Fringe cultures

by Gina Marchetti

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 58-60
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

Cagle, Van M. Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995. 240 pp.

Suarez, Juan A. Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. 353 pp.

When looking at relations between the present and the recent past, Andy Warhol looms large as a figure in art, film, rock, and culture generally. While glitter, glam, and the superstar may evoke feelings of nostalgia, it is au currant to use queer theory, concepts of camp and trash, and postmodernism to get a take on the relation between commercial and so-called "high" culture. During the heyday of his Factory, Warhol stood at the eye of the hurricane, a still observer, a motionless camera, who took in all that revolved around him. Even in his grave, Warhol is still at the center of things.

It is fitting, then, that there should be so much recent scholarly interest in Warhol and his legacy. The two books discussed here represent only a fraction of the current material available on Warhol. Unlike other works which focus exclusively on Warhol, Reconstructing Pop/Subculture and Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars place Warhol within a broader context: rock and youth subculture in the first instance and avant-garde cinema in the second. Indeed, more than Warhol connects these two books. Along with their examination of Warhol and Pop Art, both books conjure up a vision of the cultural fringes of the 1960s/early 1970s.

Because of the complexity and extent of Warhol's legacy, it takes courage to write on this topic. So much has already been said and so many preconceptions already formed. Even before reading Cagle's and Suarez' books, I had my own ideas about what needed to be said about Warhol and youth subcultures, gay liberation, and postmodern aesthetics. Many of those who come to these books with their own experiences of the 1960s and 1970s may find themselves in similar circumstances. When reading these books, I found that I needed to put my own ideas aside in order to see the contribution each author has made to this vitally important area of cultural research. I approached these books with the assumption that the main thrust of each would be a thorough reexamination of Warhol in relation to both pre- and post-Stonewall gay culture. I expected a critical dialogue to be set up that would incorporate more current queer-studies scholarship. In both cases, I was disappointed.

Because of the book's title, I expected Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars, in particular, to deal with gay subcultures, mass media representations of the fringe, and queer aesthetics. It was a rather long wait in that book to get to page 126 and find the following under the heading, "Gay Subcultures and the Underground": Hence besides being part of the history of the U.S. avant-garde cinema, underground films were also part of gay American culture. They fashioned models of subjectivity and desire that reflected the experiences of the (male) urban gay communities of the time. In the three chapters that follow on Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol, the emphasis remains on the auteurs in question and the history of U.S. avant-garde cinema. The study neglects the bike boys, drag queens, and superstars that provided these filmmakers with their inspiration and subject matter.

Similarly, in Reconstructing Pop/Subculture, I expected an emphasis on youth subcultures. The book's title seemed to promise it would reconstruct the much misunderstood, but still extremely influential, glitter/glam youth subculture. Unfortunately, after devoting a sizable chapter to British cultural studies and its formulation of subcultural style and youth subcultures, the book did not follow through with a thorough reevaluation of the glitter/glam subculture. The author clearly had much personal experience with this subculture (in footnotes, he refers to his concert "diary"). So it is disappointing he persistently emphasizes the commercial producers/ performers rather than on those who brought the style out onto the streets and into their daily lives.

Cagle is at his best when he discusses performers that are closest to the fans, like the New York Dolls. This "garage band" never received the commercial or critical success of David Bowie, Lou Reed, or even Iggy Pop, but it managed to maintain a firmer connection to the subcultural milieu from which it emerged. In this instance, the picture given of the glitter subculture could have been fleshed out further with more from Cagle's diary and perhaps some interviews with some of his glitter comrades. As it is, the book tries to get beyond its history of rock facade to look at the larger cultural issues involved. Unfortunately, the project is most successful at what it attempts to transcend, i.e., the history of glitter/glam performers and their relationship to Warhol and his Factory.

Cagle tries to prove that the Factory crowd represents an "in-there" subculture localized in one place around the figure of Warhol, while glitter represents an "out-there" subculture of fans from diffuse locations brought together by the mass media. Both these groups differ significantly from the British, working class, spectacular youth subcultures that were the focus of attention at Birmingham. Cagle stretches British cultural studies' definition of youth subculture to accommodate both groups. In the final analysis, it is difficult to say how important subcultural theory is to an understanding of either the Factory or to the sketchy view given of glitter fans. While Cagle provides a great deal of insight into the personal relationships and business dealings among celebrities like Reed, Bowie, and Warhol, he does not do as much in "reconstructing" the subcultural milieu of those outside the limelight.

If readers put aside these preconceptions or others that the titles of the books may conjure up, much fascinating and useful scholarship can be found in both Reconstructing Pop/ Subculture and Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars. Cagle shines at rock history. Suarez excels at avant-garde theory and underground film criticism.

