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Music Tuesday: “Stash” by Phish, A Look Inside My All-Time Favorite Song

July 28, 2009

447373992_50242f30ce_oAt the time of this writing, my favorite song of all time, by any band or musician, has been “Stash” by Phish. It resonates with me in ways no other song has been able to, so far. So, I thought I would share with you why this is.

I also thought I’d tell you this story because I’ve heard a wide range of opinions on this song, and many of them have been highly critical. They’ve passed it off as contrived, thin, frivolous, meaningless, lyrical nonsense, and an assortment of other negative adjectives. For my money, this is due to a failure to understand the song. Or at least the song as I have interpreted it. And what I love about Phish is that their best songs tend to be very open to interpretation. Everyone has their own story for a given song. Here’s mine for “Stash”.

When this song opens, it opens with a dramatic bang. As if it is going to be a song about confidence, perhaps even defiance. And this confidence plays out in the opening measures. These measures follow a fairly simple, repeating structure (that in and of itself is not tremendously complex, and to those only looking at the surface, and not the big picture of the story in this song, might pass it off as predictable). It is as if this structure is what gives the protagonist his or her confidence (I will call him or her “P”). It represents routine, and from routine, certainty. And from certainty, confidence.

Not long in, still before the lyrics, this confidence begins to unravel slightly, revealing some kind of weakness, uncertainty. There is clearly something else going on in the life of P. And yet, P proceeds forward, as if this isn’t happening, with occasional bursts of defiance (or denial, if you don’t look at it from P’s perspective), fighting to hold onto predictability, routine, certainty.

And then the lyrics begin to tell the story.

“I’m pulling the pavement from under my nails
I brush past a garden, dependent on whales
The sloping companion I cast down the ash
Yanked on my tunic and dangled my stash”

For me, the image of P pulling pavement (nice alliteration, huh?) from his or her nails is a literal or metaphorical representation of being at work. Often, when we work with our hands, we have to clean our work from under our nails. As P does this, he or she brushes past a garden. I contend this is P’s first “brush” with what is coming in this story, or what has been lurking under the surface that is about to come out. This image of whales perhaps has a specific meaning, but for me, it is more of an absurd image, something large, out of place, and unexpected. P then casts this “companion” off, as if trying to deny it any effect on his or her life.

This last line “yanked on my tunic and dangled my stash” is harder to crack. It depends on who is the subject here, P or Sloping Companion. After “ash” could be a comma, in which case P is possibly trying to make some personal statement. I have always taken it to mean that this Sloping Companion, on the way down, grabs metaphorically a hold of what P is hiding behind and rips it away for the first real revelation of what is happening to P.

“Zipping through the forest with the curdling fleas
To grow with them spindles, the mutant I seize
I capture the dread beast who falls to his knees
And cries to his cohorts, asleep in the trees”

This next verse immediately bursts into an image of running. In the context of this song, this moment, it feels to me like the verge of panic. P is now chasing something, a mutant, something that is mutating that P can’t control. “Forest”, “fleas”, and “spindles” all give me the image that P is chasing this something while encountering a thickening that is quickly changing, with an increasing flood of too much peripheral information. What this mutant is should be easy to decipher at this point. What is more important is that P catches up to it, and even upon grabbing onto it tightly, can’t stop stop it from what is becoming inevitable. This mutant cries out for help. An eerie, desperate, troubled cry. For even the slightest sliver of hope to reach out for.

What I love about this moment in the song is that this cry is sung in chorus by the members of Phish, that it is so frightened and desperate (this is when the song first becomes really tense), and that it becomes the musical theme for the song. The tone is now set for the rest of the song, and the song will come back to this theme later.

From here, the music itself circles back to a variation on the opening music. But now it is much more frightened and desperate. Much more uncertain. The routine and predictability it back, but it isn’t the same as it was before. Something has clearly happened to P. But, before the next verse, P manages to right the ship. At least in appearance. But P is no longer okay.

