Andy Warhol Expert Matt Wrbican: The Rhapsody Interview
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we dive deep into the artistic -- and in particular sonic -- legacy of Andy Warhol, alongside a guy uniquely qualified to talk about it. Listen along with his specially made playlist of Warhol-centric jams, and enjoy.
Last fall, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, an exhibition of more than 40 works by legendary pop art icon Andy Warhol and another 100 by 60 artists caught in the planetary pull of his influence, opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This week, the exhibition comes home, in a sense, to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Penn., where it will remain through April.
We seized the opportunity to discuss Andy Warhol's direct and indirect influences on music -- as well as the beloved artist's personal musical taste -- with longtime Warhol Museum Chief Archivist Matt Wrbican. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
When was your first exposure to Warhol?
Well, my degrees are in fine art, and I got my bachelor's degree in 1981. And in the late '70s, when I was in school, Warhol was a big figure for people in art school. And actually my playlist, I think, reflects that. You know, a lot of the musicians that I picked are people who went to art school, and they talked about how important Warhol was for them. Like, for example, Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers. We have a really, really nice letter that Jonathan wrote to Warhol, like a fan letter, in the '60s. It's just interesting. I don't know what it is that made all these art students become musicians. Was it the Velvets? Was it something else? I don't know. It's just pretty extraordinary. Talking Heads, you know, they were at RISD, and their music -- well, they even wanted Warhol to be in one of their music videos, but he kept flubbing his line, and so I think they had to edit him out [laughs].
While we're with art students, did any of the musicians on the playlist view their music -- whether it's the forming of the band, the writing of a song, the recording of an album or even the concert performance itself -- did any of the musicians in the latter part of your playlist look upon music as an art project?
That's an interesting question. You know, I don't know enough about all those musicians. I think that someone like, for example, Lady Gaga has just got this total aesthetic involved in her work. And obviously Warhol's not the only person to have blurred the border between his art and his life, but I think that he's probably one of the more visible artists who did that, so I think it's probably fair to say that that's a Warholian thing. I don't know if Lady Gaga has ever acknowledged Warhol as an influence [laughs], but I think most of us here at the Warhol Museum see her in that way. You know, picking up where Madonna left off, who was another person who you can say followed Warhol's path in a lot of ways. I mean, she came from a pretty humble background, changed her name, went to New York and hit the big time. And socialized with Warhol. Warhol even created these really beautiful wedding presents for her when she married Sean Penn. And he took a lot of photos of her.
Did Warhol really blur the line between his art and his life, or was his life one big art project?
No, he did have a private life. He had a life, for example, with his family members. Most of them are here in Pittsburgh. You know, they talk about going to visit him and not really being aware of how famous he was or how well known he was, and that when he was with them he was just Uncle Andy. But if you saw him in public, he would usually be putting on his Andy Warhol, you know. But it's kind of a tricky question. I remember talking with his assistants, and they would talk about his personality, how he really liked to kid around and liked to provoke staff to do one thing or another, like setting them up with dates, getting them to talk about their love lives, that sort of thing. But when he was, say, giving an interview, I mean, he was usually putting people on, like giving a performance.
The early music on the playlist seems more Uncle Andy than Andy Warhol.
Yeah [laughs]. For sure.
Certainly for my generation, Andy Warhol's best-known musical association is The Velvet Underground. But we've got a whole section of the playlist before that with heavy doses of both opera and doo-wop. And that's more Uncle Andy, the private Andy.
I think so. That's the private Andy. We did a show a number of years ago called Warhol Live that was looking specifically at the parallels between Warhol's art and the fields of music and dance. And one of the scholars who was commissioned to write an essay for the catalog had done a lot of research here within Warhol's archives. And, you know, Warhol was a terrible packrat. He saved probably hundreds of ticket stubs. And this guy, John Hunisak, who's a professor at Middlebury College, he is also a big opera fan, and he tracked down the dates of those performances and made a lot of discoveries about what Warhol was seeing, and that it was opera, and that it also was with the best seats in the house, essentially.
