Making the Case: Summer of '89

Smegma, dogmatigram, fish market stew.
Walking across the lawn, stepped upon a log.
Tipsy, fuddled, boozy, groggy, elevated prime did edit her.

These are the lyrics of Phish. These are the fun, linguistic acrobatics that entertain us. But, from time to time, things get serious we have to acknowledge that we are human, and we have lives, and we have families. Those, too, shape us and our experiences. I think it’s common for fans to forget that they’re favorite entertainers have lives off the stage, and from time to time, those fans can be both rabid and unforgiving.

When I began to read online comments deriding Trey’s new ballad, Summer of ’89, I was a bothered. When I heard the song debut in Hartford, I thought of it as a light little set-interlude, punctuated by the “and we danced all night” refrain. I wasn’t especially excited about it, but I certainly wasn’t offended by it. On repeat listening, though, I’m feeling differently.

I hope we’re mature enough as a community to recognize Summer of ’89 for what it is: a nice, gentle love song from Trey to his wife. Phish is on the road a lot – less these days, with Shakespeare camp and school vacation commitments – but it seems only fair that once in a while, they can use the stage to remind their family how much they mean to them, especially give the fact that most songwriters write lyrics that touch on their personal lives, while our rock stars tend to sing about imaginary friends, getting raped in the forest on an owl hunt, syrup thieves, aggressive reflections, and, oh yeah… good ol, classic masturbation.

The other day, I was driving along and Summer of ’89 came on, and I listened to the lyrics seriously for the first time. What is it other than an intimate glance into Trey’s love life? Weaving a grass ring, a particular, frequently-worn dress, a shared phase of Brazillian music. And then? “On the road when our first was born in the summer of ’95.” I actually felt a tear well up in my crusty old ducts, one that betrayingly fought its way up, but ultimately, I was just able to hold back. But it connected with me, because the idea of being away from my kids for more than a few days makes me sad, let alone a tour, or missing something as monumental as their birth.

I consider this light little tune, and I realize that behind the simple rhymes are not just memories that make one smile, but a little bit of regret. Regret about how it was simpler then. Regret about missing time with children. Regret in the moment: we used to dance all night, but now… well, now we don’t.

Singing about kids often chokes me up, and this is coming from someone who almost never cries. I’m not ashamed to admit that there was a day a few years ago when, upon hearing the “smiles awake you when you rise” verse of The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers, I suddenly and uncontrollably wept like a baby thinking of my daughter. As a parent, I don’t see any problem with reflecting on the life you’ve built with your family and being wise enough to see your successes and man enough to admit your regrets and mistakes. To me, this was Trey reflecting on his life with his family. A little bit of happy memory, a little bit of bittersweet. But honest. Like Joy, it’s hard not to see something raw underneath the veneer of playfulness that usually coats Phish and Phish-derivative offerings.

Say what you will about Summer of ‘89 – it’s weak compositionally, it’s mushy and out of place at a Phish concert, its chordiness makes it musically unchallenging, it’s not manly enough, it’s unnecessarily sappy, it’s a too-intimate glance into private emotions… to me, those are all excuses. You don’t have to love the song, but to suggest that it’s bad because it’s different just seems disingenuous and uncharacteristic of Phish phans.

But then… what do I know? I likeTime Turns Elastic.

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