Clouds Taste Metallic
It kind of happens intuitively, like breathing or crying or finding your way back home. Every year around this time, I scan my compact disc racks and watch as my hand reaches for The Flaming Lips' 1995 album, Clouds Taste Metallic. I put the disc in the player. I sit back. And I listen, and I remember.
Clouds Taste Metallic is my all-time favorite Christmas album. But you won't hear Wayne Coyne singing "Silent Night" or doing any sort of grandma-got-run-over-by-a-reindeer weirdness. There isn't a single Christmas song on it, though there is a song called "Christmas at the Zoo." It holds an interesting place in the Lips' discography, wedged in between Transmissions from the Satellite Heart which, with the quirky single, "She Don't use Jelly," made them MTV darlings, and the 4-disc Zaireeka, meant to be heard by playing all four CDs at once in separate players, which made them "experimental."
Though it received a fair amount of critical praise, Clouds Taste Metallic did not achieve the same sort of success claimed by Transmissions nor did it foreshadow the ambition and massive appeal of albums that would soon come. Clouds just sort of floated there like an incomplete idea, like it belonged to some other band. And, in a way, it did: Clouds was the last Lips album to feature the excellent guitarist, Ronald Jones. The band would miss him, and they wouldn't miss him at all. Clouds sizzles with a sort of fiery, primal urgency that the band hasn't touched since.
On a cold winter night, at a little bar in Hoboken called Maxwell's, we saw them play live. Michelle and I did. It must've been her idea because all the best ideas belonged to her. I kind of just followed along, grudgingly. I didn't really care about the band, and I sure as hell didn't feel like going out into the cold. We'd have to take a bus from Teaneck and we'd probably have to transfer at some point along the way, and how in the world would we be getting back to campus afterward when the busses had stopped running? To Michelle, these things didn't matter, and I wouldn't argue too, too much. Michelle had a way of breaking me down and, at the time, getting back home really wasn't so important. It's sort of funny to think that, now, getting home is all I ever want to do.
The small back room was filled to capacity, and the Flaming Lips seemed like giants on the Maxwell's stage. It was right before Christmas, and the band had transformed the place in a way that I'd never before seen and have never seen since. So many strands of multicolored Christmas lights were wrapped round and round every inch of the stage. Christmas lights covered the mic stands and covered the cymbal stands and stretched from one end of the stage to the next. Everything was alive with color and energy. And then the band played.
I'll forever remember Jones' incredible number of effects pedals and the way he manipulated sounds to achieve the most tantalizing tones; the way Steven Drozd punished his drum kit, like it had been bad all year; the way bassist Michael Ivins practically disappeared behind his dark sunglasses and just stood there beside his rig, rocking without moving; the way Wayne Coyne owned that small stage, falling to his knees and shredding like a real, live, rock and roll god, leaving us all in awe.
I was impressed. It was not what I had expected.
Wayne Coyne wore a denim jacket decorated with a button that read, "I LOVE MICHELLE." This was all the encouragement my girlfriend needed to wait around until the place had practically cleared out, and all busses had stopped running, to find an opportunity to speak with this rock god. I sort of just watched from afar as they spoke and laughed, like a shy boy whose back is fixed against a wall, looking on as the others dance at a party. I couldn't move, though I felt the jealousy and insecurity building within.
"What did you talk about?" I asked.
"I told him I liked his button," she answered.
I don't know how we got back to campus that night, or if we did get back at all. It doesn't really matter. The Flaming Lips at Maxwell's, Christmas 1995, was one of the best live shows I've ever seen. I listen to Clouds Taste Metallic and I remember that night, fondly.
The album sounds better now than it ever did before. I kind of wish Michelle could listen to it with me, on the hi-fi. I wonder how she'd react. There is a ton of information being tossed about in the pits: Oohs and aahs and all sorts of bells and whistles; enormous, earth-shattering drums with miles of air surrounding them; acoustic and electric guitars, plucked and strummed and run through a frightening number of processors; a dazzling array of cinematic effects that sweep and zip and buzz and tear across the stage, sounding so lifelike that you've got to wonder if something is wrong: You'll leap from your seat to make sure your speaker cones haven't shredded to bits. Your heart will fall into your stomach and you'll break out into a cold sweat until you've confirmed that everything is okay.
It was just the damn music!
The album begins with a beep. An old spool of film starts flapping through a movie projector, and Wayne Coyne sings:
Well, it took some time,
'cause it's a lot. God, it's a bunch
It's such a big, old, black golden buzz
Piano, acoustic guitar, and some shimmering effects. He sings the entire song before the full band comes in. He finishes:
And now that it's conceived,
The station has all settled down
And I'm sort of relieved
And I'm getting over it now.
The electric guitar like a bell in the fog and the fucking drums, the drums. Like the most beautiful Christmas memory, the drums. The drums come rushing in.