Billy Name (1940–2016)

Billy Name, Self portrait with Jackie painting at the Silver Factory, 1964. Photo: Billy Name Estate / Dagon James.

MOST OF THE PEOPLE I went to college with wanted to be lawyers, doctors, senators, or president of the United States—like my schoolmate Bill Clinton. I used to see him handing out flyers advertising himself for class president. He was always running for something.

I was ambitious but didn’t want to be president. I wanted to be in the art world and hang around Max’s Kansas City and work for Andy Warhol. Part of it was the way Pop art made everything look different. The Warhol Factory was the Rolling Stones of the art world. I was smitten by the total anarchy of the films and their bizarre casts, actors playing themselves, weirder than anything a screenwriter might conjure. And here was an artist with his own rock band.

But most of the magnetism that tugged at me was probably that silver world—that high-contrast black-and-white world—that I saw in the photographs shot at the Factory by a guy named Name, Billy Name. I wanted to live in those pictures and hang out with the stars: Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Taylor Mead, Ultra Violet, Baby Jane Holzer, Louis Waldon, International Velvet, Nico, Ondine, the Velvet Underground. It was a place where anybody who was somebody or in somebody’s entourage dropped in: the Stones, Dylan, Rauschenberg, Hollywood stars, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. It was the center of the hip universe, and nothing had ever looked like that before.

Billy Name, The Velvet Underground—Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Nico, Maureen Tucker, John Cale, 1967. Photo: Billy Name Estate / Dagon James.

And then, somehow, I got the gig. I was in the pictures. One day I was a grad student at Columbia, the next I was answering the phone, “Factory,” or “Warhol Films.” By then, it wasn’t the silver Factory, it was the chic, upwardly art deco Factory where Andy was shot by Valerie Solanas. It wasn’t as anarchic as the original, but it was pretty crazy. The superstars would still drop by to lobby for a part or ask for a handout. The now presentable Factory crew was making movies and videos and publishing Interview magazine. But this wasn’t a hangout anymore; the attempted assassination of Warhol by Solanas (founder of the Society to Cut Up Men) had changed all that, and the nutty business ethic of director Paul Morrissey and the glamorous international aesthetic of art agent Fred Hughes had replaced the speed-fueled scenes of the superstars, that otherworld I had glimpsed and coveted in the photos of Name (and the teenage Stephen Shore). It was still the Factory, but business had changed.

At the old Factory (once a real factory), where the phone was a payphone painted silver, Name was the resident decorator, the majordomo, the receptionist, the bouncer, and occasional Warhol companion. The nucleus of the freaks who would become the superstars were Billy’s friends.

Andy met Billy Linich, a lighting designer, when the artist Ray Johnson took him to Billy’s to get his hair cut. (Andy once had hair. Billy had haircutting parties.) Andy got a lot of things from Ray, and Billy was probably the best—better than leather jackets and Elvis. Andy was immediately taken with Billy’s decor—everything was painted silver or covered in foil—and Andy was taken with Billy. He asked Billy if he would decorate his new loft in the same mode. Billy said he would, but that it was a big job and that he should probably move in. The atmosphere that Billy’s presence conjured created a new type of art studio and new practices. Paintings were made, but also films, music, superstars. Billy was filling out a form one day and saw his name alongside the made-up Pop art names of the superstars, and seeing a blank “Name:” he filled in Name.

Billy Name, Andy Warhol at the Silver Factory, 1964. Photo: Billy Name Estate / Dagon James.

The Factory was a territorial place, and the evolving nature of the Warhol business didn’t provide a natural role for Billy, so he retired to his darkroom, coming out only at night.

I never saw Billy then. I knew he was in there and that he was nocturnal. Joe Dallesandro’s job wasn’t just starring in the later Warhol films; he was also assigned to check each morning to see if Billy was alive. There wasn’t much sign of him—there would be paper plates and cups and other signs of life, and occasionally some talking emanating from the closed door, but it wasn’t clear if Billy was with someone or speaking to himself. Then one day in 1970 there was a sign on the door: “Andy, I am not here anymore but I am fine. Love, Billy.” I had never seen that door open, and now it was. Inside was a large trunk with Billy’s astrological charts, a dog-eared ephemeris, and books by occult authors like Dion Fortune and Aleister Crowley, and I began wondering about the voices we occasionally heard when using the toilet next to the darkroom. Billy had changed in there. I later saw a picture of him that Gerard Malanga took that day: a bearded, ragged, tramp-looking Billy, no striped T-shirt, no elegant cigarette holder, just a fugitive seeker moving on.

Billy took to the road then, spending time with the West Coast art scene, then he moved up the Hudson to his hometown, Poughkeepsie, New York. He traded in his exploding plastic silver Factory look for a psychedelic grandpa look. But he was no speed burnout bum. He was a kinder, gentler polymath, still taking pictures, but privately, retired from the dark side of the darkroom to the white light of the divine strobe and the yin-yang hall of mirrors. To quote Lou Reed’s “That’s the Story of My Life”: “That’s the difference between wrong and right / but Billy said, both those words are dead.”

Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.