Before becoming a Factory regular and appearing in a variety of Andy Warhol films, Taylor Mead was already a star of underground film after his appearance in The Flower Thief, a 1960 film by Ron Rice.
Andy Warhol circulated among the artists, poets, theater people, and gay crowds that populated Greenwich Village bars such as Lenny’s Hideaway, the San Remo, and the White Horse—which were central nodes in social networks that connected artists who worked in different mediums. Playwright Robert Heide first encountered Warhol around 1960 at a place named Aldo’s on Bleecker Street, a relatively upscale gay restaurant with white table cloths. “That’s where I met Andy,” Heide said, “but I didn’t really connect with Andy until a little later, though I would see Andy now and then in different situations.” In the late 1950s, Heide began coming to the Village from his parents’ house in New Jersey, hanging out in the Gaslight on MacDougal Street and other coffeehouses. Before it became known for hosting Bob Dylan performances in the early 1960s, the Gaslight was a haven for Beat writers. “One night there was Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Ted Joans, Taylor Mead—all these people,” he recalled. “So I was the middle of this crazy scene.” Heide permanently settled in Greenwich Village, and by 1965 he began working with Warhol on screenplays for some of his early films.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Before becoming a Factory regular, Taylor Mead was already a star of underground film after his appearance in The Flower Thief, a 1960 film by Ron Rice. The actor, activist, and scenester Jim Fouratt fondly remembered Mead as an early performance artist whose head-scratching routines could be seen in a variety of downtown venues. During one show, he sat on a swing while wearing red long johns attached to several Campbell’s soup cans. “He was doing this sort of burlesque,” Fouratt said, “throwing the cans to the ground, while swinging.” Taylor also read poems at the San Remo with lines like, “There’s a lesbian in the harbor that has been carrying a torch for someone for a hundred years” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. And let me blow them.” Mead was typical of the people who surrounded Warhol, because he was given an inheritance to keep him away from his hometown. The money gave Taylor the kind of privilege that Edie Sedgwick also enjoyed—that is, as Fouratt noted, “until Edie ran out of money, because Andy always made her pick up the check. And she always graciously picked up the check.” Money was a constant source of tension at the Factory, causing Mead and many others to eventually fall out with Warhol.
Andy Warhol’s dive into underground film commenced in early 1962 when he began attending screenings at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, then operating out of Jonas Mekas’s loft and the Charles Theater. Warhol was one of fifteen or so people sitting on the floor, though he and Mekas didn’t become acquainted until 1963. “That’s where Andy Warhol began watching films and got the urge to make movies himself,” Mekas recalled. “He was at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative watching films and meeting his early stars: Mario Montez, Beverly Grant, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead. He met them at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that’s when he decided to make a film.” Warhol was inspired to make movies after seeing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which precipitated his shift away from visual art. In 1963, he bought a Bolex 16-mm camera with a newly introduced motor that made shooting simpler—one of the ways that new technologies shaped the development of the downtown’s DIY scenes. (The massive amount of cheap 16-mm film stock left over from World War II also gave underground filmmakers access to this medium.)
