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  LIFE AS A LOSER #153: "A SPOONFUL WEIGHS A TON."  
   
   
 

St. Louis had just suffered the worst flood anyone could remember. It was as if the banks of the Mississippi, Old Big Muddy itself, had finally tired of the relentless downpours and just let loose, releasing havoc of Biblical magnitude. We caught a smidgen of the rain in Mattoon, but as you moved west, which is exactly what we were doing, you realized just how awful it really was. About an hour outside of St. Louis, an overpass brought us above what usually was one of those sleepy burgs that litter the Midwest’s highways; we gaped as we saw nothing but water, save for an occasional television antennae poking out from underneath. The storms of recent weeks had turned St. Louis’ Illinois suburbs into Atlantis.

 

 
 

An hour earlier, we had packed up my shit-brown Ford Escort with Doritos, Cokes and the Stone Temple Pilots album "Core." It was me and my friends Tim and Eric. We had graduated from high school about two months before; in a month, we would all leave our town: Tim was off to Southern California, Eric was heading to Illinois Benedictine College in Bourbonnais, Ill. (he claimed he had a baseball scholarship, but I doubted this; Eric had played about as often for high school team as I had, which is to say, not much at all), and I was going to root for the Illini for four years. The day of the concert, I had to do the afternoon shift on my father’s picket line; he had been locked out of work, and workers and their families were trading tours of duty lapping CIPS’ Mattoon headquarters, carrying crudely constructed cardboard signs duct taped to kindling. Mine said: "CIPS doesn’t want me to go to college."

My father was none too pleased I was driving all the way to St. Louis. It was the first time I’d made such a drive without him present. He asked which bands I was seeing. I had worried this question would come up. I had tried to keep my rock-and-roll life separate from my home life. It would be tough to explain. But a co-worker on the line persisted.

"Um, Stone Temple Pilots. And … uh … the, um … the Butthole Surfers. And some band I’ve never heard of called The Flaming Lips." My dad eyed me with suspicion. "Sounds like a couple of winners. You’re seeing buttholes and lips." The co-worker chuckled. "Depends on what kind of lips they’re talking about, Bryan." Neither of the Leitch males were amused. "Well, OK, be careful. Make sure you check the oil before you go. And I don’t want anybody drinking in the car, either."

He had little to worry about on that front. Neither Tim nor I had ever sipped alcohol, and we had successfully lobbied Eric to abstain for the night. He wanted to bring a joint, but I’d never even seen marijuana. Not a chance. "That’s OK, I’m sure someone there knows how to party," Eric smiled. Tim and I did not know how to party. We just wanted to see Stone Temple Pilots, who, we thought, weren’t Nirvana, but were about as close as we were going to get. (We’d heard Nirvana, the real prize, would be playing Lollapalooza in a year, and there was no way we were going to miss that. We promised we’d get tickets when we came back from college. We figured we’d have plenty of opportunities.)

We pulled into the parking lot of the Riverport Ampitheater and found our seats. We were far too early, and we looked longingly at the field area, where thousands of teenage girls were lying on blankets in the soggy grass, likely desperate for male companionship. I reminded Tim I had wanted to sit on the lawn. He just shrugged.

It was early evening, still light out, when the first band, these "flaming lips" came on. They didn’t even lower the stage lights or anything. Some strange frail man with long, stringy black hair picked up a guitar, said "We’re the Flaming Lips, we’re the band you don’t know," and then he started playing.

From the first lick, I’d never heard anything like it. How had I missed these guys? These were rockers, man. They ripped into songs that sounded like old favorites the minute they started playing. It sounded like Metallica crossed with REM, a comparison that sounds ridiculous now but exemplified my limited frame of reference at the time. It was hard, hard rock, but melodious, catchy, smart. It was one of those performances that made you feel like your feet were barely touching the ground; we forgot, instantly, what band we had traveled so far to see in the first place. Like any arena rock show, we couldn’t make out many lyrics. The only line I remembered: "Stuck in a perpetual motion." Something about that stuck with me. I wasn’t sure why.

They played for about 45 minutes, and then shuffled off the stage with little fanfare. They were an opening band. Everyone was just waiting to hear "Plush." But Tim and I … we were hooked. I vowed to buy the first Flaming Lips album I saw at the record store. Eric was unmoved. "I think I smell weed, dude."

