Pioneering poet and artist

Born: December 4, 1936;

Died: October 11, 2019

JOHN Giorno, who has died of a heart attack aged 82, was a poetic iconoclast, whose belief in taking words off the page and bringing them to life on record and in the live arena helped kick-start what we now know as spoken-word performance, a genre rooted in the beat scene, moving through rock and roll, rap and live art.

Through the promotion of peers that included Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs by way of his Giorno Poetry Systems organisation, then through his much imitated Dial-A-Poem service, Giorno took poetry to younger audiences more attuned to pop music and pop art, both more accessible and less rarefied forms than what was considered to be high culture.

Taking counter-cultural literature into a similar mass media landscape in this way influenced subsequent generations of musicians and writers. The likes of Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson appeared alongside post-punk auteurs including David Johansen of New York Dolls and Nick Cave.

Giorno was part of New York’s artistic zeitgeist from early on, becoming both lover and muse of Andy Warhol, who filmed him for his five-hour plus opus, Sleep. Other fellow travellers included Robert Rauschenberg, who Giorno also formed a relationship with, film-maker Jonas Mekas, Burroughs collaborator Brion Gyson, with whom he became interested in sound art, and a myriad of others operating among the city’s energetic cross-fertilising artistic scenes.

Giorno was the only child of Amadeo Giorno, a clothing manufacturer, and Nancy Giorno, (nee Garbarino), a fashion designer. While his father could trace his family to Norman nobility in Puglia and Basilicata, Giorno was raised in Brooklyn and Roslyn Heights, Long Island, New York.

Growing up Catholic, Giorno discovered his sexuality during his teens, when he began to lust after the more attractive priests at his local parish church. He was influenced in more studious ways by his English teachers at James Madison High School in Brooklyn before attending Columbia University. It was here he first met Ginsberg, and, after graduating in 1958, met Warhol, Mekas and others while working as a stock-broker.

It was while living with Warhol that the artist came up with the idea of filming Giorno sleeping, naked. Running just shy of five and a half hours and released in 1963, Sleep was inspired by Renaissance depictions of Jesus Christ, and was one of Warhol’s earliest forays into durational minimalism. Warhol also filmed the four-and-a-half-minute John Washing. In 1962, Giorno moved into a former YMCA building in the Bowery, which became a magnet of sorts for a new generation of artists, with Burroughs moving into its former locker room in 1975.

Giorno Poetry Systems was founded in 1965, with Dial-A-Poem coming four years later, after Giorno was inspired following a phone call with Burroughs. The service initially utilised six phone lines connected to reel-to-reel answering machines to disseminate recorded verse from Ginsberg, Rauschenberg, the Black Panthers and later Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe and Laurie Anderson among many others to whoever called in. At times playfully erotic and gay in tone, Dial-A-Poem tapped into a burning desire by Giorno and others to utilise technology to communicate with the world.

Giorno Poetry Systems released numerous albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s that featured many artists recorded for Dial-A-Poem, as well as his own work heard in tandem with Burroughs and others including composer Glenn Branca, Laurie Anderson and Frank Zappa. In all, Giorno produced more than 50 books, records and other media.

If Burroughs can be regarded as the high priest of subversive literature, Giorno was a John the Baptist figure, spreading the word with unabashed vigour. In 1982, the pair toured the UK as part of The Final Academy, an avant-garde roadshow and living homage to Burroughs, who headlined each night on bills that included many of the literary outlaw’s accidental progeny, including Psychic TV, Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo as well as Giorno.

Venues included London gay club, Heaven, Liverpool arts centre, The Bluecoat, and Factory Records’ just-opened nightclub, The Hacienda. The latter was filmed and released on VHS and later on DVD as The Final Academy Documents, and features an impassioned performance by Giorno performing three works accompanied by an industrial punk-funk backing track.

In 1984, Giorno founded the AIDS Treatment Project, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help those suffering from the epidemic which had many casualties from New York’s artistic underground.

With his work moving from found texts to more political works as well as influences from the Tibetan Buddhism he practised, a career-spanning anthology, Subduing Demons in America: Selected Poems 1962-2007, was published in 2008.

In 2013, Giorno visited Glasgow to take part in a night at artist Jim Lambie’s Poetry Club organised by Neu! Reekie!, the Edinburgh-based arbiters of spoken-word, music and film mash-ups. On the night, Giorno shared a bill with Primal Scream in front of an audience of 100, who watched several generations of DIY auteurs for whom he had helped open the doors of perception. Giorno performed three works, including words on Burroughs’ death, and a meditation on his own mortality written on his 70th birthday six years before, Thanx 4 Nothing.

“I have this theory,” Giorno said in an interview with The Herald before the show, “that the last 50 or 60 years have been a golden age of poetry that never existed before in the history of the world…In the 50s and 60s, if you didn’t do it yourself, it didn’t get done. The academy wasn’t going to let you in, then, in the 70s and 80s, Warner Brothers signed Laurie Anderson, but they weren’t going to sign anyone else.”

As a visual artist, Giorno’s work was featured in a retrospective in Paris during 2015. A recent New York exhibition, Do the Undone, featured text-based paintings, watercolours and sculptures carved with poetic phrases. Giorno had recently been working on a memoir, Great Demon Kings, scheduled for publication in 2020. Dial-A-Poem remains in operation today.

A 2012 painting features the phrase ‘Don’t Wait for Anything’. It’s directness and simplicity sums up Giorno’s rich creative life, which continued to put poetry out there for all the world to see and hear. ‘Thanks for allowing me to be a poet’ he wrote in Thanx 4 Nothing, ‘a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice’.

Giorno is survived by his husband, artist Ugo Rondinone.