There was really nothing Backwash wanted to do more than spend the evening in an animal suit.
Fortunately, the Warner Bros. publicist understood why I so desired to be among the fuzzy, dancing bears -- and frogs, cheetahs, orangutans, unicorns and skunks -- who joined the Flaming Lips on stage during its nine-song set this past Monday at the Paramount Theatre.
"Look for the guy wearing a chipmunk outfit, or maybe just holding a huge elephant head," the publicist said by way of instruction. The chipmunk turned out to be Cory, a longtime member of the Lips' road crew whose current job involves rounding up ten to fifteen fans willing to don itchy, scratchy, smelly, sweaty cloaks and frolic around wielding flashlights and confetti bombs. It's the Lips' take on go-go-style entertainment, more surreal than sexy, more Teletubbies than titillation. In some cities, Cory explained, finding enough willing participants was simply a matter of walking outside the venue door. In New York and Los Angeles, donning the suit has become a sort of hipster rite of passage. Author Dave Eggers -- as well as the staff of Stuff magazine -- recently experienced the mutation from human to beast.
But Denver crowds proved more difficult to persuade, as Cory discovered when he approached several smallish, fresh-smelling women (the candidates of choice, he says, because they are less likely than males to funkify the suits and get drunk and fall down on stage). When Backwash ran into a well-dressed friend and asked her if she'd like to join the fun, she responded wistfully: "I would like to, but the next time you want me to get dressed up like a stuffed animal and perform, just give me a little advance notice."
As frontman Wayne Coyne explained later, the band has been working with faux animals ever since a fan showed up at a hometown gig in Oklahoma City dressed in a rabbit costume several years ago; after that, the stable has expanded with each tour. During the band's disastrous, power-surging appearance at Red Rocks in August -- one of many gloomy moments in the Unlimited Sunshine Tour's Denver stop -- a half-dozen happy creatures did their best to cheer up a crowd that had grown impatient with the stop-start quality of the show. It wasn't enough. (The band had to start the same song three times after its smoke machines blew the venue's electrical circuits; the Red Rocks production crew apparently ignored Coyne's suggestion that they simply power the equipment from the hot-dog stand.) And for this tour, which grafts the Lips and Beck into one fascinating band following short individual sets by each, Coyne, et al., have amassed a veritable ark.
"It's like the old hypnotist's trick," Coyne said. "You want to go out into a crowd and say, 'Who wants to be on stage dancing with the Flaming Lips?' You don't want the people who need to be convinced or don't want to be up there, because they won't do anything. We want to find the people who are just dying to do it."
I was. I wound up as a giraffe, my companion a skunk. As we huddled in a circle in the Paramount dressing-room area, Cory -- now in an alien getup -- explained that we were to stay out of the band's way. We were not to flash the band with our lights, and we shouldn't jump, lest we knock over amps or Michael Ivins's keyboards or Steven Drozd's drums. (Happily, Drozd is playing live on this tour rather than using the pre-recorded loops of recent Lips routes.) Beyond that, though, we were encouraged to get in touch with our animal animas: to flash our lights in time to the music (especially during "Race for the Prize," which opened the set, and "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," which closed it), to dance with abandon, to leap off the stage and hug as many people as possible during "Do You Realize?" a sobering yet gleeful meditation on death that marks a high point of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the band's current release and the followup to 1999's brilliant Soft Bulletin.
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Once we were on stage, it quickly became clear that Cory's instructions would be taken with a very large grain of salt. At first we were wild animals, totally out of control. The suits were unimaginably awkward, the masks blinding and suffocating. By the end of "Race for the Prize," a fellow in a frog suit remarked that he thought he might pass out. I'm shocked that Lips-loving costumed creatures don't keel over left and right every night of the tour (which is now on the last leg of its American swing); at one point, there was so much tiny white paper in the air that I was sure I'd die a death never before imagined: confetti asphyxia. It was, in a way, quite awful. But it was also totally exhilarating. (If you've never donned an animal outfit and embraced total strangers -- fans, ushers, security guards -- you should give it a try sometime.)
Best of all, the experience provided the chance to get a good glimpse of Coyne, the tireless cheerleader who spent the entire evening affirming to the audience that, yes, they were witnessing a hell of a show. And indeed, it was a not-soon-to-be-repeated conjoining of creative forces that definitely ranks as one of the year's most exciting tours.
If the world can be regarded as a delicate balance between good and evil -- as suggested by Yoshimi's battle with the destructive robots -- then Coyne is most certainly a good guy, widely regarded as the force behind the Lips' ascension from shitty bar band to damn-near-visionary ensemble. The night before the Paramount performance, he spent more than three hours talking with fans, signing autographs and posing for photos (with fans, dogs and a child named after him) at Twist & Shout. During the Lips' set, he praised the Paramount and the crowd, sang "Happy Birthday" to a girl in the second row, swung a light like a lasso and sang his nasal-twinged throat out. Later, during the Lips' set with Beck -- which moved through the latter's catalogue and confirmed that he is an ambidextrous, audience-friendly, ridiculously talented little elf, as capable of wailing on a harmonium as breakdancing something fierce -- Coyne conceded the spotlight but remained an enigmatic presence, playing keyboards and electric guitar and shadowing Beck with a pair of hand-held lights. (Introducing the band in around-the-room format, Beck identified Drozd, Ivins and Coyne. "That's Wayne on the flashlights," he said, in his SoCal ice-cream-man deadpan.)
After the Lips' set, Coyne came down to the dressing area and hugged the herd. Sweaty, with confetti stuck in each bend of his curly hair, he thanked all of the animals for making the night special, seemingly unaware that he's the one who really deserved that credit.