Music Features

“I Saw God!” ...and/or The Flaming Lips

“A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole.” - Frank Zappa

Parking in Montclair, New Jersey is a pain in the ass. The roads are hilly and narrow, and there’s almost always traffic. It’s especially bad today, The Flaming Lips are in town for a sold-out show at the Wellmont Theatre, and it looks like every weirdo in the good ol’ garden state has turned out for this momentous occasion. After about fifteen minutes of scanning cross-streets and alleyways, I finally cave in and pay an exorbitant price to situate my vehicle in a tiny spot within adequate walking distance. The line outside the Wellmont is long, wrapping all the way around the venue and down the adjacent side-street. Incidentally, this places concert-goers across the street from a smoke shop. Up a way, I can overhear a group of fearless freaks debating the merits of a brief departure from the line in favor of a potential plunder for assorted paraphernalia. Another freak next to me is just staring off into space, looking beyond the tiny shop, beyond the bounds of New Jersey’s modest borders, far out to the way-end of the cosmos. He also doesn’t seem to be aware of the heaping pile of bird-excrement he has situated himself upon -- but hey, who am I to say that’s not contributing to his zen?

Finally, the queue begins to inch forward. At last, I can see the dim lights of the Wellmont’s aging marquee, which reads simply, “The Flaming Lips”. As I get closer and closer to the entrance, the line begins to dissolve into a mass herd of clothed, semi-sentient cattle. A particularly boisterous member of the theatre’s staff begins to shepherd the flock along, barking at us all the while. “The sooner you get in, the sooner I go home!”, he sloganeers like an old time, New York City paper-peddler. There’s a slight surge in the crowds’ step, and I’m accidentally shoved against a glass door. My face plants right onto a flier that sort of reads like a bad haiku, “STROBE / Lights / Will Be Used / In Tonights / Performance”. I recover quickly, my excitement is now bolstered tenfold.

“Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.” - Frank Zappa

The lobby of the theatre is absolutely gorgeous, like an ancient relic from a much more elegant time. Its carpeted staircases twist and turn and come to rest along the room’s checkered marble floors. A gold-trimmed chandelier hovers over top, immediately attracting the attention of the crowd, who gaze upon it as if the band’s light-show has already started. I quickly run through an underpass filled with assorted, overpriced merchandise and make my way up the staircase. A quick glance at my ticket reveals the appropriate seat and row -- nosebleeds, the usual. The showroom is slow to fill at first, but after twenty minutes or so, the place is packed wall-to-wall. A lone, scraggly aberration situates himself next to me. We exchange some brief, awkward small-talk, then quickly resume ignoring each other. A deranged fan behind me spills cold beer down my back -- he doesn’t acknowledge my sour stares, I choose not to make it any more of an issue. 

The crowd suddenly erupts with applause. I glance down to see what the hoopla is all about. THE BAND HAS NOT EVEN TAKEN THE STAGE YET. Just a short light-test and nothing more. A few minutes later, the stage goes dark. A tiny, nameless girl steps out in front of a projected backdrop -- waves, scrambled and obscured by over-pixilation. Technical difficulties set in almost instantly, with the sound fading in, distorting, and then cutting out. Looking for a spectacle, the eldritch pack of ground-floor attendees begin to howl along to the incidental, droning feedback. The drunkard at my back begins to hee and haw and squeal like the gluttonous swine he is. It’s official, the Fearless Freak Choir has now become a surrogate warm-up act. 

However, the crowd’s twisted sing-a-long is interrupted about mid-set by an unexpected blast of synthesizer noodling -- the original opener is ready to give it another go. Despite her faulty equipment, the tiny sprite returns stage front and begins to rock back and forth, overlaying one lush, looped vocal at a time, which coalesce into a serene, Eno-esque wall-of-sound. Very cool, but also incredibly boring to watch. The frail beardo next to me sits up for a moment and ekes out a few words. “Sounds like something on one of those ‘Discover Ireland’ commercials”, he then slips back into his seat and balls up into a fetal position for the rest of the show.

