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A Night Spent Santa Clausing With The Flaming Lips
As I adjust my fuzzy red coat and pull on a matching stocking cap, I find myself thinking, if only my rabbi could see me now.
My turn as Santa Claus isn’t part of some tacky Christmas in October pageant, however. It was more daunting than that. Six other “dancers” and I are in the iLounge in the basement of Pontiac’s Clutch Cargo’s, getting ready to spend two hours on stage with the Flaming Lips — the Grammy-winning art rock band from Oklahoma whose concert spectacles make Mardis Gras seem like a toddler’s birthday party in comparison.
Four of us are dressed as Santa Claus, complete with hats, coats and pants. But no beards. “The beards get gross,” notes Jake Harms, the Lips’ “animal wrangler” who selects and watches over the dancers at each show while dressed as Thor, the god of Thunder. Three others suit up as aliens, with mini-dresses and rubber masks that are best treated as optional since it’s hot onstage and since there’s a good chance they might smell like someone from Cleveland the night before.
Our instructions are fairly straightforward: “Just have fun and go crazy,” says Harms — which is pretty much the mantra of the way the Lips approach their live shows, anyway.
Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who co-founded the band nearly 25 years ago in Oklahoma City, says the way Santas and aliens became part of the show “isn’t as good a story as people want it to be.” Round about 2002, he says, the band decided to have its road crew dress in costumes.
“As opposed to the usual guy in a black shirt and black jeans, we figured, ‘Let’s put them in some ridiculous costume,” Coyne, 46, explains. “That way they’re part of the show, too. It works for the Flaming Lips audience. It may not work for U2 or Tool or something, but it worked for us.”
Over time, he says, friends began to show up and put the outfits on just for fun, and the Lips’ travel case began to expand with used costumes Coyne’s wife found in stores. “In the back of our minds, we wondered if we could get 20 or 30 people onstage with us every night,” Coyne says. “It’s never failed. Now we have more than we could ever get up onstage.”
So many dancers, so little space
The gig at Clutch Cargo’s is a bit more challenging than usual, however. The club’s stage is one of the smallest the Lips are playing on its current tour, and there’s extremely limited room for the extras. So what would have been an entourage of 20 or two dozen at a place like the Fillmore Detroit becomes seven — which theoretically puts some pressure on us to generate the same “freak out” energy as the larger group.
Our posse certainly seems up to the task. Chris, who works for the concert promotion firm Live Nation, heard the Lips were coming back to town and “just had to” get himself onstage. Amy from Ferndale is so excited after Harms plucks her and her friend, Sarah from Ann Arbor, from the crowd that she asks for a hug from a fellow Santa she’s never met. SuAnn from Dearborn and her pal Hannah, who will be aliens, are lighting up the room with their grins.
Harms, who’s in his third year with the Lips organization but only his third month wrangling the dancers, says he usually walks around two hours or so before the Lips go on, scoping the crowd for “excited people,” using a practiced eye to determine that they’re a) outgoing enough to not be cowed by the intensity of being on stage and b) not drunk — or drugged — to the point where they’ll be a problem up there, particularly straying outside the dancers’ designated “box” on either side of the stage.
“A lot of times the people who are up there are the super, super freaks — your biggest fans,” Coyne notes. “We’ve found that the gals, even if they’re drunk, you have an easier time getting them to sort of obey orders. If you get too many guys and they all want to show how cool and tough they are, the drunker they get, the more out of control they get. And we’ll grab them and take ’em off the stage. ‘You’re too drunk. Give us the damn suit back.’
“But it’s never been too ugly, really. These people do authentically want to be there.”
Our costumes hang on a rack in the iLounge, and I can hear the distant voice of my mother cautioning, “You don’t know where that’s been” as I select a Santa suit. “Some nights are better than others,” Coyne says with a knowing smile. Harms says the costumes are generally laundered after every third show, but after a particularly hot night, he might employ Febreze or Lysol to freshen them — or even fill a trash can with water and hand-wash them if necessary.
Back to the aforementioned rabbi for a moment. He’d probably be relieved — even proud — that I didn’t know the proper way to put on the Santa coat. “The stripe goes in the front, dude,” Harms says as he climbs into his Thor outfit.
Take us to your leader
Dressed and visibly jazzed, the seven of us are given industrialstyle flashlights to wave during the show. We’re then ushered up several flights of stairs to Clutch Cargo’s main room, where Coyne has already been onstage during the changeover from the opening act to send out a few preliminary volleys of confetti.
Before we ascend the makeshift steps to our “box,” we notice we’re not the only ones dressed for the occasion. A pair of robots — inspired by the Lips’ 2002 album “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” — are pressed against the front barricade. A trio of Ghostbusters are visible in the crowd, too, and a guy in the middle of the main floor is wearing a pair of giant fist gloves — appropriate enough since Coyne is making his entrance wearing his own pair of massive foam hands.
Mere seconds after we hit the stage, we’re engulfed in a blizzard of confetti that rivals anything you’ll see during a given February in Michigan. From the Santa position at stage right, there are points when we can barely see our alien compatriots across the stage, or even Lips guitarist-keyboardist Steven Drozd, who’s in front of them. The balloons come next, oversized and heavy enough to be distracting if you’re trying to, say, remember lyrics or execute a tricky guitar part. The Lips actually have safety pins taped to the heads of their instruments to pop any particularly bothersome orbs, but they mostly find a way to kick, bat or head them back to the crowd.
We Santas and aliens, meanwhile, are busy jumping, dancing and shining our flashlights on band members and into the crowd — who we can see quite clearly thanks to the light emitted by a giant video screen at the rear of the stage. It’s not particularly hot but it is loud, especially skeletoncostumed MIchael Ivins’ bass and Kliph Scurlock’s drums. Coyne’s vocals, meanwhile, are effectively buried in the din.
Harms, as Thor, alternately keeps an eye on us and sends waves of confetti into the crowd. Other techs, dressed as Captain America, Superman and Mr. Incredible, deftly navigate the stage to perform their tasks, occasionally — but always gently — adjusting our position in the fray.
More fun than
What quickly becomes clear is how hard this will be to keep up over the course of two hours, especially without an instrument to play or a part to sing — which, to be honest, is probably to the crowd’s benefit. There are natural break points for the dancers, however; the most spectacular comes during “Vein of Stars,” when Coyne directs the audience to point the miniature lasers they were all given at him and the stage, which is quite a spectacle when you’re on the receiving end.
“People don’t realize what a rush of endorphins you get when that crowd is sending that much love your way,” Coyne says. “It can be pretty overpowering. I can see why people like (being dancers), even though I think some nights it has to be kind of miserable ’cause it’s so hot and so much (stuff’s) flying at you.”
There are challenging moments, too. For instance, it’s hard to figure out exactly what a Santa should do when Coyne produces an electronic bugle to play “Taps” after an impassioned and intelligent anti-war, protroops speech to the crowd. For the most part, however, we dancers do our part; the energy flags toward the end, the flashlights have long since burned out, our legs are sore from jumping and our heads are ringing from volume of the music.
But as we troop off while the Lips are taking their final bows — to head downstairs for a generous post-show autograph and photos hang with Coyne — Santas and aliens alike feel a sense of accomplishment that we’re now part of a lineage of “super, super freaks” who have been part of the Flaming Lips experience.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Coyne says to me as he troops back onstage for one of the encores. Coming from a guy who’s just spent two hours spraying 1,000 people with confetti, balloons, fogs and strobelights, the understatement is as epic as the spectacle he and the other Lips put on.
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