Tag Archives: Making the Case

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.

Making the Case: Time Turns Elastic

Trey Anastasio’s masterpiece “Time Turns Elastic” was written for an orchestra.

That’s what they tell us, at least. It was performed with the New York Philharmonic in September of 2009. A video surfaced, Trey playing TTE alone, acoustically. And then there’s the Fenway debut.

Somehow, we find ourselves here in November, a few short months after the song was released, and many Phish fans, not just the next generation, are calling TTE the worst Phish song ever. I hear “Time Turns Molasses.” I hear “Time Turns Craptastic.” I hear “Time… to pee.” But why? Why do so many fans hate this song? Why don’t they see what I do in TTE?

I think it’s for a few reasons. Firstly, this song took me a while to “get into.” It’s a long song with many distinct sections, and most people, I honestly think, don’t take the time to listen to it to not only ingest it all, but to even get to know it all. Much of the instrumental part of TTE, I think, is really easier to appreciate as a musician. Counting out some of the bits are a challenge. Many people think the song rambles on for too long aimlessly. Yet I can’t see any section of the song I’d want to trim out. Every bit is great. It’s said that Phish took something like 283 takes to get this track right. I believe this, there are a lot of intricate bits to the song that would be a challenge to capture in one 13 minute chunk.

Which leads me to argument 2 against the song: it’s not been “nailed” yet live. All of the performances thus far have ranged from “pretty lackluster” at worst to “decent” at best. I was excited to get my TTE at Festival 8 only to have it crush under the weight of itself. I love the song, and I’m willing to give Trey the benefit of the doubt and say that the cold air of night one of Festival 8 was responsible for so much of the fudging, but it was hard to hear the climax of the song, “The Carousel,” be executed so sloppily. Having said that, poor live execution does not a bad song make.

Clocking in at over 13 minutes (for the studio version, at least), and usually closer to 18 minutes live thus far, TTE is a big commitment in a set. So it seems reasonable to assume that, in time, Phish will tire of a song like that in regular rotation. When TTE becomes more of a rarity, more like a McGrupp, I bet people will start to think it’s more interesting to hear the song performed live.

The third argument for Time Turns Elastic is that it’s actually a suite of several smaller sections, which, as songs, aren’t nearly as tough to swallow. The song is arranged as follows:

Movement 1a – Song At Dawn
Movement 1b – Ruby Shaded Sea
Movement 2a – Submarine
Movement 2b – Landslide
Movement 2c – Rays Of Blue Light
Movement 3a – Silver Sound Shower
Movement 3b – Hilstorm
Movement 3c – Funnels
Movement 3d – Carousel

courtesy of Mr. Miner phishthoughts.com

Image courtesy of Mr. Miner

Surely, most would agree that the intro and the outro are the most identifiable and the easiest to digest at first glance. It’s just parts of the middle that require some patience and some re-listening. If these parts were played on their own, they wouldn’t be hated.  So narrow it down for me: it’s obviously many smaller bits pieced together: which is the part(s) you don’t like? It can’t be all of them, because the odds of Phish writing so many greats songs and then 3 you hate all coincidentally stitched together are pretty much nil. So those who hate TTE probably aren’t talking about the entire song, but rather, some bit of it.

If anyone has the gall to say “it’s too stretched out,” I’d tell them “you have no place at a Phish show.”  These same people would soil their pants for a 20+ minute jam of 46 Days, Down With Disease, or Split Open and Melt.

Not everyone has to love every Phish song.  Not every fan has to love TTE.  In fact, I understand and concede that TTE is not for everyone.  But it’s annoying me that it’s simply becoming “cool” to not like TTE or to call it the “bathroom break.”

I’ve heard stories that when the Grateful Dead debuted “Terrapin Station,” many fans were unsure of how to receive it.  It wasn’t bluesy, it didn’t rock, it wasn’t a ballad, and it was long.  Years later, many of us regard Terrapin as one of the band’s masterpieces.

I think that many new fans, those that got into Phish during the post-breakup phase, are the ones most vocal about disliking TTE.  And many of them, I do in fact think, are simply naive noobs.   Some have a “kinda” fair argument: I like the song, I don’t like it live.   To them I say: many songs took a while to find their right incarnation and place in the Phish repetoire. Water in the Sky, Shafty, Limb by Limb, Black Eyed Katy/Moma, Tela, and many more went through revision before it found its sweet spot.  On the whole, I don’t think TTE is getting the love and patience it needs and deserves, so I’m making the case.

Making the Case: The "Best" Phish Song

This morning, I began wondering to myself: “If asked the best Phish song, what would I respond?” I thought it over, and I have some thoughts.

I’ve pondered over my favorite Phish songs before, and ultimately, I’ve never been able to settle on one. But today, I’ll give you what I think is the “best.”

First, we’ve got to agree on what “best” means. Does it mean most well liked? Most representative? Most iconic? I am choosing to define it as the song that best captures and satiates fans, be they new, old, or even future.

And the runners up are:

You Enjoy Myself
The logical, most obvious select for “best” phish song is the classic You Enjoy Myself. YEM, as we Phishheads call it, was debuted in 1986 and was featurd in more Phish setlists than any other song – ever. YEM includes a structed composed part, a loose jam part, and has led to some incredible experimentation, including the vocal jam. While YEM is an awesome song, a load of fun, and arguably the quinessential Phish song, I don’t think it’s the best, and one of the reasons is that it’s just too chaotic and hard to understand for those new to Phish.

Bouncing Around the Room
I include Bouncin’ only because, unlike YEM, it is quite easy for those unfamiliar with Phish to immediately fall in love with this song. The tempo, the lightweight guitar, and the repeated clear lyrics make it a natural sing along gem. But, most decidedly unlike YEM, it received quite a bit of radio play and became one of the 5 or so songs that college students that didn’t count themselves as Phish heads knew. As a result, many elitist Phish heads began the backlash against Bouncing. It was not unlikely, in the late nineties, to hear the regulars whine when Bouncing reared its head in a setlist. One more legitimate reason to dislike Bouncing was because, like many other songs, it was not a platform for jamming. This made it more of a recital than a participatory exercise. Since the most loyal fans, whether right or wrong, grew impatient with it, Bouncing cannot be the answer.

Chalkdust Torture
Chalkdust Torture was another “famous” Phish song. While the song is pretty much verse-chorus-verse, it served as a jam platform more often than you might expect. Chalkdust featured a catchy chorus and was a setlist regular from its debut right through Coventry. That said, Chalkdust remained popular for its entire run, and was often recognized by non-hardcores, and even featured on several albums. However, Chalkdust is rarely mentioned as one of the more cherished songs.

The Divided Sky
Ah, the final three. It’s easy to make a case for the Divided Sky. First of all, it’s got several sections, many tightly composed. It’s a musician’s wet dream, it’s got emotion, and it’s a fun song. It features all four members at some point. It’s Gamehendge-related. There are so many things that make this a fantastic song. But, like others above, there is rarely much exploration when this is performed live. Don’t let this take away from the song, it’s one of my faves, but any song that doesn’t encompass everything Phish is about can’t be called “best” in my book.

Harry Hood
Hood is the next step from Divided Sky, and also lands in all of the above categories, sans the Gamehendge connection. Harry Hood is one of the most well-liked songs in Phish-story, and when they open a show with it – as they did twice in 1999 – it signaled an incredible evening. I can’t fault Hood on anything worthwhile. It’s a virtual tie, but there had to be a winner, and that winner is:

Slave to the Traffic Light
In my humble opinion, no Phish song is better than Slave to the Traffic Light. Slave, as we call it, has elements of reggae, rock, jazz, ambient, harmony, and more. Slave includes long jams at times, some really long. It’s well liked, it’s been played with frequency, but not too frequent. It didn’t spark the amazing, but eventually annoying glowstick wars, and the end of the song is really something special nearly every time. Slave is not too complex, so even the relative newbie to Phishdom can understand and appreciate it, and certainly will be swinging and swaying by the end of the song. Also, Slave is the perfect set-ender, the perfect song to draw out your energy, calm you down, and lay you down to sleep nicely.

You can throw around several song like Guyute, Fee, The Lizards, The Squirming Coil, or Cavern, but I have to make the case for Slave to the Traffic Light.

Making the Case: The “Best” Phish Song

This morning, I began wondering to myself: “If asked the best Phish song, what would I respond?” I thought it over, and I have some thoughts.

