I lost track of my listen count a few days ago, which is really a bizarre feeling; it’s typically fairly clear-cut when my obsession over a certain song reaches that Okay, that’s enough feeling. Hasn’t happened yet for this one, though, and I can only chalk it up to it being that goddamned good. If you want a reason to judge me the last time I remember this happening was when Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons dropped.
Go ahead. Think what you must. That record was crazyfuckinggood before they as an entity blew up. Also from the for-the-record department: It still is.
A little background, though: Trey Anastasio released Ghosts of the Forest in April, and I did the thing I usually do when it comes to Trey Anastasio solo projects: I didn’t jump.
I don’t jump because Trey Anastasio is not not amazing. He is. And music is subjective, so I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that Trey Anastasio is the greatest musician -- or that Phish is the greatest band (Note: They are.) -- of our lifetime, but I am going to suppose that Trey Anastasio’s contribution to the music in general of our lifetime will prove to be the deepest. The most substantial, the most influential, the largest in terms of overall volume. In fact, I think he’s subconsciously doing a better-than-Frank Zappa thing. Not to top him. Just…he’s wired the same way Zappa was: the musical engine never runs out of fuel. And by musical I mean to include lyrical/compositional as well.
I went and saw Between Me & My Mind when it’s single-night-only debut hit theaters in July. I was a few things when I saw it: energized by a) the insane level at which Phish has been playing for the last year and change (on top of the last 10 years), b) a longing to become better-acquainted with Anastasio material (Note: I’ve bought the solo albums. I’ve always dug parts of most of them.), especially as it pertains to stuff he’s writing and performing right now; on a somewhat-awkward social outing in that -- being single again I’ve not yet rewired myself to only buy one ticket to things -- so I was, not for the first time, scrambling day-of to find someone to go with me so that my other ticket didn’t go to waste; concerned about my car making the drive up north in the heat; anxious about whether or not my buddy George would like the feature film; bummed I was missing hockey; missing my kids.
So, there’s all that. Regardless, I saw the thing and loved it. Then, a few weeks ago, they released it for a second-night’s showing. I bought three tickets and took my kids. They’re eight and five.
It was a huge gamble, especially considering that I pitched it to them as a surprise a few days prior to the screening. We were a few minutes early so we popped in to PetSmart and got some dog food. As we pulled in to a parking space in the theater lot it occurred to me that this could go terribly. They’re eight and five. They like kids’ movies, ‘cause, uh…they’re freaking kids, you goober. There’s also swearing and talk of drug use. Way to go, Doc McStoogeNoodle.
Didn’t matter, though. They were engaged. I mean, the five-year-old got restless and sleepy and I had to keep stuffing Sour Patch Kids in his word hole to keep him at bay, but other than that it was great.
Anyway, the point was that the second viewing was wonderful. I was fewer things when I saw it the second time. Above all I was really lucid. I mean, I was in dad mode. We were away from home and taking a gamble on unpleasantness. It made me more focused, though, to be fewer things. Even as I fielded 56 questions from my companions.
It’s a curious piece, though. It chronicles the recording process of Ghosts, and beyond that it dabbles with the writing process of the tracks on it. It jumps in and out of Phish’s preparation for the gag in their 2018 New Year’s Eve performance. And it -- being a Trey Anastasio documentary of sorts -- basically follows Trey around. There’re segments at his studio as well as at the homes/studios of his three Phish bandmates. There’re also interviews of each of his parents, both of his daughters, with one of his best friends who's having the life drained out of him by cancer (Note: Spoiler Alert: He dies.), and his wife.
Seeing it a second time and listening to Ghosts a few times through has really melded a lot of things for me, though. I don’t know what those things are exactly, but I think they have something to do with an Anastasio admission in the film that had to do with becoming more personal in his writing. Letting his guard down, if you will. Which. Is. Massive.
Not that he’s been a wildly private dude in the past, but…back to that unresting creative output and wild level of musicianship…if you’re being realer, well, that’s other level stuff.
Anyway, I don’t aim to talk about the record. Just this one track. It’s made my heart that manual-can-opener lid that’s got three still-connected spots on it. Like, if I could free that lid from its can, I’d be set free. All my attic’s light bulbs would turn on, all my picnics ant free. But it’s got me, brothers and sisters. It’s got me.
