Better Than: Wandering through the Warhol Museum with iTunes on shuffle.
Andy Warhol once said, “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” This is the quote with which Dean Wareham introduced “Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films,” 15 films set to original scores by Television’s Tom Verlaine, Suicide’s Martin Rev, former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound fame, and Wareham himself — formerly of veteran dream-pop acts Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta; the diverse troupe has toured from Pittsburgh to the West Coast and stopped for its final three nights at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
While there were a few clips — like the BDSM-y excerpt from “Kiss the Boot,” originally shot as a backdrop for Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable show — it’s clear that most of these shorts were not intended as standalone art pieces. The majority of them have a found-object kind of feel — transient sketches on the way to bigger ideas, some of them no more than screen tests. Still, the films lend themselves perfectly to re-scoring, and Wareham’s expert curation included something for all tastes while cheekily pushing boundaries in much the same way as Warhol’s most provocative works. Imbued with the sentimental vintage aesthetic that inspired Instagram, the clips act as highbrow music videos made in reverse; each musician scored three short films, the selections ingeniously suited to that particular artist’s style and strengths.
Wareham seemed to have the firmest grip on matching his material to the films his set comprised, likely owing to the fact that he’s been down this road before; he’s been touring five years with his score for 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Warhol’s Screen Tests. Whether a surfy ode to Susan Bottomly (a/k/a International Velvet) or a sensual psych jam correlating to “Kiss the Boot,” his pieces were subtly reflective and highly reverent.
The rest of the performances ranged from tonal sketches to straightforward interpretations. Verlaine — whom Wareham introduced as his favorite guitarist — played first and offered a fitting introduction to what would follow, scoring scenes of John Giorno (Warhol’s boyfriend in 1963, when he purchased his first 16mm camera) washing dishes in the nude; a stirring study of Jill Johnston, author of Lesbian Nation, prancing with a rifle; and a home movie of Giorno, Robert Indiana, Marisol Escobar, Wynn Chamberlain, and Eleanor Ward frolicking in the Connecticut countryside. With tender reverb embellishing his lithe guitar lines, Verlaine’s accompaniment highlighted the sense of nostalgia intrinsic to these intimate videos.
Friedberger went ultra-literal with her scores, in which her sprightly guitar passages came alive — particularly when paired with footage of sculptor Escobar positioned throughout her own installation. Friedberger encouraged the audience to visit Marisol’s solo exhibit at El Museo del Barrio and sang lyrics borrowed from a 1965 New York Times profile on her, capturing the spark that captivated Marisol’s admirers.
The most challenging performer of the evening was Rev, whose aggressive disco mash-ups ironically used a “Ladies Night” sample massacred by dissonant noise collages against a clip of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other Beat poets goofing off. Rev’s compositions thrilled some attendees and terrified others, his scary, unintelligible grandpa vibe offset only slightly by the lamé jumpsuit he wore. In Superboy, his screeching synths made visuals of a young, blond Adonis chugging Coca-Cola so fast it sometimes dribbled over his chiseled jaw feel like a critique of brainwashing advertisements that felt modern and prescient.
Positioned to close out the night was Cox, whose lush, hedonistic bedroom synthpop illustrated Warhol’s films with the greatest affection. There were scenes where pop-art pioneer Marcel Duchamp palled around with Benedetta Barzini, a supermodel who left fashion at the height of her career to found a feminist-Marxist group (“as all models do,” Cox quipped in his introduction). There was even a rare appearance from Warhol himself, in a drug-addled romp with longtime collaborator Taylor Mead. But the highlight of the evening featured infamous drag queen and Factory regular Mario Montez making out with an unidentified boyfriend while eating a cheeseburger, Lady and the Tramp-style. The clip took Warhol’s bawdy playfulness to its greatest heights, while retaining his somewhat radical brand of artistry. Cox’s persona and music relate closely to that same spirit, almost as if Cox is a direct descendant of Warhol’s legacy.
The rawness of Warhol’s ideas, plus the extraordinary icons of New York in the early ’60s immortalized in them, are what make these unseen images so magnetic and engrossing. But Wareham and the artists he tapped to score these films add new layers of beauty, complexity, and pure entertainment value; the songs elevated these simple videos much the way Warhol sought to elevate everyday objects to masterpieces. Though the pictures move, they act as snapshots, as windows to a different New York, finally brought into the present by an extraordinary group of innovative and prolific musicians.
Random Notebook Dump: Here’s hoping John Giorno used his ample chest hair to dry all the dishes he washed.
Overheard: “I liked Martin Rev best.” — twentysomething dude sitting three seats away from an older woman who plugged her ears during Rev’s entire set