REVIEW: The Flaming Lips: live in Montreal, 13/08/03
On August 13th, 2003, Oklahoma's psych-pop warriors, The Flaming Lips, performed at Montreal's Metropolis concert-hall. Sean Michaels was there, dazzled and agog. He tells us about it.
image by Chris Saunders
In 1867, the world was ending. In the fourteen years since Commander Perry's "black ships" had approached the coast of Japan and opened the country's ports with the mouths of his cannons, the country was in disarray. The traditional hierarchy of samurai, merchants and peasants was collapsing, assassinations were rife, violence went hand-in-hand with miraculous technological advancement. Whereas the Industrial Revolution took Europe 150 years, Japan lightninged from rice-paddies to large-scale factories in less than forty. The Japanese were adrift in the modern world of locomotives and belching smoke, no longer sure of who they were, where they were headed. Nothing made sense any more. Nothing mattered.
And so a hundred-thousand of Japan's alienated masses gathered together, stripped off their clothes, and wandered the streets in masks-and-body-paint, throwing bank-notes into the air, dancing and whirling and laughing and screaming "Eijanaika!" - "Who cares!? What the Hell!" Dozens were shot by the military as they crossed bridges into combat zones. They were hysterical, anarchic, joyous and wild: finally something to believe in, something to love - the madness of the moment.
Which brings us to Wednesday night at Montreal's Metropolis. It's a large hall, and we were not packed in like sardines. The balcony is covered by hipsters seated on bar-stools. We on the floor are a peculiar mix of indie kids, stoners and sports-bar rockers. We are all smiling, and the show has not yet begun.
We begin with The Bloodthirsty Lovers, who in spite of their album's mediocrity, justify their existence with warm synthesizer bloops and a drummer more schizoid than Travis Morrison, crisper than melba toast. One cup of mellow, heartbroken vibes; one spoonful of psychedelic computer-caveman intrumental breakdowns; mix. Then a five-song set by Mt. Egypt, a man with an acoustic guitar who sure is living a hard life. The Lips' Wayne Coyne is watching the whole thing from the wings. He laughs and claps, striking poses in his white three-piece suit. The crowd grows restless.
A break. Murmuring, the dragging of setpieces. Glimpses of giant raccoons and Santa Claus backstage. Spontaneous bursts of applause.
Then: crash sparkle flash flash explosion, and glittering letters introduce "THE GREATEST EVENT / THE UNIVERSE / HAS EVER SEEN". The band is on stage, the drum-kit is glowing orange plastic, there are twenty beaming fans in furry animal costumes, synths are squelching, and a topless woman is doing kung-fu on the gigantic projection screen.
And so begins a performance that feels like it must be described in all-caps. Wayne Coyne has a SMILE AS BIG AS OKLAHOMA CITY, he's HIGH-KICKING and HIGH-JUMPING and THROWING CONFETTI like it's ACID STARDUST. He HIGH-FIVES us WITH HIS VOICE. I take a breath and it's as if the room's full of NITROUS OXIDE, happiness flashes in the eyes of the people beside me. Are there fireworks? There must be fireworks. I feel like there are fireworks. The crowd is jumping and swaying, they're SWOONING, BALLOONS as big as BARRELS (as big as HOUSES? as PLANETS?) dip and bob over our heads, SEIZURES OF LIGHT scatter and scan across our faces, they shoot like ARROWS into the darkness. I yell an incoherent happy sound into the furor, and it's swallowed into the mess of silly, delirious noise. WE CELEBRATE.
The music is the soundtrack to our "Eijanaika!" It's a rallying-cry, a conductor, but we're not there to listen: we're there to be. I'm not much of a fan of the Flaming Lips' albums - their spacepop leaves me lukewarm, I get bored of the vapid canoodling dressed up with dizzy shiny bleeps. Repetition and self-indulgence undermine the eager beauty of "Do You Realize" and "She Don't Use Jelly." Even in person, the part of me that tries to do serious listening, the critic that hears that fuzzy, white-noise-drenched mix, can't commit to the Lips' silly snakes-and-ladders sound. But that "part of me" gets shut down, walloped in the back of the head, with duct-tape across the mouth and daisies in each ear. It's thrown into a caboose down a traintrack to the edge of a cliff. It's tossed into oblivion. Stars whirl. And there's a bright, joyous sound in its ears. A comforting kindness as it hurtles into darkness.
This is a celebration for the end of the world. In our little enclave on rue St-Catherine, the Here-and-Now's mess of terrorism and heartbreak and lies and work and death and advertising is shot away, replaced with songs about robot-battles and laser-gun karate. We're just a planet going round the sun. What meaning is there to life? Well, sings Coyne, there's kindness and love and friendship. There's beauty and joy. Perfectly timed videos flash in technicolour on the Lips' enormous screen - psychedelic whirlpools bump against supernovas and leotarded women. A man is shot pointblank in the head, over and over again, while smooth-skinned girls stretch, while fuzzy frogs and gleeful dolphins dance. "I know it's hokey," Wayne tells us, "but sing along. Wave your hands in the air. It's fun. It's so much fun. No one will make fun of you here." He tells us he loves us, and he's not even stoned.
On the day of the Apocalypse, there is a song that somebody will be singing, somewhere, regardless of who's winning and who's losing - whether the USA's lobbing nukes or Jesus has returned. At the end of the world, the song to sing is "Happy Birthday," and so we did. To Isabelle, we sang it, but really it was for everyone who was ever born. We bounced balloons and Wayne poured fake blood on his face. Then the one-two punch of "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Do You Realize," and I found myself singing like an idiot, singing like those idiots I always hate at concerts. It was marvellous.
The Flaming Lips visited Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Soft Bulletin, and a couple of spots from other records. They played Pink Floyd's "Breathe." Wayne Coyne shot smoke and sang through a megaphone. A woman in an owl suit waved at me. I was free, glad, and I forgot the world.
Shortly after 1867's "Eijanaika!" Riots, a new emperor was established in Japan. The world didn't end; the samurais cut off their top-knots; a new order slowly escorted the country into the Second World War.
Sixteen hours after the Flaming Lips flamed out in confetti and euphoria at the Metropolis, the lights went out across the northeastern USA and Canada. But I was still glowing.