RACE FOR THE PRIZE: 24 HOURS WITH THE FLAMING LIPS

A Guinness world
record is broken, and what does Wayne Coyne say? “Let’s play some more songs!
Let’s get fucked up!” Amen, brutha.

 

BY TOM SPEED

 

There was a point at which it seemed like the wheels were
coming off. The Flaming Lips were trying to break a world record for the most
concerts played in different cities within a 24-hour period. They were going
for eight. The record was seven, held by the media mogul and hip-hop star
Jay-Z, who had performed his seven shows traveling coast to coast in his private
jet to promote the release of his album
Kingdom Come in 2006. Those shows spanned the
continent from Atlanta to Las Vegas. 
The Flaming Lips were attempting
to top it by traversing the state of Mississippi in a tricked out tour bus on
an overnight trek that began in Memphis on Wednesday, June 27, and ended in New
Orleans the following day.

 

***

 

Flaming Lips’  itinerary:


June 27-Handy Park, Memphis, Tennessee
June 27-Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi
June 27-The Lyric, Oxford, Mississippi
June 28-Duling Hall with Neon Indian – Jackson, Mississippi
June 28-Benny’s Boom Boom Room, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
June 28-Hard Rock Casino, Biloxi, Mississippi
June 28-Varsity, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
June 28-House Of Blues, New Orleans, Louisiana

 

 

 

The whole affair was sponsored by the O Music Awards, a
fledgling program produced by Viacom, the parent company of MTV and VH1. The
awards show was an attempt to return
relevance to the erstwhile music channels by broadcasting the proceedings
online. It was the third installment of these awards, and the previous two had
also included world record attempts.
So, it’s kind of a shtick. A stunt.

 

There is perhaps no better band in the land to enlist in
such absurd shenanigans as the Flaming Lips. Yet despite the enthusiasm of Lips
ringmaster Wayne Coyne and his traveling band of fearless freaks, in south Mississippi at sunrise,
things were getting weird and the cracks began to show.

 

Amongst the throng crowded into the sweaty venue, Coyne
shouted, “We have to start now!” to the soundman, who was still fiddling with
the settings after several minutes of an onstage soundcheck. Mindful of the
tight schedule, and with an official from the Guinness Book of World Records
standing on the side of the stage with a clipboard and a stopwatch, the band
started playing even though the sound was not perfected. Michael Ivins’ bass
rattled the small room and largely obscured the voice of guest Jackson Browne
as the band attempted his revered
classic, “These Days.” They then trudged through “Ashes In The Air” from their
most recent album, and closed the short set with their fifth rendition of “Do
You Realize?” in as many shows.

 

For the first time on this journey, the Flaming Lips were
going through the motions. Claiming their prize, for the first time, seemed
tenuous. But let’s backtrack…

 

 

 

 

WC HANDY PARK, MEMPHIS, TENN.

6:30 P.M. WEDNESDAY

 

In sunnier times, just 12 hours ago during a press
conference in Memphis,
Coyne had predicted as much, saying “The worst part will be at 6 o’clock in the
morning when we collectively go, ‘Now, why are we here?'”

 

But breaking the record was not as important as the journey
itself, the coordination of chaos and absurdity being a hallmark of the Lips’
oeuvre This is the group who has made exercises in absurdity as much a part of
their art as the music itself. This is the band who once staged a symphony of car
stereos in an Austin parking garage, who released a four LP album meant to be
played simultaneously on four different record players, whose shows are
spectacles of space balls, confetti cannons, fake blood and animal costumed
dancers. This is the band who, just within the past year, released music on a
flash drive imbedded in a skull made of gummi candy and a 24 hour long song
meant to be listened to while tripping on acid. More recently, on Record Store
Day this year, they issued a special edition double album, Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, with a small sample of the vinyl
recordings purportedly including the actual blood of some of the varied and
unusual collaborators. An eight show trek from Memphis
to New Orleans, through rural Mississippi in the middle of the night?
Makes perfect sense. That barely even qualifies as unusual, much less weird.

