During any given show of Oklahoma psychedelic rockers the Flaming Lips, there will always be a moment or two that feels a bit like a dream. Today, waking up slightly dazed from last night's Flaming Lips' performance at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, it's hard to distinguish the real from the illusory.
Were there weeping willows crying icicle tears? A disco ball UFO perched in a forest of marble sculptures? A synthetic moon rising in tandem with the real full moon? Laser beams refracting off of obelisks and mausolea? An army of Dorothies dancing with a Scarecrow or two? And multiple Tin Men?
Did this all really happen? It did.
Indeed, the Flaming Lips had landed. The band was set to perform the entirety of their classic album Soft Bulletin, as the first of a pair of shows on a massive stage overlooking the lawn of the historic cemetery–the permanent home to Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Mel Blanc and Johnny Ramone. Before the show, the audience sprawled across the green, some dressed in bunny and skeleton costumes, picnicking and exploring several site-specific art installations as the sun started to set. It was part carnival, part Golden Gate Park, all hidden behind the cemetery walls.
Spazz rocker Marnie Stern warmed up the audience with her hyperactive free-jazz-meets-riot-grrl guitar explosions. Seeing her on the Flaming Lips stage, with their giant semi-circular video screen and confetti cannons behind her, felt like she had come a long way since those days playing the Smell where her backing band was just an iPod strapped to her belt.
As Stern left the stage, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne came out onstage to issue a PSA, with his uncanny psychedelic kindergarten teacher drawl. “If at anytime you feel like you're having a bad reaction to our strobe lights, just do one thing. Don't look at them,” he said, delivering the painfully obvious advice.
Coyne departed. Then at the moment the full moon had risen directly above the stage, the Flaming Lips giant screen came to life. Rapid fire images of eyeballs stared back at the audience, making it nearly impossible to look away as Coyne had politely suggested. Then a door appeared in the retina and the band emerged one by one. Coyne emerged with a huge furry scarf–made of either mink or wookie skin– as the band blasted confetti cannons, and a legion Wizard of Oz characters, including young women dressed as Dorothy, a Scarecrow, and a wizard with a light saber, danced on stage.
Coyne slipped into his iconic plastic bubble during Soft Bulletin's first track “Race for the Prize” and rolled out onto the audience who held him up, as stage lights illuminated his sphere like (spoiler alert) the intergalactic fetus overlooking the universe at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He returned to the stage, and was birthed from the bubble, then the screen shifted to images of Teletubbies, and Coyne raised a fist in the air to lead a powerful version of “Spoonful Weighs a Ton.”
He pauses after the song to make a point: “When we sing in that song, 'That sound they made is love,' that's you guys. I mean it. It's all about giving love. People always worry about being loved, but giving love is where the joy comes from.”
From that feel good moment, the Lips followed with the ethereal “The Spark That Bled” and Coyne ran to the front of the stage, asking the audience, “Does anyone have any blood? I left mine at home.” A small vial was thrown at him, and he immediately poured the fake blood on his face. During the breezy vibraphone and Pet Sounds surfy guitar outro, Coyne put on some oversized hands that shot laser lights from their palms. He pointed them at a disco ball planetoid spinning above the stage, and the light scattered back into the cemetery.
At this point, the songs and the spectacle became one. There was no separating what was happening on the screen and stage.
For the rest of the set, Coyne talked about the meanings behind the songs. He told of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd's injury and narrowly avoided hand amputation that inspired the “Spiderbite Song:” “Everybody loves their perfect magnificent hands. They let us do everything we want. Pick our nose. Grab boobs.” Of course, Drozd's injury was from heroin, not a spider. And during a particularly emotional take on “Waiting for Superman,” Coyne confessed to how the song's meaning changed with the death of Elliott Smith. “This song fucks me up. Sometimes your subconscious knows more than your front brain. And meanings change. [Smith] was always waiting for someone to save him. Sometimes you have to save yourself. We have to help each other along.”
The melancholy, pensive mood hung over the show for the last few songs, including the overt memento mori “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” But the energy picked back up for the show's conclusion and encores including crowd favorites “Do You Realize?” and “She Don't Use Jelly.”
This morning at sunrise, the band joined up with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, for a secret acoustic performance of “Do You Realize,” using the cemetery's bell tower as an instrument. Thus was the nature of this carnival in a cemetery, this tip of the hat to the end of times. Here, creation collided with destruction. Love amid the corpses. Life in a place of death. Here, the Flaming Lips again reaffirmed something we should all know already: Life's short. Put on your bunny suit and dance.