Brother Bill: How William S. Burroughs Influenced Bob Dylan

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by James Adams

With special thanks to Jed Birmingham. See also “Bob Dylan and William Burroughs — A (Mostly) 1965 Timeline.”

Bob Dylan’s classic album Highway 61 Revisited was released in August 1965. The first song on the album, “Like A Rolling Stone,” reached number two on the Billboard charts. It was kept from the top spot only by The Beatles and their demand for “Help!” The second track on Dylan’s album, “Tombstone Blues,” features more than a dozen named characters, including one who might be William S. Burroughs.

Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of a hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after.1

Iggy Pop thinks “Brother Bill” is a reference to Burroughs. At least he said as much in a 2014 BBC radio documentary on Burroughs’ life and influence.2 However, as with most things Dylan has touched and said, written and lived, there are competing theories. Others have proposed Billy Graham and William Westmoreland as candidates for the position of Brother Bill. Dylan isn’t the type of writer who includes annotated dramatis personae with his work and we’ll probably never know the truth, if there was ever any truth to begin with. 

What is more clear is that William S. Burroughs was a significant influence on Bob Dylan’s writing, particularly during Dylan’s first, and most celebrated, creative peak. To Bob Dylan, Burroughs was much more than a passing reference in a song.

“I don’t really know him — I just met him once. I think he’s a great man.”3

Two years before they would appear together on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bob Dylan and William S. Burroughs met, at a Greenwich Village café, in 1965. Probably it was in the spring of ’65, when Dylan was writing his first book, Tarantula, and preparing to release his fifth album. Burroughs was temporarily readjusting to life in the United States, writing and publishing, and exploring avant-garde fame in New York. We don’t know where exactly the meeting occurred. Maybe they got together at the Kettle of Fish, Cedar Tavern, Copper Rail, or Odine’s, as Dylan was known to frequent those cafés and bars.4 The writers were joined by friends and discussed music, according to an account Burroughs gave Victor Bockris a decade later. 

[The meeting was] In a small café in the village, around 1965. A place where they served wine and beer. Allen had brought me there. I had no idea who Dylan was. I knew he was a young singer just getting started. He was with his manager, Albert Grossman, who looked like a typical manager, heavy kind of man with a beard, and John Hammond, Jr., was there. We talked about music. I didn’t know a lot about music — a lot less than I know now, which is still very little — but he struck me as someone who was obviously competent in his subject. If his subject had been something that I knew absolutely nothing about, such as mathematics, I would have still received the same impression of competence. Dylan said he had a knack for writing lyrics and expected to make a lot of money. He had a likable direct approach in conversation, at the same time cool, reserved. He was very young, quite handsome in a sharp-featured way. He had on a black turtleneck sweater.5

Burroughs was clearly impressed by Dylan. Likewise, the work and ideas of William S. Burroughs were a clear influence on the writing of Bob Dylan, particularly in 1965, just as Dylan’s language was beginning to open and push toward the avant-garde, become less linear, more impressionistic, and absolutely reminiscent of Burroughs’ cut-up writing.

“I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the beat scene.”6

 Bob Dylan probably first encountered the work of William S. Burroughs in late-1959 or early 1960 in Dinkytown, the Minneapolis neighborhood near the University of Minnesota where Dylan began to establish himself as a folk singer. Tony Glover, another Dinkytown musician, acquired a copy of the Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch by mail-order in 1959. 

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 1959, Olympia PressDespite Glover’s fear that the authorities would seize the “obscene” book at the post office, it arrived safely and Dylan borrowed it for a few weeks.7 If Dylan did in fact borrow Naked Lunch, he might not have read it. In a 1965 interview with Nora Ephron, Dylan praised Burroughs but denied reading the author’s most famous work.8 Regardless, it seems very likely that Dylan was first introduced to the writing of El Hombre Invisible before moving to New York in January, 1961.

Dylan’s career progressed quickly in the city, first as an interpreter of folk and traditional music, then as a writer of  powerful songs popular among fellow performers and with the public. Through successive albums in the early 1960s, Dylan’s writing matured and his popularity increased. But, to the frustration of some fans, his style continued to evolve. By 1965, Dylan abandoned “protest” songs and began recording with a band and electric instruments. He was at the beginning of his most prolifically creative period, recording songs for a trilogy of classic albums — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde — that would receive increasing praise, feature progressively complex, literary, and influential lyrics, and ultimately redefine popular American music. On July 25, 1965, Dylan went “electric” and performed with a backing band at the Newport Folk Festival — a move that angered fans with a traditionalist mindset but accelerated Dylan’s progress from folk music hero to pop music star. Soon after Newport, Dylan began a series of concert tours that took him around the world for sell-out performances. All the while, Dylan — known also for writing album liner notes and poems, in addition to songs — was working on his first book, Tarantula, for Macmillian, a major publishing house. 

