Monday, August 14, 2006

When You Least Expect It

So where does a disenchanted Pirates fan/Democrat turn when he needs a hero? As has been proven to me repeatedly over the years, they come around when you least expect it.

I’ve been splitting time between two books for the last few weeks—David Maraniss’ Clemente and Jim DeRogatis’ Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips, and strangely enough I’ve found myself drawing inspiration from the subjects of both books. Roberto Clemente is to be expected...the Flaming Lips were a bit surprising. Flipping back and forth between the two books, I found similarities in these two most unsimilar subjects, and I found a muse in both.

When I purchased the Lips’ At War with the Mystics 3-4 back in April, I had no idea that this would be the beginning of one of my ‘phases’, where I eat, drink, and sleep every ounce of a band’s work/biography until another inspiration comes along. Over the years, it’s happened with all the usual suspects—there was the Beatles phase (that one’s never-ending), the Hendrix phase, The Who, Jeff Buckley, The Roots, Run-DMC, Dave Matthews Band, Pat McGee Band, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, …you get the idea. I didn’t see the Lips Phase coming. No, when Mystics came out, I just decided to get it because, while I’d always heard about their live prowess (and seen pictures of Wayne crowd-surfing in the giant inflatable bubble), I had begun to hear more and more good things about their last couple of albums, and it was getting harder to ignore (though I succeeded in doing so because, as I’ve said before, my moderate case of music snobbery prevents me from immediately jumping on bandwagons if I’m not the first one seated...I wish it weren’t the case, but alas...).

So I picked it up. Not since my discovery of Jeff Buckley circa 2000 has one performer/band so quickly changed what I value in music and how I listen to music, and it pretty much happened the first time I heard the opening notes of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” As I mentioned in one of my first
GN reviews, you can hear Frampton and The Who and Pink Floyd in their music, but their music remains a completely unique entity, and they make pulling that off seem natural and relatively easy. That’s amazingly difficult to do; trust me, I’m trying (albeit with a studio that consists of a guitar, a mic and two computers). It takes a level of patience, discipline, and skill that most musicians are incapable of producing.

In other words, I was impressed. So I pursued their back catalog.

After partaking in The Soft Bulletin and getting smacked in the face by “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “Race for the Prize” and “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”, I decided this was a group from whom I could learn some things. Bands like Guster and Barenaked Ladies are able to combine serious subject matter with humor and whimsy (BNL in particular...the same group that wrote “Be My Yoko Ono” and “Alcohol” wrote “War on Drugs”, which is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, and “Baby Seat”, the best, most gripping song ever about deadbeat dads), but the Flaming Lips seem to one-up them by creating even more distinct sounds and further extremes, both on their albums and on-stage.

After digesting Bulletin, it was time for Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which takes total advantage of the emotional and musical leaps taken on Bulletin and takes them further. It is not an overstatement to say that “Do You Realize??” is probably one of the five most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” is a remarkable work in that no other bands can make such a life-affirming song out of lyrics like “Yoshimi, they don’t believe me/But you won’t let those robots eat me”. You just have to hear it for yourself. It’s impossible to explain.

The same can be said for their live show. Impossible to explain. I was in attendance at Lollapalooza in Chicago last weekend, and I was a bit worried that I’d been hyping the Lips to my friends a bit too much...usually when I do that, the gigantic expectations are never met. But in this case, they were exceeded. Exponentially. There’s just nothing like 60,000 people chanting “FANATICAL F--K!!” or the aforementioned “Yoshimi, they don’t believe me” line in unison. And for me, even when you know to expect the giant inflatable bubble and the dancing aliens in babydolls and the dancing Santa’s and the inflatable astronauts and the giant balloons and the confetti gun and the bass player in the skeleton costume, you really don’t know what’s coming until you experience it. It sounds silly, and it is, but it’s as much of a celebration as a concert can be. If they put out a live DVD, it would sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but honestly...this has to be experienced in a crowd—the DVD couldn’t possibly do it justice.

So, you’re saying, that’s great. They’re entertaining. That doesn’t exactly put them in the ‘hero’ category of Roberto Clemente, does it?

What exactly prompted me to even fathom this comparison? Honestly, I think it has to do with similar roots in Oklahoma and learning to value what you were taught and the people around which you grew up. Not saying that only happens in Oklahoma, but bear with me.

Wayne Coyne has all the political leanings of your typical jamband-crowd musician (as verified by his comments about Dubya and Israel/Lebanon during last Saturday’s concert), but he combines that with the personal characteristics of someone who grew up in the conservative Midwest. His values of family, pride, hard work, and responsibility are something that resonate when I look to the heroes around which I was raised. But that alone is not what made me admire him as much as I currently do—he goes out of his way to accept people for exactly who they are without judging them. When I say he loves his family, I mean he has a brother who goes to jail often, but he doesn’t disavow knowledge of him...he’s as much of the family as anybody else. He worked at Long John Silver’s for 11 years because it gave him the money to pay for what he loved—the Flaming Lips—and he wasn’t—and still isn’t—embarassed by that. When he suggests that they inflate 1,000 (or more) balloons for the evening’s show, he’ll be out there blowing them up with the stage crew. When he decides to pour fake blood on himself on-stage and gets it all over his suit, he personally hand washes the suit in cold water in the hotel tub.

