Flock of Words
About a mile outside Coventry, VT, stood a sign. Simple, wooden, and slowly chipping away, the homemade message summed up Coventry, Phish’s seventh multi-day gathering and final public performance, in just five words: "Honk if You Love Phish."
Handcrafted by a local resident, at first glimpse this simple message seemed like a na summation for such a heavily loaded, generational moment. In fact, after three days in a veritable heart of darkness, filled with mud, rain, traffic and, yes, amazing music, it seemed truly unfathomable to dilute Coventry to such a simple statement. But now, exactly one month after Phish played its final note, that waterlogged sign reads like the perfect epigraph for the Phish experience. After all, unconditional love is the only way to describe the dedication of the 68,000 fans who weathered one of rock and roll’s most surreal summits.
In fact, while wading through upwards of thirty hours of traffic and three-days of knee-deep mud, I’m sure each and every grassroots horn player questioned just what made them honk in the first place. For most involved, the simple act of seeing Phish had long ballooned into a fully functional, self-sufficient city, filled with friends, rituals, and, for the most part, happiness. As I’ve discovered after hearing my own queries, it’s almost impossible to make a blanket statement about anything remotely Phishy, whether it be the group’s style, sound, and especially final show. And, since returning home from Coventry, it seems like almost everyone has offered their own take on the weekend’s six-sets of music, dissecting the band’s personalities like characters in a Charles Dickens novel: multi-dimensional and loaded with meaning and, in my case, flowery language. Yet, whenever the dreaded "so how was Coventry?" question comes up, I’ve had no choice but to plead the fifth. Like a great novel, the Phish’s canon is ripe for individual interpretation.
Tom Marshall’s lyrics are whimsical, perhaps best described in "Sleep:"
"There’s certain things my mind must do
And even though they’re very few
The image glistens like a gem
Repairing is not one of them
So I’m awake, though in my mind
The image that’s so unrefined."
Out of context pretty much any Phish song sounds silly, but, when applied to a specific moment, they can explain even the most surreal experience within a few short words. Over the years I’ve jumbled my own memories with Phish’s music, loading certain moments or songs with unintentional meaning. But, to their credit, it’s this openness which can unite so many varied fans with a single honk.
Anyone who’s witnessed my jamband bounce or seen my disheveled shoes (which sadly remain fossilized somewhere in Coventry’s Mud) can attest to my dorky dedication to Phish and jam-music in general. In fact, for years, like many, I’ve always searched for a tangible hook to attach myself to this fantasyland. As soon as I received my collegiate acceptance letter, I immediately started combing the Internet for Phish’s only Skidmore performance, a random gym date from October 1990. Though I had no real reason to covet this semi-rare cassette, it seemed like a fitting crossroads between reality and fiction. So it seems fitting that my buddy Kenny finally unearthed a copy of the show at a birthday celebration just a few weeks before Coventry. After all, all quests must come to an end sometime.
For me, this concept was never more evidenced than just last night as I watched Trey perform with the Vermont Youth Symphony. No longer a novelty, the few hundred Phish fans who gathered at Carnegie Hall seemed to come for a variety of reasons, more perhaps out of habit than necessity. But, something special happened during the VYO’s set break: a communal gathering that doubled as a quick reminder of the common bond which exists at jam-nation’s core. As this reassurance of purpose carried through the VYO’s second set, Trey also surprised all in attendance with a heartfelt eulogy for Phish, in the guise of "Flock of Words." A tender ballad once described by a buddy of mine as "a series buzz kill, man" back in 2002, on this night "Flock of Words" seemed to sum up the Phish experience:
You try to go back and pave over the hole
Where an intake of breath had punctured my soul
Let me know let me know I need to know
A moment of silence it now seems absurd
That I learned so much from a pause in a word
Every bird on the wing leads the others along
Inside your flock of words something went wrong
I don’t think that I was expecting a lot
I just saw that I’m passed being one couldn’t fly
Let me go let me go I need to go
Sure, the lyrics hadn’t changed, but for me, and many other teary-eyed observers, in this intimate context Trey chose to apply them as he saw fit.
Recently, the work of two true rock-icons has crossed my desk at Relix. The first is Brian Wilson’s never completed Smile—-the great aborted rock-album. A disc which would have allegedly sent ripples through rock and roll, perhaps saving pop from the bubble-gum factory that eventually purchased its patent. Yet, I often wonder if Smile would have proved so mythical without its Atlantis quality or, if really, its intangible touch is what makes it so powerful.
The second is David Byrne’s My Backwards Life, a string-laced collection of vocal numbers which is easily this summer’s most earnest release. Almost twenty years since he disbanded the Talking Heads, Byrne is still struggling to separate himself from his Heads persona, dabbling in all sorts of arts along the way. But, while he might fall victim to his own legacy, Byrne left the Talking Heads intact and ripe for a new generation to discover still intact.
Perhaps, then, it’s best for Phish to have parted during their peak years. Unlike the Beach Boys, who slowly broke down into an ill-faded oldies act, Phish ended with a heightened sense of emotion only apparent in a band that truly cares about the music they make. In fact, I have utter faith that Trey Anastasio will blossom into a mini-David Byrne, even if it takes him another two decades to figure out how to properly attach strings to his players, without turning them into puppets.
Oddly enough, I finally found my Phish-hook, buried deep within set-two of that Skidmore tape. During an odd mid-show pause, Trey actually evokes my school’s moniker, after a sea of fans simultaneously request, fittingly, "The Curtain." After Coventry, I took this as an overly sentimental sign that the often-muttered "Me Have No Regrets" line would serve as Phish’s epigraph. But, ultimately, since Phish provided a soundtrack for both my high school and collegiate experiences, I find it only fitting to conclude this column with every prep-school hippie’s’ favorite yearbook quote. Like any flock of words, post-Coventry I’ve attached this phrase to a tangible experience:
"Whatever you, Do take care of your shoes."