Phish Lyrics: Refracted Light
A light beam bends when it meets a new medium. Musical and literary creative beams do the same. A new song is given birth in the songwriting process like a newly born ray of light. Passing from the lyricist through the medium of the composer, the direction and quality of the beam is altered and bent, and then once again refracted in performance, with each sequence of words hitting the ear of each listener differently at a given time and place, and the meanings are thus shifted again. Newly born prisms thereby present themselves over and over again. From show to show, and tour to tour, the words refract like colored rainbows over the years and months of the life of the band. The words of each song don’t even mean the same thing to Trey or Page or Mike each time they sing them, and they don’t mean the same thing to us each time we hear them.
This happens on a simple enough level that we are all familiar with. "Follow the lines going south" means, well, just the same thing to everyone heading down to Florida to Big Cypress, and yet it means something else to a young girl in 1996 leaving Maine for the first time to drive her packed up Corolla to start a new life at college in Asheville.
When the song The Wedge was played at the Lemonwheel, the words "I’m building you a pyramid with limestone blocks so large" were all about Limestone Maine to the entire crowd, at that time, in that place. And so, a cheer went up from the entire crowd. But The Wedge meant something different and specific to me that night; behind the Lemonwheel stage was the border between Canada and the United States. When I heard the lines, "take the highway to the great divide" it meant me driving all the way along the Canadian roads to the New Brunswick border with Maine, and then crossing the great divide between our two countries, and finding myself, five miles later, at the festival itself.
What amazes me is how personally each fan takes the song that they are hearing at the time they hear it. The song Dirt brings tears to the eyes of many who have lost love ones who have passed away and been buried. Walls of the Cave elicits thoughts from many of those who couldn’t be saved in the 9/11 disaster, or brings to mind simply the rise and fall of civilizations and the scratches that we leave behind, cultural signposts for generations to come and behold our vanity and the edifices that we throw up in our greed and pride.
So as we drift in and out of our fugue states from show to show, the messages are reborn each time. These are songs that we have known for years, heard dozens or maybe hundreds of times before, but suddenly, at this time or that, the words mean something new and distinctly personal.
Love and sex are themes we all consider regularly, whether at a show or not. What is Phish singing about in the woman department? Trey’s songs Drifting and Ether Sunday are happy meanderings through marital bliss, with walks to the bank, the grass soft beneath his feet; love, love love. Tom Marshall’s songs are more often about relationships adrift in constraint, complicated by communication breakdowns, contained within boxes and compartments from which there are no exits, only endless resignations to pre-ordained fates with no discernible alternatives. Some of us perceive these predicaments as metaphors for life, the necessary side effects of human fate; mazes from which we try to reverse, occasionally frustrated by futility and failure. But there are other songs that hearken to a far off woman, an irresistible voice beckoning in a call and response, a siren calling to Odysseus from a rocky shore. Bouncing, and Waves, invite us to consider a dreamy woman who is out of reach and yet still in some sort of distant or telepathic contact. On the wind and underwater, the words are exchanged with a muse on a course whose path he would never redirect, but whose path will never intertwine with his own. Pebbles and Marbles invites us to a still life of a woman on a shore, entranced by the stars and underwater creatures. The chorus then takes us back to Marshall’s existential questioning of ideas and inspirations; pebbles or marbles found or dropped; did the inspiration come from me, he asks, or from elsewhere?
If you were to ask Tom what these words meant, he would probably either tell you that they mean whatever you want them to mean, or that he may not have even known what they meant they were written. Either way, the refraction is in effect. The beam that was the muse, the inspirational force that whispered into his ear, has bent its way from Tom’s librettos into Trey’s compositions, and then into your ears at a given show. They carry a common thread of basic inspiration but the threads separate into an exquisite prism by the time they reach you via Trey’s writing and Phish’s performance.
Those final patterns, in the ears of the beholders, be they the artists, the performers, and the listeners, are determined by their immediate needs and ultimate intentions — the ear that half-creates and half-perceives, as Wordsworth said, constructing reality in accordance with our current wishes and deepest beliefs.