Creating an experience with music: Driving to Oklahoma City for The Flaming Lips and camping in Kansas for Kevin Morby
My guide book was soaked through. I woke up in the woods of northern Oklahoma to the tap, tap, taping of rain on the top of my tent. I wasn’t expecting rain. I never really am. I never check the weather. My brain started taking inventory: Shoes were in the tent. Bag in tent. It was just the chair out there. But what about the book?! I thought I would just read a couple pages around the campfire. Camped a couple weeks ago in West Virginia and I had big plans of reading 50 pages of “The Hobbit” by campfire.
Reading by campfire sounds pretty romantic, but the reality is that it’s hard. The light is tough. You have to feed the fire constantly to get enough light. I’m a slow reader. So I only got about 10 pages in and even that was a struggle. This time I thought I would read a couple pages of Jim DeRogatis’s book, “Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips.” He sent me a copy after I saw him at Colectivo across the street from 88Nine and told him that I’d been obsessed with The Flaming Lips for the past year. He told me to send him an email and he’d send me the book. He did. And signed it “Turn it on and all the way up!” (a reference to the Flaming Lips “Turn it On”) and then said, “Keep Rocking in Milwaukee!”
It’s an incredibly thorough book. DeRogatis is a master. A true gum shoe. The man tracked down probably everyone the band had ever met, seen, or talked to. It had the address to the Long John Silver’s where Wayne Coyne dropped fries and shredded cabbage long into The Flaming Lips career because he thought it was the best job in the world. It allowed him to work. And putting in the work is key to The Flaming Lips. “So many people have good ideas, but they don’t do them. A mediocre guy who works all the time gets more done than a super genius who hides behind a glass castle. You gotta do stuff. You can’t just sit around and think about it.” That’s a Wayne Coyne quote right from the book. Page 24. The Flaming Lips work ethic was one of the reasons that make them so compelling to me. They’ve released an album about every other year since 1986. Their work is like a running journal.
A couple months ago I was on a walk by my brothers house and I put on their album “The Terror.” To add to this work ethic, I think the foundational reason that I love The Flaming Lips is the underlying optimism that’s at the core of their music. I’ve always loved music that is romantically sad. Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave. But the Flaming Lips are the first, and maybe the only band that I love because of their romantic optimism. However, “The Terror” has none. Destitute. BLEAK. I listened and thought, “How did they get here?” I knew all the albums, but I wanted to listen to them all straight though. Thirteen albums before “The Terror” Would probably take about 13 hours. I imagined listening on one long drive. Oklahoma is about 13 hours from Milwaukee. It sounded like fun idea. Something to do. Then the Flaming Lips announced that they were going to release a new album, “American Head” on Sept. 11. That was a good enough excise as any to listen to The Flaming Lips’ entire discography and end up in their hometown on the release day of one of their albums.
It sounded like an idea that was more fun to tell people than to actually do. One of the people I told early was Harlan. Harlan works at Secretly Canadian and is also one of my best friends and we talk on the phone every Thursday. One Thursday I told him I was thinking about going to Oklahoma. Doing a DIY tour of Oklahoma City using the book as my guide and then I was going to camp in Kansas on the way back cause I had never been to Kansas. Didn’t know if I ever would have a reason and I could check it off the list. When he heard this he took a deep breath. His voice suddenly had an idea in it. He said, “I just got out of a meeting with Kevin Morby” — I love Kevin Morby — “And he is going to release an album that is sad and slow and he described how it is all about the beauty of Kansas.”
Harlan had already been in on the idea of traveling to Oklahoma City for The Flaming Lips and he had likened it to reading “The Hobbit” in the woods. A couple months ago I camped in West Virginia and I decided to read “The Hobbit.” Harlan loves fantasy so I was excited to tell him that I was going to share in this interest of his. I had put a stipulation on reading “The Hobbit.” I only wanted to read it while I was in the woods. He loved this needless little rule that I set for myself in order to have an experience with a creative thing.
