The Flaming Lips
July 8, 2010
Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto
I thought I was done with the Flaming Lips. I'd seen them three times in five years; the last was their show at Metropolis in Montreal in 2004, one of the best shows I’d ever seen in my life, the kind that leaves you on a high for at least a week afterward. I thought there was no way I could return and not be comparing it to that experience.
Plus, by then I felt like I'd had enough of the balloons, the confetti, the jaunty space-age pop, Wayne Coyne’s reedy voice, the interminable wait and large letdown that was their sci-fi film project Christmas on Mars, and that supremely annoying “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” on the disappointing 2006 album At War With the Mystics.
And yet there I was, at the corporate beer barn by the lake last night, weeping with tears of joy in my eyes as they encored with “Do You Realize?” amidst a flurry of confetti, visual overload, and the glorious orgy of ridiculousness that has been their calling card for the last decade.
Oddly enough, after returning to their more experimental tendencies on the 2009 album Embryonic—an album that avoids happy pop songs entirely—the Flaming Lips had finally graduated from worst-kept-secret status to full-on stadium rock. Seeing them play for their largest Toronto audience ever, promoting their weirdest album in over a decade, was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Stacking the bill with Spoon made it that much more irresistible.
[I was torn on the Spoon show: I love this band and much of their recorded output, but they’re often stiff on stage. That said, some clever rearrangements and a solid set list drawing mainly from Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—with added five-piece horn section—did not disappoint.]
The Flaming Lips meant a lot to me between 1999 and 2004. Initially I wasn’t as taken with the 1999 breakthrough The Soft Bulletin as many were at the time—for whatever reason (I think it was lyrical), I preferred its limp sister album, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. Nonetheless, I embarked on a road trip to Detroit to see the show with a couple of friends. Though I was expecting some kind of spectacle, I really had no idea what I was in for.
When my friend Tristan and I saw the stagehands wheel out a gong on stage, we placed bets on how many times it would be used: once? five times? Opening with “Race for the Prize,” Wayne Coyne hammered on that gong six times per bar in between verses, triggering flashes of light every time, and foreshadowing the avalanche of lo-fi awesome that was to follow. Coyne was one of the most engaging frontmen I’d ever seen, personable and devoid of any mystique, an idealistic hippie in a white suit who smeared himself in blood and spoke frankly of near-death experiences and the dark demons that haunt us all—and would then sing the next song using a finger-puppet of a nun, its image amplified by a tiny camera placed on the microphone. He was the same performer he is today, although much chattier, and sharing in the same sense of wide-eyed wonder the audience was at the time: “Holy shit, is this actually working? Can a rock show actually be this much fun?”
But fun is only half of it. If the Flaming Lips were simply all smiles and good times, they’d be the Barenaked Ladies—or Bananas in Pyjamas. While Coyne is an undeniably upbeat person, he’s not immune to the shit of the world—whether it’s political forces beyond your control, or personal tragedy that’s in your face every day (sometimes in your own band, in the case of Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction). And so while a song like “Do You Realize?” may sound saccharine sweet, it’s actually about eventually losing everyone and everything you know and coming to terms with that, not by mourning or with denial or self-pity, but by embracing everyday beauty. Both simple beauty—your lover’s eyes—or the extravagance that the Flaming Lips put on for you for two hours, two hours that feel like a magnified memory of your most-treasured childhood birthday party.
The jaded will jeer that all the gimmicky props are somehow infantilizing, a Romper Room for adults. That’s not entirely inaccurate—but so what? It’s a lot more entertaining and imaginative than other rote clichés of rock performance. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had giant hands that shot laser beams at the mirror balls? And it’s not all love and flowers; the dream states they conjure can be just as dystopian as they are utopian. Anyone who grew up in the ’70s—by which point the counterculturalists had taken control of children’s television programming—can’t help but be thrilled by large-scale psychedelia brought to life, to see surrealism set to stadium rock.
Also: shouldn’t every rock show should begin with the band members emerging from a giant projection of a vagina, with the singer in an amniotic bubble walking over the crowd?
For all the effort they put into projecting their own show outward, the Lips’ message is always about bringing the audience in. Coyne is constantly reminding us, directly and indirectly, that this show is only going to be as fun as we all make it: crossed arms don’t cut it. There are times when his come-hither hand gestures and induced applause could be egotistical; more likely that he wants us to hear ourselves screaming and having a fantastic time.
Watching the Flaming Lips in 2010, it’s a potent reminder of how cathartic this band was earlier this decade—when there was an utter incompetent at the helm, the world was going to shit and little hope in sight. Watching Wayne Coyne’s boundless enthusiasm was so incredibly affirming; long before “yes we can” became a campaign slogan, Coyne’s mission was to put positive energy back into a cynical, despondent world. Every time he raised his arms it was like he was encouraging us to take the power back, that we—the freaks, the lovers, the dreamers—could turn things around. We could win. If this band of underdogs could pull off this spectacle, we could all go home and pull off something equally amazing on our own scale.
The world is still going to shit, of course, even with a smart man in the White House. Maybe that’s why the Lips don’t feel like being so directly inspirational—hence the largely instrumental and freakier, darker abstractions on Embryonic (which added welcome, if dissonant, diversity to the set list).
But they have that impossibly rare quality as performers that leaves you not just excited about the music or about the experience, but about possibilities for you, your lover, your children, your friends, for strangers, for—well, you know, the universe and all that. Dream on, indeed.