 

Press
Conference On The Bus

 

The adventure, not the world record, was the point. “I care
a little bit about the Guinness Book of World Records, but I don’t really care
that much,” Coyne said. “The idea is that we get to play these strange little
venues and this caravan of Flaming Lips fanatics will be taking drugs and
joining us all through the night. I just want our fans to have a great
experience.” 

 

In Memphis,
with a daytime show on Beale
Street at WC Handy Park, a cozy outdoor
amphitheater, the Lips and their entourage staged their onslaught.  Like all the stops on the tour, the Flaming
Lips were preceded by a special guest. Many of the guests were collaborators on
the Heady Fwends album, which was
re-released on CD and digital download (sans blood, one would assume) just the
day before. Here, it would be New Fumes, who opened and joined the Lips.

 

To qualify for the Guinness record, each performance had to
be at least 15 minutes long, and to ensure that that and every other rule was
followed, two judges from the Guinness Book of World Records were along for the
journey.  From a logistical standpoint,
the plan was well conceived; the driving time between venues had been tested
with at least one dry run. Most of the stops involved little more than an hour
of driving time between shows, a schedule aided by the planned police escorts
along the way.

 

 

 

The Flaming Lips take the Memphis stage at 5:30 amid the characteristic
fanfare of confetti cannons and giant balloons as they performed “Supermoon
Makes Me Want To Pee,” a cathartic burst of fuzz and electronics from Heady Fwends. They then gave Memphis
what most of the crowds along the way would not get – a full Flaming Lips
concert experience replete with Coyne walking on top of the crowd in his giant
inflatable space ball, a large video screen showing bizarre film footage and
runs through some of their most beloved songs like the singalong “She Don’t Use
Jelly,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and in what would be a theme for the night, a
rarity or two. Here it was “Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell.”

 

 

 

They played for about an hour. Then, they stopped. Coyne
explained the rules to the crowd. The mayor of Memphis came on stage to (re-) introduce the
band, the judges checked their stopwatches and it began with “Girl, You Are So
Weird” from Heady Fwends, with New
Fumes playing along just as they do on the album.  Next was “It’s Summertime” followed by “Do
You Realize?” which Coyne explained would be played at every concert throughout
the journey. With that Coyne, wearing a parka, fur gloves and a silver cape in
the hundred degree heat of Memphis,
ran out of the venue with the rest of the band, crew, fans and press and hopped
on the tour bus “The Endeavor” and they were off.

 

Flaming
Lips Perform “Do You Realize” In Memphis

 

***

 

GROUND ZERO BLUES
CLUB, CLARKSDALE,
MISS.

9:30 P.M. WEDNESDAY

 

During the Memphis show,
Coyne explained to the crowd that after the show they were going to stop
somewhere and buy a bunch of fireworks, with the intention of “blowing shit up”
somewhere in the backwoods of Mississippi
at three in the morning. Indeed, when the police motorcade escorted the caravan
across the state line on Highway 61 into Mississippi,
they pulled over at a roadside fireworks stand. 
As the crowd of weirdoes spilled into the open air market, it became
clear that this was the first of many made for TV moments (or in this case,
made for webcast). The entire event was being broadcast online at the O Music
Awards (http://www.omusicawards.com)
with snippets being aired on TV throughout the night. At the fireworks stand,
Coyne gathered up some explosives and went to the checkout counter to find
Chris Pontius, from the MTV daredevil show “Jackass,” behind the counter. Not
so much serendipity as carefully crafted reality show style monkeyshines.
Pontius of course jumps on the bus and hilarity ensues for the fans watching at
home. But who better to embrace it than the Flaming Lips? One gets the feeling
they’re just happy to have someone along to foot the bill for this zaniness.

 

When the Lips arrived at Ground Zero, the Clarksdale juke
joint co-owned by the actor Morgan Freeman (a nearby resident), the crowd had
been there for hours, listening to bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. They were primed
and ready. But it took a while to get the Lips’ equipment on stage and
calibrated. During this time, an audience member shouted out a question about
the mythical crossroad. “We definitely plan on meeting the Devil,” Coyne
replied to great applause.

 

Before they started, Coyne explained that they only had time
for fifteen minutes, a statement that was met with a smattering of boos amid
the cheers. “We’d love to stay here and get drunk with you all night,” he said.
“But then we’d never set the world record.”

