Saturday, July 5, 2008


(Portrait of John Giorno (c)2010 Bill DeNoyelles)
Subduing the Demons in America:An Interview with John Giorno
By Bill DeNoyelles

(My 2003 Interview with Poet John Giorno.)
John Giorno remains a fierce, independent voice in American Gay Culture. His work as a poet, performer, activist and fundraiser spans over four decades. Without any loss of his manic energy Giorno continues to champion the work of friends like Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Unrepentant and radical, he displays remarkable insight into the turmoil of the sixties, the explosive sexual jubilation of the seventies and the viral devastation of the eighties. A practicing Tibetan Buddhist in the Nyingma tradition since 1971, John Giorno is meditation in action. His AIDS Treatment Project of the 1980’s delivered hard cash to those suffering and in need–directly, without middleman or politics. If you were sick and needed the cash, he gave it to you. He continues this work today, setting up endowments for those who are seriously ill with little or no resources. Traveling worldwide Giorno continues to perform his poetry for new generations introducing works that honor gone friends while revealing outlaw history.
In Tibetan Buddhism great emphasis is placed on the proper conduct of body, speech and mind. If you were to divide gay creativity into body, speech and mind John Giorno would be mind. His is the work of compassionate, conscious action. His audio works swirl and echo like the constant chatter of thoughts that hammer, disappear and resurface. Having put together the Dial A Poem series in the early seventies he went on to adopt a rock n’ roll format that integrated down town avant-garde musicianship into his rapid fire delivery. He is the unrecognized seminal influence on rap.
I spoke with Giorno at his top floor loft at 222 Bowery on December 7, 2002, a former YMCA (over 100 years old) that at one time housed a swimming pool and a gigantic Gymnasium that served as the studio for the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The building has also played host to writer William Burroughs who turned the first floor boy’s locker room into his living quarters. It was Burroughs who named his loft The Bunker. Now a Tibetan Buddhist meditation and study center, The Bunker also serves as a shrine to William’s memory complete with bed, typewriter, cane and shotgun art. John displayed a boyish excitement as he gave me the grand tour pointing out a Keith Haring drawing on the marble partition of a bathroom stall. The building abounds with the psychic electricity of it’s past.