He said, “I know it’s not going to be out for a month or so after you go, and I might get in trouble, though I don’t think I will, but I want to get you the album so that you can listen to Kevin Morby’s album about the beauty of Kansas around your campfire in Kansas. It’s reading ‘The Hobbit’ in the woods.”
Out of the 20 albums from The Flaming Lips, I own 18 of them. (I will own them all, give me time). The two that I don’t own or know are their 1989 album “Telepathic Surgery” and 1990’s “In a Priest Driven Ambulance.” They were released before the band signed to Warner. Before “She Don’t Use Jelly.” In my mind, before it all. But, of course, I’m wrong there. These were their first four albums, incredibly important that the lead up to getting signed by a major label.
I was 48 pages into Jim DeRogatis’ book when I left Milwaukee at 7 a.m. on Thursday morning. I packed a FamilyPack of Prime Rib beef jerky from Beef Jerky Outlet on 27th Street (shameless plug for BJO, I love it so much). Napkins, so I didn’t have to touch gas pumps, and a machete I bought from Milworks that I was very excited to use. The clock had me coming into my campsite that I booked on Hipcamps, which is like Airbnb for camping spots, if you are looking, at 6:30 p.m. if everything went right. I only stopped for gas twice, and then in Yale, Oklahoma, 10 minutes from my site, I saw a place called This and That next to a pull in spot called Dairy Hut and I got an ice cream and browsed some old hats laying in a bin out in front of This and That while the owner made fun of my Wisconsin accent and charmingly insisted that I follow This and That on Facebook.
By 7 p.m. I had used my machete to gather enough dry wood for the night and cooked some hot dogs on the end of my blade. Then I cracked the book. On page 49 DeRogatis started the chapter where he covered “Telepathic Surgery.” Having listened for the first time on the way down I couldn’t wait to hear his take. He hated “Telepathic Surgery.” Recorded too fast. No plan. No hooks. Everyone else hated it too. After that the band was on the verge of breaking up. I was already passed the 10 pages that I had planned to read, the fire was going down. I had another bundle of wood, but that was for Kansas. But I had to find out what happened next.
I listened to their next album, “In a Priest Driven Ambulance” on the way down. It was the first time I heard them sound like The Flaming Lips I knew. I cracked into the wood I was panning on saving. I could always get wood. I put another log on the fire. Turns out, on “In a Priest Driven Ambulance,” they met Dave Fridmann. He had studio time on the cheap. For the first four albums The Flaming Lips were spending 10 grand for a week at the studio and they would use every second of it. Not sleeping and going into non-drug induced hallucinatory states. That was fun for the experimentation, but ultimately not great for the overall album. With Fridmann, they got the studio at a fifth of the cost and they could take as long as they wanted. With the newfound freedom they got truly weird. They pulled mics out to the freeway and played with semis driving by. They worked on their songs before going in so they would have even more time to perfect the sound.
The result was The Flaming Lips. It was a triumph. After putting log after log on the fire, I had read over 50 pages. I drifted into the tent, thinking of how that would lead to the great Warner Brothers albums. I don’t even know if my feet touched the ground. When I heard the pitter patter of rain and started doing inventory I knew the book was outside. I swept the inside of the tent. In a panic I opened the tent flap. It wasn’t raining much, but there was enough to make a puddle in the seat of the folding chair. And plopped down in the middle of that puddle was Jim DeRogatis’ “Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips.”
When I rolled into Oklahoma City I decided to make the Long John Silvers that Wayne first worked at my HQ and then figure it out from there. Bit first I had to get balloons. Flaming Lips shows have a LOT of balloons. In the past couple years they’ve made balloons for every city they go to that say “FUCK YEAH MILWAUKEE” Or “FUCK YEAH PORTLAND” or wherever they are. I figured this band has given so much to me, I wanted to give back a bit to them. I went to Party City to get “FUCK YEAH AMERICAN HEAD” in silver balloons, but those balloons are huge in real life and it would have cost $250 and I would have needed a trailer to get them into the city, so the woman at the counter suggested I get one that had a kind of blackboard where I could write my own message. I got that, a rocket ship and a rainbow.
