Fairfax, VA. For its 20th anniversary, The Flaming Lips have released a “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” box set, commemorating their great mainstream hit that managed to retain their idiosyncrasies. Thus, the hit track “Do You Realize??” fits in Boyhood as the sound of the aughts yet somehow also in the trailer for Transformers 5 as a eulogy for Optimus Prime. These strange bedfellows are fitting for a band that headlined festivals and collaborated with Miley Cyrus yet came out of Oklahoma City after their lead singer spent his formative years in a Long John Silver’s.
Wayne Coyne worked as a fry cook at Long John Silver’s from age 16 to 29, even working there after signing a record deal with Warner Brothers. He worked through the 1980s, and some of his friends went to work on oil rigs where they’d make almost $1000 a week. Yet he stayed in Oklahoma City, making $80 a week. He saw his job as a creative launch pad, not a failure to launch.
Artists often work in restaurants before their big break, but this is usually presented as a necessary evil, a flexible job to schedule auditions around. However, Coyne saw the work itself, not its limited hours, as freeing. He would try to explain to friends at the time: “I’m free. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m free, and I want to pursue music … This idea that you get to dream, but you’re still busy doing something. It’s really a joy.”
Coyne’s life turns the trope of the starving artist on its head. His restaurant work catalyzed his creative work, and his path illustrates the “embodied cognition” that the craftsman-philosopher Matthew Crawford praises in The World Beyond Your Head. While Kant posited that our brains make rational decisions in an ideal realm, separate from the natural world, Crawford argues that a person must gain skill and resilience through encounters with the real world. These encounters grant new abilities and thus possibilities for engaging with the world as well as greater confidence for navigating the uncertainty of reality.
Fry cooking is not as glamorous or complex as the motorcycle maintenance Crawford does, but I’d argue that much of Coyne’s musical success can be traced to his fry cooking all of those years.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “I can only meditate when I am walking, when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” Fry cooking’s physical yet simple work allows the mind to wander. We all know the experience of a thorny problem that is resolved by getting up to walk or do the dishes. The physical effort releases the emotional or cognitive knot.
While we recognize the importance of taking a walk to clear our mind, it’s difficult to do so regularly. Coyne’s job created a jig, a carpentry term that Crawford uses more broadly to describe a cultural norm that encourages desirable behavior. Long John Silver’s required that he show up and fry fish, and this structure gave his mind space to wander instead of focusing solely on music. His creative and fast-food work created a feedback loop: “For me, the more I got into music, the more this job seemed to encourage it or accommodate that I could do it.”
More than that, fry cooking engages directly with the physical world of space, time, and heat. If you’re clumsy, you’ll get burned. If you zone out, the fries will be overdone. If the fryer isn’t working, there’s mechanical troubleshooting. You must develop facility with the machine and its idiosyncrasies. There is no mediator between fryer and fry cook, yet, as Crawford notes, mediation is a defining characteristic of the modern world.
Our cars provide blind spot monitoring, automated braking, and lane keep assist. These features all create a mediating layer between us and reality. If Kant is right to separate the moment of choice from the actual engagement with the world that enacts the choice, then these sorts of mediations would allow our minds to reside more often in Kant’s ideal, separate, and theoretical realm away from the messiness of other cars and obstacles.
Crawford, however, argues that in practice, our sense of choice is intimately tied to our experience with the world. A trained martial artist sees options when faced with a belligerent drunk that do not appear to us. Will and world are bound up. Thus, mediating distance from the challenges and contingencies of dumb nature leaves us weak when we encounter conflict or frustration. It makes us fragile.
And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever can present the most enthralling representations that save us from a direct confrontation with the world. Being addressed to us, these representations allow us to remain comfortable in a little ‘me-world’ of manufactured experience. If these representations make use of hyperpalatable mental stimuli, the world of regular old experience may come to seem not only frustrating but unbearably drab by comparison.
By contrast, Crawford presents those who are intimately involved with nature without any soothing mediation:
In the case of the short-order cook, the hockey player, and the motorcycle racer, one takes one’s bearings from a field of objects external to the self, brings one’s actions into conformity with them, and something contingent results—some mix of joy and frustration according to one’s skill level and a lot of stuff that is beyond one’s control.
Working as a fry cook would inform certain assumptions about work, even creative work. As Steven Pressfield says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Similarly, fry cooking is about physically showing up and doing the work. You cannot fake it.
There are real, external realities you must confront. Frustrations that arise are generally due to stubborn nature and require perseverance. It’s not a world of complaining about TPS reports. Therefore, a musician operating within the stubborn reality of musical scales and difficult instruments should expect frustration and boredom on the road to mastery. These are inherent to the process, not something a computer program should be able to solve.
