Life Imitates Pop Art

Pop art might not be your cup of Campbell’s soup, but Andy Warhol was the first of many things. Including the first social networker. 

Before our eyes were inundated with listicles like ‘Top 15 Baby Gorillas Peeking Out Under Silk Rugs’, Andy Warhol was repeating ultraviolet images of James Dean until you saw spots. He shot ten-hour stills of inanimate objects pre-dating Tilda Swinton’s sleeping residence at the MoMa. His art was — and is — eerily reminiscent of that disoriented feeling you get when you stare at your computer screen for too long. 

Warhol and the gang were undoubtedly strange, but he had an innate savviness. Warhol expertly cultivated his image, artistic and otherwise, into his own personal brand. His commercial art sold successfully, thus giving him time to invest in projects like exposing the Velvets.

In 1965, after spontaneously catching a mesmerizing set by The Velvets at Cafe Bizarre, Warhol booked them as the touring band for his show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The EPE featured a mixed media orgy that included film loops, music by the Velvets, sadomasochistic dancing and an epileptic lightshow. The EPE lasted for about a year, hitting Chicago and the west coast along the way. It didn’t just give The Velvets exposure — it truly was the first multi-media art show. Maybe even the first rave. 

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Contrary to some popular belief, Andy didn’t take control of the band. When asked if Andy gave them subjects to write about, Reed commented: “Sure. He said, “Why don’t you write a song called ‘Vicious’?” And I said, “Well, Andy, what kind of vicious?” “Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.” And I wrote it down, literally. Because I kept a notebook in those days. I used it for poetry, things people said. I went back and wrote a song, “Vicious/You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour/Oh baby you’re so vicious.” Or he said, “Oh, you should write a song, so-and-so is such a femme fatale. Write a song for her. Go write a song called ‘Femme Fatale.’” No other reason than that.” Warhol was typified as a “catalyst, putting jarring elements together.” Hence the keen interest in The Velvets.

Andy did, however, posses a child-like fascination with people: freaks, junkies, starlets, drag queens, the Velvets. He allowed fourteen-year-olds to edit and star in his erratic films. In a way, the infamous Factory — known as an amphetamine-fueled hangout for scenesters and the Velvets’ occasional practice space — was a performance art space without hours. 

I always imagine the Factory as this sort of demented carnival, with the dizzied dreams of so many nobodies reflected from the aluminum foil-encased walls. Former manager Al Aronowitz called it “A freak show. I’d always get a bad feeling going over to the Factory because all these arrogant freaks disgusted me, with their arrogance and their put-ons, the way they walked, strutting around. It was all a pose.”

Were they phonies too?

The Factory’s glorification of hedonism could very well be a precursor to the heavily critiqued hipster culture present today. It’s one that cultivates itself on decadence, amassing knowledge behind Warby Parker glasses, while standing back and not giving a shit in ripped-to-perfection jeans.

The Velvets themselves projected a certain air of cool (leather jackets help) but they were outcasts underneath. Warhol studio assistant and Exploding Plastic Inevitable dancer Ronnie Cutrone comments: “Everybody was totally straight and then there was us — this pocketful of nuts. We had long hair, and we’d get chased down the block. People would chase you for ten blocks screaming “Beatle!” They were out of their minds — that was the reality of the sixties. Nobody had long hair — you were a freak, you were a fruit, you were not like the rest of the world.”

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The Factory operated on excess, embodying the very materialistic culture it critiqued. Yet The Velvets were genuine themselves. Reed’s songwriting, brutally honest and self-deprecating, is a testament to implementing the extremities of what the band was living: the parallels between plastic drug excess and physical starvation, sexual craving and dissatisfaction, insecurity and earning respect from their patron and beyond. The Factory helped inspire some material for songwriting, but Velvets’ tactics were rooted in artistry for artistry’s sake. Never were they forced or contrived to fit a certain mold. 

The first time John Cale heard Lou play “Heroin,” which was written before meeting Warhol, he was astonished: “The words and music were so raunchy and devastating. What’s more, Lou’s songs fit perfectly with my concept of music. Lou had these songs where there was an element of character assassination going on. He had strong identification with the characters he was portraying. It was Method acting in song.”

And what better place to harness that method than testing the streets of New York?