In other words, just as he sat down to meet Burroughs in the village, Bob Dylan was beginning a pronounced and prolific creative peak that was primed by the innovative literary possibilities presented by Burroughs, his language, and the cut-up method. It was more than a meeting of writers, it was a meeting of styles.

Burroughs himself was at an important professional and creative juncture in 1965. Burroughs researcher and collector Jed Birmingham has called 1965 the year Burroughs and the counterculture boiled over into the mainstream.9 Burroughs returned to the United States from Tangier in December 1964, and in January went on assignment to his hometown of St. Louis for Playboy. The finished story from that trip, “St. Louis Return,” was rejected by Playboy, but picked up by The Paris Review and published in the fall of 1965. An accompanying interview with Burroughs in the same issue was an important venue for the writer’s efforts to promote the cut-up method and did much to raise Burroughs’ stature as a counterculture literary voice.

Throughout 1965 Burroughs used New York City as his base. His work and ideas were in the air, particularly after giving a pair of influential readings near Dylan’s stomping grounds in Greenwich Village. Burroughs’ first reading, on Valentine’s Day at the East End Theatre at 85 East Fourth Street, included excerpts from Naked Lunch and Nova Express — a Burroughs work Dylan would later single out as a key influence.10 The second reading, held on April 23 at a former YMCA that Burroughs would later call home, was attended by Andy Warhol and a platoon of influential writers and artists. We have no evidence that Dylan attended either reading, but both events were significant enough to warrant reviews in the New York Times.11 Certainly Dylan would have been aware of Burroughs’ presence in the city, for he too was on the periphery of the same New York avant-garde art world. 

Like Dylan, Burroughs was prolific in 1965. He collaborated with Brion Gysin on what would have been a groundbreaking version of The Third Mind and experimented with tape recorders, photography, and collage. Burroughs also published widely in mimeograph magazine underground literary circles, releasing important pieces like Time, The Dead Star, and APO-33 (the Fuck You Press version) before again becoming an expatriate and moving to London in September.12

“I’ve read some of his shorter things, in little magazines.”

It was Burroughs’ contributions to the underground press and mimeographed magazines that most appealed to and most influenced Dylan. Although he denied reading Naked Lunch in August 1965, Dylan praised Burroughs’ “shorter things in little magazines, foreign magazines” and called Burroughs a “great man.”13 It’s easy to see why Dylan was drawn to Burroughs’ writing from this period, particularly the work found in mimeo magazines. The work that Burroughs published in 1964 and 1965 was among his most creative, most influential, and most visually attractive to those — like Dylan — open to experimenting with language and telling stories in new and exciting ways. Burroughs’ work in mimeo magazines and the underground press forcefully expanded the boundaries of the English language and came to embody cutting-edge literary cool. Just as Dylan reshaped popular music, Burroughs reshaped popular literature, and both artists used literary voices unlike any that came before.

Dylan didn’t name the specific underground magazines where he encountered Burroughs’ work, but one clear example is Ira Cohen‘s Gnaoua, which was published in Tangier in 1964. Gnaoua featured four different contributions from Burroughs:  “Pry Yourself Loose and Listen,” “Notes on Page One,” “Ancient Face Gone Out,” and “Just So Long and Long Enough.” We know Dylan was familiar with these pieces because Dylan featured a copy of Gnaoua prominently on the cover of his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, among a collection of other artifacts deliberately chosen to pay tribute to Dylan’s influences. Daniel Kramer, the photographer who took the album cover photograph, has claimed that Dylan himself helped collect and arrange the various items featured on the cover.14 This suggests Gnaoua, and the Burroughs contributions it included, was much more than a simple prop for Dylan and instead an important symbol of literary influence and creative progress.

Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and Gnaoua

Left: The cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home features a copy of Ira Cohen’s Gnaoua on the mantle. Gnaoua featured four different contributions by William S. Burroughs.

My Own Mag #5Given Dylan’s reference to magazines published abroad, perhaps he was also familiar with the fifth issue of Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag, published in England in May 1964 and featuring Burroughs on the cover of the “Special Tangiers Edition.” Issue Five of My Own Mag opens with a series of comic letters and replies in the form of an advice column. That format is absolutely reminiscent of the style Dylan employed throughout his book Tarantula, which is arranged around paragraphed routines (similar to those in Nova Express) followed by fake and comical advice letters from the likes of Syd Dangerous, Kid Tiger, and Homer The Slut — characters that wouldn’t be out of place in Burroughs’ own writing.

