“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This concept, known as the law of the instrument – or Maslow’s Hammer – is an over-reliance on a familiar tool. The idea was the work of a pair of Abrahams in the mid 1960s. Abraham Kaplan was an American philosopher working in the behavioral sciences who first described the law of the instrument in 1964 around the time of the publication of his book The Conduct of Inquiry. Abraham Maslow would subsequently popularize the concept in his 1966 book, The Psychology of Science.
Over three decades later Phish would transform Maslow’s concept into a simple lyric – the central tenet of “Bittersweet Motel” – which is a heavy truism applicable to both our travels down the road of life and the inherent frustrations that can manifest during life on the road. The little disasters can strike even when we are traveling alone. It is not surprising that the song is the title track for a film documenting life on the road with Phish. A flat tire, a wrong turn, a traffic jam, a lost ticket, a missing friend, a bent tent stake, an over-adoring fan; it could be anything, usually something simple, but it puts us through a personal hell of frustration just the same. Frustration becomes anger. Anger is a blunt indiscriminate hammer. Too often we lash out with this hammer at the unsuspecting nails (friends, lovers, tour buddies) that surround us. “Bittersweet Motel” is a brief reminder, as well as an opportunity during a Phish show, to stop and catch a breath. A chance to try to develop different tools to deal with the nuts, loose screws, and the pressure of vices we all must face.
A hauntingly sparse simple electric arrangement of “Bittersweet Motel” debuted on 7/21/98 in Phoenix, swirling out of the “Ring of Fire” ambiance between “Simple” and “Weekapaug.” Since then it has appeared sporadically, often as part of a multiple song encore (e.g. 7/29/98, 8/2/98, 12/16/99).
One of the more interesting versions of “Bittersweet Motel” was the acoustic rendition at the ‘E’ Center (11/2/98). This performance included a closing “Free Bird” jam and was dedicated to the people at the now-defunct Dead Goat Saloon. The previous evening Trey and Mike had played an open mic night at the small Salt Lake City bar. After playing a couple of songs Trey said they began inviting the other patrons and staff of the saloon to sit in with them. This free-for-all culminated with the only other acoustic version of “Bittersweet Motel” to date. However, unlike the ‘E’ Center version, everyone in the room at the Dead Goat was up on stage jamming along.
The absolutely must-hear at all cost version of “Bittersweet Motel” can be found nestled between “Silent in the Morning” and “Piper” late in The Show at Big Cypress (12/31/99). Appropriately enough Trey dedicated the song to “The Pittsburgh crew.” In keeping with this dedication, the first post-hiatus performance of “Bittersweet Motel” was wedged into the second set “Harpua” narration at Star Lake (7/29/03), which lies just to the west of Pittsburgh. Apparently the tune was inspired by Jimmy’s sadness resulting from his inability to find “IT” while on the road with Poster Nutbag and Harpua.
In contrast Trey mirthfully dedicated the song to his daughter, Bella, before playing it at Red Rocks (8/2/09). According to Trey she had been requesting it all tour. Bella in turn wanted the "Bittersweet Motel" dedicated to Matt and urged him to "keep his hair straight." Following this performance, Fishman jokingly expressed his sadness at being alone again and asked if he could have the other drummer (Bill Kreutzmann) back.
The song remains a relative obscurity, having been played only once since (7/4/12 at Jones Beach) perhaps an oblique reference to the alleged location (Meadville, Pennsylvania which is actually closer to Erie than Pittsburgh) of the broken down motel which served as the inspiration for the song.
After reading the song history I feel that you are leaving out the most important part, which is that the Bitersweet Motel actally existed!
Off of I-79, half way between Erie and Pittsburgh, duh, there used to be an old, single story, white, broken down building of the same name. You can see a lot of these rotting around the mid-west. This was before big modern day hotels were built up all over. I don't know if it's still there, I've lived in Ohio since 1975 and have actually driven by it a couple of times in my life on family trips to Pennsylvania and so on. The last time was between the Star Lake and Vernon Downs shows in August of 1998.
So, my feeling is that the band saw it and wrote a song about it after the 10-18-96 Pittsburgh show (which I also attended) on their way to Buffalo for the 10-19-96 show. Of course I could be wrong, and I would love to have Trey set me straight on this one personally! I also feel this is why the band plays it at Star Lake all the time. It's a local joke.
Anyway, I hope there are some PA Phish fans out there that can help prove this story, or someone can ask the band directly.
Thank you Phish.net for many great years of sharing info and discussions.