. But I leave with great gratitude for allowing us to see possibility as any great writer or poet has ever done.

  17. No matter how hard people try, you won’t, and never will, understand Kurt Cobain. It is only possible if YOU were Kurt Cobain. Just drop it already. He is now at peace.

  18. I think Kurt was hugely talented, and like a lot of very talented, genius type artists, he was depressed.
    We now know that childhood trauma can play a role in this. Drugs are a way to escape those feelings, but his sadness is right there in the lyrics to his songs.
    I hope wherever he is, that he has finally found the peace he was looking for.
    Don’t hate on Courtney. She has her own demons and isn’t to blame for Kurt taking is life.
    The real victim here is Frances Bean who never had a chance to know her father. She doesn’t need to hear or read hateful things about her parents.
    If you want to honour him then make a donation to a mental health association or reach out to someone who is depressed. You might save a life.

  19. The bedazzler, most peopl who know anything about music and art know that kurt wasnt just a run of the mill grunge artist who would of just faded away like soul asylum or something. All your comment reveals to us is that you as a person are clueless regarding kurt cobain’s talent and legacy. And burroughs was a fool to turn down kurt by not being in the heart shaped box video, coulda been the best work burroughs has ever done.

  20. I’m a Gen X bitch and I, unfortunately, have also had a heroin addiction. Kurt was a beautiful poet and whatever demons he had, he made a lasting contribution to this world. It’s amazing to hear the stories on this site from people who were so affected and changed for the better because of his artistry. Depression is a bitch, and heroin is as dangerous as a loaded gun. Please just enjoy the beauty this man brought into the world (the most potent example being his daughter Frances) and respect his family and his memory enough to just let him rest in peace.

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