LIFE IS A KILLER: John Giorno (1936-2019)
In 1969 John Giorno said he wanted to make poetry “a razor blade. . . cutting through the ego of American karma,” and for fifty years he was true to his aim. His provocative poems and powerful performances eviscerated the body politic, conventional mores and sexual hypocrisy. During the Burroughs retrospective at the ZKM in Karlsruhe in 2012, The Name Is Burroughs, I talked with John about Buddhism and poetry, technology and social activism, and his extraordinary life.
John’s love of poetry began in his mid teens when he had an experience of “blissful recognition” while writing a poem, a sense of immersion and stillness, and a certainty that this was what he had been born to do. When he was 17 he went to a Dylan Thomas reading, the first of several readings given by Thomas at the 92nd Street Y which John would attend. He said he was crazy about Dylan Thomas and read the magazine and newspaper coverage of his American tours – “For me he was everything a poet could or should be. The language was mesmerizing.” While studying Comparative Literature with Lionel Trilling at Columbia University (1954-58), John was still under the spell of Thomas as well as Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, but in 1956 he read Ginsberg’s Howl and it was a total revelation, he said, an ecstatic experience, burying the hateful, stultifying 1950s and making possible the poetry which he himself would go on to write. John and Ginsberg would become friends, though there was a lengthy falling out as the result of derogatory comments John made in a 1974 interview in Gay Sunshine.
In 1961, while working as a stockbroker on Wall Street, John met Andy Warhol and the two men became lovers. John would forever be identified as Warhol’s sleeping Super Star in the 6 hour film Sleep (1963) and Warhol’s cool, detached aesthetic influenced John’s The American Book of the Dead (1964). Though he felt that these ‘found poems’, appropriations from popular culture, marked a creative dead end, and though he left The Factory and broke with Warhol the same year, it proved hard to shake off the Warholian take on mass media. Poems by John Giorno (1967) drew upon advertising, and Consumer Product Poetry (1968-74) featured words printed on t-shirts, flags and candy bars. John’s subject throughout the 1960s was the derogation of language, words themselves treated as ephemeral consumer products, communication as commodity with built-in obsolescence, but shortly after splitting from Warhol he made contact with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in New York, and these meetings would transform his life and force him to think about language in ways which would radically change his poetry.
The foregrounding of short phrases in Gysin’s ‘Permutated Poems’ and the use of playback and tape-to-tape recording on reel-to-reels had a pronounced effect on John’s writing, leading to the style for which he is most known: the repetition of vertically stretched stanzas with slight word and phrase variations. During his time with Gysin in New York in 1965 John collaborated with Gysin on the making of tape recordings mixing cut-up poems and sound effects. At the same time the enunciation and performativity of Gysin’s vocal delivery, and Gysin’s insistence that poetry should be spoken, influenced John’s readings, though he would develop his own rapid, machine gun, run-on approach and declamatory style.
Another breakthrough was John’s adoption of double columns of words running down the page, which first appeared in Balling Buddha (1970) and which he associated with the rhythmic flow of Buddhist chant. In fact, this format derived in part from the double word columns of Gysin’s ‘Permutated Poems’ and from Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-ups, to be read across shifting vertical strips of text. Because John’s poems were ‘scores’, intended to be read and performed, it’s also the case that his double column texts correspond to the simultaneous playback of two tape recorders, a process which attempts to exteriorise the interior dialogue of the psyche and neutralize the voice of self-referential consciousness, the ‘Voice Inside’.
By 1965 John and Gysin were lovers and in Room 703 of the Chelsea Hotel they took over 30 LSD trips over a period of a very few weeks. Though he would finally recognize the chaos and despair of drugs, the psychic and physical damage they cause and the entropic nature of drug highs, John’s acid experiences at the Chelsea were crucial and he would take LSD later that year when he visited Gysin in Tangier and travelled to Fez – his frequent use of the drug would continue well into the 1970s. Gysin introduced John to the magic of Morroco, and to Magic as a philosophy of being in the world and John would readily admit, “Brion and LSD changed my life.” He marked this period as the one in which his consciousness was opened and his vocation as a Buddhist was truly set in motion – not coincidentally, it was in Room 703 that he first practised meditation and experienced “a degree of bliss or a shot of white light. . .”
