On the afternoon of Tuesday, 8th of December, 2020, I lost one of my dearest friends and the world lost a unique and wonderful composer and musician. Harold Budd passed away in a California hospital bed, alone due to the Covid restrictions which prevented his loved ones from spending those last hours by his side.
It was the middle of Tuesday afternoon when my ’phone rang. I’d just finished having lunch with my son Elliot, so Emiko went to answer the call. I could immediately tell something was wrong from the way her voice fell. I took the ’phone from her hands as tears started to stream down her cheeks. On the other end of the line was Elise Fahey, the beloved partner of my friend Harold Budd. Through sobs Elise told me that Harold had passed away just two hours ago. She was heartbroken, as was I. The shock was devastating, even though I had known that Harold was seriously ill.
I had been exchanging emails with Elise for a week or two after she had written to tell me that Harold had suffered a stroke on the 11th of November and was in a hospital rehabilitation unit. Harold’s communication skills had been impaired by the stroke but his mind was still shining bright. But then his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to ER, suffering from pneumonia and breathing problems. He was put on oxygen and antibiotics, though a test for the Covid virus came back negative.
Over the next couple of days his condition sometimes seemed to improve a little but other times deteriorated. Elise was managing to speak with him via ’phone calls and a couple of video calls. I sent a message to Harold via Elise and she told me that he perked up when she read it to him. By now though, Harold was on the maximum amount of oxygen and was tested again for Covid. Elise said she was waiting for the results of the test. Two days later, I got the call from Elise to say that Harold had died. The test results had been positive. It seems that Harold had caught the virus from a fellow patient in the rehabilitation centre who had earlier tested positive.
Harold was one of my dearest friends and a mentor to me. I looked up to him with respect and admiration. Over the years we had spent many hours together, laughing at the silliest things, viewing the surrealism of real life with a giggling, absurdist humour, usually accompanied by a bottle or two of red wine, the effects of which rendered us like two drunken Zen monks, one foot firmly on the ground, the other dangling hopelessly over the edge of some delirious abyss.
I first discovered Harold Budd in the late 1970s when I was recording the Red Noise album ‘Sound On Sound’ at the Townhouse Studios in London. One lunchtime I had gone into the West End to browse the album racks at Tower Records and it was there that I came across an album titled ‘The Pavilion Of Dreams’. It was by Harold Budd. The album’s title instantly appealed, and when I looked at the back cover the individual track titles did too. I bought the album unheard and made my way back to the studio where I asked John Leckie, (who was working on the Red Noise album with me,) to set up a record deck connected to the studio monitors. We placed the stylus into the grooves of ‘The Pavilion Of Dreams’ and were entranced. It was a work of such aching beauty, like nothing I’d ever heard before. I became a huge fan.
Later, in the early ‘80s, I was asked to contribute a track for an album titled ‘From Brussels With Love,’ which was to be released in cassette form by Belgian label Les Disques Du Crepuscule. Other artists on the album included Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman and Harold Budd. Harold’s track was titled ‘Children On The Hill’ and mine was titled ‘The Shadow Garden.’ I was thrilled to have a piece of my own music sitting alongside one by Harold Budd.
A few years later I was to discover that Harold had been intrigued by ‘The Shadow Garden’. He was living in London at that time and, through a mutual friend called Kevin Cann, asked to meet me. Harold travelled up from London to Yorkshire with Kevin and we met at my (then) home near Selby. We instantly hit it off, beginning a friendship which has lasted well over thirty years.
During that time Harold moved back to America but whenever he had the opportunity to be in England he would come up to stay at my home in Yorkshire. We would take Harold to places of interest such as Castle Howard and the North Yorkshire Moors. Harold loved the ruggedness of the moors, the windier and wetter, the better. On one occasion I arranged for us to give two concerts one at an Arts Centre in a disused church in York, the other at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.
Harold also invited me to record with him in New Orleans at Kingsway Studio which was owned by Daniel Lanois. The studio was in a beautiful old 1848 mansion in the French Quarter. Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and R.E.M. had recorded there, amongst many others. It was a residential studio and we stayed in the bedrooms which were on the second and third floors. I found New Orleans fascinating and the ambience of the studio magical. We would take lunch and dinner breaks at nearby bars and restaurants, absorbing the local ambience. The album we recorded there was titled ‘By The Dawn’s Early Light’ and Harold told me, some years later, that those sessions were the best and most memorable experience of his career. Pedal Steel guitarist B.J.Cole was one of the musicians on the album but he had to leave early to go back to the UK for a prior engagement. Harold and myself continued to work on the album with the other musicians and, one day, whilst I looked in a room containing some of Daniel Lanois’ vintage guitars and amps, I saw a pedal steel guitar sitting there. I had never played pedal steel before but sat behind it and started to figure out what the various pedals and knee levers did. I managed to work out a little riff and was playing this when Harold passed the door of the room, stopped and looked in. “That’s great” he said, “We should do something with that.” And so we set a little drum machine at a slow tempo and recorded my pedal steel part over it, Harold improvising piano around the pattern. I overdubbed some electric guitar and the tune was given the title ‘The Place Of Dead Roads’ from the book by William S. Burroughs. My first attempt at playing pedal steel immortalised on that album track.
Harold and I performed together in Portugal. I remember a radio interview we did in Lisbon where the presenter asked us what kind of music we would be playing at that night’s concert. Harold’s quick and hilarious answer was “The kind that people don’t like.” One of the pieces we pereformed at that concert was titled ‘Johnny Cake.’ Harold had devised a chart made up of a grid, each part containing an enigmatic instruction or the name of a chord. The idea was to move around the grid in a specific order but at different points in time, freely interpreting the instruction that the musician landed on. These concerts were Harold and myself performing as a duo, so the interplay could be quite stark at times. For ‘Johnny Cake’ I prepared my acoustic guitar in a manner akin to John Cage’s ‘prepared piano’, inserting knives and forks, (found in the concert hall’s dressing room,) between the guitar’s strings. The resulting sound added a strange tonality to the piece.
A short concert tour with Harold in Japan was memorable for bringing about a profound change in my personal life. I won't go into details other than to say I was in a state of confusion due to a romantic entanglement. Harold counselled me saying, "Life is not a rehearsal, Bill..." Those words brought home the hard reality of the decision I had to make. And so, difficult as it was, I made that decision and have been grateful to Harold for those words ever since.
Harold and I were later invited to perform at a music and arts festival in Mexico City. I flew out from England with two guitars, a couple of digital processors and my wife Emiko. We were ensconced in a luxurious Mexico City hotel for the week of the festival. Harold and I were to perform towards the end of the week, both in solo and duo form, but after only the first two days of the event, the promoter ran into financial difficulties and the remainder of the festival had to be cancelled. As we were not due to fly home for several days and our hotel rooms had been pre-booked, we stayed on and treated the trip as a holiday. Harold and I explored the city’s art galleries and had a very good time. I remember, with particular fondness, Harold, Emiko and I going into a Cantina filled with Mexican families one Sunday lunchtime. We sat at a small table with a basket of bread and a couple of bottles of red wine, consuming the bread, dipped in the wine, while an acoustic Mexican band played ‘Ranchera’ music on a small stage at the back of the room. A wonderful afternoon that I’ll never forget.