Thoughts Out on the Page: Phish Is For the Ladies

A great number of musical artists define themselves by the songs they write about women. Women are arguably the most prevalent subjects in all of popular music. Layla, Lola, Lovely Rita, Foxy Lady, Tangled Up In Blue—the list goes on and on, encompassing nearly every major musician and musical style. We are drawn to these songs because they give us a window into the artist’s most private relationship. They are songs about love, sure, but they’re mostly about the person being loved. At their best they are simultaneously intimate and universal in the way really transcendent art usually is.

I want to take a look at two songs such songs that are at the either end of every conceivable spectrum on the Phish scale: Tela and Summer of ’89. (As is always the case with this column, I will assume the usual level of obsessive knowledge about the songs themselves and urge you to click on the links if you need a refresher).

Tela is one of the most beloved of all Phish songs and, arguably, the most beloved of the many ballads penned by Trey over the years. The fact that this song represents his first attempt at the form shows just host marvelously adept he is at it. In many ways the lyrics are the most traditional of all the Gamehedge lyrics. For instance, this softly poetic verse could fit neatly in many a singer-songwriter’s songbook:

And I look into her eyes and my frozen heart begins to thaw
And burn, ’til layer after layer melts away into a pool
A sky blue mirror of her eyes
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 wind from beyond the mountain

But it is the juxtaposition of these more traditional ballad lines with the uniquely Phish images that give the song its special power:

And she comes to me in this lonely land
And looks down from the multi-beast on which she rides like the wind

And then the closing fugue:

Tela tela jewel of Wilson’s foul domain
Tela tela jewel of Wilson’s foul domain
A lullaby the breezes whisper

While the original version of the song had added verses explaining Tela’s character more fully, the boys rightly realized very soon that these were superfluous outside the Gamhedge context. The traditional ballad lyrics are beautiful enough to carry the heart of the song, with only a couple nods to the multi-beast and Wilson needed to fill in the details. The lyrics have a sort of wispy, ethereal feeling to them that fits perfectly to the music and Page’s vocals. Like her sisters Lola and Layla, Tela is all the more beautiful because of her mystery.

Summer of ’89, on the other hand, takes a very different lyrical approach. This is a song that earned near universal condemnation from the fans when it was unveiled last summer, and it’s not hard to understand why. In place of the subtly expressionistic imagery comes raw, unfiltered sentimentality, like in this verse:

Life changes, time presses on
It seems each year goes faster than the last
No, it’s not that I don’t like the way things are
But lately time just drives me right back to the past

There’s almost something endearingly naïve about lines like “Life changes, time presses on” as sung by Trey. It’s as if he doesn’t understand how innately cringe-inducing those words are, how woefully devoid of abstraction or subtly they are. Or maybe he does understand and just doesn’t care.

If nothing else, at least “Summer of ‘89” is an irrepressibly honest song. Some of the lines mange to rise above the gooeyness of it all and express something unique in their honesty:

Glad to find any time alone
And it’s summer once again
The days are whole
But they’re not our own
Remember our life back then.

We shared one small room
And a bed and a chair
I close my eyes
You touch my hand
You smile
And I’m there.

There’s a tension in there that transcends the bittersweet, bringing to mind the maudlin core that lies at the center of many Phish songs. It’s as if Trey is reconciling his newfound sentimentality with the brasher cynicism about relationships expressed in songs like Suzy Greenberg, Rift and Fast Enough For You just to name a few. Even in a straightforward, helplessly sappy love song like Summer of ‘89, Trey’s honesty allows for moments of brilliance.

There might be less of them out there, but Phish loves the ladies just as much as the dudes.

It is the honesty, ultimately, that bridges the gulf between Phish’s earliest and most recent ballads. Tela transcends the traditional because it subtly marries classical poetry with the unfiltered personality of Trey’s Gamehedge universe. Summer of ’89 is a song that desperately wants to be traditional tearjerker, but the writer’s honesty belies a more nuanced and sardonic outlook.

Though very different from one another, both Tela and Summer of ’89 provide ample evidence for the power of these types of songs. Because the lyrics are so personal to the songwriter, the audience feels an emotional connection to the song, whether they love or hate it. It is, ultimately, our song too.