"You should see the chicks in Europe, man. They don't give a shit. They'll strip down right in front of you. No cares in the world."
The Flaming Lips' bearded roadie Justin Crockett lets out a sigh and covers his wide, wicked grin with his hat. We're backstage at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre for last month's show, and complete strangers in some degree of undress surround the longtime crewmember. Half-naked women fumble with skintight space dresses while their male counterparts willingly ditch clothes for reeking rayon Santa suits damp from the previous night's festivities.
As the band's official "animal wrangler" of several years, Crockett selects and manages the lucky folks who don furry costumes to dance onstage. Tonight's motley group of extras spans the gamut of fandom, from Lips loyalists who have followed the band's twenty-year-plus psych-rock career to the paranoid few who've never seen a show. The loyalists look amped to dance onstage with their beloved heroes while the paranoids quiver as they overhear their fanatical counterparts.
Since the band made a thematic shift from fauna to Santa and Martian costumes earlier this year, Crockett's job title needs updating. "I can't really be the animal wrangler anymore, what with the Santas and aliens now, so if you have any ideas for a name, let me know," he says. He then pulls his Thor costume off a nearby rack and grabs his horned helmet. "Anyway, it's almost time to go."
Amid stacked boxes of confetti and smoke machines, the band's ringleader Wayne Coyne kneels sidestage before an open trunk, only a few feet away from eight thousand shrieking fans. Part Willy Wonka, part P.T. Barnum, he sorts through the trunk's contents, readying various props and gadgets while rubbing confetti between his hands like Ted Williams before a crucial at-bat.
As our squad of Santas and aliens takes positions on the darkened stage, guitarist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock launch into "Race for the Prize" to open the show. Coyne steps into a clear plastic bubble as it inflates, encapsulating him like a giant hamster. Then the dimly lit stage explodes in multicolored brilliance and he cautiously steps the space ball onto a sea of outstretched hands. Stumbling atop the first few rows, he eventually navigates the bubble back onstage and arrives at his microphone in perfect synchronicity to deliver the first few lines of the song. The crowd roars to life with Coyne's arrival and it electrifies us all.
"The idea that you come to a show and it's not just a bunch of guys up onstage playing their instruments is what we're going for," says bassist Ivins, a founding member of the band. "When you walk into a venue that we're playing, we've created this atmosphere, this whole world, which is both a part of and beyond the music. Everyone becomes a part of that when they walk in. The only way to escape is to leave ... and why would you want to do that?"
Why, indeed? The Flaming Lips are one of the few three-ring circuses left in rock music today. The next ninety minutes go by in a surreal blur of smoke, confetti, balloons, streamers, and flashing lights. I shine my handheld spotlight into the packed amphitheater and cannot contain my laughter while watching my excitement reflected by the fans. We sweaty Santas and scantily clad extraterrestrials dance and sing without inhibition, approaching nirvana. Standing at the stage's edge, I absorb both the absurdity and the enormity of this landmark moment. Our "job" is the enhancement of the Flaming Lips experience, and our reward is letting our inner children out to play. It is a cathartic counterpoint to the maddening, horrifying spectacle of human life.
And then it hits me ... literally. A blue B-cup bra thrown by a front-row fan smacks me dead in the face. Surrounded by screaming crowds, pyrotechnics, and chicks willing to get topless just for my attention, I know for a brief nanosecond what it is like to be a real rock star. And it feels good.
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