The Taylor Mead Interview
Taylor Mead is interviewed for "Factory People" on his 80th birthday
I’m Taylor Mead. I’m disinherited from a very powerful political family in Michigan. I couldn’t have a private life in Detroit; my father was the boss, so I came to New York. Hitchhiked America. Came to New York to be anonymous, to have a private life. New Yorkers couldn’t care less in the 1940’s. World War II and all that. Then I realized I might as well do something. People would ask me to be in plays and underground films.
What happened when you came to New York?
I got into the poetry scene in the 50’s. We were all protesting, it was a revolutionary time….many people from the Midwest, disinherited like me, came to New York to the coffeehouses, and with BOB DYLAN, and WOODY ALLEN, and BIILL COSBY, and ALLEN GINSBERG, and GREGORY CORSO, we were “outré”, avant-garde , and we read our stuff.
Early Taylor Mead poetry
With me and Allen, we were trying to drive the tourists out of the coffeehouses. But the owners of the coffee houses had to make some money, so they brought in Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. They were trying to please the audiences; they knew where they were going. We didn’t know where we were going.
You met Bob Dylan then?
Bob Dylan, he would come in, I would stop reading and bring him up on stage and he’d be playing to the wall, I didn’t understand then what being drunk or high on marijuana was, but I’d be the only one who could hear his lyrics. He was quite wonderful. He demanded one of my poetry books and a year later he became quite famous and he wanted my next book and I said, Bob, you’re famous now you can afford to pay for it. He said, Taylor, I only get paid every quarter, every three months, so I don’t have any money. So he conned me out of it. New York is such a con city anyway. Andy Warhol included. Don’t try to get paid by any of these filmmakers.
What was the first big underground film you were in?
“THE FLOWER THIEF”, which is one of my all time favorite films, and what a seminal victory it was for hand-held underground 16 millimeter cinema, and improvisation. Of all the hours we shot, we used 99%, there were no retakes, we were all crazy, 1959, 1960. Director RON RICE, a real genius, but I think he got into the drug habit or something. It’s like many directors now say, it all has to do with the casting. With us it was the location, and San Francisco was being torn down the way New York is now, with these great empty buildings to work with.
The thing that inspired the Flower Thief was Allan Ginsberg and ROBERT FRANKS’ “PULL MY DAISY”. We were inspired by Pull My Daisy because it was improvised and cheap….it was like he only spent a few thousand. We spent $500 on The Flower Thief and we used World War II machine gun films, which has a beautiful soft quality. ……
Ron, when he had an idea, would just go out and do it. He was indefatigable….but the drugs got to him I’m afraid.
So how did you meet Andy?
Andy is always this genius who picked up on what was happening or going to happen, also he loved young people.
And so we brought our San Francisco films to New York and Jonas Mekas wrote a great deal about them. Andy picked up on all that, but Andy was already a huge success in the 50’s with his commercials and he had a contract with I. Miller shoes for $50 grand a year in the 50’s which is quite something. It’s like $500 grand today, and I guess, for background, he was at ease with the big people. So the story of The Flower Thief and a number of other films which Henry Geldzahler was aware of, he was a curator of modern art at the Metropolitan. I used to walk 50 to 100 blocks a day in New York, and he ran into me up near the Metropolitan when he was wondering around on his lunch hour and he said would you like to go and meet Andy Warhol, and I said sure because the Campbell soup thing was happening and of course the media picked up on it, but as Andy used to say, timing is almost always everything, and so as a scholar of Voltaire I was very excited to going to Andy’s house and even his mother came downstairs, they used to say he kept his mother in the basement, that’s not true, and she brought us little sandwiches and I was getting the royal treatment with Henry and Andy.
When you started with Andy Warhol did you do a “screen test”?
I did a screen test for Andy, I didn’t realize until I saw it in the museum in Pittsburgh, the Andy Warhol Museum, which by the way is a great museum. And so many art people in New York wanted to bring it to New York, but New York has too many museums, too much art. It’s an art glut. Tourists come here…...they try to do the METROPOLITAN in one day; it takes a year to do the Metropolitan. And my cousin, who is trustee of the Metropolitan wanted to split it up like branch libraries all over the city, and he was outvoted, which is stupid, because only the rich can do the Metropolitan. They have an exhibit there now, VAN GOGH’S drawings. It costs 50 bucks to see Van Gogh’s drawings. Van Gogh would cut off the other year if he heard about that.
