Jack Smith’s friend Tony Conrad helped create the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures and performed in La Monte Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music with Billy Name and John Cale before performing in an early version of the Velvet Underground.
“Jack was a pure genius,” said Jack Smith’s friend Agosto Machado, “a visionary artist who had the strength and determination to carry out his vision with almost no money. Jack talked about going to the Middle East to shoot, but since he couldn’t afford to, he created that location in tenements or various places where he could create an illusion of that faraway place. You were in another dimension when you were with him because he didn’t have a storyboard. He’d just set up and say, like, ‘Oh, you’re walking through the swamp, and there’s a mysterious creature that’s going to do this, that, and the other.’ ” At first Tony Conrad didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he helped Smith set up one Saturday to film Flaming Creatures on the roof of the defunct Windsor Theater, a tiny movie house on the Lower East Side. It took three hours for everyone to apply makeup and costumes, all while the drug intake spiked. Something very weird is going on here, Conrad thought as he and others began cross-dressing. Geez. If my friends like La Monte could see me now, I would be so embarrassed, because this is like the weirdest shit. “Jack also shot some of the scenes in Prospect Park, which wasn’t as peopled or cleaned up during those years,” Machado said. “You could walk through sections of slummy areas and do a shoot, if you just minded your own business and you did your thing.” Playwright Ronald Tavel, who went on to write scenarios for Andy Warhol’s mid-1960s films, also worked on Flaming Creatures—dropping bits of plaster from a ladder onto the actors during the earthquake scene, among other tasks.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol’s early cinematic experiments in time, such as Sleep and Empire, were also explored in the music of minimalist composer La Monte Young, who moved to the city in 1960 and became involved in Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street Loft Series and the Fluxus art movement. Just as Warhol and other 1960s underground filmmakers expanded the temporal possibilities of film, Young and his collaborators did the same with music and sound—stretching out notes for hours at a time, creating elongated drones. Warhol, Young, and Jack Smith were at the center of a swirling vortex of collaborative activity that touched many areas of downtown life and art. The Flaming Creatures soundtrack, for instance, was assembled by Tony Conrad, who performed in Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside Factory custodian Billy Name and future Velvet Underground member John Cale. Warhol also commissioned Young to produce droning sounds to accompany his silent films when they were screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival, and he worked with Jack Smith on several other projects.
While Lou Reed dabbled in experimental music in college, John Cale had an extensive background in that world. Born in South Wales, he received an undergraduate degree in classical music and absorbed the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1963, Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, but he quickly fell out with composer Aaron Copland, who had helped Cale secure the scholarship. “Copland said I couldn’t play my work at Tanglewood,” he recalled. “It was too destructive, he said. He didn’t want his piano wrecked.” Cale then moved to New York and dove straight into the city’s avant-garde scene, participating in an eighteen-hour performance organized by John Cage soon after arriving. Once settled there, Cale began playing with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble, which also included Factory custodian Billy Name and Tony Conrad (the friend of Jack Smith who compiled the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures).
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When John Cale moved to New York City, Lou Reed was working his nine-to-five job at Pickwick Records writing knockoff pop songs to be sold at department stores. When asked if he felt any cognitive dissonance writing the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” by night while holding down a day job crafting commercial fare, Reed pointed out that Warhol also supported his unorthodox art with paid commercial work. “So I didn’t see that as schizophrenic at all,” he said. “I just had a job as a songwriter. I mean, a real hack job. They’d come in with a subject, and we’d write. Which I still kind of like to this day.” Not long after Cale moved into Tony Conrad’s Lower East Side apartment at 56 Ludlow Street, the two artists met Reed after he recorded a garage-rock novelty single, “The Ostrich,” under the name the Primitives. This dance song contained a one-note burst of guitar noise that anticipated the Velvet Underground’s minimalist approach (“That’s rock ’n’ roll,” Reed said of that musical moment, “keep it simple”). Pickwick quickly moved to assemble a live band that could promote this potential hit in early 1965 and, because Cale and Conrad had long hair, they were buttonholed at a party by two sleazy company men from the record label. Cale, Conrad, and their Theatre of Eternal Music collaborator Angus MacLise took a leap of faith and formed a pickup band with Reed for a short promotional tour, which included appearances at a supermarket, high school, and local television dance show. The Primitives padded their short sets with inflammatory soon-to-be-Velvet Underground classics like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin,” which went over poorly.
After “The Ostrich” fizzled on the charts, the four musicians in the Primitives formed the Warlocks. (This name was also being used by a San Francisco band who, upon hearing about the existence of this New York group, renamed themselves the Grateful Dead.) Lou Reed’s group, which now included his college friend Sterling Morrison on guitar, changed their name after Tony Conrad stumbled across a sensationalistic paperback book about S&M titled The Velvet Underground. “We thought it was a good name,” said Morrison, “because it had underground in it and [because we] were playing for underground films, we considered ourselves part of the underground film community. We had no real connection to rock and roll as far as we were concerned.” After Conrad left the group, the classic Velvet Underground lineup was rounded out by drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who replaced MacLise after he quit. Reed was a friend of Maureen’s brother, Jim Tucker, and they cofounded a mimeo poetry zine, Lonely Woman Quarterly, while the two attended Syracuse University.
For the Play-House of the Ridiculous crowd, Max’s Kansas City was a second home. “We’d hang out in the back room,” John Vaccaro said. “It was fabulous just being back there because not just anybody was allowed back there, and it was fabulous back in the days of LSD. Everybody was taking acid.” He staged the show Monkeys of the Organ Grinder in Max’s upstairs room, as well as The Moke Eater (Jack Smith was a collaborator and early Velvets member Tony Conrad provided taped sounds for the latter show). Although the Vaccaro and Warhol people sometimes overlapped, the director had little time for the famous artist. “Warhol was in one corner,” Vaccaro said, “and I had my group in the other corner. My friends stayed with me and Andy had his group. Andy and I knew each other, but I didn’t take him very seriously, because, well . . . [makes yawning sound].” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Andy and John didn’t get along, or, at least, John didn’t get along with Andy, even though they had common immigrant backgrounds. When John came to New York, it was about the Cedar Tavern—where the Abstract Expressionists were—who were a bunch of macho guys who thought Andy Warhol was a little fairy illustrator. Which he was. Basically, I think John didn’t like Andy because he was fruity, and he was a very successful illustrator. So number one, that wasn’t real art. Second, he had money. Third, Andy was very calculating.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore