John Giorno: Fighting the Battle of Gay Liberation in a Homophobic World
Mark Dery on Great Demon Kings, the Memoir of an Icon
“I don’t know what it means!” Andy Warhol bleats, in John Giorno’s Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment (out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Warhol’s ditzy refrain is a mantra for the perpetually bemused, at once tragicomic and tongue-in-cheek. He says it when “everyone in the art world” shows up at his first one-man show in New York, seeing and being seen among the Campbell’s soup cans. He says it when he and Giorno (by then his lover) are watching Walter Cronkite’s live coverage of the assassination of JFK. He says it again and again during the president’s funeral cortege.
With his gum-chewing vacuity and ghostwritten bon mots, Warhol is the least likely philosophe. Still, he puts his finger on a pressing question: What does life mean?
As a Tibetan Buddhist, Giorno, who died in 2019 at the age of 82, regarded the question from a cosmic remove. As an exuberantly gay man in the “Golden Age of Promiscuity” before AIDS, he waded hip-deep into it. Cruising baths, bars, and subway toilets, snorting poppers and “fist fucking with 40 guys for 14 hours” (as he recalled in You Got to Burn to Shine, his 1993 collection of prose and poems), he found meaning in a religion of radical eros whose sacrament was anonymous sex. “Transcendence and emptiness, sex and great bliss were spiritual accomplishments,” he writes, in Great Demon Kings. “I was fighting the battle of gay liberation in a homophobic world… We were the combat troops of love…”
As a pioneer of performance poetry, he punted the question of meaning to the listener. Jettisoning both the Whitmanesque lyricism of Beats like Allen Ginsberg and the arch, cocktail-party repartee of New York School poets like Frank O’Hara, Giorno (the lover, in rapid succession, of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns) applied the Pop artists’ appropriation of mass-media images and found objects to poetry. By arranging snatches of art-world gossip, mundane chitchat, and lines snipped from advertisements, tabloid coverage of death and disasters, and pulpy porn into jump-cutting literary montages, he channeled the mental cacophony of a media-bombarded America. From “Raspberry” (1967): “Want him to be more of man? Try being more of a woman.” “Scientists are trying to enlist the common barnacle in the fight to save man’s teeth.” “Bullet holes, look like the real thing, sets of three, only fifty cents.” “A bearded outlaw, who claimed he was an immortal descendant of God, was killed last night by the police.”“They thought they were hearing my poems, but my poems were mirrors in which they were seeing themselves.”
His mature style turned inward, swapping the stream-of-media-consciousness style of his Pop period for a live feed from his “stupid grasping mind,” as the Buddhist in him called it. Mining aperçus and existentialist one-liners from the compulsive babble of our internal monologues, Giorno set them to the rhythms of everyday speech. The results read like a cross between The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Grindr banter, CBGB’s hecklers at their most inspired, and Rupert Pupkin’s stand-up in King of Comedy. Poems like “I Don’t Need It, I Don’t Want It, and You Cheated Me Out of It” (1981) and “Life is a Killer” (1982) are bleakly funny, luridly pornographic, rich in cynical wisdom but compassionate, too—yin-yang unions of the ecstatic and the obscene, the transcendental and the banal. From “Stretching It Wider” (You Got to Burn to Shine):
Then there is
of the family,
at a table
with a bunch
Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” transposed into the key of Goodfellas.
“I don’t know what it means!” you’re thinking.
Meaning, John believed, is in the mind of the beholder. If his “poems and performances had a profound effect” on his audiences, he wants us to know, in Great Demon Kings, it wasn’t because they were themselves profound, but because they reflected “the wisdom already present” in his listeners’ minds “They thought they were hearing my poems, but my poems were mirrors in which they were seeing themselves.”
More than 50 years of meditation practice in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism sharpened his ability to observe, with serene indifference, the incessant chatter in his head—a skill well-suited to making poems, he thought. “What one always tried to do in my poems in the sixties with the found images was [make them] a reflection of the mind,” he told an interviewer, in 2011. “I mean, the way the mind has these different things that go through each other, skeins of thoughts. … When you meditate, you watch your thoughts arise and you don’t follow them… Many poets are Buddhists, like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, [so] maybe it’s an ability to see your thoughts, to see the wisdom that’s arising out of your mind and [work] with it.”
Written over 25 years and finished just before his death, Great Demon Kings invites us to regard Giorno’s life as he did: with an Existentialist’s sense of the absurd; from a Buddhist’s aerial perspective on the human farce; through the eyes of a gay man who believed devoutly in the liberatory power of queer desire, and for whom sleaze was sanctified by a poignant sense of the fleeting meaninglessness of all our dreams and desires—“the illusory nature of all phenomena, and the empty nature of mind,” as he puts it in Great Demon Kings. He finds countless little morals in the stories of his life but no single Meaning.
We learn that, as a teenager, he “received all [his] spiritual training from reading great novels and poetry.” What Beckett, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and everyone else taught, he decided, was “that one was doomed in a world bound by ignorance, and the only way to liberation was through love and sex, pure transcendent desire, and that always ended in disaster. Everything ended in suffering.”