So, I had no idea I did a screen test with him. I guess I did a great many, ten movies at least, but with Andy it was all so easy, you just wondered in and sat down. Sometimes Andy would walk away from the camera.
He did two hours of my ass. I have the most famous ass in the world. I told JOHNNY DEPP that I’m the most famous actor in the world, of course Johnny Depp thinks he is, although he’s a very sweet guy.
So what’s happened to all of your films?
I’m buried alive in museums, cinématheques and foundations, and with the Andy Warhol foundation, we have a lot of wonderful movies with great character personalities, even almost a plot. But at the museums, they show twelve hours of the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING and no one comes to the other movies. They think they read what Andy’s all about.
Can you tell me about your movie “Tarzan and Jane Regained”?
“TARZAN AND JANE REGAINED, SORT OF”. In 1963 we drove across the country and Andy didn’t want to fly, later he said he just wanted to see the country. We drove across the United States with GERARD MALANGA and WIN CHAMBERLAIN and as we approached the West Coast, it’s like, Andy had already done the CAMPBELL SOUP CANS , it was like Pop Art was meeting the great king of Pop Art from the East. The MOTEL SIGNS were Pop Art……
Why did Andy’s “Pop” art take off?
As Andy used to say, timing is everything. and people have tried to imitate Andy, and pop, schmop, but it was the right time to turn the spotlight of commerciality back onto the corporations and say, “Instead of this Campbell Soup Can, it won’t cost you 25 cents, it’ll cost you twenty-five hundred dollars, and people bought it. I think the rich like to be slapped in the face a little bit. Anyone who bought those earlier cans are billionaires. We semi-famous people should have known better.
We’re talking now about “Tarzan and Jane”?
We went past a sign going to L.A. that said Tarzana, there’s a town called Tarzana, outside of L.A. …and I thought, I think it was my idea, we should make a movie where I’m TARZAN, and Andy loved for people to suggest something to him, spontaneously, so we made Tarzan, at the BEVERLY HILLS HOTEL. The pool was my crocodile infested lagoon. DENNIS HOPPER was my stand-in. If I had to climb a tree to get a coconut I’d hand Dennis the money on camera to go climb a tree. And he was a young, he would climb these horrible coconut trees. It was a great deal of fun. And I think I edited it and put the music on it. But we used every inch of film. There were no double takes, it was impossible in the sixties, to do a scene twice, except for Hollywood people. And we only showed it a few times, and the art critics said, “We don’t want to see any more two hour films of Taylor Mead’s ass.” My sarong kept falling down while I was climbing the trees. So Andy said, “I wrote a letter to the Village Voice ‘I have searched the vast Warhol archives and can find no two hour film of Taylor Mead’s ass. We are ‘rectifying’ this oversight with all the materials at our command.” And we did two hours of my ass. So I think they only showed forty minutes of it. The last show at the Warhol Museum I sang Moon River, and then I told them to stop the film.
More on the trip to California?
But the trip to California was amazing and Andy was already a sensation, within a few months of his Campbell Soup can. And we were with Marcel Duchamp, the French artist, and we went to an opening at the Pasadena Art Museum, Marcel Duchamp was there, and a cameraman from Time tried to push me away to take a picture of Marcel , and I said, I’m Taylor Mead, who the hell do you think you are? Who the hell is Marcel Duchamp?
But then we made a huge party with all the wealthy people of L.A. and I couldn’t get in, I was wearing a sweater. And everyone else was in tuxedos, and Marcel Duchamp came out to speak to the people at the door, and took me to his table, and I sat on his right, and danced up a storm…..
So what was it like at Silver Factory?
It was so natural. Andy is a phenomenon, so natural, and all the famous people coming through. I had no idea who I met. I guess Jim Morrison, and the Beatles……..He was so low key and…..such a genius…genial……He operated on all kinds of levels.