William S. Burroughs, Roosevelt After Inauguration, Fuck You PressFinding these underground magazines wouldn’t have been easy. Dylan most likely encountered them, and other work by Burroughs published in small press and mimeographed magazines, in a store called the Folklore Center that was owned by Izzy Young. The Folklore Center was located on MacDougal Street in New York City. Young, who offered a wide-ranging collection of books, magazines, and records for sale, promoted Dylan’s first official concert performance. He also allowed the songwriter open access to his store’s inventory. In his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalls the diverse collection of printed material Young kept at the Folklore Center and the many hours he spent reading and listening to music in the store.15 Young’s affability benefited many others, in addition to Dylan. For instance, Young allowed underground publisher and musician Ed Sanders to use the Folklore Center’s mimeograph machine to print titles for the Fuck You Press, including some mimeo magazines that published work by Burroughs.16 So, in the case of an issue of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts or Roosevelt After Inauguration, Dylan could have encountered mimeo work featuring Burroughs in the same room where it was printed.

Dylan’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg also would have afforded him access to the underground press, avant-garde writing, and mimeo magazines. Dylan met Ginsberg in December 1963 at a party in an apartment above the Eighth Street Bookshop (another location where Dylan likely encountered avant-garde literature) thrown by the shop’s owner, Ted Wilentz. Al Aronowitz, who wrote about the Beat Generation in the New York Post and was an early champion of Dylan’s work, brought Dylan to the party and introduced him to Ginsberg.17 The friendship that developed between Dylan and Ginsberg was genuine and long, but complicated by Dylan’s popularity and Ginsberg’s unabashed adulation. It was a situation that could become uncomfortable and one Burroughs consciously avoided in 1975, during The Rolling Thunder Review.       

Dylan was more than a follower and observer of the mimeo revolution, he was a participant. In February 1962, the inaugural issue of Broadside, a topical folk-song magazine printed on a mimeograph machine discarded by the American Labor Party, was published.18 That first issue featured a written contribution from Dylan in the form of a song then called “Talkin’ John Birch.” It was the first time Dylan’s writing had appeared in print.19 Dylan published more than a dozen additional songs in Broadside over the next two years, and was listed on the masthead as “contributing editor” between March 1963 (issue 23) and April 1965 (issue 57).20 Sing Out! and Hootenanny were other early venues for Dylan’s writing, though those publications were slicker and more polished than Broadside and its mimeograph counterparts.

Broadside #1

Broadside #1, a mimeographed magazine of folk songs that included a contribution from Bob Dylan. Dylan would later work as a “contributing editor” for the magazine.

But Dylan’s writing was most exploratory, daring, and similar to Burroughs outside the confines of song. In addition to poetry published as liner notes on the back of his own albums, Dylan published three long poems on albums released by The New World Singers, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Those poems — and another titled “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” which Dylan read after a concert in New York on April 12, 1963, were long meditations on friendship, travel, home, and nostalgia — themes Burroughs would touch on in his own work. Sometime in 1964, Dylan also wrote poetry accompanying photographs taken in Hollywood by Barry Feinstein.21 To a degree, those poems were reminiscent of the way Dylan spoke at the time, with bursts of descriptive language that were short but clear, impatient but coherent, and a bit stilted. But there was a distinct evolution to the writing and, over time, Dylan’s poetry grew more surrealistic, humorous, and deliberately obscure. In retrospect, he was clearly moving toward a style similar to what he read in Nova Express, which Burroughs published in October 1964.

“Hey, you dig something like cut-ups? I mean, like William Burroughs?”22

William Burroughs’ influence on Bob Dylan is most obvious in the writing of Dylan’s first book. Tarantula was largely written in 1965, prepared for publication by the summer of 1966, but not officially released until 1971. Burroughs’ influence begins with the title. 

Dylan has never revealed why his book is named Tarantula and Dylan researchers have never arrived at a satisfactory origin-story for the book’s title. Some claim the title is a reference to tarantism, a hysteria caused by tarantula bite that can be cured by dancing.23 The most common suggestion is that the title is a reference to a chapter of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “On Tarantulas.” Dylan name-checked Nietzsche in the liner notes of Highway 61 Revisited and, given the difficult and dense, web-like nature of the writing, Dylan perhaps remembered the philosopher when choosing the title.24 

A more likely explanation, however, is that Dylan found the title by way of William Burroughs. More specifically, he got the title from the New York Times review of Burroughs’ second reading in New York. The timeline matches perfectly. 

