How’s this for a birthday celebration on a summer’s eve? This past Saturday, indie-rock stalwart Dean Wareham popped the cork on his 46th in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with wife Britta Phillips – as well as Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, Nico, and Edie Sedgwick. In truth, Lou & Co. appeared in celluloid form, projected on a screen while Dean & Britta performed their songs for the multimedia project 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.
A brainchild of the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, 13 Most Beautiful (available as a DVD) gathers a baker’s dozen among some 500 black-and-white films shot by Warhol between 1964 and 1966. For his subjects, the Pop-art maestro recruited both luminaries (Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg) and unknowns from his Factory acolytes and hangers-on, asking them to sit still and unblinking in front of a tripod-mounted camera for as long as possible. Warhol went on to screen some of the four-minute films as part of his groundbreaking multimedia performance tour de force The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accompanied by music from the Velvet Underground and Nico. Fittingly, the Warhol Museum invoked the Inevitable by commissioning Wareham and Phillips, veterans of the VU-influenced Luna and seasoned soundtrack composers to boot (The Squid and the Whale), to score the hour-long film compilation.
Equally fitting, the evening in Prospect Park kicked off with Brooklyn’s own torch-bearers of throwback psychedelia, Crystal Stilts. Fronted by Brad Hargett – whose vocals recalled Morrissey as his shades and mop of curls all but screamed “young Lou Reed” – the quintet barreled through a pummeling (if sometimes ragged) set of surf-guitar-powered garage punk, goosed by feverish keyboard riffs. The Stilts may not have roused the Prospect Park crowd, perhaps becalmed by the midsummer swelter, but their retro-tinged stylings served as an apt warm-up for Dean and Britta’s evocation of Andy Warhol’s 1960s.
In contrast to Crystal Stilts’ bare-bones ferocity, Dean and Britta launched their set and the film series in understated fashion with the “Richard Rheem Theme,” a discofied electro composition as sleek as the coolly handsome Rheem, a wealthy Warhol hanger-on, himself. Things moved into high gear, however, with “Teenage Lightning (and Lonely Highways,” D&B’s jangly guitar-pop evocation of the equally handsome Paul Johnson, a speed-freak hustler and sometime Edie Sedgwick BF who practically commanded the camera with scowling bravado. (It bears mentioning that Johnson, who was struck by a car in 1982, was one of four screen testees in 13 Most Beautiful who came to an untimely end.) As for the Factory Girl herself, her slightly stunned onscreen affect (she was recuperating from a car crash at the time) juxtaposed hauntingly with the swooshing synthesizer flourishes of “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills.” Equally arresting: a tweedy pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, nodding and laughing over a blues-rock instrumental; and future cult-film queen Mary Woronov, as severely beautiful as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s Miss Togar yet with a glint of wry amusement.
Notwithstanding Dean and Britta’s precisely tailored compositions, their most memorable musical selections were two covers: For Nico, Britta’s folk-rock rendering of Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” offered a honeyed counterpoint to the German chanteuse’s almost-robotic version (not to mention Nico’s fidgety, restless screen presence). And as Lou Reed in sunglasses nonchalantly chugged a Coke on screen, Dean shed his vocal reserve to growl out the great, obscure VU raver “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”
After that live-wire moment came a capper of devil-may-care insouciance - a radiant Baby Jane Holzer brushing her teeth and smiling, to the strains of “Knives From Bavaria,” Dean and Britta’s drolly whimsical song of romantic obsession from 2003’s L’Avventura. To wrap up and send parkgoers into the humid night, Dean reached back even further into his musical catalog - to the rousing Galaxie 500 chestnut “Fourth of July.” A month late, perhaps, but it worked.
So, Music Mix-ers, who among you trekked to Prospect Park this weekend? And what did you think of 13 Most Beautiful: a poignant if slightly faded curio from a bygone era of glamorous excess, or a salient harbinger of today’s metastasizing celebrity culture from an artist ahead of his time? Should the Warhol Museum pull out the Dylan and Sontag screen tests and enlist Dean and Britta to pen a new soundtrack? And just to go out on a limb here, do Dean and Britta rate inclusion in an EW.com gallery of the Hottest Duos in Rock?