Lyrics. They suck. They hog up valuable improv real estate in songs that were clearly designed for wide open landscape jams. Many bands on the scene seem to use them more as a means to name their tunes, rather than as meaningful expression. And Phish could be the guiltiest of all of them. Usually these days I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, I'll never get out of this maze. I get it, Trey. Just get to the jam already, OK, buddy?" But shows weren't always like that. In those waning years of the Dead, (when it was clear that if you were there to hear some amazing improvisational music, you were going to be sorely disappointed), I used to love belting out with the crowd, "Thank you…for a real good time!" It sent chills up my spine. And it was because all 20,000 of us screaming it out meant it from the core of our being: "Thank you. Thank you for coming to this town and throwing a party for us. Thank you for writing these words and singing them for us. Thank you." "And we love to take a bath" just doesn't evoke the same feeling…for me.
So where did those lyrical nuggets go? Where can I get my Box Of Rain? How much for the Brown-Eyed Women? What happened to the cool songs with the cool words that made even me feel, well, cool? Singing along to songs about aging knights and ugly pigs doesn't make me feel cool. It makes me feel like a kid who's more concerned with whether or not the dungeonmaster is going to issue me enough gold pieces and charisma points to make it past the next wizard. If I have to listen to lyrics, they better damn well mean something.
Now, Lester Bangs (as played by Philip Hoffman) spoke for all music fans in the world when he said in Almost Famous (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Rock stars are cool. We are not cool." So my idea of what are "cool" lyrics may be different from say, Trey Anastasio's. But something tells me, based on his defensive tirade in "Bittersweet Motel", that I am not alone here in accusing Phish of having some pretty lame lyrics.
Look, I'm not bagging on Phish just because I couldn't score a New Year's ticket. I mean, when you put all the words from the album ,Rift together and realize it's a story, I guess that's pretty cool. It's just…well, some bands on the scene have always been good writers. Take Widespread Panic, for example. "In an easy chair with my boots on/ Melted whiskey in my hand"? I mean, that could easily be the opening line from a 70s-era Clint Eastwood movie. "In the cool shade of the banana tree/ On the rugged trail toward the balcony"? That sounds more like a kid from the Jersey suburbs trying to write for Harry Belafonte. Widespread's lyrics have always made you think. They've addressed environmental problems, racism, and maintaining hope through difficult times. Phish lyrics have covered everything from "cluster flies" to road rage to partial blindness brought upon by foam.
And it's not just Phish. (Yes, Nershi, I'm about to get to you.) True, the Cheese does please us nightly with rhythms that appeal to everything from the Bill Monroe to the Herbie Hancock in all of us. And they do it well. That's why we pay to see them. But a hot "MLT" doth NOT excuse the band from subjecting us to "My brain's just a jellyfish/ In the ocean of my head/ Cuz I drank too much tequila/ And woke up seeing red." I'm sorry. And don't even get me started on "Joyful Sound." I mean, spending NO time on your lyrics and having them suck is one thing (see "Contact"). But spending SOME time on your lyrics and having them come out sounding like they were written by Dirk Diggler is a totally different ball o' wax. What's on their next album? "You Got The Touch"? ("You got the touch! You got the powerrrrr!!!!")
The future is not totally bleak, though. If haven't heard yet, Mofro's talking about things that should make you stop and take notice. And while Chuck D once called hip hop the "Black CNN," JJ Grey's doing the same thing with Florida. ("Now skyscrapers and superhighways/ Are cutting through the heart of Florida…It's like watching someone you love die slow." Think about that before you book your next trip to Disney World.)
But Mofro's not selling out the Garden on New Year's (yet). Yes, the good news is Phish is back! But so are the songs about killing possums and runaway pets. Look, I'm sure it's just me. I just don't "get it," right? Trey and Mike would probably call me names I wouldn't understand – "Poster Nutbag" perhaps? Fishman would clamp me on the ears with the "BAH" cymbals and Page would blankly stare at me. But the bottom line for me is this: Spare me the stories about purple paste concoctions made in bathtubs and tales of crazy old dogs who terrorize young boys. As far as I'm concerned, at Phish shows, I'm there for the music.
Some people know Jim Wrantz as Jonathan Denbo