[This post is courtesy of fan Keith Eaton, @Midcoaster, who is still processing Trey's 2 ½ hour music drop that was Ghosts of the Forest one year later. A slow processor, it takes him some time to sort these things out. He first became obsessed with music when, in 1979, he sat in a darkened theater and watched Apocalypse Now. Nothing was ever quite the same after that opening sequence.]
Last spring (2019), I had a rare moment of synergy. It came while reading Michael Pollan's book How to Change Your Mind. I had blazed through the first four and a half sections at a record clip. This is no easy feat, for me, as a busy teacher. That reading streak was interrupted, pleasantly, by a couple of weekends of traveling to shows: Mike Gordon at The Sinclair, and then Trey's Ghosts of the Forest (GOTF) at the Portland State Theater. Surprisingly, the Trey show was profoundly connected to the experiences of patients in the guided psychedelic therapy sessions that Pollan describes, it just took me a while to see it.
Mid-April, a couple of weeks after Ghosts of the Forest debuted in Maine, I returned to Pollan's final two sections of the book. Reading about the use of psilocybin to treat depression and despair, even, in end-of-life therapy, I was struck by a passage where Pollan used Bertrand Russell's words to describe what it would be like to cultivate or prepare for an acceptance of death: "the best way to overcome one's fear of death 'is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged into the universal life' " (355). Suddenly, I heard a melody.
It only took a second to recognize that I was hearing strains of Trey's GOTF composition "Wider." Following "Ruby Waves" and the instrumental "Shadows Thrown by Fire" (I'd had to look this up), I was suddenly struck by the fact that in his exercise of staring down Chris Cottrell's death, Trey's song cycle was mirroring the experiences Michael Pollan was detailing in his book. Most strikingly similar were the results of tests done with patients who had a terminal cancer diagnosis. The Venn diagram of loss, grief cycles, mystical ego death, and guided psychedelic therapy were suddenly overlaying my dawning understanding of GOTF in full.
A song of acceptance, "Wider" follows the ecstatic but erratic image of being sucked into the cosmos after death as a pinball of energy described in "Ruby Waves." This rocketing into space without even a shadow of previous form is a recurrent theme in Trey's recent work. In simple, descriptive phrases, Trey captures fragments of his afterlife visions, fever dreams of universal matter energized and gazing back at itself. Working to help patients cope with death back in 1972, Stanislav Grof and Bill Richards noted "that LSD gave patients an experience of 'cosmic unity' such that death, 'instead of being seen as the absolute end of everything and a step into nothingness, appears suddenly as a transition into another type of existence' " (Pollan 339). Imagery like this appears to have been on Trey's mind: "And in the end / We will all be light."
Connections between Pollan's description of therapy and Trey's music deepened with each testimony I read, and I started to feel that the song cycle itself mimicked the type of mystical experience patients at Johns Hopkins and NYU were relaying. I turned my attention to re-examining the 04/20/19 recording from the Greek in Berkeley. This is, by far, the most exciting performance of Trey's suite. The Intro, a solo piano piece I assume Trey composed (the vinyl credits all song writing and composition to Trey), contains within it sounds of poignant beauty and melancholy. It is a melody of longing. In my new thinking of this music, it is decidedly post-Lapsarian, yearning for a simpler time before the fall. We were all innocent once. When the eponymous track emerges, Trey's lyrics are equal parts kitschy psychedelia and intelligent critique of our possessive egos.
The opening refrain "Get in, get out / Get in, get out" recalls a "Tune in, turn on" sort of mantra. By evoking cosmic imagery of untethering self, the next lines are more evocative of Haight Ashbury than cheeky, post-modern Phish: "I know you know / That you are me / And I am you / And we are here." This is a lyricism that can sound corny to some, but it has a lot in common with the mystical dissolving of self. Many of us have been there and know this feeling of porous boundaries unraveling. It is how the patients in the NYU and Hopkins trials describe feeling a surging "connection to loved ones . . . and, more generally, a shift from 'feelings of separateness to interconnectedness' " (Pollan 351). Patients see themselves as " 'part of the earth' " or on a " 'great plane of consciousness' " (Pollan 345-6).
As described by Pollan, when the ego un-tethers and begins its unraveling, fragments and sparks of insight tumble upward and mix with anxieties passing through consciousness where there are inklings of the "universal mind." The ego still tries to hold fast, though, at this point, resisting through the heteroglossia of our own internal monologues:
I'm drowning in images
I'm drowning in thoughts
I'm drowning in bitterness
I'm drowning in memories
I'm drowning in anger
I'm drowning in regrets
I'm drowning in hatred
I'm drowning in yesterday
I'm drowning in tomorrow
I'm drowning in my own mind
With constant, social media-like, ego scrolling, these lines evoke the grip on "reality" that can drown and delude us. It's difficult to let it go and be reabsorbed into the big picture.
