Saturday, February 03, 2007

David Dalton, Edie Factory Girl


Before there was the bohemian style of Kate Moss and Sienna Miller, there was Edie Sedgwick. A beautiful girl born into a wealthy but cursed family, Edie was a free spirit who loved to party. Like a fairy, she would flutter about here and there and dance and spin and be charming and pretty. She was a muse to famous artist Andy Warhol, who was both an icon and an enigma.

I am so intrigued with the 1960’s and the music, art and fashion and of that era. I found Edie Factory Girl interesting and entertaining, a peek into a time that is completely unlike what I have experienced in my life. David Dalton provides the words and Nat Finkelstein provides the photographs and together the book is brilliant.

There is picture after picture, showing us inside the place known as The Factory, where Andy Warhol created strange movies, where people got together to hang out and party and do whatever the hell they pleased. Edie was the center of it all, an untamed girl with a wild streak, up for anything including drugs which would ultimately be her downfall.

David Dalton was at The Factory as a young man, working beside Andy. You must know that David is a most accomplished writer and he lived what he wrote which makes the best kind of writer. If you are like me with a hunger for learning about other time periods (especially the 50's and 60's) and artists then you need to read this book.

David has so kindly taken the time to answer my questions and the result is a fascinating look at what he has experienced firsthand. It makes me want to tell him to hurry up and get his memoir written!


David, what were you—a young boy of what, 17 years old?—doing hanging around the Factory?

Actually, there was no Factory yet. My sister Sarah and I first met Andy Warhol at a commercial artist’s hipster Christmas party in 1961. In those days Andy worked in his house at 1342 Lexington Ave. The entranceway was like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel: pinball machines, wooden cigar-store Indians, soda pop signs. His crazy, martyr-obsessed mother lived in the basement—there was a bit of a Psycho vibe to this arrangement. A small woman clutching a bottle of vodka shouting in Czech about the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. On the ground floor in the front Andy did his commercial art: drawings of shoes and little rubber stamps with folksy flowers and butterflies. He made whimsical books of drawings like Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother (she actually did do the lettering).

In the back room—a library with no books, just movie star fan magazines—Andy was working on what was the beginning of Pop art paintings, such as a painting of Dick Tracy and a before-and-after nose-job painting of a woman from a newspaper ad. Sarah and I were two little English boarding school Existencialistas in quest of rock ’n’ roll, gangsters, all-night diners and the flash & thrum of subterranean New York. In Andy, we found our magus. He was like an alien from the future who looked at everything with x-ray specs, and we became his first assistants. Actually, my sister introduced Andy to the photographic silk-screen process (she was studying to be a fashion designer), and at 14 years old edited his first real movie, Sleep.

For the people unfamiliar with the Factory, what words would you use to describe the scene as you walked through the door?

Andy moved into the Factory, a commercial loft on East 47th Street in 1964. By then, I was more like 20. By this time Andy had become famous for the soup can paintings and Brillo boxes, and had morphed from the shy, sweet character we knew into the quasi sinister Rain-Man-in-shades who only spoke in superlatives: “Wow! Oh, that’s fab-u-lous.”

The requirements for admission to the Factory club of deviants and drugs addicts—I’m still in touch with the little monsters—was that you had to be gay and shoot speed. That seemed a little steep, and by then my sister and I were in college. We still came by the Factory often, though, to see Andy, and in late 1964 I started work on a book about Andy with Brit photographer David McCabe. It finally came out a few years ago, called A Day in the Life of Andy Warhol.

The scene was very bizarre. It was sort of a cross between a railway station where everybody was shooting meth, an art studio, and a sort of underground movie factory. In fact, the Factory was the first downtown Club of Immaculate Hipness. There were all these sort of, avant-garde tourists, voyeurs of the lower depths, German art collectors, graduate students, journalists, socialites and the odd princess (like Lee Radziwell). Anybody could come and go as they pleased. Rock ’n’ roll or opera blared from the speakers. Chuck Wein and Edie would be dancing acrobatically. Someone would be making a movie of a horse shitting as you came into the Factory from the elevator.

It was Felliniesque in a grungy sort of way. There were several couches, people sitting around. Very funky, nothing like the chic, together-looking place in the movie Factory Girl. In a certain way the Factory looked like Berlin after the war, where people have scrounged all the furniture off the street. I mean, nobody had actually gone out and bought anything. It was as campy as possible. One of those mirrored disco balls sat on the floor and the whole place was either painted in silver paint or covered in tinfoil—which gave the Factory a deliberately tacky effect. Billy Name was the skinny speed-freak-in-residence. People have said he lived in the silver toilet, but that was just where he had his darkroom. He actually lived behind some sheets of 4x8 plywood.

I love the ’60s, it was such a time of change, going from the wholesome 1950s into a drastically new decade. What was the vibe of that era as you remember it?

