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The Flaming Lips and My Lysergic Time in Art School
When the punks take acid, everyone wins
“It just seems like The Flaming Lips are sort of this thing that’s, like, I don’t know how seriously you should take us as, like, something to base your life off of.” —Wayne Coyne, 1988
“On a smaller scale, I think the punk rock thing was similar to the hippie movement.” —Cris Kirkwood, The Meat Puppets
On a hot July afternoon in 2021, a few days after my daughter turned four, I played her The Flaming Lips for the first time. Naturally, I started with my first two Flaming Lips favorites: “Turn It On” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” We’d just bought a whole cat family of Calico Critters and shared some cold drinks outside of the co-op, and the co-op experience made me nostalgic enough to play nostalgic music. The Flaming Lips released “She Don’t Use Jelly” on their album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart in June 1993, when I was 18. I started going to co-ops in college in 1994, the same year “Jelly” became a big hit and introduced countless kids like me to The Flaming Lips.
As my daughter stared out our van’s window, pondering “She Don’t Use Jelly” while we cruised down the street, she finally said, “What’s he singing about?” I explained: It’s a silly song where people do things they wouldn’t really do, like use Vaseline on toast instead of butter, and wipe their noses with magazines. She laughed and said, “Why does she use Vaseline instead of jelly? That’s yucky for her.” She quickly learned the melody and certain lines, and after the song ended, she kept singing to herself: “Maaaaaaa-gazines!” When we parked and walked to a restaurant for dinner, I held her in my arms, and together we sang “Taaaaangerines!” Technically, the song is about peoples’ idiosyncrasies, but it’s a joke song. It’s not supposed to make sense. Neither is the band’s early catalogue. Their whole aesthetic could be described as “lysergic idiosyncrasies.” When Lips singer Wayne Coyne hears their early albums now, he doesn’t even recognize himself. Oh my God, he thinks, this is insane. What are they doing? I feel the same way about my first two years of college as an apathetic art student. To me, Transmissions will always remind me of that brief, lysergic time.
On paper, The Lips should never have been popular, let alone built a 30-year musical career that continues to this day, but they are the perfect example of how little record labels knew about what would get popular in the early ’90s, and what would get ignored. The Lips weren’t remotely commercial when Warner Bros. signed them with a seven-album deal in late 1990. But back then, weird underground bands like Jane’s Addiction, The Cure, Butthole Surfers, and Sonic Youth had gotten popular with young people—bands with odd clothes and unconventional song structures. After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit big in 1991, so-called underground music turned the old commercial musical rule book upside down. Radio stations changed their format to alternative. Big record labels like Warner and Sire signed a dizzying number of alternative bands in search of the next Nirvana, hoping to strike gold a fraction of the time. From greased rockabilly haircuts to flowers painted on nipples, kids had always liked weird things, but now weird bands were the new lucrative thing, and corporate labels couldn’t tell which weird bands would resonate enough to make them a lot of money. It’s funny to think of middle-aged music executives trying to sell kids something cool when so little connected these two demographics. But the execs provided the product to the teenage consumer, and they had younger, cooler A&R representatives find the bands. No one knew which green-haired band with nose rings were too weird to sell or just weird enough. How weird would young consumers go? Would the weirdness last? Were weird bands durable goods? Anything could work, like this joke song about Vaseline-covered toast: Who would have ever predicted that would hit? The Lips embodied why huge labels spent so much money during the alternative era. Spin magazine called The Flaming Lips’ deal with Warner “one of the strangest and most rewarding indie-to-major label relationships in pop-rock history.”
The Lips also embodied the risks of only landing one bit hit. But back then, Wayne Coyne described them as “a not-very-successful, weirdo rock group” who felt like every other ’90s alternative band. “We’re going to dropped from our record label,” Coyne said in a Pitchfork documentary. “We’ve had one hit single. And our main musician, our genius musician, is also a heroin addict. You could just look ahead and be like, ‘How you think this is gonna work out?’”
Despite the odds, it worked out well.
Brothers Wayne and Mark Coyne started the band in 1983 to play a punk show at Oklahoma City’s Blue Note club. The brothers lived in the nearby city of Norman and had gotten into punk and underground music.
“Me, I always wanted to be in a band,” Wayne Coyne told Option magazine in 1995, “but I could never figure out how to do it. I saw the Who and was like, ‘Wow, how do you get to do that for a living? Fuck!’ It wasn’t until we saw the hardcore shows that we figured out how to do it. We’d say to ourselves, ‘These guys pulled up in a van. We could do that. These guys have little amps. Same sort of amps we have at the house. They just do it all themselves.’ We were like, ‘I see! That’s cool!’ And we talked to them and said, ‘How’d you guys make records?’ And they said, ‘Saved up money and did it.’ And we’d go, ‘Oh, I see! We could do that!’ Before that, I thought you had to belong to some club or something.”
The little Blue Note club agreed to put The Lips on the bill that night, partly because the Coyne’s dad owned a shop next door. “We would rehearse in the meat locker in the back,” Wayne remembered.
The first time that Coyne’s friend Michael Ivins rehearsed with them in there, their appearance confused him. “I thought it was kind of weird,” said Ivins said in Jim DeRogatis’ biography Staring at Sound, “because it was almost, sort of like a punk-rock outfit, but here was this guy with this long hair tied up in a ponytail, almost like a hippie.”
Ivins had what people described as “an albino Goth look,” wearing eyeliner, black clothes, and a towering, frizzy, New Wave hairdo, and he had no friends.
Ivins agreed to fill the bassist slot for the gig even though he didn’t know how to play bass. “It was our first show,” said Coyne, “so everybody that we knew, we demanded that they come pay the three dollars charge at the door or something, so we probably walked out of there makin’ 50 or 60 bucks.”
Coyne and Ivins became tight.
“I just thought [my look] was oddly, inherently cool,” Ivins said in Staring at Sound, “but it wasn’t like I was trying to impress anyone. That’s the weird thing: I don’t know what I would have done if anyone did pay attention. Looking back, it seemed like it was this weird, personal, individual journey that really didn’t have anything to do with the outside world—the dressing up, the music—because I never knew anyone liked that kind of music until I met Wayne. It was like I was living out this weird fantasy, hoping to be a part of something.”
Oklahoma City’s location on U.S. 40 meant that many bands played OKC shows on their way to other cities. “Back when we began, me and [bassist] Michael [Ivins], we’d be the guys who’d bring the P.A. at the first Black Flag show. We did it for free, because we wanted to see the bands. We’d be the only guys with hair, you know? We weren’t stupid, we knew we had long hair and that those people didn’t like people with long hair. But we’d look around and go, ‘We don’t care, the music rocks.’ We liked it. And I always thought, well, how weird! I mean, how can people who like music say, ‘This is the friend and this is the enemy?’” In the eyes of the punks, Wayne’s long hair made him either a metal-head or a hippie, neither of which were good, but he saw no meaning in stylistic divisions, whether it David Bowie or Black Flag or Pink Floyd. “To me, it’s all music. I don’t care where it comes from.” That was the true spirit of punk.
Applying that punk approach to their lives, they released their debut EP, The Flaming Lips, by themselves in 1984. “We didn’t know what record companies were,” said Coyne, “we didn’t know what getting signed was, we really didn’t think about those things at all.” The first song to hit listeners’ ears was “Bag Full of Thoughts,” a janky, noisy, psychedelic jam featuring moaning and nearly indecipherable lyrics. “Put your thoughts into a bag,” Mark Coyne groans. “If it becomes a drag / Throw it up into the air / Or give it away.”
Starting with “Bag Full of Thoughts” on through to 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, the band released scores of songs whose titles involved brains, heads, and the things that go on inside them:
“Trains, Brains & Rain”
“You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)”
“Love Yer Brain”
“The Magician Vs. The Headache”
“Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World”
“Oh My Pregnant Head (Labia in the Sunlight)”
“Be My Head”
And of course, the album title Hit to Death in the Future Head
Mark left the band after their debut came out, and Wayne became singer.
Wayne had worked as a fry cook at a local Long John Silvers since 1977, at age 16, and he kept the steady money and flexible schedule while he built a life in music. The members of the touring bands that played OKC worked in warehouses and restaurants to subsidize their musical lives, so Wayne took the same practical approach, dropping fish filets in batter to subsidize his artistic freedom. “I never felt it was beneath me,” Coyne told the mayor of Oklahoma City in a TV interview. When classmates would ask Wayne why he worked in fast food rather than somewhere like Oklahoma’s lucrative oil rigs, he explained that it gave him the freedom to dream. “I don’t have a lot of money,” he’d tell them, “but I’m free.” He understood the need for artists to dream.
He also sold weed from the store, which allowed him to more than double his income. By the time he narrowly avoided getting busted, he’d used the money to buy a motorcycle, a new Gibson Les Paul, and small amplifier. “To me, it all really started to get fun when I bought the electric guitar and I could get loud and run it through wah-wah pedals and distortion and echo,” Coyne told DeRogatis. “After about a year of playing that sort of guitar, people started to be like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re playing, but it sounds great.’”
Then Restless Records swooped in to offer The Lips $2,500 to record their second EP in a Los Angeles studio with a Los Angeles producer.
A southern California indie label, Restless had released punk bands like 45 Grave, and The Dead Milkmen’s debut album Big Lizard in My Backyard. The Here It Is EP was Coyne’s debut as a singer. “It just seemed like an insane, great thing that we would get to go to L.A. and spend about 48 hours in a studio,” Coyne remembered.
I think the guy that was producing us thought we’d record a little bit during the day and then we’d leave and go get drunk or something, and he’d mix the record the next day and that would be the way it went. But we didn’t want him to mix without us there, and we kept recording and redoing things and doing overdubs and all that. I remember not sleeping and not leaving the studio, and we just stayed there and stayed there. At the very end of it, he had another session coming and gave us a cassette tape to listen to on the way home.
We drove all the way from Los Angeles back to Oklahoma City listening to this record that he had mixed, and I remember we hated. “Oh my God, how could he make the songs that way?” We were all so brain-dead from not sleeping and being so scared and exhilarated all at the same time. I think that spurred us, probably more than anything, to wanting to make records ourselves after that.
The song “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” I think we wanted to appear to be menacing and deep and represent some dark, unspeakable version of life in the Bible Belt or something like that, even though us as the Flaming Lips, we never considered the Bible or the Bible Belt or being in a religious state like Oklahoma. We never really cared, we never really thought about it. But in “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin,” we thought it would make people think that we were crazy and menacing and drug addicts or whatever, even though we really weren’t. It’s a long song. I remember it being sort of dirge-y, and I think it’s in E minor or something like that. When I hear it now, it doesn’t sound anything like The Flaming Lips that I remember, and I really like it. It’s just such a strange, strange song and I could understand why people would think that something is going wrong and we’re weird and we’re pretentious all at the same time.
If anything defined their earliest years, it wasn’t a particular sound. It was determination and constant change, and maybe a fixation with religion, psychedelics, and goofing around. Their music evolved as they aged, but age didn’t change their warped sense of humor on early albums like Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips and Telepathic Surgery. While Coyne kept dropping fish fillets in batter, The Lips wrote songs that made them seem like they dropped acid 24-hours a day, and they performed frequently, even opening for The Butthole Surfers in Texas around 1986, and Jane’s Addiction around 1988.
“Visually, they were really entertaining,” someone said in the documentary Fearless Freaks. “It’s just, the songs weren’t so great.”
Back then, the band mostly excelled at guitar riffs and cool song titles like “One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning,” “Hell’s Angels Cracker Factory,” “The Last Drop of Morning Dew,” and “Shaved Gorilla.” (“We got a gorilla / And we shaved him / And bought him a motorcycle.”) If you had to describe their sound, you could call it a weirdo-art-noise-acid-punk. They weren’t punk because they played fast songs. They weren’t punk by being, as the Dead Boys album put it, “young, loud, and snotty.” They were punk because they did things their way, which is the true meaning of punk. They talked about tripping on acid back when most punks dismissed acid as a hippie thing. And they were so excited when punks started taking acid that they named a whole album Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. In concert they covered Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, Echo and the Bunnymen, Galaxie 500, Scratch Acid, and Dream Syndicate, all before 1990—stuff that wasn’t always cool, but stuff that proved they had impeccable taste. Their original music mixed elements of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Sonic Youth, The Sonics, and The Kinks all processed them all through Wayne’s weird lyrical universe of insects, robots, brains, and malfunctions. If Bad Brains had asked “How low can a punk get?” The Lips were asking “How much less punk could you get?”
Speaking of punk, some people say that The Lips’ music and stage show were heavily influenced by the 1970s punk band The Debris. Hailing from Chickasha, Oklahoma, The Debris released one of the first punk records in the U.S., in 1975, called Static Disposal, reformed in the late 2000s, were inducted into the Oklahoma Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they never recorded again, and they didn’t get credit for their influence on Coyne. Coyne was a sponge. He pulled from what he liked and what was around him.
Maybe they weren’t a great band yet by conventional standards, but they were memorable, and they were heading toward an epiphany.
Their 1989 album Telepathic Surgery rocks on the outside, but it doesn’t stay with you. Some guitar riffs are wicked. The guitar tone is killer. The songs “Drug Machine in Heaven,” “Right Now,” and “Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon (Fuck Led Zeppelin)” are a little bit Mudhoney, a little Guns N’ Roses. It’s the kind of music that would impress you in concert, but your enthusiasm would cool listening to the album back home. So The Lips compensated for their limited musicianship by building their song “Chrome Plated Suicide” from Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and by creating elaborate stage shows that included Christmas lights, bubbles, smoke machines, a leaf blower that showered the audience with confetti, setting small fires, and a sense of excitement that convinced listeners that they were a killer band to see. “When you suffer in other areas,” Wayne’s brother Mark said, “you try to make up for it with the show.” I felt the same way about my fellow college art students’ clothing: the more dramatic their outfit, the less impressive their creative output. Many of us were compensating, muddying our waters to appear deep. For The Lips it worked.
Warner Bros. signed them in 1990 after an A&R rep watched the band nearly burn down an American Legion Hall during the show’s first song. The Lips decided to try to impress Warner with an incredible performance, so they lit an upside-down drum cymbal on fire the way the Butthole Surfers did at their wild shows.
“If we had rehearsed it, they wouldn’t have let us play. So we just simply did it at the beginning of the set and he kept bashing away, and the fire was jumping everywhere,” Coyne remembered. “Fire is hitting the ceiling and the lighter fluid that we were using was running off onto the stage, which had really old carpeting on it, and all that was catching on fire.”
One of Wayne’s brothers realized This is getting slightly out of hand and sprayed the stage with a fire extinguisher. The chemical cloud filled the tiny club. The audience thought the smoke was part of the show and it amped them up further. Warner loved it.
Wayne quit Long John Silvers in 1990, after Warner signed them. The Lips’ music also turned a corner, thanks to the combined musical sensibilities of Coyne and lead guitarist Jonathan Donahue, who played in a shoegazey noise band called Mercury Rev and brought that visionary energy to the album. The songs they released on their last album for Restless Records, In a Priest Driven Ambulance, were thematically linked around Coyne’s interest in religion. The Lips hail from the Bible Belt, after all. Sonically, the album was powerful stuff— psychedelic, jangly, noise-rock that had catchy sections and hints of pop music—but their next album was even better.
Warner released the Lips’ major label debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, in 1992. Option described their sound in this era as a “sonic DNA experiment, recombining grunge with some old acid test.” That definition definitely captured songs like “Talkin’ ’Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)”—music whose “potent pop sensibility” got locked in what Option called “a distorted, Floydian vortex.” Hit to Death in the Future Head is expansive and promising, and “Halloween on the Barbary Coast” and “Hit Me Like You Did the First Time” were the kind the band could’ve kept playing their entire careers if they chose to.