If you’ve stuck with me til now, now might be a good spot to tune out, ‘cause I’m’a break this bitch down and I plan on packing on all of the cheese, all of the warm-and-possibly-fuzzy existential shit. If you peace-out, though, pull the song up on your Spotify or your Apple Music or your Google or Amazon Music…or wherever it is you savage Android (Note: What is this, the 1870s?) users go.
Undivided attention. Headphones on. Or earbuds or Air Pods or whatever the fuck. Tune the rest out. Give it three listens. Pull up the lyrics if you’re feeling randy.
Really. Ga’ ‘head. Do it.
Okay. You’ve got it. I don’t need to share it here.
Seconds breakdown: 0:00-0:35
Lyrics: “Feel the sun…in long lines”
Thoughts: I’m scarcely versed, if you will, in guitar, but I can usually see stuff. I have a rough idea of where it’s being played. You know (for you righties, anyway), notes are deeper both up the neck and atop the fretboard; low ‘E’ is near your thumb and high ‘E’ your pinky.
This is different, though, and I think it’s an effects thing. Could be the chord construction, but I struggle a bit to see it, and by see it I mean play wickedly sexy air guitar to it.
I don’t know what to make of those lyrics, though. Remembering that music is subjective, that music is art, that the experience of consuming the art is never mirrored between people, but that when it dances near the mirror, things get awesome on a human level, I can’t not share what I feel when I hear and read those words: On the one hand I picture the literal. It’s Midwest hot and it doesn’t matter if we mean the beating-down, unrelenting radiation heat or that swollen, heavy-and-thick, choke-you-out heat. If you’re in a public place, though, attending a big event or participating in some thing in which you may or may not want to participate, and there are so many people standing in front of you and waiting to do the same thing you’re waiting to do, then I suppose you would certainly feel the sun…in long lines.
I also picture that Colorado-mountain, highway view, though. Where you see those perfectly straight beams of sunlight blasting out of the sky’s brightest spot. They’re sectioned off, like…out of a coloring book. You see the rays of sun, but you feel that part-of-a-bigger-thing feeling that makes you feel the sun…in long lines.
Seconds breakdown: 0:36-1:08
Lyrics: “Ships on the horizon…in white lines/Listen to the voices/Float in circles/And we’re moving…in long lines”
Thoughts: Naturally I go, out of the gate, to Barry Manilow’s “Ships” with that first line, but that’s for nostalgic reasons. The image, though, is magnificent. It’s like when you’re in Florida. You’ve driven over the bridges and looked out at the water from your car window. Later you’re at the beach and you’re doing beach stuff: wading, swimming, building sand castles, trying to catch seagulls with your bare hands while being filmed. Eventually, though, you have that moment where you look out and your eye literally captures ships on the horizons…in long lines. And it’s breathtaking.
That second, line, though. I think of a set-break concert crowd. Or before the show or after the show. Whirling conversations. I also think of that bananas cosmos living beneath my skull, though. Whew. Shouldn’t even go there, I imagine, what with the lists and the panic and the self criticisms and the blurting out at drivers that transpires as out-loud words before you even know it’s a thought.
Then there’s that last line.
It’s a painting, right? Of the human existence? We’re just plodding through different flavors of D.M.V. waits, of amusement-park and sporting-event impatience, right? We’re just…doing shit. Killing time. Moving, if you will, in long lines.
Seconds breakdown: 1:09-1:53
Lyrics: “Your eyes…were wide open…and black as night/I lit your cigarette/Your hand was touching mine/The wild gypsy/With trembling hands”
Thoughts: I don’t know who the you is in this, either in Trey’s mind or in mine. It’s a very earnest experience, though. The other person is engaged and this is a very intense human feeling. You’re standing face-to-face with someone, your gaze so entrenched in theirs that you take note of the shape and the color of their eyes. And then there’s the cigarette thing. Not much more powerful in the existence of a person than to extend the gesture of lighting someone’s smoke and to have them accept, to cup your fist when they do it. That’s heavy stuff right there.
And then we get to that wild gypsy.
