The life and times of poet John Giorno (1939-2019) can be found in the memoir, Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published one year after Giorno’s death. Giorno, a poet, knew everybody in the fascinating New York City arts and cultural world of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Giorno’s range of friends and acquaintances was shockingly wide and diverse.
I “knew” Giorno years ago as the Beat gay poet who published a book of poems entitled, Cancer in my Left Ball. Giorno was also interviewed by Gay Sunshine magazine in San Francisco and by Fag Rag in Boston. Fag Rag was a revolutionary gay liberation publication edited by Walt Whitman scholar, Charley Shively (1937-2017). I wrote for the publication briefly in the late 1970s.
Giorno’s memoir tells heretofore unpublished stories about Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and artists Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and many others.
Giorno worked on Great Demon Kings for twenty-five years and finished the book just one week before his death. He never saw it in print.
What struck me most about this memoir was its honesty.
As a student at Columbia University in 1956, Giorno told a friend: “The reason I dislike Columbia, is that everyone is here to become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and professors. Their aspiration is to get some horrible job making money to support a wife and children, a bourgeois life imprisoned in suburbia…”
When a friend of Giorno’s urged him to read Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, his whole life changed. “I held HOWL in my hand and I wanted to scream, to explode…Clear light and absolute bliss rang in my heart…”
Giorno went on to read Jack Kerouac’s books and came to trust Kerouac’s understanding of the world. Life dealt Giorno a serendipitous blow when he met Kerouac at a party on May 31, 1958. “It was like being struck by lightning,” he recalls. “I was young and beautiful and that got me what I wanted and all I wanted was sex.” Giorno was also lucky to have wealthy parents who indulged his penchant for the bohemian life.
“Jack was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, and I could see his muscles, and he had an amazingly handsome face.” The two men conversed and then a bit of magic happened. “I was drunk and so was he, and we staggered, our cheeks brushed against each other. We could have kissed.” Kerouac looked at Giorno and whispered, “Why are we here?” But this dance of intimacy was broken by a jealous Allen Ginsberg. Giorno recalls: “Allen swam in like a great white shark. He destroyed love through jealousy and possessiveness.”
Giorno would have run-ins with Ginsberg throughout the years, at one point calling him a “pushy Jew,” for which he later apologized. Ginsberg, for his part, made it known that he never much cared for Giorno’s performance poetry.
Giorno met Andy Warhol at the artist’s first one-man show at New York’s Stable Gallery. The year was 1962 around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I took hold of Andy’s soft hand, which dangled from his wrist.” In 1963, while attending a Jasper Johns opening, Giorno spotted Warhol which led to a mutual friend inviting them both to dinner and then a dance performance at the Judson. At the end of the evening, Giorno told Warhol that he’d like to see him again. Entranced by Giorno’s good looks, Warhol said, “What about tomorrow night?”
This was the birth of their love affair. The memoir indiscreetly details all of Warhol’s sexual fetishes, especially the time when the artist crawled across the floor to tongue-polish Giorno’s shoes. Through Warhol, Giorno’s circle of friends grew. He was meeting people like John Cage and Philip Glass although he already counted among his inner circle Village Voice columnist and dance critic, Jill Johnston (author of Lesbian Nation). Giorno and Warhol spoke every night. At this time the poet had a job on Wall Street and was known as an anomaly among his fellow writers and artists.
New York City at this time was very provincial when it came to gay artists and writers being honest about their sexuality. Giorno writes, “The old guard Abstract Expressionists had been notoriously homophobic. Only straight guys, like themselves, were great painters. Gay artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns didn’t talk about their sexuality, and shunned homoerotic imagery in their work.”
In 1964, Warhol asked Giorno to star in his film, “Sleep,” a 5-hour, 20-minute film that shows Giorno sleeping. Giorno writes that he gave Warhol the idea to do a painting of Jacqueline Kennedy in the black funeral veil she wore at her husband’s funeral. Giorno was with Warhol the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “We both started crying, weeping big fat tears. We pressed our faces together and kissed. It was the first time that we had properly kissed. It had the sweet taste of kissing death. It was exhilarating.” Through it all Warhol kept saying, “I don’t know what it means.”
