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.

One Response to “From the deep archives: William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, and John Giorno”


  1. It’s not as bad as you think it is, Don. Very natural – relaxed almost which I guess is why you think it is a little empty but not every interview has to be a complex expression of artists’ innermosts, drives and understandings … leave that to the point-scoring academics. And you are quite right to pick up on WB being self-centred … he really wanted to talk about his school days but no-one twigged …. Thank you for posting…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: