As Phish summer tour kicks off, we share this essay which evolved from Benjy Eisen’s presentation at the Phish Studies academic conference, which took place at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, last month
If you understand Phish’s lyrics — form, function, intent — then you understand that Phish’s most effective, most quoted, and most popular lyrics tend to take common themes and express them in uncommon ways — they take the ordinary and transform them into something extraordinary. That’s if you understand them — really understand them. But Phish’s lyrics have always been misunderstood, often by the band’s biggest fans and certainly by any passerby who overhears this sometimes goofy band singing about meat, meatsticks, lizards, and ghosts.
In Trey Anastasio’s 1988 senior thesis for Godard College, he analyzes his process for composing the song “Tela,” which was — essentially — Phish’s first love song. Anastasio writes, “I wanted to be able to express some of my more serious emotions through music, not just my jovial, carefree self.”
Anastasio explains that the song’s narrative is ultimately about unrequited love — Col. Forbin, the fool; Tela, the love interest — but his primary intent was to write a song that conveyed the universal emotions we all circle through when experiencing a new love for the first time.
“And my soul is made of marble
But in her gaze,
I crumble into dust
And drift away on the wind
The wind from beyond the mountain.”
The lyrical approach is remarkably different from: “ I want to dance with somebody, I want to feel the heat with somebody, I want to dance with somebody, with somebody who loves me” — Whitney Houston’s top ten hit from the same year that Anastasio wrote “Tela.”
“When writing the lyric,” Anastasio says in his thesis, “I focused on the use of language, thinking of the song as poetry. This may or may not have been the greatest idea because sometimes simple language is the best thing for a song, in that people have to understand what you are saying.” Hold onto that thought.
Anastasio’s work with Phish would, more or less, take a much different turn for the next quarter century before circling back around to this desire to connect by being direct. Immediate examples include songs with names such as “You Enjoy Myself,” “Tweezer,” even “Stash” — all three of which employ lyrics for something akin to phonetic amplification, letting the voice act as a lead melodic instrument instead of as a narrator. Going back to his Godard College thesis, Anastasio even admits that the songs “McGrupp” and “Wilson” began as, in his word, “nonsense.” He post-contextualized those examples by writing a fanciful musical around them — the rock opera known as The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. (Or Gamehendge for short.)
Gamehendge closes with the song “Possum” and, outside of its use in that saga, I’m not sure that many fans derive any kind of deep meaning from that song. It can be fun, at least the first dozen or so times you see it live, and the lyrics are silly but memorable: “Oh possum, your end is the road.”
Of course, this is likely one of those examples that non-fans point to when stating that the lyrics are a roadblock to their appreciation for Phish because, after all, “Oh possum, your end is the road” seems more like an “Ashes ashes we all fall down” cautionary tale for school kids than something an older, college-educated music fan would consider near and dear. Those that hold it as such are likely to do so because of the way the entire composition — the music, the melody, the tension and release — makes them feel emotionally. It’s a music trick.
And yet, in his thesis, Anastasio states, “‘Your end is the road’ is supposed to mean that something that seems important at the moment is all part of a greater flow of things and that to be happy one must just realize the inevitability of things.”
That’s an early example of Phish taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary; the common into the uncommon.
Fishman can “suck to blow” that Electrolux all he wants but the truth is that Phish wasn’t born in a vacuum. There’s a strong and complex linear heritage that led to Phish, musically and lyrically, which we don’t have time for in today’s presentation. But as I went down those rabbit holes, I found some things that I didn’t expect.
I’ve written about Phish for more than two decades, from online chat rooms to Rolling Stone, and one of my motivations for doing so was that I was annoyed by all the lazy, stigmatic descriptions of the band as a melting pot of folk, jazz, blues, funk, metal, rock, pop, prog, and barbershop quartet — but the truth is that their lyrics absolutely borrow from all of those genres.
Anastasio notes in his thesis that the Random House dictionary defines composition as “The act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.” He then states that it was from that angle that he approached both the lyrics and the music for Gamehendge, and — we can demonstrate — much of Phish’s entire songbook. Combining disparate parts and unrelated elements to form a unified whole. The wooks had it right all along: It’s a patchwork.
