They were voices that drilled into your head and just never left. William had a nasal twang and a Midwestern deadpan wise-guy delivery. John had a voice that seamlessly slid from nagging to opera to harangue, blooming into a Southern accent as he picked up speed.
In 1974, I hitchhiked to the North Pole and when I got back my loft had been completely vandalized. There was some old mail lying on the front steps of the building inviting me to do a project at Zero Bull Shit Media in Fort Edward, New York. ZBS Media was a commune/recording studio where I learned about Buddhism and sound recording. It’s where I met Bob Bielecki, who was chief engineer there. Through him I met William and also John, who was beginning to record his work. We were all interested in making records and Dial-A-Poem was a sudden outlet for the work of all kinds of writers, musicians, and poets.
Burroughs’s “Language is a virus from outer space” always struck me as an odd thing for a writer to say—that language is a disease communicable by mouth. So, if language is a disease, what were we doing?
William wanted to be a song and dance man. He had some of the showman swagger of James Cagney and a few notes of Jimmy Durante saluting Mrs. Calabash (wherever you are). When he, John, and I made the record You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (1981), William insisted that the three of us hold canes and pretend to dance for the photo shoot. So there we are on the back cover—the three of us in white shirts—William and John in some kind of tan suits and we’re all planting our canes in the same spot as if we’d just finished dousing.
It was a double album and each of us had a side. The album noted that these were “multi-track” pieces. The fourth side was a crapshoot. Depending on where you put the needle down, you would tap into one of our intertwined spirals, randomizing the record and giving it the feeling of one of William’s cut-ups.
When I asked William to tango with me in my concert film Home of the Brave (1986), he said, “In the tango people don’t touch.” What tangos had he seen? Maybe he was thinking of flamenco? John was a dancer and when he performed he swung his arms and flung his head back.
I did a tour with William and John in 1981 and what I remember most about it is being backstage. Backstage in these clubs was sitting on sagging greasy cracked leather couches, an asphyxiating amount of floor cleaner in the air. Behind a bent metal door was the parking lot. Fans were always out there smoking and doing drugs and William would often be slipping out the door into the parking lot. It seemed like he just turned himself into smoke or a piece of paper and slipped through sideways.
John was the most passionate of the three. He really broke a sweat and when he began one of his pieces he started to rock and rant, gradually sliding into that Southern accent. I was just beginning to study Buddhism and I recognized John’s poems as mantras—the repetition, the chanted pitches verging on singing—“I Don’t Need It, I Don’t Want It, and You Cheated Me Out of It.” Almost always at the core of his poems were Buddhist concepts of emptiness and the dream-like state of the world. Listening to John was studying the dharma.
I learned how to use the second person in these shows. “You always were a headache and you always were a bore” was how William ended his “Thanksgiving Prayer.” Both William and John also knew how to slip from I to you, and the you meant the yous out there in the audience. I began to try it on my own work: “This is your captain. Have you lost your dog?” And it opened new worlds for me.
LAURIE ANDERSON is an artist, musician, writer, and filmmaker. She lives in New York City with Little Will, her border terrier.