Wayne Coyne doesn’t live too far from the Long John Silvers where he first worked and it’s pretty apparent that its his yard. There are disco balls and a big face that looks like it could be on their albums cover, the curb around his property is painted neon green. It’s a scene. It did feel like a breech of privacy pulling up to his house, having driven from Wisconsin to drop balloons off on his porch, but I stayed on the sidewalk, dropped the celebratory balloons off a safe distance away and peacefully went on my way with no other intention than to give a kind gesture to a band that has gestured so kindly to so many in a language they would understand, large, metallic balloons.
The record was now out. So I drove through Oklahoma City and listened to it. “The Terror” had been so bleak, and the follow up, “Oczy Mlody” is the one Flaming Lips album I think is really forgettable. Last year’s “King’s Mouth” brought back some light and “American Mouth” is tender. There have always been songs of theirs that have been delicate, but this is maybe the most touching to date. You can see it as sad too. It’s not far from “The Terror” in that realm. And we get a look into it in the song, “Mother, I’ve Taken LSD.” Drugs have always been a staple of the band, showing the wonder of the world and the mind. In “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” Wayne Coyne sings, Mother I’ve taken LSD. I thought it would set me free. But now I think it’s changed me. Now I see the sadness in the world.”
I know that albums and songs are often a platform for them to create characters who have story lines and beliefs that are independent from the songwriters, but I can’t help but wonder if this statement is true for Wayne Coyne. The writing pre-“Terror,” really pre-“Embryonic,” was so wild with that optimism that I love. And it really has felt like Wayne has seen the sadness in the world. Not only has he seen it, he’s written about it. The song offers an apology, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it before.” And if you are listening, you could hear that he didn’t. The acknowledgement of the sadness has not been bad for the band. That wild eyed optimism I love has a place, but it is deception if it isn’t met by acknowledging the truth of sadness. I love “The Terror” I acknowledged that sadness too. I would say that “American Head” has more darkness than light. But isn’t that an American head right now? The optimism only shines in the distance at the end. It’s on life support, but it is present and once again at the heart. There is hope even if it’s buried.
Oklahoma City is beautiful. Coming from Milwaukee it’s easy to see how a city like Oklahoma gets kicked around constantly. It’s falling apart in places. Visibly. It’s not huge. But it has people that are trying. And so much of it is very beautiful. It has it’s own personality that is built for insiders. You have to know where to look.
I visited The Womb, which is an art space that The Flaming Lips have used and funded. The entire building is painted in psychedelic colors, shapes and symbols. I visited Flaming Lips Alley, which is basically just a sign in an alley. I ate wonderful food, and some bad stuff too. But it wasn’t really about doing stuff, it was about being there.
On the second night I went to The Blue Note. It was the first bar that The Flaming Lips played in. By this time I had already gotten they lay of the land. Getting the geography of a city in your mind is a great joy in discovering a city and I got there no GPS. Oklahoma bars are a bit different than the precautions we have in Wisconsin in terms of COVID-19, which was a bit of an adjustment. There were a couple business that tried to do something and then there were places like The Blue Note. They did temperature checks at the door, credit, then no masks on anyone. There was also several bands on a bill, playing inside at this bar, desperately urging people to come to the front. I didn’t stay long.
I went to Guestroom records to buy “American Head.” I was expecting Rush Mor, but the clerk was not interested in talking at all. I texted Dan my disappointment and he said that it hurts to know that someone is doing something they don’t enjoy. Always wise words from Dan. In Oklahoma City, in a pandemic, there wasn’t much to do but bum around, which I was happy to do and did a lot.