“Smegma, dogmatagram, fishmarket stew
Police in a corner, gunnin’ for you
Appletoast, bedheated, furblanket rat
Laugh when they shoot you, say ‘Please don’t do that'”

That first line IS nonsense, but it isn’t meaningless. It represents the breakdown of reality, reality has become a jumble of disjointedness. As reality breaks down, fear and paranoia set it-“police in the corner, gunnin’ for you”. Third line, more disjointedness. This last line, for me, is the point at which the fear and paranoia catches up with P. They laugh at P, mock P (every representation I have ever seen of people losing their grip is rife not just with fear and paranoia but also a kind of shame and feeling of disgrace at being unable to make everything okay). As they shoot, the best P can do in his or her powerlessness is just ask them not to do it. Please.

And as they shoot, we reach the point where P at last cracks wide open, with what is more or less the chorus of the song:

“Control for smilers can’t be bought
The solar garlic starts to rot
Was it for this my life I sought?
Maybe so and maybe not (Maybe so and maybe not) (4x)”

There is a nice mix of intended nonsense and meaning in here. “Control” and “can’t be bought” brings back this matter of control, in a negative sense, as if it won’t be coming back. At least not through purchase-it will be much harder than that, if it is even possible at this point. Especially for smilers, who are, in this case, people who have a normal, happy life. I like that there is an association between being a smiler and trying to buy something. Like people who try to buy happiness are living the same lie as P.

“The solar garlic” may or may not have literal meaning, but for me, it is more of this intended nonsense. What is more important here is that it is starting to rot. Rotting is what has essentially been happening in this song. That we get this image in the chorus of the song-where songs’ themes tend to be revealed and repeated-is meant to drive home that this has been happening all along.

Then we reach what we have been building to this whole time. “Was it for this my life I sought? Maybe so and maybe not”. These are the words that now run through my head every time I stand at some kind of crossroad, unsure of how to proceed. I always come back to this song, and this moment in the song.

Uncertainty. Uncertainty is a kind of madness, a kind of loss of control. When you stop and really think about uncertainty, it is really what defines our fear. All fear is really a fear of uncertainty. And life is at all times a battle to accept uncertainty, to overcome uncertainty, to face uncertainty, or to live in denial of uncertainty. But it is always there. Some of us can contain the dread beast, and some of us cannot. For those of us who cannot, uncertainty becomes our rot.

As “maybe so and maybe not” dissipates, Phish drives into a jam of fury for the final emotional climax of the song to play out. In the album version, it is a fairly straightforward running back through of all the musical moments of the song building to the climax. In live versions, this is when Phish always jams the song into infinite directions-the song can go anywhere from here, though it is almost always not in a happier direction (something I love about “Stash”).

But, for the album version, and nearly all live versions, “Stash” always climaxes the same way. The tension builds and builds, and finally releases to an instrumental retelling of the theme they sang after “cries to his cohorts asleep in the trees” (in live versions, Phish usually starts singing “maybe so and maybe not” again, adding to the emotional boom). It is the perfect thematic composition, the perfect refrain to cap this story of desperation and uncertainty. It will always come back to that moment. That is the moment that defined P’s life forever.

And, as if the story has been told, and that is all, they slam the book closed, bringing it all dramatically to a close on a single defiant note.

MY FAVORITE LIVE VERSION OF “STASH”: 11-14-1995

It is 39 minutes of unparalleled jam that sounds like it was all carefully planned out backstage. If I could ask Phish one question, I would ask them to tell me how this version of “Stash” came to be. You’ve got Trey playing this staccato style that gives moments a completely new feel. You’ve got all kinds of teases in the song, like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the James Bond theme. You’ve got a percussion only jam with Fishman and Trey on his small drum kit. You’ve got a segue into “Manteca”, back into a long jam. You’ve got a point about 30 minutes in where the music quiets to a halt and is followed by probably the saddest “Dog Faced Boy” I’ve heard, and it’s a cappella, to boot. Back into a dissonant climactic jam to close out the song. 39 minutes. Every single one of them worth it.

