Joe Dallesandro

At home with Joe Dallesandro: an incredibly rare and candid conversation with the Warhol superstar
By Alex James Taylor | Art | 6 August 2018

On what would’ve been Andy Warhol’s 90th birthday, we revisit our HERO 16 feature with Warhol’s superstar muse Joe Dallesandro, interviewed by his ‘adopted son’ and musician Thiago Pethit and photographed by friend and legendary photographer Brad Elterman at Dallesandro’s apartment building in Hollywood.  

“Hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side,” sang Lou Reed in reference to Joe ‘Little Joe’ Dallesandro. And walk on the wild side he did. From immortalising himself in Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s seminal art films to later working with cultural provocateurs such as John Waters, Serge Gainsbourg and Bob Mizer, Dallesandro became the ultimate pin-up for the underground scene, continuing the antihero lineage for a new generation of misfits.

Brazilian musician Thiago Pethit fit this outsider mould, and upon watching Warhol’s superstar in Flesh – that macho hustler with the red bandana and cigarette perfectly balanced between his lips – he was immediately drawn to the on-screen protagonist. Fast forward ten years or so and it all came full circle, having been shown Pethit’s music video for Moon, a reiteration of Flesh, Dallesandro felt an instant bond with the translation. The next day he messaged the musician – “Congratulations on the video. I’m glad you were inspired by me” – and they have developed into “this odd little family” ever since.

Now the pair get together at Dallesandro’s Hollywood base, the conversation below comes from the latest of these occasions. Against the LA sunset, these two misfits shoot the breeze.


Thiago Pethit: I remember we first met through Facebook when you saw my video for Moon which was inspired by Flesh. Do you remember the first time you saw it?
Joe Dallesandro: No.

TP: No? [laughs]
JD: It was a long time ago now. I watched it with Kim [Dallesandro, Joe’s wife], I remember that. We saw it together, it was pretty cool and I liked it. Don’t ask me to remember that long ago, I can hardly remember from day to day right now.

TP: I remember the first time I came to LA to see you, I’d read all the stories about you, that you were tough and that you worked the security at Andy Warhol’s Factory, and I remember the first day we met, I really thought you were a tough guy. Then all of a sudden I discovered you were really quite sweet [laughs], has it always been like this?
JD: I’ve always had diplomacy when I interact with people so that people feel free to talk to me and get their side across. But then if you start getting too tough with me, I don’t like that.

TP: You’re still like this?
JD: Yeah, I’m still like this because there’s no reason for you to show me that you’re a tough guy, I don’t care. I want you to interact as a human being, you don’t have to be afraid of me and I don’t have to be afraid of you. When you start cursing at somebody it’s because you’re afraid, and instead of coming from a place of fear you have to learn and understand what’s going on and not just react because you’re afraid.

TP: I feel I’m the opposite.
JD: Well, your city that you live in has a heavier violence right now. We have that here too, but I don’t go out to the city, I stay in my little show [city].

“Like with the Andy Warhol situation, I went to him because I was interested in Campbell’s soup, I just wanted to get a bowl of soup [laughs].”

TP: Yeah, but that’s something we have in common, I feel that your home to you is like this shell and I feel this way too. Here’s a secret, [whispers] I don’t really like people [laughs]. I don’t particularly like sharing things with people or having social moments. I feel like you’re the same.
JD: Yeah, it’s because people take advantage, they’ll just keep taking. The more you want to be a nice guy, the more people take, take, take. So rather than be abused, just back up and say, “I don’t need all that.” In fact, all you really need in life is just one friend, you can be nice and polite with everyone, but you can’t be friends with everybody. I love when people from Facebook walk up to me in the street and tell me they’re my friend, I don’t know you!

TP: [laughs]
JD: They all want to tell me they’re my friend.

TP: I also have this feeling that you seem tough, and then sweet, but everything about you, and Kim also, everything seems to be unpredictable. Every time I come to LA, unpredictable things happen, maybe it’s just because Kim is…
JD: Explosive [laughs].

