Thursday, March 08, 2012

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne reflects on Woody Guthrie

If you ask Wayne Coyne, frontman for Oklahoma City psychedelic rock act the Flaming Lips, he'll say he and Woody Guthrie definitely have one thing in common.


Guthrie's struggle as a musician was probably a lot harder than his has been, Coyne says, even though music critics often call the Lips one of the most influential rock acts of the past 20 years.

The Flaming Lips have done everything their own way.

But Guthrie did it first, and he did it on his own, Coyne said.

"I don't always want to do these things by myself. I think it was probably part of his struggle, as well. I think he probably thought, 'I can just do it better myself.' " Coyne said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma City.

"Whereas, a lot of times it appears that it's just me doing things, but I've got this great, great band and managers and all these sorts of things that are opening every door before I even get there sometimes."

Those things just didn't exist in Guthrie's time, when the musician grabbed a guitar and often sang to down-and-out "Okies" in impoverished work camps. Okies, who had fled their home state with hopes of also escaping poverty, found themselves engulfed in near-servitude.

Guthrie helped lay a groundwork that allowed musicians to speak their minds while accurately reflecting what was around them.

That legacy's worth celebrating, Coyne said, which is why his band was determined to perform at Saturday's "This Land is Your Land: A Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert" at the Brady Theater.

The Lips join Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, as well as John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash and many others as they play Guthrie's tunes in tribute.

"We're like, 'c'mon, we live here and we're still alive!' and for as cool as it is, to have artists come from all over the place, well, we live here. Let's do this!"

The Lips grabbed friend Jackson Browne for Saturday's performance. They'll do a version of Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," Coyne said.

"I think we'll get there and meet people and make friends. The fellows are all such good musicians, I'm hoping we'll be able to do a couple of things." So, in usual Lips fashion, expect the unexpected. Also, in the spirit of Guthrie, expect a coming together across genre lines, political lines and working-class lines.

For one night, his dream of community and "our land" will expand to encompass an array of people, all under one roof.

"The main thing is that Woody's always standing up for the little guy - the people who are being oppressed," Coyne said. "It's not just a civil rights thing. He's always standing on the side of the people."

It's more than just his protest music that Coyne loves about Guthrie, who was born in 1912 in Okemah and died at age 55 in 1967.

It's about art. More specifically, it's about creation.

Guthrie wouldn't wear spangles and call himself a cowboy.

The Lips aren't a commercial rock act in any way. Like Guthrie, they're often seen as outsiders.

Guthrie was unfettered. He often created daily - in books, diaries, through drawings, poetry and in other ways. That sort of spontaneity, driven by a sort of stubbornness, or a determination to create, as Coyne calls it, inspires him.

"His music sometimes is not really music in the sense - it's usually just him with a beat-up guitar and he's ranting about some situation that, in his time, was happening right then."

It's a tradition that many musicians are returning to, he said. The bureaucracy of the music industry is breaking down. The artist can create almost anything "and have it pressed to a record in a week," he said of many of the projects he's been working on lately, including a box set of musical collaborations the Lips are preparing for a Record Store Day release April 21.

In some ways, Coyne has flipped the simplicity of Guthrie's recording days into modern times.

"He lived in more of a one-dimensional, 'I'm Woody, here's what I do,' straightforward time. Plus, I'm old and we're successful and we've had a lot of time to do what I'd like to do."

And, where Guthrie traveled the states, the Lips travel the globe.

"We're all over the world. America, Japan, Europe ... you just have this traveling machine. A time machine. Which is good. It's fun."

But they're stubborn. The Lips, like Guthrie, have forged a reputation for doing things because they want to do them. That's really all the reason they need.

Musicians talk about Guthrie’s legacy

On Saturday, a genre-bending blend of influential music artists will pay homage to the man they believe helped make their own careers possible.

It's more than that, though.

It's about a legacy that lives on for generations - the right as an American to speak one's mind and make a difference in the world.