Cagle's Reconstructing Pop/Subculture is an important step forward in scholarship on rock music. Warhol's role in forming the Velvet Underground and launching the careers of Lou Reed, Nico, John Cale and other rock luminaries has been documented. However, Cagle goes further in uncovering the complex personal relationships between Warhol, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and many others that formed the bedrock of the glitter/glam phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. In this book, glitter/glam emerges as a rock "school" of performers and impresarios. Coming together around figures like Warhol and Bowie and places like the Factory and Max's Kansas City, a group of like-minded artistes helped each other explore controversial terrain. Working together, they questioned gender boundaries and challenged aesthetic barriers in a commercial music environment that always maintained a love-hate relationship with the musical and cultural fringe.

Cagle is at his best when he digs into the intimate details of these relationships. For example, he describes a young, soon-to-be-called Iggy Pop meeting the Warhol crowd in Detroit (with a fascinating look at the Detroit/Ann Arbor scene beyond Alice Cooper). He also gives an interesting account of Bowie's bringing Lou Reed out of a slump by producing Reed's Transformer album, which featured the hit single "Walk on the Wild Side," the work which most clearly linked commercial rock with Warhol Pop Art and the avant-garde.

In addition, Cagle must be commended for his ability to read the rock press. Drawing on publications like Creem, Melody Maker, and Rolling Stone, Cagle takes a critical look at how glitter rock created itself though the media, taking control of an aspect of its own publicity unprecedented by earlier rock musicians. Cagle's discussion of Bowie's "bisexual" coming out to the press, for example, is very insightful. However, although Cagle does discuss fans and fanzines, he does not give them the same thorough treatment that he gives performers and their relation to the press.

The book is also lacking in another area. Cagle mentions the importance of performance and theatricality to glitter/ glam, and he goes on to cite the relationship between the phenomenon and films like CABARET as well as the centrality of film in Warhol's disco The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. However, he stops short in his examination of glitter/glam and motion pictures and video. Indeed, a chapter on THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (film and play) may have helped tie up a few loose ends involving youth subculture and glitter/glam performance at the book's conclusion.

Suarez' Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars also has many fine features. The strong points of this book include the author's ability to articulate some rather complex theoretical issues involving avant-garde politics and aesthetics, the relationship between the avant-garde and commercial culture, and the history of U.S. underground film. Suarez dug deep in these areas and emerged with an articulate and thoughtful account. Although some of this terrain has been covered by other scholars (most notably David James in his fine Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the 1960s, Princeton, 1989) and his other work on U.S. underground film), Suarez goes beyond a synthesis of this other research to provide a fresh perspective on Anger, Smith and Warhol's film oeuvres.

There is lengthy introductory material on avant-garde theory and on the social milieu of the U.S. Underground cinema (including some interesting tidbits of gossip/ information on Amos Vogel, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, P. Adams Sitney, and the like). Unfortunately, after that, the treatment of SCORPIO RISING, FLAMING CREATURES, and a selection of Warhol's films, notably MY HUSTLER and VINYL, seems brief in comparison. However, Suarez must be commended for choosing to look at these filmmakers' more challenging works. While Anger's FIREWORKS provides a clearer point of entry into issues of gay life and aesthetics, SCORPIO RISING's use of Nazi imagery and sado-masochistic biker rituals is ultimately more challenging and much harder to pin down. Here, the author does an excellent job of looking at the various threads of homoeroticism, occultism, and satire that make up this complex work.

Suarez's reconsideration of Jack Smith's notorious FLAMING CREATURES highlights the filmmaker rather than the work itself. Featuring orgies of sexually ambiguous figures and a difficult-to-interpret rape scene, FLAMING CREATURES relies on an aesthetics of performance that puts a halt to many critical forays into understanding its meaning. Not surprisingly, Suarez does more to further an understanding of Smith as a performer in this chapter than the film itself. He also provides insights into the strained relationship between Smith and his principal supporter/arch-enemy Jonas Mekas. The story of Mekas' attempts to "save" Smith's work from censorship and oblivion, much against the wishes of the filmmaker, makes for some fascinating reading.

The chapter on Warhol and his films made between 1963 and 1968 is the most disappointing of the three. Without the textual detail of the chapter on SCORPIO RISING or the "human interest" of the chapter on Jack Smith, this chapter pales in comparison. While it provides some interesting insights into some of the darker aspects of Warhol's oeuvre, it does not provide the depth of analysis displayed in the author's fine discussion of SCORPIO RISING. Indeed, the book as a whole seems to lose steam toward the end, finally petering out completely with a five-page conclusion.

Despite their flaws, both these books make valuable contributions. Both are clearly and engagingly written. I would not hesitate to use either in the classroom. Both do a fine job of inviting the reader to think through for the first time or rethink the fringe cultures of the 1960s/early 1970s. Given that these fringes are now part of the larger weave of our cultural fabric, it is great to have these two works added to the continuing debates surrounding camp, trash, glitter, glam, the avant-garde and postmodernity.