Most Millionaires don't Spend their Cash on Burning Cadillacs in the Desert
Dec 4 2009
[caption id="attachment_14621" align="aligncenter" width="629" caption="Guess which one is the eccentric septuagenarian millionaire"][/caption]
So you remember how Chris Owens from that band Girls had that incredible life story? The one where he was in a cult, his brother died because cult rules forbade medical treatment, he ended up living in a compound in Japan and was given his first guitar by one of Fleetwood Mac, and then he fled to Texas and was picked up by an eccentric multimillionaire arts patron roundabout the same time he got caught up in the Brian Deneke murder, and then moved to San Fransisco on a whim and didn't talk to anyone for six months but ended up jamming with Ariel Pink and taking a pharmacopeia of over-the-counter medications while making one of the year's most hyped albums?
Well, Stanley Marsh 3 is that millionaire arts patron fairy godfather. “Please – I'm a multimillionaire,” Marsh slurs, Texanly. “I'd rather not be described as a mere millionaire." Over the years, Marsh has loosely employed a long procession of gifted, cute, artsy boys to tend to his ongoing art projects in the town of Amarillo. Not without controversy. In 1994, he was accused of threatening an 18-year old with a hammer and detaining him inside a chicken shed. There have been lawsuits.
And yes, the 3 is deliberate. By rights, he should be Stanley Marsh III, but thinks that Roman numerals are too pretentious. He's mad, obviously. He's most famous for upturning ten Cadillacs in the local desert, and planting them bonnet-first in the sand, creating the Cadillac Ranch, a “monument to the American Dream”.
He is second-most famous for the signs that he has put up all over Amarillo—prank-art that copies the visual grammar of street-signs, but says things like “Bob at our cherries, bite at our peaches ”, “What is a village without village idiots?” and “Road does not end”. He's basically like Banksy, if Banksy hadn't bothered to read No Logo. And was 72. Or Martin Creed if he looked beyond Blu-tack.
Having spent his childhood in the Children of God cult, Chris arrived in the town of Amarillo at the age of 17. After a stint packing groceries, he got involved with the graphic art scene, before meeting Marsh 3 over lunch.
Vice: How long did Chris work for you?
Stanley Marsh III: Chris worked for me for five years. He lived in my house some of the time, and he worked in my office every day. I hired him because he was bright and good-looking and an able errand-boy. In his publicity they always made him seem like a raggamuffin or a guttersnipe. But he was always popular.
I'm married, I have five children, he helped take care of my children. My wife and I live in a huge house in the oldest ranch in Texas—my wife's ancestors invented barbed wire. They built the house we live in—it's a mansion. And we have a grand piano. Chris had his own key, and sometimes, at night, he'd play the piano when he thought we were asleep. My wife and I would sneak downstairs, tippy-toe down in our nightclothes to watch him. He would play such beautiful music. He would play better than Tchaikovsky. We live where there are buzzards and owls and they would come and nest at the window. Then he would open the side door, go out over the pool table, and dance across the treetops.
You came from a wealthy background, but built up your moneypile by owning television stations. How did you go from that to become a sort of eccentric people-collector?
To run TV stations takes a great deal of creativity. I'm smart and I'm educated and I read a lot of books, and I read Shakespeare. And I like really smart, creative people. All my life, I’ve gone out of my way to be around really smart, creative people. I'm also an ultra-liberal. I'm a share-the-wealth, Clement Attlee-liberal. And I'm an Anglophile. If you come to Amarillo, Texas, you'd think you were in England. Chris, while he didn't spend much time in England when he was growing-up, looks like a boy from Eton. He especially did when he was 17. He wore shorts and high socks. But I always knew he'd go far. The thing about Chris is... You know Chopin? Chopin wrote interludes. Chopin was this sickly, tubercular fellow, but he would play the piano, and it would sound effortless. That's how it was with Chris—the way he told jokes, the way he complimented people, the way he dressed and the way he acted were all so effortless.
Is it true you were also good friends with the famously murdered Amarillo punk Brian Deneke?
Yes. Brian worked for me, just like Chris did, and he was a very good friend of mine. One of the saddest days of my life was when he was murdered. But Brian is the patron saint of the bullied in this town. Whenever you see some thugs waiting for you on a street corner, when you're walking to school in your tutu, you just think about Brian Deneke and they go away. They turn into firebugs.
Did you take an active interest in the trial?
Yes. I did not do anything that the prosecuting attorneys didn't want me to. But I ran the service that took all the journalists around the crime scenes. And I also had a service whereby I supplied photographs and pictures of the site to them. However, the town of Amarillo is not a hippie-hating community. The town of Amarillo is a town of early settlers and right-wingers. People moved here to get away from lawyers and away from the fucking police. The town was on Brian's side. It was popular to be on his side. The very few preppies who were not on his side have all been thrown out of town now. I did everything I could to try and get the murderers exposed. But mainly I did everything I could to get people to be allowed to behave like themselves. Because Brian had asked not to be intimidated. If anything, the town is a lot more interesting since he's been gone. He's like Amarillo's Jesus—he sacrificed his life so that Amarillo could be strange.
The Cadillac Ranch—is that the highpoint of your artistic legacy?
No. My crowning achievement is all the things I've done put together. I like the signs too. The Cadillac Ranch seems to be the most famous. But I know it's not my masterpiece. I mean, I shat a masterpiece this morning. I used the tissue paper, but it wasn't even brown.
Have you got any big art projects you're working on at the moment?
Well, sometimes when I say I'm going to do something, it doesn't work out. Because art is doing something for the first time. But you know that white plastic they put over the floor when they paint the roof? If you iron that, it adheres. So I have a 150-foot-tall inflatable Statue of Liberty that's not inflated. Now, Amarillo is a flat, treeless prairie, and we have these surface-lakes that aren't very deep. I have a barge on one of them and, perhaps a day, I'm going to inflate this Statue of Liberty, and then people driving along that road between Amarillo and Oklahoma City will see the Statue of Liberty in its ghost form. It'll be an apparition—they'll see it for one day, then it'll be gone, and they'll wonder if they ever saw it at all.