Also: They got signed to fucking Warner Bros, one of the biggest entertainment operations in history. How exciting. Things were happening. Now they were part of the big music industry machine that had money and marketing muscle! Coyne’s impractical dream was manifesting. Instead of frying fish, he could sing about that life in later songs like “Bad Days”: “And you hate your boss at your job / Well in your dreams you can blow his head off / In your dreams, show no mercy / And all your bad days will end.” But the bad days never end. Their lineup changed again.
Despite major label backing, The Lips’ lead guitarist Jonathan Donahue and drummer Nathan Roberts left the band. Donahue rejoined his other band Mercury Rev. Roberts just quit. “We would play all the time, and [Roberts] was just not built for that,” Coyne said. “He liked the idea of going to work, and then when he got off work, he could lay around and watch movies and get drunk, and he would have weekends free. In fact, it was just not in his personality to be ‘the road warrior creative person.’”
The Lips were a full-time affair, so Coyne and Ivins replaced Donahue and Roberts with two musicians who proved to be some of the best they ever had. First came drummer Steven Drozd.
Someone tipped off Coyne about a killer drummer who played in a bad Norman, Oklahoma band, saying “You know, Janice Eighteen still sucks, but their drummer is amazing.” The drummer, Steve Drozd, grew up in the ’70s playing along to bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, The Who, and Aerosmith, and he was particularly drawn to heavy, big booming players like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. After hearing In a Priest Driven Ambulance, The Flaming Lips became one of his favorite bands. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Drozd said. In fall 1991, Coyne and Ivins invite him to jam up in OKC. He turned out to be a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who jived with them immediately.
“Almost anything that I like, he likes,” said Coyne, “and everything he hates, I hate. We are on the same wavelength all the time.” Drozd also liked The Lips’ approach to making music. “I think the way that we were making our music and making records,” Coyne told Consequence of Sound, “he was like, ‘Man, I want to be in a group like The Flaming Lips.’ So when we needed somebody, he was already there.” Drozd appreciated the creative carnival atmosphere. His talent was matched with ambition, so he was driven to make it work.
“He liked Wayne and wanted to be part of things and wanted to work with him,” Coyne’s mom said in Fearless Freaks. “He can play the things that Wayne can’t play.” Although a heavy-hitting drummer, Drozd could play nearly any instrument. And he could write songs, write song parts, and help arrange songs with a sophisticated the others lacked.
“I could never write lyrics,” Drozd told Modern Drummer, “but I always had melodies flying around in my head. Wayne Coyne is an amazing lyricist. So I can play him a set of chord changes and a melody, and he will come up with words to bring the song to life.”
Even though Coyne didn’t have a classic singers’ voice, he had the perfect voice for this band, a beautiful, sweet, fragile egg of a voice that wobbled over the melodies, careless and happy.
Coyne called Drozd the genius of the band.
Others later said Coyne was lucky to have found him, because otherwise where would Coyne have ended up?
“I think he saw in us, ‘Hey, if I got in there, I could help them be a little more emotional, a little bit more rock, a little bit more experimental,’” Coyne said. “I think all the things that were happening, he saw he could step in and make all that work better. In the beginning, I don’t think I could’ve been aware of that. I thought he was a really, really great drummer, and we needed a drummer, and so he joined.” Drozd had a different sensibility that moved the band into greater depth than songs about acid, freaks, and headaches. “And I think, little by little, we just played off each other’s strengths here or there. Certainly me and Michael, we can’t play very well, but we have other qualities that we hope are of some value to the organization.”
Like Drozd, the band’s new lead guitarist was already there in their circle, waiting in the wings.
When Donahue left, their guitarist-DJ friend Jon Mooneyham stepped in on guitar. He didn’t stay long. In early 1991, during the Hit to Death in the Future Head era, an incredible psychedelic guitarist named Ronald Jones had started hanging out around the band’s rehearsals and residential duplex, and talking with their manager Scott Booker, who worked at a local record store. The Lips were one of the most exciting things happening in Oklahoma City at the time, so other young, restless, musical freaks gravitated to the carnival. Jones worked at a grocery store and was just another kid looking for something to do.
Initially, he had the same reaction as Drozd. “Ronald had seen us play,” Coyne remembered, “and he was like, ‘Man, I wish I could be in a group like this!’”
“When [guitarist Jon] Mooneyham was practicing with us, [Jones] would come by every day and watch us rehearse,” Drozd said in the Fearless Freaks documentary.
“He wanted to watch you guys practice and stuff,” Scott Booker remembered. “I mean, he would come back to the record store, ’cause even though I was managing you—let it be known—I still worked at the record store for a long time. He would come back and tell me [how practice went] and I’d be like, ‘Well, how was it today?’ He’d kind of shake his head like Mmmm.”
Although they got to know Jones during Mooneyham’s brief tenure, they didn’t realize how well Jones played guitar.
One day Jones came to the band’s duplex and played their song “There You Are,” from In a Priest Driven Ambulance, on a cheap acoustic guitar. He asked Coyne if he was playing it right. Coyne told him, “Yeah, except you’re playing all the parts at once.” Booker watched the exchange and thought, Hmm, if Jon doesn’t work out, maybe this guy wouldn’t be bad.
As a quiet talent, Jones could hear Mooneyham’s musical limitations, but he didn’t want to say anything too critical. First off, Jones didn’t know these guys that well. The band members were all friends, fused by membership in a long-standing group with a rep and a record label. He was still an outsider, so he was probably being diplomatic, cautiously stepping in without stepping on many toes. Coyne believes that Jones’ nice side kept him from saying anything critical about Mooneyham or any other people. “He had another side of him that was very strange, and no one could predict,” Coyne said in Fearless Freaks. Jones was difficult to record with and perform with and get close to. He was mysterious, but that was part of his musical power. “But when we first met him, he was a unique, innocent, strange child-man.”
When Mooneyham left, the band had Jones jam with their new heavy-hitting drummer. “He came in,” said Coyne, “and immediately Ronald and Steven playing together, within the first five minutes it’s like, ‘Oh man, this is pretty fun,’ mostly because I don’t play very well.”
After all those line-up changes and youthful amateurism, this talented guitarist had showed up on their porch like a hungry feral cat, and his brilliant, singular style was demented enough to fit The Lips’ warped music and propel them into a new, powerful phase.
Like the rainbows shooting from the child’s eyeballs on the cover of The Lips’ 2009 album The Dark Side of the Moon, good-weird ideas shot consistently from them. This lineup is considered the classic early Lips lineup. “Suddenly we found this great rock sound,” said Coyne. “And we were gonna, you know, I suppose at that time we thought that we could make 20 records like that, or whatever.” As they wrote the songs that would become their breakout album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, Coyne, Drozd, and Ivins forged a relationship that has outlasted all the subsequent musical iterations they would live through.
“The group that started off with the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album really opened us all up where anything felt possible,” said Coyne.
“Ronald Jones was an incredible guitar player,” said Drozd. “He could play any kind of guitar, but the stuff he chose to play was a cross between electric Miles Davis and Kevin Shields or somethin’.”
“Steven and Ronald, as such, were master musicians compared to what we were doing previous to that,” Coyne said about the band’s new abilities. “Steven and Ronald could play with Miles Davis. They could write music with Igor Stravinsky; they are at such a high level. By being with them, we immediately jumped into a different category; there would be this rich, childlike sound that I would be able to bring to the group, but then there was this emotional, beautiful, and delicate stuff that Ronald and Steven started bringing to the group. We started to do the stuff that we were only previously able to dream about.”
Unlike Coyne and Drozd’s psychic connection, though, Coyne and Jones were not on the same wavelength. Nobody was.
“I mean, Ronald was very much on his own trip,” Coyne said, “which we loved.” That trip was Jones’ musical strength. Jones played vintage guitars through lots of effects pedals, and often made squealing sounds using a slide, and crackling explosions to accent certain musical transitions. Biographer Jim DeRogatis called him a “disorienting one-man orchestra.” Jones heard things differently, and he added unique layers to the band, often creating a kind of buried, humming, laser beam orchestration behind Coyne’s guitar. In the studio for Transmissions, he sometimes took a few days to construct a guitar part that only lasted in a song for twenty seconds. Like his playing, Jones also thought very differently than most people, which made him difficult to work with and relate to, and that different wavelength eventually worked against the band when he suddenly quit. But for now, it helped define Transmissions.
Although Coyne loved Jones’ “freak, genius, eccentric” guitar playing, he admitted he “didn’t always understand what he was doing.” “But Steven and Ronald had a very musical language together,” Coyne said, “and Steven would encourage Ronald to be even weirder than Ronald would even think to be. Them together really accelerated the musical weirdness of what the Flaming Lips were capable of, and at the same time heightened what I feel is the emotional part. So though it’s getting weirder, you’d have to know a lot about how music works to really know why it’s weird.”
Because lead guitarist Jonathan Donahue left right when they released Hit to Death in the Future Head on Warner, Jones stepped into play those new songs on their 1992 tour. That Donahue lineup had great energy live, because he’s an imaginative guitarist. Listen to Donahue’s angular guitar accents live on “My Two Days As An Ambulance Driver (Jets Part 2)” on their 1992 John Peel session. He was a skillful, artful noisemaker, but Jones was even better at it. The Jones-Drozd lineup was so good that when they played old songs, they reanimated them, bringing new life to the band’s existing catalogue. Studio versions of songs that were good on record became powerful psychedelic jams. If the studio versions of “Let Me Be It,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever),” and “Halloween on the Barbary Coast” only sounded like the live 1992 and 93 versions, Ambulance and Future Head might be as classic as Transmissions.
The studio version and 1992 Peel Session version of “Hit Me Like You Did the First Time” are good songs with great bones: catchy, fast, rocking. Then they’ve got that weird electric distortion bridge. But live, Drozd lights that song up to another level, with his sense of dynamics changing the whole thing. And Jones’ lead guitar turned a good song into a great one, electrifying it with fiery patterns, prog rock moments, and many squealing, sideways, psychedelic accents. I wish they’d recorded a version of it in the studio playing like that for maximum fidelity. Thankfully we have some powerful audience recordings of varying quality and two crystal clear soundboard recordings, including one from one of the last shows Jones played with the band in 1996.
For the casual observer listening to “Jelly” on the radio or MTV, it was easy to miss Jones’ guitar wizardry. Thankfully, a fan who actually plays guitar examined Jones’ guitar sound and equipment, and he identified a few elements of Jones’ style as “slide guitar, pick scratches, musical ring modulation, crazy synth, fuzzed-out leads, orchestral and otherworldly delays and reverb.” Like me, he heard what he called “Ronald’s guitar witchcraft” most clearly in recordings of 1995 and ’96 shows, which he considered “the pinnacle of psychedelic noise rock weirdness.”
When you watch Jones in footage—really watch him—you see his hands hard at work, and you see him making his signature squeals by dragging both his picking hand and his left hand down the guitar’s neck, often suddenly aggressively, as if he’s trying to severe it. It’s magic.
Jones’ guitar solo on “Bad Days” live is one of the most inventive, urgent, captivating solos from any ’90s band, hands down. Listen to it live in Ventura in 1995. And watch him play it here NYC in 1995. I wish it went on forever.
With their new chemistry, they started writing new music together that would be their next album, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. This was their chance. The world was hungry for alternative rock, and Warner was waiting.
Sometimes the band wrote around sketches Drozd dreamed up, or little melodic lines Coyne had. Other times they wrote songs around Drozd’s drumbeats. “Our song ‘Slow Nerve Action’ was like that,” said Drozd. “I recorded this extremely distorted part on a four-track machine. We wrote that song around that because we thought it sounded so cool.”
One day, Coyne was strumming his acoustic guitar, playing with ideas. A simple song came out of Coyne over the course of a few minutes. “Before I’d even made a demo of it, I played this little thing, probably in the exact same chords that’s still there,” Coyne said. “‘I know a girl who...’ It did this little twist at the end and says she uses Vaseline, and I remember playing that for Steven. It felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s absolutely going to work.’” When he recorded a demo, he used a simple acoustic guitar. “Back then, I would do the crudest of demos, just with an acoustic guitar, sometimes an unplugged electric guitar, and I would sing it into a tape player or something, whatever we had,” he said. “Then we were doing a lot of recording and just barreling through a lot of great big arrangements and all that. ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ was catchy and quirky and all those things, but all the songs on that record we felt were already. ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ didn’t stand out as being one way and other songs were another way, but then it started to gain a momentum of its own.” Only later in the studio, did Jones add that definitive electric slide guitar part, and the sound of a decade was born.
As they recorded what would be Transmissions in the winter of 1993, I was finishing my final year of high school. As I searched for my own voice and identity as a teenager, the band had found their own.
Dave Fridmann, who engineered and produced The Lips’ two previous albums, got a copy of a six-song tape containing early mixes of Transmissions. He and his friends in the band Mercury Rev drove around in their van listening to the tape. “And we were all just listening to songs like that’s cool, that’s cool, that’s cool. And then ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ came on and I was like, ‘Holy crap,’ they actually wrote a song that could do something here.”
The band released Transmissions from the Satellite Heart in June 1993 and toured the Midwest and South that summer. Their dissonant guitar style is on perfect display in this soundboard recording from the Varsity Theatre in Baton Rouge on September 29, 1993. It slays.
They start the show with a raging version of “Mountain Side.” The sad beginning of “Moth in Incubator” is absolutely crushing, with its minor keys and strained vocals. Their simple extended end on “Chewing on the Apple of Your Eye” crushes the already beautiful album version. And the raucous finale to “Oh My Pregnant Head” is the best version I’ve heard.
They needed to perform at that level to get this weird music across to people. So after MTV declined to play the video for their first single “Turn It On,” they toured relentlessly to get the word out and show Warner Bros they were serious.
“Though well-received critically,” Option magazine wrote, “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart was released with relatively little fanfare.” To Option, even with the band’s small devoted fanbase, “no one seemed to be paying any attention.” They played “Turn It On” and “Jelly” in concert for the first time at Raji’s in Hollywood, on June 4, 1993—the club where Charles Peterson famously took the photo of Kurt Cobain jumping backwards onto Chad Channing’s drum set. And then, shortly after Warner released the single and video for “She Don’t Use Jelly” in October 1993, the popular cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head lambasted it on MTV, which got alternative radio stations to play the song more and gave the album the attention it wasn’t earning on its own.
Beavis and Butt-Head were idiots. They sat on a couch, critiquing the art other people had the confidence to perform publicly. As The Lips banged their instruments in a city park on MTV, Beavis said, “Uh oh. I think this is college music.”
“You can also tell it’s college music ’cause, it’s like, they’re in a field,” Butt-Head said.
“Yeah,” said Beavis. “Fields suck. How come he keeps singing about these people he knows? Who gives a rat’s ass.”
Butt-Head sang: “I know a guy. His hair is orange. He sucks!”
That’s the part you were supposed to think was funny, but The Lips didn’t suck, and this particular joke was getting tired by ’93. And yet, the publicity worked.
Beyond the show’s high-profile lambasting, the dumb nonsense song was super catchy, and that combination of fun-singalong and easy-to-hate helped push it through the blood-brain barrier of popular consciousness, moving The Lips from the weird musical underground into the mainstream commercial showcases where record labels hoped all their bands would end up. During the Alternative Era, that counted as success.
Between 1994 and ’95, The Flaming Lips played “She Don’t Use Jelly” everywhere. They played it on Late Night with David Letterman. They played it on The Jon Stewart Show. They played it on the popular schlock Beverly Hills 90210, and on some obscure show called JBTV, and on the 1995 installment of MTV’s hugely popular Spring Break show on some beach somewhere, with that idiot host Pauly Shore dry humping the stage as guitarist Ronald Jones let his signature distortion crackle from his surf green vintage 1960s Fender Jaguar. The Lips even played ten cities on the second stage of the Lollapalooza 1994 tour—unfortunately not in Phoenix where I lived. “They were the all-out favorites of critics, fans, and other bands,” said Option magazine, “often joined onstage by members of the Bad Seeds and L7.” The song reached number 55 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It became an actual top 30 hit in Australia. On the strength of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” Transmissions sold a few hundred thousand records. That wasn’t huge, but it was much bigger than anyone expected for this demented Oklahoma band, and way more than their previous records sold.
