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“I want as many followers as Cher or Lena Dunham.” Interview with Glenn O’Brien by Vienna Famous.
When Andy Warhol began to cobble together the kind of superstars only Hollywood could produce, he couldn’t have known that this would become the defining, monolithic nature of pop culture some half a century later. It’s no surprise then that Warhol survivor and celebrity interrogator Glenn O’Brien is permanently bemused by the unintended gifts of his generation.
O’Brien gave a talk at this year’s POP Montreal festival on the role of the critic. “Artists used to write manifestos and have fist fights and critics could make or break them,” he reminisces to a packed, starstruck audience. “Now critics have no power, it’s all in the hands of dealers.” How did this happen? For O’Brien, cultural capital was already shifting when he first moved to New York. He describes the caste system at Max’s Kansas City: Famous artists sat in the front bar, musicians sat in the back. It turns out the artists were there for the backroom groupies – musicians were starting to overtake them in status (O’Brien laughs cruelly at the idea of Dylan as a ‘poet’). At the same time, Warhol satirised capitalism by producing fame on a factory line, cheapening it so everyone could afford it. “My favourite was Viva,” says O’Brien of the ‘Superstars’, “she was really, really funny, a brilliant comedian.”
After leaving Warhol’s Factory, O’Brien became Editor of Interview magazine, before hosting TV Party, a public-access cable show featuring key figures from the NY underground. Viewers could phone in and talk to them, something O’Brien argues was an early “rehearsal” for the fan-annotated fame we have today. Public opinion is now the driving force behind culture, but O’Brien goes even further: “What we think of as the government is really just a TV show,” he says, “TV has the power.”
Outspoken and up-to-date, he’s naturally a fan of Twitter. “I want as many followers as Cher or Lena Dunham,” he says with a grin. I mention his friend Brett Easton Ellis’ recent Twitter meltdown. “I think he was probably drunk or high or both,” O’Brien speculates, “He tweeted saying ‘come over to my house with some coke’ or something. I don’t know how that happens.” I’m not sure if he means the logistics of getting gear, or of getting stuck in the celeb naughty corner.
Just before we talk, a stalkery woman comes over and says, “I just wanted to meet you because you knew Warhol.” Another woman wants him to sign his tongue-in-cheek guidebook How to be a Man. When we finally get to sit down, I ask “Is one born a man, or does one become one?” before realising how ridiculous that sounds. A cheeky grin creases his fuzzy white stubble. “Well,” he says, “it happens. It’s inside, then it comes out.” I feel like I’ve just had the birds & bees explained by Bad Santa.
“Everything that happened to me happened by accident,” he admits. “I didn’t set out to be an advice person, it just happened. It’s quite fun. I’ve written a piece for 10, which is everything that bugs me about my wife…” No one is safe. Friend/foe of many cultural touchstones of the Twentieth Century, in person he has a bullshit-bludgeoning personality and gimlet eyes to match.
I only realised recently that O’Brien edited Madonna‘s Sex book, iconic precursor to X-rated celebs tapes and selfies. I remember finding a copy in Macclesfield HMV and leafing through it with shaky, hormonal hands. A month ago, I was showing my copy to a friend in his early 20s. “This is great,” he said, “but who is she?” and I suddenly realised that a whole generation has grown up knowing Madonna only as a stringy gym freak.
“She looked really good then,” says Glenn with a twinkle, “I was friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and he brought her over to my apartment for Thanksgiving. I didn’t really know who she was, she wasn’t famous, and we became friends.” The idea for the book came later, and she conscripted Steven Meisel to shoot her and then-boyfriend Vanilla Ice cavorting with a bunch of models, porn stars and actors. She asked Glenn to edit the shots, which were bound in aluminium and shrinkwrapped in a contraceptive sheath. “It was really bold,” he says, “I love the picture of her hitch-hiking naked, it’s still pretty strong. I wish I had royalties on it, it sold a lot.” “Why didn’t you?” I ask, puzzled. “Coz that’s the way she is, she’s greedy.” “Is she a megalomaniac?” I ask, thinking he won’t bite. “Kinda, yeah,” he admits, before qualifying, “It’s not even that she’s greedy; she’s just tough. She’s like “I’m not going to give you anything!’” As with all daring things, Madonna’s book was received with scorn and ridicule. ”She used to leave messages for me saying ‘You ruined my career!’” he says, “but she was only joking.” Victim of a similar moral panic, Miley Cyrus is following the same career curve as Madonna, using sex to shuck off a clean teen image. Her tongue-jerking and butt-twerking are surprisingly savvy reverse-psychology moves: On the surface, they pander to the power-play of the record execs, but in fact symbolise her independence. Sex is the book; power is the story.
I ask O’Brien how pop culture’s relationship to sex has changed since the book. “I never would have imagined that people would have filmed themselves giving someone a blowjob,” he says with disbelief, “and then release it just to get press.” “Desperate times?” I suggest, thinking how 15 minutes of fame is no longer nearly enough. “Maybe. It’s just that we’ve had porn on the Internet for so long it’s become mainstream, like Sasha Grey in the cast of Entourage.”
Perhaps it’s just another consequence of Warhol’s work, which permanently bulldozed the fence separating high from low culture. “He understood publicity,” Glenn reminisces, “the first since Dali who understood how to work the media. A lot of art world people reacted against that.” While Warhol made an art out of cheap imitation, but he is surprisingly hard to imitate. “I wrote a script about him,” O’Brien tells me, “he’s been a character in maybe four different films and everyone gets him wrong; so I thought someone should get it right.” O’Brien went to film school but got sidetracked. About 20 years later he finally made a film, starring Basquiat. It took him another 20 years to get it released. “I’m trying to do it with James Franco,” he says of his latest film project, “If he can do Alan Ginsberg, he can do Warhol.” An art collector too, it turns out that the last piece O’Brien got was something Franco sent through the post, so it seems there really isn’t anything the actor can’t do.
The same can be said of O’Brien, though he’d just put it down to chance. Opinionated and outrageous, he is also friendly and very funny. Fittingly, his initials spell GOB, and I hope he never shuts up.
Interview with Glenn O’Brien by Vienna Famous