My introduction to Keith Haring came via his cover art for the 1985 Giorno Poetry Systems (GPS) compilation LP A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of A Corpse. GPS was a label mostly known for documenting readings by ’60s/’70s Downtown New York poets; Haring was an appropriately hip choice for a record coming from the poetry world that brought together Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, Diamanda Galas, David Van Tieghem, and William Burroughs—in other words, punk, industrial music, avant-garde music, and Beat literature. I duly noted the choice of commix-associated artists Gary Panter and Robert Williams for two subsequent GPS compilations when they appeared in the late ’80s, Smack My Crack and Like A Girl I Want You to Keep Coming. Only much later did I discover the initial run of spoken word releases, mostly double albums, on GPS from the ’70s. These are fantastic artifacts of the period, due in no small part to their cover art.
Up until Sugar, Alcohol, & Meat (1980), which featured photo portraits of Giorno, Burroughs, and John Ashbery by Robert Mapplethorpe, these covers were made by ’60s media artist Les Levine. Uniformly depicting a smiling Giorno and cohorts—always unidentified—they make for an especially intriguing way to package spoken word material. The first release, The Dial-A-Poem Poets (1972), finds a hippied-out Giorno behind a stylish redhead passerby on the front cover and underneath a Bell Telephone repairman on a ladder in the gatefold. A shared album with Anne Waldman likewise finds a random female pedestrian mingling with the two poets. Disarmingly unpretentious, these images serve as an extension of Dial-A-Poem’s outreach to the general public beyond the in-crowd of the Downtown poets. The humor in these covers as illustrations of the albums’ titles is unmistakable: Giorno, Burroughs, Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Cage sitting in business attire at a boardroom-style table for Totally Corrupt (1976), or Giorno posing with Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and two children in a park under the title Big Ego (1978). Even the formalwear in the Mapplethorpe portraits is deadpan, although perhaps somewhat telling given the dawn of the Reagan era.
The ’70s albums’ participants are still largely denizens of the post-Beat poetry scene, but in the ’80s Giorno began to reach out to more musicians, initially avant-gardists (Laurie Anderson and Glenn Branca, for You’re The Guy I Want to Share My Money With and Who You Staring At?, respectively) and then underground rockers. David Johansen, Lydia Lunch, Psychic TV, and Richard Hell all appear on 1984’s Better An Old Demon Than A New God. The cover artists reflected the change—Village Voice art director George Delmerico did the covers for You’re the Guy and Who You, and rock photographer Kate Simon shot the cover for Better.
The later ’80s albums with the art by Haring, Panter, and Williams still had photography on the inner sleeves and gatefold panels, showing the contributors socializing with each other, and thus preserving the sense of community that is so prevalent in the ’70s records. I was making my own connections between different artistic undergrounds as a teenager in the ’80s, and these albums felt like a concretization of my search and, in hindsight, a tribute to Giorno’s knack for cutting-edge inclusion.
ALAN LICHT is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York. More on him can be found on: www.alanlicht.com