“The Lips were on a real high right at that moment,” Drozd said. ‘We had done the second stage on Lollapalooza and it seemed more and more people were starting to get us.”
The Lips reached me like they reached Beavis and Butt-Head: while I sat on a couch watching MTV with friends, critiquing lame bands like Live and Bush. I totally disagreed with Beavis and Butt-head’s dismissal of “Jelly.” The Lips’ acid-induced, comic aesthetic quickly came to define my warped young vision of life, and The Lips’ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart ruled my world alongside The Meat Puppets’ album Too High to Die and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.
Transmissions opened with a happy anthem called “Turn It On.” Upbeat and guitar-driven, this singalong combined a call to arms with the 1960s lingo of psychological liberation and psychedelic adventure. Turning people on meant introducing them to something—could be a band, could be a scene. By tipping people off, you enlighten them. In ’60s vernacular, the phrase also meant enlightened from LSD, so being “turned on” was code for those in the know after taking psychedelics. Timothy Leary famously said, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” In 1967 Jimi Hendrix sang: “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?” Others from that era asked “Are you turned on?” The Lips were. And in this song, they passed that ’60s lingo on to us ’90s kids, unashamed of its hippie associations the way some of us thought we should be.
Turn it on and all the way up
Turn it on, in your houses when you wake up
Turn it on, when you ain’t got no relation
To all those other stations
Turn it on!
The verses made little obvious sense, which I loved, but the chorus seemed to urge listeners to turn off commercial mainstream messaging in order to tune into our own weird station—a figurative station, some source of information—and to turn on the music of the underground, maybe even weird arty bands like them. It’s a smart way to start a new album: Give a generation an anthem.
Put your life into a bubble
We can pick you up on radar
Hit a satellite with feeling
Give the people what they paid for
“Turn It On” briefly became my anthem. I blasted it in my metallic blue, 1969 VW Bug on the drive to school. I blasted it alone while skating various concrete flood control channels that I found in suburban neighborhoods. I blasted it on headphones while getting stoned in the university parking garage after class. Musically, it felt optimistic, and it proved that this album and band were so much more than “Jelly.”
There are certain songs that you love the first time you hear them. “Turn It On” had a sound that could carry me somewhere new. It felt like forward momentum, like me evolving into a different person, one closer to the one I thought I would be.
During the time I jammed Transmissions, I wore a litany of clothes I found at thrift stores: vintage Ocean Pacific and Hang Ten shirts featuring faded blue waves and tattered logos, cut-off green army pants, gaudy green and orange Sex Wax and Orange Crush shirts. I smoked weed, drove that 1969 Bug with red plaid seats, and rode my vintage Logan Earth Ski cruiser board and my enormous Sector 9 Downhill longboard to class. As a textbook ’90s rock kid, I was supposed to hate hippies. But for a guy who hated hippies, I pulled a lot of my fashion from the late-60s and early-70s—specifically from the surf side of things, not the tie dye flower power side. The Lips’ art-band weirdness fit this period of my early college life, but their hippie-ish ways also nudged me from my indie rock comfort zone to truly expand my identity. I wasn’t comfortable acknowledging how much hippie was in me yet.
Every unique band and subculture have their own iconography and motifs. The Paisley Underground bands had paisley. The early Velvet Underground had striped shirts, leather jackets, and sunglasses. The Beach Boys loved Pendelton shirts so much that, before they became the Beach Boys, they called themselves The Pendeltons. I liked curling waves, beachy suns, palm trees, and flowers. Lately, I’d started picking flowers around campus to draw them during class. I picked flowers in the wild and stuck them in vents on my Bug’s dashboard like you would a vase. I even pressed real blossoms between notebook pages. I always negatively associated flower iconography with flower power Grateful Dead shit, so I hid my Naturalist love of them, but was I really going to let the hippie association ruin one of Nature’s greatest gift for me? Was I really so insecure that I couldn’t handle getting labeled a hippie? How sad. My VW Bug was from 1969 for god’s sake—69, the end of the Age of Aquarius, the year Altamont ended the era shortly after The Dead had left San Francisco for the countryside. Kurt Cobain’s disdain for The Dead reinforced my own. “I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed t-shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia,” Cobain once said. I liked that. And yet, many musicians who influenced Cobain, including The Meat Puppets, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo, were Dead fans. Not me yet. I resisted because I lived in an imagined rock ‘n’ roll silo, which kept those hippie people over there, and me in cool guy land over here. But when the orange blossoms bloomed on campus, I sat near the trees to study in a cloud of their intoxicating fragrance. Nature was slipping some wonderful hippie things into me, and my love of The Flaming Lips helped me quit resisting.
The Lips had peace signs, happy faces, skulls, and colorful squiggles all over—total hippie stuff. And so along with an influential young woman who’d recently taken me to eat at my first natural grocery store, The Lips helped dissolve my reflexive hatred of hippies and get me closer to embracing hippie-ish things that I was naturally drawn to, like Mother Nature, rainbows, flowers in my shirt pocket, and eating natural foods. In every sense, The Lips turned me on.
And The Lips brought weirdness to the masses.
“But popularity is a funny thing,” Coyne told Yahoo. “Once something is kind of popular, it has the potential to grow and grow and grow. When Beverly Hills 90210 called us, if this would’ve been, you know, a year earlier or six months early, we probably would have thought, No, we’re too cool, we don’t do those sorts of things. But we had just done a lot stuff by then, and it occurred to us that it would be ridiculous and absurd and funny, and it didn’t really matter if it was artistically good or bad or whatever, you know?”
I hated Beverly Hills 90210, so I never saw their performance until decades later, but the producers were trying to connect to the kiddos through popular music, and alternative music was so popular in 1995 that it was no longer alternative. At the characters’ favorite hangout, a diner called the Peach Pit, the band played a small stage covered in colorful Christmas lights, and the David Silver character leans over his friends’ shoulders and says, “Hey, is that The Flaming Lips?”
Without taking his eyes off the band, Steve Sanders says, “It’s not Michael Bolton.”
Silver was always trying to be popular. Here was his chance.
After the performance, Sanders tells his friend, “You know, I’ve never been a big fan alternative music, but these guys rock the house!” No cool kid would ever say “rock the house.” But that moment in that episode captured the central cultural dynamic in the early ’90s: the way capitalism turned underground freak music into products for mass consumption, and how regular kids did lots of things to be cool.
Although 90210 tackled serious issues like date rape, alcoholism, and pregnancy, the show’s characters were still the very upper middle class kind that didn’t seem drawn to underground rock during the first half the ’90s. They were the Boys 2 Men demographic, later the Backstreet Boys demographic. They didn’t drop acid and dye their hair with tangerines. They worked as a cabana boy to save enough money to buy a 1965 Mustang convertible, like Brandon did in Episode 1, Season 2. They acted out after earning low SAT scores, like Donna did. “You know, I’ve never been a big fan alternative music,” says Steve Sanders. It’s like: Of course you weren’t, Steve. You’re the archetype average, middle class, mainstream white guy. You live on the surface of commercial American culture, nibbling whatever products the big brands feed you. In the early-90s, the transmissions that The Lips sent were too weird for guys like Steve. While The Lips tried to turn people on, their whole freaky look turned off the Steves of the world—and their whole real or imagined association with ’90s “alternative culture”—until the right mainstream sales channels could curate and sell the band to him. The right marketing made the freaks approachable, even appealing. The normals couldn’t talk to the freaks in high school. The chasm between us seemed too deep. But as alternative culture became pop culture, the ’90s jocks grew out their hair and started dressing like the freaks had years earlier. As they started buying the Nirvana records that Kurt Cobain told them not to buy, people like Steve suddenly felt okay investigating weird stuff like The Flaming Lips. He wouldn’t have liked the cover of Transmissions if he found it by himself while browsing at Tower Records. But here with his friends, placed on stage in front of him at his safe familiar diner, he gave the freaks a chance, and gee whiz, they were alright.
In the sales world, potential customers are called ‘prospects.’ Promising prospects are called qualified leads, which you try to convert into paying customers. Putting the weird band in the Peach Pit converted Steve to a consumer of the alternative music he didn’t think he liked. The record label and the TV producers captured the consumer in their path-to-purchase. And the record label got the return they wanted for their alternative band investments: a band that went from lighting things on fire in a small Oklahoma club to playing broadcast TV. The labels won. They turned weirdness into cultural capital that even a regular guy could comfortably consume and then use as a badge of his own coolness, since he had briefly walked on the wild side and returned with this souvenir that he could wave around as proof that he belonged to the group. Because ultimately, he was still buying acceptance into a group, not true individuality or rebellion. Not that authentic individuality mattered. That wasn’t the product. The feeling of coolness was the product, and Steve finally got it. Acceptance is what most teens want anyway. It’s only natural.
The less cynical piece of this puzzle is that, while everything is for sale, the jelly song itself was objectively good, and music is something whose power can exist outside of—or at least withstand—corrosive capitalist forces. You can sell great songs to death, but they still manage to move people, and that’s what music is really about. That’s why this unnecessarily long essay you’re reading matters, because this weird jelly song was just fun to sing. It made you laugh, and laughing was as spiritually nourishing as singing. It didn’t matter who sang. In fact, the more people it got singing together the better. Steve’s friends and my freak friends needed a middle ground, a common point of connection, and if we could all share this moment together—and even sing and dance at a show together—that felt like social progress to me. ’90s kids could be so protective of their bands: These are our cool bands, and those are yours. Don’t ruin mine! Ultimately, it didn’t matter if the straight world of jocks and suburban mall rats now knew The Lips. In fact, all the better: Maybe The Lips’ popularity could get more people to look kindly on the freaks and help tear down the walls that made regular folks more accepting of oddity in general. Even if the Steves went back to being close-minded shitheads who made fun of how you looked or tried to punch you in the mosh pit at rock shows, we’d always have this moment united by music.
As expected, the 1995 episode further propelled the lysergic Oklahomans to fame. Once they crossed into mainstream culture, they never went back to arty obscurity. I was certainly hooked.
Looking back, Transmissions was the sound of a more refined, professional group with more money for studio time than they’d ever had, but they were still freaks. Think of the lyrics Coyne sang to venues full of kids: “My brother’s at the morgue / He gets up off the floor / He contemplates his escape …And he calls up the insects he commands / And the waterbugs attack the policeman.” How many kids could relate to that? Or even sing along? It didn’t matter. The band was never the same.
As a hot commodity trying to get their weird music heard, they played as openers on tours with Tool, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soup Dragons, then got invited to open for Candelbox—a horrible Grunge copycat band—with money too good to pass up. The Lips didn’t sound like any of these bands, but under the marketing rubric of alternative music, these pairings make sense. These were also all rock bands in the standard early-90s mold: bass, drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar. During Ronald Jones’ time with The Lips, they were a guitar-band, even though the lyrics ranged from simple requests to trade brains to stories of sitting around watching a friend’s invisible dog. Don’t get me wrong. Jones’ tenure is my favorite Lips era, but during those years, the world was drowning in loud guitar bands, so with their long hair and beat up Stratocasters and Fenders, The Lips didn’t break the mold visually—not until you heard them. Then you went Whoa.
In the alternative era, they actually offered something alternative.
After “Jelly,” many people assumed The Lips were another one-hit-wonder in an era of one-hit wonders like Stereo MCs’ “Connected” and Toadie’s “Possum Kingdom.” But The Lips felt confident they could make more great music. In 1995, in the middle of the “She Don’t Use Jelly” era, they released their anticipated follow up album Clouds Taste Metallic. Tabs of acid tasted metallic, and my friends and I took enough psychedelics to get the reference. While Transmissions still ruled me, Clouds added power to the mix. Turning on to the Lips at that moment meant getting dosed with a double-whammy of lysergic music along with actual doses of acid. It was awesome.
It also inspired me. I needed inspiration.
For most of my life, I’d been the stereotypical drawing kid, the one hunched over a piece of paper, engrossed in some vision. I drew alone in my bedroom at night. I drew on paper placemats at restaurants while the adults talked. I drew on napkins and instruction manuals and doctor’s slips and in my notebook during class. Lack of proper materials never stopped me. I just found a napkin and a cheap Bic pen. Whatever was around became my medium. I could draw everything from abstract geometries to landscapes, and I eventually drew hard faces from Edward Curtis photos and portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Jane’s Addiction’s singer whose likeness impressed people and surprised me. People knew me as the drawing guy. But drawing had started to feel constrained, like I needed a more robust medium to express the intense combination of ideas, images, feelings, and stories inside me. As a sensitive cerebral teen, I felt all these powerful things that, as an artistic person, I felt the urge to do something with. The creative impulse was wired in me, but I didn’t have the discipline or direction to seriously test new modes of expression. The Flaming Lips somehow connected with the part of me that the psychedelic mushrooms had already activated, and the combination opened something further, showing me the swirling, terrifying range of possibility, not just in art, but in life.
You could live your life in infinite ways. A 9-5 office job wasn’t for me. And why stop at drawing? Why not try music, photography, and writing? Why not live in a van and just travel the American West?
“So many people have good ideas, but they don’t do them,” Coyne said in the band biography Staring at Sound. “A mediocre guy who works all the time gets more done than the super genius who hides in his glass castle. You gotta do stuff; you can’t just sit around and think about it.” Even the title of The Lips’ biography referenced the synesthesia that embodied their inability to be constrained by space, time, or genre. Naturally, the book borrowed the title from a song.
Although Clouds didn’t perform as well commercially as Transmissions, who cares? Clouds is an absolute classic Lips album, and one of the best of that decade.
“When we hit Transmissions and it blew up and sold a whole bunch of records, and we had ‘a hit,’” Ivins told Pitchfork, “we thought ‘Alright, now we’re in.’ And then we put out Clouds Taste Metallic and it went right back to however many records we sold before.”
Not enough apparently. The band kept expecting Warner to drop them, so they decided to lay as low as possible.
As the Lips’ manager Scott Booker told Pitchfork: In 1995, selling 36,000 records was considered a failure. But somehow, the goofy song about nonsense endures. “Jelly” is still catchy. It’s still funny. And new listeners keep discovering it—like my daughter. Maybe playing it for her now will create a nostalgic childhood connection later, a song from a decade she never knew.
Contrary to their lyrics, The Lips’ bad days didn’t end. In 1996, a year after Clouds came out, Ronald Jones left the band even more suddenly than he’d joined it. No one truly knows why he left or where he went after leaving. “That part of it, I think, is still kind of a mystery, even to us,” Coyne told The Oklahoman. “Until we know, I think the mystery is the thing.” No new photographs of Jones have surfaced since 1996, and he’s never done an interview. He literally disappeared himself from the face of the earth and spent the subsequent decades somewhere in Oklahoma. Maybe one day he’ll surface, but the story of his departure and existence remain one of the enduring mysteries of rock ‘n’ roll.
During the time I jammed Transmissions and Clouds, it didn’t seem like we fans were witnessing profound creativity from a singular guitarist on the cusp of disappearing. This didn’t seem like some golden era of a band that would be mythologized years later. Jones was just another cool dude wailing on guitar with long hair draped over his face, and like everything else in your young life, it seemed like things would always be this way. Time passed. Things sucked. Days felt the same. Things were forever. Forever would feel like this. As the ’90s passed, they passed slowly enough that nothing suggested these years would eventually resemble some of the best in my life, or that the world wouldn’t always look this way, with The Lips yelling “Vaaaaaasaline!” with orange hair on TV.
While The Lips started touring in support of Transmissions in the summer of ’93, I was getting ready to start college.
The last year of high school can involve a lot of prep: meetings with college counselors, talks about majors, AP classes for college credit. The U.S. College Board created the Advanced Placement program to challenge high school students with college-level curricula and send prospective universities a strong message: This student is serious about their education. I was smart. I liked intellectual activity, but I wasn’t serious about anything other than my friendships, my drawing, and rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t take AP classes or fret about transcripts. I worked hard in classes that I liked, and I passed classes I disliked. That set the mode for the rest of my life: Excel at things that excited me, endure boring requirements. It’s been a problematic approach.