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The first three years of the Play-House’s existence were turbulent, and the itinerant company bounced from location to location until finding a home at La MaMa in 1968. There was also quite a bit of turnover, beginning with the departure of Ronald Tavel. He balked when John Vaccaro wanted to cut out two-thirds of the seventy-page script for his camp masterpiece Gorilla Queen, so the playwright took it to Judson Church and left the Play-House of the Ridiculous for good. Vaccaro then directed Big Hotel by newcomer Charles Ludlam, who also quit, taking most of the cast with him to form his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “Conquest of the Universe was the one Charles wrote, and then he left,” Vaccaro explained. “So I got all these people from Warhol—like Taylor Mead, Ondine, Mary Woronov, and Rene Ricard—to do the show at the Bouwerie Lane Theater.” Vaccaro’s press release described Conquest as a “paramoral” science fiction story where Adolf Hitler’s writings mixed with old movie scripts and dialogue from television shows: “The dour pornography of the daily Vietnam reports is here met by the screaming pornography of the truth.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn weren’t clinically insane or homicidal, but they still contributed to the Factory’s edgy atmosphere. It was fueled by heavy drug use and hard living, which Warhol mined as grist for his movies Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Women in Revolt (1972), which featured this trashy trio. “He took advantage of them, and I didn’t really like that at all,” said Curtis’s friend Melba LaRose. “I always found Andy very cold, and with not much to say. And of course the people around him said all these witty things and then he’d get credit for it. Jackie and Candy were always very witty.” Their exhibitionism, which made for compelling cinema and great PR, stood in contrast to Warhol’s wordless, blank persona. “Jackie, Holly, and Candy had problems with Warhol because he didn’t really pay them,” said another friend, Bruce Eyster. Warhol did give them token money, but they still ended up marching over from Max’s Kansas City to the Factory to scream and beg for more money—something that underscored a genuine divide between Warhol and some of those he mixed with. Even though many vied to be in his social world, Warhol wasn’t revered or respected in the same way as Jack Smith, Harry Koutoukas, and other struggling downtown artists who prioritized art over money. “You wondered if some of the entourage people—Billy Name, Taylor Mead, and so forth—would jump out the window,” Robert Heide added. “They’d go back to their shabby little rooms because there was this double standard going on. I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons I think Andy got shot.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis wrote the underground hit Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. “La MaMa to me was an acknowledgment that we kind of made it,” recalled Tony Zanetta. “It was very respectable. So if Jackie Curtis did Vain Victory there, it was taken seriously, even though it was a total mess.” The show featured Curtis alongside a star-studded downtown cast that included Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, and Agosto Machado, among many others. Vain Victory was Machado’s first Off-Off-Broadway show, even though he had been hanging around the scene throughout the 1960s. “It never occurred to me that I would cross the footlights, but with the encouragement of Jackie Curtis I suddenly was on the other side, and people were so welcoming,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, because I don’t sing, dance, or act—and yet it was like, ‘Be part of our show!’ ” Eric Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps played Vain Victory’s backing music, and the glitter-slathered frontman had his own solo number as a naked cowboy, wearing little more than chaps. “There was glitter all over his pubic hair and what have you,” Machado said. “He was not self-conscious about nudity because he had done that in Warhol films.” Darling performed as a wheelchair-bound mermaid who was sad about having a tail but no legs (Woodlawn took that role after Darling left Vain Victory, accidentally rolling over the edge of the stage and into the audience during her first night as the mermaid).
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, many downtown artists were taken by video—including playwright Harry Koutoukas, who turned 87 Christopher Street’s fire escapes into a staging area captured by Global Village’s trusty Portapaks. For Suicide Notations, Koutoukas conscripted his neighbor Lisa Jane Persky in her New York debut as an actress. If Off-Off-Broadway opened its doors to nonprofessionals, Suicide Notations was more like Off-Off-Off-Broadway. Persky’s mother let Koutoukas use the fire escape on the front of her apartment for the actors to shout their lines, and other scenes took place on her neighbor James Hall’s fire escape directly above them. Persky played the Girl in Gown—wearing her own exotic long yellow dress with red moons and stars—and Hall was the Sleepwalking Poet. Koutoukas stole the show as Louis XIV, wearing a crown and a gaudy silk bathrobe, complemented with feathers, beads, and glitter. “I didn’t think about Suicide Notations as being in a play,” Persky said. “It was just an off-the-cuff kind of thing—like a Happening, really. We had a dress rehearsal, which was a performance for the street, because we knew we were going to shoot it on video.” It was taped by Rudi Stern, who cofounded Global Village and had previously produced light shows for LSD guru Timothy Leary. When Stern shot it at night, he lit up the fire escapes on all six floors and ran the master switchboard in Persky’s apartment. “My friend on the street,” Hall recalled, “he threw his crutches in front of a bus to stop the bus so we could shoot a scene.” Taylor Mead, Ronald Tavel, and Jackie Curtis were also cast for the video production (though Curtis ended up being a no-show).
From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore