Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States. He served two consecutive terms, maintaining the office from 1913 through 1921. Despite being a self-proclaimed “man of the people” who felt that it was the President's job “to look out for the general interests of the country", it was Wilson’s orders that sent millions of Americans to fight and die in World War One, ostensibly to prevent trade with Britain from being disrupted.
But we’re here to discuss a different Wilson. King Wilson. The Evil King Wilson. Whatever he did during his term, Woodrow Wilson was certainly nothing near the level of dastardliness and general awfulness that King Wilson reaches in the Gamehendge saga. In The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, Trey’s Senior Study, Wilson is an embodiment of many things, including but not limited to abuse of power, greed, selfishness, corruption, and even fascist domination.
In the Gamehendge story, Wilson is a traveler from another land who arrives in Gamehendge looking to take over the entire land from the largely communist Lizards. Mighty lofty ambition for a single person, you may say, but these Lizards are pretty stupid. Wilson realizes that the Lizards rely almost entirely on the Helping Friendly Book, a single, mystical volume given to them by their god, Icculus, and that contains all of the knowledge inherent in the universe. Wilson is a keen thinker, and he steals the book, putting the Lizards at his mercy. He swings his heavy, domineering hand in vicious, sadistic circles over the entire land of Gamehendge. He tears down a huge chunk of the forest and builds an immense, glowering castle, naming the city that encircles it Prussia. He enslaves the Lizards both physically and mentally, and maintains this control by stowing the Helping Friendly Book in the highest tower of his new castle. At one point, Wilson hangs a young revolutionary for treason. This young rebel was Roger, the son of Errand Woolfe, the leader of the rebellion against Wilson. The song "Wilson” is sung (read: angrily yelled) from the viewpoint of Errand Woolfe, in a fit of rage at the rebel camp, shaking his tightly closed fist at Wilson’s castle looming in the distance.
Original "Wilson" lyrics (note the discarded last verse). Photo Credit: Craig Hillwig
Well, sort of. Actually, the interesting thing about “Wilson’s” lyrics is that they were written before Trey even began conceiving The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. This isn’t necessarily unusual, as “AC/DC Bag,” “Possum,” and “McGrupp” were also all written before and independently of Trey’s Senior Study. The unusual parts are how the song was written and how Trey incorporated it into the story.
The original name of the song was “Wilson, Can You Still Have Fun?,” and was first written by Tom Marshall and Aaron Woolfe for A-Dot Tom, their band at the time. It was a gag song, rife with in-jokes, and the lyrics were almost entirely random, nonsensical, and even partially deriving from stream-of-consciousness back and forths between the two friends. For instance, there was a Wilson’s Leather Shop in King of Prussia, PA, and “Mike Christian, Rog(er), and Pete” are all old friends. Aaron and Tom had fun performing it for friends, who got a kick out of it, but when Trey heard it, he reacted somewhat differently.
Trey incorporated “Wilson, Can You Still Have Fun?” into the Gamehendge storyline by changing a few lyrics (e.g. the “Roger/Rutherford” line), and using the song as commentary rather than having it develop the plot. In fact, “Wilson” doesn’t really offer much in the way of story explication, a result of the lyrics being nonsensical to begin with. Trey conceived “Wilson’s” role in the musical as unnecessary to the plot, but essential to the ever-changing flavor of the project’s different songs. “Wilson” is a straight-forward rock number, simple and powerful, and written to be memorable. Its placement after the sweet beauty and eventful climax of “Tela” and the laid-back groove-rock of “AC/DC Bag” is notable; it works as a nice pick-me-up after the lay-me-down of “Tela,” musical Red Bull in preparation for the journeys to come.
Though “Wilson” obviously has its place in the Gamehendge storyline, it is perfectly suited as an energetic rock number to be played anytime, anywhere. It has opened and closed first sets and second sets, always to the delight of fans, and its likable, simple structure ensure it will retain a place in the Phish repertoire for some time. Case in point: though it was one of the songs supposedly axed by the band from their song list back in early 1997, the song made an appearance soon after at the 6/27/97 Glastonbury Festival. The reason for the reappearance? When would the band next be playing so close to Stonehenge?
