Now You’re Older, Silver Girl

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Dean & Britta
13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests
RISD
October 3, 2009

A Walk into the Sea
Esther Robinson, director
T. Griffin, composer
2008

Unspooling in slow motion, Andy Warhol’s screen tests exert a strange kind of hypnotic allure.

Documenting the Factory superstars, as well as the hangers-on, artists, writers, musicians and infamous acquaintances that were pulled into Warhol’s orbit, the films collectively stand as a poignant elegy to the lost innocence of the 60s.

Made between 1964 and 1966, roughly 500 exist. Filmed with Warhol’s 16mm Bolex, each film runs two minutes, the length of a single reel. Slowed down to four minutes, every blink, sly smile and hand gesture takes on a curious gravity.

A single tear tracks agonizingly slowly down Ann Buchanan’s cheek, then hangs, suspended, like a jewel.

Lou Reed, looking very Street Hustler behind enormous shades, swigs aggressively from a Coca Cola.

Square-jawed, blond Paul America evades the camera’s gaze until he finally cracks up, smiling broadly.

Doomed Freddy Herko —the Judson dancer who sailed out an open window in 1966— looks anxious and drawn as he sullenly drags off a dwindling cigarette.

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In her memoir, Swimming Underground, Mary Woronov (one of the 13) cannily notes that Warhol’s screen tests are remarkable because “you would see the person fighting with his (or her) image —trying to protect it. …After that it slips and your real self starts to show through.”

Encapsulating that sense of self in flux must have posed a challenge to Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, the married duo who record as Dean & Britta. Looking to give the screen tests new life, the Andy Warhol Museum commissioned them to compose a soundtrack for a select group of 13.

(As principal songwriter for Galaxie 500 and Luna, Wareham’s music has effortlessly channeled a Velvet-y vibe for years. He must have seemed like a natural choice.)

The result, as it played out live last night before a packed house at RISD, was powerful —as sweet, funny, sad, desperate and ridiculous as the subjects themselves.

Mixing originals and covers, including Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (written for Nico) and a furious version of the recently unearthed Velvets gem “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore”, the score perfectly captured the hazy, narcotized momentum of the scene.

The instrumentals had the most frenzied energy. “Silver Factory” (for Billy Name) was shimmering and thunderous, like a wave cresting over and over. A Luna instrumental, “The Enabler” (re-titled “Herringbone Tweed”) fit Dennis Hopper’s test to a tee, its swaggering, low-end twang a perfect corollary to his glowering presence. (He breaks character halfway through, reverting from tough to goofball.)

The most languid, dreamy songs were paired with the most tragic figures, like the aforementioned Herko or poor, haunted Ingrid Superstar, who disappeared from her upstate NY home in 1987, leaving behind her false teeth and fur coat. And who could forget luminous Edie, who died of a drug overdose in 1971?

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Danny Williams was another Factory casualty. Warhol’s live-in boyfriend for a time, he worked as a film editor for the Maysles and designed the lighting for the Velvets’ Exploding Plastic Inevitable traveling show.

In 1966, after a grueling (and emotionally taxing) tour with the VU, Williams drove home to the Cape to see his family. Late one evening he borrowed his mother’s car to go for a swim. He was never seen again.

Thirty-five years later, his niece Esther Robinson stumbled across a treasure trove of her uncle’s extraordinary black and white experimental films. Intrigued, she set out to solve the mystery of his disappearance. The result is the documentary A Walk into the Sea (2008).

Brooklyn musician T. Griffin composed the film’s soundtrack.

Working with collaborators Catherine McRae and Bruce Cawdron, the three set up in Williams’ old house, put microphones everywhere and let the sounds of the sea and surrounding woods lend their own haunting naturalness.

Of the process, Griffin writes, “I wasn’t dumb enough to try to sound like the Velvet Underground. But I knew they’d be hovering in the background somewhere, along with the Jaynettes and LaMonte Young.

“Esther was looking for music just at the edge of hearing, something that signaled the music swirling around NYC in 1966, but was impossible to place. Suggestive, not descriptive. We wanted music that sounded like a yellowed newspaper, like a rusty set of keys.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………13 Most Beautiful is on DVD from Plexifilm; you can buy it from the Dean & Britta store. A Walk into the Sea is available from Shiny Little Records. You can find the film at Amazon.

STILLS: ANN BUCHANAN, FREDDY HERKO, EDIE SEDGWICK [© THE ESTATE OF DANNY WILLIAMS]

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MP3Dean & Britta, “Herringbone Tweed” (Live) (from 13 Most Beautiful…, 2009)

MP3The Velvet Underground, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” (Live at the Gymnasium)

MP3T. Griffin, “In Silver” (from A Walk into the Sea, 2008)

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2 Comments

  1. rachele

    Hello.The photo on this page is that of Edie Sedgwick, not Ingrid Superstar. For some reason, that is a common mistake.It also shows up under Google as Ingrid Superstar, but that’s incorrect too. The woman shown is definitely Edie Sedgwick. I have a lot of Edie photos and copies of two of her long-ago-disappeared Warhol-produced movies.

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