The Mattoon record store, "Mister Music," had no Flaming Lips CDs. The summer ended, and Tim left, and a week before I moved to Champaign, my girlfriend, who had already graduated from Southern Illinois, drove me to my future school. We stopped in Record Exchange on campus, which was like no record store I’d ever seen before. The floor had sawdust on it, and a cat perched lazily above the "folk" section, indifferent. I made a beeline to the rock section, and there I found a cassette tape called "Transmissions From the Satellite Heart," by The Flaming Lips. I cheered, my girlfriend yawned and the clerk had blue hair.

We had pizza, I drank a Coke and my girlfriend had a Zima, which a friend of hers had said was good. She told me I was going to have so much fun in college, and not to forget her. We drove home, listening to "Transmissions." I noticed a song called "When You’re 22." I laughed and told her, "Hey, this song’s about you. You’re 22." She asked me not to remind her and went very quiet. I wouldn’t have admitted it to her at the time, but turning 22 seemed so far in the future to me, it might as well have been 40. She asked me to turn this song up. I did.

***

Last Friday night, for the first time in 10 years, I had the opportunity to see the Flaming Lips in concert, at Roseland in New York City.

I was a wee bit concerned. A lot has happened with the Flaming Lips in 10 years. What was a straight rock show in 1993, by all reports, seemed to have turned into some sort of cutesy in-joke, with people on stage in bunny costumes, surrounded by bubbles and people knocking beach balls into the air. I feared the Flaming Lips’ live show would pale in comparison to their albums, specifically "The Soft Bulletin," an album that is so wonderful and joyous and sad that it’s hard to listen to it. Sometimes I put it on and I just want to burst into tears. I am never sure why.

I didn’t want that feeling diluted by hippy-dippy dopes bouncing around in bunny costumes. Something about it just seemed wrong, like sucking on nitrous while reading Samuel Beckett.

Before the show, my friends and I decided to pass around a joint. I’m a 27-year-old man now, with a real job and real responsibilities. I am not certain why I desperately wanted a joint before the show, but I did. We walked to the concert, down Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, handing a joint to each other and taking puffs underneath our jackets. I became very quiet.

Two opening bands warbled, and I paid them little mind. My attention span has eroded over the years; there is more brain matter to catalog in 2003 than there was in 1993. And then the lights went down, and a projection screen displayed a naked woman dancing with uninhibited delight. The words splashed across the screen: "THE FLAMING LIPS."

And then I was just gone. For an hour of my life, I levitated above the crowd like Elijah rising. It was as if the band had taken 10 years off and decided to devote a show exclusively to Will Leitch. For years, I’ve heard Phish and Grateful Dead fans ramble incoherently about the "positivity" their shows provided them, like a small ember smoldered in their colon and slowly warmed until a faint blue light surrounded them, as if their hair was somehow neon. I’d never understood this, but I do now.

The music seemed to be generating itself from my pores. They hit everything dead solid perfect. During "Fight Test," the screen projected Paul Newman’s fight scene with George Kennedy from "Cool Hand Luke," which couldn’t be more perfect than if Newman himself had written the song. They introduced old standby "She Don’t Use Jelly" with an hilariously coifed Jon Stewart introducing them on some failed talk show from the early ‘90s. "Bulletin"’s "What Is the Light?" boomed its bassline hypnotically; it seemed to be the sound of my heart beating. I was terrified the song would end.

The band appeared to be conjuring up happiness from our very cores. They were clever, smart and having the time of their lives. It was as if they were as lost in themselves as I was. It sounds corny, I know. But you weren’t there. Oh, how I wish you had been!

But the linchpin of the Flaming Lips, from this corner, is "Waiting on a Superman," a song that is so inextricably linked to September 11 in my mind, it’s astounding that it was written a year before that day. On September 14, a friend whose Web connection had been down for three days emailed all her friends, telling them she was OK. She quoted the song in her email. It is the only email from that week I still have saved.

"Is it getting heavy? I thought it was already as heavy as could be.

Tell everybody, waiting for Superman, that they should try to hold on, best they can.

He hasn’t dropped them. Forgot them. Or anything.

It’s just too heavy, for Superman, to lift."

They played the song, beautifully. No. I played the song. I turned to my friend, who, two hours earlier, had brought a concert T-shirt with a picture of the lead singer and the word "FAG" on the front. (The joke, a good one, was that it was simply the band’s name. "the FlAminG Lips.") He has always felt the same way about the band, and the song, as I have. The songs were written for him, too.

"This is absolutely wonderful," I said. He just nodded, lost, yet found.

It is something special to watch a band grow older with you. The band probably doesn’t realize this, but, I mean it, they’ve written every one of their songs especially for me. They really have. I almost don’t want to see them for another 10 years. I don’t feel I need to.

 

*BT*

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