- Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
By Jacob Axelrad, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 2, 2012
“Rock and roll emerged as a reflection and as an expression of the economic and technological changes taking place in western civilization, it was no accident, it was the precisely perfect manifestation of the tremendous changes going down throughout the western world.” — John Sinclair, “Guitar Army: Street Writings / Prison Writings.”
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It’s 1966. A man observes audience members from behind a projector in the University’s Art & Architecture Auditorium as they watch excerpts from the movies he has come to screen at the fourth annual Ann Arbor Film Festival: “Vinyl,” “Lupe” and “14 Year Old Girl.”
The films are experimental, cutting-edge examples of what he terms “neo primitive realism.” And the audience doesn’t know how to react to scenes of the grotesque, such as a boy being tortured just because he enjoys reading books.
Some critics might have called the young filmmaker avant-garde. But in an interview with The Michigan Daily at the time, the artist, named Andy Warhol, didn’t seem to find anything odd about the films he’d chosen to present.
“I didn’t think these films were unusual, they were just very humorous,” Warhol said.
Before John Sinclair was ever arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two marijuana joints, before John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to town to rally for Sinclair’s freedom, and before Hash Bash left its legacy as the embodiment of the hippie movement and counterculture here in Ann Arbor, there was Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and a tradition of festivals that ignited a generation.
“Well, they certainly weren’t bored.” — Andy Warhol, commenting on the audience’s reception of his movies.
Organized by the University’s Cinema Guild, the Dramatic Arts Center of Ann Arbor and Detroit’s American Civil Liberties Union, the Ann Arbor Film Festival — then in its fourth year — wanted to continue its tradition of offbeat cinema, the kind that still distinguishes the festival to this day.
They looked to Andy Warhol, the luminary of the pop art movement; his 16-millimeter film projections were exactly the sort of thing the festival wanted.
But there was a catch. Warhol would only come if he could bring his band, the Velvet Underground. After all, they were a team. They relied on each other for their traveling show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
“Apparently, Andy said, ‘Sure, I’ll come, but you have to let me bring my band with me,’ ” said American Culture Prof. Bruce Conforth. “So of course they agreed, and they come, and they do the concert.”
The Velvet Underground’s performance was something wholly new to the town of Ann Arbor. They were not the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Nor were these guys your typical light-hearted fare from San Francisco, Conforth said.
Their music was gritty, urban, like the sounds of New York City transplanted to the Midwest. More importantly, they were bringing what would later be called “punk rock” right to the steps of the University campus.
“Here come the Velvet Underground singing about something that was diametrically opposite from what the love generation was experiencing,” Conforth said. “So, they get out there, and their music was very drone-like. It was very, very simple. Very basic. Very much like what punk would ultimately become, ya’ know, with the basis very easily on that three-chord formula.”
The audience that the Velvets appealed to back in March of ’66 wasn’t just composed of college students. Two future musicians were in attendance that day: Iggy Pop and Wayne Kramer.
“(Iggy Pop and Wayne Kramer) have commented that — largely on the basis of what they experienced that night — it led them to want to get into music,” Conforth said. “I mean, basically Iggy created Iggy Pop and the Stooges based on what he had seen from that concert.
“They were influenced all the way around. They saw this and said ‘That’s what I want to do.