For now, save my seat on the Flaming Lips’ bandwagon

Courtesy of the oh so quiet show

In the summer of 2002, Stephanie and I went to see Flaming Lips in Prospect Park with friends of ours, John and Shelley. The end-of-August sun beat down hot. Rainclouds hung on the horizon. Flaming Lips were traveling with Modest Mouse and Cake and a bunch of other bands, but as far as I was concerned the show was Lips and Lips alone. Three years had passed since 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which was one of my ten favorite albums of the 1990s (yes, I keep such lists), and I still loved that record every bit as much as I had when I first heard it. Somehow, though, I had never managed to see them, in spite of the fact that I’d been a fan since 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic (well, since Farrell put its final track, “Bad Days,” on a mix for me sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s). I should have seen the Bulletin tour, but if memory serves me right, Farrell tipped me off to the whole headphone distribution, listen-to-the-concert-on-the-radio-while-you-watch-it-live angle right after they’d passed through our town. How to explain my oversight? Two kids and the final phases of a Ph.D. program, I suppose. And so, when we heard they were coming to Brooklyn with a new record in tow, we signed right up.

Nothing could have prepared us for what, by now, has become legendary about the Lips’ live shows. Frontman Wayne Coyne manned the confetti machines, splattered himself with fake blood, projected nudist beach joggers and astronauts onto the screen behind him, welcomed on-stage extras in animal suits, and performed songs with nun puppets. And with a whole lot of joy — in spite of the fact that the Lips’ songs are, and always have been, mostly about the inevitability of death, the corruption of political power, the imaginative failures of organized religion, and the terrifying underbelly of technological progress (the latter theme often involving one of my favorite rock and roll tropes: the teenager as space alien). Of course this combination of nihilism and carpe diem exuberance is part of what made the band appealing to me so long ago. What band could go wrong with song titles like “Talkin’ Bout the Smiling Death Porn Immortality Blues,” “The Magician vs. the Headache,” “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles,” or “Pilot Can at the Queer of God”? The animals danced, the confetti flew, large balloons made the rounds, Japanese teenagers ran down beaches on the video screen, Yoshimi battled the pink robots (and triumphed), the folks at Prospect Park sold little baby Budweisers by the cardboard crateful, and then, just as the Lips played the final notes of their final encore, the rain came down and the floods came up, a literal late-summer downpour, as heavy a rain as any I’ve seen in the city. We grabbed our blankets and dashed through the trees and over the park’s sprawling lawns toward John and Shelley’s apartment on Prospect Park Southwest. In their kitchen we peeled off sopping clothes, little puddles forming on the floor.

Good times, them Flaming Lips. Good times. Remember Zaireeka (1997), the 4-CD set that requires you to play each disc simultaneously on a separate player? We tried it one night in our basement apartment in Cambridge with our friend Brian, scraping together old boomboxes, the living room stereo, and his discman with minispeakers. There were only three of us, and so one of us had to start two CD players at once. If we were off by only a couple seconds on any of the players we had to start the whole thing over. Reading the liner notes that night, we speculated whether the band’s name could be a reference to menstruation, given Wayne’s comments on the song “A Machine in India”:

The concept of the song is based around a conversation I had with Michelle abut the “other world” she is in during her menstrual period . . . and the kind of dull and depressing, mild insanity that seems to possess her, even though she knows it’s coming, and has been through it a million times, it arrives new and uncontrollable every time.

The lyrics to “A Machine in India” include this gem: “I’m goin’ to India over and over again. I’m standin’ in a cylinder, seein’ all the bleedin’ vaginas.”

How can anyone not love this band, with liner notes like that? Did I mention they’ve been covering “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their live sets?

an awesome photo courtesy who's driving the bus

I didn’t go see the Lips last weekend at Webster Hall. (Robyn did, and she took great pictures, including the first one I used above.) Forced to choose between my friend playing in Brooklyn and the Lips, I went with the friend. I’m sure I would have had a great time seeing them, but there’s also a way in which I’m content to let them be rock and roll messiahs without feeling like they need to produce the same religious thrill in me they have in the past. I don’t mind carrying that feeling with me as a memory, unrepeatable.