What’s the connotation of that word? It used to mean a nomad, right? A person that moved around from town to town, maybe in a bonnet, possibly using a walking stick or a covered wagon to get from place to place? And then it came to be associated with negativity, right? Like it means that you steal or some stupid shit?
Whatever. “Gypsy” is a romantic word. There’s a Halloween picture of my sister and I with a pair of family friends. She’s a gypsy and she’s cuter than any button I ever saw. This, was of course, long before she began to become her mother, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Anyway, there’s this gypsy. And she’s got trembling hands. Is she scared? Sick? Has her life been rough?
What an image. All the reasons why. So powerful.
Seconds breakdown: 1:54-2:42
Lyrics: “Now it’s time to join the others/The lost, the loved ones/They’re moving around us/And waiting, and waiting/In long lines, in long lines/In long lines, in long lines”
Thoughts: No disservice to the opening portion of the song, but this, musically and vocally, is stunning. It’s just perfection, really.
This is where it gets real real, though. And what I mean is this:
Have we been looking at it wrong? Has the mentality of making the most of your life before your time is up been flawed all along? Are we supposed to view it as We’re just here, now, in this awkward elevator ride and at our destination floor is where we’re reconnected with all of our people that went before us? That they’ve just been waiting on us? That our arrival means their happiness and we’ve been focused on our while-we’re-here own?
Seconds breakdown: 2:43-3:46
Lyrics: “Feel the sun…in long lines/Listen to the voices”
Anastasio comes in here like an old-western cowboy who’d been standing there in the wind and dust. With a step forward and a shift of his weight, he rips into those warm-and-welcome notes like he’s just drawn a revolver from his holster. When you can make your six-string speak in emotion you know you’ve got talent and soul.
There’s a bold coziness to this solo and it sings as though it were a cousin to the brilliant late-tune playing off of “Miss You” from Big Boat. The song within the song that this moment of guitar displays is like that feeling inside the tent in the middle of the night. You’ve hiked with heavy gear on your back all day. The only thing you have energy left to accomplish beyond dinner is brushing your teeth and zipping up your sleeping bag. Then from the deepest of sleeps, the opening of the skies wakes you. And you’re comfortable; you have no difficulty falling back to sleep because you made the right purchase when you bought this tent. You cared for it. You set it up right, atop a tarp, staked from the corners, the roof, and the sides. Your confidence almost tempts the rain to steal your dryness.
I have a buddy I’ve known for almost 25 years. He’s wise and weathered, a good dad. We stood around in a Colorado University parking lot a couple of summers ago drinking cold beers, gearing up to go stand in line for a Dead & Co. show. We’re talking music and Phish comes up. The other cat with us was a bit of a hater at the time, but he caught Austin with me last summer. No mas.
Anyway, my buddy interjects.
“Trey Anastasio is the best guitarist I’ve ever seen,” he said. And for a minute, I was stunned. I tried to pull a debate file out on the spot. Zappa was the best I could throw out; I countered with a second effort in that his love for Jerry Garcia had always seemed unapproachable. It wasn’t an argument I wanted to win. It wasn’t even an argument, really. I just wanted to make sure he was sure.
“Trey Anastasio,” he said, his tone firmer, “is the best guitarist I’ve ever seen.”
My buddy was sure of himself. And he was right. The solo in this song further solidifies it. And believe me: It’s not ever always about solos. It’s not. This one’s really powerful, though. Solos are good when they accent the song as opposed to standing out from it. Job well done, here.
Seconds breakdown: 3:47-4:52
Lyrics: “In long lines…in long lines/In long lines…in long lines/In long lines….in long lines/In long lines…in long lines”
Thoughts: This song is just fucking mystical. It’s an ugly world out there and the hate monster’s belly is seldom full. If you’re able to channel your talents and harness your creativity to birth a composition that’s literally exploding with beauty then it’s just a tiny bit less nasty outside everyone’s window.
Thank you, Trey Anastasio for telling us the meaning of the phrase “the ghosts of the forest” (Spoiler alert: coined from deer/elk hunters that track an animal only to have it vanish on them). Thank you for making this record, and above all, thank you for writing and composing this song. It is a gift.