1967 was the year that Giono first engaged with technological processes, creating interventions in art and poetry institutions, and becoming notorious as a result. Instead of commenting upon the media through the quotation, displacement and framing of textual materials, he courted the media for publicity while developing telephonic and radio communications and light technologies, creating actions and events to subvert art and poetry institutions. Inspired by his work as a video cameraman on Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art & Technology collaboration with Bell Labs, he created his own version of a Happening at NYU, utilising black light and staggered, overlapping tape playbacks of his own readings. This event was also indebted to Gysin and Burroughs’ descriptions of their performances of ‘Le Domaine Poetique’ in Paris in the early 1960s, but John sought to go much further, creating environments of extreme disorientation and sensory overload. Throughout the 1960s he read at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church and by 1968 his performances there had become the most technologically ambitious as well as the most theatrical in the poetry program, intermedia events utilising multiple tape recorders and speakers, fog machines, perfume diffusers, high intensity beams of light, swooping spotlights and the oscillating sounds of a Moog analog synthesizer, while marijuana and LSD punch were distributed to the audience.
In 1967 John launched his record label Giorno Poetry Systems, and in December 1967 he produced ‘Dial-A-Poem’ at the Architectural League of New York with twelve telephone lines broadcasting twelve different poems – there was a single number for the service and the selection of the line and poem was random. The very idea of ‘phoning up a poem’ was provocative, mocking the amour- propre of the poetry establishment, but it was also a perfect demonstration of John’s belief in the democratisation of poetry through technology. The service was bombarded with calls, and although this pirate radio operation was threatened with a legal summons and disconnection, it continued until June 1968, reaching a total of 1,112,337 calls. John then moved into wireless transmission at a ‘Software’ show at the Jewish Museum, using a small radio transmitter that circulated signals to transistor radios in the lobby. He called the system ‘Radio Free Poetry’. Later in 1968, having developed a transmitter which covered an area of a thousand square feet, he broadcast from the bell tower of the Poetry Project, and was threatened with arrest.
From the beginning these poetry transmissions were political, both as guerilla actions and in terms of their content. John was intimately involved with the Yippie and White Panther movements at the time and among the first Dial-A-Poem contributors, alongside Burroughs, Ginsberg, and John Cage, were radicals Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale. John would subsequently organize a 30-hour benefit at St. Mark’s on New Year’s Eve, 1969, in support of White Panther John Sinclair and in March 1970 launched ‘Free Radio’ WPAX, supplying anti-war recordings, mixed with feminist and gay statements and rock music, to be broadcast by Radio Hanoi. Vice President Spiro Agnew demanded that John be arrested for treason and called him a ‘Hanoi Hannah’. How did John feel about that? “Well, you knew the Files were getting bigger.” John’s disgust with the war in Vietnam continued at MOMA in the June of 1970 when he curated 12 Dial-A-Poem tapes, one of which was Diane de Prima’s ‘How to Make a Molotov Cocktail’. At that time, John told me, for himself and others, poetry could not be understood as separate from politics. His strategy was to use communication technologies for the broadcast and dissemination of anti-war, anti-establishment material, while simultaneously validating poetry as a vocal communication and an aural art, a committed art. In 1974 the double album of Dial-A-Poem recordings, Disconnected, was issued, followed by albums by Burroughs and Waldman, again privileging the voice of the poet over the written text. John’s fearlessness as a social activist, interventionist and organiser would be redeployed in the years of AIDS when he used his expertise to the benefit of medical, charitable and community projects.
