Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall, Herman
Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Phillip Zerbo (pzerbo)
Last Update: 2013-11-19
For a song that many fans consider one of Phish’s more “pop” tunes, the history of “Heavy Things” might surprise you. The first live performance of “Heavy Things” was by Tom Marshall’s band, Amfibian, on 1/15/99 in Cambridge, MA. Amfibian and Phish versions of “Heavy Things” share little other than a common title and chorus. The Amfibian version is more of a mini rock opera, and considerably more “heavy” compared to the tune most of us recognize today. The original lyrics as performed to this day by Phish were co-authored by Tom Marshall and Tom’s friend Scott Herman; the lyrics for the Amfibian version were co-authored by Tom and Amfibian’s bass player at the time, Matt Kohut. The Amfibian rendition began with the soft acoustic guitar of Andrew Southern, with Tom singing the chorus. The lyrics to the Amfibian version are dark and introspective, the first person character clearly in a troubled state:
stumbling as I run astray
to a place I cannot stay
seeking refuge in the night
I’m quickly turned away
once I climb the wire fence
it is too late to repent
my words are just a jasmine veil
meant to throw you off the scent
‘til I’m brought down on my knees
taste the soil with my teeth
from the dust I see a place
where I’ll find some peace
Then there is what might be called the “dream sequence,” where we are taken on a whirlwind journey through a substantial jam that builds to a frenzied and chaotic pinnacle. As if leaping off of a cliff, the song takes a page out of the agonized pages of Syd Barrett or Jim Morrison, as against a sparse and dissonant background our seemingly tortured character repeats in distant cries that “Things are falling down on me, Heavy things I could not see, on me, on me, on me...” Our saga then ends with a short, more upbeat rock stanza. The tone and rhythm of the song convey the inner pain of someone who has clearly endured some “heavy things.”
Then Trey came along and simply turned the song on its head. First performed by Trey’s band (with Tony Markellis on bass and Russ Lawton on drums) on 5/4/99, “Heavy Things” was performed during the electric portion at all but two of the shows on Trey’s May 1999 solo tour. It bore little resemblance to the Amfibian version: gone were the solitary introduction, darker lyrics, and dramatic shifts of tone and tempo. In its place we find an upbeat, light, bouncy rendition that seems to mock these supposedly dire circumstances.
The original chorus is retained and so the lyrics still convey a potential sense of loss: “Things are falling down on me, Heavy things I could not see, When I finally came around, Something small would pin me down.” But the intervening verses are far more accessible: “Mary was a friend I’d say, until one summer day, she borrowed everything I owned, and simply ran away.” A bummer to be sure, but hardly life threatening. Instead of the “70s glam rock” exploratory jam offered by Amfibian, Trey engages in an optimistic, joyful, lilting jam, and then he shakes off these heavy things with a repeated laugh and smile, “ooh ooh, wah hah, ooh ooh, wah hah!”
Phish, “Heavy Things” – 5/16/00, The Late Show with David Letterman
As a Phish tune, “Heavy Things” retains almost to the note the upbeat version as performed by Trey on that first solo tour. While some fans appreciated the irony of these decidedly dark lyrics juxtaposed against such lighthearted melodies, reaction among many fans was initially mixed, at best. Decried by some as being too much of a “pop tune,” “Heavy Things” has seemingly gained in acceptance and appreciation over the years, perhaps as the lyrics increasingly reflect upon the growing depth of experiences, high and low, among band and fans alike.
Phish first performed “Heavy Things” on 9/11/99, at The Gorge. By the midpoint of that tour it had become a regular fixture in the setlist rotation; it was by far the most frequently played song on the December 1999 run, appearing in more than half of that tour’s fourteen shows. It stayed in heavy rotation throughout 2000, with prominent placement in the May promotional radio gigs for Farmhouse, as well as the 5/16/00 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Though “Heavy Things” never achieved the status of “hit single,” it very likely received more widespread radio airplay during the period immediately before and after the release of Farmhouse than any other Phish tune to date.
The frequency of its appearances decreased post-hiatus, though it remains a fixture in the repertoire of both Phish and Trey's other assorted ensembles. While performances of the tune vary little, notable versions can be found on 6/29/00 as part of the second set opening sequence of “Birds of a Feather” -> “Catapult” > “Heavy Things;” on 7/25/03, lifted by a genuine segue out of “Twist,” or wafting over the blissful Empire Polo Club grounds on 11/1/09. For more elemental readings of the song check out two acoustic duets: with Tom Marshall on Trampled by Lambs, and with Mike at Trey's 11/11/05 Utica gig. Trey also performed the song on acoustic guitar for all of the song’s performances during TAB’s spring 2011 tour, including 2/22/11 in New York and 3/5/11 in Oakland.
Pay attention to Trey's “fancy footwork” during live performances of “Heavy Things.” Before starting the song, Trey plays a single guitar note and samples it with one of his pedals. He then plays this repeated note by tapping his foot on the pedal, letting him solo on top of the sampled guitar rhythm.
Phish, “Heavy Things” – 6/15/12, Atlantic City, NJ
Whatever your opinion of “Heavy Things,” the song is now solidified in Phish history as the tune performed while The World peeked into The Show. Almost an hour into the overnight set of New Year’s Eve 2000 at Big Cypress, our party in the swamp was joined by upwards of 100 million television viewers via the “ABC 2000” coverage of New Year’s festivities around the globe. Extending the irony of the song to absurd extremes, “Heavy Things” will forever be remembered in the same sentence with “cheesecake” and with Trey’s “message of peace” for the dawn of the 21st century:
“I want to send a message of peace and love in the 21st century, a simple message that will keep everyone happy. Please remember the right lane is for traveling and the left lane is for passing. Stay in the right lane unless you are passing, and lets have some peace and harmony in the 21st century. Thank you.”
"Heavy Things" follows, as does a convoluted yet spirited “cheesecake” chant by the New Year’s Eve revelers. Just as memorable for some, once the television lights went out and the on-air segment was over, Trey offered with a sense of relief: “OK, it’s just us now!” Right… just 80,000 of us.
Phish, “Heavy Things” – 12/31/99, Big Cypress, FL