[Thank you user @Waxbanks, Wally Holland, for offering your thoughts on Between Me and My Mind, the documentary about Trey. Wally is the author of A Live One, a book in the 33 1/3 series by Bloomsbury about Phish's double-live album of the same name. As always, the thoughts expressed by guest authors on this blog are not necessarily shared by any of the many volunteers on Phish.net. -Ed.]
The documentary film Between Me and My Mind is conventionally structured: Trey Anastasio begins initial work on his "longform" solo project Ghosts of the Forest at The Barn while planning and prepping for the Baker’s Dozen and NYE 2017 with the other members of Phish; along the way we see him in staged 1-on-1 conversations with his wife, daughters, mother, and father. It’s an ordinary slice-of-working-life story about a recently sober 50something looking back on his life and finding inspiration to move ahead with more personal work. For Phish/Trey fans, and for anyone moved by tales of gifted people entering their autumn years, it will offer intense if familiar pleasures.
It being about Trey, though, it’ll also be a little strange.
And infectiously joyful. And idiosyncratically beautiful.
There is no release without tension.
As a longtime fan of Phish, as someone who counts Trey as one of my heroes—even moreso since he turned his life around after Coventry and became a living model of graceful, creatively vibrant middle age—I was grateful for the chance to see the four bandmembers interacting outside of the performance context. We already know they’re master craftsmen (brief Phish concert segments drive this point home without belaboring), but the movie’s offhand message in these quieter moments is: Phish are goofballs. This’ll come as no surprise, but it’s lovely to see.
There’s a sequence near the beginning of the film where Trey visits Fish, Page, and Mike in turn to share his idea for the NYE 2017 gag ("Soul Planet," the pirate ship); he ends up making music with each of his three bandmates, and those scenes are all totally different in ways that make perfect sense: he and Fish rock out, he and Mike improvise a little synth/drum-machine duet, and finally he teaches "Soul Planet" to Page, who effortlessly digests the music and begins to embellish (sounding a lot like Vince Guaraldi for a minute). The unifying thread is everyone’s unflagging enthusiasm and love for each other and for their shared work—yet even in those brief scenes, the four guys’ contrasting yet complementary personalities shine through. In a brief interview, Page talks about having rediscovered, in the last couple of years and after "a few years" that were touch-and-go, the pure joy and excitement of their early days at Nectar’s—fans of the band will smile knowingly at this. We’ve been hearing it in the music for a while now, and it’s gratifying to know that they feel and know it too.
I kept thinking to myself: They’re really like that. They sound just like themselves! The absolute opposite of rock stars, four college friends physically unable to keep from laughing when they’re together.
That’s the easy part, though. We know what Phish is, really. The heart of the film is Trey’s solo work on Ghosts of the Forest, which we see in early Barn demos and rehearsals with Fish and Tony. Trey speaks movingly about wanting to do work that’s more personal, confessional, celebratory of mere living—and surprisingly, winningly, he celebrates that life-change in terms of the empathy and curiosity about other people’s experiences that it has brought. Trey doesn’t have many bodhisattva moments in this film (he repeatedly describes Ghosts in terms of "confusion," a striking admission and insight, and throughout the movie he’s often frankly kinda drained), but in that interview he comes off as truly wise. But it’s appropriate that the film begins there rather than ending with Trey declaring his sensibility…
Hearing the Ghosts of the Forest songs evolve, hearing Trey sing early draft lyrics in a voice that’s lost range and strength but gained a wary vulnerability, is a gift and a revelation. Phish’s work (Trey’s work) has always combined ironic-spectacular theatricality with a winning vulnerability, but Ghosts is the most naked we’ve ever seen or heard him—for the first time scared and uncertain even in his work. The film captures Trey humbled and invigorated by that uncertainty, embracing the shakiness of his own voice and the intensity of his own sadness because they open him up to a new intensity of experience. The sweet scenes with his friend Chris Cottrell, whose death inspired the album, have that quality: Trey is enervated and intense, at times jarringly or inappropriately so, but he also seems totally clear-eyed about the fact that his oldest friend is about to die, as his sister died just a few years ago. As in his music, he is able to find joy in not knowing (or deciding) what that death will mean—in experiencing it as part of life, which is to say, as a gift.
"The moment ends," I think they say, which is what makes it a moment.
The film’s unifying thread is a series of conversations between Trey and his family members. If you don’t know Trey’s biography, these will be the film’s greatest surprise, and its most quietly unsettling. Trey’s father Ernest confesses to being too hard on him as a kid, matter-of-factly acknowledges that he recapitulated his own father’s own habits and mistakes as a dad—Ernest Sr is astonishingly articulate—then reminisces about the time after Trey’s mother had left and Trey’s sister wasn’t around. He and Trey ate terribly, of course. "And there were no women around to tell us not to," he jokes. Trey repeats the words back—"no women"— but isn’t joking, not quite. It’s a vulnerable moment; loving, fleeting, but unexpectedly sad.
