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Andy Warhol: Happy Birthday to an Extraordinary Artist and Musical Mentor

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol (born Andrej Varchola, Jr. on August 6, 1928) was singularly responsible for an entirely new visual idiom, one known simply as "pop art." A combination of everyday observation (his iconic painting of a Campbell soup best reflected his imaginative, if eccentric, mindset) and celebrity worship (including many musicians of his time), his work came to represent the new experimental expression of the 1960s, a time when his efforts held sway with both the critics and the public. 

In fact, Warhol was a master of many visual mediums -- including drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, silk screen, photography, and film. His talents eventually expanded into the realms of computer art and print. He founded the influential Interview Magazine, one of the first tell-all treatises on celebrity culture, and authored several books that became valuable texts for a new generation of artists and admirers. 

An openly gay man at a time when most homosexual public figures were still crouched in their closets, he became a notorious scene-maker thanks to the New York domicile he dubbed the Factory, where intellectuals, drag queens, stars, and street people could all gather and feel part of a common purpose. Ironically, it was Warhol who coined the phrase "15 minutes of fame" to describe the fleeting nature of stardom. Likewise, he became a bellwether of the art market, with his works fetching astronomical prices that reset the bar for artistic commerce. The $100 million paid for his 1963 canvas Eight Elvises marked one of the highest transactions ever conducted for a work by an American artist.

Notably too, Warhol's efforts also extended to music, an arena he continued to inspire even after his death on February 22, 1987. He was patron to a number of musicians during the Factory years, among them a 16-year old Jackson Browne, the Doors' Jim Morrison, and, most notably, New York's anarchistic Velvet Underground, headed by Lou Reed, John Cale, sometimes by an elusive actress, model, and singer simply known as Nico. The group created the soundtrack for Warhol's multimedia performances, which he dubbed Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He went on to pay for the studio time to record their eponymous debut and to design the iconic "peeling banana" album cover that adorned it. 

Warhol and Reed's increasing disagreements over the band's direction led them to part both personally and professionally, but in 1989 following Warhol's death, Reed and Cale reunited for the first time since their Velvet Underground days to record a tribute to their former mentor entitled Songs for Drella. Reed himself composed a song, "Andy's Chest," about the 1968 attempt on Warhol's life, although the track didn't surface until the Velvet's VU album in 1985. Cale also released his own album of Warhol reflections, Eat/Kiss: Music for the Films of Andy Warhol, a live recording highlighting Warhol's cinematic entries. 

Aside from the first Velvets' album, Warhol went on to create many other famous album covers, among themThe Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and Love You Live, John Cale's Academy in Peril and Honi Sot, Diana Ross' Silk Electric and Aretha Franklin's self-titled 1986 offering, which was one of his final works prior to his death. John Lennon and Mick Jagger were among his more famous superstar patrons, and the latter not only invited him to do the Stones' covers but also a series of solo portraits in 1975. 

While Warhol wasn't a musician, his unique perspective and unusual way of looking at the world inspired many bands and artists, Devo in particular. David Bowie was moved to record the song "Andy Warhol" on his 1971 album Hunky Dory in deference to Warhol's distinctive demeanor. Dana Gillespie, one of Bowie's former lovers and musical associates, dedicated an entire album to Warhol. Released in 2010, the aptly-titled Andy Warhol, it contained songs culled from earlier albums recorded while she was still a Bowie protege. 

Nevertheless, one of the most interesting efforts inspired by Warhol was the soundtrack to I Shot Andy Warhol, a film about Warhol's aforementioned shooting at the hands of loner Valerie Solanas. The all-star line-up of contributors -- REM, Wilco, Luna, Ben Lee, Jewel, Pavement, Love, Yo La Tengo, and John Cale, among them -- as well as a superb collection of cover songs would likely have made Andy proud.

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Lee Zimmerman

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