In The Graveyard With Wayne And The Lips

Los Angeles is an industry town, and the primary industry is celebrity. A such, it is fitting that L.A. cemeteries are as famous as their most prominent inhabitants. Cemeteries like Forest Lawn and Westwood Memorial Park discourage blatant tourism, but Hollywood Forever is not shy about its famous residents, which include Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mel Blanc.

Founded in 1899 as Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, many of the founders of Hollywood itself are buried here. And this is indeed Hollywood – the Paramount Pictures studio backlot was built on land purchased from the cemetery in the 1920’s (it is, incidentally, one of the only studios still in its original location). But Hollywood Memorial Park has a seedy past, just like many Hollywood celebrities, and by the late 1990’s, it was run down and near bankruptcy. Ownership changed hands in 1998 and the cemetery was reborn as Hollywood Forever, which embraces it’s celebrity status, eagerly opening its gates to tourists, and the gift shop sells maps to its more famous graves.

They also generate revenue with a series of cultural events. A summer film series projects movies on a white mausoleum wall. And occasionally, they have music performances. It’s actually a great venue, reminding me of the field used for McMenamin’s Edgefield summer concert series – a grassy field with small hills that form a natural amphitheater.

The Flaming Lips played two nights at Hollywood Forever this week in what lead singer Wayne Coyne hopes to be the first of an annual event. On Tuesday night, they performed the entirety of The Soft Bulletin, their 1999 masterpiece, and on Wednesday, they played their Dark Side Of The Moon/The Wizard Of Oz remix (under a full moon, on the day of a total lunar eclipse, no less).

After playing the album each night, they played encores that included “Do You Realize?” – a song that contains the line “Everyone you know someday will die” – which is emblazoned on the poster for the engagement. (They also played the song at sunrise on Wednesday, using the cemetery’s belltower, with help from Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros.)

If there is a theme to be found in the music of The Flaming Lips, it is celebration of life. “Do You Realize?” is the very epitome of this theme – it is at first a depressing lament of mortality, but turns into an admonition to live and appreciate life and love. Hearing this song, played live, in a graveyard was a powerful experience and underscored song beautifully.

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One of my favorite rock shows of all time was the Flaming Lips at the Glass House in Pomona during the Soft Bulletin tour.  A 45 minute drive from L.A., the Glass House is a small, poorly-appointed venue. But the Lips were just coming out of their Zaireeka/Boombox Experiments stage and their shows were in the process of transforming into performance art, complete with boxing nun puppets, fake blood, and multimedia video presentations. The drums were pre-recorded because Steven Drozd played drums on the album but was covering guitar and keyboard duties for the tour – but this forced them to be super tight, avoiding the noodly excesses to which they are sometimes prone.

That show was one of their “headphone concerts.” Instead of loud speakers, they piped the music into a FM transmitter, and loaned everyone portable radios and headphones to listen to the music on. The sound was awesome – crystal clear without all the messy interference that comes from playing music too loud in a space not acoustically prepared for it. You still felt the thump of the drums and bass, and of course the energy of the crowd was still there. Just with hi-fi sound.

A couple years later, the Flaming Lips were opening for (and backing) Beck on his Midnight Vultures tour. I saw them at the Universal Amphitheater, a much larger venue than the Glass House. Wayne showed that he was still able to work the crowd, even when not the center of attention. All of the theatrical elements from the Glass House were still there, and then some. They had dancers on the stage in animal outfits, and Wayne was playing with hand-held lights. The scale of the show was growing, as they were now playing the big venues. Since, they have added confetti cannons, lasers, and Wayne’s space ball to their shows.

It’s a perfect mix – they play great music and put on quite a show.

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Now I’m going to get a little bit cranky. If you want this to be a happy review, stop reading now.

As good as the shows were in the graveyard, there was a off-putting quality to them. While there were many exciting theatrical elements, Wayne seems to have lost faith in his abilities as a showman. Throughout the night, he kept prompting the crowd for a reaction, like an applause sign at a situation comedy taping in a television studio. Some times, he would raise his hands to the sky. Other times, he would cajole the crowd, “Come on, motherfuckers!”

Is this really necessary? Does the musician have any right to demand any activity from the crowd?

Sure, most bands feed off the crowd’s energy, and an active, appreciative audience will usually inspire a better performance. But it’s a two-way street – the performer has to earn the reaction from the crowd in the first place.

And don’t get me started on bands asking fans to dance, sing along, or participate at their whim. When did rock concerts become fascist rallys?

Yeah, we love this music, Wayne. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be yelling and screaming every moment along the way. Especially during the Soft Bulletin, which is a largely quiet, contemplative album. Songs like “Waitin’ For A Superman” and “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” are emotionally heavy songs you want people crying to, not cheering.

I’m sure audience feedback is a big part of what inspires Wayne Coyne (and most musicians, I suspect) to play live music. For a many entertainers, applause and laughter must be like a drug – once they get a taste, they have to keep getting it. But they are supposed to get it by playing music. The cheering is supposed to be a genuine display of affection, not a pellet to keep the performer “up” on demand like a little junkie rat in a lab.

The Soft Bulletin is a great album, a favorite of most fans of the Flaming Lips. It was obvious that the audience was enjoying the show, and they were showing it. Just not enough, I guess.

I’m sorry Wayne, but you don’t get adulation just because you’re a star or you recorded a great album a dozen years ago.  You have to earn it every single night, motherfucker.

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