A Song for Boston: The Flaming Lips – “You Have to Be Joking”

Sneakily placed near the end of the Flaming Lips’ gleefully noisy if overshadowed Warner Bros. debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, is “You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)”, a damaged acoustic tribute to human incomprehensibility that usually tops the list of my favorite Lips songs of all time. There’s little more than a single-tracked acoustic guitar, some bongos, light piano, an inexplicably placed sample from the Brazil score, and Wayne Coyne’s shakily earnest Oklahoma whine — a far cry from the gruff, aged voice he’s adopted on more recent efforts, but perfectly suited to the song’s  “Moonlight Mile” weariness. Lyrically, the track may not be so far from The Terror, the Lips’ uncharacteristically grim latest LP. Drained of the band’s trademark optimism, Coyne confronts evil with confusion and disbelief: “You have to be joking / They wouldn’t do what you said”, he pleads. The conclusion is more resigned, but not quite hopeful: “Seems to me that God and the devil are both the same”. Decades later Wayne told me that the song was inspired by a story of a diplomat who hired the mafia to kidnap American babies and sledgehammer them.

At the time of the song’s recording, Jonathan “Dingus” Donahue was the band’s noisemaker-in-chief and Steven Drozd just another nobody drummer from Texas. Several years later, as the Lips’ profile steadily rose and their hometown became the site of a horrific 1995 bombing, Wayne began dedicating the song to victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing, particularly an acquaintance who had dropped off a family at the social security office that Wednesday morning and inadvertently “taken them to their doom.” Wayne details the story in this in-store performance, filmed in Seattle just weeks after the bombing:

I never expected to hear the song performed live — especially as the band’s setlists became increasingly inflexible during the Yoshimi-era — but then came a show in New York in 2006. For the second encore, Wayne introduced a song that hadn’t been played live “in at least ten years.” Absent an acoustic guitar, Drozd hummed out the track’s minor-chord progression on a keyboard. Wayne seemed shocked that enough people knew the words to sing along.

On Monday, the Boston Marathon was bombed on the eve of The Terror‘s release date. As I digested the news, the Lips’ discography fresh in mind, I kept hearing “You Have to Be Joking’s” baffled head shakes: “You have to be kidding me / They wouldn’t do those unspeakable things.” However many times you hear about senseless terror, it still carries a sense of the unbelievable: They did what? Really? We’re all sometimes cowed by disbelief.

The Lips have a packed touring schedule coming up. Maybe “You Have to Be Joking” will find its way into setlists once again, and maybe Wayne will dedicate it to Boston.