Coyne called his job “freeing,” and at first glance, he is simply referring to the mental flexibility of a menial task. Rather than spending weeks on a rig and then weeks at home, he cycled daily between work and music: “The idea that I could make $80 a week and then go home and do music. I think that’s what you want. You’re free, but you’re making your own little bit of money.”
More than the freedom of time and mental space, Crawford argues there’s a freedom borne of skilled, effective engagement with the world, a type of engagement that’s increasingly rare. Crawford, drawing on Natasha Schüll’s book Addiction by Design, argues that our modern mediated world seeks to reduce friction and choices but leaves us performing autistic pseudo-actions.
Typically, at about 3 months of age, babies come to prefer “imperfect contingency,” in which “environmental responses are closely yet not perfectly aligned with their own vocal or gestural actions in intensity, affect, or tempo.” However, autistic children continue to desire utter predictability, sameness, and control. Thus, Crawford offers:
Perhaps we are all becoming autistic, in this broad sense. If so, it is not without reason. As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g. “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque … when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.
Escaping to a zone of autistic pseudo-action has understandable appeal. Precisely because this zone has been sealed off from the world, it is experienced as a zone of efficacy and intelligibility.
Crawford uses slot machine addicts to illustrate this point. They explain that they aren’t drawn to winning or losing: “I don’t care if it takes coins, or pays coins: the contract is that when I put a new coin in, get five new cards, and press those buttons, I am allowed to continue. So it isn’t really a gamble at all—in fact, it’s one of the few places I’m certain about anything.” Of course, there are less exotic types of mediated, pseudo-actions that we all engage in, from our phones to an automatic coffee maker.
These mediators between nature and our lives leave us comfortable but impotent, dependent on phones, slot machines, self-driving systems, etc. This dependence makes us irritable. Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks notes how decreasing lag time between desire and gratification makes us more impatient, since a truly frictionless experience is impossible. Somehow, a 10 second webpage load time feels less bearable than dial-up.
By contrast, developing skill through direct contact with nature increases our confidence, efficacy, and even patience. Although fry cooks have a shorter learning curve than motorcycle mechanics or hockey players, all three experience the freedom of agency and causal influence on the outcome of their work.
Philip Roth said, “You can’t invent out of nothing, or I can’t certainly. I need some reality, to rub two sticks of reality together, to get a fire of reality.” While Roth’s reality was his Jewish, New Jersey upbringing, Coyne’s reality was the grounded, humble work of OKC fry cooking, 13 years of seeing people’s lives unfold.
He describes how he’d see people on first dates, then they’d get married, then they’d bring their kids in. In his words, he became “a real asset” to that Long John Silver’s. Yet, he was always doing a simple job that let his imagination wander. This blend of mundane and imaginative became a hallmark of his music. Even his hairpin turns from sunny to gloomy lyrics go back to Long John Silver’s.
Early on, the restaurant was robbed at gunpoint. He lay on the floor with his co-workers, and he knew he was going to die. But, they just took the money and left, and suddenly, Coyne found himself embracing his co-workers, overcome with the joy of being alive. That sense of memento mori, the razor’s edge between catastrophe and ecstasy is explored in a lyric like, “Do you realize / that happiness makes you cry? / Do you realize / that everyone you know some day will die?”
The Flaming Lips are famous for being wild and creative. They performed in space bubbles during the pandemic, they blow confetti through an industrial leaf vacuum at concerts, Coyne will ride on a fake horse. Apparently, their deal with Warner Brothers was sealed by a label rep seeing a concert in which they nearly started a fire due to on-stage pyrotechnics.
Despite this wackiness, they don’t shy away from reality. “Waitin’ for Superman” was written when Coyne’s father was dying of cancer, but you wouldn’t know that from the lyrics, “Is it gettin’ heavy? / I thought it already was.” Yet, Coyne says fans often come up to him and say that song helped them when their father was sick with cancer. The catharsis comes through the music, even without an explicit reference.
“Do You Realize??” seems like it shouldn’t work, juxtaposing lines about a “beautiful face,” “happiness makes you cry,” and “everyone you know some day will die.” But, when he sings it, in the context of the music, it does. When Coyne first played the song for his bandmate Stephen Drozd, Drozd said, “That’s gonna work, but only you could do that.” Coyne has a knack for these bizarre lines that refract something relatable through his whimsical lens. An imagination coupled to the mundane, a musician who cut his teeth fry cooking.
Coyne never lost the humility of his fast-food years. In 2002, after 12 years of professional music, Coyne explained his point of reference: “We’ve always said as long as we can make more money being in the band than we could, say, working at McDonald’s or Target, then we’d choose being in the band.” He still lives in Oklahoma City, and while financial circumstances will likely never force him to return to Long John Silver’s, those years fry cooking continue to serve him.