The Ali-Warhol tapes
By Victor Bockris
Gadfly April 1999
Bockris: On the other hand, you always
said you just like to have people who talk a lot
when you turn the tape recorder on.
Warhol: Well, listen, that's the thing.
I mean, God! That's your interview. I didn't get
one word in, so that was the ultimate. It was the
perfect interview. The nice thing is that he lets
everybody come up, which is kind of great.
—In a limousine, leaving Muhammad Ali's
training camp, Deerlake, Pennsylvania, August 15,
in that peak year of the punk '70s, 1977, I introduced
two punk godfathers, Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali.
The world heavyweight champion of art had been commissioned
to paint a portrait of the World Heavyweight Champion
of boxing. In 1974, I wrote a short book about life
at Ali's training camp, Fighter's Heaven.
In 1977, I had just started working for Warhol at
his Factory. In fact, traveling with Andy from New
York to Deerlake, Pennsylvania, to act as a buffer
between him and Ali was my first assignment.
the time, Ali and Warhol had so much in common that
I had written in an article that was published one
month earlier, "Who Does Andy Warhol Remind
You of Most? Muhammad Ali." They both came
to prominence in 1964. Ali, who had beat Sonny Liston
for the heavyweight title, showed a propensity for
putting his mouth and face to good use for publicity.
Warhol, who beat Jackson Pollock for the unacknowledged
heavyweight title of the most famous painter, also
showed the same propensity.
man came from poverty (although Warhol had been
ten times poorer than Ali) and eventually transformed
his profession into a multimillion-dollar-a-year
industry. Each became an icon. After catastrophic
setbacks (Ali barred from boxing in 1967, Warhol
shot in 1968), however, both made remarkable comebacks
in the 1970s, becoming international superstars
and multimillionaires. Motivated by money, these
two men made it their language, but they did it
with a humorous, philosophic twist.
1977, Ali and Warhol faced career crises. Though
holding their own, they were shadows of what they
had been in their prime. Warhol had one vital attribute
Ali was missing: He drew a sharp bead on other people
that he put to good use. Ali was so fixated on his
own greatness that he often exercised poor judgment
about other people. When the two men met in 1977,
Warhol had regained much of the strength he lost
after the 1968 attempt on his life, and he made
the remainder of the 1970s a productive and successful
time; Ali, on the other hand, was skidding downhill
dangerously fast. Warhol was a smart businessman
who maintained control over every aspect of his
work. Ali had less control of his life and career.
Capable of generating an enormous amount of money
in a short time, mostly in cash, he attracted all
the creeps, parasites and criminals in the country
who could worm their way into his entourage.
was not until I sat down to write this piece, re-listening
to the tapes I recorded that day in light of the
information we have since received about the brain
damage Ali suffered in the latter half of the '70s,
that I began to see and understand what really happened
in the meeting between these two men.
the surface, the sole purpose of their meeting was
to make money. A New York businessman, Richard Weissman,
had contracted Warhol to do a series of portraits,
"The Ten Greatest Athletes." The product
would consist of six copies of each forty-by-forty-inch
silk-screened portrait (acrylic on canvas) and five
hundred prints of each image. In exchange, Warhol
was to be paid one million dollars. Each athlete
was paid fifteen thousand dollars to let Andy take
as many Polaroids of them as he needed to find the
right image to be silk-screened onto canvas as the
basis of their portrait. They would also receive
one of the six commissioned paintings, valued at
twenty-five thousand dollars each.
the ten to fifteen occasions I visited Fighter's
Heaven between 1972 and 1974, I saw the many moods
of Muhammad Ali. At times he was the most infectiously
happy person I had ever met. Being with him was
sheer joy, whether we were barreling down the highway
in his touring bus with Ali at the wheel, watching
a video of one of his fights as he flicked punches
past my ear, or tape-recording one of his supersonic
raps. On other occasions, he could be withdrawn
and appear badly troubled. Once, I saw him call
for a handgun and fire a salvo of shots into the
woods below the camp in what appeared to be a pent-up
Elvis-like rage. But whatever his mood, once I got
him talking about or reciting his poetry, Ali's
troubles seemed to blow away. He had some quiet,
serene scene at the center of his being that kept
him balanced throughout the constant tumult of his
existence then. I was not prepared, however, for
the way he treated Andy Warhol.