My mom was always telling me I had to do something extracurricular in high school: band, newspaper, a club, anything. So I wrote an untitled poem called “A Poem” for my all-boy school’s annual art journal. “Society may think one way,” I wrote, “But to society’s dismay / They can’t make me something by their decree / Only I determine who I should be.” Clearly I’d never written poetry before. It was my first published piece of writing. I briefly volunteered in the school newspaper, but it didn’t click. I preferred the excitement and vernacular of rock music and skateboarding to the little subterranean high school office where newspaper staff wrote articles about campus life. The idea that I should do stuff like this instead of what felt natural to me ignited my ire. That’s why the theme of my untitled poem was the theme of my life itself: independence, rebellion, keeping the world from stifling my individuality. “Only I determine who I should be / This is so, so let it be… I’m very pleased with me.” Um, I guess I planned to fly free forever because no one was supposed to tell me what to do? I never published poetry again.
Even if the high school experience mattered less to me than my social life, I was lucky that I loved that high school age and really ate it up. While many sporty meatheads peaked in high school and would never feel as relevant again, high school was traumatic for other kids. They were trapped in small towns, trapped by parental oversight, strangled by provincialism, low expectations, and outright harassment. In college, kids could escape their smothering social circles, escape racist hicks and violent jocks, escape their past and the unforgiving pigeonholes locals put them in. When no one knew who you’d been back home, people could see you as you were now, and you could become who you wanted to be. Like heading to California, college offered the chance for rebirth. Many kids were stoked to get their own dorm room far from home. For them, college felt like growing up. My classmates sent their transcripts to their top choices, hoping they’d scored well enough to get into their favorite school. High school friends got accepted to places like Harvey Mudd and Pomona. Many of my closest friends didn’t go to college. They worked, joined the Navy, and got their GEDs. I didn’t fret about transcripts or have favorite schools. My parents couldn’t afford to send me away, so I went to the state school a few miles down the street.
Arizona State University was a great affordable university with a rich history, and it was good enough for us. Even if my parents could have afforded out-of-state tuition, I wouldn’t have gone. That wasn’t my fantasy. I didn’t mythologize Brandeis or come from an Ivy League family who wore Yale sweaters and needed me to uphold tradition. My mom graduated from ASU. My dad started ASU and didn’t finish because of parental responsibilities. They both stressed the importance of education, but they didn’t fixate on universities’ status. The only universities that appealed to me were by the beach—UCSB on the Santa Barbara coast and the University of California San Diego, and that was only because Southern California was the center of the universe. Since we couldn’t afford oceanside schools, I was fine with whatever. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, but I knew I didn’t want to leave my best friends, so I kept doing what we were already doing, which was partying, camping, and studying. Phoenix sucked, but my friends made it livable. Sure, college sounded fun. I was excited to learn new things and have coed classes where I could actually talk to real live young women, but I was mostly excited to get out of a Jesuit high school that wouldn’t let students grow their hair past their shirt collars. And I was excited to wear the thrift store clothes my high school dress code forbade. Soon I wouldn’t have to take my earrings out in the parking lot each morning! I could ride my skateboard and smoke cigarettes right on campus!
Arizona State University was so close to home that I could bike the five miles there in half an hour, and drive in a few minutes. I knew the neighborhood well. My friends and I had been going to Tempe to collect concert flyers from record stores since before we had drivers’ licenses. Now we drove to Headquarters headshop to get parts for our bongs, and we knew where all the good record stores, resale stores, and restaurants were, and the video game arcade. Ted, the longhaired dude who worked at the headshop, even smuggled my recording equipment into a 1992 Mr. Bungle show for me, since he knew the band. Unfortunately, he didn’t meet me inside the venue to give me my equipment, so I couldn’t record the show. Thankfully, some other fan recorded it, and we saw Ted too much at the headshop to stay angry.
For me, high school senior year and freshman year of college felt a lot alike: My friends and I hung out, went to parties, hit the bong, went to shows and work, and took psychedelics. I still wore a 7-11 uniform vest in public for some reason. My college sense of humor was just as adolescent as it had been senior year. Look what I drew for my college computer class assignment. I was a moron.
It was reminiscent of something I’d drawn in high school:
College only felt like an improved, more sophisticated version of senior year, except with more classes, more autonomy, more work hours, and more responsibility. Being on campus felt different.
My huge campus took up whole city blocks—a city in a city. The maze of new buildings was intimidating to learn. The student population was also intimidating: 30,000 people was way too many people. This was not an intimate Mills College experience. This was like studying at Costco. Everything was massive and industrial, like at a pig trough. If you drove to campus, you had to park your car in one of the huge off-site lots, which added a great distance to your travel time but provided a private place to smoke weed. To get around campus, you could walk, which took forever, or you could skate or bike, which was fun and practical. Skating was great, though the heat made it difficult.
At Arizona State University, spring semester wound down in early May, right when the 100-degree days hit, and classes resumed in mid-August, during similarly intense, monsoonal heat. In the scorching heat, I skated from a distant parking lot all the way to class. I’d arrive at my ENG 101 and GEO 101 classes covered with a ridiculous amount of sweat. Then the air conditioning would hit me and chill my slick skin. There were certain parts of my body that never dried. I eventually felt embarrassed riding a longboard as more frat boys picked up the habit. That took a while, though.
Sometimes I’d take my street deck with me to ride a section of perfectly sloped concrete, built at a gradual incline, outside the law library, to practice my rail slides. The way the smooth concrete divider descended made it ideal for rail slides, yet I never saw other kids skate it. I had it all to myself. Occasionally hungover at morning classes, definitely still partly stoned from the night before, it never occurred to me not to skate in 90° heat. When you’re young, you just do it. The kids who’d moved to Arizona from Wisconsin or Tennessee must’ve questioned their decision. One hundred degrees? How long does this last?
That first year, students asked each other lots of questions, chief among them, “So, what’s your major?” I didn’t have one. I was “undeclared.” Next to seeing concerts with friends, drawing was my main hobby. Despite the amount of skill that drawing required, drawing didn’t seem like a legitimate course of study, because drawing wasn’t a job. Hi, the company is hiring a new sketch artist, and we liked your résumé. As The Lips ripped through electric sets opening for a 1993 Stone Temple Pilots-Butthole Surfers package tour, I applied my thrift store-surf rat aesthetic to various school assignments, and I wondered if I’d ever find the right major.
As a freshman and sophomore, you could get away with not declaring a major. You had time to figure it out while you took interesting classes that fulfilled your elective and general education requirements. I took a full, five-class load each semester. Most were required filler like English Composition & Rhetoric.
While postponing the inevitable during my first three semesters, I chose interesting classes, like Geology 101, women’s studies, general art history, and environmental geology.
I wrote some great papers and some awful papers. Example A: A two-pager for sociology that I didn’t even title. The paper began: “Everybody wants to be beautiful, but not everyone is born with good looks and desirable features, which is exactly how advertisers sell some of their products.” The paper was about a single advertisement and the social construction of beauty. In the margin, the professor wrote: “Where is the ad?” I probably rolled it up and smoked it.
In my required Spanish class, I kept a list called “Bad words that are good to use” on the inside notebook cover. Conjugation bored me. So did the endless list of words to memorize like soltera, casada, debíl. Tengo quatro hermanos? No, Chinga tu madre pendejo.
For money, two of my brothers generously let my dumb ass work at their Subway sandwich franchises. And I worked on campus, where I stuffed professors’ travel vouchers in a rotating file cabinet, stoned, then I got to drive a golf cart around delivering campus mail. When I saw classmates, I’d give them rides. One time we drove the cart into a bush after I took it off-road in some wet grass.
In the fall of ’94, I worked at Fiddlesticks Family Fun Park. I don’t remember how long that job lasted, only that I spent time tending the golf shop, video arcade, and, best of all, the race cars, which I cleaned, parked in rows, and monitored was drivers raced them along the circular track. Kids often drove these as wildly as I drove the campus mail cart. I was not the right person to stop adolescent mischief. One afternoon I tried to ride a cart like a skateboard—setting one foot on the back and pushing it with my back foot—and damaged my heel so badly that I had to wear a leg brace for a few months before I could return to actual skating. Convalescing in the Fiddlesticks golf shop on a rainy day, I drew some faces on company time, using the manager’s notepad.
Drawing, drawing, I was always drawing. Was my major right in front of me?
I don’t know when I started drawing, but it started young, and like most kids, I eventually graduated from crayons to pencils and pens.
I loved experimenting with watercolors and different textures of paper. My parents bought me nice pencils and sketchbooks from art supply stores, but I didn’t need anything too nice. I favored cheap pens, colored pencils, and simple sketchpads. My Granddad Gilbreath, a woodcarver, bought me art supplies and instructional drawing books. When I was young, my mom drove me to an art class where students learned to replicate three dimensions using shading and negative space instead of definitive lines—an idea that changed how I saw the world—but I came to prefer the cheap black and red pens Mom stole from work. They had hard edges and were easy to control. I was like John Muir hiking the Sierra: He didn’t need fancy boots or equipment. He only needed time and effort. Those pens taught me that practice and dedication mattered more than the materials, but encouragement was important, too. Everyone’s support made a big impact on my development.
Cheap supplies had their own challenges. Sometimes I had to stop myself at the start of a drawing, because I’d start doodling on a piece of yellow lined notebook paper, and when I could tell the drawing was going in a good direction, I realized I’d damned it to a cheap medium I’d never want to frame. Some of my best drawings exist on the worst paper, crisscrossed with college-ruled notebook lines. But in class, I drew in notebooks to conceal my activities. I was supposed to be paying attention to the lecture. I couldn’t bust out my good quality sketchpads.
My parents and I kept all my drawings, so it’s a real treat to see all the phases my drawing went through and my development.
Between 5th and 8th grade, I was obsessed with the Japanese cartoon literature called manga. Once I discovered the TV show Robotech, the next three years were spent scouring comic bookstores for anything like it, assembling models of Japanese robots and mech-exoskeletons, and replicating the images in my sketchbooks.
At the same time, during middle school, I loved American superhero comics, mostly Batman and The Punisher. These were violent, with lots of guns spraying bullets, but that also made them visually dynamic. I didn’t like violence. I’ve never been in a fight and or hit another person in my life. Their sense of motion, and the ways the artists rendered the comics’ dark style, just caught my eye.
I loved reading, so I made two fake books out of manila file folders and filled them with my own made-up Fragile Rock story lines—my first graphic novels.
In middle school, I spent about a whole week drawing a drawing of a medieval church. At 26 by 22 inches, it was the largest single drawing I’d ever attempted, so I had to keep the paper on the dining room table since no other surface in the house could accommodate it. I was small, so I would lean over the page at different angles, working on different sections but failing to pay sufficient attention to unifying the section, which explains why the finished drawing leans in a way: I didn’t back up enough from the image to assess how my body’s position was warping the perspective in two-dimensions. It was a good lesson, and I still loved how it turned out. My parents framed it and hung it in our upstairs hallway for all to see. For years I passed it walking to and from my bedroom, and it filled me with pride. The whole thing worked best from a distance. Close up, the details revealed their inaccuracies. It was fun getting lost in details.
In middle school, my love of Depeche Mode and surf culture had me drawing DM album covers as frequently as palm trees and breaking waves. In middle school, my subversive nature also meant I liked to pass drawings around during class, letting friends add funny images and thought bubbles to whatever sketch I’d started, before they passed them back. It was a dare: Would the teachers catch us? It was also an artistic form: an evolving collaboration. I loved drawing in classmates’ yearbooks, too.
In high school I went through a hardcore MC Escher period, where I read about him and drew as many of his drawings as I could. My grandmother had an Escher book, and the geometries and fluid sense of scale and gravity—and the way every architectural element interlocked, either upside down or right-side up—fascinated me. So I copied his drawings to try to understand how they worked. This is an original inspired by Escher, drawn during some high school class, probably Math, in 1991. I couldn’t stand most Math, but I loved geometry. Escher involved geometry.
I would draw a geometrical superstructure first, sketching faint lines to keep everything in perspective, then I’d draw map the stairs and doors and architecture over that.
Since I didn’t know what else to do, I picked a college major in a discipline I was good at. My parents were justifiably concerned. What did you do with a drawing major? Go back and get your business degree? A drawing major didn’t comfort me either, but I needed something to start narrowing down my options until I figured out my career.
ASU’s art department had some beautiful buildings. It also put some of its art classes in a cluster of old ugly buildings on the northwest corner of the giant campus. This seemed like one of the older parts of campus. Some workshops were in a tall, dark grey, institutional building, where students smoked in the shaded narrow stairwells. Other workshops were in a funky set of one-story buildings that looked like the part of Tatooine where Luke lived with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in the first Star Wars. I remember plain stucco that reflected glaring sunlight. Narrow passageways ran between buildings, creating little mazes. Feet crunched gravel as you searched for the right door, and big square air conditioning units hummed all over, covered with dust. It felt old. It probably looked different than I remember. Students carried tall canvasses between rooms and had little containers of art supplies. It felt like the university didn’t want us around, or at least didn’t want us polluting the rest of the student population with our drugs or ideas, so they stuck us in this leper colony. That made me feel special, though it’s probably inaccurate. I did love the art school’s location, though. I’d always felt most comfortable on the edge of things: the back row of class, the front row of concerts, the cliff above the coast, the furthest cubicle in the library study area. As a fringe dweller, edge spaces were my habitat, including the edge of society.
It was fun among the freaks. In my first studio class, we sat in a circle for three hours, drawing inanimate objects the teacher arranged in front of us: collections of fruit; a bull skull draped with cloth, things with texture and shadows—the classic still life.
On breaks, we students often smoked cigarette halfway through, crowding inside a narrow stairwell outside the building, filling it with smoke and talking about class and big arty ideas. It was cool to hang with older students and kids who dressed differently than me. I loved those breaks, but I feared how we’d all fare once we left this comfortable campus bubble. Did all working artists start like this? Where Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins watched touring punk bands and wondered how they could tour and record, too, I wondered how painters and drawers and the writers of our schoolbooks got paid. Did bands like The Flaming Lips have back-up plans? I guess Coyne could always go back to Long John Silvers, but that seemed a failure to truly maximize his artistic ability. How do you monetize weird talents?
“We really wanted to get out of Oklahoma City and see the world,” Coyne told Option, “we just had no idea how to do it.” I wanted out of Phoenix and wondered the same.
The ASU art department’s publicity materials said vaguely worded things about how their program prepared students to pursue creative careers, but how specific positions often depended on the student’s particular concentration—meaning, design was probably more practical than drawing—as well as receiving additional education. Although nowadays, the ASU website states that students who complete the BFA degree program can earn as much as $77,700 as “Multimedia Artists and Animators,” with additional certifications, and as little as $35,180 as a “Craft Artists,” (-1% growth rate), I had no such detailed reassurance about my prospects. Admittedly, I probably didn’t ask anyone in the department for examples of future drawing careers, but I also had my eyes on an early death or saving the world as an environmentalist instead of longevity.
If art school offered any promising career paths, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I was an interloper, just passing through while I searched for my true path. Art history classes were fascinating, but I didn’t need that level of historical detail. I didn’t envision myself as an art teacher one day. Had I known about design majors and how my drawing skills could actually earn me big bucks working for advertising agencies, I still wouldn’t have stuck with visual art. I didn’t care about money back then. I just liked doing what was fun. How impractical. Visual art and the practice of drawing were part of something larger for me, I didn’t yet know what, but all the dots finally connected later when I discovered my calling in nonfiction writing.
All the weed I smoked didn’t help me think about this clearly. It certainly influenced the way I drew. I drew a lot of faces. I started trying accurate, realistic portraits. Portraits were difficult. It’s hard to draw a face that looks like the person it belongs to, because what elements of a face make them recognizable: their eyes? Their jaws? Their noses? All of those things combined and more. Getting the gestalt was a challenge, and I enjoyed the challenge of portraiture.