 

With the aid of California band Hour of the Time Majesty 12,
The Lips launched into “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” from Heady Fwends. They followed with the rarity “Be My Head,” from the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album. Closing with “Do You Realize?” was expected for the travelers, but no
less impactful for the crowd gathered for the one show. Less than 20 minutes
since the stopwatch started, the show was over, and the party rushed off stage
and onto the tour busses as promised. Two down. Six to go.

 

***

 

THE LYRIC OXFORD,
OXFORD, MISS.

11:40 P.M. WEDNESDAY

 

Sixty miles down the road in the college town of Oxford,
home to Ole Miss, a rabid crowd was waiting at The Lyric, having been whipped
into an orgiastic frenzy by Grace Potter and her Nocturnals. They were
ravenous, drunk and loud, practically hanging from the balconies. This is my
hometown and I was secretly afraid that the town’s draconian curfew laws would
derail the world record quest and international shame would rain down on my
beloved little hamlet. I knew that they had to get in their 15 minutes and I
knew that at midnight, the house lights would come up and the venue would all
but pull the plug. If the stopwatch didn’t start by 11:45 the party would be
over.  World records be damned, there
were little old ladies and militant Baptists who might be offended if someone
was enjoying a rock show past midnight. And on a weeknight! If they saw what
Grace Potter was wearing, they might shut the whole city down.

 

About 11:30 a commotion occurred at the front of the venue
and a crowd swarmed. At its center, Wayne Coyne. The swarm made its way to the
stage and as the band was tuning up, Coyne revealed his late night texting
relationship with Grace Potter and their mutual love for Led Zeppelin. He gave
the spiel about only being able to play three songs, again to just a few
disappointed boos but mostly fervent cheers. So, at 11:40 (whew!) out came the
resplendent Ms. Potter as the band launched into a one-two punch of “Song
Remains the Same” and “Rain Song.” The band nailed it, even if Grace didn’t
actually offer much to the performance other than a verse of the latter tune –
and her splendid hip-shaking energy. A high-octane take on “Do You Realize?”
was punctuated by swaying hands, co-eds on shoulders and wild abandon. Just
before midnight, a gleaming Coyne announced the band would return soon, then
bolted for the bus.

 

Flaming
Lips And Grace Potter Perform Zeppelin Cover “The Song Remains The
Same”

 

In Memphis, Coyne had pontificated on the significance of
playing these shows in rural Mississippi. “I think there’s some exoticness to
this caravan of weirdoes and our music going into some of these places. [But] the
world is not very much like a version of Easy
Rider
that the freaks go driving through the south and the rednecks kill
them.  I don’t believe that that exists
at all anymore. The divisions of
culture have gone away for people who listen to music.”

 

***

 

DULING HALL, JACKSON,
MISS.

3:59 A.M THURSDAY

 

True to the Memphis promise, the entourage pulled over in
the tiny town of Vaiden, Miss. a little before 2 a.m. to “blow shit up.” It was
another made-for-webcast event, just like the bus antics with Grace Potter who
had by now joined the jaunt.

 

Home viewers had the luxury of these performance pieces,
while attendees got 15 minute sets interspersed with hours of late night
driving. Thus, there were really two events going on. There was the awards
show, for which the world record stunt served the role of carnival barker. Then
there were actual participants. These were the costumed fans who followed along
in a bus of their own. There was a press bus, and another half dozen members of
the press following along in their own vehicles.

 

And there were lots of local fans too. For towns like
Clarksdale (population: 18,000), Oxford (19,000) and Hattiesburg (46,000) the
arrival of the Flaming Lips was a big deal, even if it was only for 15 minutes.
So fans traveled between the shows. The Jackson based vodka company Cathead
sponsored a bus that shuttled people from Jackson to Hattiesburg and back. For
many Mississippians, this was the big summer show.

