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The Andy Warhol Diaries & A Space Age Love Song

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Posthumously published at the tail end of the 1980s, The Andy Warhol Diaries has just been adapted into a six-part TV docuseries by Netflix.

Directed by Andrew Rossi, it’s been picking up some rave reviews, Ireland’s Sunday Independent touting it as ‘a brilliant and penetrating portrait of a genius whose influence is still felt and who predicted so much of modern life’, while for Edge Media Network it was ‘a monumental event’.

I wouldn’t go that far. A big problem with it is that Warhol didn’t start on his diaries until November 1976, by which point he was extolling ‘Business Art’ rather than Pop Art. ‘Being good at business is the best art,’ he claimed. Whether or not he was being serious is hard to tell but as his aphorisms go, this was maybe the dumbest.

In the 1960s, Pop Art Andy was shooting esoteric underground movies with titles like Blow Job and promoting The Velvet Underground, while surrounded by drag queens, speed freaks and mad, bad and dangerous to know hangers-on and hustlers. In the 1970s and 1980s, Business Art Andy was making MTV friendly videos for The Cars and Curiosity Killed The Cat, and if any art collector fancied a portrait, then he was more than happy to immortalise their mugs on canvas, as long as the price was right. He even agreed to appear on The Love Boat and delivered the kind of performance that would have made Tommy Wisseau blush.

You can’t blame him for dropping most of his mid-’60s entourage. After being shot by the maddest, baddest and definitely most dangerous to know of his hangers-on, Valerie Solanas, things were never going to be the same again.

Andy is seen here publicly denying that the incident changed his life, but you’d have to be truly gullible to believe him. Wildly insecure, Warhol saw himself as ugly and a freak, and the heavy scarring and puncture marks on his torso must have horrified him. And served as a daily reminder of the downside of his days walking on the wild side.

Jed Johnson, a much younger man who Paul Morrissey had hired to work at the Factory due to his striking good looks, became Warhol’s live-in carer as he recovered and the pair became involved romantically even though Andy still liked to pretend to the world that he was asexual in line with his public ‘I want to be a machine’ persona.

Shy but a social butterfly, he was drawn to the sex, drugs, and disco world of Studio 54. Jed judged that he was wasting his time there with ‘the most ridiculous people’ and during this time, the older man comes across as more voyeuristic than visionary.

The two grew apart and Jed eventually dumped him. Not one to heed the commonplace advice that going on the rebound is never going to mend a broken heart, Andy immediately decided to woo Jon Gould, a preppy New Englander who worked as a bigwig exec at Paramount. Like Jed he was a twin with a twin brother called Jay. The odds on that? Pretty damned high I would guess.

Episode two ends with archive footage from New York’s 1981 Hogmanay bash, this celebration and the end credits soundtracked in a completely on the nose fashion by a synthpop/guitar track that, as my toes tapped, I soon identified as A Flock of Seagulls, a band most famous nowadays for being namechecked by Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in Pulp Fiction and for the utter ridiculousness of the singer’s hairstyle.

For a brief period, the Liverpool band must have been credible enough. They’d hoped to pick up a deal with local independent Zoo Records but instead, former Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Bill Nelson released their debut 45 on his own Cocteau label, producing it into bargain. He also took John Peel along to see them play in a Yorkshire boozer and the DJ was impressed enough to offer them a session on his show.

Nowadays, some even consider them the least cool band of the 1980s (which would be a real feat given that Kajagoogoo, Level 42 and The Thompson Twins were all on the go at the time). In his book Mad World, Jonathan Bernstein put the boot in: ‘In my U.K. homeland, they were seen as a joke act, like a band formed by a bunch of oafish characters in a British soap opera.’ This, their fifth single, is about as ’80s as a rah-rah skirted Molly Ringwald attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube, a bunch of bangles dangling against her Swatch watch as she does so. Space Age Love Song is also a delicious slice of sincere and optimistic pop. Paul Reynold’s nimble guitar work is dazzling and you’ve got to love those synthy laser gunshot whooshes which accompany the whole song.

Released in Britain forty years ago come May, here it is:

More on The Andy Warhol Diaries soon.