Giorno’s relationship with Warhol dissolved over time but by this time the poet was traveling to Tangier to visit Jane and Paul Bowles. He found Jane Bowles to be seriously crazy and returned to New York.
Giorno’s friendship with artist Robert Rauschenberg became a love affair after the two men drank multiple cups of tea and smoked joints. “He had a beautiful body, soft skin and firm muscles. It was like making love to Alexander the Great or Emperor Hadrian. His body radiated the worldly power of great accomplishment.”
Rauschenberg, formerly married with children, “had an unspoken rule that no one was allowed to write about his being gay, under the threat of excommunication and wrath of hell, and nobody did.”
In the 1950s, gay was the kiss of death; as a result, Giorno found Rauschenberg’s use of heterosexual images to be self serving. Rauschenberg and Giorno did collaborate on a number of projects and performance pieces. Then Rauschenberg took an extended trip to Los Angeles where he met and bonded with Warren Beatty. Giorno recalls, “With that new friendship came Shirley MacLaine and rich beautiful Hollywood movie stars, drugs and alcohol, a world that was over-the-top.”
While Rauschenberg was hobnobbing in Hollywood, Giorno was getting feelings that the relationship would soon end. He describes how he sat down on a park bench and began to cry. “It was at that moment that Bob Rauschenberg and I broke. For no reason, nothing had happened; nothing had changed in our relationship. I believed it was precognitive recognition.” The break did occur shortly after Rauschenberg returned from Los Angeles.
From Rauschenberg, Giorno would become lovers with Jasper Johns but first he established an intimate connection with William Burroughs. “Thin, gentlemanly, and courtly, he dressed in imitation Brooks Brothers suits. He had the power, a strong magnetizing quality, to attract people to him. Every night we got completely drunk on bourbon and water, smoked endless joints and cigarettes, and took whatever drugs appeared as gifts.”
Burroughs told Giorno: “Why would anyone want to go to bed with me, I look like someone from Bergen-Belsen.” Giorno told him that he wanted to thank William for being a great hero of gay sexual freedom. “I wanted to reward him for his noble efforts. He had the most appalling taste, attracted to puny street boys from London and Tangier. I wanted to offer him bliss.”
Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s former lover. now became Giorno’s lover. Giorno declares: “Rauschenberg was too crazy, Warhol was too over-the-top, the Abstract painters were dying gods, and minimal and conceptual artists were still forming. Jasper had caught the golden ring,”
Johns, with his southern charm and (mostly) stable WASP lifestyle, was with Giorno when the poet’s creation, the Dial-a-Poem program (famous poets reading their works on a toll-free line) reached new publicity heights, with articles about it in The New Yorker, the New York Post, the BBC and the Christian Science Monitor. When The New York Times did an article on Dial-a-Poem, Giorno’s name was catapulted into the stratosphere.
Giorno then did what many poets did in the late 1960s and early 70s: he handed out mimeographed poems in the street as a form of activism. The Vietnam War had gotten Giorno interested in politics but unfortunately Giorno’s obsession with politics contributed to a breakup with Johns.
Years after first meeting Jack Kerouac, Giorno ran into him on the corner of Third Avenue and Seventh. “Jack was wearing a flannel shirt and a brown corduroy zipper jacket with the collar up against the chill. He was just a nice, overweight guy, with a hangover, who was smiling and gentle, with warm eyes.” Kerouac had just made a fool of himself on William F. Buckley’s show, Firing Line, doing the live interview while very drunk. On Buckley’s show, Kerouac called Allen Ginsberg “That Jew!” and generally came off as moronic. Giorno writes that the former Adonis’ face was “beat up and bloated.”
“Kerouac and I looked in each other’s eyes for a long moment. Love arose in each of our hearts. There was a sexual energy and unexpected possibility. We rested for a moment in the glimmer of our hearts.”
And then Giorno was off. “I said good-bye. I had a day of appointments and was already half an hour late.”