I’ve pondered over my favorite Phish songs before, and ultimately, I’ve never been able to settle on one. But today, I’ll give you what I think is the “best.”

First, we’ve got to agree on what “best” means. Does it mean most well liked? Most representative? Most iconic? I am choosing to define it as the song that best captures and satiates fans, be they new, old, or even future.

And the runners up are:

You Enjoy Myself
The logical, most obvious select for “best” phish song is the classic You Enjoy Myself. YEM, as we Phishheads call it, was debuted in 1986 and was featurd in more Phish setlists than any other song – ever. YEM includes a structed composed part, a loose jam part, and has led to some incredible experimentation, including the vocal jam. While YEM is an awesome song, a load of fun, and arguably the quinessential Phish song, I don’t think it’s the best, and one of the reasons is that it’s just too chaotic and hard to understand for those new to Phish.

Bouncing Around the Room
I include Bouncin’ only because, unlike YEM, it is quite easy for those unfamiliar with Phish to immediately fall in love with this song. The tempo, the lightweight guitar, and the repeated clear lyrics make it a natural sing along gem. But, most decidedly unlike YEM, it received quite a bit of radio play and became one of the 5 or so songs that college students that didn’t count themselves as Phish heads knew. As a result, many elitist Phish heads began the backlash against Bouncing. It was not unlikely, in the late nineties, to hear the regulars whine when Bouncing reared its head in a setlist. One more legitimate reason to dislike Bouncing was because, like many other songs, it was not a platform for jamming. This made it more of a recital than a participatory exercise. Since the most loyal fans, whether right or wrong, grew impatient with it, Bouncing cannot be the answer.

Chalkdust Torture
Chalkdust Torture was another “famous” Phish song. While the song is pretty much verse-chorus-verse, it served as a jam platform more often than you might expect. Chalkdust featured a catchy chorus and was a setlist regular from its debut right through Coventry. That said, Chalkdust remained popular for its entire run, and was often recognized by non-hardcores, and even featured on several albums. However, Chalkdust is rarely mentioned as one of the more cherished songs.

The Divided Sky
Ah, the final three. It’s easy to make a case for the Divided Sky. First of all, it’s got several sections, many tightly composed. It’s a musician’s wet dream, it’s got emotion, and it’s a fun song. It features all four members at some point. It’s Gamehendge-related. There are so many things that make this a fantastic song. But, like others above, there is rarely much exploration when this is performed live. Don’t let this take away from the song, it’s one of my faves, but any song that doesn’t encompass everything Phish is about can’t be called “best” in my book.

Harry Hood
Hood is the next step from Divided Sky, and also lands in all of the above categories, sans the Gamehendge connection. Harry Hood is one of the most well-liked songs in Phish-story, and when they open a show with it – as they did twice in 1999 – it signaled an incredible evening. I can’t fault Hood on anything worthwhile. It’s a virtual tie, but there had to be a winner, and that winner is:

Slave to the Traffic Light
In my humble opinion, no Phish song is better than Slave to the Traffic Light. Slave, as we call it, has elements of reggae, rock, jazz, ambient, harmony, and more. Slave includes long jams at times, some really long. It’s well liked, it’s been played with frequency, but not too frequent. It didn’t spark the amazing, but eventually annoying glowstick wars, and the end of the song is really something special nearly every time. Slave is not too complex, so even the relative newbie to Phishdom can understand and appreciate it, and certainly will be swinging and swaying by the end of the song. Also, Slave is the perfect set-ender, the perfect song to draw out your energy, calm you down, and lay you down to sleep nicely.

You can throw around several song like Guyute, Fee, The Lizards, The Squirming Coil, or Cavern, but I have to make the case for Slave to the Traffic Light.

Making the Case, Continued

Today’s Making the Case will focus on the masterful song “Roggae.” Roggae’s first appearance, few know, was on June 29, 1998, at a rehearsal in Copenhage, Denmark. I know because I was lucky enough to be there. One day before the European tour truly started, those of us that came by early were treated to Phish’s rehearsal. The soundcheck included a half-hour-plus instrumental version of Roggae. So, yes, perhaps there is some bias, but nonetheless, I’m including Roggae in my “Making the Case” column.

