It’s 1964 in downtown New York — do you know where your demimonde is?
As it turns out, some of its denizens were in jail.
In the March 19, 1964, issue of the Village Voice, Jonas Mekas, the paper’s resident explicator of the underground scene (and a filmmaker in his own right), delivered a first-person account of his “Kafkaesque journey into the womb of the Tombs.” Mekas was yelled at, stripped naked, and kicked for the crime of screening Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, which a companion article on the same page described as “a homosexual love story.” The second article added that the film had been shown in the first place to “raise money for a defense fund for Mekas and three associates arrested two weeks earlier for showing the Jack Smith film ‘Flaming Creatures’ at the New Bowery Theatre.”
The mid-Sixties were perilous times for those pushing the boundaries of what was then socially acceptable. As Mekas wrote in his own account, “One of the detectives who arrested me told me, at the theatre, that he did not know why they were taking me to the station: I should be shot right there in front of the screen.” (We’ll just note here that Mekas is still going strong, at age 95.)
Just a few weeks later, an ad in the April 9, 1964, issue of the paper offers a plaintive declaration: “You have noticed that our butterfuly [sic] has disappeared from The Village Voice. One after another, the independent and avant-garde film showcases have been closed, either by the District Attorney, the Police, the State Division of Motion Pictures, or the Department of Licenses.”
The illustration in the ad looks to have been doodled by Andy Warhol, similar in line and design to a sheet of butterfly drawings he did in 1955, titled Happy Butterfly Day. The pop artist’s film Newsreel was one of the movies that had been seized, along with Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (as well as rushes from Smith’s work in progress Normal Love) and Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. The ad for the “Film-Makers’ Cooperative Anti-Censorship Fund” argues that an “important shift in the ways of life, in moral attitudes, is about to take place in America. Really, the shift has been going on for some time: what’s lacking is the official stamp. That’s what this is all about. The clash between a going-away generation and a coming generation. Much of what the Old Generation calls immoral and obscene; much of what it calls non- or anti-art — to us is Beauty, because it is part of our life.”
In that same April 9, 1964, issue, the paper reported on the arrest of comedian Lenny Bruce, for giving an “indecent performance” at the Cafe Au GoGo. (A grand jury had listened to tapes of two Bruce shows at the venue and found “sufficient evidence” to charge Bruce and the club’s manager.) The article notes that an “Emergency Committee Against Harassment of Lenny Bruce” had been formed and had sent a petition to Mayor Robert F. Wagner charging that “‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.” (Bruce’s travails have been fictionalized in the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)
In an accompanying Voice article, Bruce displays surprising equanimity by blaming his arrest on the “mores or the times,” adding, “I’m either behind or ahead of the times.” Reporter Stephanie Gervis Harrington follows Bruce around the city: “Later, in his room at one of the Village’s less elegant hotels, where there is no carpeting, just blankets and miscellaneous junk on the floor, Bruce kind of nervously jumps around, occasionally flopping down on the messed-up bed with a law book, all his attention focused on working out the legal strategy to get him out from under the latest charge against him. His steadily mounting experience in cases like this has made him somewhat of a specialist on the subject.” At one point Bruce offers backhanded compassion for the cops who keep running him in: “They die for less than $400 a month. And they’re ashamed of being cops. It’s a shitty gig.” Then Bruce puts his finger on the main problem the authorities have with his act: “The key word is ‘prurient.’ Don’t get people horny.”
While this culture war was raging, Warhol was toiling away in his studio on what would ultimately become one of his most popular series: the “Flowers” paintings and prints. A tiny ad for his solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery on the Upper East Side joined many other announcements on the Galleries page of the November 19, 1964, issue. Over the previous two years, Warhol had created large paintings of car crashes, suicides, and tragic film stars, and the curator Henry Geldzahler claims to have told the artist, early in 1964, “Andy, maybe it’s enough death now.” But the flower images, with their coarse black photo screens over broad swathes of magenta, yellow, orange, and other brash colors, had their own dark undercurrents. In September 1964, supporters of President Lyndon Johnson had implied — by way of a television ad featuring a little girl picking flowers as an atom bomb explodes — that the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, couldn’t be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal. Warhol, as usual, was coy when a reporter asked him about his flowery imagery: “I was going to make the show all Goldwater if he won, because then everything would go, art would go.”
In a December 3, 1964, review of the flower exhibition, Voice art critic David Bourdon first discusses the 1962 science-fiction film The Creation of the Humanoids, which features a post-apocalypse society of humans and “clickers,” a species of humanoid robots. Bourdon writes, “The denouement comes when the heroine and the hero (a militant anti-humanoid who goes around throwing bombs at uppity ‘clickers’) discover themselves to be machines. This is the happy ending of what Andy Warhol calls the best movie he has ever seen.” Bourdon further speculates that behind Warhol’s genial facade “there is a lot of cybernetic circuitry.” Pursuing this notion, the Voice critic hits on something very important about the appeal of Warhol’s mechanically derived imagery: “The literalness with which Warhol renders his second-hand images actually lands him on the far side of realism, in a region where visual fact turns into phantasmagoria that becomes all the more hallucinatory because it is without a shred of fantasy.”
As the Sixties gathered more countercultural steam, the actions and reactions continued. In the December 31, 1964, issue, a five-column-wide ad proclaims, “Just back from four months in Africa: Malcolm X speaks on ‘1965: Prospects for Freedom.’”
