Phish - You Enjoy Myself (12/9/95, Albany, NY)
Phish will always live in the cultural shadow of the Grateful Dead; as the longer post coming up later this evening will discuss, this isn’t an inapt comparison (nor is it one that diminishes their achievements). If the sociocultural lineage there is undeniable, the musical one is trickier, as “You Enjoy Myself,” the most frequently played song in the band’s career (557 appearances, or roughly four out of every 10 shows), makes clear. This is, before anything else, music born under the sign of Zappa: an intricately composed suite that includes aggressively inane lyrical piss-taking (the entirety of the lyrics: “Boy/Man/God/Shit” and then, “Wash Uffize/Drive me to Firenze”), choreographed trampolining, and an a closing a capella section in which all four members make strange noises for upward of five minutes.
Live versions of the song generally run a shade over twenty minutes, as the band moves through changes with Zappaesque precision. Occasionally, though, things stray from the prescribed path, and we end up with experiments like this version, played in Albany, New York on December 9, 1995. It’s not so much an issue of improvising like the Dead, but of a shared conceptual approach that accepts potential failure as part of the project. You can scroll to anywhere past nine minutes or so in this video and you’ll find something that’s at least unique, including a rhythmically heavy bit where Anastasio hops onto a second drum kit (throughout the back half of the 90s he experimented with ways to recede from the limelight of extended guitar soloing, including the drum kit and, later in the decade, a keyboard that he would move to during the band’s spacier moments) and a “silent jam” in which all four members continue to play their instruments in pantomime (this starts around 26 minutes and would be my recommendation here if you’re only going to sample).
Frank Zappa once titled a live album “Does Humor Belong in Music?,” and large swaths of Phish’s career function as attempts to grapple with that question. They’ve never succeeded at being as ironic as Zappa, or as earnest as the Dead, but at their best they’ve worked a middle path that attempts to synthesize both into an acknowledgement of the paradox of playing in a big famous rock band, i.e., that it is at once one of the silliest things in the world and a source of truly meaningful pleasure (both visceral and emotional) for many, many people.
Reflexive art often comes positioned as a tool to reveal some truth about its maker(s), but in practice it frequently functions as just another obscuring layer. In building a very visible degree of potential failure into this reflexivity, Phish, in these moments, managed to reinsert something thrillingly human into their intellectual goofing. It is, in a very literal way, music for your whole body.
I dance around the pit, the darkness is beneath
You used to be afraid but now you aren’t. You can claim a small space for yourself and enlarge it with your joy. No one’s whispers and side glances will ever keep you still again. Movement is key, movement is you, movement is everything. Dance every time it feels good.
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
This machine will, will not communicate these thoughts and the strain I am under
“Street Spirit” closes out The Bends with some dark grandeur. O’Brien and Yorke lock in on that Spanish-style arpeggio and it isn’t until J. Greenwood’s appearance on additional guitar harmony that you suddenly feel the oppressive containment that preceded it. Air comes in and you’ve escaped…somewhat. It is up to you to remain free.
Jonathan Glazers’ (Sexy Beast, Birth) coolly stunning black and white video for the song, doesn’t bother with plot. It recognizes that the beauty of the piece is in the particulars; the way time seems to quicken and slow down, how gestures take on gorgeousness when isolated and observed. The images seem to say watch us, hold onto us because we are ending. We are ending right now.
“Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them, or maybe they don’t realize what they’re listening to. They don’t realize that ‘Street Spirit’ is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh. And it’s real, and true. The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception…That’s why I’m convinced that they don’t know what it’s about. It’s why we play it towards the end of our sets. It drains me, and it shakes me, and hurts like hell every time I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of its meaning, like when you’re going to have your dog put down and it’s wagging its tail on the way there. That’s what they all look like, and it breaks my heart.”
I don’t understand Yorke here. Why wouldn’t an audience think that singing IMMERSE YOUR SOUL IN LOVE in soaring voice, believing it, and following through is enough to keep the devil at bay?
