Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
According to warholstars.org, a number of rarely screened Andy Warhol films are making the college circuit, playing at the University of Chicago and Harvard. In addition, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago plans to show Outer and Innerspace, Restaurant, Eat, parts of Kiss, various Screen Tests, as well as Couch. (Details on the Museum of Contemporary Art web site.) In January 2006, I was fortunate enough to see several screen tests (Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Baby Jane Holzer, among others) at the Corcoran Museum in Washington DC. Coincidentally, the Mad Motherfucker Issue of Fuck You Magazine (No. 5 Issue 8) with the notorious Warhol black and white cover from Couch turned up on eBay. Not surprisingly, bidding was fast and furious for this legendary rarity. I was unable to obtain the magazine in that auction, but as fate would have it, another copy came my way a few weeks later. Patience is a key to book collecting.
Couch is a silent black and white film from July 1964 ranging from 40 to 54 minutes. The cast of the film reads like a who’s who of the New York underground. Stars include Billy Linich (Billy Name), Taylor Mead, Baby Jane Holzer, Gerard Malanga, Ivy Nicholson and Ondine. By all accounts, Couch is one of Warhol’s most directly pornographic, yet it is also repetitious and boring. Warhol utilized a stationary camera to film various individuals on a couch in some form of intimacy, be it kissing, hugging, oral sex, or intense conversation. The real star of the movie is the couch. Billy Name, the man responsible for the silver interior of the Factory, found the red couch on 47th Street. Throughout the mid-1960’s, the couch popped up in photographs and films, like Blowjob, becoming a symbol of the Factory years. The theft of the couch in 1968 marked the symbolic end of the Factory Era, as the shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanas did in actuality.
While the film appears to be simply pornographic, Couch possesses several layers of allusions as well as some arresting images that give the film added intellectual weight. Most obviously, the couch alludes to the casting couch of Hollywood as well as the analyst’s couch. The most shocking image was the one that graces the cover of the Mad Motherfucker Issue. Warhol challenges contemporary taboos by depicting an interracial ménage Ã trois featuring Gerard Malanga, Rufus Collins and Kate Heliczer. This image dovetailed perfectly with Fuck You Magazine‘s “Total Assault on the Culture.” In Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960’s, Reva Wolf shows how Ed Sanders’ editorial comments on Gerard Malanga reveal the sexual and literary politics of the New York underground. I can not recommend Reva Wolf’s book enough for its wealth of information on not only Warhol, but also on the mimeo scene in New York during the 1960’s.
I also find the Couch cover fascinating because of the film’s direct link to the Beat Generation. Couch stars Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg. As Reva Wolf shows, Warhol clearly refers to the Beats’ role in the history of underground film through the making of Pull My Daisy in 1959. Wolf also has an interesting reading of the use of tape recorders in the process of literary production in the work of Kerouac (Visions of Cody) and Warhol (a). Wolf devotes an entire chapter to the influence of the Beat writers on Warhol. The Beat presence in the Factory is not merely preserved on film. The CD Gerard Malanga Up from the Archives available on Sub Rosa contains a track that records the conversation between Warhol, Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg during the filming of Couch. The CD also contains a conversation between Malanga and William Burroughs on dreams recorded in 1974.
The image of Kerouac on a couch in the Factory makes my mind flash to Kerouac’s other legendary encounter with a counterculture figure that occurred in New York City in 1964. In November, Kerouac saw Neal Cassady for the last time. Cassady accompanied Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country trip to New York City in the infamous Day-Glo bus. Kesey was eager to meet Kerouac as Kerouac was a major influence. Kerouac met Kesey in an apartment on Park Avenue. In preparation, the Merry Pranksters spread an American flag on a couch or draped the flag over Kerouac as he sat on a couch. Accounts vary. In any case, the treatment of the flag offended Kerouac who carefully took the flag and folded it with respect. All goodwill between Kerouac and Kesey was doomed. The incident nicely captures Kerouac’s distrust of the hippie and psychedelic movements he engendered. Kerouac distrusted the easy answers of Flower Power. Commenting on LSD, Kerouac warned that walking on water was not performed in a day. In addition, Kerouac’s conservatism and patriotism become readily apparent.
Needless to say, the Couch cover generates a multitude of interesting associations. The contents of The Mad Motherfucker Issue provide much more food for thought. The Mad Motherfucker Issue celebrated the third anniversary of Fuck You Magazine. It would be the second to last issue. The entire issue provides a suitable jumping off point for delving into many of the major issues of the 1960’s. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were staples of Fuck You Magazine, but gender, politics, censorship, free speech and press, peace, and race also come to mind. The issue was “dedicated also to all those who have been depressed, butchered, or hung up by all these family unit Nazis, fascists, war-freaks, department of license creeps, fuzz, jansenists, draft boards, parole boards, judges, academic idiots, & tubthumpers for the Totalitarian Cancer.” The magazine also featured W.H. Auden’s openly homoerotic and much whispered about Platonic Blow, as well as an announcement of the formation of The Fugs. In All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960’s, Daniel Kane provides plenty of great information on Fuck You Magazine and the New York mimeo scene. Again I highly recommend this book. It comes with a wonderful spoken word CD.
Also see Jed’s archive of Fuck You Press publications.