13 Most Beautiful…

Once in a while, the gods of art smile on you, and a weekend’s monsoon rains hold up, and a friend’s busy schedule leads to your scoring a free ticket to a unique and amazing event.

No skyline backdrop for our show, unfortunately

No skyline backdrop for our show, unfortunately

The talented couple

The talented couple

So when I see that my buddy Bries has a free ticket to “13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” I jump at the chance (and at least buy him a beer for god’s sake, because he insisted he wanted no money. What a guy). I was intrigued when the show was first announced, since I’d seen snippets of the screen tests before. And the songs are by Dean and Britta, perhaps better known as the husband-and-wife team of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, formerly of Luna. They were a logical choice, since Wareham and his various bands have been channeling the Velvet Underground for years. I’d seen Luna at a local bar a few years ago and loved them. Only the price kept me away from “13 Most Beautiful,” but that’s when the art gods took human form and sent the ticket my way.

I don’t know if he realized it, but the guy gave up the best seat in the house. Six rows from the stage, dead center. Sweet. The show started with the test for Richard Rheems, with the music coming from a tape, an instrumental, electronica-sounding ditty with none of the VU sound. The band came out for the next clip, and as the show went on, there was plenty of the VU influence, though it sometimes felt too weighed toward the “Sunday Morning” style slow stuff and not the distortion-powered rockers I tend to favor (“hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown…” ).

There seemed to be patterns in both the clips and the music. Slower songs with words for the gals, instrumentals for the guys. On Warhol’s part, the women were usually filmed in direct light (the exception: Susan Bottomly, who is shown in quarter-face), while the men tended to be more obscured by shadows. The first half had just the actors, while most of the latter ones included props as well.

With the band and clips playing simultaneously, I had to fight my usual urge to study the musicians so I could take in the images. Seeing 13 of the tests in a row brought up questions that I’m sure a real Warhol geek would know. Like, how much did he direct his subjects, and how much was it just them doing what they wanted? Was he trying to create a persona, reinforce one, go against type? With Nico, the clip brought up all the ennui that streams out of her voice on the VU first album, and which makes me usually cringe when her songs come on (though it works to good effect on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”). Dennis Hopper seemed the most actorly, the most concerned with the emotions his expressions conveyed; it was actually a little irritating, until a smile snapped the mood and finally conjured something genuine. Or so it seemed. There were other well-known representatives of the Factory crowd: Edie Sedgwick, maybe a bit fidgety but otherwise not so memorable; Mary Woronov, looking somber. (I was a disappointed that both the program and Dean Wareham mentioned her turn in Rock and Roll High School but ignored the film I love her for – Eating Raoul). Then, of course, there was Lou, seemingly sneering behind his glasses and the Coke bottle he wielded as a distraction.

The tear

The tear

Two of the most striking tests were of women I didn’t know. Ann Buchanan was a dark-haired beauty then (at least she had the look that I like), and her eyes and hair sucked me in so much that I almost missed the single tear that slowly ran down her cheek and off her chin. (The tests were shot at normal speed then played back slower, making that trek seem like it lasted two minutes. The effect also made eye-blinks and throat bobs more deliberate, almost non-human; a great touch.) This test really made me wonder what was happening; Warhol manipulation, deliberate choice by the actor, or a spontaneous, restrained cry. In the end, I guess, it didn’t matter, since the impact was the same.

Finally, there was “Baby” Jane Holzer, who spent her whole test brushing her teeth. With the white paste around her lips and the brush’s in-and-out movements, I found myself thinking, “Holy shit, I’m getting hard watching some chick brush her teeth.” So, the power of the unwavering close-up is truly revealed.

And what to say about the music? For me, the best numbers were the instrumentals set to the guys’ tests. While still fairly slow-tempoed, the energy that smoldered just below the surface definitely invoked VU. There was a sense of building toward something, an unleashing of power that just never quite came. But the restraint felt right, and Dean played with various pedals for some pleasing sonic effects, and they just worked. The band also covered two songs – Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” written for Nico, went with her test. I think I prefer  Bettie Serveet’s take on the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack. And for the Reed piece, Dean and Britta did an old VU song that  just recently turned up in the last year or so, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.” Now that song kicked some butt! (And definitely sounded better than this, but VU fans should check out the real thing.) But alas, it’s true, Lou is not a young man anymore. Me neither.

The final verdict – a great evening of art and music I felt fortunate to see. I was ready to get a scalped ticket for the second show. Don’t know if Dean and Britta won any new fans there if some folks didn’t already know them. I mean, the individual musicianship was not mind-blowing. But creating a VU-style sound and matching the music to the images; I think they did a great job. And Wareham is one of those musicians you just have to respect: Does his thing for 20-plus years, never wins great fame or big bucks, but just keeps doing what he loves. And makes some great music along the way. That other guy, though, the filmmaker, I just don’t see any blockbusters in him.

(Note: DVD should be available soon. Here’s a tease. Seeing the images writ small will be a drag, but worth it anyway. Highly recommended for Warhol and Wareham fans alike.)

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~ by mburgan on March 9, 2009.

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