Clarkson on: living the dream
You join me backstage during the Birmingham leg of the Top Gear Live world tour. It is very noisy because a bus, built on a Nascar chassis and powerplant is practising its donuts in the arena. It's visually displeasing too, because James is sitting in a massage chair, wobbling like he's been boned and Hammond is completing the misery by playing Westlife songs, endlessly, on the jukebox he insisted we have to while away the down time.
I agreed to do this tour because I thought, aged 48, it would give me a taste of what life might have been like if I'd practised the piano more earnestly and become a rock star. I imagined we'd be zipping from continent to continent in a blizzard of cocaine, naked women and smashed hotel rooms. Sadly, it's not working out quite how I imagined.
Yes, we have invented a new game. It's called Celebrity Escape From Richard Hammond's Bathroom, and the rules are very simple. You go into his bathroom, tuck the end of the loo roll into the back of your trousers and see how far you can get through the hotel before it snaps.
We have also tried this on an aeroplane - and I'd like to apologise to the passengers we woke up - but it works best in a hotel because then, while waiting for your turn, you can go through all the rooms in Hammond's suite, buying pornography on every one of his numerous televisions. This makes him very embarrassed when the time comes to check out, especially if you've kicked the lavatory roll dispenser off the wall because that way you can travel further - often into the lift and down several floors - before the paper breaks.
We have also been very careful to ensure that all sorts of silly things are included in our riders. As a result, all the girls that look after us are over six feet tall and we have many big pots of M&Ms on every flat surface - with all the blue ones taken out. This idea was stolen, apparently, from Bon Jovi. We also have a sit down PlayStation game loaded with Gran Turismo 5, and all the cars. Not just a handful of useless Hyundais.
Then there's Hammond's jukebox, James's massage chair and my Winnebago, which is very large and extremely ostentatious. I like to sit in it, as I am doing now, looking through the tinted glass at the vast army of ‘roadies' who busy themselves between shows repainting damaged cars, recharging the pyro systems, and generally ensuring the multi-million pound extravaganza is ready to roll again in an hour.
In many ways then, this is rock-star living. We finish at night, get drunk, go to bed late, wake up with hangovers and get up the next day ready to do it all over again. I have even taken to calling the show's promoter from time to time to tell him that the loo seat in my 'bago's bathroom is the wrong colour and that the space invader game he's provided doesn't have asteroids on it. Silly things. Spoilt child things. He wanted to know what it might have been like to have been Harvey Goldsmith in the glory days. So it's sort of my duty to fill him in.
Tonight, we've even arranged to go and get trashed with the lead singer from another band. He's called Tiff Needell from ‘Fifth Gear', a million-selling outfit on the Five record label, and he's in Birmingham to do some voiceover work on the new album which is released every Tuesday night at eight. In a beehive.
"All the girls that look after us are over six feet tall and we have many big pots of M&Ms on every flat surface"
And yet, despite all the trappings, our life on the road feels about as rock and roll as a Pam Ayres poetry reading. Because the fact is that, at 48, it's very tiring. And I don't like the noise of the Nascar bus. And I loathe my Winnebago, because it's full of furnishings even a sink-estate benefit cheat would call "tacky". And now, instead of snorting drugs from the back of a naked groupie, I'm writing this on a laptop, while wearing reading glasses. The fact is then, I'm just too bloody old. And I'm experiencing much the same sort of thing on the road these days.
When I look in the mirror, I'm always surprised to see the craggy, grey balding head looking back at me. I feel 18. I think 18. But the body is 48, and no longer enjoys being smashed to bits by suspension systems made from RSJs and bits of oak. I don't want an exhaust system that never shuts up either.
I recently bought a Mercedes CLK. It's the black edition from the skunkworks inside the AMG tuning house. I imagined, having tested it on the programme, that it would be a Fender Stratocaster with windscreen wipers, that in it, I would stride the road network like a rock god, legs apart, face contorted with a mixture of passion and concentration into the sort of shape that would convince ordinary motorists coming the other way that I was sucking on a lemon full of stinging nettles.
It does all this, of course. It feels like it's running on amyl nitrate, and every time you turn it on, the four massive tailpipes shout "Hello, London". It is Bad Company.
Literally. If you try to accelerate, at all, on anything other than a completely dry surface, the back end steps out of line in an instant, and you're doing the Spinal Tap. Oh, it may have a limited-slip diff and a wide axle and a weapons- grade traction control system, but there's no getting away from the fact that the team that designed this car are plainly industrial-strength drifting enthusiasts with little or no reason to live. Jesus, it's a tricky bastard.
So tricky that even if there's a hint of moisture in the air, and the traction control is on, it will still kick its arse out. With it off, you will slide sideways, at extremely high speed, and within a mile of your house, into a tree. Only when the road is bone-dry and arrow-straight can you unleash all of the 507bhp. And only then do you get the full John Bonham drum solo because this is a car, make no mistake, that goes all the way up to 11.
That hurts the fuel consumption, and because it is a normal CLK with a normal CLK petrol tank, you will empty all of it, even if you are gentle with the volume knob, in less than 150 miles.
Then there are the seats. They are deep buckets, which is great, but for some reason, the seatbelt anchor point is in the seat itself, so it is the most enormous faff to do it up. Last week, I had to give a lift to a fat woman whose arse was so wide she couldn't put her belt on at all. So she had to sit there, with the seat belt delivery device waving the buckle in her face and there was absolutely nothing she could do to make it go away. This made conversation a bit tricky. "So you're enormous, then..."
Make no mistake. I love this car with every fibre of my being. And since it's already worth 8p, that's a good thing, because I can't afford to sell it. I love it, in fact, as much as I love being on tour with Top Gear Live. It's not what I want it to be, but that's only because I'm not what I want to be, either.