 

The home viewers got special access, but the road
participants got way more. The band’s symbiotic relationship with their fans
has always been a participatory one, an experiential one. At each stop there
was building an overriding sense of being a part of something, of making
history. Hell, the posters in Clarksdale even said as much: “Be a part of
history!”  These diehard road warriors
who would drive hours to hear fifteen minutes were doing so not so much for the
concert but to be a part of this something. “This is history” was the line
you’d hear repeated by ebullient concertgoers over and over at each stop.
Nevermind that that “history” is a single line of minutiae in a volume designed
to settle bar bets. It was all about the experience, the quest. And the shaman
leading the charge reiterated the prize at each and every stop. The prize
really was the experience itself but they were reaching it piece by piece. And
it would only be complete at the end.

 

Jackson was perhaps the weirdest show of the run. Not
because of the songs played, they were weird all along. But at a three-hour
drive, it was the longest trek between shows and didn’t even start until after
three in the morning, the twilight period where it’s not still nighttime and
not quite morning. Held at a special events venue in the newly revitalized
Fondren neighborhood, the show saw several bands take the stage before the Lips
arrived, including Neon Indian, who played up until the moment the busses
pulled in. By 3 a.m., this crowd had been there a long time. But the two or
three hundred gathered there were patient, even if they looked a little
tired.  Taking the stage, Coyne thanked
the crowd for being there at such an odd hour. “We didn’t know if there’d be
anybody here,” he quipped.

 

The Lips began their set at 3:59 a.m., opening with “Is
David Bowie Dying?” It’s another track from Heady
Fwends
, again featuring the same collaborator as on the album, this time
Alan Palomo of Neon Indian. A spot-on, rousing version of David Bowie’s
“Heroes” followed, a first attempt for the band. And with a raspy voice and
languid delivery, “Do You Realize?” began to lose its punch. By now, it was
just workmanlike.

 

***

 

BENNY’S BOOM BOOM
ROOM, HATTIESBURG, MISS.

7:49 A.M THURSDAY

 

In Hattiesburg, hundreds of people were gathered on an
otherwise desolate downtown street, unable to get into the tiny venue where the
band was set to perform.

 

With people milling around outside, the crowd divided
equally between those having their morning coffee and bagels from the café
across the street and those sipping on beer or vodka on an all night bender,
the spectacle had taken over completely. The Flaming Lips were in town, but few
who turned out could really hear or see them.

 

It was here that the cracks began to show, where the quest
might have lost a little of its luster.

 

It was a shame, too. Jackson Browne had hopped on the bus in
Jackson and regaled the watch-at-home crowd with songwriting stories.
Meanwhile, the experiential crowd watched the sun come up over the Mississippi
pine belt while trying very hard to improve quarterly profits for the makers of
Red Bull. But from what could be
heard inside the venue, the Browne pairing provided a gentle transition into a
new day.

 

 

 

 

With tour busses cramming the cordoned off streets, police
motorcades lined up ready to escort the caravan towards the next stop on the
Mississippi Gulf Coast with its coagulation of casinos, leaving befuddled fans
in music starved Hattiesburg wondering how their big concert came and went so
quickly. Somebody, somewhere was likely saying “Now why are we here?” But the
Flaming Lips and their traveling circus continued their madcap adventure down
the home stretch of the schedule.

 

 

***

 

HARD ROCK HOTEL &
CASINO, BILOXI, MISS.

11:08 A.M. THURSDAY

 

If the wheels almost came off in Hattiesburg, they were
firmly reattached in Biloxi. The sun was shining gloriously now and it was a
new day. The show was at the Hard Rock casino, outside by the pool with a
perfect vantage point of the Mississippi Sound. With a stage erected at the lip
of a shallow pool, the crowd was literally wading in the water. Waitresses
delivered eye-openers to pool bound patrons as bikini clad dancers jiggled
behind the stage. Shrimp boats passed in the background and a breeze wafted
from the water.

 

At 11:08 a.m. the Flaming Lips took the stage with members
of Phantogram in tow. As had become his ritual, Coyne explained the rules to
the crowd, told them what they were about to hear but, having learned a thing
or two from the smattering of boos in previous stops, said they would get to a
third song “if we have time.”

 

It was a beautiful summer morning, but the song selections
were decidedly more dismal, which Coyne tried to prepare the crowd for. “Try to
think it’s not sunny,” he pleaded. “It’s gray and sad, because these are not
swimming pool songs. You’ll hear swimming pool songs all summer.” Perhaps they
should have played these in Hattiesburg.

