Saddles for Warhol

Written by Craig Outhier Category: History Issue: March 2012

Morrissey has issues with Warhol, people have warned me. Which is to say, he bitterly insists that the late pop-artist was a fraud who routinely took credit for Morrissey’s work. So I slip into ego-stroking James Lipton mode, reminding Morrissey that the subject of our conversation – a 1968 cult Western shot in Arizona called Lonesome Cowboys – was, in fact, co-directed by Morrissey himself. “I didn’t co-direct it. I directed it,” he seethes. “I directed it, wrote it, financed it, cast it, did the location… I did everything!”

Strangely, and sadly, Warhol – who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest in 1987 – has become something of a mortal obsession for Morrissey. A platinum-haired Moriarty. A soup-can-fetishizing Moby Dick. Morrissey can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in Lonesome Cowboys if not to celebrate the late artist. “Why would any of your readers give a s—t about a Paul Morrissey picture?” he seethes. “You wanna talk about Warhol.”

That’s not entirely untrue. Warhol’s art-freak mystique remains as intriguing as ever. But there are plenty of practical reasons people might care about Lonesome Cowboys besides the Ray Ban-wearing iconoclast who manned the camera.
Warhol or no, an erotically-charged shoestring Western farce that was shot in our own backyard and resulted in an alleged FBI investigation, annulling a momentous if short-lived marriage between the elite New York pop-art scene and Arizona cowboy country, is bound to turn heads.

Shot in breakneck fashion over two days in Pima County, Lonesome Cowboys is one of the lesser-known Warhol film products – a meandering, mostly-improvised commedia dell’arte populated by swishy Old West cowboys who pass the time chatting about perms and coffee shops. According to biographer Victor Bockris in The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, Morrissey and Warhol conceived the movie in 1967 during a lecture tour in Tucson. By January of the following year, the duo was back in the Old Pueblo with select members of Warhol’s famous art-loft “Factory,” including newcomer Joe Dallesandro, a square-jawed 18-year-old who would become Warhol’s main man-muse, starring in such low-budget exploitation flicks as Flesh and Andy Warhol’s Dracula.

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The actors didn’t receive scripts prior to shooting; they simply showed up for work one overcast Friday morning at Old Tucson Studios and started improvising dialogue at the direction of Warhol and Morrissey, who is credited as the film’s screenwriter. “It was a Romeo and Juliet story, except Ramona was the girl and Julian was the boy,” recalls Dallesandro, now semi-retired and living in Los Angeles. “Basically, it was one of the silliest cowboy movies ever made.”

Warhol and his ambisexual entourage must have made for quite a sight at Old Tucson Studios, which provided the rustic backdrop for such classic Westerns as Rio Bravo with John Wayne and, later, Tombstone with Kurt Russell. Freelance Arizona Republic photographer Bob Broder captured images of Warhol seated behind an Akron 16mm camera under a light rain, a ten-gallon cowboy hat cocked rakishly to the side of his head while a group of bemused locals ingested the action on set. “There didn’t mean to be much logic to the shoot,” remembers Broder, who currently lives in Tucson. “Warhol didn’t talk or move around much. He just sat behind that camera.”

Accounts vary as to what exactly happened at Old Tucson – Deadwood-style profanity was certainly rampant; Dallesandro recalls a “see-through blouse” on Warhol leading lady Viva – but it must have riled the owners, because Warhol and his crew were evicted after a day of shooting. In his 1980 memoir Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol recalls tourists “calling [the cast] names and going nuts, rushing their kids away and everything.” Adds Warhol: “Eventually, the grips... and the people who built the sets formed a vigilante committee to run us out of town, just like in a real cowboy movie.”

Shooting resumed the next day at Rancho Linda Vista, an art commune in the town of Oracle about 40 minutes northeast of Tucson. Owned by University of Arizona arts professor Charles Littler, the sprawling high desert compound boasted “a rather liberal hippie society by my recollection,” Broder says. Rancho Linda Vista is also where the Lonesome Cowboys shoot “got racy.” Broder remembers watching the cowboy actors “plucking burrs out of each other’s butts with tweezers,” after which he beat a hasty retreat back to Tucson. “It got kind of monotonous,” Broder says. “And I knew the Republic would never run those pictures, so I left that afternoon.”

Broder has no recollection of the notorious scene in which Viva, playing lusty ranch-owner Ramona, is ravaged by a pair of jealous cowboys. According to biographer Bockris, the FBI placed Warhol under surveillance on February 23, 1968 after “a complaint by the public” that an actual assault had been filmed. Warhol was never charged, but in August of 1969, local authorities in Atlanta did seize a print of Lonesome Cowboys and arrest the cinema manager, according to the book Little Joe, Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro.

Arguably the most infamous film shot on Arizona soil, Lonesome Cowboys was a smashing success by art house standards, playing to packed houses in San Francisco and New York. Morrissey and Warhol would collaborate on eight more feature films, all with Morrissey directing.

Though some critics have fatuously characterized Lonesome Cowboys as an embryonic Brokeback Mountain, its true intent was much less humane – it was a goof, an attempt to subvert a beloved American film genre. Morrissey would attempt similar feats with Andy Warhol’s Dracula and the Sunset Boulevard parody Heat, and continues to do so even in retirement, subverting the very idea of Warhol himself.

“There was no Factory, no artists making little art things – that whole idea is preposterous,” Morrissey spits. “It was lofts where people hung out, and nothing got done unless I was doing it.”