Memories of Being Free
I wanted to share some thoughts about one of the coolest things on Twitter (if you’re a Phishhead, that is). Tom Marshall, our lovable giant lyricist/singer/Springsteen impersonator, has been releasing demo versions of Phish songs that he wrote with Trey, mostly from the late 90s and 2000s, but a few legitimate oldies in there too, like the original “Silent in the Morning,” and from the way-wayback machine, “I Am Hydrogen.” Browsing through these, I came across this one from December 3, 2011 (yeah, I know, I’m super late on this):
And so here you go, the original “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan,” written in October 2003.
I absolutely love this version, and would kill to hear it live in the middle of a meaty second set jam sequence. The tempo is obviously the biggest difference from the finished, 2009 Joy version, which transforms the laid back groove into a badass rock song with a killer riff:
Like many Phish songs, this earlier version is basically a three-chord vamp, but what’s especially interesting is that this skeletal version lacks the long dominant pedal during the “gonna dream” lyric before leading back into the song’s signature rock riff. Trey often reserves the two- or three-chord vamp for the jam section of a song (Hood, YEM, Slave, Mike’s, Reba, etc.), but here it’s basically all there is. You can hear him play a quick dominant chord just before “of being free,” but it’s barely audible, nothing like the big build on the finished version.
In this sense, this song becomes more like a jam structure on top of which lyrics and melody have been added, much like the groove-based songs of the late 90s like “Sand” or “Jibboo” and more recently, “Waves,” “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,” or “Steam.”
The chord progression is i-bVII-i-IV, similar to what theorist Walter Everett calls the “double plagal cadence,” which is I-bVII-IV-I (e.g. the outro to “Hey Jude,” or the verse of “St. Stephen”). As a cascading descent of subdominants, the dominant chord is avoided, creating a very different feel than the big E major chord in the 2009 version of “Stealing Time.” As Nicole Biamonte has pointed out, this type of chord progression, a i-IV or i-bVII-i, lends itself to modal melodies and jamming. In A minor, i-IV is Am-D, and the mode mapped onto that progression would be A-B-C(#)-D-E-F#-G-A, or A dorian (which also accommodates bVII or G). Dorian is basically an older version of the minor scale, and there is definitely a “minor feel” to the soloing the Trey is lightly layering above this progression. But the lowered seventh degree also suggests the mixolydian for jambands (which would activate the parenthetical C# above), because this is mode of choice for Grateful Dead jamming (the “Playing in the Band” jam is basically the same, a D dorian jam with a mixolydian flavor).
At this tempo, with the modal soloing, the song feels more like a jam song, rather than a rock anthem. Much like the nearly contemporaneous “Scents and Subtle Sounds” jam, it’s a gentle rocking back and forth between tonic (but in this case, a minor tonic) and subdominant areas (IV/IV, or bVII, and IV). Yet it’s also a very mellow jam, and sounds much like other songs written in late 2003/early 2004. The watery, phasing guitar timbre is the sound used on “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” which, as Tom reveals, comes from the same session as this “Stealing Time.” It seems Trey was playing around with that sound and wrote these two songs. These two songs share other attributes: they’re both a bit serious and heavy, they both deal with intense feelings of expectation, inevitablity, mortality, and both share a slight desperation.
And this is what makes the original “Stealing Time” so interesting: it was written in October of 2003. Fresh off Phish’s underrated and outstanding summer tour, in which Trey was reportedly NOT partying after the shows (he was quoted as saying that he went directly back to his hotel room every night, did yoga, and avoided “the scene”). Of course, some time between then and the next year, Trey got pretty hard back into drugs, resulting in the calamitous Vegas shows in April 2004 and the Coventry meltdown. “Stealing Time,” it seems, was written during a tumultuous period in Trey’s life, when he was trying to reconcile his own addiction with the knowledge that it was not sustainable for his band.
Of course, I, like many other Phish Heads, have always assumed that “Stealing Time” was another one of Trey’s “recovery songs,” a song composed during his early years of sobriety (2007-2009) when he was using music as a therapeutic tool in dealing with sobriety, recovery, and his demons. This would put “Stealing Time” in the same department as “Let Me Lie,” “Backwards Down the Number Line,” “Twenty Years Later,” and others. It makes sense to think of it in this way: the “faulty plan” is, of course, drug usage, “act as though I’m still a man” might refer to Trey’s responsibilities as father, husband, and primary earner that he jeopardized with his addiction, “shrug demands off of me” might be him leaving those addictive “demands” behind, and “dream of being free” is being free of the guilt, the shame, and the addiction itself. We all know why he’s “got a blank space where my mind should be.” And is there any image more pathetic than the former partier, surrounded by high-end booze and drugs, forced to consume nothing but “a Clif bar, and some cold green tea”?
For me, the song changes a little knowing its lyrics aren’t about Trey being stuck in sobriety, but rather Tom Marshall being stuck in a desk job he hated (the one he worked when he wrote “Walls of the Cave”). Should it matter that the subject matter isn’t Trey’s sobriety, but rather Tom’s unhappiness? Maybe not, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that social and personal context makes a big difference in how we understand a work of art. Why didn’t “Stealing Time” see the light of day until 2009? Why wasn’t it included with the other Undermind songs? I think it’s because Trey perhaps couldn’t relate as fully to the song, being in a different stage of his life.
This might also explain the arrangement, and later re-arrangement. Trey wrote a fairly typical Phish jam under the lyrics. It was, like his addiction, comfortable, safe, and hermetically sealed from the outside world (of typical rock song forms). His vocals were subdued, quiet, and lower in pitch – as we all remember, Trey’s voice took quite a beating during his years of abuse. In the new version, the song gains strength from its powerful rock riff – it’s probably the strongest pure rock song Trey’s written since the comeback, this era’s “Chalkdust” or “Character Zero.” His voice, slightly higher in pitch, is clear and lucidly tells a re-appropriated story. Trey finally gets it – he can relate to the words his friend wrote eight years ago. He understands the same feelings of being terminally stuck, unable to affect your own life, because he was there with addiction.
And the song form itself has a long dominant leading back into the ritornello-like riff on the “memories of being free” lyric. By inserting the most classic pop/rock and Western classical gesture back into the song, a big V-i perfect authentic cadence, Trey is showing that he’s unafraid to write what amounts to a typical (albeit very good) rock song. His memories of being free include writing songs that take chances, that aren’t safe. For Phish, a band whose early catalog is anything but typical when it comes to harmony and form, writing something so common might just be the biggest risk Trey could take. He’s “giving us one more chance to see” that he can be the rock star guitar god we want and need him to be, fueled not by substances, but by his own adrenaline, renewed sense of purpose, and some cold green tea.