 

 

 

 

But what followed was another treat. A brand new song, a
collaboration with Phantogram previously unreleased and never before played
live called “You Lust,” a loping hypnotic drone that built to a tight tension.
A dark, brooding take on The Police’s “Invisible Sun” found Coyne and company
lying down on the stage coaxing forward the trance-like pulse they’d veered
into. When they finally snapped out of it, Coyne pronounced, “That was weird,
wasn’t it?” before offering up the “bonus” song, this time the apt “Race for
the Prize” instead of the well-worn “Do You Realize?”

 

By this point, with the sun’s rays and the sleep deprivation
being shared by those 100 odd members of the entourage, we all had a sort of
shared psychosis. And with the prize in sight, all the rah-rah,
we’re-all-in-this-together stuff became palpable. Two more stops to go.

 

 

***

 

THE VARSITY, BATON
ROUGE, LA.

2:44 P.M. THURSDAY

 

Like Oxford, Baton Rogue is a college town, despite it also
being the capitol of the Pelican state. So on a Thursday midafternoon, there
was no shortage of people ready to get weird and rowdy, and those that were
were treated to perhaps the best of the three song sets of the run.

 

For the Varsity, the Lips were joined onstage by Nashville’s
Linear Downfall and opened the show quickly and without much fanfare other than
the introduction of another tribute to their influences, King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Another Heady
Fwends
track, the multi-part Floydian freakout “I’m Working At NASA On
Acid” followed, with Linear Downfall sitting in for Lightning Bolt, who
performs on the album. With the finish line approaching, another, more spirited
take on “Race for The Prize” closed out the penultimate show.

 

 

 

 

HOUSE OF BLUES, NEW
ORLEANS, LA.

5:54 P.M. THURSDAY

 

A few hours before the New Orleans concert, an email went
out to the press corps stating that the achievement of the world record was in
jeopardy. Though the whole trek was highly choreographed and road-tested, there
were always hazards in the way. Chief among them was the relatively long and
out of the way trip from Biloxi to Baton Rouge, then the backtrack to New
Orleans. Adding to this difficulty was the interstate construction work and the
impending rush hour traffic in New Orleans. The band would have to take the
stage no later than 6:15 p.m. to snag the record. Though the show in Baton
Rogue was over about three, something as unpredictable as a traffic accident
could potentially derail the whole mission.

 

But by 5:30, The Endeavor had landed and band and fans were
greeted with a parade down Decatur Street, on the way to the House of Blues,
replete with a mini-Mardi Gras float, beads, costumes (not that that was
unusual) and a brass band. At 5:54 they took the stage in front of a packed
house with a re-invigorated and uplifting “Do You Realize?” followed again by
crowd favorites “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” It was clear
that New Orleans was in for the same treat Memphis got, a complete set of
Flaming Lips with full regalia – giant balloons were harnessed on the second
floor balcony and confetti cannons were tucked around the stage.

 

It might’ve been the end of the road, but they still had
more in store. While all of the mini-set overnight shows lacked these
accouterments, the fans in those towns were treated to rare delicacies
-enlightened cover tunes, rare collaborations and even a brand new song. And,
like the sign said in Clarksdale, they were given the opportunity to be a part
of something special, to make history. More importantly, they had the
experience-the real prize. Even though they played just 15 minutes, the band
made their mark in those small Mississippi towns too.

 

With twenty minutes to spare, they’d reached their goal. The
music stopped and officials took the stage with a giant certificate to award to
the band. O Music Award officials congratulated the award
winners that had been announced throughout the night. Folks like Adam Lambert
won an award for “Must Follow Artist On Twitter” and Selena Gomez for “Best
Artist With A Camera Phone.” That may have been all part of the package for the
home viewer, but for the experientialists who had traveled with the band, it
seemed like another world.

 

When the back-patting was over, Coyne turned to the crowd,
still with a glint in his eye, to bring them back to their world. “Let’s play some more songs!” he shouted. “Let’s get fucked up!”

 

 

[Photo Credits: Tom Speed; plus courtesy O Music
Awards/Getty Images – Greg Campbell, Rick Diamond]

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