Note: The folks at phish.net were kind enough to repost this review, and there’s a little discussion afterward. Please stop by, and if you can, support the important work they do in music education and outreach.
Attention conservation notice: ~1,500 words on a documentary about a hero of mine. I haven’t read what everyone else says about the movie. I loved it, and have no reservations about the film — this brief essay works through realizations regarding its subject. I recommend the movie to you. –wgh.
The documentary film Between Me and My Mind is conventionally structured: Trey Anastasio begins initial work on his ‘longform’ solo project Ghosts of the Forest at The Barn while planning and prepping for the Baker’s Dozen and NYE 2017 with the other members of Phish; along the way we see him in staged 1-on-1 conversations with his wife, daughters, mother, and father. It’s an ordinary slice-of-working-life story about a recently sober 50something looking back on his life and finding inspiration to move ahead with more personal work. For Phish/Trey fans, and for anyone moved by tales of gifted people entering their autumn years, it will offer intense if familiar pleasures.
It being about Trey, though, it’ll also be a little strange.
And infectiously joyful. And idiosyncratically beautiful.
There is no release without tension.
As a longtime fan of Phish, as someone who counts Trey as one of my heroes — even moreso since he turned his life around after Coventry and became a living model of graceful, creatively vibrant middle age — I was grateful for the chance to see the four bandmembers interacting outside of the performance context. We already know they’re master craftsmen (breif Phish concert segments drive this point home without belaboring), but the movie’s offhand message in these quieter moments is: Phish are goofballs. This’ll come as no surprise, but it’s lovely to see.
There’s a sequence near the beginning of the film where Trey visits Fish, Page, and Mike in turn to share his idea for the NYE 2017 gag (‘Soul Planet,’ the pirate ship); he ends up making music with each of his three bandmates, and those scenes are all totally different in ways that make perfect sense: he and Fish rock out, he and Mike improvise a little synth/drum-machine duet, and finally he teaches ‘Soul Planet’ to Page, who effortlessly digests the music and begins to embellish (sounding a lot like Vince Guaraldi for a minute). The unifying thread is everyone’s unflagging enthusiasm and love for each other and for their shared work — yet even in those brief scenes, the four guys’ contrasting yet complementary personalities shine through. In a brief interview, Page talks about having rediscovered, in the last couple of years and after ‘a few years’ that were touch-and-go, the pure joy and and excitement of their early days at Nectar’s — fans of the band will smile knowingly at this. We’ve been hearing it in the music for a while now, and it’s gratifying to know that they feel and know it too.
I kept thinking to myself: They’re really like that. They sound just like themselves! The absolute opposite of rock stars, four college friends physically unable to keep from laughing when they’re together.
That’s the easy part, though. We know what Phish is, really. The heart of the film is Trey’s solo work on Ghosts of the Forest, which we see in early Barn demos and rehearsals with Fish and Tony. Trey speaks movingly about wanting to do work that’s more personal, confessional, celebratory of mere living — and surprisingly, winningly, he celebrates that life-change in terms of the empathy and curiosity about other people’s experiences that it has brought. Trey doesn’t have many bodhisattva moments in this film (he repeatedly describes Ghosts in terms of ‘confusion,’ a striking admission and insight, and throughout the movie he’s often frankly kinda drained) but in that interview he comes off as truly wise. But it’s appropriate that the film begins there rather than ending with Trey declaring his sensibility…
Hearing the Ghosts of the Forest songs evolve, hearing Trey sing early draft lyrics in a voice that’s lost range and strength but gained a wary vulnerability, is a gift and a revelation. Phish’s work (Trey’s work) has always combined ironic-spectacular theatricality with a winning vulnerability, but Ghosts is the most naked we’ve ever seen or heard him — for the first time scared and uncertain even in his work. The film captures Trey humbled and invigorated by that uncertainty, embracing the shakiness of his own voice and the intensity of his own sadness because they open him up to a new intensity of experience. The sweet scenes with his friend Chris Cottrell, whose death inspired the album, have that quality: Trey is enervated and intense, at times jarringly or inappropriately so, but he also seems totally clear-eyed about the fact that his oldest friend is about to die, as his sister died just a few years ago. As in his music, he is able to find joy in not knowing (or deciding) what that death will mean — in experiencing it as part of life, which is to say, as a gift.