So opera was a priority for him.
Yeah, he was a real connoisseur. He wasn't just a fan. He really knew what he was doing and what he was hearing. He had lots of recordings of Maria Callas, for example. And at the same time that he was producing the Velvets, he had a season subscription to the Metropolitan Opera. So that's really about as opposite as you can get, in a way.
The Velvets are part of Andy's art. They're part of public Andy. Did he ever try to incorporate opera into the public Andy, or is that just something he saved for his own personal enjoyment?
Well, he would play recordings of opera in the Factory, especially in the '60s, when there were people like Ondine and Billy Name around, because they were big opera connoisseurs as well. Although they couldn't afford the season tickets to the Met that Andy could afford. But they still were big fans, and especially of Maria Callas, who was kind of a gay icon at that time. And you can hear them not only playing these tapes in the Factory, but reacting to them and even singing along with them at points, which is just really amazing. I'm talking about the recordings that were made in the Factory back in the '60s, like where Warhol would have his tape recorder going and just recording what was happening all around him.
But I guess there are some operatic qualities to the Velvets. I mean, not in terms of the singing, let's say, but the stories that are told. A lot of them are very sad tragedies. And around '73 or '74, when Lou Reed had released Berlin -- which, in a way, is also very operatic -- Warhol was considering producing that for the stage. But he decided in the end ... to go with a John Phillips idea -- John Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas -- which was a project called "Man on the Moon," which had a few performances, maybe half a dozen, something like that. It closed pretty quickly. I've always wondered why he didn't go with Lou [laughs], someone that he had known for a number of years at that point. And they worked together a lot. There are songs that Lou wrote that were really clearly influenced by Warhol. You know, he talks about the song "Vicious," and says it was basically Warhol's idea.
How was that Warhol's idea?
I think that Lou says that Andy just one day said to him, "You should write a song called 'Vicious.'" And Lou replied something like, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You know, you hit me with a flower." [Laughs] And there's one of the lyrics, right there.
What about The Coasters, The Jaynetts, Dickey Lee and The Shangri-Las?
These are all things that Warhol owned. He owned all these recordings, and more. I mean, he had a really big music library, but I thought they were just good examples. Now The Jaynetts and the Dickey Lee thing, that is a different matter. There are a couple of oral histories that were done a number of years ago by people who worked really closely with Warhol in the early '60s, and they both talk about visiting Warhol's studio, which at that time was just in his home, on upper Lexington Avenue, not too far from the Guggenheim. And both of these people say when they went there that Warhol had a record playing, and it was just this one song and it repeated over and over and over the whole time that they were there for their visit to look at paintings. You know, something like an hour [laughs]. And those were the two songs. "Sally Go 'Round the Roses" and "I Saw Linda Yesterday."
And the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"?
That's another song that appears on the recordings that Warhol made in the studio. And the thing that's really interesting about that is that when you hear "Satisfaction" playing in the background of the Factory -- and this is around '65, so shortly after it came out, right? It's a big hit. And it seems like they're having a music battle in the Factory, because someone keeps putting "Satisfaction" on and then someone takes it off, and they put Maria Callas on, and it goes back and forth [laughs].
Did Warhol's association with the Stones end after Sticky Fingers?
Oh, no. No, it didn't. He did the cover for Love You Live in '77. And he remained friendly with them. Even after Warhol passed away in '87, the Warhol Foundation, which, you know, superseded him, they were occupying his former studio address and they continued to get a nice little Christmas poinsettia every year from Mick. Which is a really sweet thing. You know, they were very good friends. Also, I think it was the Stones' tour of North America in '75, they rented Warhol's home on Long Island as a rehearsal studio to get ready for that tour.
So how did Andy Warhol get hooked up with the Velvet Underground?
