07 April 2006

Requiem for the Flaming Lips

I can very distinctly recall the day that I heard on the radio that Camper Van Beethoven had broken up. I was immediately depressed beyond consolation, moping about for the rest of the day. I was a freshman in high school at the time1, and in the space of about a year they had become my favorite band in the world.

When I was in the eighth grade, I was already obsessed with music, having recently graduated from the Top 40 pop of my youth to the more serious classic rock sounds of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Then one day my friend Justin introduced me to the magic of what was at the time known as "college rock". I didn't have cable television at the time, but Justin would periodically loan me a few tapes of MTV's 120 Minutes, the channel's 2-hour Sunday-night showcase for the latest the underground had to offer.2 They even showed indie stuff back then; I can remember seeing a Meat Puppets video from when they were still on SST. It was here I discovered many of the bands who would become my favorites throughout high school: Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, the Cure.

And Camper Van Beethoven. They were so perfect, they seemed to exist solely for my entertainment. Or possibly their own. Their latest album at the time was Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, which I listened to non-stop. I still love every song on it. Every one. By the time the next one came out, I had all of their albums. The goofy non sequiturs, the droll irony, the carefree self-referentialism, the omnivorous genre-hopping all combined to create a circus of nods and winks I would listen to day after day, a goofy grin plastered to my face. I had some friends who were sort of into them, but none to the degree I was. They were my best pals, they just didn't realise it.

I made a point to buy Key Lime Pie the day it hit stores and, while it wasn't as perfect as Our Beloved3, it was good enough for constant listening. I was already looking forward to their next one when I heard they had called it a day. Apparently some long-simmering resentments had at last come to a head during a tour of Europe. I think the worst part of it was the realisation that I would never get to see them play live.

When I got to college, my appetite for new sounds grew exponentially, and I spent four years discovering as many new sounds as I could. In that time, I found three more bands that had a similar effect on me: Pavement, Guided By Voices and the Flaming Lips. What these bands had in common with Camper Van Beethoven, besides being fun and funny, having a gift for endless melodies both breezy and inspiring, was that these were the sounds of guys I wanted to chill with. There was no sheen of untouchable rock god-hood to them and no tortured-artist pose either; they sounded like guys I could hang out, get high and jam with. The unstable line-ups of each one helped to feed the fantasy that I could even be in one of these bands, a key element of each one's appeal. They were making exactly the kind of music I wanted to make.4

Three things made the Lips stand apart from the other two. First, while Pavement and the Voices had that tossed-off devil-may-care vibe to their haphazard recordings, the Lips were studio craftsmen of the highest order. Even when they splattered ungodly noise over their charming pop songs, it was clearly studied and calculated noise. As a lifelong Beatles fan, this appealed to me immensely.

Second, Pavement were absolute pillars of the unrelenting irony that came to define the popular culture of their era, a trait so prevalent that it makes their music sound oddly dated today in a way that I never could have imagined it sounding at the time. The Voices seemed a bit more sincere, but there was still a definite wink to their classic rock poses. But the Lips, in all their lysergic bliss, came off sounding hopelessly naive. You just couldn't help but believe that Wayne Coyne really was fascinated by the moth crawling up his window, and just had to write a song about it.

Third, Pavement and the Voices were consensus gods of indie cool, but no one I knew liked the Flaming Lips. My friends, by and large, hated them, and would respond with disgust when I played their records. In fact, I've probably seen them in concert by myself more than any other band (at least five shows I can think of off-hand), simply because I couldn't find anyone to go with me. The Flaming Lips, like Camper Van Beethoven, made music just for me.

Pavement and the Voices eventually let me down. I hated Brighten the Corners, and still do. Terror Twilight was okay, but I gave up on Malkmus after the first solo album. I listened to Mag Earwhig once and never bought another Voices record. They were depressing albums to listen to because these bands had, for a few albums in a row, really delivered. I would anticipate the new album for months and it would be fantastic. I can still remember hearing an advance copy of Under the Bushes, Under the Stars and being so thrilled that they had pulled it off!

The Lips, by contrast, not only never let me down, they kept getting better. I listened to Transmissions From the Satellite Heart ceaselessly when it came out, and was tickled to no end when, almost a year later, "She Don't Use Jelly" became and alt-rock "hit". I never fretted about them selling out; they had been on a major label since I had been listening to them. Unlike some of my other favorite bands, I wanted them to get popular, I wanted everybody to like them. I loved it when they were on Beverly Hills 90210. There's just something infectious and inclusive about them that I wanted everybody to share with me.

