I celebrate John’s life and work, now in his 80th year!
I knew about John from his long relationships with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, among others, but mostly I knew of him as the guy behind the Dial-A-Poem phone service that began in the mid-sixties, presented initially at venues like The Museum of Modern Art in 1970. John was trying to encourage a wider audience to tune in to modern poetry. I had seen stills of John in Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) (though not the full five-hour film), and owned the Dial-A-Poem Poets records he made with Burroughs and Laurie Anderson, and Anne Waldman.
John and I first met in 1982, a couple of years after I moved to NYC, when, as a member of Glenn Branca’s band, we recorded music that Giorno Poetry Systems released on a split LP called Who You Staring At? (1982) with John himself. In 1985 Sonic Youth contributed a version of our song “Hallowe’en” to the GPS album A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse. We were thrilled to share tracks on that album with friends and heroes such as John and William, David Johansen, Diamanda Galas, Swans, and Hüsker Dü. John wasn’t interested in isolating his Beat cohorts from the new, younger generation, but rather in illuminating shared sensibilities. Later he’d add Butthole Surfers, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and many others to this list, fostering inclusion and a wider net for subversives, transgressives, and boundary-pushing artists of many persuasions. Everyone gets in, everything is permitted. I can see John with his arms open, welcoming all with his huge heart.
But really, the full force of John’s work struck me through his magnificent oratory. Listening to him read his amazing, personal poems—open windows onto life as he lived and shared it—was truly captivating. Whether at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church or somewhere else around the world when we’d meet, I was astounded by his prodigious memory—how could he read all these lengthy missives without consulting any notes? The sheer feat of this amazed me, especially as he was not improvising but rather reading carefully composed pieces, which he then committed to memory.
During a visit with John at the Bunker on the Bowery last year I had a chance to ask him about his feats of memorization. He told me that he writes every day, that it takes him “a long time to write everything,” and that he rehearses each poem for months, while he is writing them and once they are done, until he has them fully committed. He likened it to my process as a musician rehearsing my songs. “I just have a really good memory,” he said, “I can remember conversations from fifty years ago.” He said that the development of this ability helped him trigger the scenes and the emotions from which his poems arise. “You cannot perform with the front of the brain! When you read [from notes] you get separated from the poem!” It became clear to me—he is really a singer (like all the best poets) and the poems are his songs. In 2009, Leah Singer and I held a day of performances to celebrate the opening of our art exhibition at the CNEAI museum in Paris. John gave a riveting performance, accompanied by Rhys Chatham on trumpet and electric guitar. We were honored that they showed up to take part in our opening events, and I can clearly recall the reverence with which the French public greeted his performance. He touched all of us deeply that day with his words and his open-hearted spirit.
In 2014, I had the privilege of providing musical settings for two recordings of John reading, for inclusion in an art-film project we were both involved in called The Exhibition of a Film. The curator, Mathieu Copeland, had sent me some selections to create music for. I chose two pieces I’d previously heard him read aloud. One was “Just Say No To Family Values”—a great piece that argues for hedonism in all its forms as a sacred act, and ends with a life’s credo: “Just do it: Just make love and compassion.”
The other piece was called “The Death of William Burroughs,” a frank account of sharing William’s last day alive, and the preparation of his body for the coffin. He called it “one of the best times I ever had with him.” The poem was both heavy and light, celebrating the man and his life, his triumphs and his flaws, rather than mourning his loss. Such was John’s generosity towards his dear lifelong friend. He spoke of picking out William’s clothes for the afterlife, outfitting him with his eyeglasses in his breast pocket, a gold coin in his pants pocket “to buy his way in the underworld,” a joint to light up in the afterlife, and even his favorite snub-nosed pistol: “William always said, you can never be too well armed in any situation.”
In conclusion, two excerpts from John’s “Thanx 4 Nothing” written on his 70th birthday, a decade ago, offering up to us all his “good and bad habits”:
it was wonderful that we loved each otheR
but I do not want any of them back…
thanks for allowing me to be a poet
a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.
Thanks, John, for sharing your beatific visions with us.
Praise to you in your 80th year!
co-founded Sonic Youth in 1981, and has been active on the New York music and art scene for the past thirty-five years. His new LP Electric Trim will be released in September 2017 on Mute Records.