Another interesting note about the song’s evolution concerns the chanting. In the original 4-track version from The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, the eerie “Wilson” chanting is heard at the very beginning of the recording, as well as at the beginning of the song, in both cases over the thudding double E that acts as the intro to the song. The band brought this idea to their 1988 live performances of the song, and even though the chanting had been long abandoned by late 1994, fans had started to pick up the job. The crowd chanting reached its first major peak on 12/30/94. While the band hammered down the intro, eventually the entire crowd was chanting “Wilson!,” much to Trey’s visible delight. They extended the intro to milk it for all it was worth, and the result ended up being chosen for inclusion on 1995’s A Live One. After the release of that album, the crowd chanting became a standard part of the song, yet another example of the consistent audience-band interaction that pleases both parties immensely. Perhaps the apex of the "Wilson" chant occurred on 6/21/04 during Phish's set from the marqueeof the Ed Sullivan Theatre following their Letterman appearance. So loud was the chanting that it could not only be heard ringing throughout midtown Manhattan, but likely into parts of New Jersey, as well.
From its early beginnings in late 1986 all the way through to 1998, “Wilson” honestly didn’t change that much. Aside from a few changes in structure and lyrics, the song has remained the same. Interestingly, though, the jamming nature of “Wilson” has followed a strange pattern. In its earliest appearances, the song was performed quite loosely and usually featured a decent amount of bonus jamming (see 10/15/86 and 8/21/87). After a few years, it settled down a bit, and remained under compositional control for some time. It was only in late 1998 that the tune began to jam a bit in otherwise tightly maintained sections, especially in the pre-”You’ve got me back thinkin’” part. Check out any version including and following fall 1998 for some interesting jamming.
Finally, "Wilson" has popped up a few times in Trey solo performances. Most such instances are Trey performing the song solo acoustic (6/23/02 at Bonnaroo and 8/2/08 at the Newport Folk Festival are two prominent examples), but also be sure to check out the bluegrass infused rendition from the GRAB tour on 7/19/06 (complete with Mike on banjo and a full band "We're Still Having Fun" jam).
I just had Marco Walsh submit a correct to the Wilson lyrics. The line at the end of each verse is "I beg it all trune for you", not "true" as the lyrics her has stated. I verified this myself with Trey at a party at Henry Petras' house in Menlo Park after the free Stanford show on 4/18/92 and posted the story to usenet newsgroup rec.music.phish on 4/20. https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/rec.music.phish/sNlURIzYkHw
Another fun part of this story. I knew I was going to a party where some of the band would be hanging after this amazing show (thanks, Henry!) and there had recently been lots of discussion about lyrics on the phish.net (rec.music.phish), with a master file being maintained by Lee Sliverman. I printed up the whole file to bring to the party in hopes of asking about some perplexing lyrics such as the "trune" in Wilson. When I showed Trey the hundred or so pages of lyrics he got a huge smile on his face and said "these are my words!". He giggled a lot as he looked through the stack. I got the impression he had never before seen them all written down like that.
Anyway, when it came to "trune" we talked about that for a couple minutes as it didn't make sense. He said it is in fact "trune", a word he and Tom Marshall made up for the song.
This history really should include the beautifully executed Wilson that was played at The Clifford Ball in the overlooked year of 1996! The style of the lyrics and outro solo in that version are top notch phish work. Page even has beautiful peaks in this.
I still wonder whether the song may have been inspired similarly to Harry Hood, i.e. by landmarks near the King Street house.
At the corner of Church Street and King Street there is a dilapidated boarding house that was once a hotel - The Wilson. There is a large vertical sign, prominently visible from King Street, which says "WILSON" (beneath a tiny script "The" . Coincidence, or could this be part of the story???