Bucks Burnett has met most of his music idols. In this column he shares tales from the front lines and backstage.
His tombstone is unnerving in its stark simplicity. It bears his name, his birth date and the date of his death: Feb. 22, 1987, 30 years ago this month. There’s no list of accomplishments, nothing artsy or clever or ironic. That’s all you get.
Andy Warhol once said that he wanted his tombstone to be left blank, or for it to only say “figment.” So Figment is the name of the live webcam broadcast of his gravesite, begun by the Warhol Museum in 2013. It’s perfect for the guy who made an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building just being a building.
One night in 1983 I was in Manhattan with two friends. We were in a van stopped at a red light behind a cab. Out of the cab hopped Warhol, and as he cut between the cab and the van to get to the sidewalk, we waved. He waved back at us through the windshield, smiling. As the people around him on the street also recognized him and lost their shit, he ducked into an unmarked door. It could have been the Factory.
Two years later I was reading the Dallas Observer and saw a half-page ad for book signings at the wonderful Taylor Books on Preston Road. The store was bringing several authors to town that month, and as I scanned the ad I saw Warhol’s name. “Holy fuck — I can actually meet Andy Warhol this time!” I remember thinking.
Warhol made three public appearances in Dallas that I know of. But this would be his final appearance, sometime in late November 1985. It was to promote his new photography book, America. During the trip he had lunch with a Dallas Observer writer, Cynthia Rose, and a good chunk of the resulting story depicts him trying tortilla soup for the first time at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
Warhol found the soup lacking. “It could be from a can,” he says, later adding, “This tastes as if you had dishwater and your tortilla got soaked in it. I mean, it’s good, but that is what it really tastes like. Leftovers and soggy tortillas.”
Bill Wisener of Bill’s Records has a great story about meeting Warhol at his first Dallas book signing; Wisener was the only person to show up, so he just kept buying books, one after the other, and had Warhol sign each one. He still has a few copies left.
At the Taylor Books appearance, it was a different story. At least 300 people waited in line for an hour or two, and when Warhol finally walked in, wearing a beautiful black leather jacket, with a camera crew in tow, the place erupted into screams, shouting and applause.
Warhol was seated behind a counter and as things settled down, he got into the business of signing books. He was also happy to sign Campbell’s soup cans, and Polaroid photos that people were taking of and with him.
As I got closer I turned to the lady behind me who had a nice camera. I offered her $10 to take some pictures of me meeting Warhol. She agreed, so I gave her the money and my address.
As I finally got closer, I noticed something peculiar. As people chatted him up, he was signing several pages in a row of the same book. Each person was getting multiple autographs. So as I handed him my book, he casually started signing the first few pages.
“Hey Andy, I run the Mr. Ed Fan Club,” I said. “Would you like an honorary lifetime membership?” He looked at me blankly and said sure. “Great,” I replied. “I’d like to present you with this check for a million dollars from the fan club for joining. Can this nice lady take a picture of me giving you the check?” He said yes.
I told him that we should each hold a corner of it, like they do at sales banquets. He said OK. She took our picture and I thanked him and then he did something completely unexpected. He signed the check for a million dollars in a big scrawl and dryly handed it back to me, as if to say, “I already have a million dollars; have another autograph.” I grinned and left the counter.
The guy running the film crew asked if he could interview me. He asked me about the check and our conversation, so I answered his questions in the same dry manner that Warhol had used to answer mine. He told me I did a great Warhol impression, which made me feel good.
Two weeks later an envelope hit my mailbox with two black and white prints of me talking to Warhol. What a great lady she was to keep her end of the bargain.
About a month later a manager of my local bank, Lamar Savings, asked if she could frame and display the check for awhile in the bank, since it was a Lamar Savings check. So I took it in one day and gave it to her to frame.
It never appeared on the wall at the bank. It resides to this day in that manager’s house, and she has repeatedly refused to return it to me, sell it back to me or even send me a photograph of it. I consider her to be a very rude friend, but also a very clever art thief.
My luck is running better with the footage from that night. I had always assumed the two people filming were Factory employees. About five years ago, I found out through a friend that it was actually taken by a Dallas club owner. He has kindly offered to make me a DVD of my segment someday. He filmed the entire signing, I think. I hope some day he can release it as a documentary.
As for the girl who won’t give the signed check back? I wish I had taken somebody else to see the Who in 1982. But that’s life; a series of give and takes, full of love, betrayal and bad checks.
But here’s what she can’t take from me: the moment that my eyes met Warhol’s, through his beautifully large plastic glasses, and the feeling of standing and talking with one of the most creative, iconic people of any century. That moment will burn vividly in my mind forever.
I’ve met almost all of my heroes. I talked to Dylan one afternoon, shook hands with a Beatle, and I partied with the Talking Heads in Oklahoma. But my meeting with Warhol is particularly dear to me because he is a symbol of a bygone era of celebrity.
Warhol might have loved the tackiness and drama of the internet, cell phones, TMZ and reality host presidents, but he is special because he existed outside of that world. Now “celebrity” is a vile and empty word, because people are famous for the wrong reasons and we all recognize each other from Facebook.
Andy Warhol once said that in the future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. Well, that future has arrived. Maybe in the next one we’ll be so lucky as to get 15 glorious minutes of anonymity.