But suffering can be transmuted, by aestheticism, irony, compassion, or some combination thereof, into sublimity. Watching Jackie O. getting off Air Force One, live, in her blood-and-brain-spattered pink Chanel suit, Warhol exclaims, “Oh, it’s the best thing she’s ever done!” Giorno, who shared Warhol’s genius for self-promotion, could spot a bankable idea a mile off. “’That image,’ I said, ‘will be a Pop icon. It’s happening live, now; but the image will be an icon. Trust me.’” Andy did. The result, the 1964 Jackie paintings, was a smashing success, Our Lady of Sorrows for a celebrity culture.
Seeking escape from his own sorrows—the chronic depression that had haunted him since childhood, and which drove him to slash his wrists to raw meat with a straight razor—Giorno sets off, in 1971, on the inevitable pilgrimage to India, a dharma bum in search of “release from delusion and suffering.” Being Giorno, he meets up with the Buddhist scholar Bob Thurman—yes, that Thurman, with his wife and family, including baby Uma, in tow—who brings him along to meet the Dalai Lama. Being Giorno, he presents His Holiness with a copy of his XXX-rated book of gay-porn poems, Balling Buddha. “Thankfully, he didn’t read English,” the author informs, with impeccable deadpan. Watching the burning of the dead on the banks of the Ganges, he contemplates the “roasting bodies” with equanimity, offhandedly observing, “It smelled like a suburban cookout.” (I kept waiting for the rimshot.) “A man called the Poker tossed the charred bodies back on the fire, pushed them down when they sat up straight, and stuck his poker into the top of the head, so the skull didn’t explode when the brains boiled.”
The punks, with their black humor and aesthetic shock tactics, are still years away, but Giorno is already one of their own. Patti Smith and Sonic Youth will embrace him; William S. Burroughs, godfather of punk and patron saint of junkie chic, will move into the Bowery building he owns, a stately Romanesque Revival pile that had once been a YMCA (and which Burroughs claimed was haunted, happily, by the ghosts of naked boys, fresh from the shower). Yet he concludes on the book’s last page, shortly before the death he doesn’t know is just around the corner, “I believe and feel in a soft way that I have lived a failed life because all my accomplishments were based on the force of my ego.”
I don’t know what it means, just as I don’t know what it means that after having interviewed John at the very beginning of my journalistic career, in 1983, then again shortly after moving to New York from San Francisco in 1986, and not having seen him for over 30 years, I felt a sudden urge—a compulsion, really—to reconnect with him in 2017, when I ♥︎ John Giorno, the multi-location exhibition mounted by his husband Ugo Rondinone, was showing at venues around Manhattan.
About a year before John died, I interviewed him in his Bowery loft for the art magazine Hyperallergic. His close-cropped hair had gone white and his eyes, sorrowful or slyly knowing depending on how the light caught them, were crinkled at the corners by crow’s feet, testimony to the puckish laugh that held the black dog of depression at bay. (In “Thanx 4 Nothing,” written on his 70th birthday, he says, “Thanks for the depression problem/ and feeling like suicide / every day of my life, / and now that I’m seventy, / I am happily almost there.” Ba-dump-bump!) Yet he was as funny and fatally charming as I remembered him, a world-class raconteur and irrepressible gossip, the gay Buddhist uncle of your dreams.
We talked over tea, unlike the last time I’d seen him, when John was putting away straight vodka with a gusto that would’ve put a dissolute Roman senator in the shade. “Do you have a model of human nature?” I asked, during a philosophical digression. “For example, the Puritan view of human nature is essentially a bleak one, epitomized by that line from Isaiah 64:6, ‘But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…’” He was quick off the mark: “I feel quite the opposite of all that: our filthy rags are bejeweled!” He laughed that marvelous laugh, part snicker, part wheeze, a groan of delight.
Shortly before our interview, I’d made the rounds of the spaces where I ♥︎ John Giorno was on exhibit. In one, a video of John performing “Thanx 4 Nothing” was playing in a darkened room. I was the only one in the gallery, so I lay on the floor, using my backpack for a pillow, and watched the film several times through, mesmerized. Alone in a shaft of light on a dark, empty stage, John delivered a benediction, “May my
of boundless fabulous sex
countless lovers of boundless fabulous sex
… may they all come here now,
and make love to you,
if you want,
may each of them
hold each of you in their arms
to your hearts
balling to your hearts
your hearts delight
balling to your hearts delight.
At the same time, the somber guitar arpeggios accompanying his recitation gave the video an elegiac feel, as if he were delivering his own eulogy, hailing the living from the next bardo. Then, just when my eyes were welling up, he slapped me with a splash of acerbic wit—indistinguishable, in John’s work, from wisdom, a word he used in the Buddhist sense of “the most transcendent of thoughts,” as he told me in our last interview):
Huge hugs to the friends who betrayed me,
every friend became an enemy,
sooner or later,
I am delighted you are vacuum cleaners
sucking everything into your dirt bags,
you are none other than a reflection of my mind.
Not long after, he died of a heart attack in his Bowery home. “John was found with a smile on his face,” his assistant told me. He was looking at one of the paintings he made of lines from his poems silkscreened, in a nod to Warhol, onto brightly colored backgrounds, in this case a rainbow. The painting was titled Leave As It Is.
I don’t know what it means.