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Published: 2002/11/23
by Mike Barthel

Live Phish 13: 10-31-94 – Phish

Elektra Records 62806-2

Scootch your little patchwork-covered butts closer to me, li'l hippies, and
I'll tell you a scary ghost story. "Why a ghost story, Mike? It's winter
now!" For fucking Thanksgiving, OK? Turkeys: scary shit. Anyway, this
particular scary story takes place in an ancient time called the late
twentieth century, when you could reliably invoke Barney the dinosaur as a
demonic presence (as Trey does here in the context of "Harpua"). As another
demonic presence of the era would say, "Isn't it ironic?"

So yes. One night, four men were sitting around, trying to figure out what
to be for Halloween. While it's true that this is not normally a concern of
grown men, these men were rock stars, and thus existed in the kind of
extended adolescence that makes it acceptable, and even sort of a career
requirement, for them to do something special for Halloween. But instead of
wearing physical costumes, they would wear musical costumes, pretending to
be a completely different band by covering an entire album by said band.

This isn't a very scary story, is it? That's because it's not, for you, but
it sure is for a record reviewer. How should you assess a package like
this? If it were any other band, simply the fact that they done it
would be impressive enough to just harp on the achievement for 500 words or
so. But this is Phish, and they did this every year with a different
album (although this was the concept's debut).
This doesn't make the technical achievement any less impressive (they cover
goddamn "Revolution 9" after all), but it does mean that it's not going to
be the most useful thing to say, "Wow, they covered the White Album!" and
leave it at that. Plus, this is a one-night thing, so to give it any more
weight than Phish have here (by releasing it as one set of a three-set live
package that's #13 in the series) would be unfair. What can I say? If you
want to hear Phish covering The Beatles, this is the product you
should buy.

There are things to say, of course. One is that it would have been very
nice if they had found a way to split up the discs so that one disc was the
first half of the White Album ("Back in the USSR" to "Julia") and
another disc was the second half. Instead, two songs of the first set leak
onto the second disc, and disc three starts off with "Why Don't We Do It in
the Road?" which is less than ideal, but I suppose you can always CD-R it to
your own specifications.

In terms of the music, there are, of course, good points and bad points, if
you're judging it in terms of accuracy of the costume. The singing never
really measures up, but there are musical moments that produce shivers of
recognition, like the intro to "Dear Prudence" as it comes out of "Back in
the USSR". While they don't do note-for-note reproductions, the band
clearly took care with the first two songs to match both the arrangement and
the production (the "whoooooosh" of a jet plane to start off "USSR") close
enough that you get drawn into the context. After that, though, it's
considerably looser ("Don't Pass Me By" is more or less unrecognizable, and
"Birthday" is just a transposed/FX'ed version of the main riff repeated for
two minutes), and it's instructive, for instance, to hear a Trey solo where
there would normally be a Clapton solo in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps.")

But so what? Like I say, if you want to own an album wherein Phish plays
the White Album, this is it. It's not being singled out as anything
particularly special on the cultural or musical radar, and it's not likely
to be snapped up by a lot of the Beatlefest crowd. And that's what's sort
of frustrating about it: the refusal by the band to make this anything other
than a tour t-shirt, to single out the music as anything particularly
special. Music is always special, of course — it calls attention to itself
as special, with words being spoken not one-to-one but one-to-many via a
microphone and speakers insisting "these words are important!" It's
important because there are a whole lot of other people there at the show
with you, waiting to hear the music, and while there is the usual tension in
the knowledge that these people, like you, will all go home and sleep and
cook dinner and use the bathroom and do other ordinary things that pull the
experience back down to a human level, there's this impulse by the band to
pull it down even more, to remove the specialness as completely as they can.
What was once an experience available only to the people at the shows then
becomes an experience (in changed form) available to the people savvy enough
to get bootlegs, and now becomes a widely-available commercial product. The
studio albums are recorded, then played live, and then a whole lot of live
shows are released "documenting" those shows, and as a result the original
songs become less and less valuable (a judgment sometimes made of Phish's
studio albums regardless), whatever "valuable" means.

Of course, make no mistake that these releases still are special and
valuable — they make a whole lot of money for the band and their record
label, to say nothing of Michael Jackson (or Sony, whoever's currently
holding the rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog). But this dilution of
the music actually succeeds in growing the band's stature, in making them
less and less human by increasing their reputation and making them more and
more products, things you can buy, people transformed into things — and
this is saying nothing about the result of their "hiatus" which only
increased their commercial potential, evidenced by the obscene scalper fees
being charged for their upcoming New Year's gigs.