TP: Explosive. We go down Hollywood Boulevard chasing for a pizza and she starts talking to anyone and everyone, she makes friends so easily. Then all of a sudden we have random people round here, like Gus [Van Sant] or the guys from The Dandy Warhols, so I always get the feeling that something unpredictable might happen and that’s something that has a lot to do with you, I think. In your career, you’ve been in so many historic things, you’ve worked with people like Bob Mizer, Andy Warhol, Louis Malle, Serge Gainsbourg, and I have the feeling that it was all unpredicted.
JD: Yeah, people would come up to me and know about me through something else. So I showed up at his place and they kept telling me he was an artist but I didn’t know how art had anything to do with soup. I was a young kid and over time Paul Morrissey became my mentor. To me, these movies they were making were just silliness, they weren’t really movies, but yet they had a big following and people wanted to see me, they wanted to see how I reacted to certain situations. Paul taught me the importance of the films. So yeah, the Andy Warhol thing was an accident, but Paul groomed me and made sure I would be able to react the right way and I allowed that to happen by realising that I needed to get some good information and interact with the world. He also got me ready to go to work in Europe, he didn’t think I’d have any success here. I don’t know why, I think it was mainly because he didn’t want to see me working here in America but not working with him.

TP: Yeah, he was much more your mentor than Andy was, right?
JD: Yeah. Then I went to Europe and got to work with a lot of great directors and film people, really important people. It wasn’t anything I did, I didn’t search them out, they searched for me. So that was pretty fucking cool, you know? [laughs]

TP: Even for me nowadays, I get the feeling that the European artistic scene is much more into something I can give to them rather than the American culture, which is sort of the other way around.
JD: Back then they found me more interesting than in America.

TP: Even now, when you received the medal of honour in Paris [Joe received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2012], that’s really cool, that’s hot important.
JD: I don’t know how important it was to me. I didn’t really get it, you know? Nobody gave me a sword [laughs], nobody went like this [pretends to knight Thiago] and knighted me, there was no big ceremony. It was a pin. I think it’s more important to the people who know me.

TP: That’s exactly how you felt working with Warhol, right? Like it wasn’t particularly important to you but it was to them.
JD: Yeah, but it was more important to me when I found out that Europeans love my work, it was a lot more interesting to them than it was to Americans. Americans weren’t into the underground scene, well not at first, it did become successful later on.

TP: Your generation, I feel you guys were doing things that you couldn’t even realise how important they would become… like, maybe doing wrong things at the time was pushing the boundaries of the future. So many times you got naked on screen, the taboos about sexuality and masculinity, all those things, you were pushing the boundaries, but did you realise?
JD: No, you don’t realise it when you’re doing it. Paul knew though and he tried to make me aware of the significance of what I was doing. It was all new to me, I came from a real rigid and strict Christian upbringing, but I was a bad boy and got myself in trouble and things like that.

TP: Is it true that you stole a car and got shot in the leg by police?
JD: Yeah, they’re all true stories. But yeah, Paul always reminded me that these movies – even though I complained because I didn’t feel comfortable with being naked sometimes because I didn’t see the reason for it – would someday show in museums throughout the world and they weren’t some porno movie, they were important. He’d emphasise this to me and tell me not to look at it as something that will be bad for my career, because I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be in movies, I liked doing it when I did it but I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do. I felt more comfortable just looking after the Factory and taking care of the films, sending them off to be shown, I felt more comfortable doing that rather than being in front of the camera. But Paul kept working with me and kept pushing me, he’d educate me by showing me movies so that I would be ready for Europe and ready to work with those art film directors. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to make shoot em’ ups [laughs].

TP: Do you think the naked thing was bad for your career?
JD: No, when I lived in Europe I was afraid for many years that when I came back to America I’d have a real hard time working in film, but that wasn’t the truth at all. When I got back here they wanted me for regular movies.

TP: I want to tell you a story that is a bit awkward [laughs]. About four or five years ago, I got into a really big depression. I’d just released my first album at that time and releasing my first work, it was about getting reviews and getting the public to judge me or to like me.
JD: You put yourself out there.

