Friday, July 01, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: TO LOVE THE LIPS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 1, 2005




When I moved from Oklahoma City to Santa Fe 37 years ago, it didn’t take me long to see the huge psychological difference between the two cities. While both places can be considered laid-back compared to big cities, people in Santa Fe seemed far more free to express themselves, far less pressured to conform, much less inhibited about being weird.

Oklahoma, according to filmmaker Bradley Beesley, is known for “oil derricks, college football, and country music — hardly a mecca of freaky art rock.”

But in many ways — especially for freaky Okies and freaky Okie exiles — that’s a big part of the charm of the Flaming Lips, the freakiest, artsiest Okie rock band ever.

Beesley, a longtime Lips crony, chronicles the Lips — their history, their families, their music — in his documentary The Fearless Freaks, showing for two weeks at CCA Cinematheque, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, starting tonight, July 1 (tickets are $8).

The Flaming Lips rose from the working-class Classen-Ten-Penn neighborhood of Oklahoma City, starting out in the early ’80s as, in the words of Lips leader Wayne Coyne, “a no-talent, derivative, hillbillies-gone-punk version of the Who.” Beesley remembers seeing them in Norman, Okla., around 1986, though all he remembers about their music from that show is that “it was insanely loud.”

The Fearless Freaks — the title comes from the name of a backyard football league organized by Coyne and his four brothers — is bound together by psychedelic montages of Lips performances from home movies of their loud-young-punk phase, their MTV videos, and recent big-time extravaganzas with dancers in bunny suits, puppets, strippers, bubbles, balloons, and a goateed, graying Coyne acting as a smiling emcee in a white suit.

The band’s journey from Okie punksters to serious, Grammy-winning musicians, whose latest albums sound like otherworldly soundtracks, is pretty fascinating in itself. But the strongest parts of the film are when Beesley introduces us to the families of Coyne and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd.

The love Coyne and Drozd have for their respective families is obvious. No sad tales of rage or abuse — unless you count those Fearless Freaks football games, which Coyne describes as “more of a violent cult” than a football team.

And Coyne at least seems like a happy fellow. He still lives in Classen-Ten-Penn, where he enjoys scaring the local kids on Halloween, walking around the neighborhood, and yakking with folks on the street. He even talks fondly of his days of working as a fry cook at a Long John Silver’s.

But it’s not all bunny suits and Martian Santa Clauses in the Lips Universe. There are dark shadows that Beesley reveals in his film.

Coyne’s oldest brother Tommy, who has gone from a “tortured artist” to “just plain tortured,” according to Wayne, has been a druggo for years and has had scrapes with the law. You’re not sure whether Wayne is joking when he asks Tommy whether he’s actually a fugitive at the moment.

“Wayne went to Hollywood to do concerts, I went to jail,” Tommy Coyne says.

Houston native Drozd also has a jailbird brother. James Drozd served an 11-year sentence for grand theft auto, beginning about the time Steven joined the Lips. But harsher still is that the Drozd brothers’ mother and two of their siblings committed suicide. The Drozds seem like the embodiment of the Allison Moorer song “Dying Breed” (“I take after my family/My fate’s the blood in me/No one grows old in this household/We are a dying breed”).

Those family demons catch up with Steven Drozd by the mid-’90s; his heroin addiction is a big reason why guitarist Ronald Jones quit the band. There’s a disturbing interview scene with Steven, shot in noirish black and white, when he was in the depths of his addiction.

But the horror of that scene is offset by one of the most touching moments in the film, when Steven and fresh-from-the-joint James play a song (written by James) with their father, Vernon Drozd, a saxophone-playing veteran of Texas polka bands.

What makes this band so special is the ability of its members to embrace their pasts and recognize the darkness (without wallowing in it) while creating strange, beautiful, and transcendental art packed with whimsy and raw, real emotion. The Fearless Freaks captures the earthiness that grounds these freaky art-rock musicians.

Steve Terrell’s Lips list

*Favorite Flaming Lips song: “Bad Days” from Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) — my second favorite Lips album. In a masterful example of sequencing, this song comes right after “Evil Will Prevail,” a mournful tune reportedly inspired by Tim McVeigh’s act of terrorism in Oklahoma City. It’s a declaration of goofy optimism — “all your bad days will end” — with just a suggestion of carnival music. And the first verse is one of the best rewrites of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” in recent years. “You hate your boss at your job/But in your dreams you can blow his head off/In your dreams, show no mercy.”

*Favorite Flaming Lips album: The Soft Bulletin (1999). Listening to this album prompted me to go back and listen to material from the Beach Boys’ Smile. With its elfin choruses, harps, synths, musical saws, UFO noise, and medical and scientific imagery, this is one for the ages.

*Favorite Flaming Lips song title: “Talkin’ Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues” (from Hit to Death in the Future Head; 1992).

*Favorite Flaming Lips cover song : “After the Gold Rush” (from The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989).

*Favorite Moment in The Fearless Freaks: Wayne Coyne’s reenactment of a robbery at Long John Silver’s.

*Biggest Flaming Lips regret: I was in Austin in 1996 when Coyne performed his “parking garage symphony” — and I missed it.

*Most Flaming Lips ever played on local radio in New Mexico at one time: This Sunday night, July 3, starting at 11 p.m. on Terrell’s Sound World, free-form weirdo radio, KSFR-FM 90.7.

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