- Warhol’s 1960s’ Films, Amphetamine, and Queer Materiality
Critics and historians have traditionally made too little of Warhol’s insistence, throughout his 1960s’ memoirs, that “[t]he big social thrust behind the Factory from ‘64 to ‘67 was amphetamine,”1 and that much that went on at the Factory, artistically or otherwise, had some connection with the drug. For example, why did Warhol’s assistant Billy Name line the Factory in silver? Silver was modern and connoted the space age and the classic Hollywood silver screen, muses Warhol, but in the end it must have been also “an amphetamine thing—everything always went back to that” (P, 65). Amphetamine certainly fueled the energy and creativity of the two main groups that peopled the mid-1960s’ Factory—the “fags on speed” who gathered at the San Remo, a [Greenwich] Village coffee shop, and the college-educated Harvard/Cambridge set (P, 64). The former were peripherally involved in the creative ferment of downtown New York: in experimental poetry, dance, performance, and off-off-Broadway theater. The latter were bright scions of upper-class and upper-middle-class families who became enmeshed in the life of the Factory between early 1965 and late 1966. Both groups left behind an ephemeral, largely performative body of work consisting in amphetamine-driven patter and comedic routines, “trip books,”2 environments (the silver Factory itself), and lighting designs. It was art in a minor mode, made without any thought of solidity or permanence, to be consumed on the run and, at best, live on in memory. And this would have been its fate if it had not been for Warhol’s films and recordings, which have, in this regard, an important documentary function. If Warhol lent these unconventional artists visibility, they in turn may have confirmed him in the possibilities of creativity under speed, which he had been exploring on his own before he enlisted them into his projects and his world.
The main San Remo “fags on speed” were Billy Linich (later, Billy Name), Ondine, and Fred Herko.3 Linich had lit some Judson Church [End Page 623] dance shows and collaborated with Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones’s mimeographed art review The Floating Bear. He was Warhol’s sometime boyfriend and long-term assistant, and a fundamental shaper of the look and atmosphere of the silver Factory on West 47th Street near the United Nations. Another of the San Remo personalities was Ondine (nickname of Robert Olivo), a street wit and hanger-on who wrote the column “Ondine’s Advice to the Shopworn” for The Sinking Bear—the parodic reply to The Floating Bear. Ondine became one of the central performers in the middecade Factory films, had a brief theatrical career in the late 1960s, acting in plays by John Vaccaro (Conquest of the Universe, 1967), Ronald Tavel (Vinyl, first produced as a Factory film, 1965), and Soren Agenoux (Chas. Dickens’ Christmas Carol, 1966).4 For his part, Herko was a prodigious, if ephemeral, talent in Judson Church dance. He quit his piano studies at Juilliard to enter the American Ballet Theater school at the comparatively late age of nineteen and became shortly afterward a choreographer and dancer in the downtown scene until his speed use started to erode his abilities. A close friend of Linich, with whom he shared an apartment for a while, Herko made a Warhol screen test and appears in Kiss (1963–64), in two versions of Haircut (1963), in the unpreserved Jill and Freddy Dancing (1963), and in Dance Movie (aka Rollerskate, 1963), which showed him skating through different areas of New York City while striking dance positions.5
Linked to them by drugs and friendship rather than artistic leanings were Rotten Rita (Kenneth Knapp), the Duchess (Brigid Berlin), and Binghamton Birdie. Rita appears throughout Warhol’s a: a novel (1968), essentially a transcript of twenty-four hours of speed-driven conversations recorded on magnetic tape over a two-year period, and Binghamton Birdie is fleetingly seen in Couch (1964) and cast in a screen test, but neither he nor Rita were an integral part of the Factory world. Berlin, however, furnished one of...