Well, I think the sixties were actually far more wholesome than the fifties! The fifties were repressed, soviet, uptight and robotic. Everybody conformed to stereotypes. Men were guys in suits with crew cuts, women were big busty blondes. They were cold-war cartoons. Nobody, of course, would call Andy’s crew wholesome; they would have hated that. They were ostentatiously decadent, poseurs. But the truth of the matter is that these people look far more sinister in the photographs taken by Nat Finklestein, Billy Name, etc. than they actually were.

Photographs of skinny guys dressed in black and in the demonic spin-cycle of amphetamine made them look far more threatening and ominous than they really were. Billy, Gerard Malanga, Chuck Wein, Ondine, Danny Williams—a bunch of gay speed freaks who talked brilliantly, gossiping in a meta-language unintelligible to all but themselves. If anyone really wants to know what these people actually said, their short-circuit raps are all more or less there verbatim in Andy’s tape-recorded “novel” a.

How did being around all those bohemian, artsy, interesting, wild people shape the person that you were to become?

At the time I was a graphic designer, and then briefly I became a not-very-good photographer. What can I say? Basically any excuse to hang out with mind-zinging rappers, drug addicts, crazy people, aliens and rock stars who in those days often fulfilled the requirements. And then I discovered the W-O-R-D. Jann Wenner, said he needed some words to go with my photographs in Rolling Stone, and I said, “Oh, man, I can do that!” Hung up the phone and thought, Shit, now I’ve gotta write! I wanted to write synaptic prose and rabid rants. I’ve always thought that the speed-freak vibe was the best style for interpreting an incomprehensible reality (especially after psychedelic drugs). A multiphrenic approach to life, everything at once, a thousand thoughts and digressions, and you know that’s what really I try to aspire to as a writer, a sort of cubist prose.

Do you think Edie's destiny was predetermined by her family "curse"?

Well, I think she conceived of herself, her life trajectory as a sort of anti-matter particle to her monstrous ancestors, her fiendish father. I think Edie’s quest in life was to exorcize these demons from her family, a rabid Puritan virus that began in this deadly gothic New England family, her father being the chief Dracula of the family. In a way she was trying to outrun all this grotesque stuff, and hide in the future. She was going so fast she eventually ran into herself sometime in 1971. And in a certain way, she did time travel. People are using her style, in fashion, in ads, in movies, it’s contemporary—she’s our contemporary. We’ve finally caught up with her.

Could anyone have saved her?

Edie was someone who really didn’t want to be saved. To Edie being saved is what her puritanical ancestors supposedly were doing; you know, burning witches at the stake, while suppressing and perverting life. Salvation to her was Hell itself.

What was your own impression of Edie?

A sweet person. Despite all the speed and craziness, mental unbalance, disasters, Edie was always very sweet. Never bitchy. Or arrogant. Very adept socially, yet she never did anything she didn’t want to do. Edie had an innate courtesy, whether it came from her family or her own equilibrium. Even under extreme stress. She was like a fairy princess with big eyes on tip toe. You almost expected to see her fly off on big glassine wings.

Is there any celebrity today that comes close to having that special something that Edie possessed? And if she were a young woman in today's society what do you think she would be doing?

Well, craziness and self-destruction never goes out of style. As for the special something, that’s been going on since Cleopatra. Edie had no monopoly on any of these things. What’s interesting about her is that she was the quintessence of that silver moment in the sixties.

Now, of course, we see excess as pathological, as something to be treated, rather than as heroic. And everything is now hip. You have to go to strange mid-western towns to find a square person these days. Today, even outrageous people are focused. Partly because of her addiction, partly because of her demons, Edie was scattered, easily distracted; she went from one thing to another. She was a designer, a painter, a jeweler, a model, an actress, a writer, a mad shopper and scenester. She was also very smart and intellectual, but it all went up in pipe dreams. Her legacy unfortunately is to have created a whole breed of people who are famous for being famous. That’s why it’s really terrible that someone like Paris Hilton became her legacy.

You must tell me about Andy Warhol. Before reading your fascinating book, I didn't know much about him at all. Describe him to me, please.

Andy was somebody who basically let all the genies out of all the bottles. He realized that these two elements—high art and crass commercialism—were actually the same thing. Like somebody inventing a bomb by putting two combustible elements together: it just causes a sort of nuclear fission, a chain reaction that’s still going on. The energy of the crass and the transcendence of art in a satanic Pop marriage.

Physically he seemed very frail, and he looked like an albino. Andy seemed almost like somebody who had been exhumed. He was very pale and shy—his manner diffident and recessive. But, fragile as he appeared. Andy was actually a little Czech tank. He really was absolutely unstoppable. In a certain way, he would get these ideas, or he would grasp a certain idea, and he would just relentlessly plough through it. Through the Maginot line, so to speak, of modern art!

