Archive for August, 2017

From the deep archives: William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, and John Giorno

August 31, 2017

I love John Giorno, but not nearly as much as his husband Ugo Rondinone does. On the occasion of Giorno’s 80th birthday, Rondinone — a Swiss-born artist known for his multi-media installations — created I ♥︎ John Giorno, an ambitious nine-chapter citywide retrospective of his career as a poet, visual artist, and activist. The Swiss Institute showed Sleep, the famous five-hour Andy Warhol film of Giorno sleeping. (Warhol was only one of Giorno’s many famous-artist lovers, who also included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.) White Columns mounted a tribute to Giorno Poetry Systems, the entity that created Dial-a-Poem in 1968 and went on to release a series of fantastic eclectic record albums that were mostly anthologies of tracks by cutting-edge musicians and spoken-word artists, with great titles (Smack My Crack, A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse, Like a Girl I Want You to Keep Coming). Most of these shows and related events took place between late June and the middle of August. But the centerpiece of the exhibition is a display of the Giorno archives at Sky Art (555 11th Avenue), which will be open until Thanksgiving. Admission is free. You owe it to yourself to go check it out and watch the multi-channel video of Giorno performing his long brilliant poem “THANX 4 NOTHING.” Also pick up a free copy of the special edition of the monthly Brooklyn Rail devoted to the exhibition with great reminiscences by a multitude of artists and writers.

I first became aware of Giorno from hearing about his book Cancer in My Left Ball from my ex, Stephen Holden, who’d been an intimate associate of the downtown gay poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara. I saw Giorno perform a few times — his dazzling, incantatory multi-tracking style brought performance art and rock ‘n’ roll energy to the tame format of poetry recital. His AIDS activism touched me deeply.

And he’s been an extremely articulate spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism. Two long interviews with Winston Leyland, published in Gay Sunshine Interviews Volume One and Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists, made a big impression on me, especially the way he championed the integration of desire and mindfulness with zero sex shame, referring to “the great accomplishments of our Western sexuality: great bliss and clarity, fist fucking on LSD and crystal meth in the summer Olympics, going for the gold with full ignition, open and vast as the sky.”

I met Giorno in 1981, as a young journalist working for the Soho News, when I had the opportunity to interview him, William Burroughs, and Laurie Anderson, on the occasion of the 2-LP album they created called You’re The Guy I Want to Share My Money With. I spent a couple of hours with them at Giorno’s famous loft at 222 Bowery. I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the years, and this interview still stands out as the worst ever — it was awkward, strained, scattered. Partly the liability of trying to interview three disparate characters at the same time, but also Burroughs was very old, quite deaf, quite self-centered, cranky and impatient. Giorno was very kind and sweet. Laurie consoled me afterwards about how tough Burroughs was to be around sometimes. Now I look back at the transcript and it has a kind of hilarious quality — inane chitchat like something out of an absurdist play by Ionesco. For the record, I decided to post on my writing archive the complete unedited typewritten (pre-digital) transcript of the interview,  with all the cross-outs and typos. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

Renowned downtown photographer Marcia Resnick photographed the trio just before I interviewed them.

Quote of the day: IDENTITY

August 21, 2017

IDENTITY

AFRICAN
I am rooted.
Ask the land.
I am lyric.
Ask the sea.

SLAVE
America is where
I became an animal.
American is where
I became a nigger.

NEGRO
Trapped here
in Segregation.
Trapped here
in Integration.

COLORED
I am weary of working
to prove myself equal.
I will use education
to make my children superior.

BLACK
My heart is a fist.
I fix Blackness.
My fist is a heart.
I beat Whiteness.

AFRICAN AMERICAN
Before I was born,
I absorbed struggle.
Just looking
at history hurts.

–Thomas Sayers Ellis, “The Identity Repairman”

In this week’s New Yorker

August 17, 2017


During this deeply disheartening week in American life, I have nourished myself with the feast that is this week’s issue of The New Yorker, with its stellar if dismaying contents.


Two extraordinarily pertinent, deeply reported pieces demand wide attention: Adam Davidson’s “No Questions Asked,” which lays out the evidence that Donald Trump’s real estate dealings have engaged extensively in illegal international money-laundering, and Raffi Khatchadourian’s long but riveting “Man Without a Country,” which incorporates both unusually abundant access to Julian Assange and scrupulous outside reporting to establish that Assange set out very purposefully to do everything in his power to sabotage Hilary Clinton’s campaign for presidency, a desire so red-hot in his heart that it’s possible he allowed himself to be used by Russian cybersecurity experts wanting to influence the election in favor Donald Trump. There will never be a smoking gun that says “The American President is a crook and must be removed from office.” It will take the accretion of carefully reported stories like these and the kind of relentless work of following the money trail that Rachel Maddow has been doing.


In “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” Nathan Heller reviews a bunch of books analyzing the impact of street activism on social and political change, and the conclusions he reaches are uncomfortable but persuasive, especially the ideas presented by Zeynep Tufekci in her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Here’s a key passage:

Tufekci believes that digital-age protests are not simply faster, more responsive versions of their mid-century parents. They are fundamentally distinct. At Gezi Park, she finds that nearly everything is accomplished by spontaneous tactical assemblies of random activists—the Kauffman model carried further through the ease of social media. “Preexisting organizations whether formal or informal played little role in the coordination,” she writes. “Instead, to take care of tasks, people hailed down volunteers in the park or called for them via hashtags on Twitter or WhatsApp messages.” She calls this style of off-the-cuff organizing “adhocracy.” Once, just getting people to show up required top-down coördination, but today anyone can gather crowds through tweets, and update, in seconds, thousands of strangers on the move.

At the same time, she finds, shifts in tactics are harder to arrange. Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations. When the Gezi Park occupation intensified and the Turkish government expressed an interest in talking, it was unclear who, in the assembly of millions, could represent the protesters, and so the government selected its own negotiating partners. The protest diffused into disordered discussion groups, at which point riot police swarmed through to clear the park. The protests were over, they declared—and, by that time, they largely were.

The missing ingredients, Tufekci believes, are the structures and communication patterns that appear when a fixed group works together over time. That practice puts the oil in the well-oiled machine. It is what contemporary adhocracy appears to lack, and what projects such as the postwar civil-rights movement had in abundance. And it is why, she thinks, despite their limits in communication, these earlier protests often achieved more.

I’ve been curious to read Garth Greenwell’s highly praised novel What Belongs to You, so it was great to get a taste of his meticulous prose style in the short story “An Evening Out.” Amanda Petrusich’s piece on Adam Graduciel and his rock band The War on Drugs definitely makes me want to hear their most recent albums. And I’m grateful to Alex Ross for his detailed description of Peter Sellars’ production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival.

I love being well-informed, culturally enriched, and entertained by the New Yorker — the issue also has a bunch of especially good cartoons.

Quote of the day: BUDDHISM

August 15, 2017

BUDDHISM

Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.

–Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism

R.I.P.: Sam Shepard

August 10, 2017

It’s a very strange experience to write a biography of someone who’s still alive, as I did in 1984 when Sam Shepard was 41 and I was 30 (we were kids! I can say in retrospect). And then it’s even weirder when that person dies. I’ve been tracking Shepard’s artistic career and personal life with varying degrees of intensity for more than three decades, so his death July 27 hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much My Subject but a kind of alter-ego.


When I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on his Hollywood celebrity (the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange), I took the assignment for two reasons: 1) because I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays (like The Tooth of Crime) and 2) because I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father. I didn’t meet him in the course of writing the book nor while revising the biography for a second edition, published in 1997 when the Broadway debut of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child dangled the promise of some new attention to the now-certified movie star’s theatrical body of work.

It wasn’t until 2003 until I finally got to sit down with him in St. Paul, MN, for a nuts-and-bolts interview for American Theater magazine; we talked again the following year in New York when I interviewed him for the Village Voice about his 2004 play The God of Hell. I feel like I know more about his personal life than anyone who’s not a friend needs to know (he was pretty private, and I respect that). I feel like I know a lot about him as an artist, which matters a lot more to me, and what I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside.

In films Shepard reliably represented the many faces of craggy masculinity. It’s no disrespect to say he wasn’t a great actor – he was an economical performer and an iconic presence, which suited most of his film roles. His most memorable performance, for me, was playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. I weep just thinking about the way he pulled Ethan Hawke into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!” His best-known stage plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind) revolve round the relatable subject of family life, presented in all its combative, hilarious, ridiculous mythological depth.


I always preferred his quirkier, stranger, more poetic and absurdist work because I felt him exercising his deepest passions there. (His 2012 play Heartless, above, produced by Signature Theater, is right up there with the wildest and craziest of his plays.) What I learned from meeting and writing about him was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. He cared shockingly little about contemporary theater and only late in life delved into Shakespeare and the Greeks. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses (raising them and riding them). Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss. These are the layers and flavors of Shepard’s work that I think will reveal themselves more as time goes by.

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