With time, I started drawing warped faces, faces with movement in them, elongated, expressive, and weird. It was fun to create shapes with tension in the lines. And it was also fun to add swirls around them, partly because I didn’t care as much about rendering the hair or ears as I did the main features, and I could combine my love of fractals as a way to absolve me from drawing the rest of the face. I even drew horns on this one. I don’t know why.
All the weed I smoked also influenced the way I thought about creativity in general. Enhancement seemed improvement. All the pop culture messages confirmed that you wanted to “expand” your consciousness and “enhance” your perceptions. As a stereotype, we artists were freaks, messy, and broke. We dressed weird, looked weird, listened to weird music, and the artist archetypes were stoned, hungover, mopey, depressed, tripping on acid—often all the above. So many of the early-90s bands that I loved fed me these archetypes. For me, art and liberation meant mushrooms and LSD. A lot of bands made tripping look downright healthy.
Incredible bands like The Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers let psychedelics shape their music. To me that seemed fun. The Meat Puppets drew weird lysergic creatures on their show flyers which appealed to the adolescent sketch artist in me, so I collected them. They took acid and went into the desert that surrounded Phoenix, where I lived. And somehow they performed on acid.
I was a huge Meat Puppets fan in 1994. These bands’ output also validated acid’s creative capabilities and the way it could accompany a working life in the arts. Acid might ruin some peoples’ minds, but it seemed to enable others, and they weren’t just fine, they were thriving. They were on MTV for god’s sake! If acid could help create songs like “Goofy’s Concern” and “Oh, Me,” then get me some.
At age 19, I was all about getting ripped. I loved the idea of partying. I loved how it felt. I loved where weed and mushrooms took us on weekends. We loved taking mushrooms with the rallying cry Let’s go blow our minds! The phrase screamed interdimensional rebellion, and I loved how much partying pissed off adults here on earth. Mostly I craved freedom. I looked to bands to validate this. Did those lyrics allude to tripping? Did those hip-hop artists mention bongs? I wasn’t attracted to the idea of druggie vacancy. I didn’t think junkies looked cool or romanticize alcoholics like Jack Kerouac. I wanted drugs to stimulate me creatively and to amplify what earthly experience could be. LSD seemed the ultimate experience. I still hesitated to take it.
Acid in the ’60s was legendarily strong. But in the early ’90s, you still heard all these terrifying stories about regular kids who used to love cooking Christmas dinner with their grandma but who tripped so frequently that they could no longer leave their bedroom. According to lore, some neighborhood dude’s metalhead brother used to sell doses at high school but had cracked and now lived in a catatonic state. My parents were loving, generous people. I couldn’t make them take care of me if I ended up a vegetable. They already worked too hard to raise and pay for me in the condition I was in. I wanted to trip. I didn’t want to ruin my mind. I liked my mind. That’s why I wanted to trip. Drugs + my mind = some interesting stuff. But were experiences worth the risk of ruination? Could I expand my mind and have the looser version back at the end of the night? People made acid sound so unpredictable. One trip, they said, and he never came back. People said that about cocaine, too: One snort and your heart could stop. I heard about this guy who had a heart attack the first time he did a line. I was horrible at math, but that ratio of risk-to-reward seemed to lean in the house’s favor, so I resisted. Friends dropped acid. I hit the bong and took mushrooms. This went on through high school and into my first year of college. We’d be at parties and people would whisper: Doses? I’d say No thanks. If only I had that capacity to say no to everything else in the coming years. But here’s the thing: I liked taking risks as much as I liked new experiences. I routinely courted danger. When new experiences required risk, the combo was especially attractive. It couldn’t be that dangerous, I thought. How else would these musicians have survived after taking so much? This psychedelic frontier seemed no different than longboarding alone down a huge steep hill with no protective pads. Chances were good that I’d come back limping, but I’d still come back. I did it all the time.
Turns out, The Meat Puppets didn’t just love acid. They loved The Grateful Dead.
“They’re one of my favorite bands, flat out, and I wouldn’t be where I am without The Dead showing us that rock ‘n’ roll is about attitude and really caring about something wholeheartedly without caring at all,” Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood said. “It’s kind of like, we were into pot and LSD, and it wasn’t really around in the punk rock scene when we first came around. People were maybe more into crank or something. I don’t know, making Meat Puppets I—parts of it are exceedingly fast and screeching shit—but it ain’t straightforward punk rock at all, it’s our own version of it. Then we also did Sons of the Pioneers’ ‘Tumbling Tumbleweed’ on that and ‘Walking Boss’ from Doc Watson. We were willing to go to different places and we showed a side of ourselves that took everybody by surprise, but it was also profession. There’s the influence from The Dead in doing what the fuck we want to do. We were always kind of the outcast hippies of the punk rock scene anyways, you know.” Whatever The Meat Puppets said was gospel to me, so if I would have heard a Kirkwood say that while was in college, I would’ve reassessed my opinions, even if I wasn’t ready to hear the message. To them, the punks and hippies had a lot more in common than I believed. “On a smaller scale, I think the punk rock thing was similar to the hippie movement. It was just kind of like this artistic movement that happened, so you would get this symbiosis between the band and the audience. At a point there were quite a few years where you could just tell, man this room is lit up and so are we, and we’ll see where it goes. I think The Dead had that kind of relationship with their crowd. It’s not necessary, but if it happens it can make for some really colorful shit.”
The fact is, even though I’d heard The Dead’s hit “Touch of Grey” on MTV, and I’d loved Meat Puppets versions of Dead songs before I knew they were the Dead’s, I’d never listened to them closely. I rejected the band because I loathed The Dead’s whole cheap, hand-drawn skull and bear aesthetic. I hated all the shirtless wiggling dancers at Dead shows, twirling and writhing around, so I hated the band by extension. It was unfair. You can’t hate a band you’ve never really heard. I’d convinced myself of that old joke: “What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off? ‘This music sucks.’” No band is their fans. Their biographer Dennis McNally later called all that ancillary stuff “distractions.” It definitely was for me, so until middle age, I missed the addictive magic of songs like “Althea” and “Cassidy.” And I missed The Dead’s pioneering ideas about art and commerce and living, and I failed to appreciate them as psychedelic pioneers with adventurous ideas I could actually relate to. And man, was I wrong about Jerry. Jerry had good ideas. He was a flawed mess, but he was brilliant in how he played music and thought about the musical experience. I only realize that now.
“I got to watch [The Dead] a few times from the side of the stage, which was a real fucking treat,” Cris Kirkwood said. “Meat Puppets have been around for a while and it’s just music and we’re just people, but there’s a few people that really stick out for me and Jerry Garcia was definitely one of them. I remember here in Phoenix one time as they were walking off stage and he walked right in front of me and we made eye contact and he was just like, ‘Hey man!’”
If only I’d heard this story in 1994! How different things would be. But my focus was on LSD. And my love of the Puppets and Butthole Surfers reinforced a sense of creative freedom and adventure. And even though all roads actually led back to The Grateful Dead, for me back then, it all seemed to lead back to LSD.
The Flaming Lips seemed soaked in LSD.
There were tracers inked onto scenes in The Lips’ “Christmas” video and colorful polka dots dusted across other images and album covers. There were song titles like “Ceiling Is Bendin’” and “Fryin’ Up,” lyrics about perception (“Makes a mountain peak seem little when it’s not.”), sideways observations (“Something in you, it jitters like a moth.”) and beautiful nonsense:
Well, it’s midnight in a liquor store
In Texas on Halloween
Salvador Dali watches
From his window in a dream
Jesus is a rock star
Who destroys all he sees
Godzilla is a cowboy
Who is dressed up as a queen
Singing surrealist scenarios like the one in “Slow Nerve Action”:
She had a cool invisible
Dog that she called Paul
We’d always sit around her house
Watchin’ her feed the dog
According to band lore, the back cover of their 1991 single Yeah, I Know It’s A Drag...Wastin’ Pigs Is Still Radical is a photo of drummer Richard English’s eye taken when he was frying on acid. The flyer for their 1996 show at Slim’s in San Francisco said “All freaks, all satanic,” followed by “Peace through PCP Love & Death.” They’d named a song “Drug Machine in Heaven.” Never mind the title Clouds Taste Metallic—in three words they suggested everything without saying anything: acid, acid, acid. Why else was the bassist always wearing sunglasses?
Coyne and Ivins supposedly experimented with sleep deprivation while recording their second album. Experimentation was supposedly what art school was all about, even if we were just playing dress-up.
To test drugs capabilities, I drew on mushrooms. I wrote school papers stoned and wrote song melodies stoned. Most turned out badly. Drugs scrambled my organizational abilities enough to interrupt my ability to complete art projects and give them internal coherence, leaving my mind in an aimless overdrive, what The Meat Puppets’ song called “Confusion Fog.” As The Grateful Dead’s early tour manager, Sam Cutler, said: “If you give acid to people, and you ask them to paint, or do creative things, they mostly produce absolute chaos.” My experiments proved that. But then I’d listen to Ronald Jones’ antsy, squiggling guitar scratching in the song “Be My Head” and it made me want to trip so hard.
Turns out, few members of The Lips did drugs.
“I don’t really like taking drugs,” Coyne told Louder Sound in 2017, after releasing their fifteenth studio album, Oczy Mlody. “I would never take drugs then sit down and try to mix a song or anything like that. I would absolutely never do that. I only take recreational drugs to have fun and escape from what I’m stressing out about.” If I had read that in the ’90s my mind would have exploded. Didn’t like taking drugs? How could anyone sober create music so weird? Turns out that the band’s lysergic aesthetic was really a weirdo aesthetic. I had conflated the two. Coyne’s warped vision was natural. “There have been a lot of coincidences of people taking drugs and making great albums,” he said, “but I bet if you went scientifically down the line and said, ‘Let’s take all the records made by people who have taken drugs while they were making records’, I think it would probably be 50 billion to three—most of them don’t work.”
That statement challenges decades of stereotypes about creativity and inspiration. It’s a statement as bold as his music. It’s also true.
When Louder Sound asked Coyne for an example of an album where taking drugs actually worked, he said, “Well, I think probably as much as we can know, the first Syd Barrett album, but I don’t know if that was when he was really taking drugs or whether it was what opened his mind up to be able to take drugs.”
No matter how much acid Coyne may or may not have eaten in his youth, by his band’s earliest days, he was on a natural trip.
Oklahoma University DJ David Fallis booked The Lips to play in 1983, ’84, and ’85. “They would throw parties,” Fallis said in Staring at Sound, “and it would always be like a mental institution—there would be this insane cast of alcoholics, drug addicts, sober guys, a religious guy handing out hemp—and Wayne and Mike were always just stone sober and very hospitable. They were ambitious, but it wasn’t articulated. It was just clear that they were coming from somewhere else.”
“Drugs are just one small portion of what I hope is just a bigger, you know, awakening to ideas and music and art and expression,” Coyne told one interviewer. Drugs weren’t the point. The music was.
Even as an artist, drugs didn’t enhance Coyne’s creativity. They diminished it. The Verve sang about the law of diminishing returns in their 1995 song “The Drugs Don’t Work.” It took me a long time to experience that same lesson: You can be imaginative, warped, and original by refining your own inherent faculties through discipline and practice. But eventually my over-indulgence left me reexamining my ideas about creativity enough to take a different approach to harnessing my brain. As my friend Jeff wrote in my senior year high school yearbook: “Take care of your brain—it’s more valuable than you think.” And as The Lips’ song put it: “Love Yer Brain.” Drugs works for some people. For most of us, there is no quick external source of creativity.
For a singer who challenged convention, Coyne still didn’t mind letting you think he took drugs. The Lips’ visual aesthetic was as much their art as their music, and it’s the nature of art to invite the viewer to determine what the art means. That’s a subjective process. Because of the age when I found The Lips, we met at the intersection of my inebriation and ignorance, so I projected my own limited knowledge of the world and my youthful habits onto the blank canvas of these musicians. “You can be my head,” Coyne sang on Transmissions. “Oh, they’ve eaten this one, putting swirls in this giant hole.” But intoxicated teenagers like me painted those lyrics with our own colors.
When Coyne sang “Turn it on! Turn it on and all the way up!” he was urging you to drop what you thought you knew and what you’d been told, and to quit being constricted by society’s narrow ideas about good/bad/weird/normal/cool/lame—at least that’s what I got from that song. As much as my parents encouraged me to find my true self, and as supportive as they were of my drawing and intellectual activities—they paid for my undergraduate education, for Christ’s sake, and put up with my bullshit—I also needed actual working freaks to model myself after people I admired, people who spoke my language, people who I could become. Drummer Drozd developed a heroin addiction in the mid-90s, but he was the band’s exception.
Despite my embrace of teenage party life, I was the last person in my friend group to take acid. We drank lots of beer during my second half of high school. We smoked too much weed. Acid scared me. Tripping didn’t. Tripping sounded fun. I didn’t trust the potential price of admission.
Finally, one night in early 1994, after my best friends’ pit of an apartment, I took a hit of cheap blotter acid and settled into their couch to watch Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic JFK. It seems an intense choice for a first acid experience, but circumstance delivered it to us. The movie had been the talk of the town. Controversy and popularity put it in front of us that night, so we watched. I sunk into those filthy couch cushions for two straight hours and didn’t move as the acid gripped and amplified all that was already warped and confusing about this movie: the narrative, the implications, all that Oliver Stone was suggesting. Was it real? Were these ideas in my head the acid talking? Whatever it was, the confusion was awesome. If this was acid, I wanted more.
I only ever took acid six or seven times total, because as fun as it was, I didn’t like the way the chemicals kinked my back and scrambled my head coming down. Psychedelic mushrooms were far superior, so I ate shrooms more times than I can count. And I took them in 2016, too. And I plan to take them again.
In the early-90s, The Lips always seemed to be having so much fun: spraying each other with the artificial snow machine in their video; playing a show in a motel room; jumping on the hotel bed while Steven Drozd played drums in the corner and his set fell apart. Bassist Michael Ivins was trying to sleep—with his sunglasses on. No matter how straitlaced and stern-faced Ivins seemed, he was laughing inside, always the straight man. Everyone around him was off their rocker. And singer Coyne was clearly always having the time his life, apparently happy by nature, but probably also grinning because here he was making a living writing songs like “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles” and standing on national late-night television singing about a dude who puts Vaseline on his toast. Who needed psychedelics when that was your life? Reality was warped enough. I eventually figured that out, too.
Where the easy interpretation was drugs, other Lips lyrics gave me pause: “I’ve been born before, I’m getting used to it, brain dead is where it all ends.” Maybe it was an illusion to reincarnation? It sounded like he was referencing the morning after an acid trip, or maybe the braindead feeling of partying too much in general: “In the beginning, your arms are out to God, you feel reborn, but once it ends, you always feel depleted.” That hit home. Was he saying that drugs seem like enlightenment but are exhausting and illusory? Maybe he’d surrounded himself with enough drug users to know this story too well. As Coyne sang on Transmissions: “The bone is cracked and the cracked eggshells fly / And your number is backwards again when you drive / The whole thing’s removed when you’re 22 / When you’re 22.”
By 1995 at age 20, I cut my long hair and shaved my head.
The word selfie didn’t exist, but the idea did. I used a tripod and timer to take my picture in locations in the desert for my photography class. With time, my shaved head grew into a weird feathery ’70s type thing that matched my ’70s surf tees and huge mutton chop sideburns.
By then, while I was eating at the co-op and jamming “Turn It On,” The Lips were touring as openers for Candlebox. Despite the bands’ musical differences, Candelbox—this horrible Grunge copycat band—offered The Lips good money to open for them, and they needed the publicity. Look at that on paper: The Lips, one of the most innovative, free-thinking, genre-defying bands opened for a straight up Pearl Jam copycat that a record label singed when they were all signing what they hoped was the next Pearl Jam. Not surprisingly, the Candelbox audience didn’t always get The Lips. They did perk up during “Jelly,” though.