TP: Yeah and at the time I felt completely misunderstood and I felt like I didn’t fit.
JD: Into the normality of the world?

TP: Yeah.
JD: People review your work and there will be good reviews and bad reviews. People will like it, and people won’t. If you feel good about when people like it, you’re going to feel just as bad about it when people don’t like it.

TP: But I felt like people were liking it for the wrong reasons. I was in this depression, I couldn’t work and I stopped touring. I remember I started to read Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids and I started to read about the Chelsea Hotel and there was something about those people and the Factory people that really opened my mind. During that time it was all about finding a family, right? This bunch of misfitted people, I have the feeling that you were all the wrong people in the right place, and in the right moment. I went to New York at that time and I visited the Chelsea Hotel but they were renovating it and they were not accepting visitors. You see this tattoo I have on my wrist that says ‘Candy’? Candy was my pass to get in the hotel because I went during the day and they sent me away saying no visitors were allowed, but then I went back at night with a friend and we were pretty drunk, and on the wall of the Chelsea Hotel I saw a neon sign that said, ‘Tattoo 24hr’. So I went in there pretending that I wanted a tattoo, I had no intention of actually getting one that night, but they let me in and…
Joe: So this tattoo parlour was actually in the hotel?

TP: Yeah, in the hotel. So I started to walk up the stairs to see how it all looked but then the security called me back and I had to get the tattoo…
JD: You could’ve said that you were just looking and you’d think about it. You were a punk, they punk’d you into getting a tattoo and spending your money [laughs].

TP: I got punk’d! So yeah, you and Candy were my favourite Factory superstars who I really identified with. But I couldn’t get ‘Joe’ tattooed on me because that’s a real fucking name [laughs]. Do you remember Candy well?
JD: Yeah, Candy was very quiet. But I didn’t socialise with any of these people really, I was very nice to them when we came together to do any work but we didn’t hang out really. They were all afraid of me because I was the popular one with Paul and it’s important to be popular with the person who is putting you in front of the camera, that’s the person who makes you look good and gives you a good story. So it was a combination of Andy’s name and ideas and Paul putting these different people together in a scene that made these movies so interesting. I always said that Paul had the greatest eye for casting, and I believe that’s because he wanted to know everything about a person on the first day of meeting, nobody wants to tell everything about themselves, but he had a way of worming it out of you and making you tell him everything about yourself so he could pretend that he knew you. That’s how it was when we worked on Flesh and Trash, he put together this group of people and told us this small synopsis of the story, of what he wanted us to talk about, and we just went from there. Because he picked out interesting people we were able to improvise a small story and it was like a documentary for people, they thought they were seeing a piece of truth. I remember when people thought I was the drug addict from Trash, they all wrote me letters saying, “Joe, please don’t do drugs, please, please.” People saw them as documentaries, not films, they thought it was us telling our lives. Paul would tell us bits about what direction he wanted it to go towards and then put in the nudity he wanted, he’d always get me to do scenes that I thought weren’t necessary, but I’d do them and felt that if Paul said it’s right then I’d do it.

TP: You really trusted him. Do you still talk to Paul?
JD: Yeah, I still talk to him.

TP: So now there’s you, Paul and Viva [Hoffman] left to tell the story, right?
JD: Yeah. Paul can’t tell the story anymore because he doesn’t remember the story [laughs].

TP: The last time I came to LA, I remember that Holly [Woodlawn] was in the hospital and she died the day before I went home. You became close friends with her, right?
JD: You know why that came about? It was because they offered Holly to come to Cannes and these different places and Paul would tell me that I had to accompany her because he was afraid for her to go by herself. So I had to make sure Holly got from New York to Cannes without being stopped.