arrived at the camp for our appointment at exactly
10 am, Thursday, August 15, 1977. Ali had flown in from Europe
the night before and was a little behind schedule,
an aide explained. At 10:45, clad from the head
to foot in black, Ali stepped out of the log cabin
he slept in while he was training and joined us
in the camp's courtyard, delineated by the kitchen,
the gym and a beautiful panoramic view of the Pennsylvania
countryside. The aide introduced Ali to Warhol,
but Ali appeared to be elsewhere. Studiously staring
at the bright blue, empty sky, he barely proffered
a curled paw for Warhol to shake. The atmosphere
was tense. As the party moved toward the gym where
the photo session was set up, I welded myself to
Ali's side, aiming to be a go-between as the need
arose. Ali was clearly sluggish. He had just completed
a two-week publicity tour of thirteen European cities
and was scheduled to start training for what would
be a hard fight against Earnie Shavers immediately
after our visit.
we walked, he started unraveling a surreal account
of his recent travels: He told me that he'd just
been in Gottenberg, Sweden, talking to twenty-three
thousand people, "They paid me twenty thousand
dollars for four hours." The mounted police
had to rescue him from the crowds in Sweden by putting
him on a horse. The people of South Africa had sent
a representative to thirteen cities across Europe
looking for him to beg him to be their leader; all
the archbishops in England wanted him to preach
in their churches; twenty thousand people mobbed
him at the houses of Parliament; and the London
blacks begged him to lead them in their summer riots:
"Fifteen minutes after I told them 'No,' in
my suite at the Hilton," he laughed, "they
were over in Notting Hill fighting the police. I
can't be responsible for starting no trouble in
somebody else's country..."
passed through Ali's dressing room, where his trunks,
jock strap, shoes, socks and boxing gloves were
laid out for the afternoon's sparring session, and
entered the gym. Ali slumped onto a folding metal
chair that had been set up in front of a white backdrop
for the photo session. Normally, it is at this stage
that the subject and artist begin to relate. But
Ali continued to behave as if Andy Warhol were not
crouched down on the floor, five feet away, so as
to stay out of the camera's range but be close enough
to continue a conversation. Now Ali started going
into overdrive, talking about how he'd only realized
on this trip how famous he really was and how many
people wanted to see him. Meanwhile, Warhol was
snapping a lot of useless profiles of Ali talking,
but however hard I tried, I could not stop Ali's
monologue or redirect his attention away from me
and toward Warhol. Then, suddenly, Ali gave us an
opening. "How much are these paintings gonna
sell for?" he asked.
thousand dollars," answered Warhol's business
manager, the snappily dressed, sleek Fred Hughes.
"Can you turn yourself a little bit towards
the camera, champ?"
answer arrested Ali's flow of thought. "Who
in the world could they get to pay twenty-five thousand
dollars for a picture?" he asked incredulously,
almost levitating from his seat.
sold quite a few for more than that!" Hughes
replied, whispering, "We should have brought
down one of Andy's black drag queens. They went
for twenty-eight thousand dollars each." But
Ali was buried in the equation. Launching into a
rap about God, he concluded that, "Man is more
attractive than anything else!" and then turned
our attention fully onto him. "Look at me!
White people gonna pay twenty-five thousand dollars
for my picture! This little negro from Kentucky
couldn't buy a fifteen hundred-dollar motorcycle
a few years ago and now they pay twenty-five thousand
dollars for my picture!"
Ali was not willing to share any of the credit for
this remarkable state of affairs with the artist,
the exchange broke the ice, and soon Warhol uttered
his line of the day: "Could we, uh, do some,
uh, pictures where you're not, uh, talking?"
he asked, in the brittle, querulous voice he reserved
for just such occasions. For a split second, there
was a white light of silence in the room. Nobody
had ever told the champ to shut his famous mouth
in quite such a not-to-be-trifled-with way. Even
I was not sure what this turn of events might portend.
But then Ali broke into the silence, chuckling quietly
to himself, "I'm sorry, I should be doing your
job. You paying me." Instantly becoming the
professional, he flipped through a series of classic
leapt into the moment, egging him on, "Just
like that... That's really good... Just a couple
wish you could take pictures in five weeks when
I get more trim. A little more prettier," Ali
griped, pinching a tire of flesh around his belly.
three more," Andy urged. "Could you put
both fists close to your face?"
about this!" Ali exclaimed, bringing his fists
up into the classic boxing position, just in front
of and below his chin.
great!" Andy chimed. "Closer to your face...
I look fearless?" Ali growled.
fearless," Andy replied. "That's fantastic!"
strongest suit as a portrait painter
was making people feel and look fabulous by focusing
all his powerfully seductive attention on them.
In those three minutes, Andy had restored Ali to
the generous, fun-loving host that I had met in
1972. Waving aside aides who were about to escort
us out, now that our job was done, Ali announced
that he wanted to show Andy around his camp, introduce
him to his wife, take a look at the brand new mosque
he had just built.
was delighted by the turn of events and began looking
for an opportunity to record some quotable conversation
between the two icons. As the rapid tour neared
its end, Ali signaled another stop, inviting us
to join him in his log cabin to listen to him read
a poem he'd written the night before on the Concorde.
I found myself striding between them on a narrow
path that ran alongside the gym. Ali had just starred
in the biopic The Greatest, which
had been a resounding flop. Warhol was about to
release what would turn out to be his last film,
Bad. Perhaps this was grounds for
a conversation. "Well, you know," I began,
"Ali's interested in getting into films, Andy,
and you make films, so maybe..." but before
I could finish the sentence, a horrified Warhol
peeled away mumbling something about "checking
on the photographs." Without breaking stride,
Ali launched into a tirade on blaxploitation films:
"Blacula! Cotton Comes to
Harlem! Nigger Charlie!"
he snorted. "I predict they ain't never going
to make a real black movie." Despite my faux
pas and the uneasy revelation that tension still
lurked beneath the surface, I followed Ali into
the cabin, where we were joined minutes later by
Warhol and Hughes.
the single room was virtually empty. A large gold-framed
four-poster bed, which Ali told us cost eleven thousand
dollars, stood in one corner. Ali sat in the opposite
corner in an armchair. Warhol perched on a small
hardback wooden chair facing Ali across a low-slung
coffee table. I crouched on the floor to Warhol's
right, looking up at Ali. Hughes hung onto one corner
of the bed. None of us had slept much the previous
Ali read his poem about the Concorde, I marveled
that we were recreating the very setting that had
proved so productive for me, interviewing Ali over
the years. Once you had shown interest in his poems,
he was much easier to interview. I switched on my
soon as Ali finished the poem and we had murmured
our appreciation, a brief silence fell upon the
room. In retrospect, if I had leapt in and started
interviewing Ali, I might have been able to avert
the onslaught that was to come. However, I made
the mistake of thinking that Andy, in the catbird
seat, would pick up the slack. But then Andy was
the master of not picking up the slack. I noticed
with mounting concern that Ali's big hand was fishing
into one of three wide open briefcases at his side
while his eyes trained relentlessly on Andy's face.
Then his hand came up out of the bag clutching a
thick stack of index cards held together by a rubber
band. As I knew from experience, this meant that
Ali was going to deliver a lecture of the kind he
had frequently given on college campuses during
the 1960s and now reserved for visitors he deemed
worthy of their content, like George Plimpton or
turned out that Ali had a much better idea of who
Andy Warhol was than I had credited him with, and
that he was determined to make use of the meeting
by delivering an important message to him. Over
the next forty-five minutes, Ali segued back and
forth between two lectures whose titles, "The
Real Cause of Man's Distress" and "Friendship,"
might just as well have been plucked from the contents
page of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
(Harcourt Brace, 1975). (I have presented his words
exactly as he said them, because Ali made a point
of thanking me for doing that in a big interview
I published with him in Penthouse,
and because Warhol taught me that if you did an
interview and just let the subject talk about whatever
they wanted, however they wanted, that would make
the most accurate, revealing word portrait of them.)
(Warhol was not alone in his theory. The renowned
British writer Havelock Ellis wrote in his introduction
to Eckerman's Conversations with Goethe that
the interviewer's job is "to represent the
man's speech as the transparent veil which reveals
his personality, so that we are conscious not of
a mere succession of opinions on a flat surface
but a living, complex person moving in his own three-dimensional
started to talk straight at Andy in a way I had
never seen Warhol sit still for before.
a man of wisdom and you travel a lot, so you can
pass on some of the things I say. See, I'm not gonna
give you the kindergarten A B C thing. I'm gonna
give you a lecture on Friendship and I'm telling
you, go out and tell, go out and say, hey this man,
he's got something here, and I'm just giving it
to people, I'm giving everyone my leadership after
I'm through boxing, so onliest reason I'm fighting
these fights is to get the free press.
