The story began last Thursday night with a phone call. The guy on the other end of the line: artist/adventurer/professor Tim Guthrie. We’ve only met once, at a Dereck Higgins concert, though I’d seen Guthrie out and about at other rock shows. He’s the animated guy who’s “really into it,” the guy you wish you could be at shows, unafraid of attracting attention because he’s lost in the music and the moment. I guess that free-spirited nature comes with being an artist.
Anyway, the phone rings. It’s Guthrie. “I just got some big news, and I thought I’d get your take as a music guy.” The news: Guthrie was about to become the proud owner of one of only 10 copies of The Flaming Lips’ infamous “blood vinyl” -- a special liquid “pressing” of the band’s collaborative album Heavy Fwends that includes actual blood samples from the band and collaborators Erykah Badu, Ke$ha, Chris Martin, Nick Cave and others.
Guthrie replied to a tweet from Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne asking followers if anyone wanted to buy a copy of the gruesome album for a mere $2,500. Guthrie didn’t expect to hear back. He’d tried to get other unique Flaming Lips collectables in the past and was always left empty handed. Among them, the band’s infamous gummy skull and gummy fetus, which are exactly what you think they are -- large blocks of edible gummy bear glop molded into life-sized shapes but with a USB flash drive buried in the center that contains digital files of Flaming Lips songs. Proud owners have to eat the skull or fetus to get to the musical prize.
Guthrie’s luck changed this time. He received an email from Flaming Lips band member Derek Brown with a phone number that said to call if he was still interested in buying a copy of the blood vinyl. That was Thursday night. After talking to Brown, he talked to me. What should he do, he asked. Maybe he should offer the vinyl to a nonprofit entity to auction off? There is no question that the art piece will be worth much more than $2,500. My advice: Hold onto it, at least for awhile. Enjoy it. Guthrie has been spending this year giving away his own artwork to members of “the 99%.” Who deserves the blood vinyl more than him?
The next day Brown called Guthrie to arrange the drop on Sunday -- one of the most hectic days in Guthrie’s life. A professor of graphic design at Creighton University, Guthrie started Sunday morning preparing his documentary filmmaking class for a trip to Uganda. That was followed by Emerging Terrain’s “Elevate” dinner on the 36th Street Bridge over I-80. Guthrie is one of 13 artists who has a piece of art covering one of the 80-foot-high grain silos along I-80. His is the fourth one from the end, the one that looks like an arial shot of a train passing through a cornfield. The dinner commemorated the “opening” of this ginormous art instillation. After that, Guthrie had to prepare to fly to Paris the following day to be part of a 5-person panel at Universite Paris-Sorbonne that will discuss the notion of adaptation and its influence on the creative process. A few days after that, he was off Uganda to help oversee the filmmaking class.
In the middle of all that, Guthrie received the blood vinyl. The Flaming Lips delivery guy, Jake, handed it over at the Elevate dinner. “He gave me some special instructions,” Guthrie said. “He pointed out the warning labels and told me I had to keep it cold because the blood has no preservatives.”
I got to hold the album that very afternoon. It’s encased in two sealed pieces of thick heavy clear plastic or lucite, covered with a seemingly nude group photo of all the contributors. Drips of blood rain over the photo, and behind it, the bright blood-red liquid-filled vinyl album. Guthrie keeps the art piece in a small refrigerator in an undisclosed location. He holds it gingerly, as if carrying a rare Picasso or Van Gogh.
He said artist Damien Hirst convinced Wayne Coyne to do the project. How Coyne convinced the other musicians to give their blood for the piece, he did not know.
I asked Guthrie if he thought it was a gimmick. “When people do gimmicks, they want to hit a big audience,” Guthrie said. “Making 10 pieces of art really isn’t going to get a lot of people to buy their album.”
And while Guthrie likes the Flaming Lips, he doesn’t consider himself a huge fan. “I’m sure there are bigger fans out there,” he said. “I don’t even own everything they’ve done.”
No, it’s not the music that drove the purchase; it’s the idea behind the project. “Coyne likes to explore and try different things,” Guthrie said. “With my artwork, I like to experiment and do different things, too. If I was doing art that was the same all the time -- over and over again -- I know I could become known for something and make more money. But I would rather experiment and keep changing. I’m attracted to that kind of people, whether they’re writers or artists or musicians, people who are willing to try unusual things.”
After actually getting the record, Guthrie has had a change of heart. “I thought I was going to keep it, but I’m pretty absent-minded,” he said. “With my luck, my refrigerator would break down. I expect I’ll need to find a home for it. It should be with a conservator who knows how to handle this.”
Guthrie said he’ll wait until he gets back from Uganda to decide what he’ll do with it. Until then, the blood vinyl sits somewhere in the dark, in a small refrigerator in an undisclosed location.
Over the Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.