Did you ever see Andy actually do work there?
There was constant work going on, but it was so low key, and then there would be Gerard helping make the silk screen paintings and Andy filming, or walking away from the filming. Always some activity. Famous people coming in and then realizing if they weren’t contributing to the scene, they should leave….
Did you hang out In the Factory then?
I never really hung out, no, unless Andy, I used to sit by the phone waiting for Andy to call but otherwise I never really hung out, Andy was really…if you did not have something specific to do, I found the factory very awkward.
And meanwhile you’re working in films…?
“CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE”, just a few blocks down. And Marcel Duchamp came to see that many times. And invited ULTRA VIOLET and me to his house. I saw a painting on the wall, a small MATISSE. I said, “My God that’s the most beautiful Matisse I’ve ever seen!” And I didn’t know he was married to the DAUGHTER of Matisse. I didn’t know until weeks later. I said the right thing anyway, and it is one of his greatest, an intense study with wonderful colors.
You had a really illustrious film career?
I went to Europe because Andy was making so many promises, and I did a play which I won an OBIE for LEROY JONES. People started lying to me. I’d won an Obie, we had great reviews, we were offered any theater, and my Hollywood career would have been made. Like with AL PACINO, DUSTIN HOFFMAN, SYLVIA MILES, their careers were made off Broadway. But if I’d been rich and famous in Hollywood, I would have had AIDS by now. I would have bought every hustler in Hollywood; I had all the phone numbers. Is this too much for Paris? (laughter)
You went to the Cinematheque Francaise….?
Henri Langois showed CHELSEA GIRLS there, and I’m with Jean Jacque Labelle. Hi, Jean Jacques! What happened, you inherited the biggest fortune in France, where are you? He was one of a few avant-garde people in Paris working, you know. He came to see ‘Chelsea Girls with me and some of his friends. They walked out on Chelsea Girls. I said “What the hell am I doing in Paris, in La Dolce Vita land.. Parisxxx I said, the picture was for real, and they couldn’t believe it. I said “that’s what’s happening in New York», and Andy said, Andy was there, he said “Oh, Taylor, we have all these roles for you, come back to New York.” And I said I didn’t want to.
But then MICKEY RUSKIN, who runs MAX’S KANSAS CITY, one of the great seminal cafes of New York, said, “Taylor I have this new café, you’d fit right in, you have to come back, and that did it. And I came back to Max’s Kansas City, the most important café since MOULIN ROUGE.
Billy Name...Only a janitor?
What about Billy Name, Billy was around no?
Billy was, well, he was the Janitor. I mean really.
Gerard and Edie in "Vinyl" photo by "the janitor"
Was Gerard around when you were around?
Gerard was always there from the very beginning from 1962 or 1963. Gerard was really the first on the scene. When we came back from California Gerard was lugging this heavy suitcase and I said Andy, “Gerard is going to go on the subway with this huge suitcase, cant you give him some money? And Andy goes “Oh, he is alright.” He treated Gerard horribly, and Gerard was sweet and the calmest person in the world.
Did it seem to you that Andy used people?
Andy was a genius he just did things consciously and subconsciously, a mixture there of playing games first, and he loved his power he knew he was important.
So he could manipulate everybody?
But it was safety, what ever he did because I said that he manipulated people but on the other hand he made them all famous, semi-famous, and I am the most semi-famous person in the world except for Ultra of course.
I made 3 or 4 films a year no matter what, no matter who’s around. You know my mother brought me up never to push yourself so I never go to auditions; I just drift into movies, strange 3 or 4 movies a year since 1960 that is some films.
Did it seem to you that a lot of the people involved in the Silver Factory era were they like drifting also?
There was a gleam of ambition in everyone’s eye I think and even though we were basically revolutionaries I think that out of the side of our eyes was Hollywood and fame and fortune and all that, every thing is semi, everything is sort of, and the movie directors, when they work in Hollywood directors or underground movie directors they have the biggest ego, more ego than actors and there is great trouble in the finances. It is all bullshit from Hollywood to New York to except; there are a few exceptions like Jim Jarmusch.
