Andy Warhol’s Beautiful, Strange, Unseen Films

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There is a story in Louis Sachar’s zany children’s book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, where the semi-magical teacher Mrs. Jewls whips up a batch of ice cream for her students. Each flavor tastes like whatever the student tastes when they aren’t eating anything, just the neutral taste always in their mouths. So the students who taste their own flavor think it tastes like nothing, but everyone else who tastes it thinks that it’s interesting and delicious.

That story popped to mind while watching Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol at BAM, a program that paired musicians with rare, silent clips from the pop art wizard. Watching a silent film, you naturally craft your own kind of soundtrack to the movie: What the movie would sound like, if it had sound. The brilliance of Exposed is that it meant hearing the ditties that played in the heads of musicians as they watched the clips.

And not just any musicians: The event, curated by Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham, included performances from Tom Verlaine of Television, Suicide’s Martin Rev, The Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger, and Bradford Cox of The Atlas Sound. Each of them had a different approach to what should accompany Warhol’s work. Tom Verlaine sat tucked quietly in a corner and played plaintive, haunting guitar tunes to three short movies, including one of Warhol’s then-boyfriend John Giorno patiently doing dishes in the nude. In another Lesbian Nation author Jill Johnston dances with a rifle on the day that John F. Kennedy was buried. Verlaine’s soundtrack added a wistful note to the clips; his songs were clearly designed to complement the action on screen, not distract from it.

Not so with Martin Rev, the madman of electronic punk, who sauntered onto stage in leather pants and the kind of viso Levar Burton sported on Star Trek. As the short films of his set played above him, including one black-and-white movie showing Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac  horsing around at the Factory, Rev played explosive, jarring bits of no-wave electroclash. It was hard to remember to watch the Warhol films above him as Rev faced the audience, alternately caressing and pummeling the keyboard with a closed fist as he droned into the microphone. But those theatrics also seemed loving and appropriate, the kind of performance that Warhol would applaud.

Both Wareham, who played with his wife Britta Phillips, and Friedberger, who played with a backing band, went for more straight-ahead rock songs. Friedberger plumbed various pieces of Warhol-era text for the lyrics to her songs, including a New York Times article about Warhol muse Marisol Escobar. Her songs were probably the ones that would function best even without a Warhol film nearby. The closer was Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, whose bubbly, glitchy music added another layer to the films. In his set was one of my favorite clips from the whole Warhol performance, a perfectly campy excerpt of two men, one in full drag and white gloves, sensually eating a hamburger together. Cox’s soundtracking was spot on: It allowed the short to breathe and be ridiculous, added to its humor.

Wareham opened the show with one of Warhol’s famous pearls of wisdom: “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” But what Exposed proves is exactly the opposite of that statement. Pictures change depending on who is seeing them. And for a couple nights at BAM, you can share, briefly, an array of ways to look and listen to Warhol.

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