Tarantula went through many names, including Walk Down Crooked Highway and Side One.25 As late as March 27, 1965 Dylan was tentatively calling his work-in-progress Bob Dylan: Off the Record.26

Less than a month later, on April 22, Burroughs gave his second significant reading of the year, this time at 222 Bowery — an address he would later call home as “The Bunker.” Burroughs gave an enthusiastic reading to a host of stars from the world of art and literature, including Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Frank O’Hara, and Richard Avedon. The event was significant enough to warrant a review in the New York Times published two mornings later:

Mr. Burroughs, a lean, formal man who sounds something like the late Will Rogers as he reels off dry jokes, read a story that conveyed the idea that various bizarre characters were in a port seeded with atomic mines. The people wanted to leave, but Mr. Burroughs’ audience did not. Warmed by such interest, he livened up his one-syllable-at-a-time reading with sudden bursts of dramatic activity, eventually ripping down a white-sheet backdrop and uncovering a painting of horrifying tarantulas.27

Given his then-current fascination with Burroughs, and somewhat combative affiliation with the Warhol scene, Dylan likely read The New York Times review just prior to departing for a tour of England on April 26th. Dylan’s first use of Tarantula as the title of his book came on April 27, in an interview with Michael Hellicar, only three days after the review of Burroughs’ reading and its reference to tarantulas.28

Moreover, Dylan’s disclosure of the new title came during a series of interviews given at the Savoy Hotel to promote the tour. Recently-released outtake footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s film DONT LOOK BACK proves that Burroughs was on Dylan’s mind during those interviews. That footage shows Dylan referencing Burroughs and demonstrating the cut-up method in a way that shows clear familiarity with the technique. During the demonstration, Dylan claimed that he previously experimented with cut-ups, but found they weren’t useful for songwriting, given the rhyming schemes most songs employ. Surprisingly, Dylan also admitted that he was not using cut-ups to compose Tarantula.29

Dylan and Burroughs cutting up

Left: Bob Dylan demonstrating the cut-up method in outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s film DONT LOOK BACK. Right: William S. Burroughs demonstrating the cut-up method in Howard Brookner’s film Burroughs: The Movie.

Dylan has always been a notoriously difficult interview, but evidence suggests he was being honest about his use of cut-ups. None of Dylan’s songs show definitive and obvious signs of the cut-up method. Tarantula, which shatters narrative with fragmented, surreal, and difficult language, is written in a style that is reminiscent of cut-ups, but is not a strict adherent to the technique, despite Dylan’s previous claims that the book is “something that has no rhyme, all cup-up, no nothing, except something happening, which is words.”30 Instead, Dylan appears to have written Tarantula in a style that simultaneously focuses on specific themes — namely music, Mexico, Vietnam, and ideal visions of women — while embracing free association, experimentation, humor, and perhaps chemical inspiration. There are strange, often funny references to pop culture, brilliant connections made by a wandering mind, and letters to friends and family written in the language of the hip. Tarantula reads like a glorious one-off meditation on free association. But, as Dylan said, it’s not a cut-up.

Still, there are clear parallels with Burroughs’ work. Research by Dylan scholars and recently revealed documents from Dylan’s archive prove that Dylan spent much time and careful effort composing and revising Tarantula.31 The revisions show that Dylan paid particular attention to punctuation, capitalization, and the way words appear on the page. Dylan uses ellipses and the em dash throughout Tarantula in a fashion that most recalls Burroughs’ Nova Express and cut-up works published in mimeo magazines. Similarly, Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris has shown that Burroughs used capitalization and punctuation, specifically the em dash and ellipses, to add a sense of urgency to his writing while also calling special attention to particular ideas and references in the text.32 Dylan’s use of punctuation and capitalization in Tarantula is used in a similar way to reflect similar concerns.  

But, beyond punctuation, it’s the freedom of language and literary risk-taking in Tarantula where Burroughs’ influence is clear. A reader of Tarantula is left with the impression that no formulation, no idea, no situation is off limits or bound by traditional storytelling and narrative. The world is open to observe and explain with writing that has no need or use for old rules, methods, and traditions. In a sense, by reading Burroughs and becoming familiar with his working methods, Dylan found the inspiration and the motivation to dismantle the English language and reassemble the pieces into Tarantula and the increasingly descriptive yet surrealistic song lyrics Dylan wrote at the same time. Without Burroughs and his experiments, Dylan might not have been pushed to compose lines that resemble cut-ups but still emerge from some more personal, purposeful, honest, and human place like those Dylan wrote in 1965. 

