Oral history on "uptight" (1966)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Dec 29 15:23:58 UTC 2005

A few months ago Wilson Gray initiated a thread on the change in
connotation of "uptight" from positive ('excellent') to negative
('tense, on edge'). This change apparently occurred sometime in the
mid-'60s, despite the 1934 cite given in the OED from J. M. Cain's
_The Postman Always Rings Twice_ ("I'm getting up tight now, and I've
been thinking about Cora"). Jon Lighter speculated that, given the
context, the Cain cite actually meant 'up close (to my imminent
execution)' rather than 'tense'. See:

Anyway, I've been reading _Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History
of Punk_ by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (1996), and I came across
some interesting interviews having to do with a series of mixed-media
performances called "Andy Warhol Up-Tight" on Feb. 8-13, 1966. The
performances were at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in New York (125
West 41 St) and combined films by Warhol with music by the Velvet

p. 12
BILLY NAME [Warhol's photographer]: The entire thing was first called
"Uptight" because when Andy would do something, everybody would get
uptight. Andy was sort of the antithesis to what the avant-garde
romantic artists were at that time.
Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Stan Vanderbeek were still bohemian
avant-garde hero artists, whereas Andy was not even an antihero, he
was a zero. And it just made them grit their teeth to have Warhol
becoming recognized as the core of this thing they had built. So
everybody was always uptight whenever we showed up.

p. 13
RONNIE CUTRONE [Warhol's studio assistant]: The other groups were
taking acid. By this time I was basically off of acid, I was into
Methedrine, because you had to get uptight. "Uptight" used to have a
good connotation -- you know, like Stevie Wonder's song "uptight," but
we changed it to mean rigid and paranoid. Hence Methedrine.

These two accounts are somewhat conflicting (not surprising, given
that this is an oral history published three decades after the fact,
describing a notoriously drug-addled scene). Billy Name's account
suggests that "uptight" = 'tense' was in common use by then (note
OED's cite from Feb. 13, 1966 in the _Sunday Times_ -- perhaps
referring to the Warhol series, then just ending?). Cutrone suggests
that the Methedrine users at Warhol's Factory were responsible for the
change in meaning and popularized it with the title of the series. Or
perhaps the title was meant to have a double meaning: the approbative
sense known to the general public through the Stevie Wonder song then
on the charts, and the new 'nervous' sense known to speed freaks and
others in and around that scene.

Warhol's "Up-Tight" series also described here:
Excerpt from _Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story_ by Victor
Bockris and Gerard Malanga:
Ad in the _East Village Other_:

_Please Kill Me_ is also searchable on Amazon:

--Ben Zimmer

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