Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment by John Giorno

If you’ve ever wanted to know all the smoldering details of the quintessential 20th-century gay life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Great Demon Kings is the book for you. John Giorno came of age with the Beats of the 1950s, bedded some of the great New York painters of the 60s, and took part in the wild abandon of the post-Stonewall 70s. Fueled by vast amounts of vodka, marijuana, and LSD, plus slightly smaller doses of speed and psychedelic mushrooms, Giorno was a proud gay artist who was one of the first performers to marry poetry, music, and technology.

In private, the charm of his boyish face and a significant (and insatiable) protuberance aided an unquenchable appetite for star fucking. This alchemy propelled him through affairs with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns (following the time Rauschenberg and Johns had been lovers); decades-long friendships with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (including one rather unsatisfactory three-way with the two); a couple of close encounters with Jack Kerouac; subway bathroom sex with Keith Haring; and thousands of other copulations before, during, and after the predictable side trips to Tangier (to visit Paul and Jane Bowles) and the mysterious East, where he immersed himself in the ecstasies of Tibetan Buddhism. (The drug intake was usually reduced during Giorno’s Buddhist studies, but these were still punctuated by weekly visits to a nearby opium den.)

Affairs with Warhol and Rauschenberg; friendship with Ginsberg; close encounters with Kerouac.

While many of Warhol’s friends believed he was asexual, Giorno reports that Warhol loved to service him, although the Pop artist was strictly a “do-unto-others-but don’t do anything to me” kind of guy. Their sexual friendship led to Giorno’s first underground stardom as the sole figure in Warhol’s five-hour epic, Sleep.

Skipping a Beat

It was Giorno’s great good fortune to grow up in the last era of a handful of superstar poets. His first transformative experience occurred when he took the train into Manhattan from Long Island to hear Dylan Thomas perform at the YMHA in 1952. “His magnificent voice and the five other voices seemed to me like a great musical composition, like Bach,” Giorno writes. “This experience changed my life. It resonated with the boundless possibilities of what poetry could be.”

A couple of years later, Giorno entered Columbia College at the peak of the repressed 50s. He was repelled by the ambitions of his classmates, who only wanted to “get some horrible job making money to support a wife and children, a bourgeois life imprisoned in suburbia.” A decade before the Columbia campus would rebel against that ethos—in the sweeping 1968 anti-racism, anti-Vietnam demonstrations that would shut the university for the remainder of the course year—he realized that a “transcendent mind … was the most difficult state to attain.”

The next personal earthquake happened when a close friend gave him a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl—and three joints to go with it. The poem, sexually open and out, was a miracle for anyone who had grown up in the 50s, when practically everything gay was invisible. “What Ginsberg did for me,” Giorno writes, is what he did “for every gay man or hip person of my generation. I was filled with awe at his accomplishment.” After reading the poem, he left campus and headed to Riverside Park, “running, and dancing, jumping as high as I could, almost pirouetting, the liberation of Nijinsky.”

After Columbia, Giorno won a graduate fellowship for poetry at the Iowa workshop. Early in 1959, when Communist China’s devastation of Tibet filled him with “inexplicable grief,” he decided the Dalai Lama’s exile meant that he needed to “leave this world, too.” Giorno took a straight razor to his wrist, lost five pints of blood, and needed 32 stitches. Three days later he was out of the hospital and completely recovered.

The author, who claims he slept with Andy Warhol on numerous occasions, says Warhol censored his art.

Giorno explains that being gay made Warhol an outsider in the mid-century art world, when the Abstract Expressionists were “notoriously homophobic,” and closeted gay artists like Rauschenberg and Johns “shunned homoerotic imagery in their work.” Warhol produced gay drawings “for private view” in the 50s; in 1958 he was turned down by the Tanager Gallery “because he was too fey.” Warhol “got the message and realized that being a gay artist was the kiss of death … To access a large commercial audience, he got rid of the gay content.”

As a young poet on the make, Giorno was present at all the key moments of creation in the Pop Art world, including the very first show of the original seven Pop artists: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Segal, Wesselmann, Dine, and Indiana at the Sidney Janis Gallery in the fall of 1962. “It so outraged and offended the old-guard Abstract Expressionists (de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell, etc.),” Giorno writes, that they all resigned from the gallery in protest.

According to Giorno, Warhol remained a risk-taker only as long as he was taking amphetamines—a drug that makes a person “bold and tenacious,” he writes. Warhol’s habit stopped after he was shot and almost killed in 1968, which ended “his risk taking, and his great breakthrough period of making art.”

Close Encounters

In the 60s, when he wasn’t going to art openings, Giorno was bedding most of the gay superstars of the art world, encounters which are reproduced in considerable detail in his book. Rauschenberg, for example, had “a beautiful body [that] radiated the worldly power of great accomplishments”—Giorno felt he was “making love to Alexander the Great or Emperor Hadrian.” For a while they had “sex two or three times a day, every day when we could.”

When Rauschenberg was alive, no one was allowed to write “about his being gay,” and under the threat of “the wrath of hell” nobody did. But like many other gay writers of the post-Stonewall generation (including myself), Giorno never felt bound by this vow of silence after the deaths of his older closeted friends: “Just as [Rauschenberg] was allowed not to talk about being gay, I am allowed to describe it in detail.”

Giorno’s own gay liberation was expressed in everything he did and wrote, including his famous “Pornographic Poem” (1965), which was based on “a mimeographed erotic story” describing a night of wild abandon with seven gay Cuban officers. In 1970 it was included in a poetry anthology published by Random House. “Being included alongside old-guard poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, I felt I had infiltrated the enemy world, where I could radically change it, expand consciousness, and liberate the mind,” Giorno writes.

“Just as [Rauschenberg] was allowed not to talk about being gay, I am allowed to describe it in detail.”

Ten years later, when the AIDS epidemic decimated the art world, “it felt like the ultimate failure of all our aspirations of love, sexual freedom and drugs.” Giorno miraculously escaped unscathed. In 1998, at the age of 61, he met the artist Ugo Rondinone, who was half his age. They fell in love and he spent the rest of his life with Rondinone, eventually marrying him.

Giorno died of a heart attack a year ago at 82—a week after he completed this manuscript. His autobiography provides us with memorable portraits of many of the most celebrated American artists of the second half of the 20th century. It is also a compulsively readable chronicle of an indefatigable life of hedonism, leavened by passions for poetry and Tibetan Buddhism.

Charles Kaiser is the author of 1968 in America,The Cost of Courage, and The Gay Metropolis, republished in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots last year