From Popular Music and Society (Broadway Books, New York, 2006)
By Zachary Brown, St. Michael Catholic School
It should not be surprising that Jim DeRogatis, the pop critic at the Chicago Sun-Times as well as the co-host of the syndicated rock and roll talk radio show Sound Opinions, would choose to write his first artist biography on Flaming Lips. He placed five Flaming Lips albums in his list of 189 selections that comprise his “Ultimate Psychedelic Rock Library” in his book Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003) and an additional five Flaming Lips recordings in the “Further Psychedelic Explorations” section of the same volume. The author picture for that book features DeRogatis with Flaming Lips mastermind Wayne Coyne in the latter’s backyard in front of his Martian space station in the Lips’ hometown and still home base of Oklahoma City.
The Flaming Lips are a band whose members perform concerts in furry animal outfits, although frontman Coyne usually rocks in a Dolce & Gabbana suit. Perhaps even more unusual than dressing up in a bunny suit is the fact that their tenth album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), is their highest-selling.
It is to DeRogatis’s credit that the work he presents is not a swooning love letter but an honest and intimate portrayal that smartly weaves the band’s eleven albums into the book’s eleven chapters. DeRogatis is able to set each chapter’s mood by titling it with an appropriate lyric from one song from the album under discussion. DeRogatis portrays a band that continually creates distinct albums by drawing from their eagerness to experiment in the studio and their willingness to draw material from their personal lives.
DeRogatis, probably due to his enthusiastic support of the band over the years, was given unfettered access to the personnel. Only former guitarist Ronald Jones refused to be interviewed, and DeRogatis was even allowed in the studio for the recording of the Lips’ latest release, At War with the Mystics. Without such access, one of the things he wants readers to take away from his book might have been lost—specifically, that the Lips are true geeks of this aspect of the creative process. Coyne comments, “If someone was to ask me what instrument do I play, I would say, ‘The recording studio’” (171).
Perhaps it was meant ironically that DeRogatis opens his book backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden watching the Lips tear the proverbial roof off by opening their set with a blistering performance of “Race for the Prize,” the opening song from their breakthrough disc, The Soft Bulletin. After the song, DeRogatis paints a picture of an appreciative audience juxtaposed with nervous headliners Wilco watching backstage and Coyne rhetorically asking the crowd, “That’s the way a fuckin’ rock show should begin, huh?” (xiv). DeRogatis points out that Wilco went on to play a very strong set of their own, implying that the Lips’ perfect storm did not cause the main attraction to sink into 33rd St.
After this jarring introduction, the book settles into a familiar rock book groove of misfits finding each other through the sheer enjoyment of making huge ear-splitting noise. Coming of age in the late ‘70s, it should be no surprise that the biggest influences on Coyne and Lips co-founder Michael Ivins were classic rock behemoths Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Who, and the Beatles. This introduction to music was made more eclectic upon their discovery of punk and its younger sibling New Wave, especially the work of the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, and XTC.
Coyne and Ivins were brought together through Coyne’s older brother, Mark, who was also the lead vocalist for Wayne’s band at the time. DeRogatis demonstrates Ivins’s eccentricity by detailing his unique appearance: silver pants with a blonde Mohawk. That’s about as unique as one can get in Oklahoma City circa the early’80s. Upon being approached by Mark, Ivins stated that he did not know how to play an instrument, but he did own a bass guitar. A few days after Mark’s first conversation with Ivins, Coyne invited him to a band rehearsal. He was such a neophyte that Wayne had to tune his bass. After Ivins left the session, Wayne’s brothers remarked that Ivins really wasn’t very good. Wayne responded, “Neither are we. Let’s keep at it” (24). The fact that so many bands start out in a similar fashion is as old as rock and roll, but at least DeRogatis enlivens the familiar tale with rare photographs.
For me, the biggest disappointment is that DeRogatis shatters the public persona of Wayne Coyne. Through honest research and reporting, he exposes Coyne as an intensely driven and hard-working taskmaster who is difficult to be with for extended periods of time, especially on lengthy road trips.
Coyne gives the appearance of being a laid-back hippie who takes vast amounts of LSD when in fact he has never touched the stuff: He has cultivated this laissez-faire image to his and the band’s mutual profit. He did sell pot in his youth to supplement his income as a fry cook at the local Long John Silver’s, and several of his siblings hat had their shares of addiction and legal troubles because of drugs, but Coyne has kept himself completely drug-free for just about his entire professional career. DeRogatis does commendable work chronicling the dark side of drug use in the Coyne family
I would rather live in the imaginative world of Yoshimi... and “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” than be stuck next to Coyne being forced to answer the question, “If you don’t like cabbage, how can you like sauerkraut?” (70). Imagine being in the van with the Lips while they debated this during an eight-hour drive. As usual, the story; Lips’ fantastic body of work) is a lot more fun than the storyteller (Wayne Coyne).