The Relentless Communicator: Something About Songs

Trey Band @ Stage AE, 2/25/11 Photo by Dusty Hays

To me, listening to a song is a primitive thing. It’s soundwaves echoing in your head and stimulating everything you’ve got going on inside you. It’s a sensation that could have possibly preceded language, and we’re pretty sure we know preceded writing.

It’s art, but then again, so are sculptures. Unlike the marble that the David is chiseled from, a song exists in the ether and can never be touched. It’s the chords, the notes, the melody and the words, but at the same time, it’s none of those things, because they’re not really there. In a moment they exist, upstaged only by their relation to each other, before they disappear. In the history of the world, it took us a whole lot longer to figure out how to capture a song than to paint a picture.

For most people, when they think of a song, they think of the most popular recorded version. For them, the song’s existence begins and ends with that one version. However, the true power of that very song may be how it integrates itself into the world. It’s not just on that one day, in that one recording studio, it’s wherever that song exists and whatever places it might go. It could be an off-key rendition by an over the hill cover band in a roadside bar, it could be bad muzak, it could be the absent minded whistle from the cubicle dweller to your left, or it could just be that insidious melody that you woke up with in your head. A song is at its best when it can breathe a little bit.

But if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Phish phan, and you already knew that.

See, to phans, a song is a living, breathing, drooling, laughing, snarling beast. It has good days and bad days. It’s a conversation that is scintillating at times, and exhaustively boring at others. It has no answers, but limitless questions.

Don’t ever let a non-phan bog you down by defining Phish using the usual talking points about drugs, dress, dreadlocks, the grilled cheese sandwich and the Volkswagen van. None of that separates Phish phans from any other corner of rock and roll. Everybody’s got they’ve wardrobe, their spirits and their customs. What they don’t have is that unspoken understanding that to be a phan of this band means to have a relationship with these songs in a way most music fans just don’t have. It’s a lifelong relationship and it’s never summed up on an album.

A phan’s relationship with a Phish song encompasses a great deal of time, oftentimes more years than the listener has been listening. The difference between the same song from 1992, 1997 and 2004 and that’s a distinction that most fan-bases are able to make. They’d never really consider it either, because the songs are never supposed to change. With Phish, if the songs don’t change, what’s the point? Tweezer can be long, it can be short, it can be ambient or it can be grooving, it can be pure Phish or mostly Zeppelin’s greatest hits. On any given night, a song can be, and can mean, any given thing. That’s the beauty of it. It’s always different. Every living thing changes as it grows and a Phish song is no different.

Trey Band @ Stage AE, 2/25/11 Photo by Dusty Hays
Trey Band @ Stage AE, 2/25/11 Photo by Dusty Hays

In the Phish catalog, the songs all have different personalities. The looping gait of Ocelot ,the screeching intensity of BBFCM, the playfulness of Contact or the enthusiasm of Run Like An Antelope each song stands apart. Some songs, like Destiny Unbound or Fuck Your Face, are known exclusively for their rarity. Others might pop up on many setlists, but barely little resemblance to previous versions. Some songs, like Mike’s Song, Weekapaug Groove or Light, can be defined by the company they keep.

The relationship a phan has to a Phish song is a living thing, and it’s a pretty impressive thing to see in the wild. That’s what I’m thinking about as I sit here waiting on Summer Tour, it’s time to get back into the wilderness and see what I can find.