"They're selling postcards of the hanging…": Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan

by on May.31, 2011

I’ve been kind of dorking out for a few weeks reading/listening to the 1960s. I read a bunch of memoirs and such by Andy Warhol and this made me re-listen to both the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. Dylan in particular seems a key figure for Warhol and Warhol seems like a key figure for Dylan, even though they barely met. Dylan showed up for a screen test at the Factory which apparently was tense. Warhol gave him an Elvis which Dylan later traded to Albert Grossman, his manager, for a couch (not a smart business transaction by Dylan).

But I feel that the connection is deeper. In Warhol’s own memoirs he seems quite obsessed with Dylan – horrified by the rumors that Dylan was using his Elvis as a dart board and also very defensive of Dylan’s supposed charge that Warhol had caused the death of Edie Sedgwick.

Edie Sedgwick was a young, tragic druggie debutante who starred in several Warhol movies and also arguably, in several Dylan movies (and perhaps as his lover, and perhaps as the title character of his masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde). Warhol’s and Dylan’s feud over her was at the core of a bad movie about Sedgwick a couple of years ago, where Dylan was portrayed as the all-American male, icon of authenticity who tries to save Edie on his motorcycle from the vampirical and faggy Andy. This of course denied the much more gender-bendy element of gothic mid-60s Dylan with his little velvet coats and long hair, as well as his own very druggy lifestyle.

The more I read Warhol’s writings and accounts of the Factory, Warhol’s life-as-Art installation/studio, the more it makes sense why this would prove to be such a meaningful site for Dylan – and I would argue that a lot of Dylan’s mid-60s output is – either implicitly or explicitly – about the Factory. In part because Warhol was a “fine artist” and Dylan a “song and dance man” at a moment in time (the 1960s) when high and low art merged (for a while): Dylan was a poet and Warhol made art out of kitsch. They are in that way kind of reflections of each other. They are both interested (almost exclusively) in the media-saturated modern world, the ultra-kitsch world where everything is reproduced and broadcast, where, as Dylan sings in “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, “not much is really sacred” an where they sell “flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.”

The similarity becomes even strong if you, as Thomas Crow in his essay “Lives of Allegory in the Pop 1960s: Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan,” you put Warhol’s paintings together into a kind of “world” or allegory. This is a world of “superstars”; the figure of the woman is key (the blonde Marilyn, the dark Liz Taylor) who are multiplied exponentially; men are rebels (Marlon Brando, Elvis) but very vulnerable; they are surrounded by death and mass culture (car crashes, race riots); a place of mass extinction and love. In other words, a world not that different from the Typical Mid-60s Dylan song. But with some exceptions: it’s not critical the same way, it doesn’t search for authenticity.

One key thing: The reason I think Warhol fits so nicely into the Dylan sons of the 60s is that The Factory became that place where Life became Art, a place of decadence which is what Dylan criticizes and is fascinated by in the mid-60s songs. Without the flesh-colored christs that glow in the dark, no “It’s All Right Ma.” Etc. In “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” the sign that the addressee (again, a tragic woman, who cries just like a little girl) is in trouble is that her world, her private sphere, her home is being taken over by Art: The empty-handed painter is drawing crazy patterns on her sheets (Art has reached into her very bed, there is no place protected against it). The orphan is holding a gun. As Joyce Carol Oates correctly perceived in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Art is Death.

I think “Baby Blue” preceded Dylan meeting Edie Sedgwick (?), but you can see how she fits perfectly into this allegory. She goes to the Factory and there becomes filmed (like Dylan, see screentest above), turned into Art, which leads to her death (according to Dylan’s logic). This is the conflict of Dylan in the mi-60s: he’s totally decadent in his sensibilities, loading up his songs with surreal imagery (in fact, full of “superstars” like Warhol’s Factory) and dressing in his decadent garbs, but retaining a criticism of this decadent realm, a real that The Factory became an incarnation of.

The songs are full of disguises, masquerades, and drag shows: he’s both critical of these masquerades and totally fascinated by them. They drive his aesthetic, he even responds to them in typical decadent fashion (he’s bleeding, he faints, he’s going back to New York City because he’s “hand enough,” he swoons, he’s by no means the virile young macho man). Perhaps the critical attitude is remainder of the Folk Movement, with is obsession with its own authenticity and critical distance, but clearly the Folk Singer response is not to swoon but the “stand up”.

I read Highway 61 as very much a commentary on The Factory and Warhol, and the things which it represented. The best song of the record, “Desolation Row,” a masquerade that seems to stage the moment of high/low collapse: TS Eliot, Cinderella (imitating Bette Davis), Calypso singers, Romeo and Juliet – everyone seems confused about who they are and what they’re doing there – seems very much meant to invoke the Factory atmosphere. Where but at the factory do you find the beginning of the song:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town…

Here we have all the hallmarks of The Factory: the profanation, the gender-bending (sailors…), the odd artwork (postcards, passports). A little later, you even get the race riots Warhol so often printed.

