The Boy in the Bubble . . . Or, All Your Bad Days Will End (An Account of Dancing On Stage with the Flaming Lips)
The crowd is freaking the fuck out. I can see them from the stage. I’m wearing a full-body Abominable Snowman suit, jumping up and down like an idiot, sweating rivers. Michael Ivins, the bass player, is just to my right. Wayne Coyne, the singer/wizard/savant has left the stage. He’s in the bubble.
It’s all business in the bubble.
Most of the time, he’s thinking … Can these people support all 150 pounds of me plus sixty pounds of bubble? … and listening to the intro music, always titled “Ta Da,” so he knows when to get back on stage. What the 10,000 people attending the show in Atlanta, Georgia see is a forty-eight-year-old man tumbling across their outstretched hands, silhouetted against a black sky, fist raised like some sort of Magical Fucking Being.
Those are his words, “Magical Fucking Being.” He said it to the dancers in a brightly lit dressing room before the show. “Here in the fluorescent lights, we’re exposed for the weirdoes we are,” he said. “But once we get out there, you’ll be transformed into magical fucking beings.”
So it was.
But in the bubble, none of that enters his mind. It’s all business. And now, he’s rolling it back toward the stage and he crawls out of the bubble and drummer Kliph Scurlock hits the snare like a goddamned blast of TNT and The Flaming Lips explode into “Race for the Prize” and there are thirty giant white, yellow and orange balloons careening around and a maelstrom of confetti blasted from two machines on either end of the stage and people are losing their minds and you’re on stage punching balloons out over the crowd and Wayne Coyne is shooting makeshift confetti guns over your head and it’s raining down like a ticker-tape parade on New Year’s Eve and you think, This is what happens inside your head at the moment of orgasm.
This is The Flaming Lips — a unique American experience.
Those are the words of the fat flamboyant man waiting in line, “unique American experience.” The fat flamboyant man is waiting to go backstage because he has been chosen to dance on stage while The Flaming Lips play. At every show, the Lips pick a few diehards who have arrived hours early, dress them up in outrageous costumes (this tour, it’s Abominable Snowmen) and let them go haunch over paunch insane during the set. In this way the Flaming Lips have broken down the fourth wall of live music. The audience isn’t just there to watch; they are part of the show. In some ways they are the show. And something about this insistence on including their fans … on creating an experience for the audience to hear, feel, see, and even touch … on using things like a giant bubble, huge foam hands, thousands of laser pointers, smoke machines, confetti blasters, massive strobe lights, superhero costumes and a nun hand puppet … something about the mixture of this wild party atmosphere with lyrics like “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? — something about this whole scene has made the Flaming Lips the greatest live band on the planet.
I think at first, I kind of put myself in the audience, and I say, “What would I want to see Wayne do tonight if I was eighteen and I was on a couple of hits of acid with my girlfriend?” — Wayne Coyne
The fat flamboyant man is astute. Coyne and The Flaming Lips are a uniquely American success story. On the surface, there is the up-from-the-bootstraps, Protestant-work-ethic aspect of their career. Just look at the itinerary, posted on a wall backstage, which shows the day beginning at nine a.m. Anyone familiar with the Lips knows Coyne is doing much of the grunt work himself all day, then performing for an hour and a half, then sitting backstage with the dancers and VIPs for an hour or two afterward taking pictures, signing autographs, answering questions. He’s done the exact same thing for years, never forgetting that he was once a guy in a band no one had heard of with a dead-end job at Long John Silver’s.
But it goes deeper. Coyne himself synthesizes two figures that have shaped America in as profound a way as Jefferson and Franklin: the door-to-door salesman and the Second Great Awakening revivalist preacher. Coyne is not a very good singer, but he has that unquenchable enthusiasm of the door-to-door salesman. The man could sell bottled water to a fish. He also commands a crowd with the holy-rolling magnetism of the revival preacher — America’s first rock star.
Coyne was not always this figure, however. Rather, he turned himself into a symbol, starting around the time of 1997’s four-disc freakout, Zaireeka, and crystallizing it with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. It was in this period that he became the mad-scientist front man with the graying mop of crazy curly hair. He did it by utilizing David Byrne’s axiom that people remember you better when you always wear the same thing — thus, his grey Dolce & Gabbana suit has become a symbol as well. And the live show is full of symbols, too. Maybe no one knows what exactly the symbols mean, but they have a certain subconscious power. How else could a man with a nun hand-puppet make 10,000 adults belt out an F above middle C, shouting the word “robots,” until their lungs run out of air?
To me, that’s what rock shows are. You’ve got a lot of money, you’re supposed to be able to do crazy shit, now do some crazy shit. It doesn’t mean that it takes away emotion, or impact, or seriousness, but rock bands are supposed to do that. I like to do that. And, I think the fact that we do them over and over and over sets it up to be this kind of ritualistic aspect of our show. I think we’re just lucky that these dumb things that I like to do, they look cool in pictures and people get a kick out of it. — Wayne Coyne
Set all of this against the backdrop of the Lips’ stunning new double-album, Embryonic, and that album becomes even more important. Any band that stays together more than twenty years will have peaks and troughs, eras of music and corresponding eras of fans. What many people who came to the Flaming Lips at The Soft Bulletin or 2003’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots don’t know is that the Lips used to be a hard band to listen to. They were noisy and sloppy and underneath the noise was usually some little gem of a pop song obscured almost to the point of non-existence. Then, they started making beautiful, orchestral pop music, and fame, fortune and Grammy Awards finally came. With 2006’s At War With the Mystics, however, the Lips seemed in danger of becoming a parody of themselves. True, the album won a Grammy and attained new heights of exposure for the band, but if Yoshimi was the perfection of their pop era, Mystics was one step over the line. Embryonic,then, is important precisely because the Lips had finally reached a point where they could have played it safe, cashed their checks and moved on. They didn’t need to be weird and dark and challenging, and in fact, the money seemed to be in going the other way. Instead, and for the first time in a long time, they have tried to erase their audience’s concept of music and offer instead an abstract painting.
Perhaps “painting” is an appropriate word to apply to the Lips’ music. In a way no other band has, they have made music visual — on record with songs that play like mini movies, and on stage with the bubble, the giant hands, the laser pointers, the confetti, the balloons, and the dancers …
Yes, back to the dancers, who slowly walk off stage back in Atlanta. The show has just ended. A few stray bits of confetti still flutter gently like psychedelic snowflakes, and Coyne is standing in a dimly lit hallway backstage alone. His head is bowed, he seems to be unwinding from the show, taking a moment of hard-earned solitude. Someone approaches, breaks his reverie and asks him quite sincerely, “Does this ever get old?”
And in his eyes it is clear that, at a certain point, you no longer notice the torrent of confetti or the bouncing yellow, white, and orange balloons or the smoke machines and strobe lights and laser pointers and gongs and nameless faces in the front row singing the lyrics. At a certain point, it is a job.
But he pauses and says, “You know,” and he pauses again and says, “Not when you feel that kind of love coming from an audience.”
And maybe it’s just the sway of the door-to-door salesman working its magic, but it’s hard not to believe him.