Thoughts Out on the Page: Shoot You in the Eye

Courtesy of Art Fitz

I know I can’t be the only fan who, upon hearing the details of Osama being shot in the left eye by a Navy SEAL, thought immediately of Phish’s upbeat revenge-genesis tale Punch You in the Eye.  In fact, as the news was setting in, I almost felt let down that Obama wasn’t able to hold off another month so we could see the boys react to the news on stage—we could have had another OJ on our hands.

What makes PYITE a revenge genesis tale?  I’ll get to that, but for starters lets agree that, lyrically, this is one of the most narrative songs in Phishdom.  Even amongst its Gamehendge counterparts, PYITE stands as a uniquely straightforward story.  Moreover, as it was written years after Gamehenge, the lyrics stand in stark contrast to the far more abstract narratives being written at the time: Esther, Reba, Fee, etc.  But while arguably the clearest of the many Phish narratives, PYITE is subversive in its own right.

If I can get all film nerd on you for a minute, PYITE consists entirely of what screenwriters call the “inciting event”.  This is the moment in the film that sets everything in motion: Luke Skywalker’s parents being killed, Michael Corleone returning home, Buzz Lightyear meets Woody, and so on.  What makes PYITE unique, and why its fits within the early Phish storytelling mold despite it’s straightforward style, is that the verses and the chorus are actually taking part on two different narrative planes.

Then they tossed the chair in a tiny shack
And told me not to worry ’cause they’d soon be back
But I loosened up the binds where my hands were lashed
And ran towards the cove where my boat was stashed

Singing “Oh Wilson, someday I’ll kill you ’til you die
Oh Wilson, Punch you in the Eye”

While the verses detail all actions leading up to our protagonist’s meeting with Wilson and the near-death experience that unfolds, the chorus is focused on the story to come.  So even as the story is being told to us by the protagonist/narrator, our focus is being repositioned to the part that has yet to unfold—namely, the revenge of the protagonist on Wilson. Tellingly, the verses are actually told in the past-tense while the chorus is a combination of present and future tenses.

When the morning came and the storm had passed
And the dismal fog began at last
To open up before my eyes
And there I saw to my surprise

Chains and specks of islands curved
Where palm trees dipped and seagulls swerved
And I parked my kayak on a stone
And yelled across the ocean to his evil throne

Singing “Oh Wilson, someday I’ll kill you ’til you die
Oh Wilson, Punch you in the Eye”

This is the last moment in the story where we leave our narrator, and yet we know—because he tells us—that this is not the end of the story.  He will do everything he can to exact revenge.

I think this illuminates one of the key areas of Phish lyrics that fans, myself included, have a hard time articulating: That is, how they inflame the imagination and encourage the listener to finish the story themselves.  In this case, a long and winding narrative with many verses and scenes still only adds up to Act I of the entire story.  While other songwriters would be compelled to fill in the blanks, Trey, whether by design or by instinct, purposefully leaves space for the audience to write their own ending.

If I could go on a quick tangent here, another writer who has made a career out of this practice is David Chase, creator of Sopranos.  The Sopranos was masterful in creating storylines just open enough for the audience to engage with, but not so ambiguous that they would be hard to follow.  One storyline that comes to mind as similar to PYITE is the famous episode with the Russian in the woods.  In this episode, Christopher and Paulie take a Russian mobster into the woods to kill him, but he escapes and the guys end up stranded and afraid for their lives.  By the end of the episode, the audience is left guessing, along with the characters, whether the Russian is gone for good or if this was all the beginning of a new storyline where the Russian returns and enacts his revenge (Spoiler Alert: It’s not, although Chase masterfully dangles it over the audiences head for the rest of the series).

The Sopranos was lauded by critics for having a narrative style that “reflects real life”, meaning not every storyline has to contain a beginning, middle and end.  Phish is rarely lauded by critics, and certainly never for their narrative style, but in a way isn’t PYITE just as realistic?  The genesis portion of the revenge story is really the only part most of us experience. Very rarely, if ever, do we actually get to punch the person we want in the eye.  Instead, we must be content with simply imagining it, or better yet, proclaiming it by song from across the ocean.  Even if we could enact revenge on all the people wronged us, would really want to?  Isn’t revenge always sweetest in the future tense?

That’s what I thought until a few nights ago.  That is, when Bin Laden was punched in the left eye with a Seal’s bullet.  So I suppose, in some very rare cases, the reality of revenge can be just as delicious as the imagined version.  But, as a rule, I still wouldn’t bank on it.