Phish has always been a creative creature on the move; any serious analysis of their lyrics or their music will fail to accurately capture them beyond a certain finite period in their larger history. This is further complicated by the fact that the four of them have four very distinct songwriting voices and that they utilize additional songwriting partners, lyricists and contributors as well — most notably, Tom Marshall, who brings a distinct, poetic voice to the lyrics.
Glossing over the data, let me just state that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support a theory that Phish’s most popular songs — songs that have been life-changing for a number of fans, songs whose lyrics appear on bumper stickers, high school yearbooks, and backs of eyelids — tend to be the songs whose concrete, literal meaning is opaque, unless and until you hear a direct explanation straight from the multi-beast’s mouth. If and when the respective lyricist reveals what they actually meant by certain lyrics, you might wish that your tattoo had been temporary and, oh my god, did you really name the cat after a song about a morally bankrupt spy?
In the last few years, Anastasio’s own songwriting has become significantly more direct. We can all speculate the reasons for this and my guess is that the majority of all of our guesses are probably somewhat on point. Anastasio is getting older, he’s now clean, sober and a family man. He’s even shaved off a lot of the youthful playfulness in his onstage banter. In the current era, when he addresses the audience, it’s most often to express reflective, nostalgic, or emotional thoughts in a fairly straightforward manner; a sharp contrast from his “Forbin’s” or “Icculus” narrations of an earlier time. Many, though not all, of his recent lyrics mirror this.
The most striking example is Ghosts of the Forest. It contains some of Anastasio’s most direct and serious songwriting to date. In a modern first, he made it a point to lay bare the subject matter before we even had a chance to hear the tunes. It’s a song cycle about watching one of his closest friends die and the emotions that he went through before, during, and after. Most reviews were favorable and the fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive, although some young friends of mine were less than pleased about what they perceived as a lack of lyrical complexity, even accepting and appreciating the context of concept. (I would argue that, in classic Anastasio mode, even here, not everything is what it seems, including the title track, and that scattered amongst the more forthright lines are plenty of examples of “lyrical complexity”).
Regardless, those few hold-out fans might point to an early classic, “Fluffhead,” which most perceive to be one of Phish’s silly songs. It’s actually about watching a loved one slowly die of disease. “Wipe those fluff balls off your head” — spoken in frustration and horror at watching a loved one’s hair fall out due to chemotherapy treatment.
But Anastasio was arguably right all those years ago when he stated that a very straightforward, direct approach can be the most effective — perhaps even the only effective — method, if you want people to immediately understand exactly what you mean. If you’re trying to tell them something specific. If you’re trying to express, to connect, to relate.
Nobody needs to go listen to a podcast or read a magazine interview to understand lyrics like: “It’s so hard to find a real friend,” or “Don’t give up hope — keep dreaming.”
They’re almost reminiscent of Bob Marley lyrics: “Don’t worry about a thing,” “No woman, no cry,” “Let’s get together and feel alright” — songs that are universally loved, popular to the extreme, songs we all know by heart… We all immediately knew what these songs were about, even if we didn’t know their origin inspiration.
It’s hard to quote those Marley tunes without also being reminded of a batch of newer Phish songs: “Everything’s Right,” “Rise Up/Come Together,” “More” and so on. I find these songs to be a welcome addition to the larger catalog, especially when viewed as companions, not replacements. But they undeniably represent a creative departure from what we can call, without judgement, “Classic Phish” or “Characteristic Phish.”
As we discuss this next point, keep in mind that Ghosts of the Forest was not a Phish album. The songs were a thematic collection of Anastasio compositions, introduced to us via a side-project. Now cut to Halloween of last year: Kasvot Vaxt. Instead of Phish’s usual Halloween tradition of covering a complete album by another band, they pulled a prank and invented a fake band from Scandinavia. They claimed they were reviving an obscure album from a bygone time but, as we know, it was actually a complete set of new Phish songs.
During a solo acoustic performance in Boulder last winter, Anastasio revealed that he first started thinking about the songs that became Kasvot Vaxt while he was — notably — still wrapping up work on Ghosts of the Forest, down in Nashville. The Kasvot lyrics, “Everything is overlapping, to the future to the passing” certainly is applicable here, with “to the future, to the passing” having a particularly haunting undertone in light of the events that inspired the Ghosts of the Forest album. “To the future… to the passing.”