If You Can’t Find a Good Reason for Doing Something, a Stupid Reason Will Do
But now that the Chateau was no longer on the agenda, the whole thing felt less like a jubilant send-off and more like, well, two blokes meeting a girl in a bar. And with Joe now virtually mute I felt the sudden pressure of having to carry the whole evening on my own. There was nothing for it but to drink heroic quantities of alcohol. It would make us funnier, more erudite and generally better company than if we’d had none at all. Joe valiantly joined in, quickly establishing that a steady flow of bourbon was just what the doctor ordered to soothe the rasp in his throat. We were starting to loosen up. By the time Terra arrived we were already at least three sheets to the wind, possibly more.
We recognised her immediately from the videos we had seen on the Internet. Inevitably she was smaller than we’d expected. (What’s the web equivalent of ‘you look smaller than you do on the telly’? In fact aren’t people supposed to look bigger than they do on the Internet?) Attractive with striking features, she had long, dark hair and wore a black, short-sleeved blouse with a ruffle at the neck and translucent sleeves which revealed an intricate, swirling tattoo on her upper left arm.
We exchanged kisses to both cheeks – it seemed like the right thing to do when greeting LA cyber-royalty, though to my knowledge there’s no established protocol here – and I ordered drinks for us all.
‘Do you guys have any money?’ she enquired.
Good lord, this one didn’t waste any time. I know struggling musicians find themselves short of a dollar from time to time, but hadn’t she just pulled up in a Mercedes? And, come to think of it, hadn’t she just signed a lucrative publishing deal with Universal?
‘The ATM was broken and I don’t have a cent on me. I’m so embarrassed.’
Fair enough. Broken ATM or not, I suppose it wouldn’t do for a lady, much less a popstar, to be entertained by two gentlemen and have to buy her own drinks.
We sat down and explained how the idea for the trip had been born, talked through our rough itinerary and what we planned to do along the way. Fortified by the booze, Joe and I slipped into what would turn out to be a familiar and well-trodden schtick before we even knew we were doing it. Tonight, as on many others over the coming weeks when faced with a willing American audience, we adopted the patter and dynamic of a TV comedy duo, but with long, overblown anecdotes instead of actual jokes. Out came the favourite about The KLF burning a million pounds of their own money in the name of art, the one about Bill Drummond’s travails trying to sell a Richard Long photograph for $20,000 (and how thirty, dollar-sized pieces of it ended up hanging on my living room wall – more of which in a minute), even the one about Joe’s mum being a professional chocolate taster who counsels anorexics in her spare time. Our audience was enraptured and we were playing to it, pulling out only our choicest yarns and spinning them out with hilarious asides and amusing bonus content. We were literally the two funniest, most engaging people on earth.
Joe, to give him his due, is a wonderful raconteur. When he’s in ‘oratorical mode’ – usually after no more than one- and-a-half glasses of rosé – you can wind him up, let him go, and settle in for several hours of gripping, ripping entertainment. His capacity for memorising names, dates, quotations, entire speeches, lists or anniversaries, and then weaving them into an exhilarating narrative, is astonishing. Conversationally he can hold his own on any subject you care to throw at him – music, cinema, technology, travel, literature, sport. From Rush to Rachmaninov, Swayze to Scorsese, quantum theory to Timothy Leary, Harland not only knows things that you don’t, he’ll impart them with all the timing and precision of a seasoned toastmaster. You name it, Joe knows stuff about it. And he’s going to tell you.
(What’s more – and this delights me and enrages others – he talks like he’s on the radio more or less all the time, most often, but not limited to, Radio 4. Give him a call on his mobile some time and have a listen to his voicemail greeting. It has all the hypnotic, undulating timbre of the shipping forecast, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of his carefully constructed message. Or watch his fingers on the table as he’s chatting away in a bar and you’ll notice him reflexively fading records in and out of his own amusing repartee. He can’t help himself.)
Allow me at this point, if you will, a brief excursion into the crazy world of art terrorist and avant-pop artiste Bill Drummond of The KLF. It is necessary here I think because, first of all, the reference above to the $20,000 Richard Long photo probably needs a bit of background. Secondly, it might give you some idea of how unutterably bored Terra must have been by the time we were through with the story. And lastly, it might just give you some sense of the spirit of arty stupidness in which this whole ridiculous enterprise was conceived. It was the same spirit of arty stupidness that led Chris and me to becoming the only two men on the entire planet driving across America to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of a virtually unknown country-rock artist. Drummond, after all, was a man who once drove around London’s orbital M25 motorway for twenty-five hours in order to find out where it led.
