If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.
This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.
Night One: The Flaming Lips
“Mother of God!” blurted out a young girl when she first glimpsed the Flaming Lips‘ flickering ace in the hole at the rear of the Fox Theater’s roomy stage. Clad in fluorescent orange jump suits, some topped with platinum blonde wigs, the Lips’ crew of two dozen scurried about moving amps, but the major piece of equipment was already in place: an eye-opening 30-by-60-foot Jumbotron-like screen resembling the face of a giant parking meter, trimmed with art-deco curves. Just the sight of this electrical marvel must have made any employees of Pacific Gas & Electric in the house rub their hands with glee. And then they turned it on. The electric colors blasting from the enormous screen were overwhelming, bright enough to singe the retinas of the unwary.
From out of nowhere, Lips ringmaster Wayne Coyne stepped to the front of the stage with a disclaimer. He warned anyone with a severe reaction to strobe lights (meaning those with epilepsy) “to cover your eyes if you feel a little weird. We plan to crank up the strobes to maximum capacity tonight. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?” Coyne added that members of their crew with light-sensitivity problems had worked through it, night after night. “We want you to stay until the end of the show, too,” he urged.
Things were so much simpler the first time I saw the Flaming Lips play in San Francisco. They drove all the way from Oklahoma City for one night at tiny Haight-Ashbury hot spot the I-Beam in August 1985. They cranked out tunes from their self-titled debut 12-inch EP, including psych-garage killers “Bag Full Of Thoughts” and “My Own Planet,” then turned the van around and drove back to Oklahoma. It was probably the wildest sound from that part of the country heard in these parts since Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators turned the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms upside down in 1966.
After his warning speech, Coyne disappeared for five minutes. Then the glowing behemoth in the back was switched on, and all hell broke loose. A giant, naked, gyrating go-go dancer assumed the giving-birth position while the camera zoomed in on her vagina, now turned into a cornucopia of throbbing dayglo colors, expanding and expanding, until suddenly Coyne burst through a door in the middle of it and walked onstage, followed by his bandmates—keyboardist/bassist Michael Ivins, guitarist Steven Drozd and drummer Kliph Scurlock—reborn and ready for anything.
In the middle of some grinding psych masterpiece, a man dressed in a bear costume began sparring with Coyne, who sang the rest of the song perched on the shoulders of the man-bear. Then came a cascade of multi-hued, four-foot-tall balloons tumbling all around the cavernous hall, recently retrofitted top to bottom in a neo-Egyptian/Assyrian motif. “Next time we’re here, we’re going to play on the ceiling,” said Coyne, directing the audience’s attention to the beautifully filigreed concrete level above, now dispensing thousands and thousands of one-inch squares of crepe paper, slowly fluttering towards the floor, a trip that took at least 15 minutes to complete.
Of course, the Lips also played sing-along versions of lusher, more melodic pieces like “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” from their 2002 Dave Fridmann-produced album of the same name, as well as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” a hit from 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, while laser-powered disco balls lit the room.
This grand spectacle reached a fever pitch when Coyne climbed inside a clear 10-foot-diameter balloon and bounced himself onto the outstretched arms of the adoring mob, giving the illusion of being lighter than air. How he gets into a balloon and how he breathes once inside is anybody’s guess. Once he’s made a full circuit of the hall and bounced himself back onstage, the plastic sac is wadded up like so much bubble wrap and tossed aside.
A menacing instrumental interlude, vaguely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe Eugene,” with the stage bathed in complete darkness, was welcome relief from all the indoor fireworks. But, of course, everyone knew the giant screen would explode one final time, cranking up the strobe effects that haloed an enormous close-up of the upper half of Coyne’s face to laser eye-surgery levels.
How the Flaming Lips will top this high-wire act, who can say? Like the Grateful Dead’s appearance at the Egyptian pyramids, maybe they’ll have to limit future performance sites to all the surviving Wonders of the World. And that includes the giant gorilla last seen clinging to the top of the Empire State Building. In the Flaming Lips’ case, it’s beauty that keeps the beast alive.