"Woody Guthrie believed in the common plight and telling stories about it and connecting to people in that way," Hanson member Taylor Hanson said in a recent telephone interview. "I mean, what better legacy for music to have than to speak to that?"

Hanson joins musicians including Guthrie's son Arlo and John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, The Flaming Lips, Jackson Browne and more as they perform Guthrie's timeless odes to the working class.

"There has always been room for shaking off the shackles of conformity and questioning the system and wondering if it could be or should be better," Hanson said. "That is a really, really important part of what makes this country a unique one. ... I think his best traits were that this is a country and a place where opportunity and the ability to live a better life is possible."

Guthrie lived through the Dust Bowl and performed countless songs to even more faceless migrant workers. He sang about an America in which all people were accepted and welcomed and treated fairly.

Singer-songwriter Mellencamp admits his own career was made possible by people like Guthrie, who died when Mellencamp was a boy. His own songs about the working class are inspired by the folk icon.

"Yeah, and the art of songwriting from Guthrie, his ability to say so much with so few words and so few chord changes ... Guthrie was a huge influence on me," he said. "I love his roustabout ways. As a young man, I liked his womanizing and his brawling. There wasn't anything that Guthrie didn't do as a young man.

"That's the way art's made. ... He laid down a big footprint and said, 'Fill it!' "

And that's what the musicians at Saturday's concert at Brady Theater hope to do. They're banding together to play Guthrie's tunes in his home state, at a venue that's nearly as old as the musician would be if he were still alive.

Guthrie's own son, Arlo, marches to his father's legacy daily. Now in his 60s, he'd made his own life out of speaking (and singing) the feelings of the working man.

He thanks his dad.

"People still believe some of the things he was writing were important and good. As long as people believe in who he was, we'll be celebratin'," he said.

Saturday, musicians from multiple genres will join to cross boundaries they might not otherwise. Arlo Guthrie said that's a perfect tribute to Woody Guthrie's legacy.

"So the philosophy of gettin' together, to stand together, to put aside differences so that you can be strong is what he was singing about all his life."

Taylor Hanson agreed. "Art should always reflect the world around you. And a big part of our world is asking questions. ... And giving people songs to sing about it."

Learn the song before the Flaming Lips play it

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne says the band will perform Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man" with folk singer-songwriter Jackson Browne at Saturday's Guthrie centennial concert at Brady Theater.

Here are the lyrics.

'Vigilante Man'

Words and music by Woody Guthrie

Have you seen that vigilante man?

Have you seen that vigilante man?

Have you seen that vigilante man?

I been hearin' his name all over the land.

Well, what is a vigilante man?

Tell me, what is a vigilante man?

Has he got a gun and a club in his hand?

Is that is a vigilante man?

Rainy night down in the engine house,

Sleepin' just as still as a mouse,

Man come along an' he chased us out in the rain.

Was that a vigilante man?

Stormy days we passed the time away,

Sleepin' in some good warm place.

Man come along an' we give him a little race.

Was that a vigilante man?

Preacher Casey was just a workin' man,

And he said, "Unite all you working men."

Killed him in the river some strange man.

Was that a vigilante man?

Oh, why does a vigilante man,

Why does a vigilante man

Carry that sawed-off shot-gun in his hand?

Would he shoot his brother and sister down?

I rambled 'round from town to town,

I rambled 'round from town to town,

And they herded us around like a wild herd of cattle.

Was that the vigilante men?

Have you seen that vigilante man?

Have you seen that vigilante man?

I've heard his name all over this land.


featuring Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, The Flaming Lips, Jackson Browne, Hanson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Tim O'Brien, Jimmy LaFave and more

When: Doors open 6:30 p.m., showtime 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St.

Tickets: $45-$250, plus fees, available at Reasor's locations, Starship, Buy for Less, by calling 1-866-977-6849 and online at

Original Print Headline: Footprint of an icon

Jennifer Chancellor 918-581-8346


Copyright 2012 World Publishing Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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