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Graduates, William S. Burroughs Has Some ‘Words of Advice’ For You

The late, great author wasn’t known for easy living, but he definitely lived a life. Revisiting his 1993 parental-advisory-labeled spoken-word hip-hop single…
William S. Burroughs in Chicago, March 25, 1981. (Credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)
William S. Burroughs in Chicago, March 25, 1981. (Credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

So, you might think to yourself, why would anyone recommend taking advice from a heroin addict who once shot his wife in the head? Valid question. And those are good points. It’s true that the Beat Generation icon’s 1953 novel Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (also known as Junky) is widely thought to be his fictionalized life story. And yes, though the exact details are unclear, Burroughs accidentally shot his common-law-wife Joan Vollmer in the head in September of 1951. All of this came after the decade when Burroughs, devastated over the break up with his lover Jack Anderson, famously cut off the tip of his pinky finger with poultry shears and sent it to him, and spent several months in a psych ward. 

And that’s just the beginning. To say that Burroughs lived his life on the edge is an absolute understatement: He consistently stoked the flames of his own personal hell. 

Burroughs in Paris, 1964. (Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images)

So, truth be told, William S. Burroughs might not be the first person you choose from a life-coach lineup.

That is, unless, you’ve heard the song “Words of Advice for Young People,” one of many musical spoken-word gems on the ’93 album Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, a collaboration with hip-hop duo The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. After a joyful cartoonish intro, the song breaks to silence and all we hear is Burroughs’ deep, sandpapery voice stating: “People often ask me if I have any… [cough] …” And then he trails off, verbally seeking a glass of water. 

Once he gets going, I assure you, there’s some pretty sage words of advice. You can probably imagine, however, not everything here is the most politically correct language. While we wouldn’t dream of editing or changing his words – most of Burroughs’ life would require a perpetual disclaimer – we’ve selected his most sapient, albeit R-rated, and enduring nuggets. 

And, hey, the list is for everyone. As Burroughs states: “A few simple admonitions for young and old.” 

“Never interfere in a boy and girl fight.”

Here, he starts off simple, leaves the statement alone, doesn’t expound or expand. It’s mostly pretty good advice. (For the record, while we really don’t know for sure, Burroughs and Joan Vollmer were not in a “boy and girl fight” when he shot her, but who knows…)

“Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is they want more money. Much more.”

Some of us will have to take his word on this one. It’s possible Burroughs was speaking from experience here. The essence of this statement might be in the eye of the beholder.

“Avoid fuck-ups. You all know the type. Anything they have anything to do with, no matter how good it sounds, turns into a disaster.”

This, actually, is a tough lesson to learn and possibly the best advice anyone can give you. The forewarned “fuck-ups” come in all shapes and sizes, some even appear to be non-fuck-ups, when they’re just fuck-ups in a successful human clothing. 

Patti Smith in Los Angeles 1974, posing with Burroughs’ 1961 novel ‘The Soft Machine.’ (Credit: Suzan Carson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

“Now, some of you may encounter the Devil’s Bargain, if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving, at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying, so you can take the offer as a compliment. He tries the easy ones first. You know, like money, all the money there is. But who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery? Money won’t buy. Not much left to spend it on, eh gramps? Getting too old to cut the mustard.”

Okay, so… if you got lost a little bit at the start of this statement, you’re not alone. However, it’s undeniably true that, when it comes to money, you can’t take it with you. (Not sure what cutting “the mustard” has to do with it, or which mustard… or how.) Still, this is pretty good advice and there’s a short, fun dance break that comes at this point in the song. 

“How’s a young body bred? Like three card monte, like pea under the shell, now you see it, now you don’t. Haven’t you forgotten something, gramps? In order to feel something, you’ve got to be there. You have to be eighteen. You’re not eighteen. You are seventy-eight. Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.”

This is really true – ask anyone older than you. Enjoy being young and buoyant and (within reason) indestructible. (And definitely, no matter what, do not sell your soul for a strap-on.) 

“There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise, like souls, or quantitative merchandise, like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. An old junk pusher told me, ‘Watch whose money you pick up.’”

This, his last piece of advice, rounds out the ongoing theme of exchanging money with evil. But really, when it comes down to it, he’s right: What price are you willing to pay to get the things that you want? That dues-paying job? Friends that aren’t really friends? Not all money is created equal. So, what is the price you’re willing to pay?