Original Artist: Trey Anastasio
Historian: Tim Wade (TheEmu)
Last Update: 2015-05-28
“Therefore, as the sea is deemed tranquil when not the least breeze stirs the waves, so is the condition of mind seen to be quiet and calm, when there is no perturbation by which it can be moved.” – Cicero, The Tusculan Disputations
In an anecdote from the earliest days of antiquity, the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse demonstrated to his sycophant Damocles that there is immense pressure that comes with wielding power. Dionysius made this point by seating Damocles on his throne, over which a sword was suspended by a single strand of hair, until the poor courtier begged to be let go.
Today a reference to “The Sword of Damocles” is taken as a metaphor for any terrible misfortune that could be loosed at a moment’s notice. For a recovering addict, “The Sword of Damocles” is the monkey on his back, as he is taught that the nightmare of relapse will forever be one bad decision away. At first glance, this seems to be the reality referenced in “Scabbard” when Trey and company sing “It never stops / It’s there, can you see it? / Hanging above your head.” Trey can certainly relate to the everyday battle to stay clean and sober, and the reference to “The bottom of your paper cup” suggests that an empty vessel contains a hard choice. But by looking a bit deeper into both the story of Damocles and the song from Traveler, a slightly different message emerges.
“The Sword of Damocles” by Richard Westall (1812)
The philosopher and orator Cicero used “The Sword of Damocles” in the fifth book of his Tusculan Disputations to investigate “Whether virtue alone be sufficient for a happy life.” Just as the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism teach that letting go of desire is the key to enlightenment, Cicero came to the conclusion that simplicity, not wealth and power, is the key to fulfillment. In 2009, Trey intimated to Parke Puterbaugh in Phish: The Biography, that a similar realization led to a change in Phish’s management (named, coincidentally, Dionysian Productions). “It was way too much pressure by the end,” he said. “I know on a personal level it was keeping me up at night.”
You can almost hear how Trey has shifted weight off his shoulders when you see a Phish show. The barrage of notes from “Machine-Gun Trey” has been replaced by more rhythm guitar, allowing room for others to take the lead. Page often acts as the spokesman now. Trey has moved out from under that dangling sword, allowing others to share the burden. Trey told Relix that “Scabbard” “reminded him of the power of removing things.” The sword may still be overhead, but it’s less ominous if it’s sheathed.
Trey Anastasio Band, ”Scabbard” - 10/18/12, Detroit, MI
Cicero’s lesson can be heard in the music of “Scabbard” as well as its lyrics. The song begins with a complicated blend of melodies that create tension as they dart up and down and compete for prominence. These fragments suddenly give way to a unified theme, but the pace is still hurried, a breathless tempo reflected in lyrics whose individual lines crowd together without pause. “Scabbard” concludes with a rolling acoustic guitar outro paired with gentle bell sounds from Ray Paczkowski, and the transition from intricate and tense to simple and serene is complete.
During the album’s broadcast debut on Sirius XM’s Jam On, Trey told audiences that, surprisingly, “Scabbard” was written quickly when he woke early one morning and “the weird melodies just flowed out of his head.” Originally intended to be the opening track on Traveler (a spot given to “Corona”), “Scabbard” instead became the album’s first single, with a limited edition pressing on red vinyl.