For example, lines like …

Paul Sargent, a plainclothes man from 4th Street, comes in at three in the morning & busts everybody for being incredible

(liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited)

from entire Mexico & gay innocence once comes Satan of Autumn — from the gentleness & barbarian bebop & lonesome rooms where you must put a nickel in the parking meter — into the arms of notorious daughters — daughters who get social poems published in bazaar & fashion magazines & wonder of adventures

(“Somebody’s Black Nite Crash” from Tarantula)

Now at midnight all the agents
And the super human crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

(“Desolation Row” from Highway 61 Revisited)

fox eyes from abilene – garbage poet from the 
greyhound circuit & who has a feeling for the most lost
pieces of frost & boast of glass jaw and grampa
playing tiddlywinks & finks in the sinks & the barf &
gook in the book

(“Forty Links of Chain (A Poem)” from Tarantula)

With a time rusted compass blade
Aladdin and his lamp
Sits with utopian hermit monks
Side saddle on the Golden Calf

(“Gates of Eden” from Bringing It All Back Home)

Now all the authorities 
They just stand around and boast 
How they blackmailed the sergeant at arms
Into leaving his post

(“Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” from Highway 61 Revisited)

… are the work of Dylan and Dylan alone. But it’s hard to imagine Dylan writing them without Burroughs, to some degree, showing the way.

“I kicked the habit.”

Given Dylan’s open praise for Burroughs and his work, and experimentation with the cut-up method, it is easy to wonder how far Dylan took his Burroughs-themed explorations in 1964 and 1965. Did Dylan’s admiration for and curiosity about Burroughs take a form other than his clear interest in mimeographed magazines and new writing techniques? More to the point:  Did Dylan use heroin because Burroughs — the most famous junkie in the world — was a well-known user?

In a March 1966 interview (the full contents of the discussion were not revealed for another 45 years) Dylan admitted to struggling with heroin addiction during his early years in New York. “I had a heroin habit in New York City. I got very, very strung out for a while. I mean really, very strung out. And I kicked the habit. I had about a $25-a-day habit and I kicked it,” Dylan told interviewer Robert Shelton during an overnight private flight from Lincoln, Nebraska to a concert appearance in Denver, Colorado on March 12.33

Additional evidence for Dylan’s heroin use is scant. Outtake footage from Eat the Document — a film documenting Dylan’s 1966 European tour — includes a scene of Dylan and John Lennon in the back seat of a limousine, with Lennon babbling nonsensically and Dylan doing his best not to get sick. Both are clearly chemically impaired, with Dylan the worst for wear. Years later, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon said that he and Dylan were on “junk” that day. He didn’t say heroin, specifically.34 The scene was filmed on May 27, 1966 – two months after Dylan told Shelton that he kicked the habit. It is an inconclusive data point.

Was Dylan telling the truth about his use of heroin? Early Dylan interviews are notorious for their biographical fabrications and Dylan told more lies than truths in many conversations. It’s quite possible Dylan invented his addiction story. But Shelton wasn’t just another journalist to Bob Dylan. A Shelton review of an early Dylan performance published in the New York Times is widely recognized as the break that earned Dylan his first record deal and put his professional career in motion. It’s not an overstatement to say that Dylan trusted him.

But how much does it matter anyway? To those of us on the outside, what difference does it make if Dylan stuck a needle in his arm or just told people that he did? An interview, in the hands of a master manipulator like Bob Dylan, is a place to make myths and craft the past into a narrative of your own design. Truth or lies, the implication of Dylan’s admission is the same — that you don’t know as much about Bob Dylan as you think you do. He has a darker side, a seedier side, something familiar to Burroughs and the junkies hanging around Warhol’s factory, something different from you, the interview reader, unhip and unknowing, sleeping safely in bed, far below Dylan (literally) as he flew across middle America in the middle of the night.

Note also that Dylan’s quote is as much about quitting heroin as it is using. While “strung out” and “$25-a-day” are examples of hip language from the junkie street, used as proof of Dylan’s familiarity with that world, Dylan draws an even closer parallel to Burroughs by claiming to be a former addict, rather than an active one. In the middle 1960s, Burroughs was maybe as famous for kicking heroin as he was for using it — and Dylan must have been aware of that reputation. In his 1965 Paris Review interview, Burroughs discussed his struggles with heroin, admitted to relapses, and claimed final victory over addiction. That same year, Dylan might have encountered (or at least heard about) the Fuck You Press edition of Health Bulletin APO-33, A Metabolic Regulator, Burroughs’ manifesto on the apomorphine heroin cure. That first version of APO-33 includes a clipping from the Sunday Times London from November 15, 1964, which identified Burroughs as “one of the most celebrated ex-drug addicts” before calling him a writer.35 During this period, Burroughs was even corresponding with friendly law enforcement officials curious about ways to combat addiction in their jurisdictions.36 Perhaps Dylan realized that being a former junkie got as much attention, or more, as being a user. 

