Billy Name remembers Andy Warhol & the Silver Age
Billy Name first met Andy Warhol in 1959 when he was working as a waiter at Serendipity 3 on the Upper East Side. Andy was a regular customer and they instantly struck up a friendship, one that would grow into a much deeper connection. A few years later, when the first Factory was established on East 47th street, Andy gifted Billy with a Honeywell Pentax camera. Billy had never taken photographs before but swiftly taught himself how to use the device. He was a quick learner. Subsequently he built a makeshift darkroom out of a bathroom in The Factory and learned how to print film, capturing every candid, beautiful and intensely raw moment from screen tests to speed fueled parties.
While many will attribute Billy as the one who originally adorned The Factory in silver foil, he played a much more pivotal role. Billy was a core collaborator and a brilliant archivist documenting a space and time that we’ve all come to romanticise as modern folklore. He stared at the stars with Edie Sedgwick, shared a ‘telepathic’ connection with Lou Reed and held Andy’s bleeding body in his arms when he was shot. Although most of his friends are long gone, Billy’s photographs will render them immortal.
To celebrate the upcoming book release of Billy Name: The Silver Age, Photographs from Andy Warhol’s Factory as well as the highly anticipated exhibition at Milk Gallery on November 12th, Billy spoke to Milk Made’s Paul Bui about what life was really like in the fabled Factory.
What was it like when you and Andy first set up the original Factory on East 47th Street? Can you please describe how it grew to become such an iconic place?
Andy moved into the space that would become the Factory in January of 1964, Gerard Malanga was already working for him so it was really just the three of us. I remember that there was no electricity, which meant no lights, so Andy had to paint by the window because it was the only source of light in the space. Since I had previous lighting experience I went to the hardware store and bought fixtures and switches and installed them in the space so Andy could work any time he wanted. Eventually people started hanging around but it was mainly just the three of us, especially at first. There was Andy and Gerard making art, sometimes I would help them but mainly I managed the studio, took pictures and kept people out if they didn’t belong there. I moved out of my apartment and into the Factory so I could keep watch over the space full time.
Your photographs are so candid and honest. It’s hard not to be drawn into that world. When you look at your photographs, what sort of memories and feelings do they conjure up for you personally?
When I look at the photos I think about how innocent we were. Everything that was happening was so new and exciting, we really did feel like we were living through a special time. The work we were all doing felt important, not that we thought about it that deeply at the time, but we were really immersed in and believed in what we were doing. Looking at the photographs also fills me with sadness, so many bright and wonderful people I really cared about that are no longer here. Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Edie Sedgwick, Ondine, Freddie Herko, these were the most amazing people you could imagine…
Remembering those people and that time, who were some of your favorite subjects to photograph and why?
Everyone was so different and great in their own way with their own distinct personalities. I guess I’d have to say the woman were the most enjoyable to photograph because they were all so photogenic and beautiful. Just look at them, Edie Sedgwick, Susan Bottomly, Jane Holzer, Viva, Nico… You couldn’t take a bad picture of any of them if you tried!
Speaking of Edie Sedgwick, there’s been so much folklore about her in recent years. What can you tell us about her that not many people would know?
Oh I really loved Edie. I was maybe closer to her than a lot of other people at the time. Edie was so perfect, so elegant, and very childlike in her innocence. I think that really shows through in my photos. What people might not realize is how smart Edie was. I remember we used to sit by the window with our cigarettes, and look up at the stars. Edie was interested in astronomy and would talk about other galaxies, and nebulas, and life on other planets. She really was a deep thinker though I think she was quiet about her thoughts with most people. Edie was a magical spirit.
Why do you think the Factory, Andy Warhol and all the superstars resonated with so many people (especially young people), even to this day?
The reason people still connect with Andy and the Factory is because everyone at that time was so genuine, there was an authenticity to everyone and everything we were doing, to a degree that you don’t see today. Everyone was playing their part perfectly, just being themselves. No one was trying to be like or emulate anyone else. That goes for Andy too. People often think that he was putting on an act but Andy was just Andy, he was never pretending.
What was it like photographing Nico, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground? Back then, was it apparent how important their music would become in years to come?
I thought the Velvet Underground was a wonderful group. I wasn’t that close to the band as a whole except for Lou and John. Lou and I were really close friends. He used to come to the Factory at night and pick me up and we would spend all night at bars down in Greenwich Village, and hang around Christopher Street. We were more than just friends, our connection was more telepathic. We never had to communicate by talking the way most people do, we always just “knew” what the other was thinking or feeling and we would act on that unspoken connection. Maureen and Sterling were lovely creative people and I thought John Cale was this brilliant genius who had this magical chemistry with Lou, I just loved him, and still do. None of us were really thinking that far ahead into the future. Of course the Velvet Underground were great, but we were all living in the moment, who knows what the future would be or if anyone would care about the music or the photos, we were just living our lives and doing what we loved.