1. Money, School and Drugs

“I have a concept of why things happened as they did in the sixties and seventies. There are three major things that came to completion in the early sixties. The first thing is money–everyone in the sixties was rich for the first time. There had been two hundred years of America’s prosperity. The upper and lower middle classes were rich like they never were since the beginning of history. That was the result of WWII and the incredible industrial explosion that took place. What was different here was that the middle classes thought and believed that they were rich. They believed they could do anything they wanted to. The second thing was that everyone had an education. Starting with the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century everybody was educated, relatively speaking. Everybody achieved a degree of their possibilities or their capabilities. In the forties and fifties if you were really smart it was very easy to get a scholarship and go to a university. If you were dumb you could get in too. Everybody was educated for the first time in the world, a huge swath of society from the poor to the rich. The third thing was drugs. You add this to wealth and education and you get, at least in my mind, what created the huge creative explosion of the sixties.
“There was a liberation of art and society. A liberation on all levels, it was a broad scope with gay lib as part of it. It was unique in the history of the world. It had never ever happened before. If you go back to the nineteenth century you have a few rich people who were writing in England or France like Baudelaire, Rimbaud. Guys who were very elitist, making great art, who happened to be gay. Everybody else in the late nineteenth century didn’t experience that luxury or freedom. Go back to the eighteenth century and the age of enlightenment. There are a few nobles who had the opportunity to write. And the Romans were a bunch of stupid jerks who were promiscuous but were bound by ignorance. Their promiscuity didn’t mean anything. They were just decadent. “What happened in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s was unique in the history of the world because it was done with great awareness, open mindedness and compassion.
“I’ve always been very much in your face about being gay. There’s a reason for that. I grew up in New York City. I happened to make this connection with the art world very early on like in 1960, ’61, ’62. I met a few people and all the sudden I was in an extended scene of poets, painters and artists. Many of them were gay. Shortly after 1962 they all became famous. In the early sixties they weren’t. They were Andy Warhol, Rob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. They were gay men, artists and they were famous in that they did what they wanted to do. They came from relatively poor backgrounds and making money was really important to them because they had no money to live on. What they included in the content of their work was very important to them as well. In those years being gay was the kiss of death. To be a gay artist or to have gay subject matter was something that could never be sold to a rich person to hang over their couch. It couldn’t be sold to a museum because the world was very homophobic. It still is. In those years the revolution hadn’t happened yet. There was no liberation of content.
“I’m a gay man and a poet. The big influences on me were other poets and writers. To see what William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg did with their work in the context of being gay and explicit was an eye opener. I was in the art world where Robert Raushenberg or Andy [Warhol] would never allow a gay image in their work– ever! Andy did it secretly with The Cock Book. They consciously were not gay because they didn’t want to ruin their lives. The last thing they needed was the big problem of a dick in a painting and all the sudden they get branded as a gay artist. They’re coming out of the situation of the 1950’s with the Abstract Expressionists who were very homophobic. I knew them too when I was very young. I knew their wives–Lee [Krasner] Pollock, Ruth Klingman, Roselle Davies. I knew these guys through their wives. These men were really homophobic in the way your grandfather might be. They were straight men that believed only men like themselves made great works of art. Rothko, Pollock and deKooning were extremely macho. Their wives had tons of gay friends that they invited to dinners along with their famous husbands, who treated gay men as though they weren’t the same as them. These guys put up with them because they were like their wives or girls or something. They were not treated equally by these men.
“Andy [Warhol] and Jasper [Johns] come directly out of that. The last thing they wanted was to be put in a gay ghetto by Rothko or deKooning. I have some sympathy for why they did that. That triggered something in my heart, some anger about ‘how dare they not use the images from the center of their heart.’ These were my lovers, I knew what their minds were like. That made me be sexually in your face from the beginning in 1962 when I did Pornographic Poem. It didn’t get published until 1964 and didn’t get made into a record until 1966. To do that kind of gay pornographic poem was something none of these artists would think of doing. When Andy was doing his movie Kiss, which was Naomi Levine kissing 10 guys, I said ‘Andy why don’t you have 2 guys kissing?’ He didn’t even answer me. He did that thing of turning his eyes in another direction. A few days later I said it again and again he didn’t answer me. It was such a bad idea that it wasn’t worthy of a response. It gave me the reaction of going completely in another direction.
“I thought that it was heroic to be gay in your work. I’m not worrying about losing the sale of a painting or the critics. I’m not a painter I’m a poet. So it was a heroic action, a heroic stance like going into battle not caring if you got killed because your intention was to do so. My reaction against all those artists was something that propelled me into being gay in my work.
“Pop culture came out of Pop Art. Pop Art came out of the seven pop artists. I was there and saw what had happened. When they were doing those first paintings in 1961 it wasn’t about mirroring pop culture. It was about seeing what was here. Seeing the phenomena of the world around you. This is Andy Warhol. They arrived at this somehow through great pain and suffering. They didn’t do it as playfulness. Andy picked these pop images and made real art out of them. All these artists had their own ways of doing it. They were quite different from each other.
“These were just images of/in our culture that were soaked in our brains. That’s why Andy Warhol is such a great artist and why he changed the world. He more than anyone else. The idea being that you pick something out of your mind that mirrors the world that’s in your mind. That’s so different from the images used by deKooning. That’s why deKooning and Rothko hated Andy. He did something that was revolutionary. It sort of negated them. They refused to acknowledge it. He used silkscreens, which to them was almost ‘fag’ art–‘A commercial artist uses silkscreens! We use paint and a paint brush!’ Or whatever it was they used. As Pop Art evolved in 1965 it did mirror rock n’ roll and popular culture. In its first stages it was very, very pure. Andy had an understanding of emptiness. When you see those paintings of Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans and the first Marilyns– they’re based on an understanding of emptiness. Phenomena arising as Coca-Cola. Andy would’ve liked to be perceived of as a nihilist but he wasn’t. He was very much a Roman Catholic, which he was when he died. He never gave that up in his mind. He had the mix of phenomena arising in this world and it being empty. I don’t know how he got at it. Being a Catholic he wasn’t understanding emptiness as such but in his art-mind he knew what he was doing.
“It was a slow change. We’re talking about the early sixties. Other than Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs nobody used pornographic images in their work. It was still that way in 1966, ’67, ’68. Any explicit image gay or straight was unheard of. It was not part of the culture. What happened was the cumulative effect of drugs being taken from the early sixties into the middle sixties. By 1969 Hair, where everyone took off their clothes publicly onstage, was on Broadway. There was a naked picture, or an almost naked picture, on the cover of Time Magazine. The difference between 1968 and ’69 was enormous! By those years there was a deluge of openness. I think Screw happened somewhere in that time period. The gay newspapers followed a year or so after. Magazines like Fag Rag. By 1969 promiscuity was in your face and on the newsstand. The culture had really changed. By 1970 or ’71 it was endemic. As we got into the seventies I stopped using so many pornographic images. There were so many all over the place that was not as important to do this thing. The world had been changed.
“When I first went to India an 1970-’71 and many times after, I would bring these things where my work appeared. Like Gay Sunshine where I’d have an interview or poem. I’d bring 10 or 20 copies with me, give one to my teacher Dudjom Rinpoche, show the others around. They would leaf through this newspaper. There were pictures of naked guys having sex and they’d just laugh. I’d show them to the monks and they’d laugh even though they weren’t particularly gay. I’d go back to a house and see two women laughing and giggling looking at this stuff because they had never seen such a thing.

