Oral history on "uptight" (1966)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Dec 31 03:50:49 UTC 2005

The film was produced in 1964.

  A search at Amazon.com does not reveal the presence of "uptight," "up tight," or "up-tight" in Edward Lewis Wallant's source novel (1961).


Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Wilson Gray
Subject: Re: Oral history on "uptight" (1966)

On 12/29/05, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: Benjamin Zimmer
> Subject: Oral history on "uptight" (1966)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------=
> 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:
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=3Dind0508A&L=3DADS-L&P=3D1=
> 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
> Underground.
> -----
> 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" =3D '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:
> http://www.warholstars.org/chron/1966.html
> Excerpt from _Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story_ by Victor
> Bockris and Gerard Malanga:
> http://www.warholstars.org/warhol/warhol1/warhol1c/warhol1cl/uptight.html
> Ad in the _East Village Other_:
> http://www.warholstars.org/warhol/warhol1/andy/warhol/chron/pix/uptight.j=
> _Please Kill Me_ is also searchable on Amazon:
> http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0140266909/
> --Ben Zimmer

Uh, my point was actually the loss of the *positive* meaning. My earliest
memory of the use of "up tight" - ca.1962 - is that it could be either
positive or negative, according to context. The earliest negative use that =
can actually *document* without doing any research elsewhere than in my
memory occurs in the 1965 movie, _The Pawnbroker_, when the black robber
quietly says to the white pawnbroker, "Cool it, baby. Don't get up tight."
But this negative use was hardly new. Of course, then-Little Stevie Wonder'=
recording using the phrase with the positive meaning was also released in
1965 and probably influenced a far larger number of slang-users than did
_The Pawnbroker_, a B&W "art" movie destined to become a "classic."
Likewise, this positive usage was not new. So, we know that the loss of the
positive meaning had to have started ca.1965, given the ease with which
anyone can show that the phrase was still being used with both polarities
during that year.

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