TP: So Paul was almost like a father to you all?
JD: Yeah, pretty much. One time we were out here on the West Coast at a party at Jane Fonda’s place and there were a lot of people there and everyone was drinking and playing hoopla and Paul said, “Don’t go near those people, they’re just looking to get you into bed.” I was like, “What’re you talking about?” But I didn’t go near them, I did what he said and stayed away. Then he came back after the party and said, “I don’t think you should drink when you go out because I took note that when you drink you don’t stop, you drink too much, you’re an alcoholic.” I told him, “No, I can stop, I just like drinking.” But the truth was, he took note that I drank a lot. So now, I can go to the parties but I can’t drink, and I definitely can’t sleep with anybody, you know? But he should’ve been more truthful and honest, today he believes that he did it all on his own, if you talk to him it had nothing to do with anybody else. He doesn’t even want anyone to say that Andy Warhol had anything to do with the films. So yeah, Paul is not too right in the head anymore, I love him to pieces but he’s far out.

TP: I remember at that time, when I was in LA and Holly passed away, I got back home and I saw Caitlyn Jenner saying nice things about Trump [laughs], it’s so fucked. You worked with John Waters and shared lots of nice moments with trans people when it was not cool or celebrity, how do you feel about… not specifically about Caitlyn Jenner, but about the weird times we are living in right now and today’s politics? The world is so fucked up, right?
JD: Remember, I was in a period where everything was messed up and there were protests and stuff, but all the time you felt that down the road everything was going to be different because all these people would grow up and be the people in power and everything would change for the better. Well all those people grew up and became bigger assholes than the people who went before them. How does that happen? All of these people back then, every single one of them smoked a joint, there’s nobody that went through the 60s that can say that they weren’t part of the scene, because everyone tried to be part of it. That’s why I had this belief that when these people came into power everything would change. It changed, but for the worse [laughs].

TP: Living in Brazil, we had some good economic years but now we are a fucking mess again, the President was recently impeached by a coup, it’s all a mess. But I remember that throughout the hard times at home, when I saw the Factory films, you guys were like my anti-heroes.
JD: I’m glad. I was always truthful about everything, I just tried to keep telling the truth about how I felt, so if people came to me later on I wouldn’t have to think about what I said because it always stayed the same. My life was interesting enough, so I didn’t have to make shit up.

TP: And you met so many people.
JD: Oh yeah.

“So I said I’d do it myself and I put my arm on a board and with Indian ink and a pin I just kept stabbing and stabbing and stabbing, and I was the only one with a tattoo there in this reform school who didn’t get an infection.”

TP: Many people think you are quite an inaccessible guy, but for me, it was the opposite, I’ve always found you so open.
JD: Well you did something really good that I found interesting. You know, you did. You found something interesting to you and were able to reinterpret it in your own way, you brought your generation up to date with what was happening back then and you did it in a really classy way, and that’s hard to do. I remember one time down in West Hollywood, they were doing a show and this lesbian girl was portraying Little Joe and she was great, she had the bandana and everything, you know?

TP: Do you still have the bandanas?
JD: No, come on. I have bandanas, but not from that period.

TP: [laughs] So what about this girl?
JD: I just thought it was cool that she would do me and guys would be doing the women, I was like, “This is so cool.” They did a small reenactment of Flesh as a theatre piece and I thought it was cool, I like when people take things a step further than anybody else. I always have to go over and tell people when I think something is good and they always get frightened when I approach them because I can look like a scary guy, I don’t mean to but I am [laughs]. Then they want to kick my ass when they realise I’m not a tough guy!

TP: Nowadays you mostly work from home as the manager of the Brevoort Hotel, or The Chelsea West, as you call it [laughs]. Would you ever go back to working in movies or things like that?
JD: What you’ve got to realise is that I’m pretty old now…

TP: No you aren’t.
JD: No, I’m serious. I don’t have the energy, right now I’m so exhausted I could go into the bedroom and sleep. When I did The Dandy Warhols’ video for You Are Killing Me it was just two days of shooting, but they were full days and I had to be in everything, it was tough. I don’t have the energy anymore.

TP: How long have you been working at the Brevoort for?
JD: Close to fifteen years, and I lived upstairs for a long time before I became the manager. I lived upstairs because when I got here the rent was so cheap that I could live upstairs without having to work another film, just collecting residuals from old movies. It was great because I basically got to retire early and didn’t have to try real hard to get more jobs. It was great, and it still is.

TP: Do people who live here know who you are?
JD: Some of them, I don’t talk about what I’ve done to people. I’m doing it with you now but normally I wouldn’t.

TP: Do you have any regrets?
JD: I always felt as I was growing up that my tattoo was the stupidest thing I ever did. They show forever, you can’t be ‘Little Joe’ forever, and in movies they couldn’t cover one that big with make-up. So when I’m playing a part I had ‘Joe’ on my arm.

TP: Who did your tattoo?
JD: I did it. I had someone with me who wrote it on my arm because I couldn’t do that, so he wrote ‘Little Joe’ and drew the scroll. Then he started to do the tattoo and he stabbed me once and I screamed like, “Oh no man, it hurts so bad.” So I said I’d do it myself and I put my arm on a board and with Indian ink and a pin I just kept stabbing and stabbing and stabbing, and I was the only one with a tattoo there in this reform school who didn’t get an infection. I went over it so many times that even if I hadn’t used ink, it’s a scar that reads ‘Little Joe’. So Little Joe will be there forever. Thiago: You created a character without knowing. Joe: Yeah, but there was already a Little Joe on the TV show Bonanza [sings theme tune].

TP: [laughs] Was it because of that?
JD: No, my Little Joe was because everyone in my family was called Joe…

TP: I thought it was because you aren’t tall.
JD: Yeah, but also because I was the youngest Joe in the family.

TP: Your son is also called Joe, right? And your grandson too.
JD: Yeah, and my father and my grandfather and my great grandfather. That’s why when my first marriage ended and my wife had Michael I was so pissed off that she didn’t name him Joe. That was because we separated that she did that, she did it just to be mean, she knew that I wanted my first son to be called Joe. His middle name is Joseph, so he’s Michael Joseph Dallesandro, although my real name is Angelo, Joseph Angelo, you know? Even though he has Joseph as a middle name, it still sucked. Then I had my other son Joe through my second marriage.

TP: And how long have you been with Kim now?
JD: Me and Kimbo have been together for a long time. We divorced but then we got married again.

TP: She takes really good care of you. I have a question for you, all the things I’ve read about Andy Warhol, I feel that he was a genius in his creative output, but also in the way he was, he celebrated individuality and being true to yourself. How was your relationship with Andy?
JD: I remember one time he was doing an interview and they asked about his sexual preference, which is a stupid fucking question to ask Andy, but he answered with, “I wouldn’t throw Mick Jagger out of bed.” I thought that was brilliant, so I started using that too.

TP: [laughs] I’ll start using that from now on. You were telling me the other day that you didn’t realise he was wearing a wig.
JD: I have this thing where I see people by what they show me, so if you dress as a woman and come over, I’ll treat you as a woman, I’ll treat you as you portray yourself to me. Whatever you show to me is what you want me to see. I found out about Andy’s wig when he was in hospital, I didn’t go see him because they told me that Andy didn’t want anyone to see him because he didn’t have his hair on, and I was like, “What do you mean he doesn’t have his hair on?” And they told me it was a wig, I was like, “What’re you talking about?” I thought they were just joking to me because I always saw him with hair.

TP: When was the last time you saw Andy?
JD: Oh, it was a while ago. I don’t even remember.

TP: I want to ask you something I never found out. I heard that when Madonna made that video inspired by Warhol’s Factory, that she invited you to play on the video, why didn’t you do it?
JD: Because I was too sexy for my clothes, man.

[both laugh]

JD: I hope that when you go home and listen to the few things that came out of my mouth, that there are some things to write about and you aren’t like, “I told them I’d get this chatting done with him but basically he rambled on about nothing. There was this one moment when he just kept talking and talking and I was like what the fuck, shut up man!” [laughs]

Thiago: People don’t usually get this opportunity to hear you talk this much, so that’s something special.

Photography also features: Kris Kidd, Richie Davis, Lida Fox, Juju Sorelli, Gabe Niles and Justin Gossman.

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