2. Balling Buddha

“Buddhism is actually ambivalent about gay discrimination. I thought about that 10 or 15 years ago and made sort of a big thing about it. In the Sutrayana there is discrimination against being gay. It’s sexual misconduct and one of those bad karma things where you go to a lower realm. It turned out that the Buddha was just reflecting his time. The Mahayana is compassion. The Vajrayana uses it (sexuality) as positive. So Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism treat everything as useful on the path to realization.
“I had always felt a propensity toward Tibetan Buddhism. I went to Columbia and took the Oriental Humanities course with Alan Watts. It was the second year it was given. In 1956, ’57 and ’58 there was no Dharma anywhere. The course was so small. We’d go and study all these philosophical concepts everyday. I’d go with a hangover. Learning all this stuff didn’t solve anything. I didn’t understand the empty nature of mind any better. It was sort of a turn off after a couple of years. I was studying all this philosophy and just went on drinking. My thought during those years was–how do I realize this? My path was not Zen Buddhism. There was Zen Buddhism in America but somehow my path didn’t get there. I just went on looking.
“Then the sixties happened with all the drugs. As you know when you’re having a good LSD trip it’s very blissful, it’s heaven. When you’re having a bad LSD trip all that means is that you’re grasping at something–whether it’s anger, rejection or whatever. I took a lot of acid like everyone else did. I knew a little bit about meditation by that time. Sort of gossip meditation–Hindu or Buddhist. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I sort of knew what they did. When I was having a bad trip or a good trip I would sit. I saw the photographs of meditation postures in magazines or newspapers. I’d sit while tripping. It’s interesting in that the mind is self-teaching. When I was having a good trip or had hit a peak moment on LSD if I just sat, rested the mind and didn’t follow any thoughts I realized a blissful experience of clarity and luminosity. If I would follow a thought I’d feel like I was falling down the stairs. I realized that when I followed a thought it caused suffering. If the thought arises, is seen clearly and let go of, one goes back to that clear luminosity and bliss. Through out the sixties, since I didn’t have any meditation instruction, I did this. I realized that if one stopped thinking this thought something happened. The mind rested in great equanimity. As soon as one thought of one’s lover again or fear of being rejected then one started the trouble again. I did this over and over again.
Not knowing what meditation was, I was doing it — meditation through trial and error.
“As the years went by I realized Buddhism was my affinity. My attraction was to the Tibetan Buddhists even though nobody knew them. No one knew they were in India other than as refugees until the early sixties. A few people went in the mid-sixties but no one spoke English. If you made it to the Himalayas there was no real translation. It wasn’t until 1967 or ’68 that you started hearing about these great Tibetan Lamas. I always felt that propensity toward Tibetan Buddhism because of what happened on these LSD trips.
“I slowly waited for the time to happen and I made it to India in 1970-’71. It was very difficult in those years. I went to India with blinders on. India is not the easiest place to live. I didn’t know why I was there. Now everyone knows about Tibetan Buddhism and great Tibetan Lamas. Back then I kind of knew there was such a thing. But I didn’t know what they had to offer or what I had to do or why I was there.
“By 1970-’71 I was this famous poet having done Dial-A-Poem which put me everywhere from Newsweek to The Today Show. I wasn’t giving that up, I was just following something that felt better. I was following the path of my life from being in New York and America as a poet. Now I was in India walking blind in traffic, wondering if I had made a catastrophic mistake. I didn’t know if I was mad for sure, you know? I just had great devotion to the Buddha. Whenever any of these negative thoughts arose about being nuts or going home, I would recognize that doubt was one of the poisons, so I wouldn’t give up.