I remember from what I know anyway that there was a period in the Factory where Andy was using women as superstars and then he shifted to the drag queens what caused that shift?
He liked us, he liked what was occurring and so Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn were fabulous people, and in fact for the movie “Trash” that Paul Morrissey made, they said we need someone for this part we need a drag queen they are interesting. And I said, Holly would be the greatest creature in the world, and they recruited her, they recruited Holly.
So Andy always wanted to try something different?
Yeah, yeah, whatever was new. In fact he was interested in young people, using young people and looking at what they were doing and creating, he would have a ball with the chaos; we would have to make his choices.
Tell me about your favorite time at Max’s Kansas City….
I sat there with NICO, in the back corner, under a DAN FLAVIN, a beautiful simple pink sculpture, and a Neon tube above us. When a lot of people were on speed, and paranoid, or heroin, a lot of scene going on, but it wasn’t like continual chaos or anything, it was subtle; a lot of people got their careers going in there. Now there are 50,000 artists in New York, or 500,000. In that day, there were only five or six hundred recognizable artists, who were really challenging everything. Now the artists are imitating each other, the art historians are trying to find a niche by compiling all kinds of people…..but there’s so much going on that I wouldn’t dare critique it.
Tell me a little bit more about Max’s
We just hung out there, we ran up huge bills. And I must say Andy, with all of his cheapness, did let some of the movie stars sign checks. I wouldn’t sign anything on Andy’s name; I would sign my own name. I would pay up a couple of thousand a year when my family came through at Christmas.
Did Andy ever owe you money?
But I was determined to get cash from Andy. In fact, the son of a bitch, well I shouldn’t put down his MOTHER, his family are darling. Andy was as cold as ice. It was sort of a brilliant act, I think. When he owed me fifty bucks and I’m in the street starving to death, and he owed me money for an article I wrote for INTERVIEW, he wouldn’t send the money. My father was cheap and rich, and I find that one of the basic ABC’s of the world. If you’re rich and cheap, like the United States, my father, Andy Warhol, GEORGE W.BUSH….If you’re cheap.. (he sings) Moon River. My violin.
There was a film that you did with Viva?
“LONESOME COWBOYS” was the happiest movie I’ve been on. In fact working with Andy was really a breeze, always. We all had separate cabins in Arizona…..and I was the only one who had read the synopsis, the plot. It was one page! We’re filming in OLD TUSCON, which is a reconstructed movie set for Westerns. And I’m talking about how VIVA has this ranch, and I’m trying to invite these cowboys on horses to come up to the ranch to have a good time with Viva…..and Andy says, “Taylor, too much plot, too much,” this is the way he talks. “Too much plot.”
You knew exactly what he meant….that he wanted us to relate to each other, in any impertinent way possible, in fact get into a fight or an argument if possible. So there are a lot of fights in Lonesome Cowboy.
The FBI was following you on the set?
We were followed by the F.B.I. They tried to get something on Andy. In one scene…I’m out in the front of her place, with Joe, the magnificent beauty JOE DELLASANDRO, we’re dancing, and I’m going down, down on my knees in front of him…and if I’d unzipped him, if I’d gone the whole way, we’d have been arrested. The film would have been confiscated (cough) Andy could have been put in jail.
The F.B.I. was with binoculars and watching us. And the WASHINGTON POST came out with the story much later. I didn’t know about it until years later. They wanted to nail Andy. In 1968, we were all under surveillance.
What was the furor over Viva?
She didn’t do drugs of any kind. I think she had some marijuana in San Francisco, and she accused the head of a film festival of raping her. It was all fantasy. And Viva’s paranoia. I think she’ll admit to that, I don’t think she ever took any drugs, she couldn’t handle it.
We were ALL CRAZY. When we worked on the ranch in Old Tucson, the people from Hollywood were making a movie on the same set. One movie star, one actress said, “We should crush them…”. They knew that we were bringing about a new cinema.
The sixties were rife, everybody was cool, we were totally revolted by the fifties, by the Brady Bunch and the bullshit of middle class America, and the upper class. Total bullshit. It’s all coming back unfortunately. We’ll have to get the sixties going again.