Dylan cherished the role of rebel and outsider in 1965 and 1966. Maybe he also used and quit heroin during those same years. Even if he didn’t, he was clearly okay with the thought of being linked to Burroughs and the unfortunate rebel cool of addiction. It was part of who Dylan was, or wanted to be, even if it was just as passing phase.

“I wasn’t just gonna go along as a groupie.”

Following a motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan purposefully slowed his public career and forced MacMillan to postpone the publication of Tarantula, even though the book had progressed to galleys and promotional materials were manufactured.37 It’s as if Dylan woke up one morning and decided to leave the book and its style, and the lifestyle under which it was written, behind. Dylan probably would have blocked publication forever, if not for bookleggers hawking mimeographed copies that forced his hand into allowing publication. The underground mimeo world that inspired Tarantula is also what ultimately forced its formal publication.

Tarantula and its bootlegs

Dylan was still prolific and creative after the crash, just in styles that had little resemblance to Burroughs, his words, and his world. 

A chance for the two artists to reconnect and collaborate was narrowly missed in October 1975 when Dylan toured New England and Canada with a large band of musicians and filmmakers under the banner of the “Rolling Thunder Review.” Allen Ginsberg joined Dylan’s troupe and appeared in a film Dylan directed during the tour called Renaldo and Clara. Ginsberg played the role of “father” in the little-seen film but on tour and on set was less of a parental-figure and more of a groupie, idolizing Dylan like a fan, rather than a peer, and lusting after his power and popularity. 

Indeed, Burroughs thought Ginsberg’s participation in Rolling Thunder and Renaldo and Clara, along with fellow writer Anne Waldman, was undignified. “I wasn’t just gonna go along as a groupie,” Burroughs told Ted Morgan in an interview later referenced in Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles, “I thought it was very undignified.”38 

Similarly, Burroughs told Victor Bockris that Dylan’s tour and film were too ill-defined to warrant participation. In a fascinating first-hand account of the tour, Sam Shepard confirms that there were never solid plans for Burroughs’ participation and Ginsberg tried to convince Dylan that Burroughs could “just be himself” for the tour and the film. Another idea called for Burroughs to appear in a filmed scene with an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator and demonstrate the cut-up technique using the writings of Poe and Dylan as source material. As interesting as they are, those proposals didn’t progress further than Shepard’s tour diary.39

But money may have also played a role in Burroughs’ unwillingness to participate. Shepard recalls that Burroughs wanted to be paid up-front and have a formal dinner with Dylan to discuss the film before agreeing to participate. Those reasonable requests were inconsistent with the freewheeling way in which the tour and the film were managed, and so Burroughs stayed home. 

Although he skipped Rolling Thunder, Dylan’s tour and popularity were intriguing to Burroughs, who found himself dreaming of Dylan. Burroughs told Victor Bockris of two dreams that featured Dylan during the Rolling Thunder days. In the first, Burroughs dreamt of hosting a benefit concert for junkies similar to the one Dylan held at Madison Square Garden on December 8, 1975, as a fundraiser for imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Burroughs attended that performance and the success of the event must have left a positive impression. In the second dream, Burroughs got cold feet and told Dylan to forget about the planned benefit concert, as Burroughs could never command the attention of a vast audience like Bob Dylan.40 

“Queer replicas”

Although cut-ups didn’t work for Dylan’s songwriting in 1965, plenty of evidence suggests that he didn’t abandon all aspects of the technique for later songs and other writing, including his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One. In fact, over the last few decades Dylan has used a writing style that combines ideas, words, and phrases from disparate sources into new creative work. This style was best described by Larry Charles, who collaborated with Dylan on the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous. While screenwriting the film, Charles remembered that Dylan arrived with a box filled with scraps of paper:

I realized, that’s how he writes songs. He takes these scraps and he puts them together and makes his poetry out of that. He has all of these ideas and then just in a subconscious or unconscious way, he lets them synthesize into a coherent thing. And that’s how we wound up writing also. We wound up writing in a very “cut-up” technique. We’d take scraps of paper, put them together, try to make them make sense, try to find the story points within it.41

Scott Warmuth, an amateur Dylan scholar, is the authority on the appropriation aspects of Dylan’s more recent writing. Interested readers should consult Warmuth’s 2008 New Haven Review essay “Bob Charlatan,” and Goon Talk, his internet blog. Warmuth’s careful reading of Dylan’s lyrics, and painstaking comparison of those lyrics to the whole of English language writing (with research assistance provided by the search function on Google Books), has conclusively proven that Dylan cut work ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joe Eszterhas, from Thomas Wolfe to Henry Rollins, from its original context and transformed it into new writing.42 