Between 1967 and 1969 John was seen as part of the experimental poetry scene, appearing alongside Clark Coolidge, Aram Saroyan, and Hannah Weiner in the radical magazine 0 to 9, edited by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer. But his work resisted literary contextualisation, even when he was published in 1970 in the seminal An Anthology of New York Poets. Frank O’Hara was great, John said, but he didn’t want to be defined as a ‘Second Generation New York School Poet’. His ‘Pornographic Poem’, a brutal, ecstatic s/m fantasy, was the most provocative poem in the book – no other poet in the book could have written it, or would ever have considered publishing it. Characteristically refusing to play the game, the Author’s Note which John supplied for the book was in fact a brief biography of Elvis Presley. This was ludicrous, and yet weirdly prophetic of John’s future careers in music – as performer, writer, rock group leader and record producer. In 1982 the John Giorno Band would record the album I’m Rock Hard and tour the U.S. and Canada over several years, while Giorno Poetry Systems would issue music and spoken word CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums by significant groups, singers and poets including Sonic Youth, Patti Smith and Diamanda Galas. In 2011 John appeared in the b/w video for R.E.M.’s ‘We All Go Back To Where We Belong’, filmed in b/w in one take as he listened and reacted to the song. Michael Stipe co-directed this poignant video in homage to Warhol’s Screen Tests, in one of which John had featured in 1964.
In spring 1971, at Ginsberg’s urging, John went to India and Nepal and spent two weeks with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala before staying at Sarnath where he first seriously studied Tibetan language and religion with the Niyingmapa teacher Nyichang Rinpoche. John was, he said, now “on the Way. . . on the Buddhist road”, and he went on to Darjeeling where he made his vow of refuge to the venerated Dudjom Rinpoche of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism. Following his return to the States in 1971 John studied Nyingmapa ritual with Trungpa Rinpoche at a retreat in Vermont, and having made the required ritual 100,000 prostrations, he went back to India in 1973, with poet friends Anne Waldman and Michael Brownstein. After visiting Nyingmapa lamas in Darjeeling, John met again with Dudjom Rinpoche and spent several months studying with him. Using his money-raising and organizational skills, John was able to open a dharma center in 1976 in New York at West 16th Street and welcome Dudjom Rinpoche.
I asked John about his Buddhist beliefs and he said that through meditation, ritual discipline and committment to the Nyingmapa lineage and his teachers, he was able to develop and practise compassion in his thoughts and actions. To learn to treat complete strangers as if they were close friends or lovers seemed quite impossible, but it was precisely this impossibile love which must be realised. However difficult circumstances might be, he persevered in opening his mind and heart, and this included overcoming his initial concerns about Buddhist attitudes to homosexuality and drugs. He stressed respect for other people, whether rich or poor, young or old, whatever their race or beliefs, and said that this only became possible through the surrender of the ego, the relinquishment of attachment to one’s presumed ‘self’, its personal history and achievements, perceived obligations and cravings, the desire for gain, control and power. It was incredibly hard, but perseverance and the submission of self were in themselves liberating. He didn’t think of his poetry as separate from his spiritual practice but as vitally serving and extending it. Leaving the bar that night in Germany, after a few joints and glasses of red wine, I viewed the strange streets and said, “John, I think we’re hopelessly lost.” “Of course we are,” John said, “and that’s fine.”
Restless, unrestricted by movements or labels, and wanting to risk-test his work in live readings in underground clubs rather than on sacrosanct poetry grounds, John immersed himself in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in the NY Punk/New Wave scene of SoHo and the East Village. His 1977 book Shit, Piss, Blood, Pus and Brains perfectly encapsulates the performativity of the ‘ethics of negativity’ of Punk No Wave at the very beginning of this period. In Paula Court’s book New York Noise (first published in 2007), a seminal black and white photographic document of the doomed New Wave era, there’s a picture of Giorno performing at ‘Aluminium Nights’ in 1981, reciting his poem, always a big hit with audiences, ‘I Don’t Want It, I Don’t Need It, And You Cheated Me Out Of It’. In fact John really did have his ‘Greatest Hits Poems’, all thrillers, no fillers, like ‘Just Say No To Family Values’, ‘I’m Tired of Being Scared’ and ‘Completely Attached To Delusion’. He felt, he said, a bit like an old Blues man, he had to get up there and do those old ‘songs’. But the comparison was acute – as Daniel Kane has pointed out, there really is something “blueslike” in John’s insistent line repetitions and in his raw narratives of marginalisation, disaffection, oppression, sorrow and sex. Significantly, John would remember listening many times to old blues records with Gysin who was an afficianado of the music as well as a close friend of the writer and musicologist Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues (1982).