I mean, I'm going to go into your head now. You
might see me punch the bags, you might be white
and we live in a world where black is usually played
down. It's not your fault. They made Jesus Christ
like you a white man, they made the Lord something
like you, they made all the angels in Heaven like
you, Miss America, Tarzan king of the jungle is
white, they made angel food cake white. You all
been brainwashed, we been brainwashed like we're
nothing. You been brainwashed to think you're wiser
and better than everybody, it ain't your fault.
I'm just admit to that. I'm just a boxer, and a
boxer is the last person to have wisdom, they're
usually brutes. I'm matching my brain with yours
and showing you I'm not going to get on you, but
I'm gonna make you feel like a kindergarten child.
This black boxer here will make you feel like a
kindergarten child. I can give you something more
fresh, make you ashamed of your household. I got
had frequently sat still for Ali's lectures
because they interested me. He was a mesmerizing
orator, and nothing critical he said was ever aimed
at anyone personally, but this, I could see, was
going to be different. As I listened to Ali's words,
trying to follow their meaning, I blanched internally,
realizing that Muhammad Ali was going to lecture
Andy Warhol on the very same moral crisis in our
society that many people had been blaming on Warhol
for the last ten years. I didn't know how he would
react, but I didn't think it would be well. Despite
saying that he welcomed all publicity, whether it
was negative or positive, the post-shooting Warhol
got upset when he was blamed for everything that
was wrong in America, especially by someone who
was just parroting a party line.
was equally concerned about Ali. He was used to
being applauded regardless of what he said. But
now, Andy wasn't going to look kindly on what he
said, and Andy had an unusual ability to cut people
to pieces with his eyes. That is to say, by casting
a slicing glance at his interlocutors, Warhol was
able to discombobulate them so completely that they
could not concentrate on what they were saying.
They started to repeat themselves, trip over their
own words and generally lose their grip. I remember
ruefully concluding that it was Ali, not Warhol,
who was going to need a buffer. But there was nothing
I could do to stop Ali once he launched his attack.
got rape is high in New York, right? The whole country.
Prostitution. Homosexuality. They marching and you're
shocked to see so many. The gay people, all the
news and murder and killing. They rob. Everything
just go wild. Ain't no religion seem to have no
power. The church is the Pope the everything don't
mean nothing. They talk on Sunday the same song
they sing their message. All hell starts back. And
everything's failing. The governments are crooked,
the people—don't know who to trust. And everything's
gone wild—racism, religious groups bombing
each other. The Muslims now fighting over in Egypt
and Libya, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The whole world
is fighting. Everybody's in trouble, right? So the
good lecture tonight [it was noon] is The Real Cause
of Man's Distress and says they're realities and
laws of nature in the world that we all must obey.
retrospect, this montage—reminiscent of William
Burroughs' The Last Words of Dutch Schultz—probably
had as much to do with the incipient brain damage
that would soon leave Ali almost completely bereft
of his voice as it did with his reactions to any
facial fencing Warhol might have thrown at him.
One of the points Andy made after we left was how
glad he was that "Ali kept looking at me all
the time he was talking."
pausing, Ali continued to fire away:
ask you why we're having so much crime in the world...
Women with their legs wide open, two men screwing
each other right on a magazine stand! You can walk
down the street and duck in a movie and watch them
screwing. Little child sixteen years old go in can
watch them screwing and he's too young to get his
own sex so he gotta rape somebody, he gotta watch
the movie. You go to NYC and see everything in the
movies, every act, oral sex, you sit there and watch
it. And the magazine stands are so filthy you can't
even walk by with your children.
[Screaming] Right? Walk down the street and look
at it, you got children! Women are screwing women!
Men are sucking each other's blood. Public prostitution
on the doorsteps of the White House. Morality in
America has been shattered and the social well-being
destroyed and the powers and facilities which God
has left for the good of mankind are being used
for bombs and bullets and destruction of mankind.