3. Up Against the Wall

“It was after a period when things were really fucked up. I had worked on all these media projects when Abbie Hoffman came to me with the idea of WPAX. I had the capability of producing things and knew how to work with technology and poets.WPAX was about broadcasting to the American troops in South Vietnam on Radio Hanoi. Abbie did this at the end of his career before he got busted and went underground. In 1970 he was very big and famous in the popular culture.
“He did the best he could. He tried to make it a communal organization so he included blacks, gays, lesbians, conservative liberals and radical liberals with the idea of not making it an Abbie Hoffman ego trip. Then the fighting started. Everybody hated Abbie! He bankrolled it with $20,000 of his own money. We did it here in this room at 222 Bowery. We also rented a space at Bleeker and Lafayette Streets. It was like 20 or 30 people, all hating Abbie Hoffman. Thinking he was on an ego trip. Venom beyond comprehension. We’d have endless meetings. Nobody hated me because I’m easy to get along and work with.
“The gays and radical lesbians were the worst. Week after month I would say to myself ‘What am I doing here, I’m working for free with these assholes?’ It was nothing but anger. Abbie was at the end of his cultural icon thing and was a bit hurt. He never said it but it was the beginning of the end for him. It was then that I decided that I was out of all political activity. Radical politics or any kind of political act was gone! I realized this was just a mirror of the real world. The fighting that happened in this room and that building on Lafayette was the same as in congress or the streets of America or anywhere else. It was just anger on top of anger. Those who were the strongest and smartest were the ones who won, not the ones who had compassion or a level of realization. I couldn’t get out of it because I had made a commitment to Abbie. I counted my days. I was signed on for like 14 programs or something. Leaving that was like sending me on a rocket to India just to get away from the anger. All those things that caused me suffering in the microcosm were the macrocosm. When I left for India it was leaving this world because of the suffering we caused each other.
“I came down with testicular cancer in late 1971 after my first trip to India. I was operated on in 1972. It was in that period I wrote the poems that became the book Cancer in My Left Ball which came out in ‘73. There’s that sense of the multiplicity of thought using Buddhist imagery, current events and sex in those poems.
“One’s thoughts are constantly arising so it was an attempt to mirror that and present a picture of the mind. My mind was the same as everyone else’s with many thoughts appearing. It was trying to make a reflection of the mind and in doing so showing the empty nature of mind, the mirages that come up. I later pushed that into audio poems.

