Finally listened, after many years, to the three tracks recorded by Richard Wright (the Phish buddy, not the Pink Floyd keyboardist) in the late ’80s under the name Nancy Taube (the lesbian-trapped-in-an-acidhead’s-body, not the board member at Vermonters For A Sustainable Population). Phish have covered two of his songs, “I Didn’t Know” and “Halley’s Comet,” since the mid-‘80s. For some reason, it’d just never occurred to me to check out the originals, even though the Mockingbird Foundation blessedly (as it turns out) coaxed them out of Wright a few years ago, ‘cause they’re really cool. Based on this music alone, one could make a fair case for Richard Wright to be the true genius of the Phish scene, a psych-pop outsider from some DIY sub-scene in deepest Vermont.
“I Didn’t Know” is a pretty historically important Phish tune in that it was one of their freak flags: a bit of totally memorable bizarro barbershop stagecraft (and vacuum solo vehicle) with totally radical harmonies. “Halley’s Comet” continues to communicate perfectly imagistic weirdness to Phish crowds. “It’s Cadillac rainbows and lots of spaghetti, and I love meatballs, so you better get ready”? Beck couldn’t have written it better, or more soulfully for that matter. “Halley’s Comet,” Wright has said, began as a parody of Brian Eno. It’s a bit hard to hear, except maybe the African-ness of Wright’s hand-drums with mysterious gliding vocals. (Or maybe not.) Doesn’t really matter, since it worked, and out came the song.
And the original recordings are brilliant, somehow channeling all the weirdness that Phish seemed to embody in the pre-internet age, when songs like “I Didn’t Know” could only be found on badly labeled cassettes. These 25-year old recordings of Nancy Taube sound as weird now as Phish seemed to then. They feel fresh.
The centerpiece of the so-called Nancy Tracks, though, is as 12-minute epic Wright wrote specifically for Phish, once they’d started covering “I Didn’t Know” and “Halley’s Comet.” Though one can understand immediately why Phish chose not to cover “Snootable Snunshine,” it’s also possible to imagine them doing it, and nailing it. In fact, Wright had an uncanny grasp of Phish’s dynamics. The song is also totally batshit, but mostly in an utterly musical way. It begins like any old prog-pop epic should, with a couple of verses featuring the title hook, a Zappa-esque doo-wop backing, an LSD reference (“edible sunshine gives me a fever”), surreal nonsense (“your legs fall out of your nose”), pleasing internal rhythms, some nice little sub-hooks, and then a wide-open B section, and then off into some home-recorded organ-driven dada chaos.
And just as it couldn’t happen then, it probably couldn’t happen now, either, but it’d be nice to see Phish take a stab at arranging “Snootable Snunshine,” if only as an exercise to see what it’s like to learn that kind of music again: weird, mysterious, and from someplace far away from any kind of mainstream in American thought or culture. Someplace green.