Fab 5 Freddie Told Me Everybody’s Fly

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Jean-Michel Basquiat - Two Heads

Over the weekend I’ll be spending some time in London where one highlight of the trip should be the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real at the Barbican.

Back in the 1980s I remember reading a copy of Art Monthly magazine, the cover reproducing a painting by Hans Haacke titled Taking Stock that acted as a conceptual critique of the involvement of Saatchi and Saatchi in the international art world, the Saatchis at the time being the favoured PR company of the Tory Party. This was Haacke’s favoured modus operandi, investigating the links between the art world and capitalist corporations. A key to the work was necessary to understand it fully.

The artist might be making valid points but I doubt that Taking Stock changed the opinion of a single person who viewed it and could Haacke not just have written an essay on the subject instead?

Much more satisfying was an article focussing on New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a self-taught painter still only in his early 20s, who’d started out as a graffiti artist, using the tag Samo on the streets of SoHo and the East Village. Fiercely creative, his improvisatory work was bold and vividly coloured. It engaged the eye and mind rigorously with a mixture of hieroglyphics, tribal art, bits of mysterious text and logos while referencing a diverse range of sources such as Gray’s Anatomy and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Hollywood Africans (1983)

For me, the NYC of this era conjures up images of scuzzy lo-fi movies like Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens; early rap, no wave and punk funk; and graffiti art by the likes of Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A member of the Brooklyn based graffiti collective the Fabulous 5, Freddy also rapped while Jean-Michel co-founded his own ‘noise’ band Gray. Both became regular guests on Glen O’Brien’s live cable show TV Party where they would meet many other talented young artists from varying fields and make connections.

The city had transformed itself into a cultural melting pot where ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, uptown and downtown increasingly collided. The burgeoning graffiti scene was moving from subway train to art gallery, just as other underground movements manoeuvred themselves overground.

Fab 5 Freddy's SoupCans

Early in 1981, Jean-Michel and Freddy took part in the New York/New Wave exhibition at PS. 1. Later dubbed ‘The Armory Show of the ’80s’, this mammoth show embraced art, music, fashion, photography and cartoons. A few months later Jean-Michel was shown at the seminal Beyond Words graffiti show at the Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan, an exhibition co-curated by Futura 2000 (who went on to colloborate with The Clash) and Fab 5 Freddy, the venue being a favoured hangout for a variety of artists from Robert Mapplethorpe to Madonna, Kathy Acker to Klaus Nomi.

Arguably the highpoint of all this artistic cross-pollination was Blondie’s American #1 single Rapture with Freddy and Jean-Michel both making cameo appearances in the promo – that’s Freddy in the background creating some graffiti while Jean-Michel is the DJ that Debbie Harry gets chatting to around the two-minute mark. He was actually standing in for Grandmaster Flash who couldn’t make the shoot.

And who was the first person to buy a Basquiat?

Debbie Harry, that’s who.

 
I have read a coupla eejits online writing off Rapture as another example of ‘whitey’ stealing black culture and dumbing down the content but, firstly, this fails to point out that this kind of thing was a two-way street. A number of hiphop related acts repeatedly sampled acts like Kraftwerk, Queen and The Incredible Bongo Band. Or, as another example, look at how Fab 5 Freddy¬†reappropriated Andy Warhol’s soup cans for a massive mural on a subway train.

As for dumbing down, well, Debbie’s rap certainly doesn’t take itself very seriously and could even be called spectacularly daft but in the days before the release of The Message, rap wasn’t exactly socially conscious and thought-provoking, the average track consisting mainly of egotistical boasting together with a few ‘throw your hands up in the air’ or ‘Lemme hear you say paaaaaarrrrrty’ chants and some overused sample (and if in doubt chuck in a little Good Times seemed to be the motto of many on the scene).

And finally some more NYC music from the era. This is Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force with Planet Rock, a track that sampled Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Numbers very imaginatively:


The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition continues in London until 28 Jan 2018. For more information click here.

If you fancy having a gander at the recent BBC documentary Basquiat – Rage to Riches head here. You have seventeen days left to view it if you pay your license or know your way round a good proxy site.

The three images used in this post are Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) & Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat, both from 1982, and Fab 5 Freddy’s Soup Cans of 1980.