Fifty years ago, the Plastic Inevitable exploded in Philadelphia.
In December 1966, Andy Warhol brought his art world experiment known as the EPI, or Exploding Plastic Inevitable, from his Factory in Manhattan to south Broad Street. Two evenings presented by the Arts Council of the Young Men & Women's Hebrew Association featured avant-garde dancing by Warhol superstars Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick, transgressive films by Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, and a "multimedia discotheque" performance by a then-obscure, later to be massively influential, rock group: the Velvet Underground & Nico.
Those two provocative nights are being celebrated this month at the Avenue of the Arts institution now known as the Gershman Y.
The exhibition "Underground Nights: When Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable Met the Y" is built around newly discovered black-and-white photos that Philadelphia photographer Sam Moskovitz took during the 1966 shows, when, as exhibition curator Cheryl Harper puts it, the black-clad Velvets confronted "staid Philadelphia" with their "songs about heroin and S&M," not to mention Lou Reed's other subversive proclivities.
On Dec. 14, author Richie Unterberger will give a talk called "Visions of the Velvet Underground." The next night, in the auditorium where the Velvets played a half century ago, indie rock stars Yo La Tengo and Dean & Britta will share a bill.
YLT, who played the Velvets in the 1996 movie I Shot Andy Warhol, will perform all VU songs. And Dean & Britta, the husband-and-wife duo of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (who grew up in Bucks County), will do their multimedia piece 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.
No matter what happens that night at the Y, it's not likely to cause the fuss that ensued when the Velvets came to Philadelphia that first time in 1966, when Philadelphia Daily News critic Judy Altman's review of the 41/2-hour show, with a $2 admission, was headlined: "Warhol 'Happening' Hits Like a Noise Bomb."
VU played subsequent gigs at the Philadelphia clubs Trauma and the Second Fret, with a 1970 show at the latter included in last year's VU Loaded: Re-Loaded boxed set. But in 1966, the Velvets - whose debut album with the famous Warhol banana album cover didn't come out until the following year - were a dangerous, unknown quantity.
In that era, as Harper and Sid Sachs - curator of the University of the Arts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery and historian of the Philadelphia avant-garde - pointed out, the Y Arts Council, along with the Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philadelphia, were actively engaged in prodding the city's conservative art world into the future. The Y - which was a "really, really, really important" part of the scene, says Sachs - hosted the first pop art exhibition on the East Coast, in 1962, and Warhol had his first museum retrospective at the ICA in 1965.
With programming initiated by Y Arts Council board chair Joan Kron, the EPI came to the Y as part of a festival curated by filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
Mekas "was very closely involved with Warhol's Factory," says Harper. "Warhol said, 'In addition to the films, I have this EPI, so let's add that, too.' So while the films were controversial enough, with the Velvets, all hell broke loose."
There's no video of the Velvets at the Y, but "Underground Nights" includes a film of a rehearsal that Warhol shot in New York.
In Unterberger's book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day, Kron describes the scene as a generational culture clash: "Paul Chalfin, who at the time was assistant district attorney of Philadelphia, comes up to me, and he says, 'You've got to stop this performance right now!' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Those lights! They're making the children crazy, they're going to do bad things!' . . . The Philadelphia College of Art was across the street - and we always had a lot of young people. So this was like young Philadelphia loving it, older Philadelphia horrified."
Altman's Daily News review quoted a man as saying, "This is the best argument against taking LSD that I've ever seen." The minutes of a later meeting of the Y Arts Council quote Chalfin as saying that "the films were in poor taste and the second part of the program, the Discotheque, was in even poorer taste. The electronic noise under the aegis of music was ear-shattering. . . . A couple of hundred people were crowded up front - these people were beatniks - the Rittenhouse Square group, college people, many homosexuals, unkempt, dirty. . . . This may represent a sick part of our society, but it has no place in the Y."
Four decades later, Kron told Unterberger: "I was so under the gun that night. We didn't know what we were doing was important, because everybody told us we were out of our minds. People were telling us that we were crazy, had no taste. I was constantly attacked, so I thought what I was doing was probably not of much cultural value. But it was fun."
Sometime that month, Warhol and various superstars, such as Mary Woronov, Ivy Nicholson, and Ultra Violet, made a rarely seen film in which they swam in the penthouse pool at the Drake Hotel, where Y Arts Council patron Acey Wolgin and her husband, William, lived. Sachs' Invisible City Philly website also cites a second film that involves superstars' riding horses somewhere on the Main Line.
Those Warhol superstars, and other artists, like Reed, are the subjects of the mid-'60s Warhol Screen Tests that Wareham and Phillips were commissioned to compose music for by the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Wareham, a native New Zealander who now lives in Los Angeles with Phillips, says the duo have done the show about 100 times, including at the Arts Bank in 2009. "I got a call saying they were sitting on all these silent films by Warhol and wanted someone to write songs and a score for them. It's not something you say no to. Plus, they were paying us."
"If you score film" - Wareham does, including Noah Bambach's 2005 The Squid & the Whale - "it's rare you get asked to work with a good director. And even though this one happens to be dead, it's kind of a dream gig. The films are so beautiful, and there's a lot of room to maneuver. The director's not there telling you what to do, so you're kind of free to do anything you want. It's kind of like making music videos in reverse. I think we've turned them into something nice."
The Screen Tests typify the simplicity of Warhol's approach.
What's satisfying is "how challenging and difficult they are, 50 years later," says Wareham, a longtime New Yorker excited to play in the same room the Velvets once did, and also to come east to "experience some weather."
"Everyone loves Warhol," he says. "The painting of cows and milk bottles. I mean, now they do. They were controversial at first. But the films, I think, are still weird. He had this idea, which no one else had. People can look at them and say, 'Oh, anyone could just sit someone in front of a camera for four minutes and call it art.' Well, anyone could, but he did it. And now we have these films of important people in the '60s art world, or his world, or just people off the street. It's a time capsule."
EXHIBIT / MUSIC
Underground Nights: When Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable Met the Y Through Jan 4. at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St.
What Goes On: The Velvet Underground at the Y, 50th Anniversary featuring Yo La Tengo and Dean & Britta 7 p.m. Dec. 15.
Tickets: $40-$125. Information: 215-545-4400, GershmanY.org.