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.
Harold had two sons to his first wife and one son, Hugo, to his second wife Ellen. Terrance, one of Harold’s eldest sons, stayed at my house near Selby for a week in the ’80s, his first trip to England. In the eary 2000s Emiko and I spent a few days with Harold, Ellen and a very young Hugo one Easter week in York. We took them out to Castle Howard for the traditional Easter Egg hunt. It was a bright, sunny day and I remember Harold remarking on my sunglasses, which he really liked. Ellen was, at that time, diagnosed with cancer and some time later sadly lost her fight with it.
Over the years Harold wrote me many letters and postcards which I’ve kept and cherish. At one time, before emails, faxes were a quick form of communication and we often exchanged those, (though their ink has now faded to near illegibility over the years.) In one letter that I wrote to Harold, I included a little line drawing, a ‘half-face’ as Harold referred to it when he wrote back to me, in his always exquisite handwriting, to tell me that he had framed it and it was now displayed on his wall alongside artworks by several of his favourite artists. Visual art was something Harold was tremendously passionate about and his knowledge of it was wide and deep but never pompous or pretentious. I can remember, on one of our trips to Castle Howard, Harold engaging one of the official guides in a conversation about several of the 17th Century paintings hanging in one of the Castle’s rooms. I was surprised that he knew so much about them as I imagined such paintings would appear somewhat obscure to a resident of California, but Harold was informed and knew his stuff.
In May of 2005, Harold invited me to take part in what was going to be his ‘farewell’ concert in Brighton. The concert featured various artists including John Foxx, Jah Wobble, Steve Cobby, Theo Travis and Steve Jansen. It was here that I first met Theo Travis, a musician who I have subsequently worked with in my ‘Orchestra Futura’ live improvisation project and my ‘Gentleman Rocketeers’ band. The Brighton concert was a great success and it seemed to mark the end of Harold’s career as a performer. He told me that his future intention was to concentrate on composition, particularly writing string quartets. We continued to communicate, now mostly by email though there were still hand written letters and cards sent from him to me. He was living in a rented, isolated house out in the desert near Joshua Tree, and his letters told of his love for that environment and how Coyotes would appear at his door at night, how clear the desert night skies were and how he was sure he had witnessed UFO activity high above the house.
After Ellen’s death, Harold had more or less lived a solitary life, but, despite the ‘farewell’ concert, had come out of his self-imposed retirement to perform live again, albeit only occasionally. Then I got an email from Harold that was full of light and optimism. He had met a French girl, an artist called Elise and fallen head over heels for her, and she for him. He was invigorated, renewed, a new man. Elise was much younger than Harold but clearly adored him. I was so happy for him.
I continued to get emails containing photographs of Harold’s excursions into the desert area, taken by Elise, and was so pleased to see his smiling face.
In 2018 I decided to celebrate my 70th birthday with a farewell concert of my own. I had been suffering with the permanent loss of hearing in one ear, prostate problems, diabetes and associated issues such as macular degeneration and diabetic foot concerns. I had been performing annually at the Nelsonica events which had become increasingly complex affairs. I decided to bow out of live performance to concentrate on recording music. When Harold heard of this he said he wanted to be there. He’d recently suffered a bad fall and damaged his hip and shoulder and was experiencing difficulties with mobility and pain, so I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. But he insisted he was going to come to England for the concert and would bring Elise with him.
So in December of 2018, Harold Budd flew to the UK to not only attend my concert as a spectator but also to perform as an honoury fourth member of ‘Orchestra Futura’ alongside Theo Travis, Dave Sturt and myself, joining us for three improvised numbers. To have Harold there at all was wonderful, a true example of his generous friendship and our mutual respect for each other, but to have him join in with the performance was the icing on my 70th birthday cake. Nevertheless, I was a little shocked by Harold’s apparent frailty. The last time I had seen him was at a concert he’d given in Leeds, a few years previously. He was fit and robust then, and after that concert we retired to a nearby pub along with Steve Cobby (who we had both recorded with some years before,) to enjoy each other’s company. But now, in 2018, Harold seemed frail, much thinner and unsteady on his feet. The fall he’d suffered had clearly impacted his health.
The day after the concert Harold and Elise came to stay in our village at a B+B establishment that we often used for friends visiting us from far afield, our own house’s spare room now being filled to the brim with guitars and obsolete recording equipment. We took Harold and Elise out to Castle Howard for lunch and for Elise to see the splendours of John Vanbrugh’s 1701 architectural masterpiece. December is a good time to visit Castle Howard as the building is lavishly decorated with festive trimmings. But when we entered the house, there was a flight of stairs leading up from the entrance to the main hall that Harold felt he couldn’t climb due to his hip pain and so he and I decided to sit in two chairs at the foot of the steps whilst Elise and Emiko went on to do the tour of the house.
Whilst we sat there waiting for their return, Harold told me the whole story of how he met Elise and how he couldn’t believe his luck at finding her. He considered himself blessed to share his life with Elise and, once again, I felt so happy for him. Later that evening we had dinner together in the best pub in our village.
The next day we took Harold and Elise to the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Harold was impressed by the building and its collection of works by Barbara Hepworth and other artists. He looked at everything with immense interest and Emiko took a couple of photo’s of us. After driving back to York we had dinner at the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant in town, laughing and joking and enjoying each other’s company, just as we had done for so many years.
The following day we took Harold and Elise into York to wander the streets filled with festive Christmas market stalls, then to a cafe bar for refreshments and finally to the station to put them on the train to London, and from there they would catch their flight back to California. It was a poignant farewell. I sensed that this might be the last time that Harold and I would be able to see each other face to face. I had no idea of his future fate but I realised that his frailty would prohibit him from travelling internationally. I was just so grateful that he had braved the trip to attend my concert and to spend time with us as a true friend. And as it transpired, that was indeed the last time I would meet with my dear friend Harold, though we continued to exchange emails.
The last time we communicated directly was not long after my mother passed away in April of this year. Then I became preoccupied with the clearing of my mother’s house, a long and deeply traumatic process, and I fell into a depression about everything, not helped by the Coronavirus pandemic. I received a photograph of Harold wearing a black face mask. I was glad he had taken the step of doing so, unlike so many of his fellow Americans. I kept meaning to write and ask how he was dealing with the current situation but didn’t want to bring him down with my own problems.
And then, of course, I was alerted to Harold’s condition by Elise’s emails, all of which led to yesterday’s fateful call.
Harold’s music was sublime, poetic, warm, achingly beautiful, but also intellectually sharp and precise, like ice carved by sunshine into delicately adorable shapes. His touch on the piano was sensitive and subtle, capable of the greatest tenderness. He often spoke of the ‘loveliness’ that he was chasing, an absolute and undeniable affirmation of transcendent beauty. I was privileged to sit alongside him and add my guitar to his piano playing, but as wonderful as those moments were, my most precious memories of Harold are those when we spent time together as friends. We always found something amusing and enlightening to spin tales about. He was a beautiful soul and I will miss him profoundly.
Harold and Bill at The Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, December 2018.
Harold with Bill, Dave Sturt and Theo Travis at Bill's 70th Birthday concert at The Clothworkers Hall in Leeds, December 2018.
Harold playing the piano at Bill's 70th birthday concert in Leeds, December 2018.