“A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own.” - Lester Bangs

The house lights slowly turn on as the opener collects her plasticine musical toys and hobbles off the stage. The Lips’ road-crew quickly swarm in, setting up what might be the most bizarre set-design I’ve ever seen. A single microphone stands atop several oblong, silver balls and space-age, tinsel-covered platforms as eerie, intestine wires connect the glitzy contraption to the ceiling. A few more light-tests yield a few more rounds of obligatory applause and then silence. The theatre’s resident hype-man comes out to greet us, spews a few buzz-words in a voice fit for a monster-truck rally, and then disappears. The room goes dark, but nobody takes the stage. After a long period of pure sensory depravation, The Flaming Lips finally march out onto the catwalk. 

Coyne emerges first, clutching a mutilated baby-doll and perches himself atop his malformed, silvery lectern. A few short words of Spanish reintroduce the band to the dazed crowd, the violent buzz of a synthesizer drowns out their cheers. Like clockwork, the pungent aroma of multiple dubious substances sifts through the cracks in the air, creating a thick bed of psychedelic atmosphere. Without warning, a stabbing, repetitious synth pattern cuts through the white-noise and feedback and the drums begin to wind up -- the clatter is almost deafening. The stage begins to strobe spastically -- red, blue, red, blue, white, black, red, blue, red. A glowing, fluorescent harpy dances about the backdrop and then falls to her knees and begins birthing a bright sun-baby before the stage goes dark -- I hardly notice the sustained, brash feedback that continues to filter through the room.

It doesn’t take too long for the Lips to barrel into another overwhelming display of visual fetishism. “Try to explain why you’ve changed / I don’t think I’d understand”, Coyne sermonizes from his pulsating, electronic pulpit. I glance about the room and see a crowd full of psychically-altered beings communally engulfed in a din of skronking synths and helpless lyricism -- but for reasons unknown to me, I feel as isolated as I’ve ever been. Maybe its the steep distance between my seats and the stage? Or the various distractions that have dominated my experience thus far? Maybe I’m just not lucky enough to feel the inert, psychedelic charms of The Flaming Lips’ presence? To be honest, I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but something kept me locked inside myself, forcing me to endure an acute case of self-imposed, cerebral claustrophobia. On the other hand, that might be the perfect way to experience The Flaming Lips’ post-Terror material. Maybe the desperation and loneliness that pervades that music is somehow channeling itself into my feeble psyche, leaving me metaphysically frozen and utterly emotionless.

However, just before I gaze too deep into the preternatural void, I hear a word that completely shatters my brooding, contemplative silence and summons my attention almost instantaneously: Bowie. “I don’t think he means we can defeat the bad guy or something,” Ringmaster Coyne says of Bowie’s mid-career hit, "Heroes", “I think he’s saying ‘look let me live my life and you live yours, I don’t need to win, we already win by living the way we do.’ We can be heroes in that way.” I’m immediately built back up and ready to reconnect with my boisterous, psych-pop idols. Just as the words leave his mouth, Coyne and the gang let loose a noise that resembles Bowie’s classic, but only in spirit and lyricism. It’s a stunningly visceral performance, but yet again, I’m left unmoved and cold and once again retreat back into my head for some extra cognitive exploration. In the distance, I can hear the final rumblings of the concert and ravenous mirth of the cheering crowd. When I come to, the theatre is nearly emptied and the hog at my back is hunched over my seat, chanting “It was spiritual, man. I saw God! I saw God!” I wonder if he got his autograph...

Set list
Look... The Sun Is Rising
The Terror
The W.A.N.D.
Silver Trembling Hands
Try To Explain
Race For The Prize (Zen version)
Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die)
You Lust
One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21
"Heroes" (Bowie cover)
Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)
Do You Realize?? (Zen version)
All We Have Is Now
Always There In Our Hearts