Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Down With Disease

I want to defend--in a completely irrelevant context, pointlessly after the fact, and to a totally different audience--something I said recently. After a little nudge in this direction, I've been trying over the past few months to expand my musical horizons a little (comically, maybe, at my age), and I've been asking around here and there. I have been soliciting, more than usual, stuff that will feed a taste that I usually describe to people as "upbeat, but pissed off." Mysteriously, I caught mytself putting a Phish song in that category, and although it's a ludicrous description on its face, I think I must stand by it.

For the minimal effort of keeping my conversations separate-ish and my blog posts less redundant, I am not going to back up here too much. Suffice to say that one of the great things about music is its ability to play off of expectations, to establish them by virtue of tradition, even-numbered tempos, or harmonics, and then to delay or reward that expectation at will. That it's so effective is still pretty much magic to me (in other news, goddamn you talented people anyway), much as I like to pretend to puzzle it out* (boring whoever will listen). And when it comes together it's indelible. I've needed other moods served too, but my favorite is still something that takes frustrated energy and gives it any kind of positive conduit. And if it gets me to sing along or run in double-time, then it's very special indeed. The blues is the legendary embodiment of this kind of thing, except that in my preference, I'm not so much about channeling misery into a perverted joy. Or maybe it's better to call it a different kind of misery that I need to channel, something that's keyed in the middle ground between defiance and defeat, a little closer to the brand that I am forced to live in, or that I create prodigiously my own damn self.

There are about three or four Phish songs on my forever playlist that evolved only slowly since the Napster days. If Down With Disease** had an ancient cameo on this-here blog once, that's because my eternal rotation only contains forty-two tunes. I can't help it. I fall into music like friendship, and I have a difficult time with casual acquaintance.

Me and Phish never did quite became BFFs (er, BPhPhs), but I've always gotten along with them well enough. They are a band that defies my rule of thumb that good recording artists tend to be terrible live ones, but then I understand that their live shows, with their lengthy and tight jams, really eclipse the experience of popping in a CD and getting caught up wondering if the lyrics mean anything at all. And I'll get to find that out for myself next month. My brother has supplied me with about 4,032 continuous hours of concert bootlegs in preparation, and hopefully by the time the damn hippies get to Worcester, I'll be properly brainwashed. (My hair is still long, so at least there's that.) They do sound great live, and I'm looking forward to the show. Upbeat? Sure, it's delightful. But I've never heard anything less pissed off in my life. Phish, of all bands, has none of this negativity going on. They find a groove, and just stay happily there, making it look effortless. I think they've been in the same one for almost 30 years. It's like if the Grateful Dead were happier, and did funky jazz.

But I can find something in Down With Disease. It's a little pissed off. It's explicitly about being pulled off your game (by these demons in your head), about being held down when you want to move on. It ain't deep by any means, and Wikipedia tells me that it was, just like it sounds, the writer's (and non-band-member Tom Marshall's) ode to the joys of mononucleosis. The fact that it's performed with those zippy riffs and silly chants makes for an odd juxtaposition, but here, it doesn't amount to nonsense. It captures the giddiness of being feverish in an entertaining way.

But if you want to map it to deeper frustrations you can, and by a fingernail, that's what grabbed me. There's a fuck-you solidly embedded in the joyous sentiment, looking forward to a perfunctory goodbye. It's delivered with an open smile, mind you, and the smile's as sincere as the irritation is temporary. But somewhere in this unlikely song too, in that weird dichotomy, is a secret that I can only find those rare times when I'm actually on my game: how to channel that churning internal conflict into a positive life-affirming force. How, in a strange way, they're both the same thing. I do my best to write that way, or write about that kind of subject, and do a lot less well to live it, but at the end of the day, it's still alchemy to me, and I struggle to even spot the thousand barefoot children that I know are out there.

*Been at it for some time, speaking, as I was, of my own underwritten schtick. The CD I was listening to with my daughter when she was nine, by the way, was The Cult's Sonic Temple, which is still awesome. And yes, I did manage to warp her. We used to groove to this Phish song too.

**Evidently the only video they ever made, for painfully obvious reasons. Back in 1994, they forced you to.


Brian said...

I'm glad that you've been pondering the jams, bro! But don't worry, it's not all happy-go-lucky upbeat stuff - they have other music too! Some of it is definitely much more pissed-off sounding than Down with Disease.
A lot of their music, especially their early stuff, is all about "tension and release" - they build and build it up until you feel like your head is going to explode, and then... bliss... it is an entertaining juxtaposition of feelings and emotions, expressed through music. Go back and listen to the first 8-10 minutes of You Enjoy Myself (probably my favorite song, musically, of theirs). Try not to get too caught up in those lyrics though... "boy, man, god, shit" - although it does speak volumes in 4 little words...
See you in a few weeks!!

Keifus said...

Wow, hey dude, good to see you. (If people are actually reading this crap, I might have to do something about all the typos!) Looking forward to the time off with you guys too.

Appreciating the suggestion here, btw. If I had a criticism it was that they always seem to be more or less in the same groove, and if I can go back and find a little more buildup, I'll appreciate it. Will enjoy teh show in any case.