4. The Process

“My whole performance thing started in 1964 when William Burroughs and Brion Gysin came back to New York and introduced me to sound poetry with people like Kurt Schwitters. It had a re-birth in 1959 with Gysin treating sound as a way of making a poem. The poem was written but the sound of it, which could be very abstract, was the attraction. Brion was given the BBC Studios in London to do his mutated poem I Am That. When he and William came to New York in 1965 they introduced me to that notion. I did my first piece as a collaboration with Brion called Subway Poem. I recorded sound on the subway. It was sent to Paris and presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in the Biennale of 1965. My first sound poem, I was thrilled. When you get given a little bit of acknowledgement it inspires you to go on. I went on doing it thereafter.
“William came back to New York at the end of November 1964. It was the first visit to America by both William and Brion Gysin in about 10 years. It was calculated as coming to New York to conquer it so to speak. I met them at these various parties in January and February of 1965 like at Panna Grady’s at the Dakota. Diane DiPrima had a theatre on East Fourth Street where they did a reading. I got to know them.
“In an interesting way they are my very first spiritual teachers. Before I met them I was just this dumb American. At that time in spring of 1965 I took my first 34 LSD trips with Brion Gysin at the Hotel Chelsea in Room 703. I was in my mid-twenties but it didn’t matter, I was like a 14 year old. I had come out of the 1950’s. My mind was blown in the context of those LSD trips, which we took one or two times every week. The Chelsea was the only safe place for us to do that. I was living on 9th Street and Brion lived in the Chelsea in this nice big room. At those times [on LSD] you don’t want to be outside. We were lovers so we fucked all the time as well. Brion was not a Buddhist or Hindu but he was doing his own sort of meditation that he never told me about, some kind of magic. On those acid trips I would also sit. The mind being a wild elephant, we’d both sit on the bed in meditation, resting our minds. They were my first experiences with real meditation in terms of trying to deal with my mind. I went to Morocco with Brion in 1965.“I was also good friends with William. He had introduced to me, on daily basis, to what he and Brion were working on. A thing called The Third Mind. Their daily work together was dealing with the nature of emptiness, the nature of phenomena arising and the nature of obstacles and suffering in this world. It was my first spiritual training–taking drugs and being with them everyday. Before the beginning of 1965 I was in the art world–Pop Art, Warhol, the dancers. Their spirituality was in their heart and only expressed through their work.
“Burroughs and Gysin left August 1st of that year after spending 9 months here.
“William came back on occasion through out the late sixties–just to sign a book contract or something. We developed a deep friendship. When he came back to the USA in 1968 we were lovers. We were friends from ’65 until he died in ’97. The sexual part of our relationship happened after he got done writing that article for Esquire at the Chicago Convention in August 1968. He was there with Terry Southern and Jean Genet. William stopped by New York on his way back to London and spent a month here. We had a love affair with lots of sex. The only time William and I had sex was during that four week period.
“In 1974 he moved to New York after telling me for years he wanted to be in New York. Of course I couldn’t believe it. He rented a loft first on Broadway then on Franklin Street. There starts this long friendship.
“I was asked by The Poetry Project at Saint Marks Church to do a reading in April of 1974 with William. William was a god to me, also a best friend on a personal level. On an external level he was the famous William Burroughs. It seemed incomprehensible for me to read with him. It was then that we did our first reading together.“He lived on Franklin Street for a period of months until they raised his rent. He was here constantly for dinner. He’d be here once a week or I’d go there once a week or twice or three times a week. At one point he told me they were raising his rent and asked me if there was a loft available in my building. That very day my landlord asked me if I wanted a loft downstairs that had become available. I said no. I’m a poet, I don’t have much money and, at the time, couldn’t afford it. That very night William asks me this question. It was unbelievable. We talked about it so much. I remember we were a little drunk on Vodka. I thought about it for fifteen minutes and said to William ‘By chance the Landlord said to me today that there’s a loft directly below mine, the same size as mine, that’s for rent!’ I didn’t even know what the rent was. William says ‘I might be interested.’ I gave him the landlord’s number.
“A week or so later William came to look at the loft. I didn’t participate. I didn’t want to seem as though I was exploiting him. There was a tap at my door and it was William. He told me he was taking the loft. The landlord showed him a loft, which turned out to be The Bunker. It was just a storage area for the chair store downstairs. It had an internal staircase because it had been the boy’s locker room for the swimming pool. The store was where the swimming pool had been at one time when this building was the YMCA. It was huge–a locker room, the size of a gymnasium. Above the locker room was the gym where Mark Rothko had lived and worked in the sixties.
“William had seen the Bunker. It was dark because the windows were painted over and it was at the back of the building. William says to me ‘I’m taking the loft at the end of the staircase. It’s going to be my Bunker!’ He had walked in there, saw that there was no light and thought it looked like a bunker. William, being a junkie, liked the no light and the quiet. On his first entrance to the Bunker he named it–‘This is my Bunker!’ I thought it was great! A few weeks later he moved in. They had it renovated. For me it was too good to be believed. The upshot of that was that we lived our life together for many years. We had dinner together every night if William wasn’t going out or if I wasn’t going out to the baths or something. Every morning we’d meet to decide what was happening that night, generally eating in. We alternated days to buy food. If William had bought food yesterday, it was then my turn. Sometimes there would be people coming over so either he or I would buy more food. That went on until he left in 1981.
“After he left I would go to Lawrence, Kansas a few times a year. I’d try to stop over there when I was touring the country. William came by once or twice a year to stay. We’d have a few dinners. He was here a little over a year before he died. Who ever thought we’d be linked? The two of us being such different people. We had a life long close friendship. The Bunker has stayed the Bunker.