Can you talk about “Nude Restaurant”?
One of my favorite films. That was immediately after Mickey Ruskin and Andy persuaded me to come back to New York after three years in Paris and Italy.
God, when I got off the plane from Paris, we did Nude Restaurant. Andy had already shot Nude Restaurant, but he wasn’t happy with it. So he had me and Viva, and I was still on my drugs from Europe, in France it’s called (?), In America it’s called Quaalude, in (?) it’s called Revenol, in India it’s called? , in England it’s called Mandrax, I know it in all the countries, I was on it for ten, many years. And I’m still on drugs.
Did Andy use drugs?
Drugs come from the earth, give me a break. And our ancestors, from the grasses they ate they had drugs. Anyway, as sophisticated as I am, and Andy loved it. Andy was only on mild speed. Obetral, but he was very sympathetic to everything. And the odd behavior of course. Anyone that was out of it, because I think in his childhood he was totally out of it. Saint Vitas Dance, epilepsy or what.
You shot Nude Restaurant on drugs?
We shot Nude restaurant, we shot it as we shot it, because we were stoned. Unfortunately I knew Viva’s private life. Her family life. So I think she wanted to be glamorous, and her childhood, but I made her stick to the story, she was magnificent. It’s one of my favorites.
There were a lot of violent things happening in the Silver Factory later on in the 60’s. Did you have any experiences with it?
The first shooting, was in ’63 or ’64. The guy came in, and I’m there with Nico, Viva and Paul Morrissey. The gunman came in. He was going to tie up Andy. They had a big car outside with a big trunk, and they claimed that Andy owed them $500, 1964. And
Viva, Nico, Pau Morrissey, they just sat there while this gunman fired a bullet into the wall. They were all like watching a movie. Paul was stunned like everybody. Except me, I was bombed enough not to be stunned. So I jumped him. It was like jumping a brick wall, the guy was very powerful, and he had somebody out in the hall. He was going to kidnap Andy. And he insulted Andy, he put a rain hat on Andy to make him look funny, and I thought who is this bum insulting a genius. So ultimately I defended Andy in any case. So I jumped him, and no one came to my help. So I took the hat and I smashed the window out. When I’m bombed I’m accurate.
This kind of violent activity sort of foretold what was going to happen, what was your impression of Valerie Solanis?
I wrote an article, a critique of the movie “I SHOT ANDY WARHOL”, and I titled my article “I would have shot Andy Warhol”, but of course I did the opposite, I probably saved his fucking life by jumping that gunman. They would have put Andy in the trunk of a car and driven off with him! They didn’t know it was for real, I’d already been in stabbing scenes, and I knew everything was for real. And they did nothing about it, wouldn’t press charges or do anything, and they knew who it was, I think. And then Valerie comes in just a few days after we came back from making a movie called SAN DIEGO SURF . I loved that movie too; Paul Morrissey did a great editing job.
We had just come back, and I should have been at the factory. I always attack even though I’m always defeated. She came in and shot him.
Why do you think Valerie shot Andy?
Well, Andy did make promises; he’d build up people’s egos. Coming back from San Diego, he promised me that next year I would be the number one. That I could use the factory equipment to make my own movies, I’d make T.V. appearances, publish my book, all this stuff…..two days later he’s shot. So I didn’t mention it to him for 2 years, I thought maybe he forgot, but he remembered everything, but didn’t do anything about it.
So Andy was always promising things?
Well he loved to make promises, he promised this one this and on the way back, from the last movie we made, which was San Diego Surf, in LaJolla, California and on the plane he outlined, he said: I would be the superstar of the next year, I could use the factory to make my own movies, I could have a record, he would promote me on television, he would do this, he would do that, and then 2 days after we got back he was shot by Valerie Solanis, and I thought well, I will let the whole thing drop. It reached a level, he went down, and he just got afraid of strange people like us. Valerie, if she hadn’t shot him, I might have, and so he brought in Brigid and high society people to work up at the factory. After he was shot the all energy level went somewhere else and and then Bridget was keeping books.