‘The moment ends,’ I think they say, which is what makes it a moment.
The film’s unifying thread is a series of conversations between Trey and his family members. If you don’t know Trey’s biography, these will be the film’s greatest surprise, and its most quietly unsettling. Trey’s father Ernest confesses to being too hard on him as a kid, matter-of-factly acknowledges that he recapitulated his own father’s own habits and mistakes as a dad — Ernest Sr is astonishingly articulate — then reminisces about the time after Trey’s mother had left and Trey’s sister wasn’t around. He and Trey ate terribly, of course. ‘And there were no women around to tell us not to,’ he jokes. Trey repeats the words back — ‘no women’ — but isn’t joking, not quite. It’s a vulnerable moment, loving, fleeting, but unexpectedly sad.
And we’re reminded that the film’s most uncomfortable moments are the other four conversations, with the women in Trey’s life.
There’s a book to be written about Phish, Trey, women, sex, and suburban boyhood (and manhood). Between Me and My Mind is, I think, the most we’ve heard directly from Trey’s family. His mother the bohemian with her sudden departures, his oldest daughter getting on with life and work in NYC, his youngest daughter still emerging from adolescent awkwardness, and his wife Sue: there’s a hell of a lot of intense emotion buried in their talks with Trey, and his earnest questions — ‘What do you wish had been different?’ — hint at both a genuine desire to connect and a tentative reckoning with the costs of his own weird childhood and the equally strange life he made for his family. The intimacy of these conversations is undercut by their staged nature, but even while they express real love and gratitude, there’s authentic hesitancy, regret, melancholy too. When younger daughter Bella alludes to unnamed teenage ‘issues,’ the memory of pain and helplessness crosses Trey’s face; as the father of an 8-year-old, for a second as I watched I could feel exactly what he did. There is no release without tension.
I want to say ‘I’d happily watch two hours of Trey’s family talking to one another,’ but that would be hard to take, for one specific reason. Phish fans know this already, but it’s never been clearer than it is in this film: Trey is happiest, most whole, making music. As Phish fans, we experience that as a great gift — night after night, we share the transcendent joy of a genius working his hardest to entertain us — but this film forces us to stay with the question of what Trey’s like when he’s not making music… when he can’t, because he has to be an ordinary person, which (not coincidentally) is where he’s most closely connected to the women in his life. (It’s not coincidence, either, that Trey’s deepest friends have all been the suburban boys he grew up making music and taking drugs with.)
These scenes aren’t damning by any means — Trey appears to be a genuinely loving and understanding person — they’re just real, and to the filmmakers’ credit, they let these moments of emotional exposure and uncertainty play out a second or two longer than you might prefer. This produces an extreme contrast effect, as Trey Anastasio, Creative Volcano and Irrepressible Force for Musical Good, has to work to maintain connection to the world. The scene of him walking offstage after a TAB show and spending lonely hours on a bus, eating and writing and brushing his teeth, amplifies this effect — and it’s complicated by Trey’s wholly believable insistence, in the film’s closing movement, that he’ll never stop making music, that it’s what he’s made for (perhaps made of).
The fact that Trey’s musical relationships are characterized by what certainly seems to be a perfect absence of tension or ego-poison begins as a source of joy and wonder; by the end of the film, though, there’s something a tiny bit disconcerting about Trey’s apparent inability to turn off that part of himself. His commitment to honesty and creative integrity is tinged with something like mania — witness the scene at Chris’s memorial concert, as Trey processes his grief with words that are both beautifully loving and, in their unguarded intensity, almost ugly. I idolize Trey Anastasio, but seeing the film brought home for me, more viscerally than ever before, what it might be like to live with his addictions (to music, to intense experience, to that relentless onrush of expression)…
It’s impossible for me to judge Between Me and My Mind ‘objectively,’ as An Example of the Documentary Filmmaker’s Art. I know that I laughed hysterically and wept quietly. I recognized the man and learned a lot about him. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since the quintessentially Phishy credits sequence rolled. And I’m grateful for its subtle, graceful depiction of a complicated human being.