His affectation was this sort of Aubrey Beardsley frail decadent person, and probably he wasn’t that healthy, but, I mean, you have to think of all the physical work involved. Silk screening something like 400 Brillo boxes, painted on six sides, in three colors; it’s a huge amount of back-breaking work, and it was just him and Gerard Malanga. It’s not as if he sat around in an Aeron chair in front of a flat screen monitor the way current art CEOs like Jeff Koons do, saying, “I think a few more pixels of meridian green on the clown’s nose.”

Someone could write a book about you—one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone, the impressive roundup of celebs you wrote about including, but not limited to, Andy and Edie, Janis Joplin, Marianne Faithfull, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious … and the list just goes on and on. You've known a lot of major, major icons who happened to die young. Is there any one thing they all had in common?

I came from England as a teenager, fascinated with American culture, particularly the culture of outcasts (who are usually the creative force in any culture): blacks, teenagers, rednecks, drug addicts, gays, crazy people. Many of the people I’ve written about are victims of a romantic myth of the doomed artist, which (however delusional) propelled them. Their energy and their creativity and their genius came out of this outrageous overweening teenage ambition to transcend, transform everything they found. They were outsiders, mutants who managed to morph reality. In the process they forgot about safety, common sense…. It’s like the person who invented the first car forgot to invent brakes and the car crashed. Actually, this happened at the bottom of the hill below the graveyard where James Dean is buried.

They were so young, they thought they were invulnerable and they seemed to magically appear at the right moment on the fault lines of American culture. They are metamorphs, people who change society by absorbing the contradictions in the culture. James Dean, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix: they all have a mythic element in that their lives also define the society at large.

You must tell me about Janis Joplin. And whatever happened to the movie about her—there were two I think, one with Lili Taylor and one with Renee Zellweger?

Well, the Nancy Savoca movie with Lili Taylor as Janis—she would’ve been great!—never got made and thank God. Two women—Nancy Savoca and Francine Prose—wrote a pedestrian, by-the-numbers script that relentlessly trashed Janis. Two women demeaning somebody who should have been—and is—a heroine to women. As for Rene Zellwegger, I read somewhere that she didn’t want to do it until they had a good script.

But all is well with the life of the One-Night-Stand Existentialista because as a matter of fact I’ve just written a Janis Joplin script! The movie I’m working on, The Gospel According to Janis, went through seven years of scripts. It will be filming early summer, with Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) directing, Zoey Deschanel playing Janis, and Peter Newman (The Squid and the Whale) producing. Hopefully, this script will bring Janis to jumping-out-of-her-skin life, the Janis that I knew and I think everyone would have wanted to meet: funny, poignant, smart—and one of the great blues singers of all time.

You have had the opportunity to work with or write about immensely fascinating people. What or who stands out as being particularly memorable? Do you have plans to write a memoir? And if so—what would the title be? The title of ones memoir really sums up who the person is, doesn't it?

Come on now, my books are like children. Do I really have to choose? These people were all crazy-wisdom geniuses, rock ’n’ roll saints of ecstasy and excess. But I must say that Janis looms large, like that big face in the sky in some Woody Allen movie. As for the memoir, hell yeah, I’m gonna write one, shake the tree and see what falls out. I recently started it: English boy comes out of the middle ages—the school I went to was founded in 697 A.D.—and falls into the American daydream: the Factory, Rolling Stone, acid, Afghanistan, the mysteries of Central Asia, and panhandling on the Lower East Side.

I feel like I stepped on the cosmic fault line and have spent my life trying to find the square root of the blues and figure out what morphed the culture and let a poor wretch like me talk to snakes and trees and hear the mermaids singing each to each. The title? Don’t know yet, and if I did I probably wouldn’t tell you. My wife Coco was calling it American Idiot until Green Day stole it! Kind of interesting, since you said the title tells you about the person. She meant it in a more positive sense than the Green Day song, though; you know, English boy falls in love with America and just keeps falling. Falling, yes, I am falling…. Coco also likes to refer to the memoir as Forrest Gump on acid. I’ll leave you with that thought….

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Angie (who else!) said...
This is kismet, reading this interview with David Dalton. Cindy, are you on my wavelength or what? I just finished reading his and Marianne Faithfull's book (FANTASTIC), and was on my way to buy the new Edie one of David's. I just finished the Edie book by Jean Stein, and it gave me so much info on that time in the world, the crazy Factory days, drugs, and the Angel with a broken wing, our own Edie. I love her. GREAT INTERVIEW CINDY!
Angie @ 3:18 PM  
Anonymous James N said...
really great interview on both ends..the question-er and answer-er!
damn Cindy you are really on the money
NICELY DONE @ 10:22 AM  
OpenID natfinkelstein said...
David Dalton is really a post modern fraud the text was taken ,in its entirety from a tape made by a crack addled guy named Danny
The Photographs ,(and collaboration) from the archives of Jerry Malanger @ 5:18 PM  
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