As listeners, we’re not surprised to be wrong, we usually are. But this is the thing with art; yes, it’s yours if you made it but once out there it starts accumulating the weight of our expectations, experiences and feelings. It becomes something else and you can’t ever have it back. This is the song that played the night he realized he needed to move back home, the day she walked to work and it scored the leaf crunch path perfectly, the moment they fell out of love, the first time he voted, the last time she danced.
In the end, the rows of houses may be the audience after all.
Nude (Live on the Jonathan Ross Show)
Now that you’ve found it, it’s gone
Somewhere along the way, after years of playing this, they learned how it should be done. Yorke realized that he needed to stop playing the Rhodes and just sing those ending melodic runs. He figured out how to sing them and the rest of the song, those impossibly high silken lines, sing them so right that it seems like he’s barely trying. C. Greenwood and Selway anchor the song with their as-one sway and keep the dreamsound so gentle, you’d never know it was a nasty warning.
Myxomatosis (Live From The Basement)
it must have got mixed up
1) The drumming is HARDCORE. Selway really sounds like he’s putting mad shoulder into each hit. The visual does not support this of course. You don’t see sweaty effort, only concentration and cool.
2) C. Greenwood’s bass face.
3) The Greenwood Bros. grungy bass/keyboard double assault. Something this ugly shouldn’t sound so good.
4) I. Don’t. Know. Why. I. Feel. So. Tongue. Tied.
5) Again those drums.
6) Ice cold disco keyboard.
7) (This is only on the studio version but it must be mentioned…) yeah no one likes a smart ass but we all like stars FOR A REASON that wasn’t my intention FOR A REASON I did it for a reason REASON - once the doubling gets in my head, I can’t let it go.
8) The lifted line from “Cuttooth”
9) “I wish that’s what they [would] sound like now and forever” - Jeff Klingman
Backdrifts (Live at The Beacon Theater, 2003)
What the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose
The night we met he only looked up once and focused his gaze somewhere south of the beauty mark on my left cheek. A friend was playing a mix of mine and the track was Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” covered by Low. I said the guitars sounded like great releases of water and I loved hearing the break at the end of every line. He didn’t hear that part, he hadn’t been listening, he just said, Pink Floyd’s ”Fearless”? You know that song? He joined the conversation a bit after that. He had the nervous smile of someone who doesn’t like their teeth; the lips never quite pull back, just bunch even closer together when they grin. I got the sense that he was lonely and stuck and made a mental note to invite him to things. A few months later I offered to sell him an extra ticket to a White Stripes show. He met us on the line outside the theater, fresh from work, blue shirt tucked into khakis. He gave that nervous smile at the ground and said thank you. I barked YOU GOT DA MONEY? He jumped a little, I wanted him to. Nice people make me nervous. Best to put them off right from the start.
Let it be noted I had no designs on him at the time. It ain’t that kind of party. In my own way, I was lonely and stuck too. I was trying to assemble something, a new community for myself and I thought he could be a part of it. Like recognizes like.
A year or so later, we were good friends. I’m not sure how it happened, what with his crippling shyness and my crippling shyness and our opposing ways of dealing with it. Him retreating, me yelling at everyone in sight. Basically, I just kept talking and he eventually joined in. The night of a party at his house, we heard that MTV was presenting a $2 Radiohead show at the Beacon Theater and that people were camping out already to get in. A group of us planned to go but we were the only ones who managed to stay up. Somewhat. We talked, he played guitar, I sang, but eventually we both fell asleep on his sandy mattress. I had kicked off my shoes and put my arms around him, after asking. Didn’t want to freak him out. He was slight but surprisingly comfortable, it was easy to relax into sleep. We got up at 5, had breakfast at a diner which now has another name, rode three trains, and settled at the third time around the block end of the line. Like an old biddy, I gummed anxiously on several packets of Choward’s Violet candies, watching all the kids and the t-shirts YOU ARE A TARGET MARKET knowing we would never, ever, ever get in and that it didn’t even matter because something had changed. He had looked me right in the eye that morning and, like the song that I’ve danced to a million times, his were green or blue or gray. He held my hand. I stared at his wrists. He smiled with visible teeth. He kept his hand in mine, even as the MTV bullhorns shooed us away, the line dividing into the yeses and the nos, even though he’d never seen them live and really wanted to. Later that night I called a friend, she didn’t understand why I was so nervous. I couldn’t explain. In a lifetime of maybes, I’d never been faced with such certainty.
