Mercury

Originally Performed ByPhish
Music/LyricsAnastasio/Marshall
Phish Debut2015-07-22
Last Played2017-07-28
Current Gap7
HistorianJeremy D. Goodwin
Last Update2017-08-11

History

Musically and lyrically, “Mercury” is one of the most ambitious Phish songs debuted since the band returned in 2009—a multi-part composition with prog-rock influences, of the sort that has long become uncommon within the Phish canon. It dates to a songwriting session in Kitty Hawk, NC, near where the Wright brothers briefly escaped gravity. The composition began with the intriguing opening groove, with Trey adding bits and pieces of the music over several weeks. That opening groove winds its way into an instrumental passage framing an enigmatic bridge, followed by a quiet section built around a solo on Marimba Lumina by Fish that marches into a deliciously dark and grooving final part leading – in the song’s debut year – to incrementally larger bits of jamming.

“I have always liked Mercury—the planet, the god, the element—and decided it needed a tribute,” Tom Marshall related in an interview with phish.net. Mercury is lyrically referenced here in many manifestations—a star viewed in the night sky, the planet itself—whose slow rotation and proximity to the sun means that it takes only three Mercury-days to travel twice around the sun—and vermillion, a red pigment made from ground mercuric sulfide. The wings said to be on the feet of the Roman god Mercury are referenced, as is quicksilver (a common word for the element) and, indirectly, mercury poisoning. Though there’s a Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the one referred to in “Mercury” is the Mayan noblewoman whose remains were discovered inside a hidden sarcophagus in ‘94, covered in vermillion powder.

”Mercury” — 9/5/15, Commerce City, CO. Video by LazyLightning55a.

The lyrics clearly reflect a lot of background work by both songwriters. “I was very happy when Trey contributed a great deal of the Red Queen/Vermillion/unbreakable net research,” Marshall says. The classical allusions in “Mercury” include a reference to the story (recounted in Homer’s Odyssey) of Vulcan trapping his unfaithful wife, Venus, in bed with Mars in a netting of unbreakable chains. Though not a key player in that story, Mercury is present; the messenger of the gods says of Venus that he’d happily “sleep with her if I could,” even if it meant being tied up in three times as many chains, with all the gods watching. Interestingly, in the song’s final verse the “unbreakable net” that trapped Venus is invoked as a symbol of safety and security. 

“Mercury” was played three times on summer tour ‘15, but did not reappear for the New Year’s or January ’16 Mexico shows. Each of these three performances was slightly tighter, with bits of the composition getting snipped or subtly rearranged along the way. At the 8/4/15 Nashville soundcheck, the band can be heard working diligently on “Mercury.” By the song’s prominent, second-set placement at Dick’s on 9/5/15, the composition preceding its outro jam had been trimmed by almost two minutes, while the jam itself bloomed at Dick’s to four-and-a-half minutes, from the 1:41 of its debut in Bend. 

This darkly intoxicating groove, glimpsed to date in a tantalizingly small sample, fuels many fans’ high hopes for the song. Partisans were disappointed when the song didn’t appear in the 2015-16 New Year’s run, the January 2016 Mexico shows, or summer 2016 tour. A soundcheck appearance before the first show of the Dick’s run in 2016 cued the return of “Mercury,” which was again placed in a prominent, second-set slot that night. And, thankfully, "Mercury" continues to be performed periodically.

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