It's apparently got a lot to do with Barbara Rubin, who was an avant-garde filmmaker around that time, a young woman who was hanging out with the Velvets and other folks in that scene. And Warhol had been offered this chance to do something with a nightclub. I think it was with Murray the K, the New York radio DJ and music entrepreneur. This was '63, '64, '65, around that time. And so Warhol, and also Paul Morrissey, who was really Warhol's manager at that time, they started looking for a band. And Barbara Rubin was walking around the Village, and there was a club called the Café Bizarre where the Velvets were playing, and she heard them there. And I think she probably brought Gerard Malanga and maybe a few other people from the Factory to hear them. And somehow it got back to Morrissey and Warhol from there, and then they signed them up. That was right around the end of 1965.
And, of course, for whatever reason, Warhol felt that they were missing something. And he, I believe earlier in '65, was in London and Paris, and I think somewhere over there is probably where he met Nico. And she was, you know, a great physical beauty, and has this really unusual, deep voice for singing. But at the same time, you just couldn't take your eyes off her. I know that all the Velvets say that it was a very unpopular move with them to sort of collage, in a sense, Nico onto the Velvets. But when you listen to their songs, in a way it's hard to imagine those songs without her voice.
And despite their objections, they recorded with Nico in order to hitch onto Warhol's wagon, because Andy Warhol is Andy Warhol.
Sure. Because he can buy them equipment, he can get them deals with record companies. You know, his name was magic.
"All Tomorrow's Parties," to me, is the quintessential Velvet Underground song, but why did you select it?
Oh, it was Warhol's favorite song [laughs]. You know, that was his favorite Velvets song. That was it. And it really, in many ways, is just a kind of a tell-all of Factory life. You know, what was going on there, the people, and the kind of aesthetic, in a sense.
You can't be much more on the nose than calling your song "Andy Warhol." Tell me about Warhol and David Bowie.
Well, Bowie had seen Warhol's play in London -- it was called Pork -- which was there in '71 or '72, something like that, and started hanging out with one of the members of the cast, and eventually about three of the people who were working on that play became the core of Bowie's North American production company, MainMan, a few years later. And then, of course, Bowie starts to produce Lou Reed, and the whole glam aesthetic is started. But I'm getting away from answering your question [laughs]. Warhol was kind of afraid to meet Bowie. You know, he didn't really have a reputation at that time. He wasn't known as a star. And this was just a few years after Valerie Solanas had shot Warhol, in '68. And he was a little afraid to meet someone who was such a big fan. I mean, it wasn't that he was afraid to meet people, but someone who had professed to be such a big fan. Warhol had been really generous with inviting people to visit him at the Factory.
Other than the fact that it's the coolest intro possible to your playlist, what's the connection between Warhol and "On the Good Ship Lollipop"?
Warhol was a tremendous fan of Shirley Temple [laughs]. When he was a little kid, he wanted to be Shirley Temple. You know, we have this autographed photo that he got from her. They were born in the same year, so they were always the same age. He would go to see her in the movies, and he'd dream about being a tap dancer. He gave an interview where he said he didn't want to be a painter when he was a kid. He wanted to be a tap dancer. And I think that was really true. And again, one of the records that we have in Warhol's music library is a collection of Shirley Temple's songs. So you start at the beginning, and that's the beginning [laughs].
We started off talking about the public Warhol and the private Warhol, but mostly in terms of the early days. Did his musical taste change toward the end of his life?
You know, he was a mentor to a lot of the artists who were in the East Village scene in the '80s, and he really enjoyed that, because he liked having young people around. They really reinvigorated his own painting, his own visual art and encouraged him to go back to painting by hand. And he did those great collaborations with [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, who had a band himself, called Gray.
As far as his musical tastes, one thing about Andy that I've been told by people who knew him is that he just was always really interested in whatever the latest pop hit was: whatever was on the radio, whatever was being played. Whatever that might be, you know, he was interested in it, because he wanted to be always of his time and to be able to relate to other people. I don't know how much of that was kind of a professional shrewdness or a real, serious desire, you know, personal desire. But that's the way it was. But he was still going to hear musicals and also going to dance performances, modern dance performances and the ballet. Andy was a big fan. When he was in college in the 1940s, he really fell in love with modern dance, and I'm pretty sure that he saw Martha Graham perform here in Pittsburgh when she was touring her company. And then he did portraits of her later on, in the '80s, and made artworks that are based on photographs of her dances. So he changed, but he also maintained his love of other kinds of music. I think he was a kind of an omnivore.
