Thoughts Out on the Page: It’s Not My Fault

Let’s talk about another major component of “Phishiness”. This is perhaps the most notable lyrical aspect of “Phishiness”, yet it remains somewhat elusive and abstract; a member of the hard-to-describe-but-I-know-it-when-I-hear-it family. You can call it wordplay, punnery or irreverence, but none of those really describe it. The most illuminating explanation that I’ve ever heard for it exists, of all places, in one of the few Phish songs that contain zero traces of it: Twist.

Twist is one of those songs that acts like a lyrical cipher, cracking the “code” for other songs in the artist’s repertoire. What Twist does is it gives a name to that elusive characteristic of Phishiness, the tendency to—let’s just say it—twist around words.

“I spoke your name for many days
Pronouncing it in several ways
And moving letters all around
And substituting every sound

And when you heard the end result
I told you it was not my fault
If you were here more of the day
It wouldn’t twist around that way”

What’s most telling is the way the subject changes from the first half of the verse to the second. In the first half it is the singer who is responsible for the mispronunciation and changing letters. In the second half, however, the impersonal pronoun “It” is given responsibility for the twist. The singer is no longer at fault—the name itself, it seems, has assumed the power to twist itself.

The song suggests that words, when repeated over and over again, evolve on a course all their own. It’s neither our responsibility, nor our fault, how the words end up. We may, for instance, set out to sing a song about a war hero with “mangled” limbs and find that his hands and feet are actually “mangoes” instead. Or we could sing a song about a “moment’s end” that turns into a funky “moma dance”. We might even think we’re living life as an “oblivious fool” but it turns out we’re going on in “Olivia’s Pool”.

Oftentimes, when a word has twisted around, it’s impossible to tell exactly which version is being sung. Are they singing “And I see you” or “N.I.C.U.”? Could we hear the difference even if we knew? At what point in the last line of Glide does “glad” become “glide”? One of the joys of the song is how each repetition seems to evolve gradually to the end so it’s impossible to know where the word really changes. Punctuation has the ability to twist around as well. Is it “Please me, have no regrets” or “Please, me, have no regrets”? Same five words, two very different meanings.

What’s nice about the twist is how it opens nearly every Phish song for interpretation. Sure, most of us think “46 days and the coal ran out” is how the song goes, but if you want to sing “46 days and Nicole ran out” you’re more than welcome. In fact, you’re responding to the song in the exactly active, creative way Phish wants us to. There’s a reason they like to keep an aura of mystery with their lyrics, encouraging the audience to think the words to YEM just might be Water your beehive in a team I’m a sent you”. Sometimes they respond to their own songs this way, by playing with words like:

You’ve got to roll like a cantaloupe, out of control!”

Or by twisting in lyrics from other songs:

“Boy, man! I saw it again!”

Some of my favorite word twists don’t involve the puns or wordplays at all. The way the words sound is all that matters:

“Crab in my shoe mouth”

Fat bulk expanse mass lump block clod”

“I oughta see the man Mulcahy”

In these cases, the words act as a sort of fifth instrument and each sound adds an important piece to the overall composition. Sometimes, in these cases, the sound and the meaning connect in a sort of musical onomonopia, like when the words to “Bouncing Around the Room” seem actually to bounce.

You could say Phish is like the Walt Whitman of jam bands, but then you'd be admitting what a gigantic nerd you are.

Everyone has their favorite twist, and mine happens to be one of the aforementioned types. Actually, it’s a twist within a twist. It’s in Col. Forbin’s, with the words “so slowly ahead” stretched out in a musical onomonopia, first to signify the arduous journey up the mountain:

“And he climbed so slowly
He climbed so slowly
Ahead
Ahead…”

Then describing the quiet, slow speech of the aged Icculus:

“And he spoke so slowly
He spoke so slowly
Ahead
He said…”

But there’s yet another twist. In the following verse, the singer assumes the role of Icculus and begins speaking to Forbin in first person. Instead of speaking slowly, however, his speech becomes rapid fire fast. The entire verse is delivered in less time than it takes to sing the much shorter chorus:

“Colonel Forbin I know why you’ve come here
And I’ll help you with your quest to gain the knowledge that you lack
I call upon my faithful friend the mockingbird
To fly and seize the helping book and bring it to your shack
And a tree of knowledge in your soul will grow
And the Helping Friendly Book will plant the seed
But I warn you that all knowledge seeming innocent and pure
Becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed”

So which is it? Did he speak slowly, as the lyrics say he did, or did he speak quickly, as the words are actually sung? And why the contradiction? Perhaps it’s making a point about the fluidity of time, about how truly relative it is and how the passage of time can be perceived completely differently if you’re a desperate, weary traveler like Forbin or a mystical ancient being such as Icculus. Or maybe it is just Trey having some prankish fun, reveling in the juxtaposition of music and words? Either way, it is a great twist.

So does anyone have a favorite twist that I haven’t mentioned? Please do share. Whatever it is, I promise: It’s not your fault.