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.