In the end, Oklahoma City the Long John Silvers was abandoned, The Womb was closed, the record store was clinical, the Blue Note was a COVID hotspot, and one of the only real conversations I had was with a bartender who was tried to convince me to buy a tiny home to avoid the compliance the government was creating with COVID restrictions that would eventually lead to a race war, but that was the rub. I wasn’t there to do anything. So none of the things that, looking back right now, on paper look like they would be disappointing, they weren’t disappointing at all. I went to Oklahoma City to be there for the release of “American Head.” “American Head” came out. I was in the hometown of The Flaming Lips for it, and I loved it.
The next day I headed to Kansas.
I think that when I told people that I was camping alone they thought it was sad. Or scary. But I love camping alone. First off, I am 6’2” and about 175lbs. I’m the guy people are afraid of in the woods. And I’m camping on reputable sites, so I’ve never been scared. Then there is the time alone. What a gift. Time kind of stretches when I’m camping alone. I can do all my chores, gathering wood, walking around, taking it in. And when the fire is going I cam read or listen or just look at the fire. I love it.
So, I was off to a farm just south of Wichita. Coming into Wichita I listened to “Wichita Lineman” by Glenn Campbell. It’s a solid country song that suffers a bit from a heavy-handed countrypolitan production. I found a Johnny Cash version that he recorded late in life when he was doing those albums produced with Rick Rubin. You can hear the age in his voice and the sadness comes though so clear. While searching Wichita I also found a Phillip Glass song called, “Wichita Sutra Vortex” that I listened to at least five times on the drive home and was such a joy of a discovery. It’s so repetitious but its also always building and moving.
I finally pulled up to the house and a big man about my age wearing overalls, working gloves and a big cowboy hat walked up to my car, “Looking to camp?” “Let me show you the spot.” He took me past the house and ran up past the chicken coop and the goats to a big open field that was sheltered by lines of trees off in the distance. “This spot is great” I observed out loud. With his thumbs on his overalls he smiled big and sprang to the balls of his toes, “Yes it is.” He smiled decisively and gave me a pile of wood to burn.
I set up the tent. It was maybe 5:30. I knew I had about two more hours of Midwest American sun. It was time to play Kevin Morby’s album “Sundowner” and gather more wood.
The first song could have scored Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man.” It was a great song to stomp around in the country side of Kansas with a machete to. As It went on I walked the acres of the land and I was so happy I was in Kansas as the sun was going down as I listened to that album. I skipped through yellow flowers, I ran into a snake, a train went by and blew it’s whistle three times and I only found out that it wasn’t on the album when I popped an earbud out to check. I pointed at that Midwest American sun when it was name checked in a song. And I built a campfire while listening to “Campfire.”
I only planned on listening to the album once, but after the fire got rolling and the sun had fully gone down I had to play it again. The thought of someone singing around a campfire has never appealed to me, but the confessional aspect of the campfire always has. A couple weeks ago I went to a bachelor party in Sheboygan with a couple guys I went to grade school with. Talking isn’t exactly the thing that keeps us together, time is. When we are not playing games long enough to talk it’s usually about sports or nostalgia. Never anything larger. But at night, on the beach of Lake Michigan, we built a campfire and we all sat around it. The conversation started with nostalgia and sports, but something about the campfire pulled it further. It all came out. We talked about things that had been sitting since sixth grade. That one time Mrs. Qualm asked Ryan why he didn’t finish his homework and he cried and said, “It’s hard to do anything when your parents are getting a divorce.” One of the guys had a secret that had been weighing on them for years but they’d never had the time or space to share it. The campfire provided that confessional. It functions in a similar way for Kevin Morby. He sings about Jessi dying at 25. How Jessi would be so mad if he said it, but he can’t ignore it, even if it’s selfish to say, he wishes Jessi were alive. The campfire gives spaces for long pauses. It crackles and pops fill the empty space. He honors that in “Campfire” and “Velvent Highway.”
It was just me out there. Alone around a campfire in the Kansas countryside. But also it wasn’t cause Kevin Morby was with me too.
And really, on the whole trip. The Flaming Lips and Kevin Morby shared their lives with me. Even if, at the end of the day, it was just something to do, it was meaningful to intentionally have an experience with art. To read “The Hobbit” in the woods.