In the spirit of rehashing NYE moments, I wanted to share an article I wrote a run-ly column in that run’s Surrender to the Flow. Now that it’s published, I can print this here, though I still highly encourage you to purchase a copy and/or subscription, and always look for them on lot.
I first got into Phish when they played a tiny little set on top of the Ed Sullivan theater building in 2004, during which they did a 2-minute version of “Wilson” that was stuck in my head for days. I was only marginally interested in the band after that, though during those years off I occasionally returned to songs like “The Lizards” or “AC/DC Bag,” but I never put them together, and I had certainly not heard of Colonol Forbin or the Famous Mockingbird.
When the band returned in 2009, I was engulfed in the excitement and began to learn the intricacies of the band that phans find so meaningful. The musical story of The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, otherwise known as Gamehendge, is very important to phans, and now, to me as well.
I discovered Trey’s senior project- turned epic tale of deceit and power- at the pique of my short-story writing interest, and it was the tales’ intrigue and action that had me hooked right away. On the original recording, Ernie gives some background, describing the beautiful area that is the land of Gamehendge and the center city of Prussia. Often during live performances, he refers to the surrounding area, “just over that hill over there,” as the location for the story- another very appealing aspect to the rare live versions of these songs. He introduces the protagonist, the evil threat, the almighty deity, and the ultimate solution. Then, with a deep and intriguing description, possibly taken from the original Tom Marshall poem “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,” we flash to a different time, in a different town. It’s the perfect set up for an exciting story.
The first musical foray, “The Lizards,” told from the perspective of Colonel Forbin, who has just passed through the door to Gamehendge, is not only a brilliant story opener, but satisfies so many Phish cravings that we have. It’s mysterious, catchy, and ventures into unknown worlds not only lyrically, but musically as well. The song also introduces other characters, and the first problem they encounter. The revolutionary knight Rutherford has sunken to the bottom of the river, but luckily, the unit-monster is there to rescue him and moments later, we learn of another mystical beast, the multi-beast, who’s rider becomes Forbin’s true love, and who’s namesake song becomes mine.
The stunning ballad that is “Tela” has become my favorite song in Gamehendge because of its lyrical wonderment and delicate musicality. Again, we find our favorite aspects of songs in this track; mystery, anticipation, and the unique, gentle side of Phish all combine to make this rare tune a phan favorite. It’s gorgeous in a way that their other ballads and love songs can’t compare to. It could be the description of beauty we hear about Tela, which is unusual for Phish songs; it could be the suspenseful build-up and release, the leftover desire for more, or the lead in to the rebellious next song.
In “Wilson,” we hear the rally of the rebellion forces and as phans, we feel united in the repetitive chant of these live versions. This song stands so strongly on its own, and applies wonderfully outside of the Gamehendge context that it’s easily a phan favorite and the band recognizes this by playing it more often than the others. “AC/DC Bag” has the same effect, but they’re both still crucial parts of the story and advance the plot to keep listeners engaged.
“Colonol Forbins Ascent” has the tale’s protagonist fighting to help the rebellion and returns to the form of narration through the music. Each note and chord gives a description of the action; it draws the picture without words and prepares the listener for the musical peak of the sage. “Fly Famous Mockingbird” is delicate, fascinating, and expressive, and in a live setting, it has the power to transport you to another place. It’s limited lyrically, but story-wise, it brings us to the last great conflict in TMWSINY.
Enter “The Sloth” who is hired by the rebel traitor Errand Wolfe to kill evil King Wilson. This high-energy, dark song becomes a strong ending to a powerful moral story that Phish is able to tell through the collection as a whole, or via individual songs.
Other Phish tunes are associated with Gamehendge, most notably a Tom Marshall poem called “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,” “Possum,” “Punch You in the Eye,” and “Llama,” all highly respected and beloved selections. Rare, too, and I hope they stay that way- it’s an unbeatable part of their appeal. Fantastic musical adventure aside, if we heard it all the time, it wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling each time we did. Here’s to a Gamehendge in the mystical land that is NYEMSG2011!