No faith. Man has lost faith in man.
an uninterrupted forty-five minutes Ali careened
through a wide variety of Muslim sayings, "down
home" sayings, imitations, digressions and
constant repetitions. He talked about gravity, meteorites,
jumping out of the window, Israel, Egypt, Zaire,
South Africa, drugs, broken skulls, delusions, angel
food cake, yellow hair, judgement day, shattered
morality, Jesus, boxing, Sweden, the Koran, friendship...
Elvis, relating it all to the central point that
man must obey the laws of God or perish.
his best, Muhammad was a master of oratory. He had
a beautiful voice, hands and face—the essential
tools of a public speaker—and he could work
all three simultaneously. At his worst, he sounded
like somebody who was reading something he did not
I interviewed Ali in the period between 1972 and
1974, he could control his breathing so well he
could rap endlessly, take off on limitless tangents
and still return to make his point every time. During
those years, I sometimes felt as if I was seeing
another Martin Luther King in the making. But by
1977, four years and nine fights later, Ali was
not only missing all his marks, he was rushing his
text, losing its rhythm, at times even rendering
it meaningless. "I am getting ready to go out
and be the next black Billy Graham," he concluded,
apparently harbored the belief that if
he repeated the same thing over and over again,
not only would Warhol come to agree with him, but
he would want to help him get on the lecture circuit
and deliver these well-meant but unbalanced rants
to millions of people around the world. Meanwhile,
the reverse was happening. Despite his image as
the cool, detached observer, Warhol didn't like
being harassed like this, and he particularly despised
any form of paternalism. By now, Ali had pushed
all the wrong buttons in Warhol. What he could not
have known was that Warhol was not only the consummate
listener, he was also the consummate dismisser.
The combination of his slicing glance and his I'm-a-stone-statue-just-sitting-here-being-Andy-Warhol-and-nothing-can-penetrate-me
act would have thrown anyone who had not seen it
before off their spot.
was as creative an interviewer as he was a filmmaker.
In fact, at the outset of his film career, he combined
the two forms in a series of films called Screentests.
His concept was that if he trained his immobile
camera relentlessly on his subjects' faces while
somebody off camera (unheard by the audience) interviewed
them about the most embarrassing experiences in
their lives, the result would be an extraordinarily
revealing, if at times brutal, portrait.
hard beauty of the Ali-Warhol tapes rears up in
their final fifteen minutes. Here Warhol combined
his interviewing skills with an homage to Ali's
rope-a-dope technique to create the most revealing
voice portrait of Ali in this period
of his life that I have ever seen.
as George Foreman in the 1974 title fight in Zaire
was rendered tired and senseless after pounding
away at Ali's body while Ali laid back on the ropes
taking all of the punishment the champion could
inflict, so now was Ali rendered tired and senseless
after pounding away verbally at Warhol for forty-five
minutes while Andy, as it were, lay back on the
ropes taking all the punishment the champion could
inflict. In all the time I had interviewed Ali or
watched Ali being interviewed, I had never seen
him as tired, vulnerable and, without meaning to
be, as honest as he now became. "I'm getting
tired of talking," he admitted ruefully to
Warhol, who remained silent:
all right boss, I'm the first heavyweight champion
that was his own boss. Ain't got nobody to tell
me when to work, when to train, I don't have to
train today, I don't have to run—I didn't
run. I can do anything. I can leave town today.
I'm free. Herbert Muhammad is the boss, and he never
even seen me train, he don't come to bother me.
I'm totally free, I'm the first free black world
man they've ever had.
and everything that went before it, was vintage
Ali, but what Warhol really got out of Muhammad
Ali that day, which no other interviewer I know
of ever did, was the feeling of desperation the
champion was beginning to have about getting out
of boxing. Again, bearing in mind that the transcription
is ˆ la Warhol's word-for-word prescription, read
this with the care and attention you would read
a poem: "I mean, no, I'm free, I can't get
fired, don't have nobody black or white that are
my boss," Ali said.
can't do what you want to do. You can't say take
this policy to the TV station or who you gonna tell
you got to come do your story, do what they say
you do, you can't take off when you want to take
the onliest free, black or what, actual entertainer
that's free to do what he want. That's something.
That's a good feeling. I'm on time. I work. Tell
you I'm gonna be here today, I am, right? I just
got in yesterday, I'm on time, I'm on my own...
