Fly Famous Mockingbird
Vocals: Page, Trey
Historian: Mark Toscano, Phillip Zerbo (pzerbo)
Last Update: 2011-09-11
"Esther" and her doll may “flutter and glide,” but this tune absolutely soars. One of Trey’s most beautiful compositions, the exquisite "Fly Famous Mockingbird" has wowed ‘em in many a room since its first performance at Nectar’s on 2/7/88.
Trey first encountered The Famous Mockingbird in the “McGrupp” poem Tom Marshall had sent him in the pre-Gamehendge days of fall 1985. Colonel Forbin, fed up with the impotence of the anti-Wilson revolution effort in light of Mr. Palmer’s execution (see “AC/DC Bag”), decides to climb the mountain and find Icculus, who Forbin believes will be able to assist them. The Colonel reaches Icculus at the mountain’s summit, and the Great and Knowledgeable One promises to deliver the Helping Friendly Book to him, without which Wilson will be easily defeated. In order to fetch the Book from its hiding place in the highest tower of Wilson’s castle, Icculus sends his faithful friend The Famous Mockingbird. This song describes the flight of The Famous Mockingbird as it finds and retrieves the Book from Wilson’s castle.
”“Fly Famous Mockingbird” – 3/24/92, Richmond, VA
The chords that make up the opening of this song are actually first expressed midway through “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent,” the song that precedes “Mockingbird” in the Gamehendge story. When this particular chord structure is reiterated at the end of “Forbin’s,” it moves the listener gracefully into “Mockingbird” without a hitch, serving as the latter song’s intro. Trey discovered this sweet progression during a between-semester trip to Ireland, and modified it very slightly to use in “Mockingbird.” Preparing itself for the harrowing journey to Wilson’s castle, the Mockingbird flaps its wings repeatedly over these chords before launching into flight over the next progression, which provides the main melody of the song. Over the gentle rhythms of these chords, Trey’s guitar whistles a lengthy succession of eighth notes in 6/8 time. The brief chorus that then ensues was originally envisioned by Trey to be sung by a full choir. Following this short vocal refrain, the guitar line – meant to echo the adventure-filled flight of the Famous Mockingbird – flutters prettily alongside the same chords before it crashes head-on into the next section of the song.
What follows is a dramatic and brutal musical episode that evokes either a tempestuous storm or perhaps some Wilsonian antagonists attempting to impede the Mockingbird’s flight. The repeating double-crash of Fishman’s cymbal, Page’s and Mike’s perfectly placed accents, and Trey’s impassioned and daring guitar work in this moving segment rank up among some of Phish’s most brilliant musical passages. This segment repeats and then calmly and hypnotically glides downward into a soothing, luminous section that indicates the Mockingbird’s survival of its plight. Following a reprise of the chorus, Mike takes a mellifluous solo over the song’s opening chords, which smoothly gives way to an exquisite Page/Trey duet of escalating notes. This final section evokes the image of the Mockingbird, successful with Book in beak, humbly gliding and dipping over Colonel Forbin’s shack before easing down low enough to present him with the means to de-throne Wilson. The song ends, appropriately, on a single piano note, as the Mockingbird rests from its difficult journey at last.
If this song reminds you at all of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” then you’re right on – this is the piece Trey had in mind when he composed “Mockingbird.” Also, along with “The Lizards,” this song was greatly influenced by Trey’s experiences in Ireland, where he met and spent much time with another guitarist, playing for people as they went from pub to pub, night after night.
Since 1992 “Mockingbird” has almost always been connected to “Forbin’s” by some clever and ever-changing narration from Trey. A fixture in Phish set lists from its 1988 debut through 1994, beginning in 1995 the frequency of “Mockingbird” appearances diminished dramatically, with only a dozen total appearances between 1995 and 2011. While it is one of the band’s truly special tunes, its strict compositional structure apparently didn't fit in very well with the looser groove- and jam-orientation that dominated from the latter '90s until the breakup.
When performed well, the song mesmerizes. Sometimes the song is so powerful the band knocks the crowd off their collective feet. Exceptional versions include 2/24/89, 10/20/89 (with Jeopardy! theme tease), 4/16/92, 12/31/92 (with Brad Sands fittingly clad in a chicken outfit), 3/22/93 and 7/8/94 (both with complete performances of the Gamehendge suite), 12/31/95 (with Collective Soul's "Shine" bridging "Forbin's" and "Mockingbird") and 10/31/96 (Evil Mockingbird!). Unfortunately, when not played well, the song can be just short of a disaster; witness the 8/7/96 offering, which despite a fun narration can otherwise be hard on the ears.
”Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” -> “Fly Famous Mockingbird” – 7/4/10, Alpharetta, GA
In 1997, although the band played “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” at their 8/14/97 gig (with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters onstage), they followed it with “Camel Walk” instead; Trey explained that they couldn’t do “Mockingbird” after such a funky vibe had been created. The next year the Mockingbird flew a single flight on 8/7/98 – its first in 135 shows – and was preceded by a "Forbin's" narration for the ages as Trey "explained" that evening's lunar eclipse. It was another 148 shows before the next performance on 9/30/00 (on the Live in Vegas DVD), where Trey offered thoughts on the band's then-upcoming hiatus during the "Forbin's" narration.
Not played for the next nine years and 96 shows (that included both the hiatus and the breakup) and thought by many to be consigned to the mothballs of history, "Mockingbird" returned to the stage at the instant-classic 8/14/09 Hartford gig; this lovely though concise rendition was notable for the lack of the traditional narration during the preceding "Forbin's".
The next performance on 7/4/10 in Alpharetta was again delivered without narration though this, too, was compensated in the second set with a “Harpua” narration that outlined “an alternative history of this great country” and a powerfully delivered debut of “Killing In the Name.” This trend continued on 6/17/11 in Charlotte, when Trey and Mike wore identical shirts with the image of local musician David Mayfield; Trey noted only that “I’m not going to give it away, when I’m in this part of the country, but I think you all know who this is” referencing his shirt; the story was given up during the “Icculus” in set two.
“Fly Famous Mockingbird” – 6/17/11, Charlotte, NC
The trend was finally bucked on 7/3/11, the final day of SBIX, where narration was required to explain the previous night’s “Storage Jam” with an explanation about how the band had been locked in a storage unit with their equipment in 1988 on their first-ever tour to Colorado, and how they were able to escape “the box” through music. The version just nine shows later on 8/17/11 again dispensed with narration, this version was notable for being the first show-opening “Forbin’s” > “Mockingbird” combo since 11/3/89.
Finally, for those who may have wondered, the narration in the “Forbin’s” > “Mockingbird” combo is decidedly a “Mockingbird Narration” – not a “Forbin’s Narration,” JadedVet™ opinions to the contrary.