Thursday, June 25, 2015

The KLF, the universe and everything

Depending how you look at it, JMR Higgs’ book “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is either a book about the British pop band The KLF or it’s a book about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Or maybe it’s a book about how something may appear to be one thing while also appearing to be something else entirely.

It’s a story that begins in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ends Aug. 23, 1994, on the Scottish island of Jura, where The KLF, then known as The K Foundation, burned their last 1 million pounds. According to an online exchange rate calculator I found, that amounted to more than $1.5 million at the time.

These two incidents — the death of a president and the burning of 1 million pounds — either have nothing in common or everything. The complex web of relations linking them are either the product of coincidence or something more or possibly both — again, depending on how you look at it.

Both incidents are mysteries. Theories about the Kennedy assassination are endless. Theories about why The KLF burned 1 million pounds are less so but usually amount to “because they’re A-holes.”

Needless to say, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But The KLF were not your typical band. “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is a detective story in search of a motivation for something The KLF themselves cannot explain.

The KLF were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and while they were far more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, they greatly influenced music on both sides of the Atlantic, making contributions to hip hop, dance and techno, and helping invent chill out.

The KLF recorded under other names, too. Sometimes they were the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. At other times they were simply the JAMs. They had their biggest hit while as the Timelords.

Here we see the first clues. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu leads us to “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a cult sci-fi novel that mixes occultism, conspiracy theories, joke religions and cutting edge physics into one of the most mind-bending works of fiction ever conceived. The Timelords is a reference to “Doctor Who,” and the Timelords’ hit single, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” is a novelty cover of the “Doctor Who” theme.

Wilson and his ideas about how we perceive the world are central to Higgs’ story. So, too, is modern neuroscience, which sees the human brain as mainly occupied with finding patterns, even where they may not exist. Higgs’ pattern brings in acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore and Discordianism, a parody religion co-created by Kerry Thornley. It also features a cameo appearance by “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams, by way of Adams having written episodes of “Doctor Who.” Discordianism is a major factor in “Illuminatus!” and Thornley knew Lee Harvey Oswald, which leads to the JFK connection. JFK was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and “Doctor Who” first aired the next day, Nov. 23, 1963. The number 23 is a holy number in Discordianism, and Wilson plays up the significance of 23 in “Illuminatus!” What does this have to do with The KLF? Nothing. Or everything.

As I said, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But what he has written is fascinating and consistently funny. It may be the first music bio where knowing or caring about the band isn’t necessary, or even relevant. Higgs’ method is like that of a Douglas Adams character whom Higgs doesn’t mention: Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” who investigates cases by first assuming that everything in the universe is connected. To solve the KLF mystery, you start with the JFK mystery.

Is it coincidence KLF and JFK share two letters while J and L are mirror images of each other?

But there are traps along the way. Once someone tells you the number 23 is everywhere, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s a glitch in our brains’ pattern recognition software. It could have been any number. For Adams, the number was 42, his nonsense answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Still, was Adams’ choice of 42 mere chance?

Forty-two and 23 are related: 4 plus 2 equals 6, while 2 times 3 also equals 6. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, as they say. But don’t panic. It probably means nothing.

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