“Candelbox sucked,” said Lips roadie Dick Smart, “and everyone knew they would have their 15 minutes and then evaporate. Here The Flaming Lips are slogging away opening for this shit band for two months, and their fans could give a shit about The Flaming Lips. It was really bad and just very, very depressing.”
Coyne didn’t mind.
“It’s not so bad, really,” he told Option after playing with Candelbox at the Fresno County Fair. “I prefer this to doing heavy metal crowds, like Stone Temple Pilots. Those people were completely boneheaded. But these kids could easily have good record collections five years from now. Anyway, it’s not meant for us. It’s like Barney, or religion—if you don’t need it, you don’t need it.”
My friends didn’t need it. Together we listened to Monster Magnet, Tribe Called Quest, Siamese Dream, and Bad Brains. Transmissions was my private music for drawing and art school. I listened alone.
Personal computers were still new back when I took my 1995 computer class, and I drew faces instead of taking notes. “Assignment #11,” my notebook read, “On hard drive, find icon of ‘FM Pro 2.1,’ double click on it, open up FM Pro disk, click on new, name it ‘assignment 11.’” On a neighboring page, I practiced creating the texture of a three-dimensional human face using values instead of lines. I’d learned that technique in my first studio drawing class. Computers could never replace the human touch.
I draw desert mountains. I drew cactus. I drew my beloved VW Bug.
When assignments were due, I often sat in my local park, near my friends’ and my childhood skate spot called The Wedge, and I drew the same trees, drucks, and low overpasses I’d known since I moved to my neighborhood in 5th grade. Art school was fun, because formal training provided me concepts and techniques that complimented what I’d taught myself, especially about drawing with shades, not lines. Life doesn’t contain lines. Our eyes don’t see lines. They see values, shades of gray. That revolutionized my thinking about two-dimensional versus three-dimensional representation. With that, I shed my childhood view of the world.
While my high school friends studied at California colleges, I stayed in my old neighborhood but saw it in a whole new way.
My drawings had become complex and wide-ranging in style, and looking at them made me proud in a way I didn’t feel about other things in life. Look, I thought, I’m actually skilled something. Drawings covered my bedroom walls. I hung my favorites up like I was curating my own museum. Surrounding myself with them, I could take in the totality of my output, the evidence that I could do more than wile away the days. My pride didn’t give me confidence in my future. Like many 20-somethings, everything still felt uncertain.
I’d grown comfortable in the eclectic art department. Some art students were quiet. Some were pretentious. I talked skating with some and bonded with others who wore equally odd shirts they’d also found in thrift stores. My 3D Design teacher was a huge Throwing Muses fan and played them for us in class, and she turned me on to bands like Superchunk. But sitting in those class circles critiquing each other’s 3D design work, I saw myself objectively: a fresh out of high school art student wearing red Converse All-Stars and wrap-around sunglasses to hide my eyes. Was I a cliché? Creativity was my thing. That would never change, but a profound personal change felt imminent.
At the time, my creative impulse had started searching for new outlets, and my attachment to drawing gradually began to loosen, shifting to new things college introduced me to: ecology, environmentalism, off-trail hiking, and narrative writing.
My mom had suggested I take Geology 101 as my freshman science elective. She’d loved it and thought I might, too. As an intro class, it was located in a giant semicircular lecture hall where the professor stood so far away that I don’t remember what he looked like, but the subject’s impact was profound. Class concepts were alive everywhere in the dry desert mountains around Phoenix: metamorphic rocks; visible bands of sediments exposed on cliff faces; a caldera complex visible on the eastern edge of town; igneous rocks everywhere, pink and black and encrusted with lichen, something marked with petroglyphs. Mom was right. I loved this class. I paid attention. I took copious notes. And I hiked to see examples of what the professor lectured about. Unlike art history which seemed static, the geological and biological sciences were alive everywhere I looked, and that class changed the course of my life, directing my gaze outward, away from beer and parties and friends, and into the larger world—the Earth we lived on and abused; the desert we inhabited; the vast cosmos beyond—and that revealed the filaments that connected everything, which psychedelics further illuminated. Everything in the world was connected, and beneath the visible surface lay layers of meaning and fractal designs to discern. Discovering this exciting world of ecology, environmentalism, and off-trail hiking only complicated my career path further.
I often sat in the shade outside various campus building, watching normal-looking students pass by, pitying their normalcy while envying what I imagine accompanied it, and I dreaming about my future. What would I do? I often scribbled plans in my notebooks, working through my options and forging potential career paths that combined art, nature, and adventure. I wanted to work outdoors now. Did that make me a park ranger or a biological scientist? Then how did the drawing thing fit? Shit, man. I could draw anything, but I couldn’t sketch my own future. Shading worked in portraiture, but when drafting career plans, the hazy edges scared me. I needed hard, clear lines here. Career specifics faded into larger existential questions about the meaning of work and life itself, because as John Muir wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” And he never even took acid.
Sometimes I sketched campus while I sat.
Mostly I daydreamed. “Sell my art through stores,” I scribbled in one 1994 sketchpad, “make money to travel, paint, kick back/relax, enjoy the scenery.” Even at age 19 I struggled with the nature of creativity and its effect on my life, an issue I struggle with now at 46. “Are you born an artist?” I wrote in that same sketchbook. “How has art changed my life? Does it hinder or inspire?”
The same went for work. What made a career: financial stability or personal satisfaction? Just doing what you should do or managing to get paid doing what you loved? I didn’t want wealth. I wanted something meaningful in life. Not stifling office work, not mediocrity, not predictable days stretched out till infinity. I wanted something that stimulated my intellect, that harnessed my abilities rather than rewarded me for obedience to a corporate master, something that made each day interesting.
The idea of spending my days in what I always envisioned as a fluorescent-lit office cubicle became my vision of personal failure. That was the cage that would kill my spirit. But at the root of that notion was the idea of predictability: I didn’t want to know what each day would bring when I woke up. I loathed regularity. I wanted life to surprise me, the way adventuring in nature surprised me, how you never knew what was over the next hill, never knew what wild animal you’d encounter off-trail, or what mid-century beer bottle or Hohokam pottery shard you’d find sticking out of the dirt, so you kept walking, often for hours, with no clear plan except to wander. If time was our most valuable asset, why squander it working just to make money and a fat retirement? What about the value of experience? Retirees can’t adventure like kids my age could, when our bodies work and our minds fire at maximum creative capacity in a world that’s fresh and new. The time to live was now, not later. One day I’d be too decrepit to do that, too dulled to make the best art I could in my youth. At 20, it was hard to imagine myself as old, but in my father’s face, I saw my future. “Yeah, so if it’s sad,” The Flaming Lips sang, “Well you still gotta live till ya die.”
This college campus was huge, but the cosmos stretched infinitely. The Earth itself was large enough to elude understanding, which made it its own kind of universe. You could explore our world forever and barely see a fraction. That’s why I kept exploring the desert outside of Phoenix. It was exciting. That’s how I wanted to spend my days: feeling excited. Was I being naïve? Driving back into the city after a desert solo adventure, everything seemed so mundane. Spanish class, Subway sandwiches, the DMV—it was all so earthly. Was this all there was? Did other 20-somethings crave a life of adventure and excitement?
I cursed the normal looking students. Fuck you business majors! It must all be so easy having a clear career path head of you!
Feeling between things was lonely. On Transmissions, Coyne sings: “Hey, what were ya thinkin’ / When they were startin’ the show / Yeah, I was there / But I didn’t care at all / I was tryin’ to find you / When you got lost in the crowd.” That was me. Those lyrics felt like one hand reaching for another, being surrounded by people I was unable to reach. ASU had 30,000 students, and I barely talked to any of them. They passed, and I scribbled in my notebooks, wishing I could connect but ensuring I failed to. I felt comfortable on the fringes. I also craved some community. Was I too far out? I didn’t make it easy to belong. I found issues with everyone on campus: Those people were too sporty. Those people were too hippie. The art students were too serious. The science students weren’t much fun. I couldn’t find the right mix. Fellow stoners proved too granola. Other skaters weren’t sufficiently intellectual. The intellectuals in science classes were either nerds who didn’t rock ‘n’ roll or were too REI-looking for what I believed was my cool guy style. I built barriers about cliques. The irony was that my mindset gave me a lot more in common with the original beatniks and proto-hippies than I would realize until middle age!
“Everybody got turned on to pot during this period and loved it,” Jerry Garcia once said about his San Francisco days preceding The Grateful Dead. “You know, it seemed like people were losing faith in this reality. Like, this can’t be all there is. There’s just not enough to it. There’s just not enough to it, and it’s not that interesting, and it doesn’t require enough of me. It is not a challenge. It isn’t enough fun, you know?” I thought the same way at age 20. It’s a shame LSD didn’t dissolve more of my ego so I could embrace The Dead’s subversive approach sooner and find more campus cohorts. Because The Dead touched everything on ’90s college campuses, that didn’t leave many people to befriend.
It turns out, that most Deadheads were these devoted, adventure-seeking, music-loving people who dropped out of regular society to follow their tribe. I didn’t yet see the parallel, but I was doing that, too. I didn’t yet see that the Deadheads’ devotion was the same as my devotion to my bands. I didn’t recognize our same shared spirit of adventure. I didn’t see that it all came from the same place, even if the object of our musical affection was different. I wanted to dismiss them as lost burnouts, but I probably only focused on that because I feltlike a lost burnout myself. I was so off-base. I would never be a hippie, but I had deeply hippie things in me, and beyond that narrow, restrictive, dismissive term was, the larger truth was that we were all just bohemians. Adventurers. Outsiders trying to make our own way. One and the same. That’s all. Or as Jerry Garcia once described his fans: “They are people who are strong enough to seek adventure in this new lame America.”
As I spent my days scheming a life that avoided predictability, unbeknownst to me, Jerry Garcia had built his life around that same idea. He never wanted to play the same thing twice. He wanted adventure, novelty, exploration in his music, and his music was his life. He said he was almost constitutionally incapable of playing the same parts. Improvisation embodied the way he lived. It was all about fun, freedom, and embracing the moment. Had I heard them back in the day it would’ve shocked me how precisely he’d articulated what I’d felt. When Jerry told this idea to Dead guitarist Bob Weir, Weir agreed: If you’ll never be remembered when you’re dead, anyway, why not just have fun? Had I heard that in college, I would’ve given an “Amen.” I never thought I’d be quoting Jerry, but damn. Unlike him, I got over this particular fear. You can’t run from some regularity. Regularity is part of life. It’s inherent in nature. The sun rises and sets the same way every day, and parts of your life can feel okay that way, too.
I may not have dropped much acid, but I ate a lot of shrooms, and that stuff opened me up wide in a way that never closed. The psychedelic experience showed me the realm of possibility, and really, anything was possible—like coming to love The Grateful Dead. And like loving the hippie parts of myself, and embracing my growth away from drawing toward something new.
I started reading about natural history books and guides so I could learn the names of native plants, insects, and animals, and I eventually found nature writers like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and Charles Bowden. As my attention shifted to the natural world and the way humanity fit into it, I started writing school papers like “Why Unsustainable and Environmentally Harmful Ways of Making a Living Are Unethical” (B+), exploring the philosophical essence of capitalism and Greek notions of love and, and my lifelong drawing habit transitioned to a writing habit and a reading habit. Stories became my new medium, and books became my constant companion. Eventually I’d get a minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a major in Philosophy, and I’d become a writer who told stories instead of sketched them. One day coworkers would nickname me Nature Boy, and all the drawings I showed people were ones from years past. This marked the beginning of my new worldview, one shaped by science and my countless hours in wilderness, and I became an environmentalist. I’m still an environmentalist. It all started freshman year, in a class led by a teacher whose face I don’t remember.
Language didn’t initially interest me as a medium the first two years of college. Writing was work you did for school. You wrote papers and school assignments, and that was a drag. But because I come from a family of country storytellers, family gatherings were always filled with wild yarns and funny anecdotes. Inevitably, I wanted to learn to tell stories, too, and that set the stage for the narrative arts. For now I was a drawing major, still hanging on to this piece of my previous creative identity.
For now, my priorities were on display on to-lists like this: “MASTER PLAN: (1) Get bearings + wheels for new deck. (2) Make downhill boards this Saturday. (3) Figure out ASU Sierra Club thing.”
In the spring of ’95, my sophomore year, I took Photography 101 and I loved it. I inherited my grandfather’s two cameras when he died: an automatic and a manual 35mm. Photography was a very different two-dimensional medium than drawing, which made it fun to learn. It also liberated me from a desk and set me off into the world, where my interest in Googie architecture and decaying things led me to photograph old motels in Phoenix’s red light district, and my love of Nature sent me into the desert, exploring the way civilization and wilderness intersected. It was exciting to go out in the world, rather than into the spaces between graphite smears on paper. I jumped fences. I snuck into boarded up motels and drove questionable two-lane tracks through the desert where I occasionally had to dig my car tires out of sand. Having a camera made me feel like I had a mission. I needed a mission.
Initially I felt more comfortable outdoors or at a rock show than on college campus. But I soon found how much I belonged on campus. Not with other students. Not with school clubs or groups. I found the solitary library stacks. I found the quiet library study halls and corner cubicles by the windows, and I settled in reading, writing, and dreaming. Psychedelics expanded my mind, but not as much as my own weird version of education did. Time alone with books and in lecture halls was my greatest expansion. Rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelics, and formal education grew me together, working in tandem to create the kind of genre-defying mélange that The Flaming Lips set as a standard to aspire to.
However similar college initially felt to high school, college proved way more interesting, and that had little to do with my social circle and everything to do with college’s intellectual and creative opportunities. College culture was definitely not my thing—the sports bars, football games, gym, and frats. I didn’t jive with that. I endured it. I found my own college life, and it was in the world of ideas. Turns out that college wasn’t about transcripts and GPAs and all those performance metrics. It was a time to challenge yourself intellectually, to actually learn stuff, because universities offered you a brief time in life in an environment where you could truly explore your interests, your world, and your mind, with learned specialists, and see how they all intersected to form both a worldview. I hadn’t anticipated that! I was home at last. Now if I could only stop smoking so much weed, I could make even better use of my time on campus. Getting stoned erected even bigger barriers to connecting with people on campus. I wanted to let people in. But I couldn’t get past my adolescent ideas about hippies and other cliques.
The original hippie ethos was to love everyone. As the Youngbloods sang in 1967: “Come on, people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another right now.” At 19 and 20, I didn’t want to love everyone. People sucked, I told myself. Most of ’em could fuck off. I thought it felt good to hate some people. People had quit “balling” and “being groovy” and paying for things with “bread” long ago, I told myself. That ’60s shit was dead. But was it? If hope springs eternal, then love does, too. The Age of Aquarius was over, but revolutionary ideas never ended. Neither did the need to be loved and accepted. Something had turned me, and I was a little scared of how it was changing me, scared of it softening my exterior and making me let go of the rough punk ass I had been.
In March 1994, The Grateful Dead played three consecutive shows at Phoenix’s giant Desert Sky Pavilion. My friends and I decided to go one night to buy drugs in the parking lot, which was an infamous open-air bizarre of homemade food, art, clothing, and drugs. Obviously, we weren’t going inside the venue to hear the music. We came for the carnival and the drugs it gave us access to.
Apparently by 1994, Jerry had had access to heroin and cocaine for way too long, and it had taken its toll. The band had tried intervention with him, but heroin proved stronger than anything else, and Jerry kept using. According to their drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir, “Garcia appeared tired and increasingly disoriented during shows” by 1994. Jerry would nod off at the microphone. He’d forget lyrics and lose his place in the song, having no choice but to hum along. By this time, the band had been around for 29 years. They got inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’94, too. But they only had a year left in their life.