And we’re reminded that the film’s most uncomfortable moments are the other four conversations, with the women in Trey’s life.
There’s a book to be written about Phish, Trey, women, sex, and suburban boyhood (and manhood). Between Me and My Mind is, I think, the most we’ve heard directly from Trey’s family. His mother the bohemian with her sudden departures, his oldest daughter getting on with life and work in NYC, his youngest daughter still emerging from adolescent awkwardness, and his wife Sue: there’s a hell of a lot of intense emotion buried in their talks with Trey, and his earnest questions—"What do you wish had been different?"—hint at both a genuine desire to connect and a tentative reckoning with the costs of his own weird childhood and the equally strange life he made for his family. The intimacy of these conversations is undercut by their staged nature, but even while they express real love and gratitude, there’s authentic hesitancy, regret, melancholy too. When younger daughter Bella alludes to unnamed teenage "issues," the memory of pain and helplessness crosses Trey’s face; as the father of an 8-year-old, for a second as I watched I could feel exactly what he did. There is no release without tension.
I want to say "I’d happily watch two hours of Trey’s family talking to one another," but that would be hard to take, for one specific reason. Phish fans know this already, but it’s never been clearer than it is in this film: Trey is happiest, most whole, making music. As Phish fans, we experience that as a great gift—night after night, we share the transcendent joy of a genius working his hardest to entertain us—but this film forces us to stay with the question of what Trey’s like when he’s not making music… when he can’t, because he has to be an ordinary person, which (not coincidentally) is where he’s most closely connected to the women in his life. (It’s not coincidence, either, that Trey’s deepest friends have all been the suburban boys he grew up making music and taking drugs with.)
These scenes aren’t damning by any means—Trey appears to be a genuinely loving and understanding person—they’re just real, and to the filmmakers’ credit, they let these moments of emotional exposure and uncertainty play out a second or two longer than you might prefer. This produces an extreme contrast effect, as Trey Anastasio, Creative Volcano and Irrepressible Force for Musical Good, has to work to maintain connection to the world. The scene of him walking offstage after a TAB show and spending lonely hours on a bus, eating and writing and brushing his teeth, amplifies this effect—and it’s complicated by Trey’s wholly believable insistence, in the film’s closing movement, that he’ll never stop making music, that it’s what he’s made for (perhaps made of).
The fact that Trey’s musical relationships are characterized by what certainly seems to be a perfect absence of tension or ego-poison begins as a source of joy and wonder; by the end of the film, though, there’s something a tiny bit disconcerting about Trey’s apparent inability to turn off that part of himself. His commitment to honesty and creative integrity is tinged with something like mania—witness the scene at Chris’s memorial concert, as Trey processes his grief with words that are both beautifully loving and, in their unguarded intensity, almost ugly. I idolize Trey Anastasio, but seeing the film brought home for me, more viscerally than ever before, what it might be like to live with his addictions (to music, to intense experience, to that relentless onrush of expression)…
It’s impossible for me to judge Between Me and My Mind "objectively," as An Example of the Documentary Filmmaker’s Art. I know that I laughed hysterically and wept quietly. I recognized the man and learned a lot about him. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since the quintessentially Phishy credits sequence rolled. And I’m grateful for its subtle, graceful depiction of a complicated human being.
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I've been around a while, and have had the pleasure of meeting the guys in the band and some of their family, so no big surprises here in the regard. What did surprise me was the generosity of the Anastasios and Stephen Cantor in what they allowed to share here - "letting the camera roll and extra few seconds" as you wrote above.
I shouldn't be surprised tho. Trey is living more and more of his life deeply in the moment. Or in the Now as he says a couple times. That voracious appetite for authentic creation, and the courage to keep trying in front of us all, spilled from the stage and onto the screen last night. I laughed a lot and shed some tears too. It's not a perfect movie, but it's not trying to be. The "weight" of the camera and it's natural snake-charm like evocation of the ego is often present, but the subjects are aware and that awareness allows them at times to transcend back into the moment and wonderful things happen.
My prevailing sentiment leaving the theatre, and still today, is gratitude. A big mother-fucking boat of gratitude for him, them, you, all of us who are lucky enough to be in on this grand secret.
Bonus points for all the footage around my home town. Was fun watching from the Double E in Essex, VT.
Enjoy folks and thank you again Wally for an excellent review!
As I left the theater, I felt like I wanted more, just like I always do when the lights come on at a venue, when you're hoping that maybe the last song wasn't the last, that maybe there might be a third set tonight. I just couldn't help wanting more mostly because I found some commonality with a person that I admire so much and who has provided me and my friends with so many wonderful experiences because of the choices in friends he has made and the gift he and they share with all of us.
Thank you for this insightful and moving review.
Love and light!
