Thoughts Out on the Page: Thank You Mr. Fordham

I would like to introduce a new column I’m calling “Thoughts Out on the Page”. This column will focus exclusively on the lyrics of Phish. If you are looking for a discussion of jamming or musicianship, you’d best take your business elsewhere. Here we are concerned with words and words only. If “You Enjoy Myself” is brought up, it will be with an Italian/English dictionary in hand.

Why dedicate a multi-part feature on the lyrics of a jam band that is known, first and foremost, for its intricately composed instrumentals and improvisational jamming? Because I believe that Phish songs contain some of the greatest lyrics written in the past 30 or so years. Furthermore, I believe that Phish’s lyrics are often overlooked and dismissed by some fans and critics as nonsensical or even unimportant.

The reason for this is, in a word, laziness. Lazy critics create convenient stereotypes to write off what they don’t understand. Lazy fans buy into those stereotypes and perpetuate them by saying things like “lyrics aren’t important to the songs” or “the words aren’t supposed to make sense unless you’re high”. Like other great musical artists, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads, Phish’s lyrics blend the deeply personal with the abstract to create something special. Unique often goes hand-in-hand with inaccessible, and no one would argue that Phish’s lyrics are easy to grasp at first listen. But, like many types of art, the themes and meanings reveal themselves in time to those who are patient enough to take the journey. The effort put into understanding and appreciating the work makes the message that much more poignant.

For an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at the song 46 Days. The song debuted as a standout track from 2002’s Round Room before first rearing it’s head live on 1/2/2003. But you have to journey all the way back to November, 16, 1996 to uncover the history of the song’s villain, Mr. Leigh Fordham.

It was on this night that an Axilla>Hood segue devolved into a maniacal shouting match between Trey and Fishman involving some man named Leigh wanting to go to Cuba to see the Lion King and go fishing–or something like that. The madness continues into Hood as Trey replaces the second repetition of “Harry, Harry” with “Leigh, Leigh” and Fishman fills in for the audience by responding “Fordham, Fordham!”. After a sublime Hood with one of the greatest sustained notes in the song’s history, the legend of Leigh Fordham was born. Fans in the know quickly realized that Leigh Fordham was one of the band’s lighting technicians, but no more information was uncovered.

1996-11-16 Harry Hood part one

1996-11-16 Harry Hood part two

Flash forward six years to the debut of 46 Days. For the fans who were present or privy to the ’96 Fordham madness, the lyrics to 46 Days must have felt like the next chapter of a story, or at least a retelling of an inside joke they could now claim to be a part of. But the question remains: What story or joke are we being told exactly?

“Leigh Fordham sold me out, 46 days and the coal ran out.” The song, taken in context with other Round Room tracks suggests a man trying to survive amongst the elements. “Pebbles and Marbles”, “Seven Below”, “Walls of the Cave”, “Waves”—these are all songs about nature and the messages nature holds if we are willing to listen. Nature has the power to connect us to one another or hopelessly strand us forever. “46 Days” is a song about the latter.

“She dug down when they took the town, looking for clues but they couldn’t be found.” On many songs on the album, the narrator is reaching out to an anonymous “Her” and finding clues in nature about how and where to find her. But in “46 days”, it is “Her” that is trying to find “Him”, and she is literally clueless. To make matters worse, Leigh Fordham, who has already betrayed our narrator, is now coming to find her.

“He found out she was ready to roam, 47 days and the coal came home.” While it is unclear what “town” or “home” refers to, we know that “She” is a friend and possibly lover of the narrator and “He” is the villain Fordham. “She” is setting out from the town, possibly to try and find the narrator, but “He” has found out about it. The ending to the story is, at the very least, ominous. The coal has come home, but how, and at what cost to “Her”?

This is pretty much all we can definitively say about the lyrics without stepping over into interpretation, and it is already enough to make for a powerful song. But what is so great about the best Phish lyrics is the way they give you just enough information to get your imagination running but leave so much untold that it actually forces you to interpret the rest for yourself. One person’s interpretation is just as good as the next and there’s no right or wrong, which is what makes it so much fun. Anyway, here’s my interpretation:

“46 Days”, for me, is a song about being at someone else’s mercy. What do we know about this Leigh Fordham character? We know that he was the band’s lighting technician and that’s really about it. However, I think this nugget of information is useful given the context of the song. The Fordham in the song is somehow in control of what the narrator desperately needs: The coal. In a lonely cabin in the woods, like the one pictured on the cover of Round Room, a bag of coal can be the difference between life and death, illumination and darkness. For a band on stage, alone amongst a sea of fans, the technicians are the one who makes sure they are seen and heard–basically in complete control of their lives. Did Fordham somehow fuck up the band’s lighting one night, causing them to feel helpless and stranded? How about that fateful night of November 16, 1996, when Trey was heard complaining about a light being in his eye amongst all the yelling? Maybe so or maybe not.

Of course, I don’t think the song is actually about Leigh Fordham, lighting technician. We’ll never know what relationship the real L.F. has to the “46 Days” L.F., if any. At best he is a symbol, probably tongue-in-cheek, for a much deeper idea. And because the symbol is personal to Trey and the band, it becomes personal for us as well. It’s easy to imagine the dependence of a band on its technicians leading to feelings of helplessness, especially for a perfectionist like Trey. Plus, with our small sample size of songs featuring the band’s crew—Carini being the only other one I can think of—we can at least notice a pattern of technicians and dread going hand-in-hand.

Completely disagree with my reading of “46 Days”? That, as the man said, is cool. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts as well as ideas on topics you’d like me to cover. In the future I’m hoping to concentrate more on larger themes and threads than individual songs, but I’m really open to any ideas you might have. Hopefully this column will become a forum for us to discuss the oft-ignored, red headed stepchild of the Phish experience (no, not Trey). Lyrical nerds unite!