Artists of the Year

Maybe Banksy's no lipstick. But I like to think of his art as a mustache drawn on the world—a reminder that people can still be shocked and outraged into feeling human again.

Melissa Maerz is an associate editor at Spin.

William S.

Gary Taxali

Burroughs Jr.

BY LISA CARVER

What is it like to be the child of William S. Burroughs? Terrifying, dizzying, wide-open, hopeless. Hashish happens. Visitors molest you. Meanwhile, dad sits stock-still on the roof in the gathering gloom of twilight, receiving transmissions.

But that was when Billy was 14. Let's back up to when he was four, when his father shot his mother and sent Billy to live with his grandparents. They did a good job, but then they went senile and died. Dad flew in from London and, Billy writes, "cornered me in the kitchen one night, [saying]: 'For one thing, this damn house is haunted. It's obvious as a cop.'

"He was right," Billy decides, "but I came right out and asked him what in God's name he expected me to do, wave a wand? I wasn't having any more fun than he, and besides, I was starting to get symptoms whenever I went too long without a shot. We both apologized wordlessly and shook hands."

It was generous of him to take his father's wordlessness as an apology. Billy Burroughs was nothing if not generous. And wry. And unfinished.

Teen Billy moved from jail to rehab to radical reform school. Twenties Billy wrote two beatniky, autobiographical novels—Speed and Kentucky Ham—drank, methamphetamined, womanized, wandered, picked trash, and found treasure. And died. Liver failure caused a heart attack and coma. He was brought back to life and became one of the first dozen people to survive a liver transplant.

Billy fell in love with his liver, which he viewed as his wife. It had come from a lovely woman named Virginia, who died at the same age as Billy's mother. To keep his body from rejecting the organ, Billy went on massive doses of the steroid Prednisone, which led to a paranoid/delusional disorder. His wounds never quite healed; he leaked pus.

He found God. God rejected him. Homeless, he applied to be a monk, but the diocese turned him down for emotional instability and lack of priestly training. "Did St. Francis have a high psychological image? Was he college educated?" Billy shot back in a letter he was too sick to mail. He died in 1981.

It was left to David Ohle to organize Billy's box of unfinished manuscripts, letters, and notes, adding interviews with the (mostly famous) people who'd known Billy Burroughs. The result is a fascinating and heartbreaking book, Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr., which came out in October of this year.

Billy Burroughs was a good apple who had the misfortune of falling from an inescapably shitty tree. He never had a year of his own when he was alive; I am pleased, as such, for this opportunity to name 2006 as his.

Lisa Carver lives in Dover, New Hampshire. Her latest book is called Drugs Are Nice.

Neil Young

BY WILL HERMES

Last February, sort of by accident, I caught Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme's handsome Neil Young concert documentary. In it, Young mentions that his father had just died, following a long bout with dementia. How odd, I thought: My father had died just a few days earlier under the same circumstances.

Young also stared down his own death in 2005 when he was treated for a brain aneurysm. So there was a special weight to the movie's second half, with its classics about time's passage. "I Am a Child" and "Old Man," great if over-familiar songs, glowed anew. And by the opening line of "Heart of Gold"—"I wanna live"—tears were running down my cheeks.

But old musicians singing about mortality is one thing; making art like mortality is your last concern is another. In April, Young streamed his new Living with War free online. It featured a 100-person chorus singing "Let's Impeach the President," the year's most cathartic political song by my measure, which Young also strummed, very amusingly, on The Colbert Report. And it was one of the few new songs that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played in August in Bethel, New York, at a new amphitheater built on the site of the original Woodstock festival. Young didn't once mention the gig's historic resonance (the group effectively made their debut at the '69 festival). He just sang, and played his electric guitar with a ferocity that seemed to astonish even his bandmates. It testified to a spirit that—like the spiritual catalog my dad left me—will outlive him. And it argued that, even in the midst of an oldies show, nostalgia is for suckers.

Will Hermes is a freelance writer and co-editor of SPIN: 20 Years of Alternative Music.

Michael Yonkers

BY CECILE CLOUTIER

As much as I like Michael Yonkers's music, to me he's an even better role model for how to handling adversity with grace. Upon hearing the rough mix of his disc with the Blind Shake, Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons, I present:

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