Billy Name is lying in a bed in a ward of Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie, upstate New York, hooked up to a saline drip. He is not looking good: his face is pale, his skin sallow, his voice almost inaudibly low. It turns out that, as I was crossing the Atlantic the previous day, Billy was being admitted for extreme dehydration, a raft of recurring illnesses, including diabetes, having taken their toll on his 75-year-old body. Things did not bode well for our interview.
The following afternoon, though, I return to the hospital with Billy’s agent and close friend, Dagon James, to find him sitting by his bed, still pale, but happy to see us – and to talk. We adjourn to a nearby room, Dagon pushing Billy’s portable drip behind him. As an attentive nurse comes and goes, checking his blood pressure and heart rate, Billy slowly opens up about Andy Warhol and his time as in-house photographer at the artist’s famous Factory studio in New York. A selection drawn fromthe thousands of shots he took is about to go on show in London.
“I didn’t consider myself a photographer until much later, when people started appreciating the work,” says Billy softly. “I wasn’t influenced by any other photographer and I hadn’t looked at any books or shows. I just took the camera when Andy handed it to me and said, ‘Here, Billy, you do the stills photography.’ I remember I went to the store the next day and bought the manual for the camera. That’s how it began.”
By then, Billy had already taken a disused hat factory on East 47th Street and transformed it into a shiny, mirrored studio for the pop age, the walls coated in silver spray paint and papered with shiny aluminium foil - just like the interior of Billy’s own soon-to-be vacated downtown apartment. For Andy, silver was synonymous with the space age, the future. But why was Billy drawn to it? “I felt a lack of chromaticism in my life,” he says, quite seriously. “And I think it has to do somewhat with the Mid-Hudson Bridge here in Poughkeepsie. Every seven years or so when I was a kid, it was repainted in silver industrial paint. That formed an imprint in my mind.”
At the Factory, Billy Linich became Billy Name. In his introduction to Billy Name: The Silver Age, Glenn O’Brien writes: “Billy, who had been Andy’s sometime lover, became his principal architect and decorator, his secretary, his archivist, his studio manager, security man, night watchman and bouncer, his casting director, his handyman, his photographer, his electrician, his magician. Billy was the one Andy counted on.”
It sounds like a hell of a job. “It was,” he says smiling. “I was the Factory foreman and I made things operate. I did it naturally, but it was also a responsibility. I took photographs and I kept my eye on Andy. Often, when we went out, I had to rescue him from people who would pin him in a corner of a gallery and start pelting questions at him. But once the Factory started, there was no need for rescuing.”
Andy met Billy in 1959 when Billy, a theatre lighting designer, was moonlighting as a waiter at Serendipity 3, a restaurant famous for its desserts and frequented by Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, who would both become subjects of Andy’s paintings. Before long, as Billy later put it, “I was sort of like Andy’s boyfriend.”
Back then, he was a thin, angular hipster in black T-shirt and tight jeans. Today, he looks like an ageing hippy, avuncular and sage, with long wispy grey hair and matching beard. He has been a Buddhist for five decades and exudes an almost preternatural calmness that neither his latest health scare nor his reduced circumstances – he lives in assisted housing across the Hudson from his native Poughkeepsie – have fractured.
Andy was stroked by God. He wanted to be rich and famous and he became rich and famous
I ask if Andy’s persona – the incandescent blankness, the air of perpetual boredom – was contrived. “No. That was him. But, knowing the deepness of his spirit, I can see it as a kind of defence mechanism, a way to deal with the world. I think he was trying to protect himself cos he had lots of illnesses as a youth.” Why were people so drawn to him? “I think Andy was a special person, someone who had been stroked by God. He was bound for stardom. What he desired, he accomplished. He wanted to be rich and famous and he became rich and famous.”
Billy’s images are an essential record of a now almost mythic time and place, but they are also evidence of his ability to frame often intimate stolen moments. Here is the young and doomed starlet, Edie Sedgwick, looking timelessly stylish and ethereal. There is Lou Reed looking young and almost healthy in black leather, a cigarette in a white holder dangling from his lips.
And here are the so-called Warhol Superstars, either acting for Andy or lost in their own amphetamine thoughts: the young and wild Bibbe Hansen (mother of the pop star Beck), the glacially cool Velvet Underground vocalist Nico alongside Baby Jane Holzer, Viva, UltraViolet and the rest, their sculpted features accentuated by Billy’s high-contrast monochrome.
