Bands seem to love playing music at the tiny but undeniably cool Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California, along an undeveloped stretch of the wild west where the Pacific Ocean crashes into cliffs. Fans park their cars on the side of Route 1, just inches from such a cliff, then hike down the road to a clearing under giant redwoods, where a cottage has been converted into a kind of gift shop memorializing author Henry Miller and celebrating other local artists.
The unique space, called the Henry Miller Library, has lent its small front porch and lawn to intimate concerts with big-name artists. Acts that often play arenas, such as Arcade Fire and Band of Horses, play here with little or no production – the venue lends itself to a stripped-down approach where the redwoods themselves become the obvious, natural backdrop.
Not so for the Flaming Lips. Before their inspired and inspiring set on Tuesday, ringleader Wayne Coyne addressed the crowd, explaining the band's approach to the night and promising to do "all of the stuff . . . Initially, we said that we'll just play and we won't do the stuff, but it's so much fun to do all the stuff and just abuse you guys. So we're going to play music and we're going to sing to you guys, and that part is obviously wonderful – we have the beauty of the trees and the night and the atmosphere and all of that. But then we're going to try our best to do all the other stuff, and you're going to have to help us, because I don't know how the fuck we're going to do the space bubble. But we have to do the space bubble."
For all the talk of the importance of the pageantry, the band actually did play a show that focused on the other side of the Flaming Lips: emotional release through music. Musical group therapy.
Coyne was as loquacious between songs as ever, explaining the stunts as they came and drawing attention to the nuts-and-bolts of the spectacle like a wizard with a man-behind-the-curtain syndrome. Yet during his song introductions, you could hear a pin drop in the forest as Coyne revealed some of their deeper meanings.
For instance, in introducing "Waiting for Superman," Coyne told the small but attentive audience of 300 that he wrote the song shortly after losing a friend – singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. The band had been collaborating with him, and "like a lot of sensitive artists or people, he struggled," said Coyne. "And you got the feeling that he was waiting for something." People would ask the band why nobody could save him, and perhaps someone could have. But at the end of the day, Coyne proposes, we're all responsible for our own happiness – and we should spread that message and help people embrace that. We have to be our own superheroes. "It sounds hopeful, but I don’t actually have the answer," said Coyne. "It's maybe an answer for me. I hope it is for you."
Later, Coyne admitted that the band stole the title to their song "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" from an unsuspecting DJ back in 1998. The band was listening to the radio as they toured Germany in a van, and the DJ would translate the titles of the songs into English before continuing to converse in the native language. The band distinctly heard him say "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" following a torrent of German. When an extensive search, back home, for the actual song failed to turn up anything, they wrote their own.
Continuing with the Flaming Lips' transparent approach to their showbiz side, when Coyne did bring out the space bubble as promised, he warned the crowd that it might not have the same big bang it has at festivals and in giant amphitheaters. With just 300 people spread out on a lawn, it was difficult to envision him crowd-surfing in a giant inflatable bubble. "It's not going to be the best," he cautioned. "But when you go home, you're going to lie to people. You'll say it was the best fucking space bubble you’ve ever seen."
During the encore, Coyne tried to tack a furry tail on his rear end and had difficulty securing it. "You can lie about that too," he joked.
But in truth, as Coyne himself allowed by the encore, no lies were necessary. "This turned out to be a beautiful experience," he said. And he was right.