Music/Lyrics: David Byrne
Original Artist: Talking Heads
Original Album: Fear of Music (1979)
Historian: Chris Bertolet (bertoletdown)
Last Update: 2016-02-25
Talking Heads released this sideways paean to urban life on their third album, 1979’s Fear of Music. Like each of the early Heads albums – up to and including 1980’s Remain in Light – Fear of Music fused infectious rhythm, ambitious melody and surreal lyrics to create something undeniably unique. “Cities” stands as a wonderful example of that vision.
"Cities" – Talking Heads, Rome, Italy 1980
Phish played their debut cover of “Cities” at Nectar’s, nearly twelve years before they’d tackle Remain in Light in its entirety. The song appeared occasionally at Phish gigs in the late 1980s before dropping out of the play list entirely for almost six years, then resurfacing a single time in Ottawa on 7/5/94. “Cities” immediately took another long hiatus before reappearing in Hamburg, Germany on 3/1/97 (see Slip, Stitch & Pass). That summer, “Cities” made a huge splash in Amsterdam, a 24-minute masterpiece of patience and exploration that was immortalized on the Amsterdam box set. On 7/30/97 in Ventura, CA, the first “Cities” on American soil in nearly nine years bubbled up from the disco dregs of “David Bowie.”
After “Cities” made seven appearances in 1998, it settled back into lighter traffic pattern through Coventry in 2004, surfacing once or twice a tour; upon Phish’s 2009 return to the stage “Cities” saw elevated action through 2013, before again taking a step back. This furtiveness is possibly what makes fans mistakenly hear teases of the song in random jams, as its main riff is simply a repeated D-chord. Errant setlists from ‘97 and ‘98 were rife with claims of “Cities” teases. The most dastardly example of this is on recordings of the 4/16/99 Phil & Phriends gig, where some Phish fans, not as familiar with the Dead as others, labeled the breakdown jam in “St. Stephen” as a “Cities” tease.
"Cities" – Phish, 4/5/98, Providence, RI
As with many covers, Phish takes generous artistic liberties with “Cities.” Most late 90s versions were far slower and wah-drenched than the Talking Heads standard – far more cow-funky than avant-garde. Trey also plays fast and loose with the lyrics, omitting an entire verse about getting lost in El Paso and tweaking other lines at whim (“find yourself ” instead of the actual “find myself”). Such creative license helps keep the tune fresh and just a little different each time out. Go sample the super-goopy Great Went “Cities” from 8/16/97 (“Fishman sleeps... sleeps in the daytime... build yourself a city to live in”); the aforementioned Hamburg breakout (“Are those things real? ... nein!”); the 9/29/99 Memphis encore (“Home of Elvis and the Rendezvous Bar-BQ”); 6/14/00 from Fukuoka, Japan (“It’s only the noodles”); and the almost 20-minute monster second set opener from Minneapolis on 9/24/00.
Phish 2.0 versions were relatively restrained but prominently placed, including a show-opening performance at Deer Creek on 7/21/03, a late second set slot at the 20th anniversary gig on 12/2/03, and in Miami on 12/30/03. Phish 3.0 versions mostly followed that pattern, though a string of especially strong versions including 12/31/14 Miami, 8/12/15 at The Mann, and 8/22/15 Magnaball signaled something of a “Cities” resurgence.
Extended jams on the tune are rare, which makes the undisputed Gotham of “Cities” – the 8/10/97 Deer Creek behemoth – that much more special. The second set opener delved into licentious grooves for nearly a half-hour, setting the standard by which the jams of that summer would be judged. Other standout “Cities” include the 8/5/88 Colorado sandwich (“YEM” -> “Cities” -> “DEG” -> “Cities”), the Lemonwheel version from 8/15/98 (with vertigo-inducing delay loop jam), the plinko-heavy Greek Theatre reading from 8/6/10 (crackling with crowd energy), and the majestic “Mexico Cities” from Riviera Maya on 1/16/16.