And here is a visiting Bob Dylan, thin and imperturbably cool behind his shades,sitting reluctantly for a Screen Test. “I remember that day,” says Billy, nodding. “Dylan was very” – he closes his eyes and searches for the right word – “compact. That’s the best way I can put it. Closed-up and compact. He had his aura and Andy had his and they sort of complemented each other.” Andy got his Dylan screen test and Dylan left that day with a big silver silk-screened painting of Elvis.
Billy arrived in Manhattan as a teenager, after fleeing what he calls “the mediocrity of middle-class life in Poughkeepsie”. “I always felt it on my shoulders, this sense of, ‘You have to do this, you must do that.’” Once there, he says, he soon “grew into” the bohemian Greenwich Village art scene where “you’d just run into people on the corner and go to their loft”. One of the people he ran into before Andy, was the avant garde composer La Monte Young. “I worked with him as a human drone,” says Billy, smiling. What did that entail exactly? “Standing on stage and holding a note with your voice for a very long time.”
He also wrote and performed concrete poetry for a while, crossing paths with the likes of John Cage and the Fluxus art group. “I was up in Connecticut at a Fluxus event,” he says, “and my friend said, ‘That’s Yoko Ono.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ I walked up to her. She had some blue flowers in her hand and she said, ‘Look at my pretty blue flowers.’” He smiles. “That was about it for Yoko.”
Billy ran the original Factory and chronicled its creativity and excesses until January 1968, when Andy relocated to a new space – cleaner and more geared towards commerce – on Union Square. In the words of the musician John Cale, it was there that Billy, now locked into a serious speed habit, became “the pimpernel of the silver ballroom – sleeping there as a wide-eyed guard, then much later disappearing into his room for months at a time only to emerge, to take pictures, then retreat back into silent oblivion”.
He lived inside his head, inside his dark room, for about a year. What was going on? “I didn’t really relate to the Factory any more,” he says. “I’d have visitors like Lou Reed, but I really wanted to get my negatives in order and that took a lot of time.” Did he become obsessive? “Well, it seems as though I did, because that’s all I did. But to me, it wasn’t obsessive, it was just what I was doing.”
On 3 June 1968, Billy emerged from his darkroom after hearing the shots fired by Valerie Solanas, an avant-garde feminist playwright who was convinced Andy was stealing her ideas. “I came out and Andy was lying there in a pool of blood,” he says quietly. “I went to him and took him up in my arms and I started crying.” Did he think Andy was a goner? “Well, I didn’t think. I just started crying. Everyone else was freaking out.” He remembers a confused Andy saying: “Oh Billy, don’t make me laugh, it hurts too much.” Andy was pronounced dead in hospital, but resuscitated by medics who resumed their efforts once told who he was.
I ask if this was when Billy decided to leave the Factory? “No, no, not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “That came a few years later.” One morning in 1970, Andy arrived in the Factory to find a note pinned to the darkroom door: “Dear Andy, I am not here any more, but I am fine. With love, Billy.”
It was, I suggest, a kind of goodbye poem. “Maybe. Maybe. I know I resolved that I was going to leave because I was saturated by the Factory, I was saturated by silver. I was just saturated. I wanted to breathe the air outside, so I said, ‘I’ll go out and see what the planet is doing.’”
He went south to New Orleans then west to California, performing his poetry until the world caught up with his photography. Now his images are beautiful evidence of that shiny, silver time. Andy is gone, as are Edie and Lou, the Factory is receding into history and myth, and Billy Name is back home in Poughkeepsie. “Sort of,” he says. “I have no residence here. I’m living right across the river.”
He looks out of the window and, for the first time today, sounds sad. “I feel roots here, I guess, but it also makes me feel, to an extent, lost on the Earth. But it’s all within me: the Factory years, everything.”
Billy caught the energy, as well as the ennui, of the Factory scene, but also its sense of sanctuary – a place where the freaks and outsiders could merge with the glamorous and gilded under the democratic gaze of Andy’s Super 8. It all seems a long way from a hospital bed in Poughkeepsie. Does he miss those wild times? A long pause. “Yes, I do,” he says, his voice almost a whisper. “I miss the times when I was really free.”