Five-minute memoir: When in Rome

Douglas Coupland was all set to interview Morrissey. And then the sleeping pills kicked in…

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The Independent Culture

In 2006, I flew to Rome to interview Morrissey for the weekend supplement of a UK paper. I flew from Vancouver and to buffer the time-zone change, I was taking the latest in sleeping tablets and then… and then it all went horribly sideways.

I'd never done an interview before. Did I have enough questions? Too many questions? Stupid questions? I was going to be meeting with someone notoriously hard to interview, and 15 years of being interviewed myself was of no use.

The thing about interviews is that they tend to be done by writers on the fly, in a rush, and often not fully-prepared, as reading a book or absorbing an entire new album takes time, something most people no longer have. The interviewee, meanwhile, is wanting to get things over with so they can go back upstairs and do drugs, party, binge-eat and dismember hitchhikers. It's a perfect storm for miscommunication.

In my case, advance CDs of Morrissey's new album Ringleader of the Tormentors (great album, by the way) were so heavily watermarked by the record company that I was unable to listen to it before arriving in Italy. In Rome, around two in the afternoon, I was able to listen to the album just once, on a publicist's borrowed sound system. By then I'd taken, I'm guessing, six little blue pills over 18 hours. ("They're foolproof!" they said. "They have no side effects!" they said.) My phone then rang, and it was a publicist saying that Morrissey was bored and wanted to do the interview right away. This wasn't an ideal situation. I was hoping it might be like having a drink with a long-lost friend. Instead, heading downstairs into the bar, I felt like I was filling out a car-licence renewal form and I couldn't find a pen and everyone in the line-up was glaring at me for having a life that was obviously in shambles.

So I enter the bar and… why, yes, that looks like Morrissey. Wait, what's happening to his head? It looks like it's perhaps inflating. Why, yes, his head is most definitely inflating. That's unusual. Oh wait… he's speaking to me… I'd best say something in return.

We sat down and… this is where things totally disconnected. I started talking about The Monster from the Lost Lagoon (I think) and… and then it was six hours later and I was speaking with my editor in New York and… what the hell??? Yes, that is correct, my sleeping pills blacked out my entire Morrissey interview.

I now try to be philosophical about it, but at the time I was frantically looking for notes, sketches, something, anything offering evidence of our conversation. My snappy new digital tape recorder failed dismally. I tried going online to see if I'd emailed myself something, but the wi-fi was down. I went into the streets of Rome in pursuit of a cybercafé – in 2006, still rare. I found one, checked my email and… nothing. I was wearing the journalistic equivalent of a plastic cone of shame your dog wears when returning from the vet.

Walking back to the hotel I stopped and looked in the windows of the Prada flagship store and saw a set of black and maroon bocce balls encased in leather-daddy bondage strapping. Its weirdness poetically crystallised my pill-rattled state of mind, so I bought them as my souvenir of Rome. The next morning I flew home.

I've made a box entitled When in Rome – it's a kit for interviewing Morrissey in Rome the next time you're there and features in a group exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery called 'do it 2013'.

It riffs on a text piece written by the artist Nam June Paik who visited a Roman internet café years before me. His title was Antique Rome is Everybody's Memory. It critiqued the internet – Paik felt that browsing it is like watching late-night TV, and he believed that with an "optimistic view: someday countries will disappear, maybe 50 years". For me in Rome it felt like reality had vanished and was now replaced by quickly erased transient existence lost inside a system of global nothingness.

So, my box contains six sleeping tablets, a CD of Ringleader of the Tormentors, a crumpled-up image of Morrissey and some bocce balls. The thing is, it's all sealed in Plexiglas. You can't access anything inside it without destroying it, and you'll never be able to properly see Morrissey's face. The box is a crystallisation of globalisation, media culture, the frailty of biology, the fleetingness of memory, the massiveness of collective memory and not a small whiff of shame. A part of me was and is a fan: I wanted to meet Morrissey, and now I kind of dread it. (As always, if you're reading this, Mr Morrissey, my sincere apologies.)

Douglas Coupland's piece 'When in Rome' is part of 'do it 2013' at Manchester International Festival, to 21 July,