1970s No Wave was a great renaissance of the intermedia of the 1960s, and it fuelled a renewed interest in Burroughs, Ginsberg, and the Beats. There was a sense of shared ethics combining political protest and experimentalism across art forms, and this included multi-media extensions of the Cut-Up Technique utilising new technology as well as a huge revival of live poetry performance. The subculture of the 1970s recognized earlier pioneering models including the Beats, Situationism, Fluxus, The Living Theatre, but the work which emerged was powerful and distinct, beyond recuperation and the synthesis of sources. John remembered James Chance, Rock Steady Crew, Talking Heads, Lucinda Childs, Glenn Branca, Christian Marclay, Basquiat, and so many more. . . Some got famous, some disappeared, some died, but John stressed the community and connectivity which was at the heart of this uprising of creativity from the streets. In the radius of a few blocks, cheap or squatted warehouse and loft spaces were colonized for living and for parties, rehearsals, performances, concerts and events. Interdisciplinary modes merged in crossover collaborations and John loved the scorched earth approach to materials and processes, the desire to “just do it”.
Downtown itself, John said, became a revolving stage, an endless canvas, a series of sets and moving texts – not only multi-media galleries and night clubs but subway trains, sidewalks, buildings, empty lots, the city’s wild spaces became cross-cultural playgrounds for performances, readings and films. Extraordinary works came out of grim urban decay and anarchist political protest, and despite the poverty and drugs, John felt the work was redemptive and thrilling, and that his own poetry and performances both contributed to, and flourished in “the last great New York experiment.” When Burroughs moved into the Bunker at John’s home, 222 Bowery, in 1975, it was the beginning of the process which would see Beat progenitors become active collaborators and co-conspirators of a new cultural revolution which survived for a few years until real estate investment, new legal regulations and AIDS devastated the arts community.
John had known Burroughs from 1964, but this connection became high profile during Burroughs’ residence at the Bunker from 1975 to 1981. Films, books, records, tours and media coverage would make the Bunker famous and cement John’s public connection with Burroughs. In December 1978 the three-day Nova Convention became the most famous event of the period, celebrating the confluence of avant-garde artists across generations and media. In 1981 Giorno Poetry Systems Institute released You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With, featuring Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs and John, drawing upon material from their 1981 Red Night Tour, one year before Anderson’s first ever solo album Big Science. In 1982 The Final Academy took place in London, a reprise of the Nova Convention which would nevertheless have its own cross-Atlantic effects. Naked Lunch had shocked, delighted and inspired John as a young man, but it was the multiple, split and layered quest narratives of Burroughs’ Red Night trilogy which now engaged him. This was Burroughs’ ‘spiritual odyssey’ John said, and a monumental exploration of the psyche, a “dangerous adventure” through worlds of illusion and deception. It was in this context that he recalled the conversations he’d had with Burroughs over many years and their shared fascination with metaphysics – speculations on other dimensions, reincarnation, transcendence, immortality and love.
Stripped of technology and rock music, John’s unadorned one man shows became legendary, beyond hipster art enclaves. In these driven, splenetic performances John gave unforgettable voice to the deconstruction of desire, anger, jealousy, pride and ignorance. He was an exorcist of these “Five Poisons” as he called them, referring to the five kleshas of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. His work was a ‘Strong Black Method’ (the phrase is Gysin’s), a virulent antidote to these afflictions, and in this way it combined John’s Buddhist philosophy and his “poetics of anger”. Audiences were alternately stunned, overwhelmed, and rapturous as he delivered his galvanic, incantatory recitations, tearing away the masks and armour of the ego, psychically ripping up himself and everyone else in the place. He felt his poetry, despite its extreme, graphic sexuality, including accounts of exaltation through degradation and humiliation, was nevertheless in accord with his Buddhist committment and practice, even as he challenged certain moral prescriptions of the religion. It was enlightenment through self- exposure, the verbal destruction of self-image and unquestioning beliefs, through which John realised the Beats’ injunction to speak the unspeakable in the name of discovered truth. It was necessary to confront one’s own weaknesses, distress and pain, John said, and this philosophy of the unflinchingly examined life is exemplified by his 1973 book Cancer In My Left Ball.