Dylan’s style is not without controversy. Detractors have called it plagiarism. Dylan himself has defended the practice by pointing out that what he’s doing is entirely consistent with the folk process, where singers and songwriters adapt melodies and lyrics to fit their own styles and experience and create new songs, sometimes centuries after their source material was composed.43

Take that line of reasoning one step further, and compare Dylan’s recent screenwriting and songwriting efforts to Burroughs. What Dylan is doing is a form of “conscious cut-up” that combines work from multiple sources, not always self-composed, into an entirely new piece of art. What Burroughs did — purposefully unconsciously — Dylan is doing purposefully consciously. When Dylan takes phrasing from Jack London and Louis-Ferdinand Celine for a new song, isn’t that just as valid as Burroughs using Shakespeare and John Glenn to form new text for Nova Express? If anything, what Dylan does is harder, given the confines of song, meter, rhyme and relevance to the lines that precede and follow.

Dylan has even used text taken from Burroughs as source materiel in his recent writing. In the screenplay for Masked and Anonymous, Dylan has multiple characters speak lines culled from Naked Lunch. For instance, a palm reader in the film says:44

You are living in a world where all the jewels, diamonds, pearls, and rubies have been replaced by queer replicas. I see a lot of anger here, and you scoff at things you don’t understand.

Compare that to Burroughs, who wrote:

Famous last words. So all that winter, one after the other, the diamonds, emeralds, pearls, rubies and star sapphires of the haut monde go in hock and replaced by queer replicas.

“Steal everything in sight,” Burroughs said. Indeed.

“Every word he says.”

Nowadays Dylan occupies his own level. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Dylan is a unique and masterful artist still practicing his trade and leaving his mark in a way nobody else can. He is without peer or parallel. But that view ignores the fact that Dylan is nothing if not a product of his many and diverse influences. Bob Dylan did not emerge from the mist. The musicians, writers, and artists that influence him — who Dylan himself acknowledges and promotes more often than the typical outside writer and interviewer — are sometimes obscure, but nonetheless vital for understanding who Dylan is and the art that he creates. William S. Burroughs is just one of those many influences, but one that Dylan continued to return to throughout his career. Dylan never stopped reading Burroughs and never stopped letting Burroughs’ language and methods influence his own. Dylan himself admitted as much in an almost surreal meeting with Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1980s.

That meeting occurred when Dylan unexpectedly visited Ginsberg at his apartment to preview a copy of his new album. Harry Everett Smith — filmmaker, anthropologist, record collector, polymath, and Ginsberg roommate — was in an adjacent room, although he refused to come out from behind his closed door and meet Dylan. This, despite Dylan’s admission that Smith was someone he “always wanted to meet.” With Dylan’s blessing, Ginsberg listened to a tape of the new record — Empire Burlesque — at high volume and offered his opinion on the songs and the album’s title.

Imagine the scene:  Smith, complier of the enormously influential Anthology of American Folk Music, was perhaps the only person more responsible for the 1960s folk revival than Dylan. Ginsberg, an enormously influential writer in his own right, was the bridge between the Beats and much of what followed in the 1960s, including Dylan. While still famous, Dylan was at a difficult point in his career, a creative lull, preparing to release an album that would be widely derided, and perhaps looking back at those who influenced his past for inspiration that would help shape his future. Gathered under a single roof that night was a group of artists that lived in a world that was different than the one that came before, because they made it that way. 

Of course, Burroughs was missing, but only in body — not in spirit. Before leaving for the night Dylan asked Ginsberg: “You still see Burroughs?”

Ginsberg replied that he planned to see Burroughs the very next week, and Dylan said:

“Tell him I’ve been reading him. And I believe every word he says.”45


1. Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues,” from Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia Records, 1965. The chorus for this song begins with the line: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes,” which is perhaps a reference to Jack Kerouac’s mother’s job working in a shoe factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. Highway 61 Revisited has many Kerouac references.

2. Burroughs at 100, BBC Radio 4, Produced by Colin McNulty for Wistledown, 2014. Rebroadcast and archived online in January 2015 by WBEZ’s This American Life.

3. Interview with Bob Dylan, conducted by Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston, August 1965. Collected in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 49.

4. Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments (London: Schirmer Books, 1996).

5. Victor Bockris, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), 34.

6. Interview with Bob Dylan, conducted by Cameron Crowe, August and September 1985, published as liner notes for Dylan’s Biograph boxed set.

7. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 50.

8. Interview with Bob Dylan, conducted by Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston, August 1965. Collected in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 49.

