I was tagged by an old friend of mine, Charles Rosenberg, with whom I share a love of music, to share my top 10 albums. Yes, album music, not the streaming of random music from a particular genre as is common today. He has known for a long time that I’m hesitant to make a top 10 list of favorite albums because I’m torn between what I want to listen to now versus what music tells the story of me and therefore should go with me should I be stranded on a deserted island (with electricity and a stereo, of course). I have chosen to go with the deserted island approach, though. For me, the music in my list has stood the test of time and also evokes memories of my life that will probably be pretty important should I find myself alone on an island.
I gave myself the following rules when selecting albums. First, it should be music that I can’t see myself living without. Second, I have to own it, preferably physically. Third, greatest hit compilations should be avoided, because the greatness of an album is often about capturing a moment. I’m revealing the albums chronologically according to when they first impacted me, not by ranking.
Album 5: Phish, Rift
Surprised? Phish, believe it or not, is part of my story. I first learned about Phish while working at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, a large law firm in downtown Atlanta. I worked in the mail room, and a co-worker of mine, a charismatic Deadhead name Matt, gave me a tape of Lawn Boy, Phish’s second studio album. At first, it was difficult to take this music seriously. Throughout, the music is quirky, with unusual time signatures, and the lyrics are just strange. For example, one of the songs is titled “Bathtub Gin,” a distillation method the writers interpret literally. But I wound up buying the CD, admittedly in large part to play around my friends to enjoy their hilarious reactions. One of my best friends, Nilesh, is an Indian who grew up in Tucker, GA, and we all got a big kick out of his yelling, incredulously, in his unique accent,”Bag it, tag it?!? What kind of ____ is this??”, referring to a line from the 12 minute track, “Reba.” But it was our little buddy Greg who, amidst the laughter in my car as I continued playing the music loudly, noted from the backseat that there was something unique about it; Greg played bass in a band in college, so he was more tuned to such things.
I returned to UGA in 1991 after living a year in Atlanta and wasting, essentially, a couple of weeks at Tech (difficult times, remember). But in 1992, Greg, and my friends Billy and Tony, and I moved into a 5-bedroom off-campus townhouse. The fifth bedroom had a hot tub. I added the speakers. My college roomates, my soon-to-be-wife, Kim, and I really got into Phish at this point. We saw them play shows often, traveling to hemp-friendly and patchouli-soaked festivals. Plus, the reaction of playing to the uninitiated these odd, progressive, jam-band songs with seemingly nonsensical lyrics never lost its amusement. Nor did playing it around Doug, my friend with whom I share a fondness for early Phil Collins and who thinks Phish sounds like Rush played backwards and underwater (something like that), and Billy, the man who would stand beside me at my wedding a few years later and who would pay us back for the Phish airtime with Motley Crue and Metallica. The last quarter of that school year, a odd childhood neighbor moved into the hot tub room, and, fittingly I suppose, he wound up getting into Phish, too.
Rift was released in 1993, my final year at UGA. It was just Tony, Greg and me living together then. From the downstairs couch, Tony and I would listen to Greg attempt to learn Mike Gordon bass lines. And I kept this CD in my car more frequently than with their other albums. It is difficult to describe, but there’s a certain focus about the album that makes me take the songwriting seriously, even as the singer, Trey Anastasio, reflects on the angle at which he lies in his bed when his partner is present or not (“Lengthwise”) and how he responds to a knife-possessing friend (“My friend, My Friend”). Even stranger is the song, sung by Gordon, pondering the weight of his friend’s head, if he were to cut it off, or the hairs collected from her razor (“Weigh”). I know. It sounds almost childish, but the songs are fun and the musicianship is virtuosic; there’s a reason that Anastasio is said to be worth over $50 million.
Recently, in the Fall of 2016, Kim and I were in Nashville the night before one of my cancer treatments there. Phish happened to be playing in the Ascend Amphitheater, which sits in a beautiful spot on the bank of the Cumberland River downtown. We chose not to purchase tickets since I wasn’t feeling well. Instead, we sat on a park bench outside and listened to them play for about an hour. They still have it. And they’re still good.
Truth be told, I initially had Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Dulcinea in this spot. Toad is another prominent band from my college days, but I figure I’ll need some musical variety on the deserted island, and Phish Rift will certainly provide that. I own 5 Phish CDs, and this is the one I play most often. It’s coming with me.
I press on the elastic sheet, I’m breathing through a slice
‘Are they worms or are the serpents?’ bubbles through the ice
The source was quite invisible, the ever-present voice
While skating, both legs tracing different shapes, I made my choice
I’m mimicking the image in whose radiance I bask
I’m tied to him, or him to me, depending who you ask
None the less reluctantly reflections tumble in
I slide with all the other on the wrong side of the skin
He’s fallen on the ice, it cracks
Will he plunge in and join me here?
He meets my eyes, to my surprise
He laughs in full light of my frown
My double wants to pull me down