In a way I suspect that’s how I’ll feel about new Flaming Lips albums from here on out, too, though after half a dozen listens to At War with the Mystics in the last couple weeks, I think it’s better than Yoshimi. Like that one, which my daughters liked more than I did (did someone say something about a disappearing generation gap?), I imagine this album will receive more play around our place over the summer, when late nights with friends turn into early mornings sprawled in recliners on the terrace. It doesn’t have the orchestral grandeur or self-awareness of its greatness that Soft Bulletin had, but it has just the right dose of lazy, melodic, spaced-out epics to help you drift off to sleep. The songs on Mystics feel more fully realized to me than many of the tracks on Yoshimi did, though I realize a lot of critics are complaining to the contrary. What I like most here are the ’70s sounds, new for this band: the combination of faux-flamenco guitar, mild disco beats, choral backing vocals, and electric flute on “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark … Is It Always This Dark??,” my favorite track, which plays like a lethargic echo of Hall and Oates’ “Say It Isn’t So.” It’s followed seamlessly by “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” which could have been a Carpenters tune. The anti-Bush single, “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat),” builds on fuzzed-out hard rock guitars and handclaps. Imagine Bacharach attempting an arrangement of Kilroy Was Here and you’ll approximate where this record’s aiming. Thinking of Mystics as a return to ’70s AOR is, I think, essential to getting it: it’s structured to have Sides A and B, the whisper and pop of a turntable’s needle, and I’m willing to bet the break between sides comes right before the space-prog-jam “The Wizard Turns On.”

did someone suggest this record has 70s undertones?

Like all good AOR albums, this one’s about something. It has a loose narrative, in which a central protagonist encounters evil wizards and other power hungry politicians, existential angst, night, and a near-fatal car crash, with what seems to be little other than the music to carry her through. For a while it all seems too bleak to overcome. One of the most upbeat songs here, “Free Radicals,” was apparently inspired by a dream Wayne had of Devendra Banhart trying to talk down a suicide bomber. But the album/quest resolves with a gentle, piano-driven, affirmative hymn (little “uh-uhs” in stereo in the background): “We hold our breath til the mornin’ comes and at last the sun shines through / But the night’s so hard that it seems impossible, but what else can we do?” The answer to that question is the title of the song: “Goin’ On.” Is it an affirmation? The phrase is descriptive, not imperative. It’s just what we do. It’s already happening. (Uh-huh, Uh-huh.) In any case, the song’s pragmatic affirmation stands as an answer of sorts to one of the album’s earlier, more fragile moments, on “Vein of Stars,” which opens with a statement disguised as a question: “Who knows, maybe there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name.” The album-closing rejoinder is as close as the Lips come, lyrically, to offering that most-repeated message of rock and roll: everything’s gonna be alright.

With so much to despair about, so much anxiety about death and abuses of political power, the miracle of this album, and of the Lips’ music in general, is that it all comes off feeling like a celebration of life. Part of this is in the music, part of it in the Lips’ sheer silliness. Evil wizards? It sure feels like that sometimes. If only elections were role playing games in which we gathered all our nerdy friends together, picked characters, and did war with the mystics. But wait … that describes the last half decade of Wayne Coyne’s life, doesn’t it?

