Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Fearless Freaks

The Fearless Freaks, a new documentary recently released on DVD chronicling Oklahoma City's own alt-rock pride and joy, the Flaming Lips, reminded me how long this weird and wonderful band has been a part of my life.

And now my self-indulgent trip down memory lane:

I first saw the Lips in the mid-Eighties, in a smoke-filled ballroom on the second floor of the University of Oklahoma Student Union. They opened for Camper Van Beethoven and played deafening loud punk while a cheap overhead projector cast strange psychedelic shapes on a wall. Not exactly a big-ticket show, but it definitely was one of the coolest.

The next time I saw them, I think (there might be some fairly blurred memories from those days, for a whole variety of reasons ... some of them even legal, maybe), the Lips were on a bill with Eugene Chadbourne (heard of him?) at Oklahoma City's Blue Note. It was a great night for non-instruments. Chadbourne played an electrified rake -- that's right, a rake -- but the Flaming Lips topped him by rolling a motorcycle out on stage and proceeding to rev it repeatedly, over and over, attempting to merge it into their music. Mainly, all it did was fill the cramped dive of a place with exhaust fumes. You could barely see two feet in front of you.

That memory came flooding back to me when I saw Fearless Freaks. Directed by Bradley Beesley, the picture follows Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and his merry band of misfits in their journey from loud punk to their more mature incarnation as quasi-avant garde artists.

There are several reasons I have been a Flaming Lips fan for so long. The biggest factor, of course, is the Lips' adventurous, provocative and sometimes achingly beautiful music. The band has produced four classic records: 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance, 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, 1999's The Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

Then there are the stage shows. Coyne has likened his band's sense of showmanship to that of a spoiled rich kid's birthday party. It makes for a kitten-kaboodle aesthetic that includes everything: big balloons, confetti, lots of spurting fake blood, people in furry animal costumes, dazzling lights, rear-screen projection airing everything from Cool Hand Luke clips to sexy tramps in black bra and panties.

And then there is Wayne Coyne himself and the sort of off-kilter ambassador he serves as for Oklahoma City. As Fearless Freaks points out early on, Oklahoma is a state chiefly known for oil derricks, college football and country music (Beesley left out tornadoes, the dust bowl and the federal building bombing -- none of them particularly alluring on a tourism brochure).

The Flaming Lips are an antidote to all that.

For me, the Lips are a tremendous part of Oklahoma City. I grew up enamored with their music and proud of their artistic cool. And best of all, even though the Lips are hardly one of those trippy-dippy Phish wannabes (thank God for that) Coyne and his chums still project a charming innocence to what they do.

And so a heartfelt thank you to the Flaming Lips for making Oklahoma that much more interesting.


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