Let’s start with a game. I will show you a setlist. This setlist has been meticulously designed by me to illustrate a point (aside from how awesome I am at making imaginary setlists). Each song in the setlist shares something in common which binds them to each other. The game is to try and figure out what that is. I’ll reveal the answer further below.
Set I: Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Two Versions of Me, Driver, Pebbles and Marbles>Nothing, Sleep, It’s Ice->Spock’s Brain->It’s Ice
Set II: Light->Mind Left Body Jam->Ghost, Hold Your Head Up>If I Only Had a Brain>Hold Your Head Up, Thunderhead>Fluffhead
E: My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own, Sanity
A major reason why Phish has such a cultish following is the amount of depth and variety in their repertoire. To the uninitiated, this can cause the shows to sound something like a sonic clusterfuck. We fans, however, understand the deep and subtle threads that bind everything together in perfect harmony. We call this “Phishiness”.
Phishiness can refer to a number of different things. It can mean the absurd comedy of Fishman singing Killing in the Name on July Fourth, the subtle set-list communication of placing Ha Ha Ha after a Chalkdust/Whole Lotta Love sandwich, or the audacity to cover a song like Golden Age or Sabotage and actually make it work. Usually, when a new song doesn’t work, it’s not because the song is bad, necessarily, it’s because it seems to be missing that Phishiness factor.
One of my overall goals for the column is to try and see if we can put our finger on what some of the lyrical components of Phishiness might be. There are many places where we could start. But there’s really only one theme that is so pervasive and so deeply engrained in the lyrics of Phish that it helps illuminate nearly every aspect of the band and its lyrics. It is, perhaps, the most important thematic component of Phishiness.
Ready for the answer? In the above setlist, every song is about one fundamental relationship: The relationship between the Person and the Mind.
I think we can agree that nearly all phish songs are concerned with some sort of relationship. There are romantic relationships (from Tela to Summer of ’89), relationships with nature (Col. Forbin’s to just about everything on Round Room) and relationships with one another (Wolfman’s Brother, Backwards Down the Numberline, Ocelot). Songs can contain multiple relationships, of course, but there are very few with lyrics that can be said to contain none whatsoever.
So what does it mean to say that a song is about the relationship between a person and his mind? Let’s refer back to that imaginary setlist and see how the theme is expressed. A few of the songs spell it out explicitly, some in the chorus even:
“I’ve got a blank space where my mind should be”
“My mind’s got a mind of its own”
“Can’t see the light between me and my mind”
“There are certain things my mind won’t do, even though they’re very few”
“Everything smoothly flows right through my head/What I hoped might linger is swept off instead”
Some of them use a metaphor or character to represent the mind:
“Pebbles and marbles like things on my mind”
“I need a new way to express myself…High above you like a thunderhead”
“I’ll tell you about the driver, who lives inside my head”
“His answer came in actions, he never spoke a word”
Some of them split the narrator in two, where he’s either unable to defeat himself:
“My double wants to pull me down”
Or unable to represent himself:
“Two children at play, too busy to see two versions of me”
And some of them have simply lost their minds and are in dire need of powerful pills:
“Lost my mind just a couple of times”
“His eyes were clear and pure, but his mind was so deranged”
“If I only had a brain”
These are not the only songs that share the theme, nor are these songs all exclusively about just one theme. I tried to stick with only the songs that I thought expressly communicated the theme best, but you could probably come up with many more examples. Then there’s the songs that deal with the mind and self in a more indirect but equally powerful manner, especially ones that appear to deal more with drugs or dreaming. Take a look at the winding journey of Stash as an example of a drug-fueled adventure of the mind. Or take the entire Rift album–a concept album about a man dreaming about his girlfriend–for some more subconscious exploration along the same lines of It’s Ice. (For example, who do you think the dangerous friend in My Friend is? Could it be the narrator’s “double”?)
This is all debatable, of course. The “Ghost” in Ghost can certainly be taken to mean a literal external presence as opposed to the internal creative force I take it to represent. Fluffhead might simply be about a guy who is dying from cancer with cotton on his head, as the story goes, and not about the relationship between the lucid mind and the dying body.
I just think the lyrics run a bit deeper than that. The delicate poetry of Sleep and the elegant of personifying of Driver should not be seen as thematically separate thematically from more abstract pieces like Fluff and Ghost. There is a thread that binds them together across the bounds of form and time. This thread helps us connect to the music at a much deeper level than if were to only consider each song individually.
Which brings us back to beginning section on Phishiness. Being a fan of Phish means joining in the Phishiness, even if it’s on a subconscious, elemental level. Words and lyrics will never be able to embody the entire experience. But sometimes, even the most abstract lyrics can illuminate ideas and unlock an understanding of other songs and concepts. More explicitly discernible songs like Driver or MMGAMOIO are ultimately no more powerful to me than the abstract lyrics of Fluffhead, which seem to capture all the emotional tragicomedy of the relationship between Mind and Self in just a few lines. But each has its place in the larger conversation.
What is most beautiful about these lyrics is how they serve as their own guide to understanding them. Whether it’s your mind, your driver, your double, your ghost or another name entirely—all of us share the same delicate relationship and the same struggle. But as long as we are willing to keep our doors open and listen to ourselves we will at least begin to have some understanding of what exactly is going on inside our own heads.
I want to take a paragraph at the bottom of each week’s column to recap some of the discussion that goes on in the comment section. I thought it was particularly interesting how a bunch of people (I think it was three) questioned the popular assumption of the 46 Days chorus, suggesting maybe the lyrics are “46 days and Nicole ran out” as opposed to “46 days and the coal ran out”. What I love about this is even if it isn’t “correct”, it is the exact type of lyrical word twist that Phish embodies. I love how Phish’s own propensity to play with words encourages us to do the same (and, hey, maybe they are actually singing “Nicole ran out”). There will be much more about the way Phish twists, rearranges, substitutes and plays with words in next weeks column.