Malcolm X had earlier broken with the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Now running his own mosque, Malcolm remained a fiery speaker. The speech referred to in the ad posits that “no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom,” and was being given under the auspices of the Militant Labor Forum.
On the same page, a short notice informs Voice readers where they can send letters to Julian Beck and Judith Malina, founders of the downtown Living Theatre, who were briefly imprisoned for contempt of court because they wore theatrical getups during tax evasion hearings.
Although the cops were once filmed breaking up a jam session by the Velvet Underground — the house band at Warhol’s Silver Factory (so named because much of it was wallpapered with shiny tinfoil) — Warhol apparently avoided any time in the slammer for his various transgressions. In the March 18, 1965, Voice we get an ad for his “six hour epic SLEEP,” being screened at the City Hall Cinema.
By 1966, Warhol was branching out into live extravaganzas, and there is some evidence that his wide-ranging creative forays were leading to cash-flow problems. The February 10, 1966, edition of the Voice features a Bulletin Board notice that reads, in the bumpy syntax of ad copy dictated over the telephone, “I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing AC-DC, cigarettes small, tapes, sound equipment, ROCK N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips. MONEY!! love and kisses ANDY WARHOL, EL 5-9941.”
History shrouds what endeavors might have arisen from his Bulletin Board pitch, though later Warhol would go on to produce the Velvets’ first album, famously putting nothing save the image of a banana and his own oversize signature on the cover. In later decades he would go on to endorse numerous products, including Vidal Sassoon shampoos, Pioneer stereo components, and Sony video tapes.
The same February 10, 1966, issue that featured the Bulletin Board plea also includes a small ad for Andy Warhol Up-Tight Presents, which promises a bevy of demimonde acts, including the Velvet Underground and the “whip dancing and leather” stylings of Mary Piffath and Gerard Malanga. Interestingly, the then-sixtysomething surrealist master Salvador Dali still rated all-caps treatment from the downtown scenesters. Perhaps the Spanish painter’s own legendary bids at self-promotion — such as his underwater burlesque show at the 1939 World’s Fair— resonated with the fame-obsessed Warhol.
A little more than a month later, the Up-Tight shows had a fresh come-on and a new name:
COME BLOW YOUR MIND
the silver dream factory presents the first
ERUPTING PLASTIC INEVITABLE
The Velvet Underground, along with chanteuse Nico, had become the bold-faced attraction.
Like biblical patriarchs, Up-Tight begat Erupting, which begat, a few weeks later, a name familiar to fans of both of pop art and timeless rock ’n’ roll: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Warhol’s eruptions and explosions were held at 23 St. Marks Place, in the Polski Dom Narodny, or Polish National Home, a social hall for weddings and other gatherings. For the same issue of the paper where “erupting” morphed into “exploding,” Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah headed to the Dom, as the venue was known, to capture the various happenings (both onstage and in the hallways).
That same weekend, McDarrah captured Warhol in front of his cow-wallpaper array, which, along with floating mylar “silver clouds,” were part of that year’s exhibition at the Castelli gallery.
Later in 1966, the little butterfly fluttering atop the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque ad announced:
The world premiere of 8 hours of the new epic film by
“The Chelsea Girls”
Warhol’s split-screen, color and black-and-white exploration of characters in various rooms of that bohemian beehive, the Chelsea Hotel, must have been scoring at the box office, because five months later it was still playing in town. One critic who was blurbed in the ad proclaimed the film a “Tour de force of technical and sexual ingenuity,” while another deemed it “one of the most powerful, outrageous, relevant and noticeable movies anyone anywhere has made!”
Warhol himself told The New York Times, referring to the film’s split-screen design, “If you get bored with one, you can look at the other.” He also implied that he had shot way too much footage, so he’d cut the running time in half by splitting the movie in two. Even still, Chelsea Girls clocks in at roughly three and a half hours.
Below the ad for Chelsea Girls, a two-week-long happening titled “Caterpillar Changes” was announced, offering musical performances, film screenings, and other events to support, we think, “N.Y.’s United AcidHeadSpeed Relief Fun Ball & Glitter Parade.” Along with the Velvets, the proceedings promised “THE DENTAL DESTRUCTION OF THE CHAIRS a MASS MENTAL CONCENTRATION AGAINST FURNITURE BY MOVIES MOVIE MOVIES SLIDES & LOOPS & BURNING PROJECTORS” among other enticements.
We don’t know the name of the graphic designer who riffed on Warhol’s original butterfly doodle, below, but he or she certainly got into the speed-drenched spirit of the time.
A couple years later, after Warhol had survived the trauma of being shot by a deranged hanger-on in June 1968, the ads for his films take on a more mainstream edge. Perhaps that was because he had become less involved in the films, turning more and more of the work over to Factory colleague Paul Morrissey, who once quipped, “Andy an auteur? You must be joking. Andy’s idea of making a movie is going to the premiere.”
By December 1968, Warhol was again branching out, this time with a book titled, a: A Novel, which consists of transcripts of 24 hours’ worth of conversations Warhol recorded with one of his “superstars,” Ondine (real name, Robert Olivo), who was famous for being a rapid-fire raconteur. Different typists were used to transcribe the various tapes, one of them Moe Tucker, the Velvet’s drummer, who refused to include the swear words heard on the tape. In another instance, the mother of a high school girl who was hired to do some of the transcribing threw the tape out in disgust. The final “novel” includes typos, conflicting abbreviations, and other idiosyncrasies of the individual typists. Warhol wasn’t particularly worried about the format, observing, “Doing something the wrong way always opens doors.”
What more can you say.