Duncan Fallowell

Part Beat, part hippy, part punk: the gay life of John Giorno

In a posthumously published memoir, the performance poet recalls his affairs with William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns among others

Part Beat, part hippy, part punk: the gay life of John Giorno
John Giorno poses in 1991 at the Bunker, William Burroughs’s apartment on the Bowery, New York. Getty images
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Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death and Enlightenment

John Giorno

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp. 368, £25

John Giorno, who died last year, was a natural acolyte: he needed a superior being to set him in motion. Part Beat, part hippy, part punk, he was a gay, sexually active poet who tells us that he loved to do it ‘endlessly’. He was therefore very popular among New York’s avant garde, many of whom were gay and passive: ‘I was young and beautiful and that got me what I wanted, and all I wanted was sex. I had all the money I needed; my parents gave me an allowance and paid my bills.’ Such boyish candour sets the tone of this memoir, which is a feast of exuberant emotion and indiscretion.

The first superior being he met was Allen Ginsberg (‘It was like being struck by lightning’), followed by Jack Kerouac: ‘Just seeing him fulfilled something in me.’ Then came a real biggie, Andy Warhol: ‘We looked into each other’s eyes. Something happened, a spark.’ It was Warhol who put Giorno on the map — as he did so many — when he cast him as the sleeper in Sleep, his first film, a work which changed the parameters of modern cinema. But the two fell out over a later role. ‘Andy made Blow Job, starring somebody else. I was deeply offended. That was supposed to be my movie.’

Then it’s William Burroughs: ‘...he left me speechless and in awe.’ And Brion Gysin: ‘I was at my sexual peak and the LSD blew me open’ but ‘we became each other’s demons.’ Next stop, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, ‘someone I so revered... nine inches hard... It was like making love to Alexander the Great or Emperor Hadrian.’ Eat your heart out, Alma Mahler. But Bob was vain and moody, and it’s not long before John is with Bob’s ex, Jasper Johns: ‘I was in awe of Jasper.’ But Johns was a snappy old boot, so... enlightenment beckons: a guru, India, Tibetan Buddhism, the fun trickles away, until he returns to Burroughs at the end. Revealingly Giorno calls him ‘William’ throughout – the acolytes did, whereas friends called him Bill.

I met Giorno during the Final Academy in 1982, a Burroughsian counterculture festival at the Ritzy Brixton, Heaven and the Hacienda, when he was part of the troupe that came over from the States. I quite understood what they all saw in him — a combination of bashfulness and effusiveness, with eyes both warm and bright in the Italian way. He was an impressive performance poet too. He still seemed uneasy with Gysin, who was part of the troupe; and Bill said that as a young man Giorno couldn’t speak — he could only fuck and perform poetry, which explains a lot.

There is no mention of muteness in the memoir, but there are several shocks, and the first comes early, when on-the-town young-and-sexy John is suddenly hacking at his wrists with a razor blade. We are not prepared for this, and the description is horrific. But we learn subsequently that he is manic depressive. Warhol, ever direct, gives him one of his ‘Suicide’ pictures. Giorno calls it ‘a glorious surprise’, and years later sells it for a fortune when he needs money — but that’s fine with Andy.

We are never offered an analysis of the depression, and one wonders if Giorno muddled through on self-medication:

I took half a Dexedrine and, while waiting for it to hit, smoked joints and cigarettes and drank vodka and soda, which was a chemical combination that went extremely well with my work.

Actually there is not much analysis of any sort: this is not an intellectual book. But since acolytes gossip far more than their masters do, it’s about exposure, even though chunks of it have appeared before.

Giorno outlived all the main characters in this memoir, so he may have felt he controlled the story. But his naivete is also part of his appeal. When Burroughs died, Giorno jumped into full Tibetan Book of the Dead last rites mode for days on end, to the alarm of a new generation of acolytes who thought the corpse was theirs. Giorno was convinced it was what Bill would have wanted. But when I reread Burroughs’s Ah Pook is Here recently I came across the following sentence:‘I consider the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, with their emphasis on ritual and knowing the right words, totally inadequate.’

Never mind, John. You meant well.