“Backdrifts” became our jam; a sinuous, passing train-tracks shuffle that featured an odd moment where everything stops moving and Yorke yelps out Uh! Uh! UUUUUH!. We took to this moment like mockingbirds, repeating it constantly, it was so strange yet perfect, when words fail us and all we have are exclamations, then why not UH! UH! UUUUUUH!?
* * *
I was outside his office on 32nd Street and when he came out, looking especially bleary-eyed. I said, I changed my mind about the movie. He walked alongside me and said, oh, you don’t want to go? Too tired? I said no, I’d much rather see that instead, pointed backwards at the big MSG Radiohead sign behind me and held up two tickets. NO WAY he said. I looped my arm for him to take. The seats were great, courtesy of a former boss/friend with a connection to a fancypants music critic with a surplus. The scheduled openers had to cancel and we were treated to Low (?!), who looked a bit stunned to be there. Radiohead came out and killed. Yorke’s finest moment may have been a spirited “Myxomatosis”, where he turned the lyrics into a mish mash of gibberish, lazy tongue flopping, popping and locking and PUNCH. He grinned from the stage like a boy with all the toys and I felt exactly the same way. I yawned/stretched my arm around my date, who laughed at my Fonzie move. I may have kissed him too, the whole night felt like a kiss.
* * *
Sitting in front of the computer now in 2011, it’s the fifth of July, and I’m trying to type with our son sitting behind me pretending to be on a motorcycle. He’s two, which he’ll gladly tell you by putting up the right amount of fingers. We’re going vrrrrrrooooom and vrrrrrrrrooooom vrrrrrrrooooooom. He doesn’t care about the sounds playing on the little speakers, but he laughs when I go Uh! Uh! Uuuuuuuuhn! and sing You fell into our arms, you fell into our arms, we tried but there was nothing we could do. Nothing we could do.
All I Need (Scotch Mist version)
I’m going to stick with you because there are no others
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes I get bummed out that Yorke and Co. have never given me an uncomplicated, unambivalent love song*. Something I can sing along to with moony-eyed simplicity, all boy band hand gestures and tiny dance moves, blissful and small. “All I Need” is not that song despite the promise of the title and the line that it belongs to. You can do it though, fool yourself into thinking that being all someone needs is a lovely thing and not an animal trapped in a hot car, not an insect that wants to share your light, not just because there are no others. You can pretend that being that small and dependent on something outside of yourself is not a frightening thing. You can block out the message but then you’d lose the unexpected tenderness behind it. Another example of Radiohead confusing you with contrasts; a gossamer melody paired with pointed words. It’s all wrong, it’s all right.
Two things I love in this Scotch Mist performance (starts at 1:28): the head/torso/shoulder bass-responding moves that Yorke puts out, the tulle-like delicacy of the J. Greenwood’s sugarplum fairy Rhodes flutters and the way they are all locked so beautifully into the groove.
*Actually, there is one: “I Might Be Wrong”. Seriously. Pelvic thrusting blues riff aside, check out the lyrics. Not much for a slow dance but I don’t think that’s the intention.
