Russell’s Round Room
by Russell S. Glowatz
Phish ain’t lyrically Dead, so stop fucking comparing them on that level! Pretty pretty please?! I imagine you won’t, but I’m asking anyway because your comparisons are nonsense. So stop. Or don’t. But either way, don’t like Phish lyrics? Fine. They’re not for everybody. There’s nothing wrong with that. Your ticker tape parade will be thrown on the Avenue of Heroes in NYC at the end of Phish tour. But to compare the two bands lyrically is not only foolish…it’s obtuse. End rant. As Ringo would say, I say all this with peace and love, a sincere desire to evoke empathy within the jam band community at large, and the notion, likely some of you realize, that while these bands share many things, lyrics are not one of them, nor were they ever intended to be.
Even putting aside the various collaborations that have occurred between members of Phish and the Grateful Dead in the post-Jerry years, these two bands are linked at the hip, and will inexorably remain that way until their songs and respective followings are snuffed out of existence (if that ever happens). This linkage largely exists due to the two bands’ proclivity towards improvisation in their performances, synchronicity on stage between band and audience members, varied and unique set lists, similar business practices, and an overlapping devoted fan base. However musically and lyrically, these two bands could not be any different. While both were heavily influenced by the American musical landscape, and the musicians that came before them, they also both came of age at completely different times, and this generational gap is reflected in the different style of music they put out.
While one bands verse may seem more profound than the other, I truly contend we should not be comparing these two bands on the lyrical level anymore, because it inevitably leads to hating. When it comes to lyrics and making comparisons, it’s like trying to compare the taste and texture of an apple to a pineapple. They are both fruits and have the word ‘apple’ in their respective names, but besides those similarities, their flavor and feel could not be further from each other. Yet both apples and pineapples are wonderful and delicious in their own right, but in spite of that I don’t see folks equating them very often. So as we don’t compare pineapples and apples, lets aim to do the same with Phish and the Dead on a lyrical level.
Putting the musicianship aside, which most would agree is stellar coming from both bands, even if you don’t personally jive with both bands, lets focus on the words. For many years I have been trying to explain the lyrics of Phish to friends and strangers alike that just don’t get it. They’ll complement the musicianship of the band, but then explain away their inability to get into them as due to Phish’s “idiotic” locution. Invariably the topic will always digress into a conversation about how compared to the prophetic nature of Grateful Dead lyrics, Phish lyrics are generally gibberish and of a juvenile nature. One friend even used to slap a bunch of random rubbish together, and sing in a Phish like way, gyrating as if to imitate one of the band members, ultimately showing me that this is what Phish sounds like to him. While I never got through to that friend, and we are no longer friends at that (for completely unrelated reasons), and it’s okay that he doesn’t get Phish because it’s not for everyone, but wherever he is, I hope he stopped contrasting the damn lyrics to those of the Grateful Dead, and ceased upon hating on folks for their musical predilections. The lyrics are not meant to evoke the same things, and are written in completely different context as the different bands and lyricists relate to society as a whole on a different level.For those who have trouble relating, it is imperative to look at Phish lyrics differently than you do to those of the Dead. Hunter/Barlow lyrics are exceptionally prescient, in a non-dogmatic way. They are meant to be that way, and have remained true to form throughout the years. Phish lyrics, often written by the likes of Tom Marshall and Steve Pollak (The Dude of Life), are for the most part not supposed to be viewed as prophetic, however a few insightful gems exist amongst their massive catalog. While commensurate storytellers, the Phish lyricists seem to base their compositions in a fantasy world…a world where nursery rhymes are written for adults. Perhaps influenced by the song Prince Caspian, I often compare Phish lyrics to a Narnia Chronicles for grownups.
And on top of the whimsical fairytale like atmosphere many Phish lyrics convey, some of them are just plain silly, but that’s not a reason for scorn. They are supposed to be silly, silly. Whether it’s an inside joke between the band members, or the phan community as a whole, these comedic lyrics create an atmosphere unlike anything ever achieved at a Dead show. They convey comedy and commentary much like several of Frank Zappa’s lyrical odysseys. While Phish lyrics may not be as politically influenced as Zappa’s, the resulting madness is similar. A community of phans not only meeting their spiritual needs through transcendent jams, but achieving their therapeutic needs through sheer comedy as well.
While I write this piece in jest in part, specifically some of my words in the introduction, my sentiment remains true to heart. I have a deep connection to both of these bands. Their music and verse has seen me through some of the hardest times of my life, as well as the most marvelous moments of my existence. I do my best to see each of them for what they are, and while I can be as critical as the next person, as much of the respective fan bases tend to be, I try to keep the criticism in the constructive sense. Recently I saw a deadhead in a Facebook group say that those that appreciate Phish are a seriously troubled group of people. I responded with the tidbit that oddly enough, the vast majority of society feels the same way about Deadheads…they look at YOU as troubled. So in essence, it’s easy to cast aspersions when ignorant towards something that seems weird to you. It’s a lot harder to take the time to understand and empathize, even if it ultimately isn’t your cup of tea.
Over the past seven months plus, I’ve seen a lot of vitriol thrown towards Phish’s way due to the news of Trey Anastasio’s inclusion in Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead. While this hate has more or less always existed, much like the recent upswing in racial tensions in our nation, the inclusion of Anastasio in the final Dead performances has brought all this animosity to a boil. While the inauguration of our first African American president may have in part stoked the racial tension in the nation at large, and this analogy only serves to highlight my point in the most superficial of ways, we as a community, a community a jam band devotees, are supposed to be better than the rest of society.
And if we are not better, we should aim to be better, because betterment is the core of human existence, and I can not think of a much better place than a Phish or a Dead-oriented show, where humanity is better represented in all its possibilities. And taking those show vibes to the next level, as a community, and as individuals in this community, instead of hating, we should aim towards love, and empathy. Empathy is key here. If one can’t grasp someone’s love for Phish and their lyrics, at face value, instead of publicly hating on them, perhaps one should try to put themselves in that phan’s shoes. And while this may be common sense for some, on the surface it seems that it’s a long lost notion for others. Without empathy we are a farce. “It’s completely insane, it’s a revolving cast, but it’s the same old game,” “without love, day to day, insanity is king.”
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© Watts Glow Grateful Productions, 2015