Of course the song seems pretty explicitly to refer to Warhol:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

This figure of the “superhuman crew” and its leader figures throughout Dylan’s mid-60s albums. In “Like A Rolling Stone” we get probably the most explicit Warhol/Sedgwick reference:

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

(In fact in his memoirs, Warhol expresses hurt when he people tell him that this is a reference to him.) The key here I think is that the tragic woman’s “deal” is with the “vaccuum” in the “mystery tramp.” The Warhol figure has not interiority, and that’s the site of authenticity in Dylan’s sons (and so much of the 1960s pop music): the kitsch world is a decadent world, it has not authenticity, it makes people in to art/things. That’s the horror of Warhol, who repeatedly emphasized not to look inside him, but to believe in his surface. Some people seem to think denying interiority is the same as saying he’s brain-dead, but I think it’s more of a rejection of the traditional model of interiority (soul in religion, unconscious/consciousness in psychology etc), a model that art and “the artist as genius” has traditionally be tied to.

There is of course also the gender issue, and I think this framework might provide an alternative reading of Dylan’s famous “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where a “Mr Jones” enters into a cramped space that explodes with “geeks” and “freaks,” a kind of carnival inside a hidden space, where the sword-swallower walks up to Mr Jones and says, “Here’s you throat back, thanks for the loan.” That is to say, it’s a sexually ambiguous space, a Factory space. So perhaps Dylan had some more sympathy with Mr Jones than the normal reading (that Mr Jones is square and Dylan is part of the masquerade world).

It’s unfortunate that Dylan had to retreat from that Factory-ish space – to Woodstock (“There must be some way out of here!”), to folk music, to a more traditional notion of masculinity (“I’m Not There” got the gender roles right when it cast that female actress as the mid-60s Dylan and Heath Ledger as married Dylan), to Christianity. His songs would never be that good again (though I love a few of the other albums – Love and Theft for example).

11 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    Are there any photos in public record which show Sedgwick with the needle-tracks she surely at times had? I find ES interesting because she looks so utterly “innocent, lamblike, sylph-ish (is sylph a word and is it remotely the one I supposedly mean?)” and also epitomizes style and glamour in its edgier manifestations. Drug addicts are so maligned discursively, and yet here E S is, so dazzlingly chic, frighteningly skinny and superbly attractive.

  2. Jeremy Stewart

    One more note to add to your “mystery tramp” reading: I have always read it as a reference to Twain’s “mysterious stranger,” i.e. the devil. I think that’s what the “deal” on offer is about; selling out, selling one’s soul. I think this sits well with your take re: the ‘religious’ interiority, which is here identified also with folk’s wholesomeness / authenticity.

  3. Haywood

    The reference to “selling postcards of the hanging” is a literal reference to 3 black men hung in Duluth in the 1920’s – postcards of black man hanging were very popular. There is a monument to the three men in Duluth. can provide more information if you are interested

  4. Johannes

    yeah, those torture photos are really disturbing. What makes you say that it’s specifically the Duluth hanging? It can of course be a number of things.

  5. claudio

    creo “estan vendiendo postales de ahorcamiento ” se refiere a truman capote que hizo un libro con la masacre de texas. en esos años la comunidad homosexual de nueva york no querian a bob por que rompian los moldes del poeta . truman no lo queria adylan

  6. Johannes

    Do you mean In Cold Blood?

  7. Bill Royaloak

    I love all the puzzles of Dylan’s work its what keeps me listening and thinking. So Bob is forever a great writer. I 1st equate Highway 61 (album) with Minnesota life especially the carnival references. But always think of Edie because, like Bob she seems so fascinating. What a muse! No Direction Home Bob spoke of the carnival as a heavy influence on some of his early life and entertainment so I can see clearly how looking at Warhol and co. Would stir such imaginative expression in his songs. I’m glad Bob wrote it all down for us to see from a “fly on the wall” perspective. He’s an historian for sure. Plus how can anybody ever forget such vivid imagery? Ah man … Beautiful.

  8. Johannes

    Yeah, I loved those musing about the carnival. Though there’s a whole lot of NYC in Highway 61 as well. And Mississippi…

  9. Haywood

    new posting at Zenith today gives more info on the postcards of the hanging


  10. Haywood

    Further reasons for thinking the hangings are those in Duluth a) its on Highway 61, and b) Dylan was born there. But, as you rightly say, Dylan lyrics could refer to anything

  11. Johannes

    It may refer to it, but once it’s in a song it takes on a new life.