Thurston Moore is best known for his role as one of the pioneering guitarists of the now-defunct experimental band Sonic Youth. But he's been spending his summers in Boulder for the past four years, teaching a course at Naropa University on William Burroughs's connection with and influence on music. "The title of the course is 'Machine Boys Are Electronic,'" says Moore with a wry smile. "I was being farcical and thinking about...a Burroughs-ian title for a rock album."
Founded in 1974 by Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Naropa is an unconventional liberal-arts university that includes the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which was started that same year by legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Anne Waldman. With its focus on "contemplative education," the school has attracted Fulbright Scholars, well-known writers and, now, pioneering musicians to its faculty.
The Naropa campus is a setting that suits Moore. On a particularly beautiful, calm day in June, he finished teaching a three-hour morning class and went to lunch with his girlfriend, Eva Prinz. We caught up with them there and talked about Burroughs, Patti Smith and Waldman, who also founded the Summer Writing Program at Naropa and invited Moore to participate in it.
Tom Murphy: What do you feel is the connection between William Burroughs and music?
Thurston Moore: Burroughs is such an iconic figure in the music world. Starting from the '60s, bands named themselves after characters and titles of his books. Soft Machine, Steely Dan...
Burroughs was not specifically a music person. Unlike his friends Kerouac and Ginsberg, he never name-checked jazz musicians in his work. Kerouac would write at length about his fascination with jazz and how it informed his writing. Burroughs's writing was very much informed by Kerouac's writing. In that respect, it carries through how Burroughs has this bop prosody that Kerouac exhibited.
How did you become involved in teaching summer courses at Naropa University?
Anne Waldman came up and did a reading in western Massachusetts, where I was living. She saw my library, and I always remember her coming into my library for all of one second. I really wanted her to see it, and I thought, "Oh, she just kind of glanced." But I learned later she completely got it in one second, and then she asked me if I would become a teacher at Naropa, just knowing, "This person is on it."
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I said, "No, I'm touring all the time." But I did come out to Boulder [in the] early 2000s to do a benefit for the [Naropa audio poetry] archives here, and I played at the Boulder Theater. They showed me around campus, and I thought it was a groovy zone. I never really supposed I would actually teach here, but four years ago I decided to do it.You saw an early Patti Smith Group show as a teenager. As a poet and performer, Smith was an early catalyst for helping you make the connection between punk, non-mainstream poetry and Burroughs. What do you feel is the legacy of Burroughs for the punk music that informed your own work?
Maybe it's his attitude, in a way. Burroughs was always into [not being] so gregarious and giving everything away. He cut this figure of sort of walking off into the mist. So it...had a certain attitude of being very black-and-white and minimal and in kind of a gray area, in opposition to flashiness or look-at-me-ness.
It was in complete opposition to hippie culture at the time. In a way, he became very much more accepted when punk rock first started happening, because punk rock was fed up with the hippie ideal of the utopian search and also the glitter and glam of glam rock, even though it used glam rock musically.
I always saw the Ramones sort of coming out of that -- this sense that everybody dressed the same in their leather jackets, ripped jeans and sneakers. It was almost like they were the Bay City Rollers, but they were street toughs. At the same time, Robert Mapplethorpe [took the] photograph of Patti Smith in black and white and dressed androgynously for the cover of Horses.
Hippie culture was all about returning to the country and becoming part of Mother Earth and leaving the city behind. Burroughs was the city.
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Then, all of a sudden, you had the Ramones and Patti Smith, and they were New York City. So the whole idea of going to the country and being a hippie and being with Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and sitting on the porch with your dogs and smoking weed and escaping from society was just yesterday's bunk. All of a sudden, it was, "No, I'd rather stand on the subway platform with Patti Smith and listen to some loud rock and roll, and that's what we're going to do. And we'll fight the system that way."
So his importance in that respect is remarkable, and that's how I sort of came to Burroughs. Lester Bangs wrote, "This man is responsible for turning an entire generation into junkie faggots." I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, who is that guy?" I remember going to whatever bookstore was around where I was in rural Connecticut and pulling Nova Express out. I was in my friend's car and reading it out loud and going, "This is just wild writing. I can't even believe this has existed this long." As known as he was in the hip circles in the '60s, he was marginalized.
Then there's Burroughs [the] weird figure that the Beatles put on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's; he's just a strange figure in the counterculture. It really wasn't until the mid-'70s punk-rock scene that Burroughs really became a voice of that generation.