I’ll try and keep it short. A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind was a landscape photograph, taken by Long and bought by Drummond, of a small stone circle somewhere in Iceland. Bill decided one morning that the photo, which hung on the wall of his Buckinghamshire home, needed to complete a circle of its own. He planned to sell the photograph for the exact amount he paid for it, bury the cash under the stone circle which featured in the original work, take a photograph of it, and then hang the resulting work – under the new name The Smell of Money Underground – in precisely the spot that the original had occupied in his house. You have to admit it has a certain illogical symmetry to it.
How To Be An Artist is a book by Drummond which tells the story of how he tried to find a buyer for the photograph by placing placards in hundreds of unremarkable locations around the country: attached to motorway flyovers and road signs, tied to parking meters or garden gates – you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have any takers. The book was also a present from Chris on my thirtieth birthday, the same year as the Butch and Sundance card which started all this.
Undeterred by his failure to flog the photograph by unconventional means, Drummond’s next tack was to go one better; he cut it into twenty thousand evenly-sized pieces and tried selling them individually for a dollar each. When the last of the pieces had sold, he would take the cash to Iceland as planned and complete the work of art he had held in his head since he removed it from the wall of his house.
Which is how thirty tiny pieces, or precisely 0.15 per cent, of A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind came to be hanging on my living room wall – framed, individually mounted and certified by Drummond himself. Continuing the Drummond- related exchange of gifts, for my thirtieth birthday Joe had bought thirty dollars’ worth of the fragmented photograph, one for each of my years, and in doing so completed a little circle of our own. This was the table-sized work of art I was concerned about not losing when I ‘mislaid’ Joe’s home- made birthday card. It is the nicest, most thoughtful present anyone has ever bought me. It’s also the only piece of ‘real’ art that I own. So you can see a sort of pattern emerging: a tradition of marking ridiculous anniversaries in ever more ridiculous ways. You can also sort of see why we sort of had to spend nearly a month of our lives driving 4,500 miles in search of rock and roll America as a sixtieth birthday present to a musician most people have never heard of. After all, who else was going to do it?
And there was one more Drummond dictum which had stuck in our minds back in the planning stages. Another of his books – The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way – had asserted that being a Radio 1 producer was one of the fastest ways of losing touch with whatever finer qualities your soul may once have had. We weren’t sure whether this was true of us – what would we know, we were Radio 1 producers after all – but surely a quest to find the soul of American music might help us hold onto what few fine qualities we had left.
Several hours and a good deal more Jack Daniels later, Terra finally got a word in edge ways.
‘Those guys, the ones that burned a million dollars…’
‘Quid,’ blurted Joe. ‘A million quid. That’s nearly two million dollars.’
‘Right, a million quid. Why would they do that?’
‘Art,’ I burped, slamming my glass on the table top for emphasis.
‘Art?’ replied Terra, incredulously.
‘Yep. They made a film called Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.’
‘What, and then sold it to a studio?’
‘So how did they make the money back?’
‘They didn’t. That’s the whole point. If they had, it wouldn’t have been art,’ I explained, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. And it kind of was the most obvious thing in the world, to Joe and me at least.
‘But… I don’t get it. How is that art?’
‘How is anything art?’ said Joe, as though by simply asking the question he had settled once and for all a matter which has been taxing the finest minds in the world for centuries.
‘It just seems like such a waste,’ said Terra. ‘Couldn’t they have just given it to charity?’
‘Of course they couldn’t have given it to charity,’ I jumped in, ‘otherwise it wouldn’t have been art.’
‘And beshides,’ added Joe, his sore throat now a distant, bourbon-tinged memory, ‘isn’t it fun to do something just for the shake of it shometimes?’
‘I gue-ess…’ said Terra, with a weary look suggesting she was actually thinking ‘... and I’m going to spend a whole day with these losers tomorrow?’
Now don’t get me wrong. Neither Joe nor I had any pretensions that what we were doing was art. We were under no illusions that this was anything more than two friends on the road in search of rock and roll America, hoping to learn a little something along the way. What we were doing though, was making a grand gesture for the hell of it, because if you can’t find a good reason for doing something, then a stupid one will have to do. In our own little way we were burning a million quid, or at the very least circumnavigating the M25 for twenty-five hours. And we didn’t care whether people got it or not.