THESE days, Wayne Coyne can usually spot them from a distance. They tug on his sleeve in airport terminals with a grim smile or approach him backstage at concerts with tears in their eyes. They tell him wrenching stories, like the one he heard from a San Francisco family: It was Christmastime and their son, so healthy and only 21, took a bad fall. Then he died, just like that. When they went through his things they happened on the CD in his stereo. When they pushed play they heard Coyne and his dreamy, bittersweet song:
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
The song from 2002 is called "Do You Realize?" and musically it's a layered, shimmering work, but the lyrics are as simple and soothing as a child's bedtime prayer. That family played it over and over, and made it the theme at the son's memorial service.
Coyne, the lead singer of an irreverent, head-trippy band called the Flaming Lips, was hushed by the sentiment. "To have something I wrote be there for them in that moment of despair and isolation? If it weren't my song, it would have been another. People started telling me it was the song they used at their mother's funeral or they played it when their child was born. Do you know what that feels like for me? To carry that around the rest of my life is something very, very special. No matter what happens, I have that."
The weird thing is that as Coyne told this heart-rending tale, he was sitting in an old slaughterhouse on the scabby edges of downtown Los Angeles and reeked of raw meat. "Is it bad? Can you smell it? I hate to say it but I haven't had a shower, so I've had it on me yesterday and today."
Coyne, who dresses like a Jules Verne character and acts like the host of a psychedelic children's show, and his band spun their way out of dusty Oklahoma in the 1980s the way Dorothy and Toto once flew beyond the Kansas horizon. And although they have flirted with the mainstream (their new album, "At War With the Mystics," just came thisclose to debuting in the Top 10 of the nation's pop album chart), they are too old, too weird and too heartfelt to fit comfortably with the core of MTV's predictable young franchises.
That explains the slaughterhouse: When it came time to film a video for the catchy first single from "Mystics," "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song ... (With All Your Power)," the Lips decided the best showcase would in a video with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, lots of raw meat, a doomed Paris Hilton look-alike, marauding L.A. cops and a werewolf in Baghdad. The theme of the video is modern American excess and the plot is ... well, uh, never mind.
"Sometimes it's not so much about meaning or meaningfulness, it's just something to look at," Coyne said. "If you get something out of it, that's great."
And that sums up the lovely puzzle of the Flaming Lips. Their music is like a sermon delivered between gulps of helium: It's hard to know exactly when you should take it seriously, but you would also hate to miss something special hidden in all the funny squeaking. The Lips have loopy songs of wizards and pink robots and prog-rock dementia that generally demands giggles, but (as "Do You Realize?" proved) they also can bring people to tears.
Their concerts, meanwhile, look like Fellini invested in a Chuck E. Cheese's franchise -- all confetti, giant furry animals, huge balloons and ditzy fan sing-alongs under waves of fluorescent reverb. It's also becoming a coveted goof among celebs to play mascot during a Lips gigs -- Justin Timberlake, Drew Barrymore and Beck have worn the suits.
As with any respectable acid trip, you can't exactly tell people what the Flaming Lips are, you can only try to say what they are like. Like the Grateful Dead or Phish, they have intensely loyal fans who walk through concert turnstiles like tribe members climbing into the sweat lodge (and often do so with, ahem, peace pipe in hand). Like the Wu-Tang Clan, the Lips have created a crazy quilt of pop-culture references and band mythology that cannot be taken seriously. But, like Tool and Pink Floyd, they have some fans that insist on taking them way too seriously. And, as with the Beastie Boys, no one would have predicted in the goofball early days that musical ambition and personal pilgrimage would carry them past their second decade in the spotlight. Like Radiohead, they are one of the few bands today that make albums, not CDs full of singles and filler.