It’s a strange life, to be sure, but the work ethic is undeniable.

In other words, when he’s doing something he loves, he doesn’t half-ass it. He doesn’t take shortcuts, he doesn’t feign entitlement (which was apparently what led to tension between Beck and him), and he doesn’t screw people. Let’s face the music business, that’s heroic, and the fact that the Flaming Lips are still around after 23+ years is a revelation.

Pride in where you’re from and self-responsibility are what make me dare to compare Coyne and the Lips to one of the greatest heroic figures in sports history, Roberto Clemente. But I’ll get into Clemente during tomorrow’s Pirates Rant™.

The most gripping chapter in the story of the Flaming Lips is also the most telling in regard to Coyne’s own personality and valor. This chapter is about the Lips’ best musician, Steven Drozd, and his heroin addiction. As the Lips were growing in popularity in the late-‘90s, Drozd was broke, spending everything he had on his next hit and living in a small, near-empty apartment. His then-ex-girlfriend hated Wayne because Wayne was allowing this to happen. But Wayne believed that no intervention would work unless Steven himself was ready to quit and believed he could quit. And that probably wouldn’t happen until Steven hit rock bottom.

DeRogatis then does a fantastic job of describing rock bottom. The Lips were scheduled to drive from OKC to upstate New York for a recording session, and Steven showed up five hours late because he was trying to score a hit, swearing this was the last one, as he had many times before. Though Wayne was fuming, he didn’t leave without Steven because he worried what would happen if Steven no longer had the band to live for. From page 203:

The van pulled off with Wayne behind the wheel and Steven in the hot seat. They had only gone a few blocks when Steven tried to shrug off the delay, pulling out the road atlas and making a show of tracing the route, even though they had made the trip many times before. “Okay, so we’re a couple of hours late,” he said. “But we’re leaving now, so we should make it there by—”

Wayne grabbed a bottle of water out of Steven’s hand, threw it in his face, and unleashed a flurry of punches to his bandmate’s head before pulling to the curb. “Everything we’ve worked for is going to fall apart, and I’m going to have to make a choice before too long,” Wayne barked. “If these guys say, ‘We can’t in good conscience work with Steven anymore,’ I’m not going to side with you over Scott Booker [the Lips’ manager] or Dave Fridmann [the Lips’ producer]. You’ve got to get your shit together!” That night, Wayne called Michelle [his wife] and told her what happened. “He said, ‘I regret it,’ but I told him, ‘You weren’t just hitting him for you; you were hitting him for a lot of people.’”

“That was the turning point,” Steven said. “I had no more options except to quit doing drugs. When Wayne punched me in the head, that solidified my thinking.” Wayne downplayed his role. “I don’t believe me hitting him did anything; he had already started to convince himself. If he was nine-tenths of the way to quitting already, maybe hitting him just pushed him the last little bit. I was the one in the wrong—I hit him, he didn’t come at me—but there are people who are so civilized that they aren’t friends because they won’t punch each other, and then there are fuckin’ hillbillies who’ll be friends when they are a hundred years old, and they’re fighting every other weekend.”
This, to me, says everything you need to know about Wayne Coyne. On the outside, he’s something of a hippie-looking art rocker, but inside he’s humble, thoughtful, brave, loyal, proud, and responsible, and I think that rubs off on everybody around him. When you have those qualities deep inside of you, you can affect a lot of people’s lives in a very positive way, and that is, at its very core, what I look for in a role model...whether he/she fits into the generic role model stereotypes or not.

(On a side note, the documentary about the Lips, The Fearless Freaks, covers a lot of the same ground as Staring at Sound, only it actually has video footage of Steven getting ready to shoot up in his barebones apartment...done voluntarily...presumably to help shame him into quitting, which he said repeatedly he wanted to do. He just needed that turning point. This gripping footage, along with the fantastic live clips, make it worth watching.)

One more word about the Lips’ live presence. Actually, a picture and a few words.

Yes, those are female fans dressed as aliens stage right, and yes, those are male fans dressed as Santa Claus stage left. And yes, those are giant inflatable astronauts, aliens, and Santa’s behind the stage. By far, this is possibly the weirdest live act this side of Gwar, but as I said above, this is also the most celebratory live act ever. You embrace nothing but happiness, even during the sad songs.

Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe
wrote about his trip to Lollapalooza with his 16-year old son. The performance that made the largest impact was, not surprisingly, the Lips. It was the same for me, and likely the same for the other 59,999 who passed up on seeing Common (which hurt...he was #2 on my list of must-see performers, but he happened to be on at the same time as #1) to watch the show.

Thank you, Flaming Lips. They deliver a knockout performance, and Matt and I are caught up in the ecstasy of the moment, our testy exchanges forgotten. Here's the thing about middle age: Time does its dirty work on us all, and we can develop layers of cynical detachment from some of life's primal pleasures. But rock 'n' roll has a power to transport us out of everyday life into a kind of secular rapture. It's the sort of thing you can forget unless there's a young person around to remind you.
Thing is, Wayne Coyne is in his mid-40s now, and he reminds you of that ecstasy more than any 16-year old I’ve been around.