I’m not seeing the movie until the 25th, but this moved me from excited to see it to downright pumped. This sounds like a look we’ve never gotten before except for maybe in very small pieces.
This was a fantastic and at times uncomfortably real movie. Thank you for the review, it perfectly summed up a great film (for us phans and non-phans).
The long linger when Trey is asking Eliza about her childhood and he claims he didn't really miss anything... only the day-to-day stuff... and she just stares back. Man. We all know Trey hasn't been a model father for the last 25 years in total, but I think that is what makes his story so incredibly human. It was easy to look up to him as a rock star when I was a teenager, and so much easier to look up to him as a personal hero now, for so many reasons. Everybody grows up and most of us made it to the other side of reckless adolescence okay, taking the bumps along the road as life lessons. Seeing those themes so clearly reflected in his own family life just strengthens the joy I get from seeing him happy on stage.
But you touch on a salient point at the end that we were able to see more of his off-stage persona, the depths of his personality than we ever could have before. He's always said that he feels the most open and comfortable on stage, but it wasn't until the last few years that his songwriting took such a directly personal tone, obviously exemplified now in GotF. Maybe in that context, to be able to bring his personal life directly into his creative process, that fuels a new sense of desire to never stop using music as an outlet for his emotions... and look at the vast gulf in style between GotF and Kasvot Vaxt, which were effectively written back to back. Two very different sides of a man that we saw two very different sides of in the film, both albums incredibly fitting to that. I hope we can continue to enjoy the fruits of his labor for a long time yet.
It was so generous of Trey and his family to share with the rest of us.
The sad part of it all is that genius usually comes with some sort of personal cost.
The happy part is the impact this genius has had on all of our lives. The sheer joy he has brought to us.
Thank you Trey.
Think "Amatreus"...there are no very stable geniuses. Don't believe what you might have read/heard.
A very thoughtful and on-the-money review. A little fretty or broody in spots, perhaps. Cheer up! Life's a weird trip for eveyone, not just rock stars. We all move through stormy weather, and no one can change the mistakes or the losses of the past. But few people are as well-equipped and poised to change the future for the better, to DO better, than happy life camper Trey Anastasio is these days. It's exciting, instructive, and somewhat miraculous. Rock on, Amatreus! Love and coffee will carry us through.
I spend a lot of the year listening to not Phish. There's just so much music to listen to! I've heard the Grateful Dead are OK, for example.
But every time tour comes around, my love for Phish is reinvigorated and grows in new ways. This time, I had the pleasure of reading your writing (A Tiny Space to Move and Breathe, A Live One) while I followed the tour from my computer, and (luckily, gratefully) caught the final run at Alpine.
I'll put it simply - you write about Phish so good. You capture elements of what it means to listen to, follow, and love this band that I struggle to articulate, and rarely see others do. Thank you
The other side of the coin is that the people in his life have to deal with the maniacal creativity AND the emotional fallout. I'm speaking for myself here when I say that Soul Planet is a dogshit song. AND YET, every member seemingly bought into it without much hesitation. I noticed Fish mention that it was a rocker with a big pocket and then let it go at that. What if Trey brought a song to the band that one of them couldn't stand? Does it get shelved or do they all just say to themselves, "well, he's brought us this far so we've gotta roll with it." I imagine it could be fairly exhausting to have that level of energy directed at you nonstop for years on end.
Loved the film.
Thank you for the lovely review. I haven’t seen the movie and anxiously look forward to doing so when it’s available on vod but I feel like I’ve gotten insight into trey and the complexity of his life off stage just from your description of the scenes, specifically his family scenes. Being a long time reader of your reviews I feel like I can align myself with your perspective on what you saw.
Anyway, thanks as always. Very much looking forward to actually seeing it although I must admit to feeling a little anxious to getting the insight. There’s a certain beauty to not seeing beyond the music but reading your review I’m drawn to wanting to know what he is like as a fully formed human
I used to spend a lot of time staying up late , listening to shows and shows and shows and reading about them on phish.net, and I always hoped to find a waxbanks review attached to any of them. Wally’s perspective is consistently informed , articulate, and nuanced.
I missed the film but I’m hoping for some kind of DVD or streaming release date , and soon!
Regarding the film, I can say I really didn't know much about his personal life. So that was a welcomed experience.
My wife and I absolutely LOVED those moments of the guys just laughing while creating music. I fortunately have had a few of those song writing sessions in my life with my best friend on piano and me on drums, and we're just in synch, where every chord change, or new rhythm is a reason to be overwhelmed with joy. I loved watching that in those guys.
One moment in the film that just hits hard is when Fishman is learning about CScott's battle with stage 4 cancer and he offers hope "I wouldn't be surprised if HE beat it. If anyone could, it'd be him." (paraphrase). I didn't know anything about Trey's friend before the movie, so I was hoping with Jon that he's right about that.
-- And hopefully the DVD/Blu-Ray will have an entire bonus disc of additional footage.