My friends and I parked far from the venue and walked seemingly forever through the chilly desert night, walked past VWs, Econoline vans, giant school buses painted crazy colors, alongside regular earthly cars, and then there it was: Hordes of hippies swarming the inner parking lot. We entered the miasma, and it didn’t stink like armpit the way I’d expected. Instead, it was feast of the eyes. Cris Kirkwood remembered that the first thing he saw when he went to his first Dead show, around 1981, was “a naked man being chased by the police.” He thought: This just fits fucking perfectly. For us it was prep school Deadheads mixing with filthy dreaded Deadheads alongside jean-short college kids there to party—everyone was there. And as we searched for the people we thought would have the best psychedelics, passersby whispered “Doses,” they passed carrying signs requesting concert tickets, passed carrying handfuls of food for sale. I bought a veggie burrito from a little girl who hung a cardboard box filled with food from her neck. A friend traded his deceased grandmother’s vintage, expensive, Navajo squash blossom necklace for liquid mushrooms that turned out to be bunk. Other friends bought weed and acid. We wandered around. We sat on a parking block and waited for the acid to kick in. Finally our money and bartering goods were gone, then we left. It was unbelievable. How did the cops not shut this down? Or the city for sanitation violations?
A year later, in August 1995, I’d slept at my friend Dean’s apartment in Flagstaff. Flagstaff was Deadhead central. A crunchy hippie vibe rules. I’d woken up unexpectedly early, and as Dean slept, I sat in his living room chair and smoked my first bong hit. As I held the bong between my legs readying the second, someone knocked on the back door.
A guy stood there on Dean’s balcony, staring at me through the glass. I was too stoned to make sense of it, and of course, I was holding this bong, so I mouthed something like, “Yes, who are you?” He muttered something I couldn’t hear. When I opened the door, he said he was the neighbor. He’d jumped over his balcony onto ours.
“Bad news,” he said. “Jerry’s dead.”
I stared at him a while, wondering if this was one of Dean’s friends, that maybe I should wake Dean up to tell him. The kid’s eyes drilled into me, reaching inside for something. Finally, I said, “Jerry who?” He looked like I’d punched him.
“I don’t know any Jerries,” I said. “Fill me in.”
He said: “Garcia.”
“Oh,” I said, “him, I’m sorry to hear that.” But I didn’t care about Jerry Garcia. As we looked at each other, the cultural chasm became clear. I wondered: Should I let this kid in? Would a bong-hit help?
He was visibly distraught. Clearly the loss gutted him. The asshole teen part of me would have laughed once he left, like, Oh, your hippie god is dead. Now who will you follow? The other part of me sympathized deeply because I understood the loss. Music meant everything to me, too. When our musical gods die, they take part of our life with them. When Jane’s Addiction broke up the first time in 1991, I was gutted. When Cobain had died the previous year, it crushed my friends and I. When the Meat Puppets changed their lineup after drugs sidelined their bassist, it crushed me even more. When Soundgarden quit performing in 1996, it was a hard pill to swallow. It seemed fitting that I was high for this news. Jerry stayed high most of his life. And the look in this kid’s eyes suggested that I was the one missing the truth about Jerry’s musical gifts and the scale of his loss, not the Deadheads.
He said he’d come back when Dean got up, then he leapt back over the balcony. That night, Flagstaff’s streets filled with drum circles, revelers, and fans mourning the end of their long strange trip. Because when Jerry died, the endless tour ended with him. He’d started the band. He was the frontman, no matter how much he tried to shirk that responsibility and keep things non-hierarchical. Deadheads were hurting, but at least they had each other.
When asked if he remembered where he was when Jerry died, Cris Kirkwood said, “I actually do, yeah. There are a few of those demises that stick in your mind. I was in bed and my girl came in and told me. That’s all. I remember that moment. I mean, what do you do when somebody passes away, it’s like, that’s it they’re gone. I realized from reading the Garcia [biography] that I’m now older than Garcia was when he died, so he wasn’t a very fucking old guy and it’s just a goddamn shame. Considering he was in a facility when he passed away, it was pretty disheartening because you would think somebody would have been monitoring him more. Rest in peace.”
That’s how I feel now. Jerry was special. He had more life to live.
Back in the desert far from Flagstaff, I resumed my life with The Lips. Little things told you who The Lips were: a white sasquatch sticker on their guitar; random pointless arrows made of tape on their amp; a strip of duct-tape attached to Coyne’s shirt sleeve; a bright yellow happy face on the back of their leather jacket. Things that weren’t necessarily cool, they made cool. And the ways they decorated themselves communicated their love of the warped and wacky, and made parts of the 1960s new again.
Sixties kids used the term ‘afterglow’ for “the state of peace that can follow after a psychedelic experience when your mind is still detached from worldly concerns.” He’s bathing in the afterglow of his LSD trip. My time hiking in the wilderness gave me that same feeling. There was something there, something worth examining more closely, with or without acid.
It all converged in a way I didn’t see for years. Beyond the confining hippie and punk and artist and Naturist categories, maybe the right word was bohemian. Or better yet: free.
The same month that someone made a soundboard recording of The Lips’ playing an incendiary May 16, 1995 show at California’s Ventura Theater, I took acid with my friends. I don’t remember what we did. I just remember that after coming down from the acid that warm May night, I parked my Bug in front of my house and slipped through the front door, stepping quietly up the brown carpeted stairs to my second-story room so I didn’t have to talk to my parents like that. I was too amped to sleep yet, so I sat on my bed and drew.
All I had was a yellow legal pad and cheap Bic pens. The waves of lysergic chemicals swirled out in my head, and as the intensity calmed, I could engage with the physical world enough to capture some of what I saw on the other side. I saw spirals, whirlpools, waves, dark storm clouds, and faces blurred by gaseous edges, everything sculpted with the same kind of fractal infrastructure, both a result of the trip and revealed by it. These designs were there. They existed in Nature. The acid just made me concentrate more on them, so I sat on my bed while my parents slept downstairs, and I drew what swam in my head.
Like writing, drawing is refining. You make your first sketch, then you add to it, build it, and remove parts, so you create it in stages, not as one first impression. You don’t keep the initial attempt. Sketching is drawing quickly, where you add few details. To me, drawing was refining your sketch, really digging into your image and ideas to develop them with time. It’s a process of deepening. So I’d draw some spiraling things—a cloud formation or set of long expanding lines. I’d get lost in the details, feeling as if I was literally inside the cavernous space between the swirls of ink, as if I’d leaned my head inside these great atmospheric structures—and reshape the fine details, running my cheap pen over the lines again and again until I’d sculpted them into a form that I liked, like I was sculpting something three-dimensional, then I’d start a new drawing and chase another vision. I filled pages this way.
LSD wasn’t just for fun. It had the power to dissolve your ego, to rewire your brain, and to show you yourself so you could remake yourself. It changed you. In 1995, many forces converged to revolutionize me.
By age 20, I had spent so my years drawing so many different things in different places that I rarely remembered the circumstances around my favorite drawings’ creation. I never forgot this session. The act of drawing and experiencing a psychedelic state on my childhood bed permanently fused in my memory.
My family moved to this house when I was in fifth grade, so I’d experienced so many firsts in this room: first phone calls to girls I had crushes on; first time I wrote a full narrative story; first time I fell in love with literature; first time I masturbated; first time I passed out drunk. I’d grown into so many different people in here: from the Jewish school innocent to the middle school skate punk, the Depeche mode fan to the teenage driver to the stoned college kid. The room once held Star Wars toys and Smurf toys, then band posters and empty imported beer bottles. Now I was experiencing some otherworldly dark art.
Drawing had always been the thing that I did when I was excited and bored, dreaming or reaching, sad or lonely or trying to pass the time. Now I tried to capture an experience I had out of my body, in a place some people called “the spirit world,” or what Alice in Wonderland represented as the other side of the looking glass. I knew this was all in my mind, but capturing those ephemeral internal visions was a new creative challenge, which was fun. These things lived on the edge of awareness. How do you render a ghost? Or represent an idea? Especially one that changes while you experience it? So I sketched what I could barely see, and I drew to see where else my mind would go. I didn’t know it, but I was also approaching the end of my time as a visual artist, when I’d discover the wonders of writing and fall headlong into that art form in place of drawing two dimensions.
At some point I got tired, or my tripping mind quieted enough to sleep, so I hid the drawings wherever I hid things back then, and I crawled under the smooth cool sheets. I usually kept my drawings, but these were different enough to warrant preservation. They traveled through eras with me, so I could find them again at age 46 and try to understand what they revealed about my life. Like the drawings themselves, I’m not entirely sure, but they’re clear enough.
I may not have dropped acid again after that. I took tons of mushrooms, though.
The first page was freeform. I watched what my hands did and marveled—weird!—awestruck at what came out of me: smoke, clouds, swirls, little tight backwater eddies. Soon I got control of my hand and experimented. Each page was surprisingly different stylistically. Even on acid, I had the composure to explore, to exert some control. Motifs included: an arrow pointing into a hole in the cosmic fabric; a tired, sprawling galaxy relaxing one of its arms on itself; a creepy deconstructed Leprechaun face composed by lines, clouds, and a galaxy; another face composed as much by suggestion and negative space as by features; a mouth exhaling geometry instead of smoke.
The lines on the paper helped oriented me as my drawings swirled outward. That grid helped anchor me.
Artists know to look at both the larger, overall composition as well as up close at the brushstrokes and lines. The quality of my lines here varies. Some are confident and surprisingly straight. Some are shaky and agitated, wiggling as if lost. Others tangle into a nest like clumped hair and combine into an unsettling composite that seems disturbed.
These drawings were an eerie exploration of a mind inside a room that was once a place of innocence and purity. My life had become the same. It was time to move on.
In late 1995, I left all my friends in Phoenix to try life in Tucson, alone, indulging my interests in nature, books, and writing, and trying not to smoke weed. Drugs had taken hold of our friend group, and I wanted out. Our friend Jason had already joined the Navy to get out. In 1996, I managed a solid run of sober months and seemed to have figured it out—for a little while.
In the spring of 1996, The Lips were waiting for Warner to drop them from the label for poor record sales, and they were touring the U.S. for Clouds Taste Metallic, and they toured as the backing band for an Australian musician named Richard Davies. That was Ronald Jones’ idea. He loved Davies’ band The Moles.
The Lips played Slim’s in San Francisco.
They played Iowa.
They played Houston, Texas and Austin.
Unbeknownst to everyone else, guitarist Jones was considering quitting the band. He didn’t tell anyone yet. They toured and he pondered, but when Jones had the soundman record their May 24th Dallas show through the soundboard, it was probably because he wanted a document of a period of his life that he knew was ending.
The same night The Lips played Dallas, Sublime’s singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose out in California. Heroin had been decimating alternative rock’s ranks for years, and the toll had become undeniable by 1996. Lips drummer Steven Drozd had started regularly using heroin himself, and it unsettled Jones. Jones didn’t want to be around that, and some believe Drozd’s heroin use helped Jones decide to leave the band. Other tensions plagued the band.
Jones and Drozd grew competitive about getting their musical ideas on Clouds Taste Metallic. Jones wanted The Lips to be more weirdly psychedelic, where Drozd was leading them in a more class rock direction. Coyne had a habit of getting in debates about everything, from food to music to ideas, but it especially grated on the sensitive Jones when Coyne hassled him about his emerging interest in crystals, Rolfing, and spirituality. Jones had started on a kind of New Age journey after witnessing the Tibetan monks perform on the Lollapalooza tour, and it was meaningful to him. Now here Coyne was provoking him about it. “And on some real basic level,” Drozd said, “Ronald started to hate Wayne.”
Fame also came with many pressures. They’d exhausted themselves touring for two straight years behind Transmissions. Jones became uneasy with public performance. He seemed increasingly anxious on- and off-stage. He seems nervous on stage, head down, his face concealed by his thick dark hair. Jones hated traveling, especially with Drozd carrying illegal drugs across borders. “I understand that,” Drozd said in Staring at Sound, “but he also started becoming paranoid about weird shit that we just couldn’t understand. He really thought people were out to get him.”
That night in Dallas, Jones knew he was on his way out.
The Lips had a number of big festival shows scheduled in Europe later that summer, including Roskilde and the famous Reading. But in mid-June 1996, before they started rehearsing, Jones showed up at Drozd’s apartment, unannounced. “He didn’t call before, which I thought was kind of weird, because Ronald wasn’t the kind of guy to just show up,” Drozd said. “He had this little plastic bag, and in the bag was everything I’d ever given him, from a piece of paper with a little drawing on it making fun of something, to a cassette of the Tormato album by Yes, down to a little necklace. …He told me he didn’t want to see me anymore, and if I didn’t leave the band, he was leaving the band.”
Jones gave each member the same ultimatum while returning everything each member had ever given him.
Everyone was concerned but not surprised. They’d sensed tensions forming. “He was a very nice person, but difficult as a person to work with,” Coyne told The Oklahoman. “There was a lot of indecision and a lot of regret, and he was difficult to record with and to play with.”
They called the second band meeting in their history to sort things out.
Drozd offered to get sober and quit the band so that Jones could stay, but that was a bluff. “I don’t think I was being sincere,” Drozd said, “because I was enjoying the band too much, but that’s what I said. But Ronald decided, ‘I’ll do these last three festival shows, and that’s going to be it.’”
They played in Germany.
They played the Phoenix Festival in England in July, and they made one of the clearest recordings of this lineup that exists. Jones’ guitar accents on “She Don’t Use Jelly” are some of his best.
And on June 29th, 1996 they played at Roskilde Festival in Demark. Thankfully, their manager Scott Booker filmed it from the stage. It’s one of the most incendiary performances from this era.
Jones poured enormous energy into his playing in Europe. You can hear the band’s scorching levels of energy on the recordings. It sounded like he would leave on a high note, but the band fell apart at Reading.
As they took the stage at Reading on August 25, they knew that show was their last with Jones. They’d lost guitarists before, but Ronald was the best guitarist they’d ever had. What would they become without him? What they didn’t know was that, after what felt like their end, they would reemerge as a more experimental, electronic pop band with the 1997 album Zaireeka and 1999’s masterful The Soft Bulletin and get more famous than they’d ever been. But the band fell apart at Reading.
Ivins was so upset that he got drunk before the show and played very sloppily. “There’s just no excuse, but I guess his leaving really did affect me,” Ivins said in Staring at Sound. “I remember being as depressed as I can get.”
“There was something so depressing about it,” Drozd said in Staring at Sound. “Wayne was looking at me and Ronald with this look of contempt, and it was kind of a soul-destroying experience. And that was it—bam!—the last show with fucking Ronald Jones.”
BBC Radio 1 recorded the show and broadcast five of the songs, recording this moment in the band’s evolution.
They did a slow version of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” with Jones playing a softer version of the signature guitar line that made the song so memorable, and Drozd playing a toy piano instead of pounding drums. It’s a far cry from their raging version weeks earlier in England, but it’s a fitting goodbye. On first listen this version’s disappointing, like a missed opportunity for one last rager, but it’s a fitting ending to this era: a sad, quiet, shambling version of a loud song that defined an era, and a way to say that like everything else in life, this era had ended.
Reading was the last time the band played with two loud guitars out front.
When The Lips landed back in Oklahoma, Coyne was already playing with ideas about how to refine their approach.
So why did Jones leave?
“That part of it, I think, is still kind of a mystery, even to us,” Coyne told The Oklahoman. “He had another side of him that was very strange, and no one could predict...” Coyne described Jones as “a unique, innocent, strange child-man.” The period they recorded Clouds was great, said Coyne, “But [during the Clouds period] we also started to see the other side of Ronald Jones.”
Along with the challenges of working in the music industry, Jones may have suffered a stronger mood disorder. It’s all speculation. Jones has never spoken on record about his reasons for leaving, or even told the band, so they’ve made educated guesses.
Coyne: “I think he has this occasional bout with something that would be a mild schizophrenia. And I think it comes often enough that it sort of derails whatever has been going on in his life.”
Drozd: “We don’t really know that.”
Coyne: “We don’t know that, but that’s my guess. Because everyone who’s ever run into him has had some incident, where they were friends, there was trust, it was a normal thing, and then one day this person seems to be suddenly on the outside circle of Ronald’s trust anymore. And that, little by little, happened to everybody in The Flaming Lips.”