THE STUDIO VERSION OF “STASH”:

Click These Links for Particularly Tasty Live Video Versions of Stash:

03-31-1992
04-02-1998
11-20-1998
03-06-2009

***IF YOU’D LIKE AUDIO COPIES OF ANY OF THESE SHOWS, AND DON’T WHERE/HOW TO FIND THEM, SEND ME A COMMENT BELOW, AND I CAN HELP YOU REACH POINT B***

THE LYRICS FOR “STASH”:

I’m pulling the pavement from under my nails
I brush past a garden, dependent on whales
The sloping companion I cast down the ash
Yanked on my tunic and dangled my stash

Zipping through the forest with the curdling fleas
To grow with them spindles, the mutant I seize
I capture the dread beast who falls to his knees
And cries to his cohorts, asleep in the trees

Smegma, dogmatagram, fishmarket stew
Police in a corner, gunnin’ for you
Appletoast, bedheated, furblanket rat
Laugh when they shoot you, say “Please don’t do that”

Control for smilers can’t be bought
The solar garlic starts to rot
Was it for this my life I sought?
Maybe so and maybe not (Maybe so and maybe not) (4x)

Was it for this my life I sought? (Maybe so and maybe not)
Control for smilers can’t be bought (Maybe so and maybe not)
The solar garlic starts to rot (Maybe so and maybe not)

Was it for this my life I sought? (Maybe so and maybe not) (4x)

Photo 1: “ATheSmiler”. Courtesy of danbuck57313.

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9 comments

  1. awesome post. i once decided not to date a girl anymore because she couldn’t get ANY meaning out of “control for smilers can’t be bought”. Stash is a great song because it can have many meanings. Thanks for your thoughts!


    • Sounds like a good reason. To outsiders, they might think it is superficial. But, to insiders, I’d say it’s understood that there is something much more fundamental drawing that line in the sand.

      Glad you liked the post.

      Phish is great because so many of their songs can have many meanings. And many lines can have various lyrics, depending on how you say them. “Wash uffizi”, “A thousand bedouin children”, “Laugh and laughing fall apart”, for instance. Just because they are written one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to say them.


  2. I loved the writing style and the desire to explain your point of view very clearly and understandable. I felt myself like a child who is being explained, in a positive sence. This feeling is hard to achieve, but you managed, probably not even thinking of it.
    And the meaning, revealed and widened for me, is preasious.


  3. Hey, I got some link love for this post on some other blogs very much worth reading if you are into Phish:

    http://phishcoventry.blogspot.com/2009/07/stash-exegesis.html

    http://yemblog.com/

    –Ben


  4. Interesting interpretation, B. Obviously on many points I can see where you’re going even if I don’t overtly agree, and it’s interesting to note the places our interpretations diverge, given that we’ve each been instrumental to the other’s Phish experience.

    For example, “Laugh when they shoot you, say ‘please don’t do that'” always sounded to me like defiance or even invulnerability, not helplessness. They’re shooting you and you’re just laughing and politely asking them to stop. That’s someone who has the situation under control, IMO. (Which of course then makes you question the meaning of ‘Was it for this my life I sought?’ but that’s for another time.) Noodlepops!


  5. Nice, more link love from The Wagger:
    http://thewagger.blogspot.com/2009/07/phish-red-rocks-night-one-setlist.html


  6. […] Fishman, historically the drummer for Phish, sat in with two bands other than his own—Yonder Mountain String Band and Mike Gordon’s band. […]


  7. […] flow as if meant only to say “on”, “now off”, “now back on”. Listen to the 39 minute Stash from 11/14/95 to hear what happens when Stash gets The Switch treatment. Or, check out the Harry […]


  8. killer post man! love your interpretation of the song and having read what you wrote, I agree completely. true life song and amazing composition/jam vehicle from the best band around!!!

    I’d like to get that show 11/14/95, its missing from the phish spreadsheet. patrickthebowie at gmail thanks!



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