So all I'm gonna do, I gotta couple bums to meet,
then I retire, get my briefcase, get my stuff, like
a Billy Graham, seriously and we got a hundred thousand
in Jamaica, Manly, Miscall Manly the Jamaica coliseum,
they got a hundred thousand people waiting. Penelton,
black prime minister of the Bahamas, they got sixty-five
thousand in a soccer field waiting for me.
So by me fighting two more fights I can do all this
preaching, I can get this ministry started, let
them know what to look for next. But if I say retire
and then go call a press conference to tell you
all that I want to be is an Islamic evangelist,
then they won't print it, they're gonna hide it,
they won't let it get out, cause its power to get
out, its certain powers. But they gotta do it if
I'm in the ring just knock 'em out and grab the
mike: "Isamaleka," means peace on earth
to all my brothers of the world. I thank almighty
God, Allah, my power, if it were not for Allah,
my God, and the power of religion, I wouldn't be
here at thirty-five years old breaking all these
records. All my Muslim brothers all colors of all
the world, Isamaleka, two billion are watching,
"hello," I call out to all the Pakistanis
and Indians, Morocco, Africa, I tell you I know
them. So what I'm saying, they rejoice. How can
I get that if I don't fight? If I want a message
going on the world beam wire, how'm I gonna, what,
President Carter don't talk to the world. He talk
to America, everybody sure be telling you, but he
never talks to the world. I talk to the world when
I fight, I mean the world is there. So if I fight
two more fights, three more fights, I talk to the
world three times and I might have forty-five press
conferences and you all take pictures of my mosque.
If I don't fight you wouldn't be here, so boxing
and entertaining I use as bait, you go fishing,
you put a worm in the water and then the worm, then
the fish see the worm you bite it, and behind the
worm is a hook, he got more'n he asked for. So I
put the movies out, premieres, I pull up in a Rolls
Royce in England, my tux here, I get out and me
and my wife and all the people looking, they respect
people like that, I go to Madison Square Garden,
the seats'll be packed, the stands'll be packed
you'll see 'em selling popcorn and smoke in the
arena, in this corner Muhammad Ali! And I go into
my Islamic prayer, promoting my faith, God. But
if I wasn't fighting... So I can just take one more
year, three more fights, and get one hundred million
dollars worth of publicity, to let the people know
what I'm getting ready to go and do.
way I see it, Andy Warhol painted two
portraits of Muhammad Ali that hot day in August
twenty-one years ago: There is the silk-screen image
on canvas of the fearless champion, his fists curled
just below his face ready to snap off a barrage
of punches, and there is the voice of the creative
rapper, not unlike Elvis Presley in his last days
on stage, trying to make sense out of the all-important
fact that he is free, along with the fact that he
has to fight "only three more fights."
It was sense that Ali would not, indeed could not,
have made at the time, precisely because he was
not free but was in fact the unwitting captive of
the parasites who had attached themselves to him
since the 1960s. These leeches who chose his doctors,
lawyers and financial advisors siphoned as much
cash as they could from him, careless of his well-being,
his health or the future.
his gift for deftly putting things in perspective,
Warhol did not utter a word until we were out of
earshot but still in sight of Ali. Before the limousine
that had brought us to Fighter's Heaven cleared
its parking lot, he was all over me with his reaction
and one central, jabbing question:
problem is he's in show business. It's hard to get
out. I mean, it's like, he could be threatened.
But I'm surprised fighters don't take drugs, because
it's just like being a rock star. You get out there
and you're entertaining thirty thousand people.
I mean, you're a different person. I think that's
why Ali's different. But what did he say? Two guys
sitting on a what? Why throw that in? That's so
funny. I think he's a male chauvinist pig, right?
He's a male chauvinist pig? Because, I mean, how
can he preach like that? It's so crazy, he just
repeats the same simplicity over and over again,
and then it drums on people's ears. Maybe he was
just doing it especially for us. I don't know. It's
so crazy. But he can say the same things because
he's so good looking that he has something more
than another person does.
It was good to see, but it shouldn't have been so
long. I think he was just torturing us.
What I can't figure out is, is he intelligent? I
know he's clever, but I mean, is he intelligent?
Is he intelligent? That's what I can't figure out.