. . .[in 1978] a Columbia professor named Sylvere Lotringer had approached John Giorno about organizing some sort of "homage to Burroughs," bringing together European and American academics for a series of seminars. Lotringer saw Burroughs as they did in France, where he was acclaimed as a philosopher of the future, the man who best understood postindustrial society.
Giorno discussed the idea with James [Grauerholz], and they saw it more as the gathering of the counterculture tribe which would enshrine Burroughs as its leader. There would be seminars, but there would also be music and entertainment, and star attractions. It would be something to cap the decade, a memorable New York Event. James wanted to call it the Nova Convention, which Giorno at first didn't like because it reminded him of the car put out by Chevrolet, but he went along with it.
And so, over the next months, they organized the Nova Convention. . .
The Nova Convention took place on November 30, December 1, and December 2, 1978, with the principal performances being held on the last two days at the Entermedia Theater, on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street, which had in the fifties been the fabled Phoenix Theater. Attending were an odd mixture of academics, publishers, writers, artists, punk rockers, counterculture groupies, and an influx of bridge-and-tunnel kids drawn by Keith Richards, who made the event a sellout. . .
Saturday night the Entermedia was packed, largely with young people waiting to see Keith Richards. There was a small hitch, however, which was that Keith Richards had cancelled. He was having problems as the result of a heroin bust in Toronto, and his office convinced him that appearing on the same program with Burroughs was bad publicity.
But the show had to go on, and the composer Philip Glass, playing one of his repetitive pieces on the synthesizer, was thrown to the wolves. The disappointed kids who wanted Keith Richards shouted and booed. Then Brion Gysin went on amid cries of "Where's Keith?" and found himself hoping that the riot would not start until he had done his brief turn.
In a last-minute effort, James Grauerholz had recruited Frank Zappa to pinch-hit for Keith. He volunteered to read the "talking asshole" routine from Naked Lunch. But as Zappa was preparing to go on, Patti Smith had a fit of pique about following him. James did his best to make peace, saying "Frank has come in at the last minute, and he's got to go on, and he's doing it for William, not to show you up." Patti Smith retreated to the privacy of her dressing room, and Zappa got a big hand, because that's what they wanted, a rock star.
Still, no one had explained Keith Richards' absence, and it was Patti Smith who gamely bit the bullet. She came out in a fur coat and a pair of genuine iguana-skin cowboy boots. When she announced that she was going to tell a story, a heckler shouted, "Tell it to the iguana." For Patti Smith, every performance was like a bullfight, the ultimate confrontation, as well as an act of lovemaking with the audience, which she sometimes achieved by masturbating on stage under a fur coat with a slit pocket. In 1976 she was doing something of the sort in Tampa when she fell off the stage and broke her neck. Soon she was back at CBGB's -- Out of Traction, Back in Action. On this occasion, she did the heroic thing, telling her audience, "I know you guys came in to see Keith. . .well, Keith ain't here. . .he's in a plane right now between L.A. and Toronto. . .he asked me to tell you all that if anybody wants their money back they can come and get it right now. . . ," and she pulled some bills out of her pocket, but there were no takers. Although ill with bronchitis and running a fever, she hadn't stood them up. She couldn't sing, but she noodled around on the clarinet.
In the meantime, Burroughs was backstage waiting to read, and smoking
joints with Terry Southern and Victor Bockris in his dressing room. Marcia
Resnick, a photographer of the punk scene, dropped in and sat on Terry's
lap. "She'd be much safer sitting in my lap," Burroughs said, and Bockris
stood on a shelf across the small room to take a picture of the Great
Misogynist with a cute punk chick in his lap. At that moment James walked
in, and in his best Nurse Ratchett manner asked, "What is going on here?"
Bockris fell and spilled his wine all over Burroughs. By that time, the
audience had quieted down, and John Giorno read without too many
interruptions, and Burroughs went out and read to a warm welcome.
Copyright © Ted Morgan 1988