‘American Head’ grew up in the 60s and 70s, just like we did
If you were a back-cusp baby boomer – born in, let’s say, 1960, plus or minus three years — growing up in the Seventies was very weird.
Your grade school years were all assassinations, Kent State, inner city riots, hippies, Vietnam. The veneer of suburban bliss, filmy in the best of times, was stretched, twisted, and distorted, never to fully regain its shape and clarity. You were young enough to have missed the draft, Woodstock, the ’68 convention. Your parents, to the extent that they paid attention at all, were generally PTSD or going “Me Generation,” and loath to impose much parenting on their children coming of age post-Nixon. So there was teenage mayhem afoot.
Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: American Head
Label: Warner Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The Flaming Lips’ latest record offers an extended, elegiac contemplation of those times and the loss – of youth, of beauty, of happiness, of life – that inevitably ensued.
Listening to American Head, I was reminded of a day long, long ago, when word trickled back to me in my middle class Chicago suburban bedroom one Wednesday afternoon that some Jennifer had brought a big bottle of Quaaludes to Junior High, and things had gotten out of hand.
She and her friends all ended up gruesomely stitching their hands and fingers together in the sewing machines during home ec class, and assorted other blitzed-out zombies were released to the general population to regather what was left of their faculties as they saw fit. My best friend Ronny was telling me about wandering through six lanes of traffic over by the movie theater, miraculously arriving on the other side. Why had this chicken crossed the road? I’ll tell you why. To get to, um, the, uh, basically because he was utterly disabled by ‘ludes and I have no idea.
All across America, there were teenagers living this Bicentennial trip exactly the same way – stoned, in that forest preserve, with that Camaro pulled onto the grass, with the radio playing that Foghat song. When I get to thinking about all those young, beautiful freaks and our sliding off and on the straight and narrow, and all the damage PCP and LSD and weed did or didn’t do, and all the destinations life led us, there is joy and sadness and wonder and mourning.
American Head is about us, and then, and now. They were there. It was clear very early on, the members of the Flaming Lips inhabited this milieu with more intensity than most. A collection of their early hits is titled, Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, which strikes me as a tad misleading, as I don’t believe that this was, in their case, a new development.
What seems certain is that a song like “At The Movies On Quaaludes” – (whoa, shades of my friend Ronny) – is informed by some level of firsthand experience. It is one of several gooey and gorgeous remembrances of a stoner’s first drug experiences sprinkled across this song cycle – with the beauty of the melody, and strings, and choir undercut by a hint of the dread of knowing how the story ends. “We’re so high, we forget we’re alive.” Musically, the songs recall the fizzier and warmer melodic moments on the Lips’ acknowledged masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. And if you set aside the regret and sadness that explicitly rears up throughout – the album is groovy and quite inviting. It’s nice — if you’re not our age, and carrying some of the pain that the Flaming Lips are confronting. “…We destroy our brains/’Til we believe we’re dead/It’s the American dream/In the American head.”
The record builds to an incredible Floyd-tinged passage cataloguing the buzz slowly getting killed – along with at least one friend. Kim tries to rob the drugstore, unsuccessfully. Out in the woods, “the king and queen – dope dealing celebrities” – we all knew them, or someone like them, back then – “(dream) that one day (they)’ll get out of this scene” – the obvious suggestion being, they won’t. And poor Tommy, always high and driving way too fast, crashes his motorcycle and dies. Our storyteller breaks the news to his mother. And Tommy, from the beyond, breaks the news to his mother. “Remember to let the dogs outside,” Tommy tells his mom. “…’Cause I won’t be there tonight. Mother, please don’t be sad.” All the mother conversations add another layer of despair, as it seems unlikely at this late date, that these mothers are still with us, to comfort us and be comforted.
VIDEO: The Flaming Lips “Will You Return/When You Come Down”
It’s a grim reckoning, foretold in the lovely album opener, which asks the musical question, “Will you return when you come down?” – like, can you get back to the way it was before? Before drugs, that is?
“Shooting stars (shooting stars)
Crashing in your car (crashing in your car)
What went wrong (singing songs)
Now all your friends are gone (all your friends are gone)
And they scream (and they scream)
Scream from beyond (screaming from beyond)
Hear their song (hear their song)
Now all your friends are gone”
Yep. I know. Ronny died. So did “Jennifer.” Richard. Kevin. I like to think I made my escape – but this incredibly lovely and harrowing record is proving otherwise. Proceed with caution.