9. Jed Birmingham, RealityStudio: “#11: The Hardiment/Crowder Archive.”

10. Bob Dylan interview with Cameron Crowe, August and September 1985, published as liner notes for Dylan’s Biograph boxed set.

11. Harry Gilroy, “Poetry of Stage Examined by Two,” New York Times, February 15, 1965.

12. See RealityStudio posts “William Burroughs in New York City 1964-1965” and “The Hardiment/Crowder Archive” by Jed Birmingham for more information on the importance of 1965 in the career of William Burroughs.

13. Interview with Bob Dylan, conducted by Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston, August 1965. Collected in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 49.

14. Daniel Kramer, Bob Dylan (New York: Pocket Books, 1967), 140.

15. Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 19-20.

16. Ed Sanders, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, The Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side (New York: Da Capo Press, 2011), 106.

17. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 68-69.

18. Peter Duffy, “City Lore; Words and Music for a Revolution,” New York Times, February 11, 2001.

19. Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (New York: Broadway, 2008), 245.

20. Betsy Bowden, Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001), 9.

21. Bob Dylan and Barry Feinstein, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

22. Interview with Bob Dylan conducted by Paul J. Robbins March 26 and 27, 1965, originally published in the Los Angeles Free Press, September 1965.

23. Craig Karpel, The Tarantula in Me: Behind Bob Dylan’s Novel (San Francisco: Klonh, 1973).

24. Robin Witting, The Cracked Bells: A Guide to Tarantula (Revised Edition) (South Humberside: Exploding Rooster Books, 1995), 3-7 and Clinton Heylin, Behind the Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 195-196.

25. Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (Revised and Updated Edition) (Milwaukee: Backbeat Books, 2011), 167.

26. Clinton Heylin, Behind the Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 196.

27. Harry Gilroy, “The Bowery: Arty and Avant-Garde,” New York Times, April 24, 1965.

28. Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments (London: Schirmer Books, 1996), 68.

29. DONT LOOK BACK (film) by D.A. Pennebacker, originally released in 1967, rereleased with additional footage by The Criterion Collection in 2015.

30. Interview with Bob Dylan conducted by Paul J. Robbins on March 26 and 27, 1965 and originally published in the Los Angeles Free Press in September 1965.

31. Dylan scholar Stephan Pickering has documented numerous edits to Tarantula, apparently made by Bob Dylan himself. Dylan’s own archive, recently acquired by The George Kaiser Family Foundation, includes “multiple typescripts, neatly annotated by hand” of Tarantula, dispelling the myth that the book was haphazardly written and never revised or edited. See “Bob Dylan’s Secret Archive” by Ben Sisario in the New York Times, March 3, 2016.

32. Oliver Harris, Introduction to The Soft Machine (The Restored Text) by William S. Burroughs (New York: Grove Press, 2014), xxxii-xxxiii and xliv.

33. “Dylan Tapes Reveal Heroin Addiction,” by Rebecca Jones, BBC Radio 4, May 23, 2011. See also: “Questions About Bob Dylan’s Claim that He Was Once a Heroin Addict,” by Andy Greene, Rolling Stone, May 23, 2011.

34. “John Lennon: The Rolling Stone Interview, Part 2” by Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone, February 4, 1971.

35. See “APO-33” by Jed Birmingham at RealityStudio.

36. For example, see Burroughs’ letters to Neil Abercrombie, a Deputy Probation Officer for Marin County, California collected in Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1976, edited by Bill Morgan (New York: HarperCollins, 2012)

37. “Here Lies Tarantula” — Preface to the original edition of Tarantula by Bob Dylan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), x-xi.

38. Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (New York: Twelve Books, 2013) 520.

39. Sam Shepard, The Rolling Thunder Logbook (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2004) 124-125.

40. Victor Bockris, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), 34.

41. Kory Grow, “Bob Dylan’s Slapstick Period Revealed: ‘He’d Gotten Deeply into Jerry Lewis,’” Rolling Stone, November 10, 2014.

42. Scott Warmuth, “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One,” The New Haven Review, January 2008. Goon Talk is available online at

43. Bob Dylan interview with Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012. Dylan also said that those who complain about his writing style are “wussies and pussies.”

44. This comparison comes from “Vive le Vol: Bob Dylan and the Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway” from Goon Talk by Scott Warmuth.

45. Raymond Foye, “The Night Bob Came Around,” collected in Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, edited by John Bauldie, (New York: Citadel Underground, 1991). A reprinted version of the essay is available online at the Ginsberg blog.

Written by James Adams and published by RealityStudio on 8 May 2016. See also “Bob Dylan and William Burroughs — A (Mostly) 1965 Timeline.”

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