Drozd: “And everyone we know at this point, basically.”
Maybe that jagged, squealing guitar sound was the sound inside his head. Maybe the mind that made him such a unique guitar player was the one that made him so hard to be a band member.
“In general there was a crisis in the whole band of ‘Jesus, what are we going to do now?’” Ivins said. “It didn’t seem quite as easy to just find another guitarist. Bands were getting dropped left and right at this point, and the alternative thing was totally dying. That movie Spinal Tap is supposed to be a mockumentary,’ but to me it’s not funny; it’s reality. We worried that we’d end up being some 45-year-olds banging out some heavy-metal bullshit at the state fair, and we didn’t want to do that.”
“I mean, Ronald was very much on his own trip, which we loved,” Coyne said, “but I think it would be frustrating for him because he would want music to go in a completely other way.”
Coyne told Consequence of Sound:
At the time when he left, though, we really thought that he might come back anyway, you know? He was always fragile and strange, and we always thought that if he came back after six months, we will just pick up where we left off. He didn’t. We didn’t really think about it that much, and then before we knew it, a couple of records had gone by, and we thought, “Well, I guess he’s not coming back!”
Truth is, Ronald didn’t like playing out as much as we had to back then. We were playing all the time, and he didn’t like people recognizing him. We would play a show, and then afterwards people would want to talk to him, and he didn’t like that. It all just made him very awkward and uncomfortable. So, the more people knew about him playing music with us, the more torture he was subjected to. You could see he just had to find a way on his own, inside of his own brain. I had already been performing for a long, long time by then, and I didn’t really have the same dilemmas, you know? He was young. It was a lot to take in at the time. It was a shame that it didn’t work out, but he was difficult, too, you know! When he left, it opened up a sort of freedom that we didn’t really have before.”
The Lips returned home from Europe and considered their options.
“And then in the summer of ’96, as everything was changing,” Drozd told Pitchfork, “the alternative nation and Grunge and all that stuff, it seemed like that was on its last dying legs, Ronald our guitar player, quit. ...So when he left, it was almost like, Well, we can’t really get anybody that can replace him, so what are we gonna do?”
Producer Dave Fridmann told Pitchfork: “That left a huge hole psychologically and musically, into ‘What the hell are The Flaming Lips anymore?’”
As creative people, their minds went to many interesting places. In one sense, Jones’ departure was a loss. They could replace him with another loud guitarist, the way Jones had replaced Donahue in 1992. But why try to replicate their guitar sound? Every player would be a poor imitation. The other option was to treat the loss of lead guitar as a new formal challenge and reimagine themselves as a musical unit to see where they could take things without that guitar. Drozd played guitar, and piano, and drums. Maybe they didn’t need a lead guitar anymore? Maybe they could replace the guitar with other instruments? The loss didn’t have to be a loss if they treated it as a creative opportunity.
“I have to admit,” Coyne said, “there was a part of me that was relieved that Well, if he leaves, then we don’t have to continue on in that rock group way. Ronald leaving gave me this great excuse to be like, Hey! Why don’t we just do something completely absurd? Which is where the parking lot experiments came from.” It gave them the opportunity to become something else. Without their lead player, Coyne later set a rule: While recording The Soft Bulletin, no one could play guitars on it. That creative limitation forced them to expand in other musical directions, leaning on different instruments, experimenting with new sounds and song structures. The very ’90s guitar band was reborn as an avant-garde pop band, still psychedelic, but very different. When people ask what instrument Coyne plays, he started to say “he plays the studio.”
But where did Jones go?
He played guitar on Richard Davies’ 1998 album Telegraph. He did sound at an occasional local Oklahoma show, but he stayed away from his ex-band mates and the music business, and he’s never done interviews or spoken on the record about music with anyone since.
“We were very good friends, but by the end of the Telegraph album, I think I was starting to get on his nerves as well,” Davies said in Staring at Sound. “Ronald is a very sensitive soul, and his ability to create things goes completely with the fact that he’s a sensitive person. I think that the only way for him to get over living, breathing, and thinking about music pretty intensely for three or four years was to hit the stop button completely and turn off the stresses of dealing with the entertainment industry. That was his personality and his artistic sensibility, and because of that, he really only had a certain shelf life in the music world.”
After that, Jones disappeared.
Even though Jones quit The Lips, did he quit music entirely? Just because he no longer wanted to perform publicly in a famous band doesn’t mean he no longer wanted to play his guitar. He loved his guitar. He’d been obsessed with it since he was a teenager. The way he quit the band at the first peak of their fame was extreme. But did that mean he’d just abandon his guitar too?
Rumors circulated. Fans claimed they had Ronald sightings. Others searched Oklahoma City for him, to no avail. They shared their gossip online, but no clear answers emerged. Coyne said that maybe Jones is in an Oklahoma basement making the most incredible music that no one’s ever heard.
No one knows for certain what Jones has been up to since 1996, but the band tried to find him for a documentary that centered on their time together, and they failed. Fans also searched. One university creative writing student named Taylor Bell even wrote what reads like short fiction about Jones’ departure and his search for him. Someone Jones agreed to let Bell interview him. But when Bell and his friend drove to Jones’ house, they only got as far as his front porch. The prospect of formally interviewing Jones unnerved them, so they left without making contact.
The co-founder of indie record label Perpetual Doom, Lou Crisitello, left a message online requesting information about Jones. When I emailed Crisitello, he said he’d spent a lot of time contacting people connected to Jones to find answers, but he got no solid ones. Some speculated that Jones was ill and became a shut in. Others thought he could be in a psychiatric institute. “I’m also wanting to know if Ronald has quietly been making music and not releasing anything,” Crisitello told me. No one knew for sure. It’s possible we never will.
Jones quit The Lips when I’d quit paying attention to them. I’d moved onto other music. In the summer of 1996, I was trying to reimagine myself, and as I aged, my drawing subjects and approach kept changing.
I dabbled in simpler color drawings, trying new styles of rendering shape, new ways of using color.
I brought home Indigenous Haida and Tlingit designs, and landscape ideas, from a few trips to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-90s.
And I experimented with dense line drawings. Here’s a marsh scene from the San Joaquin Valley, drawn during a brief period experimenting with ink line drawings.
See, I didn’t need drugs to make cool stuff. I just needed to practice and concentrate. Drugs are easy. Discipline’s difficult, and nothing can deliver it to you except your own will.
In the winter of 1998 and ’99, I used Bic pens to draw a series of complicated Haida Indigenous images, from British Columbia’s Haida people: An otter design caterpillar and butterfly, and eagle design. These are some of the drawings I am most proud of to this day. And yet, sometime after this, I quit drawing almost completely and haven’t even doodled much since. Is this what happened to Ronald Jones? Did he just burn himself out on his favorite thing He’d spent his childhood practicing guitar in his bedroom, experimenting with amps and pedals and mics to create new sounds. Maybe he’d just eaten his favorite food too frequently and needed a break. Maybe he’d accomplished what he wanted to accomplish and was ready to move on. Maybe part of me felt I’d completed what I needed to do with drawing.
Sometimes you have to give up your first medium to excel at another one, or to at least just enjoy trying another one.
I doubt I could have felt okay about experimenting and moving on from one style to another had bands like The Flaming Lips not shown me how.
After stuffing The Lips’ CDs in my music drawer alongside the Soundgarden and Nirvana I’d abandoned, at some point I wondered, What are The Flaming Lips up to? I saw something on MTV about some weird album involving boomboxes, but I hadn’t listened to it. By 1999 I thought it’d be a fun to catch a show and finally hear “She Don’t Use Jelly” played live. It’s weird that at 24 I’d reached an age where I could reminisce about my youth, but I had. I had grown slightly nostalgic for college, when psychedelics and “Jelly” colored my life. So I bought their new album, The Soft Bulletin. At first it disappointed me. Where were the weird guitars? I wanted more “Turn It On.” But as I gave The Soft Bulletin a chance, it quickly revealed its power, and it surprised me how much I loved it. It barely had a guitar on it. Its electronic pop style and atmosphere were gorgeous and lush, and I loved how filled with longing and sadness the instrumentation was. It was experimental before I really thought I liked experimental things. It didn’t feel acid damaged. It couldn’t have been more different than The Lips I’d come to know. That was intentional.
As Coyne told Consequence of Sound:
“At the time, we didn’t really give a fuck anymore what anybody thought. And we truly thought, and I say this all the time because it’s absolutely true, we really thought this was going to be our last record. Warner Bros. wasn’t going to let us make any more records. We were making records that were too expensive. We spent months and months making them. We weren’t interested in playing live, just making records. The deal was, we did what we wanted to do, and it didn’t matter what anybody thought. That proved hard, to get that intense and that free at the same time. I think we had just been working really hard and long, and trying, and then we just got lucky.
Some of the things on this album really worked, and when we went out to play shows after that, we just didn’t care. When I say we didn’t care, we didn’t care to be a normal rock group. So that’s when we started to do confetti and balloons, and I would pour blood on my head. We just thought, “We don’t really care what people say, and we’re just going to be like these characters that we created.” When we stopped being a rock group is the moment when we became the real Flaming Lips. We were singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that summer, man. We would sing that to people. That is a real song that we would sing. We thought we might as well do exactly what we want, because it didn’t really matter. I think that changed the entire process. You don’t know how much power you feel when you don’t care. We certainly wanted to succeed, and we wanted people to like it, and we still do, but you weigh that against your ideas and your desires. A lot of it still comes down to really just being very lucky.”
When The Lips announced a show in Tempe in April 2000, I bought tickets. They were playing in the parking lot of a club I occasionally went to, called Nita’s Hideaway. None of my friends were Lips fans, so I went alone.
The show blew my mind. After such intense listening, there they musicians were, right in front of me, smiling. When they stepped on stage, they had left the ’90s behind, and they helped take my ’90s with them and usher in something bigger, better, and fresh It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a quiet way, intimate and evocative, rather than loud and in your face. And that really did feel like the end of the raucous ’90s. The music was serious. It was ambitious and labored over. Although it was warped, it wasn’t from adolescent humor or weird drugged out song titles. It offered a new way of viewing the world, and at that moment in time, that’s exactly what I needed. The Soft Bulletin spoke to me in 2000, the way Transmissions did years earlier. It was a sad album, and that fit my mood, rather than artificially lifted it. That was healing.
Ronald Jones’ presence divides the band’s catalogue into two halves. There’s The Jones Era—all two albums—and there’s everything after his departure—from 1997’s Zaireeka on—because to certain fans, all that really matters musically about The Flaming Lips starts in 1993 with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. That’s how singular a musician Jones’ guitar playing is. To others, the best Flaming Lips are the Lips that came after Jones. Coyne’s one of those people: “When we stopped being a rock group is the moment when we became the real Flaming Lips.”
Drozd and Coyne wrote a lot together, and that allowed Coyne to write about deeper, more emotional subjects, what he called more human subjects, rather than silly ones and robots. They wondered if Clouds failed to perform commercially because it was too wacky to appeal. These new songs were deep. “Race for the Prize” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” are gorgeous and sad. “Waiting for Superman” was about his father dying, but it applied to anything in that way that great art can.
“That’s what I think is in those songs,” Coyne said about the song. “It’s you being scared but you accidentally being brave, you not thinking you can handle it, and you kind of, on one level, handling it at the same time. And I would have never thought that music anyone body could relate to it.”
Coyne went on: “Having that be in the music, and having that be, not just what we’re singing about, but in everything about it, really does work. People will come up to me virtually every night that we play. There’s this secret code that’s in the music, and we don't really have to speak about it. People will point to that song, and that’s the song that the person I’ll be talking to, him and his older brother talked about when their father was dying of cancer. That’s not in the music. You wouldn’t know that from looking at. But if you’re in the right state of mind and you hear it, I think it communicates that.”
I heard it.
The Lips taught me that it was okay to change. If they could move this far away from their past musical selves, I could too.
What The Lips did was one of the most complete and unusual transformations in modern rock history. When they lost Jones, they allowed themselves to be reborn. They didn't just let go of their old sound. They let go of their entire public persona, which included letting go of their old artistic achievements, because that standard four-piece guitar sound is the one that got them famous. Their approach was: That was then, this is now. Bands evolve all the time, but what other band changed that profoundly that suddenly? When The Lips lost an appendage, they just grew a new body. They didn’t need a two-guitar, bass, and drum format any more than they needed guitars at all. The drummer didn’t even need drums. He could play other instruments.
I had filmed two other shows at that venue that year. I regret not filming The Lips in the parking lot. I think I just wanted to experience it all deeply, undistracted.
The only old song they played was “Jelly.” The whole crowd sang along.
They’d take a few years to write their next hit, building on The Soft Bulletin with their 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but all the attention changed the band members’ daily lives.
“We try to keep ourselves entertained and keep things interesting,” Drozd said, “even if it’s something as simple as using handclaps on the backbeat instead of a snare drum. Plus, we are always using whatever weird pieces of gear we can find. We’ll try anything and everything. Sometimes things work, but sometimes they don’t.”
Drozd was already pushing them to be emotionally deeper, sonically weirder, and more experimental, during the Clouds era, so they knew they could do this in a bigger way. I hoped I could do the same one day: let my old self go in order to emerge as a fuller, deeper, more confident version of myself, unattached to the past.
As I wrote in an art school book project: “Everything changes. I can, too.”
Six months after that Flaming Lips show, I left Arizona for good and moved to Portland, Oregon, to create my adult life in the form that I envisioned it. I was ready to turn it on and all the way up in my house, when I ain’t got no relation to all them other stations.
Now at age 46, I still relate the energy and abandon in Ronald Jones’s guitar. When I listen to his solo of “Bad Days” live at the Ventura theater in 1995, I hear what spoke to me in my 20s and what remains evergreen now: pure wild energy. Jones’ antsy, squiggling guitar scratching in “Be My Head” still gets me, like wow. But instead of it making me want to drop acid to match its vibe, I thank the worlds’ musicians for taking drugs so I don’t have to.
With all the “serious” stuff we listen to, from Coltrane to Neil Young, it’s refreshing to hear our daughter sings “Taaaaangerine!” on the drive to preschool.
I used to be able to draw anything, just feeling where my hand went across the paper. Like my philosophy major years later, a drawing major wouldn’t do anything for me, but once our daughter started holding crayons, my wife and I started sitting down to draw with her. Now that she’s four, we draw together all the time.
I’m thrilled that fatherhood got me back into a drawing. I love drawing creatures she requests, but I especially love watching her draw her own creatures like this:
As I draw goofy stuff like this:
Rereading a 1995 Option magazine article about The Lips this week was interesting. The author caught the band during their tour with Candelbox. At a poorly attended show on a basketball court in San Jose, the author wondered: “Could this be the beginning of the end for Candelbox?” She knew their sound was less “durable” Than the Lips’. She imagined life after the post-Nirvana signing frenzy, when major record labels cleaned house to correct their overspending and dumped bands like Candelbox. “In the future,” she wrote, “the latter part of 1994 might be considered a watershed period—a giant pause for breath.” And she could picture The Lips getting huge after touring, evolving and enduring. “If they can stick it out long enough,” she said in her article’s last line, “The Flaming Lips might eventually stand alone on the top of the heap.”
As Coyne once said on YouTube about Candlebox: “Are they still around?”
She was right.
After all my blabbering on like I have here, this period of my life might best be summarized by Coyne’s beautifully cryptic lyrics on “When Yer Twenty-Two,” which welcome interpretation while comfortably to apply to you:
Stuck in the perpetual motion
Dying against the machine
The whole thing leaves
You a nothing instead of a these
The sun is black and the black halos fly
And your number is backwards again when you try
The sound is so cute when you’re 22
When you’re 22
Note: If you’d like to hear more music featuring Ronald Jones’ guitar work, check out this incredible collection of live tunes a fan assembled on Archive.org. It does Jones justice: “The Flaming Lips - Like The First Time: The Years of Ronald Jones : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming: Internet Archive”