5. Dial A Poem

“When I got back from Morocco in 1966 Rob Raushenberg and I were lovers. In September-October 1966 he did a piece called EAT– Experiments in Art and Technology. I was the camera man, I wasn’t a performer or artist. During this whole extended period of EAT there was this short little, round straight guy coming around. Bob said to me ‘You should really get to know this guy, he’s invented this incredible gadget.’ Which was the Synthesizer. It was Bob Moog.
“As a poet I was experimenting with these sound pieces I had done with Brion. Moog lived up near Ithaca in a place called Trumansburg. I took a Greyhound bus up there. I had recorded a poem and brought it up there. He had 2 store fronts in one those 19th century buildings. They were immaculately clean and this was his factory where he and half a dozen other people manufactured these things called Moog Sythesizers. At that point nobody was using them. This was around 1967. I went up twice a year for the next year or two. In ’67 I seem to remember the Rolling Stones had bought one and were playing with it in the studio, not knowing how to use it. By the time ’68 came everyone had it on their record.
“The last time I went up to Trumansburg, Bob Moog was hugely famous, hugely rich. I spent time at his house. He and his wife were fighting. A month later they were separated. A year after that he had sold his company to some big corporation. By 1970 he was out!
“Those were the steps–from Brion Gysin to Bob Raushenberg who was working with artists and technology to Bob Moog and the synthesizer. It changed every year from working with Brion to Bob Moog. Every time I worked with Bob Moog I’d see what I did right, take that into a different direction and drop off what didn’t really work.
“I then discovered that there was an electronics commune in upstate New York called ZBS outside Saratoga. It was an old farmhouse. I would go up to do endless, elaborately complicated sound compositions using my words and performance. We’d spend weeks on them. I’d also master the [Dial-A-Poem] records up there at the same time.
“What happened was that Dial-A-Poem became hugely successful. The idea of an LP was a natural progression, keeping in mind the concept of a new audience for poetry. I couldn’t get anyone to produce it. In those years the record companies were dumping money out of their offices, giving it to anybody who wanted to produce a record. Even though I was sort of famous I couldn’t convince any of them to do poetry. It was not rock n’ roll. One day I get a phone call from a guy named John Hart, who was the vice president of the Record Club of America, saying ‘We would like you to make a selection for one of our months.’ I couldn’t believe it! I had already given up on the idea. That became the first record that came out in 1972.
“The sound poems in 1965 were the first real major things I had done. It was also happening at a time when other friends of mine were musicians like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. People who used tapes and tape loops. They were all young and nobody was famous yet. They were part of this extended art and poetry scene. I had my eye on them since I was working with loops. I was looking at what they were doing in comparison even though it was a totally different world than mine.
“I just went step by step and started doing these [poetry] records. The idea being that there’s nothing in the cliché that poetry is boring. Poetry isn’t boring. There were endless venues. Everything you did everyday of your life was a possible venue for poetry. The telephone was a venue and that’s what started . All we ever did then was listen to rock n’ roll records on the phonograph in our living rooms. That was the impetus as a venue. The venue being a living room and the audience 2 or 5 people listening to a phonograph.
“We did these records and knew enough to send them out to college radio stations. There were three or four hundred stations out across the country. Places like San Francisco, Iowa City and Ann Arbor, Michigan. What happened was that people were playing the cuts they liked like a pop record. If they liked William Burroughs they’d put that on or whoever they liked. They would not put everybody on. We’d get the play lists and see that we were in heavy rotation for some cuts. In 1973 and ’74 there were hundreds of thousands of people listening. In Ann Arbor the college audience was twenty to twenty five thousand people. In the Bay Area with KPFA the audience was hundreds of thousands. A million people began listening to poetry.
“There were 40 records in that time period. Every year we put out 2 or 3 records. Some were double records. I also figured out how to put cuts together. Juxtaposing soft/loud, bitter/sweet, hard/soft to make it really attractive. You could take something that was not too high energy but a great poem and put it between two different kinds of poems. People would listen to it because it was coming out of something quite strong thus making it noticeable. I would play around for years and years on how to construct these albums and make them more like performance. In the early seventies I thought of poetry as serious. It was not entertainment in my mind. Entertainment was about a superficial quality like pop records. Poetry was about wisdom. I was using the venues of the pop culture but it was not entertainment, it was really wisdom. I realized in 1976 I was part of the entertainment industry and I suddenly relaxed. I was entertaining people, making them relax and have a good time. When one is relaxed one is able to receive the wisdom of the poet.
“I kept taking it in different directions. By 1981 I seemed to have done every possible permutation, every possible thing I had wanted to do. I felt I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I put my first band together. I pulled together some friends. At one time Lenny Kaye [Patti Smith Group] was in the band and CP Roth. I ended it in 1989. I loved performing but it was too complicated. There were 5 guys with a band leader who was a keyboard player so there were always at least 3 synthesizers. Every time we’d travel there would be all this equipment. We got paid well not being rock n’ roll stars but by the time I paid everyone I was either broke or breaking even. After doing that for seven years I thought ‘ENOUGH!’ I now do solo performances.
“That long breath and breath control thing I use didn’t initially come from Buddhism or sitting. It didn’t arise out of meditation. The breathing evolved another way because I had been a performer for many years. I realized, through the nature of performing, that if you took a deep breath, held it in the lower part of the stomach and pushed it down you made a big bellows. The air down there creates heat. Then you work the air to the top part of the lungs. You’re holding air down low and letting it out slowly. I didn’t know what I was doing. In performing for so many years I developed a little technique of generating heat with the power of the words coming with the breath, letting it all out and swaying. I developed all these little subtleties, all non-verbal. I never talked about it to anyone or acknowledged it myself.
“As a Tibetan Buddhist in the late seventies I learned there are many meditations in Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism and one of them is Tummo. You generate your own heat. Like yogis who can sit in the snow with just a little cotton thing on sweating. This is similar to what I had stumbled upon with taking the deep breath and holding it at the bottom of the lungs creating heat.
“When I was in retreat doing Phowa practice I realized I had stumbled upon this by accident. I realized ‘This is very similar.’ It’s a basic Buddhist tenet that the mind is already enlightened. You just have to bring it back to its original nature. Doing non-taught practice, which I do not recommend, I stumbled across these things out of desperation. I discovered these things that were basic to our mind, basic to our nature. They are inherent in one’s body and mind so that one may stumble upon them. I just sort of took it from there, perfected my performance style and developed myself a little more skillfully.
“My performance movements are not choreographed. The spastic quality came about from the energy just coursing through my body. I created this energy through my body by the breathing exercises. In performance it exploded. I didn’t particularly care if I had control over my body or not.
“Joe Cocker really is spastic. I became spastic through the madness of my performing. It was spontaneous.
“People like me and Patti Smith were just poets who performed. Then it became an art form called Performance Art– which was OK. Performance Art has vanished, it doesn’t exist anymore. It dissolved itself. Some of it was great, I guess.”