Whenever friends have tried to type me with enneagram tests, I often score high as a Loyalist. That’s a positive way of saying I sometimes stay on bandwagons too long. But what other band after almost 25 years of recording continues to push envelopes like this? Certainly not their highnesses of politically relevant rock, U2. Remeber our friend Sting, the other Amnesty rocker to take on Reagan’s moral bankruptcy? He essentially retired to make car ads and play Vegas at 40. Well, Wayne Coyne’s 45. His band formed only a couple years after REM. The Lips were counted among Nirvana’s early influences. They’ve paid every due they needed to pay, and somehow, by dressing in bunny suits and smearing fake blood on their faces ( “Placebo Headwound” was a track title all the way back in 1995), by throwing confetti into crowds and writing songs that make you want to battle pink robots and chant affirmations in the face of death — somehow they’ve settled into a well-deserved place as one of the most relevant forces in American popular culture. Maybe the universe isn’t so unjust after all. I’ve long suspected that Wayne emanates an invisible magnetic force that keeps our planet in orbit, a counterforce to all the evil that is George W. Bush & Co. I hope whatever it is stays switched “on” for a good many years.

affirmations, via stereogum

Images from the oh so quiet show, stereogum, and who’s driving the bus.

6 responses to “For now, save my seat on the Flaming Lips’ bandwagon”

  1. ssw says:

    Maybe Wayne could start the revolution.

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    I inhabit that sad hinterland reserved formerly for people who love the Beach Boys but hate Pet Sounds, adored the Beatles before they grew facial hair and, think Van Halen was improved by his royal Hagarness. Yes, I am one of the few (in fact I haven’t met another) that loved the Flaming Lips until they released Soft Bulletin. I know! I can hear the gasps now, and I wish it weren’t so. I’ve seen them three times before and once since the release of Bulletin. I was even one of the about 200 people at the Wetlands for the Boom-Box Experiment; this was the real turning point in our relationship. I remember walking to the path station thinking, “C’mon Wayne. I understand wanting to do this cool new thing, but when it was over you could’ve pulled out and acoustic guitar and played two or three songs…like with words in them.”

    Maybe you’re thinking I just don’t get minimalist, conceptual, postmodern or any other art-form that requires a little time and insight. This is far from true. In fact, I think the Lips used to be harder to “get;” one had to listen through layers of noise to make-out the simple, beautiful message delivered on a ribbon of perfectly tidy melody. This is what gave me and my fellow poor-musician-friends hope; one doesn’t need a lot money, connections, or technical skill to make some of the best rock music since Pet Sounds or even the Beatles (post facial hair). Perhaps I’m just one of those sad idiots that really think Hagar is better that Diamond Dave.

  3. well, i don’t know about VH, but i’m with you on loving the early lips, even though soft bulletin still trumps the earlier stuff in my mind. actually, i don’t really even think of them as the same band. sort of like mercury rev pre- and post-deserter’s songs. they were something else earlier on; soft bulletin reordered their DNA (that and getting at least one of them off smack). the last two are brain candy, but i’ll let them go with it — it’s good energy in the universe. one thing i really appreciated about that decisive 1999 shift is that they also started rereleasing a lot of the earlier stuff that was hard to find. i still need to get the Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid box set.

    As for Soft Bulletin — I argue with Farrell and Rebecca on that one too. They actually like Yoshimi better, at least they did last I talked to them about it. (Guys?) But for me it’s all in the strings. I’m a sucker for strings. Which is why I like late Beach Boys better than early (which I can’t stand), late Beatles over early, not to mention a host of stuff that inspires post-1999 Flaming Lips, like (gasp!) the Alan Parsons Project and ELO.

  4. Scott Godfrey says:

    I agree with you about Mercury Rev pre and post Deserter’s Songs. A lot of people draw the connection between that record and Soft Bulletin (same producer, same year, some say same band). I actually prefer post D. Songs Rev; less was lost (or more was gained) in their shift. Anyway, heck yeah on the ELO thing.

  5. Right, re: Merc Rev, though their last was so schmaltzy that I can’t take it more than one song at a time, and some of those I have to fast forward. Too bad.

  6. hey scott — thanks for making me think about early lips. i pulled out A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording … By Amateurs this morning and listened to it while I went running. I haven’t listened to it in at least 5 years. Wow those songs age nicely. I was struck, too, by how many thematic continuities there were between old and new Lips, at least lyrically. One of those songs is going to kick off my summer mix, but I won’t say which one. bw