Perhaps the most amazing thing about great music is its ability to transport us to certain places or times, and evoke complex feelings. To be transcendent, basically. The artists who make it, as a result, become these larger-than-life entities to whom we are forever grateful. But there’s a danger in that – because they’re just human.
I remember being in Newbury Comics, a beloved hangout for me and my friends in the early 2000s, and picking up a copy of The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips’ 1999 album. At that point in my life I was 15 or 16, ready to expand my horizons beyond Sabbath and Zeppelin. I’d heard of the Flaming Lips but didn’t know too much about them. I knew the people I considered “cool” were into them, so I bought it. Getting home that night and listening to it over and over again, I had a major revelation. The interstellar but still down-to-earth instrumentation, along with Wayne Coyne’s unusual, almost awkward style of singing, was infectious. You kept thinking he would go out of key but he always pulled it off. It held together so well, giving me this feeling of total elation every time I listened.
I later bought Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War with The Mystics, both excellent albums. People I knew sometimes trashed the Lips, but I always defended them. After At War with The Mystics, it started getting harder and harder to do so. Embryonic, which came out in 2009, was what I considered to be the beginning of the end. My best friend Mike burned me a copy, and while I ended up basically liking it, for the first time I found myself having a hard time doing so. It’s been a struggle ever since.
To understand what I view as the decline of the Flaming Lips, you need to understand Wayne Coyne. In February 2014, I learned Wayne would be appearing at the Newbury Comics flagship location on Newbury St. in Boston to meet fans and hawk some ultra-exclusive album/art projects. These things had become par for the course with Coyne’s band.
I got there more than an hour early – already a line had formed outside the door, filled with people who were bigger fans than I was. An overweight guy in a Lips shirt (I think it was the album cover for Clouds Taste Metallic, circa 1995) had about 10 posters, pictures and albums for Coyne to sign and could barely contain himself. He’d seen them over 20 times and was losing his mind at the thought of meeting Wayne. While I wasn’t quite as committed to the band, I was incredibly excited. Most of the people who came as early as me had plenty of shit for him to sign. All I’d brought was my CD copy of The Soft Bulletin.
We were let into the store, waited some more and finally he came. His main reason for being there, other than meeting fans, was to sell a copy of the band’s debut record – housed inside an anatomically correct chocolate skull – for $600. “It’s all made out of chocolate, it’s a life-size human skull, a life-sized human brain,” Coyne told Rolling Stone while promoting it. “The brain is actually sliding out of the skull made with this brain fluid-flavored hard candy.”
The $600 would also get you a gold coin that would grant you access to any Flaming Lips show around the country. But still. $600 for chocolate, a record and a single concert? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Anyway, the skulls went fast, with people shelling out hundreds of dollars for something that wouldn’t last more than a few days (aside from the music itself). As I watched Wayne interact with these people who’d dropped all that money on a novelty item, I couldn’t help but feel bad for them. They were literally buying the approval of one of their favorite artists.
Wayne took his time with everyone. I waited and talked to a fellow fan behind me. At that moment, I realized my iPod had a cover of “Waitin’ for Superman” that I had recorded on GarageBand on it. Talking to my new friend, I debated whether I would be so bold as to play Wayne Coyne my own version of his song. Part of me thought he wouldn’t be into it. The guy behind me, however, convinced me that I should.
When I got up there, I basically acted like that SNL sketch with Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney at first. Then I asked if he wanted to hear my cover or if would that be lame. “Why would that be lame? I’d love to hear it,” Coyne said, with genuine kindness.
“You really do have an unusual voice,” he told me after hearing it. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Playing your own version of someone else’s well-known song to them is something I never thought I’d ever do in my life. But it was great.
To me (and I basically told him this), people like Coyne and Neil Young are my favorites because their voices are so unusual and unique. Acquired tastes, to be sure. In reflecting on his own unconventional voice, Wayne told me, “If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Between our conversation, him signing my copy of The Soft Bulletin and taking a photo with me, Wayne Coyne couldn’t have been nicer. He seems to genuinely like his fans, and they return the favor. But as great as a career as he and the Flaming Lips have had, they’ve begun alienating the fans who have taken them this far. I feel like this is because they’re no longer focused on being “the Flaming Lips” as the entity we considered them to be. Wayne seems to have let his love of other artists seep into his band.
In 2012, they released The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends. This record featured collaborations with Bon Iver, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Tame Impala, Nick Cave and Yoko Ono. And Ke$ha, for some reason. Since then they’ve done many other collaborative projects, some of which include The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, a 24-hour song, a (successful) attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for most concerts (eight) in a 24-hour period. They also did an album with Ke$ha called Lip$ha. Seriously.
As the icing on this unfortunate cake, Wayne appeared in a Virgin Mobile commercial – you might remember it from the 2013 Super Bowl. He was officially selling out, peddling his carefully branded weirdness to the highest bidder. And while I could write it off or devil’s-advocate it and think that it won’t affect the music, it still bothers me.
Not everyone has embraced the new Flaming Lips – including some band members. Recently, the Lips parted ways with drummer Kliph Scurlock. While it was initially reported that he’d been fired for arguing with Wayne about Coyne’s defense of his friend Christina Fallin’s racist antics (wearing an Indian headdress in public), that turned out not to be true. In a statement on his Facebook page that ended up on Stereogum, Scurlock described why he left the band, explaining that he wasn’t interested in the cover albums the Lips had been working on, and all the pop star collaborations.
“There were lots of things I wasn’t the least bit interested in – the Lip$ha record, the Stone Roses cover album, the Sgt. Pepper cover album, working with Miley Cyrus, etc… As far as the Flaming Lips are concerned, you’re either all in or you’re all out,” Scurlock said. “And that’s an attitude I admire and part of what was so appealing to me when I joined that band in the first place. I have deluded myself over the past couple of years into thinking I was all in when I wasn’t.”
For decades, the Lips released records that combined psychedelia, rock and avant-garde sounds, with Wayne’s distinctive voice pulsating through it all. At live shows, there have always been over-the-top theatrics – Wayne is known for crowdsurfing inside a huge plastic bubble, covering himself in fake blood, showering the audience with confetti and balloons – but now that theatricality has overtaken the music. And it’s a shame.
I’ll never forget meeting Wayne Coyne. His generous spirit and warmth meant a lot to me. It was nice to see someone like that, who’s basically worshipped as an indie-rock demigod, be so humble and genuine. Part of me wishes I could meet him again. This time, however, instead of playing him a cover of his own song and singing his praises, I’d tell him we miss the old Flaming Lips. I’d tell him to listen to The Soft Bulletin again and rediscover what made them so great. I’d even lend him the copy he signed for me.