Wayne Coyne - Going Home

By Gene Triplett Published: December 21, 2007
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And I'm glad we did, because it really has changed for us.”

Magical history tour

Coyne deftly navigates the significant streets of his life in a borrowed SUV, enthusiastically reeling off anecdotes and commentary on an area of Oklahoma City that wouldn't hold much interest to most tourists — unless they're foaming Flaming Lips fans. His passengers are a print reporter and Webcast camera crew, one of whom has loaned Coyne the vehicle for this mobile interview.

Over there is the old Plaza Theatre — soon to be the new Lyric — where Coyne first saw Pink Floyd's “Live at Pompeii” at the midnight movies, a life-changing event from his wonder years.

“This became a landmark movie for us, seeing Pink Floyd play in the studio and seeing them in the ruins of Pompeii,” he says. “I still watch that. Every couple of years we'll get it out and watch it. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, getting stoned with my older brothers. It's a big moment in your life, and you just don't even know it's gonna be there.”

He doesn't get stoned anymore, nor does he need to. Coyne is now 46, with a little gray streaking his curly, dark-brown mane and beard, but his hoarse, staccato patter is charged with the youthful enthusiasm of a kid rolling through Disneyland as he points out the old Classen High School building — now the prestigious Classen School of Advanced Studies — where his diploma was withheld over an unpaid library fine. He was too busy selling pot out of his apartment to really care at the time.

Funny thing, though: The class of 2006 invited him back to give the commencement speech, which he delivered via video since the Lips were on tour.

A few blocks north and east there's a Vietnamese noodle bar that used to be the Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppe where he fried fish for 11 years, and was once forced by armed robbers to lie on the floor while they cleaned out the restaurant's safe.

It was another turning point in his youth. He still remembers thinking that life isn't like a movie after all — you can be fixing French fries one minute and dead the next, with no dramatic music swelling in the background.

“It seemed inevitable that they were going to shoot us in the head,” he recalls. “. . . I just thought how meaningless this whole thing is . . . It sort of seemed like, (expletive deleted), I should do whatever I want because you never know how long you're gonna have.”

Next he drives past a boarded-up storefront at NW 24 and Robinson that used to be his dad's office supply shop, with a meat locker in the back that served as the band's first practice space. Next door is the Blue Note Lounge.

“They were the first ones to let us play as the Flaming Lips, where none of the other places around town would,” he says. “None of the other promoters doing shows in Norman or anything would give us the time of day.”

In fact, in their own home state, where homegrown country music artists and athletes have always been the favored celebrities, the Lips remained virtually unknown for years to all but a few alternative music fans who saw them as underground heroes.

Coming out party

It took the endorsement of Coldplay front man Chris Martin to wake the local mainstream population to the Lips' existence. When his band played the Ford Center on Feb. 27, 2006, Martin told the audience there were four great American voices: “Elvis, Dylan, Wayne Coyne and Johnny Cash.”

Mayoral Chief of Staff David Holt, a huge Lips fan, seized the moment to launch a movement.

“You had so many downtown Chamber types at that concert,” Holt says. “And here's Chris Martin telling them, ‘Guys, you've got the greatest band in the world in your hometown. You really need to do something to kind of connect the band a little bit more to the city.'”

With Mayor Mick Cornett's blessing, and a desire among civic leaders to promote a “hipper,” more progressive image for the city, “Flaming Lips Alley” was officially christened on Oct. 25, recognizing the band as an integral part of the local cultural landscape. The fact they got an alley named after them instead of a street was fitting for a band that's never followed the beaten path.

When the gregarious Coyne scandalized the “Chamber types” in attendance by dropping the F-bomb twice during his acceptance speech, fans at the carnival-like dedication ceremony laughed appreciatively.

OKC, meet Wayne Coyne.

Later that evening, Coyne was honored again at a black-tie dinner with a Wall of Fame Humanitarian Award from the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation. Not bad for a guy who once sold pot to supplement his fast-food income.

The Lips were even invited to perform at the all-star Oklahoma Centennial Spectacular Nov. 16, sharing the bill with Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Toby Keith — a sure sign the Sooner state had finally embraced them as one of its treasures. On New Year's Eve, the Lips will headline their own concert at Cox Convention Center, the largest hometown venue they've ever played, and attendance will probably top the record-breaking turnout of 10,000 at their now-legendary “U.F.O.s at the Zoo” performance at the Zoo Amphitheatre in September 2006.

“We were almost in tears at the end of the night,” Michelle Martin-Coyne recalls of the Zoo gig. “It was just so moving to have that crowd and that place in this town. It was perfect.”

Keeping it real

In the eyes of the rest of the world, and a lot of people right here at home, the improbability of an eccentric art-pop band coming out of Oklahoma has always been part of the Flaming Lips' curious charm. And maybe that's another reason Coyne chooses to stick around — to keep that image true.

“This idea of being from Oklahoma has, for whatever reason, made people believe in my work ethic as a real thing, not just some image,” he says. “And the things that we sing about, the absurdness of life, being from Oklahoma it becomes authentic, because we're not from L.A. or New York, and this isn't a pose.”