Tom Marshall: Backwards Down the Number Line (From The Archives)

September 3, 2010

As we head into Labor Day Weekend and on into fall, we thought we’d complement our recent feature on Trey Anastasio and the newly-debuted Phish songs with this look back to January of last year and Tom Marshall’s perspective on the previous batch.

I’ve always thought of my song lyrics as having three lives. The first life is when a poem somehow appears in my head from the ether of space and materializes onto paper, or onto my computer screen… in either case as a series of dark symbols on a light expanse, recognizable as words. The combining of these words is often in question. What thinking process formed the idea behind the words I often don’t know myself, and in fact, I am happy when I hear someone else’s interpretation that makes sense. Usually the first such person is Trey. Giving it to someone, or reading it to them, is my affirmation of the first stage of a poem’s life.

A poem I emailed to Trey on his birthday last year passed rather quickly into its second life… that is, it became a song. The transformation from a poem on paper to a song is an extremely dramatic event – a two-dimensional entity is suffused with energy and bypasses the third dimension into a realm beyond… the world of song. In the case of “Backwards Down the Number Line,” Trey called me within hours of my hitting the “enter” key to send it to him. He played me a complete song; he had recorded drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and multiple layers of vocals… and it was fantastic. And I finally realized what we had done. We had written the first new Phish song in four years.

Well… that’s how I felt in any case. This presupposes that the poem actually will pass into its third stage, whereby it transforms from merely a song to a Phish song. But that’s looking forward. This song is about looking backwards, and so I will heed my own advice and go the other direction on the number line… back to 1983, into Trey’s dad’s basement in Princeton, NJ, where Trey had me help him create a recording studio.

This was the birthplace of so many songs that later became Phish staples: “Run Like an Antelope,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” “Divided Sky,” “I Am Hydrogen,” “Icculus” and more. I was a spectator and sometimes an accompanist, or when Trey would shove a mic in my face, a surprised participant – can you say, “Rye, Rye Rocco?” When I travel down the number line, I frequently get off at this stop not just because of all the cool songs, but because of all the incredibly hilarious times we had, which I feel helped set the humorous tone for the future of Phish. Once I caught Trey, thinking he was alone, singing with his guitar on, and bouncing up and down in front of a mirror. He said he was practicing playing while in motion, but I think it was the precursor to the trampoline trick. Another time we played a joke on two female visitors who were stopping by to see us and listen to some music. I had warned them that Trey just had oral surgery that he was very sensitive about, and not to stare at it. When they arrived, I let them in and Trey came around the corner with a steel cookie cutter crammed all the way into his mouth – he was drooling and crying, and clearly in severe pain. Anything for a joke. The girls of course were horrified, and became even more so when Trey started sobbing. Actually he was laughing, but there was no way to tell at that point.

There are many, many more stories that we both keep remembering whenever we make the trek backwards to that period. That is when the entire fun Phish era really started for me. And we are now at the beginning of another era in Phish music. Congratulations Phish and welcome back, and may humor guide you as it always has – and keep you firmly on the number line.