Monday, January 24, 2011

Flaming Lips’ Freak Out 2011

For the last five years or so, my wife and I have stayed in on New Year’s Eve. But not this year. To celebrate what we hope will be an important, breakthrough year for us, Allie and I packed up the car and drove down to Oklahoma City to catch the annual Flaming Lips’ Freak Out.
The prospect of this adventure reminded me of one I took 24 years ago to Oakland to see the Grateful Dead for the first time in my life. The story’s worth repeating here because it (briefly) involves a certain high school teacher who went on to own a certain kick ass record store. I lied to my mom to get her permission to go, telling her my friend Dave was going with me. I went alone. I was 18. At the first show of the four-night stand I sat front row center in the balcony at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium. I kept thinking I was dropping stuff out of my pockets. So did the guy sitting next to me. But when we looked under our seats, we saw nothing. Also, my lap melted. I kept hoping to run into my teacher, but I didn’t until the last night, New Year’s Eve. I ran up to him, all skinny and out of breath, wearing a very loud button down shirt I’d made my mom buy for me on a trip to the Aurora Mall. We only talked for about 15 seconds, but I’m quite certain I succeeded in adding an unexpected and abiding level of terror to my teacher’s night. 
Anyway, the Lips’ Freak Out was an amazing trip from start to finish. From before the start, actually. It takes about six hours to drive from Kansas City to Oklahoma City. On the morning of our trip, an ice storm had passed the Flint Hills between Emporia and Wichita. The sun broke through the clouds just as Allie and I arrived there and it backlit the frozen grass, making the countryside glow. We found a classical music station with a signal that spanned the entire state. 
After checking into our hotel and eating Chinese food, we drove a long, two-lane city street into downtown Oklahoma City. As we got closer, a skyscraper emerged from dark horizon with its windows lit in the form of a cross. Then a second cross-bearing tower appeared. There was road construction everywhere, traffic beacons flashing orange light. It felt as if we were sneaking past a post-apocalypse Mount Cavalry to participate in a semi-clandestine cosmo-pagan ritual.  
We had to park a few blocks away from the concert. We walked toward what we thought was the concert venue, a hulking arena that glowed dramatically, but a security guard directed us to a squat and boxy convention hall. There were no ticket takers at the door. We entered a long hall full of people milling around, some in winter coats, some with glittery green cardboard hats. A man with a cowboy hat stood near an escalator singing and playing guitar. Doors along the left side of the hallway opened to several large ballrooms, each with a stage at the end of it. One room was full of junior-high-aged kids, another was full of black families. An easel placed outside one of the rooms held a placard that read, “Meridians New Year’s Celebration.” We caught glimpses through the doorways on the right side of the hall of a spectacular light show and we could hear the muffled throbbing of a rock and roll show. 
I can’t overemphasize how weird this was. To walk into a familiar space, a generic convention space in need of a remodel, and to find among the normal and mundane festivities a space that is completely overtaken by unbridled strangeness—my god, it was beautiful.
Inside, Allie spotted a bunny. I saw Jesus dressed in red Converse high tops. Just about every other person wore a necklace with a green strobe light amulet. We grabbed a couple of beers, found our seats, and settled in to take in the scene. The arena lights were dimmed and Miles Davis’s On the Corner was cranked on the sound system. Great big balloons bounced on the crowd in front of the stage. Giant smiling flowers and caterpillars wandered around near the sound board. On stage, men in prison jumpsuits checked wire connections and every once in a while one of the members of the Flaming Lips would come out and fiddle with an instrument. Michael Ivins thumbed a handful of low notes that shook the air and drowned out Miles. Wayne Coyne grabbed a confetti gun and shot it into the air. He tested a camera that was attached to his microphone. The half-circle screen behind the stage filled with the image of his face. He said, “Just so everybody has an idea of what’s going to happen, we’re going to come out and play until right before midnight, then we’re gonna sort of stop; we’re basking in a sort of New Year’s glow and love and we’re floating in this room together. Then we’ll come back out and play The Soft Bulletin.” 
“He’s like a pre-school teacher,” Allie said.