John’s work was both an attack on state authoritarianism and exemplary of his own continued attempts to demolish false ‘selves’ and to become liberated from material concerns, vanity and pain – the political, social and personal were inseperably bound. He didn’t see his performances as therapy, rather as the manifest actions of a spritual discipline, akin to the Tibetan ritual practice of Chod, as developed by Machig Labdron – it was the cutting through of ego, dualistic vision, attachments and desires in order to create a refuge of self-liberation, a space and a moment free of delusion. This, John believed, could only be achieved by confronting the virulent, delusionary effects of language on the psyche – the parasitism which he pushed to an extreme and foregrounded and reiterated in order to reveal its operations and effects. As Burroughs said of the poems and texts in John’s 1994 book you got to burn to shine, they were “litanies from the underworld of the mind”, and the words “reverberate in your head and ventriloquize your thoughts.”
John’s silkscreened ‘word pictures’ are among his most well known and recognizable achievements. They are striking and entirely deceptive. Black and white or brilliantly coloured, these images are in the tradition of the ‘language objects’ created by 1960s conceptual artists, including the presentation of statements which question their own meaning. John said that his poetry was meant to be spoken and heard in community rather than read alone, whereas his screenprints were “words to be seen. . . words as images. . .written mandalas.” The more you look at these apparently simple phrases and seemingly self-evident short texts, the more the individual words and letters become syntactically detached, their signification increasingly problematic: “LIFE / IS A KILLER. . . . .LEAVE AS / IT IS. . . . . THE WORLD / JUST MAKES / ME LAUGH. . . . . WISTERIA / GRASPING / EMPTINESS. . . . . IT’S HOW / YOU / HANDLE IT. . . . .THANX / 4 / NOTHING. . . . . DO / THE UNDONE. . . . .DON’T / WAIT / FOR ANYTHING. . . . . SPACE / FORGETS YOU”
The works had their origin in a comment which Warhol had made to John in the early 1960s – that if you repeat a word long enough it becomes meaningless. The ‘cool’ screenprinting of these visual word pieces can be seen as a wry Warholian take on spiritual precepts, koans, mantras and haiku, but John said there was both a truth to be meditated on in each statement, and a connection with Gysin because in his own way he was “Rubbing Out The Word” and paradoxically doing so by making the words big, bright and bold, as in advertising – despite the scale and the dazzle, if you really looked, he said, the meaning of these words would disappear “before your very eyes.” Each word-picture contained a spiritual truth but this message was in a visual-linguistic form which self-erased when you contemplated it, combining the Buddhist illusion of appearances with Burroughs and Gysin’s undermining of the fixity of syntactic signification in language. Like Gysin, John thought the art world was a market place of illusions and so it is pefectly ironic that these cryptic poem-pictures, tantalizing art works designed to dematerialize, now hang in the galleries and museums which John so often scorned.
John hung Tibetan prayer flags from the roof of 222 Bowery in New York, and for decades he raised and flew the flags of support and protest – flags for LBGTQ rights, for feminists, for the treatment of AIDS, for the mission of Buddhism in the West, for the democratisation of poetry and art outside academic institutions. He raised money but also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on charitable projects. He believed that love was the only remedy against fear and sorrow, a love, he believed, which should be as promiscuous as the sex he had enjoyed and written about with such libertarian relish, while compassion, he insisted, was paramount and should be absolutely“indiscriminate”.
John played and inhabited many roles – Wall Street stockbroker, First Warhol Superstar, businessman, gossip columnist, AIDS philanthropist, incorrigible hedonist, city activist, Tibetan scholar, record label impressario, visual artist. . . But above all, by vocation and committment, he was a poet, a poet whose savage verbal deconstructions of illusion served a Buddhist vision of freedom and bliss. He’d had visions throughout his life, from Darjeeling to the Chelsea Hotel, from Fez to the derelict streets of the Bowery. Now John is somewhere in the “hundred million naga or spirit realms” which he spoke of with awe and humility, delight and longing.
Ian MacFadyen, London, October 2019