One of the most prevalent assumptions about Phish, and one of the most frustrating for their fans, is that they only play “happy hippie music”. If you’re the type that’s into making assumptions about things you don’t understand, it’s easy to see how you could make this mistake. Phish’s most notable song is called You Enjoy Myself, their last album is called “Joy”, and their drummer wears a polka dot dress. They are commonly known for light, fluffy tunes like Bouncing Around the Room, Suzy Greenberg and Simple.
“We’ve got it simple, cause we’ve got a band. And we play cymbals in the band!”
Tells you pretty much all you need to know about those four lovable goofballs, right?
Well, not quite. Phish has a dark side and it is strange, twisted and more than a little scary. Remember, this is a band that loves to perform on Halloween and treats it like a major holiday, each year dispensing evil jams before and after the costume set. But it’s not just the jams that get wicked; there are plenty of songs that are born out of the darkness. They don’t make up the majority of the Phish canon, but they do appear on most albums album and they serve a very important role.
Is it any coincidence that Phish named their festival The Great Went after a David Lynch movie? In many ways, the Phish dark side embodies the same concurrence of themes and styles that gives Lynch films their distinctive quality: A mixture of dream world and real world, an indefinable undercurrent of disease and decay, and an embracing of absurdity that turns nightmarish through repetition. All of these elements, combined with a complete lack of irony (or winking at the audience to let them know everything is alright), give both artists their unique darkness.
From the early days of the “White Tape”, we have the nightmarish cacophony of NO2—an abrasive ode to dentistry that features Dr. Gordon freestyling commands like, “Just sit back and open your mouth wide…you won’t feel a thing.” But it’s Junta, the first official and most classic of all Phish albums, that is also the darkest. Between songs like Esther, Sanity, Dinner and a Movie and Foam we get some of Phish’s nastiest tunes and lyrics:
“But the foam keeps getting thicker
And it just keeps getting harder
And I’m falling
Into a deep
“The waves seemed to open and swallow her whole
As the doll pulled her down through the eerie green deep
And the sound of the laughing old man filled her ears
As she drifted away to a tranquil
And motionless sleep.”
“And I don’t care if the world explodes
No, I don’t care if the world explodes.
You can save the whales, you can save the toads
But I don’t care if the world explodes!”
The next three albums keep the darkness flowing with songs like Split Open and Melt, Cavern, Maze and My Friend, My Friend. These songs have a good deal less creepiness than the tracks from the White Tape and Junta, but they more than make up for it with violent imagery and a frantic sense of desperation.
“Jumping to my feet
I try to put myself together
but I feel it in my knees
and the room begins to spin
and I slip and bump my head and raise a welt
Split open and melt”
“Soon I felt a bubble form somewhere below my skin
But with handy spine of hedgehog
I removed the force within”
“My friend, my friend, he’s got a knife”
“The torrent of helplessness swept me away
To the cavern of shame and the hall of dismay
Inside me a voice was repeating this phrase:
You’ve lost it, you’ll never get out of this maze”
Over the rest of the Phish discography the songs grow progressively less dark and, frankly, less weird. This is often what fans have complained about when they talk about that how the songwriting has changed over the years. However, even though it’s become more subtle, the darkness still remains.
“The terrible thing about hell
Is that when you’re there you can’t even tell
As you move through this life you love so
You could be there and not even know”
“I feel you shift my weight around
I squirm and roll beneath your flesh”
“Taste the fear, for the devil’s drawing near”
“Melody, shelter in the darkness
Take hold of me now
Memory, trapped in a corner
Dark fingers are long”
OK, that last one might be a stretch. But it is true that even “Joy”, the lightest and brightest of all Phish albums, is mainly about a recovering drug addict who has trouble relating to his own mind. And that’s a pretty dark subject.
So next time someone tries to paint your favorite band as a bunch of peace-loving hippies, give them a dose of some of that dark, nightmare Phish. And when they’re left shaking in their booties, you can cue up Ha Ha Ha and have a long, evil laugh.