In the minds of most people, they faded into the one-hit wonder where-are-they-now bin soon after that, but I knew they kept going. I went to the boombox concert at Wetlands; I tried listening to as much of Zaireeka as available resources would allow. I even wrote them a fan letter after seeing them at Maxwell's around Cristmas '95, still one of the best shows I've ever seen, if not the best.

I had a friend living in England send me a copy of The Soft Bulletin; it came out a month earlier there, and with a slightly different track list. I was floored from the first listen. And with The Soft Bulletin, it finally happened: the Lips got their due. They made year-end best-of lists. They had glowing profiles written about them, framing them as the little band that could, making wildly ambitious records in the face of mass indifference. Friends of mine who hated them came around to the new album. I couldn't have been happier for them. The band and my friends.

I can still remember when "Do You Realize?" was posted on the band's website. I don't know how many times in a row I played it the first day I discovered it, but I know I watched it several times a day for about a week. And when Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots finally came out, I bought it the first day, raced home and was... a little disappointed. It's good, but Flaming Lips albums aren't good, they're great, transcendentally great.

I listened more and it grew on me. I respected the sonic experimentalism of it; it certainly didn't sound like any of their other albums, or like any other band, so they were still pushing forward. But other than "Do You Realize?", Wayne's songs just didn't seem quite as hummably perfect as they had in the past. Some of the lyrics sounded like he was running out of ways to gush effusively about the wonder of existence. I couldn't shake the feeling that the praise being heaped upon it was a little excessive. For the first time, the Lips seemed a little... overrated. Still, they were trying new things, and that's what counts, so I eagerly awaited At War With the Mystics, expecting a full return to form.

The SpongeBob song is pretty lame. But whatever, the Lips'll do anything for a buck, something I've never held against them. "Mr. Ambulance Driver" is mediocre at best, by-the-numbers lite-rock from aging hippies. I didn't think either would be on the new album, but "Ambulance" is. The advance single, "The W.A.N.D." has a cool riff but that's about it, and the vocals are buried. None of this was a good sign.

When I finally heard the new album, it was okay, but the magic is clearly gone. Steve Drozd and Dave Fridmann have assembled some interesting tracks, but nothing nearly as unique as the ones on Yoshimi, and Wayne contributes exactly zero memorable songs. I think he's phoning it in at this point, focusing his creative energy in his long-running movie project and the band's increasingly elaborate stage shows. Maybe he's just run out of ideas. He had, in hindsight, an unbelievably long peak.

Today I watched the VOID DVD, the Lips' video retrospective, and was struck by a feeling I'd never had about the Lips before: nostalgia. For the first time in my life, I found myself looking back on the good ol' Lips. For the first time, I thought of them as a great band that was, rather than a great band that is.

What hurts so much about this is that they were the last band from my youth that was still delivering, year after year. I'm over 30 now, and pretty much all new bands who might be coming into their prime are younger than me. I've heard too much music to be as impressed as I was ten years ago. I honestly don't think it's possible, at my age, to start loving a new band as much as I loved the Lips, and Camper, and Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. You have to be young to invest so much of yourself in fanhood. I don't know exactly why that is, and I've tried to avoid losing it, but it's inevitable. Of all the bands I ever truly loved, bands I would have walked a hundred miles barefoot to get their new album or see them live, the Lips were the last ones standing, the last ones still pulling it off. Of all the bands I ever loved, they were the last to fall.

When I went to see one of Camper Van Beethoven's two reunion shows at the Knitting Factory two years ago, it felt in some ways like I had come full circle in my fanhood. They were the first band I felt was my own, and now I had finally seen them live. It was good. In fact, it was really good. But it was still nostalgia. They made a new album, and I liked it, a lot, in fact. But it was no Our Beloved.

I'll still buy At War With the Mystics as soon as I can find it on vinyl. And I'll buy their next one. And I'll go see Christmas on Mars the day it opens. They may have let me down, but I'm too old to be bitter. It was a great ride and I appreciate everything they did for me. In fact, I'll probably buy everything they put out until I die or they do. But from here on out, it's just nostalgia.


  1. I think; I don't actually remember the exact date, it may have been the summer after.
  2. The show may still be on; I haven't seen MTV in a few years and have no idea whether or not they still show music videos.
  3. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was probably their best. I didn't realise this until years later, though.
  4. Worth noting that I was in a band at the time that had none of these traits, but instead buried depressive, monotonous vocals under minor-key drones and excessive guitar effects. Still don't know why I couldn't just loosen up. Best not think too deeply on this one.

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