The Flaming Lips, Mick Cornett, and the Selling of Oklahoma City

[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]


I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I  ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.

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A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.

The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.

As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.

Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.

CIMG7463Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.

I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).

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On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.

On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.

 

On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.

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After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.

It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too.  There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.

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Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.

My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.

I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.

Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.

This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved.  Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.

Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.

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