6. Grasping At Emptiness

“I knew Robert Mapplethorpe at the very beginning of his career. My designer [of the early record albums] George Delmerico went to Pratt with Bob. I forget the timeline now as to whether it was the early seventies or 1970. I was at St. Marks Church the first time Patti [Smith] performed. Robert was there and I knew Robert then [February 10, 1971]. I knew him through Patti Smith and of course before he became the famous photographer, we lived just a couple blocks away, .
“Even though Robert and I were friends we had a slight problem in our relationship. In my book, You Gotta Burn to Shine, I wrote about his death. It was all true but I think presented an unkind view of him. I regret that. At the end of his life there was no question that he had made many deals with the devil because of his attachment to money and fame. No real devil, it was a reflection of his mind.
“There was also his drug habit. He used a lot of cocaine, maybe be a thousand dollars a day. He was often short of money and he lived an extravagant lifestyle. If you visited him in his loft on a Monday morning, as I had on occasion, there was no question about it–it looked like The Mineshaft. In Bob’s case it was about something else. It was about magic, working with magic in a certain way. He was always very friendly to me, smiling ‘John, how are you?’ But we were not friends. Somehow he had a dislike of me being a Tibetan Buddhist.We worked together and in 1974 he did an album cover of Sugar, Meat and Alcohol for me. There was something Robert disliked about me, which he was totally inarticulate about. William Burroughs lived downstairs so occasionally Bob would be invited here and I’d see him. He had a connection to William because there was a sort of black quality there.We were not heart brothers the way he and William were. Even though they did not see each other that much Bob loved William in a way he did not love me. Maybe it was about heroin and black magic.
“Having a grande mal seizure at the moment of death as Robert did is the very worst. I wish I had written about him a bit more lovingly. In that piece I just presented the facts as I knew them. What I was doing in that piece was juxtaposing it [Robert’s death] with a peaceful death like that of my good friend [Buddhist practitioner/author] Terry Clifford. That was the concept of that piece.