Big Boots aka Man-o-War (from Meeting People is Easy)*
Camera chaps, we’re done
Five men sit in a tatami room facing a camera. When it pans out, we see that the room is built into the wall, like a mini stage— a perfect spot for a filmed conference. One man speaks directly to the lens, the others sit a safe distance away from it. He muddles a thank you, then another, and another. Behind him, the other men blink or smile sadly, one looks at him intently as if urging him on, another looks at his shoes. As he grows frustrated with himself and this exercise, filming a thank you video for an award show that is thousands of miles away, his anger becomes more evident, he points at one of the other men, says YOU DO IT, sits back and sulks. They do, they read the words on a piece of paper, probably hotel stationery, thank you, thank you to all of our fans.
It’s a cringe-inducing moment in a film full of discomforts. Fragmented as it can be, with the muddled sound doing its level best to make you feel as confused and overwhelmed as its subjects, Meeting People is Easy captures frustration in clear, detailed ways. Directed by experimental filmmaker Grant Gee, it follows the promotion and world tour of OK Computer and presents a band finally achieving The Dream (critical and commercial success) and not celebrating in the slightest. Instead, they are caught in an endless publicity/touring cycle and must learn to handle the balance of performing at night, and traveling and/or promoting during the day, at a much higher scale and under a great deal more scrutiny than they’d ever previously experienced.
The film doesn’t start at the very beginning of the madness, so you never get to see the freshness, the excitement of these guys playing songs that sped past their work on The Bends. Part of the issue may have been that these songs were so realized by definitive studio performances that came after major road-burnishing, that when the time came to get the word out, they were done with the satisfying part of the process. The next part is so removed from ordinary experience that becoming unmoored is to be expected. Meeting People… explores a twilight world where all off-stage time is slow and miserable, flickering under fluorescents waiting, and all the onstage time is LOUD, elevated and unreal. How do you remain a normal person in the face of it? By reminding yourself that it is transitory, by calling home or by turning on the TV in a hotel room and watching the news. There are moments of black humor sprinkled throughout: the NYC club doorman that won’t let Yorke, who has just finished movingly recounting his love of The Smiths, in to his own party and then yells at him to write a song about it as he walks away; the bright orange-hued morning chat show hosts watching a clip of the video to “No Surprises” and calling it Music To Cut Your Wrists To; or the tired ridiculous laughter that accompanies the recording of radio tags when you’ve gotten three hours of sleep and have a shifting sense of where you actually are or what language you should be speaking.
In the sequence posted above, Radiohead hits the studio for a recording session squeezed in between commitments. “Big Boots,”* a live favorite anchored by O’Brien’s chiming guitar line, was promised to what would eventually be a dreadful film version of a beloved ’60s BBC TV show. The session sequence fascinates. Ideas keep coming but nothing coalesces, and instead you have a number of tracks that don’t quite go together. Yorke’s vocal in particular seems to be stubbornly stuck to some long ago stylistic decision that just doesn’t mesh with everyone else’s work. The rest of the band just keeps piling on the parts until they finally decide to ditch it all. Sadly, they’ve never attempted to re-record it, and, at this stage in their development, perhaps they can’t. The song, as good as it is, is tethered firmly to the past, a relic of dominant guitars and verse chorus verse.
Lo-fi video touches aside, Meeting People Is Easy is a product of carefully constructed editing. There were moments of joy during this time that didn’t support the theme and got cut. Still, it’s always more compelling to believe that things are falling apart. OK Computer has told us all along that we are standing on the edge, from a great height, needing to slow down, so why shouldn’t this portrait support that? As the documentary winds down to the final, 104th performance on this tour**, the band exits the stage, heads to the green room, and engages in some tired post-show somnambulism. Then Yorke sees the cameras and tells them what’s what.
The experience proved edifying. When it came time to record, release, and promote their next album, Kid A, Radiohead had a whole other plan in mind.
* Here’s an mp3 of a live version of “Big Boots”
** I was at this Radio City show and while I keenly remember loving their performance of “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)” (which became “Nude” ten years later) the disconnect was palpable. It definitely seemed like, in their minds, the bags were packed and home was visible.