The book is such an incredible documentation of that time. When you think about those years, what do you miss the most?
I’m not sentimental and don’t dwell in the past. Those days are so far away now. If anything I miss the people, all those wonderful people. Hopefully from this book you can get a sense of what it was really like, what the people were like because that’s how I took my photos. I never staged my pictures or waited for a shot. Something would be happening and I would just instinctively pick up my camera and capture the moment and then put the camera down. What you see in my photos is just the way things really were, life unfolding…
You got the idea to cover the Factory in silver from doing it to your own apartment. I’m sure so many people have tried to replicate this themselves. Can you recall exactly how you did it and what materials you used?
Originally my apartment on the lower east side was painted silver. Everything from the ceiling, the pipes, the toilet, the refrigerator, even the silverware I painted silver. I got the idea from the bridge in Poughkeepsie that crossed the Hudson river. They used to paint it silver and seeing that as a child just resonated with me so years later I turned it into an installation. I used to have haircutting parties at my silver apartment where my friends would come, poets and artists and dancers… and I would cut everyone’s hair. For one of my parties at the end of 1963 my artist friend Ray Johnson brought Andy over, now I had known Andy a few years earlier when he was a commercial artists and I was a waiter at Serendipity 3 on the upper east side, we were boyfriends for a little while but then lost touch. It was nice to see him again. I remember Andy was just transfixed by the silver-ness all around, he told me that he was about to move into a new space and would I come over and do the same thing there. I agreed to look at the space which I did and I ended up moving in shortly afterward. Andy’s new studio was an old fire station that he rented from the city for something like $300 a year I think. It was dirty and the walls were crumbling but I got right to work. I would make trips to the grocery store and buy up every roll of aluminum foil on the shelf and start covering the walls. I also used silver spray paint and aluminum paint that I would brush onto various surfaces. I painted everything silver, the stereo, the ceiling, the furniture, even the little Coca Cola bottles after we drank them.
When you decided to leave The Factory, what prompted you to leave a note saying “Andy – I am not here anymore but I am fine.” What had changed?
What changed was when Andy got shot by Valerie Solanis. I remember hearing the shots and coming out of my darkroom, seeing Andy laying on the floor in a pool of blood. I knelt down and held him in arms and started crying, Andy looked up and said “Oh Billy, don’t make me laugh, it hurts so much.” What a lot of people don’t know is that art critic Mario Amaya was also shot by Valerie and was in the hospital room with Andy when he died. The doctors pronounced Andy dead but Mario said to the doctors “He’s a famous artist, you can’t let him die!” The doctors started working on him again and brought him back. The Andy that came back to the world was a different Andy. He was like a cardboard version of the person he was before. After that everything changed at the Factory, it became more about the business of art and less about art for the sake of art, the spirit of the Factory died with the old Andy I think. That’s not to say that I loved Andy any less because I didn’t. I could feel everything changing, the universe was pulling me outside, I knew it was time for me to see what was going on out in the world. One day I just decided to walk out, I left everything behind because I knew Andy would keep it all safe. I tore a page out of a catalog and wrote my note to Andy and just left, I never went back. After the Factory I went to California and stayed with Diane di Prima and eventually settled into a little room in San Francisco and lived as a Buddhist and wrote poetry. Years later I moved back to my home town of Poughkeepsie. Andy died on my birthday in 1987, my family threw a party for me but I just sat in a chair and cried all day. After Andy was shot he told me “Billy, when I die I hope you’re there to carry me to heaven.” I wasn’t there and it made me feel sad. Not long after that Vincent Fremont called me and told me that Andy had saved all of my things in my silver trunk, my astrology books, my charts, my photographs and negatives, it all came back to me.
Do you still keep in touch with any of your friends from that time?
Well, so many of them are gone now, just memories for me and ghosts on film for the world. I still keep in touch with some people like Gerard Malanga and Bibbe Hansen who I see occasionally. Other people like Diane di Prima, Brigid Berlin and John Cale I stay connected to through friends. We all know and love each other and don’t feel like we have to talk all the time, we’re here and forever connected…
Billy Name: The Silver Age , Photographs from Andy Warhol’s Factory opens on November 12th at Milk Gallery – 450 W 15th St