7. Kissing, Intimacy and Affection

“Something happened in America in the seventies that lasted until around 1980. It began to end when people began dying of AIDS which was 1981-’82, around there. There was a sexual freedom that existed among men that was truly unique. We know all the givens–The Village People, Studio 54, The Mineshaft, dissolving bad and good, dissolving all these concepts and liberating to levels that had never been achieved before.
“All this depends on mind. This thing that could be called a hungry ghost realm as a kind of a cartoon depiction where people aren’t satisfied, constantly cruising is only a hungry ghost realm if you view it as such. The very same behavior of being constantly sexually turned on often had to do with drugs. Like after you had sex you wanted more. If the mind isn’t so grasping one just views it as a continuation of sexuality. It’s like who you’ve cruised and gone with and are making it with. Rather than viewing it as hungry ghost situation you can view it as a continuation of sexuality or sexual energy continuing to flow. Then it’s not a hungry ghost realm but more of a bliss realm. As with anything it is how the mind perceives it. The Mineshaft could’ve been viewed as a hell realm. People being tortured, laying in shit and being shit on. To somebody whose really stoned there’s no distinction between bad and good because of the drugs, not because of the realization of one’s mind. There’s no pure or impure. The endless cruising of the baths or various sex bars of those years could be seen as an exact description or movie of a hungry ghost realm when viewed a different way. If there’s no suffering involved it’s a bliss realm. Those realms have a funny look.
“It’s clean, it just looks dirty. That’s where that comes from.
“It was another level of promiscuity that occurred both in the United States and Europe. Men who would now be considered heterosexual were, as a block of men excluding the gay people, 70% or 80% bisexual in 1978-’79. I’m one the men who made it with them. You could pick up a guy who was married with maybe 2 or 3 kids at the urinal in Grand Central Station. Guy’s would get off from work early, call their wife and go to the baths for 2 or 3 hours. Guys who today would be considered perfectly straight. They would go and have fabulous sex. Business guys who were really straight guys who would do anything– suck dick, fuck and get fucked. It always amazed me. It was about 80% of the guys out there. I’m not just making this up! It was really a sexual freedom amongst men.
“They didn’t think of themselves as bisexual men, they didn’t think of themselves as gay men, they didn’t think of themselves as any particular thing. They were having a good time. I made love to a lot of these guys and it was much about kissing, intimacy and affection as it was sex. Then what happened was AIDS hit and all the sudden it stopped. That’s when those straight guys cooled it. “It took me until 1985 to get the picture. I’d still go to the baths or go fist fuck for fourteen hours. My lover would say ‘John, don’t you read the New York Times it’s not Legionaire’s disease!’ It took sort of that kind of mental slapping to get me to stop. Everything that had been accomplished was gone. It was like the catastrophic failure of one’s life. I’ve always viewed being gay as a heroic activity, going beyond the call of duty. Something that had to be done to benefit people.
“Now it’s very much about surface. Probably because of AIDS. Back then everyone was stoned, perhaps a little too stoned. When you’re stoned all the time you don’t quite think of your body in that way. Now you have to be or at least appear to be perfectly healthy. It also has to do with this other thing that happened in the eighties and nineties about being rich and trying to keep that lifestyle. Having huge amounts of money. The holistic thing of living forever as well as being attractive. Your money supporting this beautiful person who can get anything they want.
“One was incredibly depressed in the early to mid eighties because of the devastation of AIDS. In 1984 I started to deal with it by my starting The AIDS Treatment Project out of this depression. In the spring of 1980 I had met a former lover who told me his roommate died so suddenly, horribly and fast. I realized in those early years that what people with AIDS needed most was money. They were getting sick, losing their jobs and apartments. People would come home from the hospital to find their furniture out on the street. Week after week I’d hear this.
“In 1984 the last thing I wanted to do was fundraise. I had done that for the Anti Vietnam War Movement and the Buddhists, I thought ‘Fundraise? I’d rather die myself!’ But it’s like an addiction, right? What happened was that I realized I had to do something. It was easy because some of the people on the poetry records like Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Husker Du would offer their royalties. Husker Du were the first ones to offer their royalties to The AIDS Treatment Project. It took on its own life and you realized you were not fundraising you were helping somebody else. I wasn’t raising money for an organization. It became great because I was helping people directly, one on one. It wasn’t abstract.
“It still goes on today. It’s changed, it’s shifted into people with medical problems. Often poets, artists or people with little money or resources who are like 50 years old and suddenly have a stroke. I still work at it everyday. I get asked by somebody to help and we get a little bit of money and we give a grant. Because we’re not-for-profit we can create a fund and their friends can give money easily. We do that for anybody. It was not consciously that I did this. It came out of the despair of what was happening to mostly gay men.”
© 2003 Bill DeNoyelles

No comments:

Post a Comment