What did Brigid actually do at the Factory?
Brigid Berlin was his secretary and I made a couple of movies with her which were, she was fantastic, really great and interesting person, but I think she had her party list and we were all off the list, and she was controlling all that, you know, so we were off the list of Andy’s parties and dinners and lunches and stuff, and I think that it has to do with Brigid, but Andy would just let this all happen, he just let everyone do their own thing
So Andy was….?
Super cool. Super conniving, contriving, promising anything, agreeing with everybody. Some woman came in representing a Jewish art exhibit, benefit in California, and Andy promised her a painting. And when she left I said, Andy are you really going to send her a painting, and he said, “No. I don’t like some of the artists in the show”. He wouldn’t tell her that……
Was there a definite change at the Factory before Andy was shot by Valerie and after the shooting?
Well the thing is, the 60’s all happened in 1970. I mean literally, figuratively, when Governor Rockefeller, who would get drunk on scotch every night outlawed cheap drugs, and we were all legally users of speed and our doctors would give us amphetamines. On speed, you get a lot of work done, and Brigid said that she couldn’t have gottten through boarding school without speed and she was shooting like in Chelsea Girls. When it went from speed to cocaine, we couldn’t get our speed, so people started doing coke and right away it went from a few hundred $ a year, in New York to a few thousand a Year. It was the end of the 60’s. It was a cocaine thing now and Aids and everything came in. It was dramatic.
It’s funny how New York goes by decades the 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s the 80’s. Really 1980 was a demarcation and cocaine came in, and AIDS came in at the same time, you know bad timing. So I have been celibate for 25 years. I hope you don’t mention it. The village changed from Bohemian, well a mixture of straight people to gay in combat boots and moustaches for years, and then AIDS came. It was tragic and then Gay liberation. They had to get rid of the laws; I was arrested under the laws several times
The whole Factory thing, how would you explain it?
You can’t take an objective view of it. We were in it. We didn’t know it would be this significant. We were just in it. When you’re with a genius and the United States and the whole art world is exploding….it’s so easy. It’s like Nietzsche, a minimum of effort a maximum of error. It’s part of me. I don’t think any of us really tried to be anything. We were all just reacting to our Midwest childhoods. Whatever, middle class or upper middle class, boarding school, and with Andy, poverty.
Andy and poverty in his family?
Tremendous poverty. They used to make Heinz ketchup in a bowl of hot water, and Heinz is the biggest employer in Pittsburgh and his father worked for them I think, so they had plenty of Heinz ketchup to make soup with. Otherwise they would have starved. And Andy of curse has never forgotten that.
What do you think he’d be doing if he were alive today?
If he were alive today? He’d be sick etc…He’d be going to parties, and operating, and selling, selling, selling.
He, well he, to Andy everything was wonderful, always wonderful, always: “You are so good, I will put you on my next movie, Oh we must do this and we must do that. He would go with it; it is too bad that they made that horrible mistake at the hospital.
Well the doctor is one of my close friends, a great doctor who had a successful operation on Andy’s gall bladder or what ever it was. Simple operation but they put him on a private room; this is the price of fame and money. I have lots of money but I always have to go into a ward, never mind, but if he was put in a ward they would have seen it, the nurse gave him the antibiotics but she forgot to put him on a drainage, so he filled up with liquids and he had a heart attack and died. The private nurse was not checking on him. When I was in the hospital, the guy next to me went into fits, if he would have been alone he would have died, and as I was there, I screamed, and I was very serious, and the nurse walked in. Other wise the guy would have died.
But poor Andy was alone and of course he was paranoid about being in hospital anyway.
Poor Andy. Sounds like poor Andy was always kind of alone wasn’t he?
His family adored him; I think that he had a great support. My family was different.
Meanwhile, you’re working away still today?
I’m drifting away. I’m an aristocrat, I’m a ruine, vous parlez Francais, que’est que cest in Paris, Je suis a ruine, an aristocrat, disinherited, ruine, and my rent is paid, I hope! My middle name is wood, and I can knock on my head.
They’re begging for me to go on, I have to perform for the three people that showed up.