In 2002, The Flaming Lips were labeled one of the “50 Bands You Must See Before You Die” by Q magazine. Famous for elaborate and boundary-nudging performances—balloons, confetti, walking on the audience in a large, transparent bubble—the band came up with a gimmick like no other for this past Wednesday, June 27, 2012: breaking the world record for most live performances (eight) in different cities (eight) in twenty-four hours. The band passed through Oxford on their way from Memphis to New Orleans, and I knew such communion was no accident. It doesn’t take much to get me to Oxford, Mississippi. Really, it doesn’t take anything; during the school year, that’s where I live. I knew I was meant to be there and to bask.
A group of forty super fans tagged along with the band for the full day’s ride. Which crowd members are these? I have to wonder as I look around The Lyric theater while we wait…the girl with the green hair and the Muppets backpack, wearing tights in the middle of a Mississippi summer? The mid-fifties couple, each in overalls and conspicuously hip glasses? The two space cadets dead center in the audience? The guy in the Storm Trooper mask?
I’m tempted to think the hype has made this a recipe for disaster—read: failure. Loose (Flaming) lips sink ships! So many videos of the band talking about their world-record hopes have been posted and reposted; it is an occasion for the band to set the standard in fan outreach, in bizarreness, and in being the only Flaming Lips. Expectations among critics, and this crowd, are high and palpable.
So I—we, rather, let’s count us outsiders all as one—are ready for antics. All those girls with their faces painted and glitter in their hair—they’re ready! The Lips make it from Clarksdale to Oxford on schedule. They take the stage. We’ve got our cameras and we’ve got this burning in our insides somewhere between nervousness and pure energy, but the spectacle begins with words, not stunts.
We’re taken aback, crowd, aren’t we? These aren’t the spacemen advertised, these are just…these are just some dudes, led by another gray-headed, endearing dude. Or are they?
Wayne Coyne starts the spiel. They only have to play for fifteen minutes in each of the eight locales to qualify for world-record-worthy showmanship. Does this surprise us? Let’s shift point of view once more. It definitely surprises me. Fifteen minutes? Two hours of the opener-goddess Grace Potter dripping her sex-tinged glory, and now fifteen minutes of the band with the braveness and the strangeness that I want?
So our pure energy morphs a little bit, calms itself down, says that this is okay, things happen. But then it shifts into something better when we see the preciously out of place, boy-band-baby-faced Guinness Book of World Records official about to click on his timer and lead The Flaming Lips down the noble road into that big fat book no one reads, which is really what we all have come to witness.
They summon Grace back onstage, and she and the band head full-throttle into Led Zeppelin covers. I’ve got this weird feeling of disappointment, of not knowing how this would all play out, but the performance is worth its brevity. They nail these tracks and, after each, roll headlong into another. It’s tender and it feels completely personal, even in a venue full to capacity. The girls with the painted faces seem content, the ravers seem at ease, and the local fraternity boys are captivated.
“I don’t think we could get any more love than what’s already been here tonight,” Wayne tells us. It feels honest. Pure energy from us complements pure appreciation from them.
No other band that I know could have left fans fifteen minutes after beginning without dealing with the lonesome brays of those who love them best. It was cathartic for those who know The Lips well, a publicity stunt that served as a break from publicity stunts. For those who don’t know The Lips well—me, us—it was a gentle little push toward knowing them as people, not simply performers. I wasn’t surprised to find out they beat the world record. I was surprised, however, to learn that Jay-Z held the title until now.