The arena went dark and the screen behind the stage filled with the image of a naked woman who glowed bright. She danced. A point of light emanated from her vagina and grew in size and intensity as she laid down and spread her legs toward the audience and so that the members of the band could emerge from her one after another. A clear membrane rose from the center of the stage with Coyne struggling inside, pushing against the sides of it, forcing it into the shape of a bubble. He stood and walked toward the edge of the stage, the bubble rolling under his steps like a hamster ball, and he stepped off onto the crowd. The audience’s hands glowed green under the stage lights. Allie told me she thought it looked like a sea creature.
They played “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2,” a bunch of cuts from Embryonic. The flowers and giant bugs we’d seen earlier stood in clusters on both sides of the stage and danced. Coyne told us “There are people at home at their computers wishing they were you.” A bear picked him up and carried him around on its shoulders while he sang, and then whispered in his ear as a man and woman dressed in luminescent garments walked out onto the stage. “Mr. Bear told me these people are here to be married by the Flaming Lips,” Coyne said. The woman wore a green veil and the man had a long, white beard. “By the power vested in me as the unofficial master of my universe,” Coyne said, raising a hand like a preacher, “I hereby do proclaim that this man and woman realize they’re floating in space.” The Lips closed the set with the song the “floating in space” line comes from, during which I looked around and saw a man a few rows back dressed in a corduroy blazer with streaks of tears running down his face. A woman grabbed his hands and squeezed them tightly. 
At a few minutes before twelve, huge balloons came cascading down the risers behind the stage and onto the crowd. Coyne told us, “The balloons could not wait to come down and join the fucking party.” He said that it was time to sing a song. “We don’t know the words to this song,” he said. “But you’ve got to sing this song every New Year’s Eve. Come on.” After we all sang, countdown clock filled the screen and it ticked off sixty seconds, at the end of which I kissed Allie, and then the numbers counted upward from zero to 2011. As the numbers flashed, Allie and I thought of all the epochs of history that we could remember. At 1968 I shouted, “I was born.” At 1973, “You were born!” 2000: “We met!” 2007: “We were married!” 2011, “Happy New Year!” That moment, we later learned from someone with an iPhone, was the actual stroke of midnight. 
The Lips came back on at about 12:30 to play The Soft Bulletin, an album I’d always liked but had never loved in the way I love Yoshimi and Embryonic. In this setting, though, it was entirely new. They began with a prelude, a soft and lovely variation of the opening riff of “Race for the Prize.” Coyne told us that they could never make another album like this one because it was made during a period of extreme highs and lows and artistic exploration that can only happen once in a lifetime. Throughout the performance of the album he paused to tell tales from that time and to give insight to the songs. Before each verse in “The Spiderbite Song” he told the story behind it and professed his love to his bandmates, both of whom nearly died during the time the album was being made. When he did this the screen behind was filled with his face so we could all see his sincerity starkly. During “What is the Light?” the whole place went dark. Drops of light dripped from the ceiling and the stage filled with a galaxy of starlight that exploded outward, swirled around and collapsed into itself to form the words of the song, one word at a time.
When we got back to the hotel we found a Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy Channel. It was still going the next morning. In the free-breakfast room by the lobby I eavesdropped on some kids who had driven down from suburban Kansas City to catch the show. A couple of them said they’d left early. The Soft Bulletin isn’t their favorite record, one of them explained. That night, when we got home, Allie and I listened to the album and it was as if I’d never heard it before. I always thought it sounded thin compared to their later works. Genius in aspiration, I thought, but played by a band not yet accomplished enough to realize their vision. But this time, on a new (for me) stereo, it revealed itself as the perfect masterpiece that it is. I thought back to the concert, remembering how it felt to hold Allie and sway with her to the music. In Oklahoma City, I kept wishing that they would release a live recording of the show, preferably on vinyl. And that would be great. But unnecessary. 
All that’s left for me to do now is to by it on LP to — as an old high school teacher of mine once said — “properly consummate the relationship.”

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