But economic concerns aside, what does make this special? For instance (for
one thing), these tunes could be covered roughly as ably by one of the
aforementioned Beatlefest bands. If the band were to dress up the Fab Faux
as Phish and push them onto stage at the Glens Falls Civic Center, would
this make the show as special? How about the recording? Would the audience
(a reasonable percentage of which, it could safely be assumed, are Phish
fans, but not Beatles fans) be more or less willing to sit through a
performance of a double album of a band they didn't pay to see?

That's the weird thing about covers: they should be less valuable, but in
many cases they're actually more valuable, because they serve to
differentiate. While Phish fans, of course, can cite date-and-location
(-and-setlist) of their favorite live shows, to a more casual listener the
whole Phish-cover-the-Beatles might be a useful hook, and the fact that the
other two sets are included (the annoying sequencing notwithstanding) can,
presumably, serve to inculcate new fans, much as the whole idea of filtering
all the bootlegs to a few complete best-ofs can do as well.

Beyond Phish, though, there are a decent number of acts whose only major
hits are covers, and this kind of exposure can help to draw younger fans
into the fold. And while this is slightly dishonorable, and being in a
"cover band" is pretty damn dishonorable, there is nonetheless the aura of
the special hovering around reasonably well-known artists doing astute
covers. This, for instance, seems to make up a large part of the MP3s traded
online, and Johnny Cash has built his latter-day career on the concept
(although he comes from an era when doing "cover songs" wasn't the
exception, but the rule, and pop artists rarely performed their own work).

This shift — often painted as a noble one in the context of the Beatles,
was largely an economic one (but then again, so is releasing live albums,
where the label has to pay approximately 5% of the recording costs that they
would for a normal album): sick of having to negotiate with business-savvy
songwriters for the first performance rights, labels were eager to instead
lump both negotiations in the same boat, especially if that boat was filled
with na young musicians. But, of course, the old
songwriter-and-performer paradigm persists today, despite the fact that we
regard anyone playing a song written by someone else a cover. So is Britney
Spears "covering" the Neptunes? Is Pink "covering" Linda Perry? Does it
matter if they get paid well?

Or is it mostly a question of the point at which an artist "makes a song
their own"? And what the hell does that mean, anyway? Maybe it's like
pornography: you know it when you see it. Phish certainly makes a few songs
their own here, particularly in transforming the normally bluesy E-minor
chords dominating "Helter Skelter" into atonal squawks and in their
of-necessity adaptation of "Revolution 9," but I feel like it doesn't really
qualify unless it's (no offense to the boys) good — which is to say, as
pleasurable or more so than the original. Certainly some covers fall into
this category, like the Beatles' cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles'
"You Really Got a Hold on Me", but I think Phish's covers here, taken
separately, fall into the "MP3 curiosity" category, which is presumably
roughly what they intended.

The new thing is important because covers so often look to the past, and
indeed a common criticism of covers is that an inferior band is simply
coasting on the songs and reputation of a better band. So to make it their
own, it must be, as Mikhail Bakhtin puts it (though probably not in talking
about Phish), "determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the
future)." In other words, while they're looking towards the past, the
result is aimed at the future, not the present. It's novel because it can
embrace this contradiction, and because it can combine the language of
another band with their own language (which is, of course, a compendium of
borrowed languages itself) to make something like a novel.

Michael Holquist, in an introduction to Bakhtin's The Dialogic
Imagination, writes: "'Poetry is violence practiced on ordinary speech,'
to paraphrase the young Jakobson. Style in this view means the sum of the
operations performed by the poet in order to accomplish the violence
necessary to mark the text off as literature." I'm not sure this
necessarily describes the novel, but it does describe one common function of
the cover song: the illuminating of a particular song or band in a context
in which is would not normally appear and thus giving it legitimacy with the
audience to which it is being addressed. So Radiohead covers Can, Big Black
covers Cheap Trick, Widespread Panic covers the Talking Heads, and Phish
covers the Beatles (and a bunch of others, of course, but I'm not reviewing
those). Maybe it was their intention to convey the regard in which that
particular album is held to their listeners, who might not otherwise think
so, but if that's the case I'm not sure this release achieves the goal,
given the aforementioned reluctance to point it out as anything special or
valuable. It's just #13, another number in the series.

So yeah: if you want to hear Phish covering the Beatles, this is your best
bet.

Comments

There is 1 comment associated with this post

Egon December 12, 2010, 21:31:46

Phish covering The White Album = 100% pure gewgaw. That said, the Reba from this show is sublime.

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