If he was alive and well, he would've gone to the Garden to see Lady Gaga.
Oh, yeah. For sure. Absolutely. [Laughs]
Warhol's art is populated with icons: Elvis, Marilyn, Mick Jagger. How often does Shirley Temple appear in Warhol's work?
You know, it's funny. She, to my memory, appears only once, and it's not really her image. He did a print -- I think it was in the '70s -- it's called "Sidewalk." And it was a benefit, I think, probably for one of the big Los Angeles museums. And it's based on photographs that he shot of all the movie-star names in the sidewalk, like outside of Grauman's Chinese Theatre there in Hollywood. And Shirley Temple was one of the names.
And that's it?
As far as I know, he never did a portrait of her. Which is interesting.
He's certainly an artist with remarkable, almost unchallenged breadth. And the fact that Temple doesn't cross over that line into the public, into the art, I think, is curious.
Yeah, it's odd. It's very odd. And it may come down to something that's as simple as business reasons. There was a point, a long period, actually, in Warhol's career, especially toward the end, where the man that was managing all of his affairs, Fred Hughes, was telling Warhol that he couldn't make art or devote his time and energy and other resources to artwork that didn't already have a buyer.
And so if nobody was commissioning a portrait of Shirley Temple, he basically wasn't allowed to do it. He had a magazine, you know, which was dependent on advertising and other income, and then his painting assistants and other assistants and various other people who were on his payroll. He had a staff of about 50 people. He had a lot of mouths to feed.
We talked at the beginning about so many of the later bands on the playlist coming from art school. Did Warhol ever try music himself?
In about 1962, '63, Warhol was involved with this band in which he was a singer and sort of lyricist [laughs]. And they didn't survive for very long. It was very informal. But the thing that was really interesting about it is that they were all visual artists. They never recorded. They never performed for the public. They just performed for themselves, like at parties and things. And we have a recording of them that was given to us by the widow of the man who made the recording. It seems like their most finished song was "No More Apologies." And the lyrics for it were written by Jasper Johns.
Yeah [laughs]. And you can kind of hear his voice in the recording.
Do we know why Andy Warhol was singing Jasper Johns lyrics in a band in '62, '63? Was this just an artistic experiment that was over when it was over? Or do you think, given the right circumstances, he could've been prodded to sing again?
I don't know. He did mention it a few times. There's a great interview that Glenn O'Brien did with him in the '70s, where he talks about the band. They were called The Druds.
Yeah [laughs]. Whatever that means. But Claes and Patty Oldenburg were in the band, and Patty did most of the singing. Warhol did the backup vocals. This, I think, was strictly for fun. Although there was a plan at one point at that time for them to go -- there was a pop art show that was happening in Washington. And the woman who organized the exhibition, Alice Denney, really wanted them to come and, you know, do a little show as part of the exhibition. But for some reason, it just didn't happen.
And it kind of just fizzled out?
Yeah, that's the thing. None of them were really serious about it. It was just a fun thing for them to do, you know. I think Larry Poons, the painter, was in it also, and Lucas Samaras and maybe a few others. And there's only one recording that exists of them. And it's obvious they're just sitting around, you know, they're drinking and having a good time, someone's strumming the guitar, and then they're just throwing ideas around. Like, "What can we sing about next?" And Warhol says, "Let's sing about movie stars!" [Laughs.]
So where would The Druds fit, genre-wise?
I would say something like folk pop.
So they're like the Fairport Convention of Midtown?
Yeah, kind of like that. They did a song called "The Coca-Cola Song." It seemed like most of the stuff was just made up. It's all improvised lyrics, spur of the moment, just having a good time. But they were a band. [Laughs]
That's very cool.
It is. It's amazing.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)
Detail of Self-Portrait, 1962
Polaroid™ Type 47
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.