Roggae is named, we are told, because it is a fusion of Rock and Reggae. While you must strain to hear either rock or reggae, most people confirm that it seems an apt-enough title. What makes Roggae special, though, is not just that it fuses two genres. Roggae is a showcase for all four members as musicians, and one that any music afficionado can appreciate.

Having put their vocal talents on display before, Phish squeeze in one verse in which all four members get a chance to sing. Only a handful of originals feature all four members on vocals, and this one gives each person the spotlight, often literally, rather than harmony en-masse.

Further, Roggae is a slow song, which many a musician knows, is the most accessible form of music. I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that Phish’s intent was to reach a larger audience, in fact, I’d argue the antithesis, but I believe Roggae to be a song with mass appeal. It’s got a very nice structure than non-Phishheads can appreciate.

On top of this, Roggae is built for jamming. While it rarely is stretched to its limits, the ending coda is well suited to be extended as long as the band is having fun. A slow and easy line leaves an easy hook for any of the boys to hop on and have some fun.

Roggae’s placement on The Story of the Ghost, though it probably shouldn’t be, is also a factor in its greatness. “Sammiched” in between the uppy “Water in the Sky” and the slow “Wading in the Velvet Sea” establish Roggae as a transition song, either slowing it down, or getting ready to speed it up.

I believe Roggae, aside from being a generally good song, is one of Phish’s best compositions.

Making the Case for My Favorites

I will be featuring a regular “column” on firsttube.com from now on, updated periodically, called “Making the Case for My Favorites.” I will attempt to justify why my favorite Phish songs are worthy of praise, and why my least favorites are less likeable. I encourage everyone to participate in the comments if you’re interested, and if you get the urge, use the “submit story” link to write your own “Making the Case.” The first “Making the Case,” will be about a few songs.

I believe that Billy Breathes is the best recorded Phish song ever, and possibly one of my favorite recorded songs ever. I’ll even attempt to justify it. I’ll also try to convince you that Limb by Limb defines Phish as a “great” band.

The Billy Breathes album is a studio masterpiece. From the opening thumps of Free to the final bubbles of Prince Caspian, Billy follows a consistent theme, so much so that the last half of the album is linked together in what’s known as “the Blob.” The Blob got its name based on the fact that it’s one super long song, all in the same keys, sharing, in some cases, some lyrics, but certainly some medlodies. Billy Breathes, in particular, excels at breaking boundaries with all the modulated guitar, the synth tracks, and the instrumental harmonies. The sweet choruses include many lines of harmony to which, in concert, you’ll see everyone on stages contributes. But the real key to making Billy bigger than life is Trey’s incredible guitar work in the second half of the song. Overlaid by Page’s astounding piano work, and supported by the “know when to sit back ” work of Mike and Fish, Trey simply blares out a masterful solo that in spots, gives me chills. There’s a single note, even, where he overdubs harmony with himself that gets me every time. At the end, his noodling on the same 3 or 4 notes is fantastic. The song doesn’t go on too long, but it doesn’t cut you short. In my mind, it hangs high on the list of great song not too far below “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles.

As for Limb by Limb, the song clearly went through some iterations. As it evolved, Fishman was working with JMP, and was taking lesssons to become a better drummer. When Trey and Tom came up with the “what th hell is going on?” drumline, Fish was able to reproduce it effortlessly. Fish is the star of the show, but the cool cat lyrical tradeoff between Trey and Page often leave me wondering whose lines I should sing. Mike’s awesome thumping lays the ground for Trey’s off note upward strums and Page sprinkles a little piano into the mix. The question is, with everyone holding back, where’s all that noise coming from?

Phish is a rock band, first and foremost. Though they break out reggae (Ya Mar, Have Mercy), blues (Back at the Chicken Shack, My Soul), bluegrass (MMGAMOIO, Nellie Kane, Ginseng Sullivan), amongst other more typical genres (prog rock, pop, etc), the are clearly a rock band. So, to see them write an anti-rock song like Limb by Limb, and have it be original – not a Marley-wannabe off-beat steel drum ditty, but sorta reggae, not a dance song, but awfully contagious – it’s just….satisfying. It certainly helps me explain to people why Phish are amazing songwriters over and above musicians.

In time, I’ll delve into some other songs and why I think they’re great (like Round Room), or even why I think some are, as it’s been phrased, “urine in our ears.” Sound off below if you have a song you love!