Did David Bowie pinch a cactus from TS Eliot?

by Claire Armitstead / Guardian

21st March 2013

Having spent the last month on the other side of the world (Australia, since you ask), I’ve only just succumbed to the current Bowie mania. But as a worshipper from the Hunky Dory era, I was fascinated by Jon Savage’s account of a conversation the thin white duke had with William Burroughs in Rolling Stone magazine in 1974.

Savage concentrated on the musical synergies – particularly the cut-up technique that Bowie picked up from Burroughs’ work which, he explains, “would enable Bowie to renew his entire method of writing lyrics and making music”.

But after tracking down the original interview, I was struck by the following exchange:

Burroughs: What is your inspiration for writing, is it literary?

Bowie: I don’t think so.

Burroughs: Well, I read this “Eight line poem” of yours and it is very reminiscent of TS Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of “The Waste Land”. Do you get any of your ideas from dreams?

Bowie: Frequently.

There follows a long disquisition on Burroughs’ dream life, which is of less interest 40 years on than the eight-line poem he mentions – so I went in search of it and, of course, there it is in all its Eliot-esque glory, piercing straight through to my old vinyl memories of Hunky Dory:

Tactful cactus by your window
Surveys the prairie of your room
Mobile spins to its collision
Clara puts her head between her paws
They’ve opened shops down west side
Will all the cacti find a home
But the key to the city
Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky

So here’s a question. Was Bowie fibbing when he claimed never to have read “The Waste Land” – or did he steal his tactful cactus from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star?

Bowie acknowledged his debt to Burroughs’ own work – in particular his novel The Wild Boys – but what other literary influences, conscious or not, can be found in his music?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Did David Bowie pinch a cactus from TS Eliot?

  1. Eva-Maria Hamann

    perfect informations!

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