This grip of ego and the letting go of ego face a tug of war in the composition, "Drift While Your Sleeping." It is familiar territory, this back and forth, resistance to and embracing of the unknown ("surrendering to the flow," right?). Initially, Trey is approaching the song as a lullaby, a contemplation sitting beside a dying companion or, perhaps, a sick child. In sleep, the patient can drift out, one step closer to the unknown, feeling soothed by the comfort of friends and family by one's side. The narrator, though, is left to contemplate how "Earthbound we drag on / Our wars to wage / The moments lag on / So turn the page." We forget, all too often, the gift that is life and need reminders. That reminder comes with a compositional shift, when Trey kicks into a lighter, calypso sounding break.
This calypso shift returns listeners to the sense that life is fleeting while it also affirms our most basic grace. "Gone in a heartbeat, fleeting it's gone / We are wind, we are wind / We crumble into nothing / We are wind." In the midst of this ephemera that is life, though, we find love. Perhaps it's in friendship or the bond between parent and child. Perhaps it comes only fleetingly, "a temporary reprieve from gravity" that connects us to all life. Trey affirms that we're all in this together, struggling toward the light of good, of hope, of communion.
Shifting from significant anxiety and distress to the calming feeling that we are part of something greater is a common theme with patients in psychedelic therapy. (It's also a pattern of tension and release from song to song in the GOTF suite.) Breaking the ego down, ushering the world in, unfiltered, patients see life with fresh eyes. "And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also . . . love for everyone and everything–love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth" (Pollan 353).
I am not unaware of the fact that many Phish fans were scathing critics of Trey's new material for this very reason. They ranted and raved that Trey was being trite with his lyrics, too newsy, too emotive. How does one find the numinous in reaching out to touch a wall or in looking beyond the atmosphere? Pollan notes that writing about any mystical experience is daunting as the language always fails, these experiences are ineffable. Trey's lyrics, while bumping up against the mundane, oscillate between the bright, mystical moments and the grief of loss. "Friend" follows "Drift," and it's unlike just about any other Trey song out there: focused on the vocals, quiet, disconsolate, bereft. What the lyrics can't capture, the music conveys.
Trey's loss is tinged, too, with a sense of recovery. Psychedelics have been used in this regard to ignite spiritual awakenings in the addicted. The hope is that the deep visions passing through the transparent eyeball stage will remind travelers of those things that they have, already, and should hold dear. The impulse toward obliteration is to bury raw emotion. Psychedelics, and death, can tear open the veil hanging before our eyes, opening us back up to these fundamentals. Song by song, Trey takes a step into the void, and then demonstrates ego pulling back, only to step again into the universal mind and see the basic truths.
In "Sightless Escape," we're once again bidding earth-bound anxieties goodbye. The vision is blooming, and Trey paints a picture of our solar system "carried along on an astral tide." "Halfway Home" jumps back into the grit of an addiction, the burying of pain, the dissembling and disassembling of self, only to fall "apart to be reborn." "Time slows down" before death's eternity, and in those moments we can "transcend our subjectivity. . . . [and develop] a sense of our interconnectedness" (Pollan 270). "About to Run," too, evokes the darkness buried, the fears and anxieties worth confronting. "Mint Siren Dream" is Trey as vulnerable as we've ever seen him, stepping out from behind the guitar, sharing a soaring vision.
When the song cycle reaches "Life Beyond the Dream," it is clear that morning sunlight is banishing the remaining darkness. It is a poignant song, sad but resolved to find a beauty in the simplicity of our lives. It is a humble expression, not unlike how the light that Albert Hoffman once noted "shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty” (NYTimes). Trey is more accepting at this point, "letting it all roll by," and taking it all in. The hope his narrator feels can be woven back into daily life after the end of this journey. It is a vision to bring back and reintegrate into daily life.
Lyrically, Trey touches on his visions, describes bits and pieces of what he can, and music conveys much of the rest. Knit together as a suite of music, the effect has more to do with the totality than the parts. The return of "Beneath a Sea of Stars" at the end of the set acts as a coda, bringing us back to where we began, though altered. "Parts 1 & 2" begins with the simple beauty of a robin in the backyard, a basic green truth, and resolves itself through darkening waves of drift and dream. "Part 3" brings a sense of closure musically, but it is a resolution in positivity while embracing the darkness that persists.
In the end, Trey is "wide awake, / And the ghosts are out to greet" him. It's hard to put my finger on, but it feels, to me, like a full embrace of the trauma and the loss. It's out there, around every corner and emanating from memory. It's our own dead waiting in long lines of generations to greet us. It's our pasts and our futures colliding in the present, and the pain of loss and of screwing up is part of the fog swirling around us.
Trey, himself, said that this was a psychedelic work. I'm not sure whether or not he has been reading similar treatises about psychedelic therapy like Pollan's, but I know he has lived it. Losing Chris Cottrell hit hard, and the product of his processing certainly mirrors the arc of psychedelic assisted therapy. Coincidence or not, it has certainly been cathartic, and it means more to me now than it did one year ago.
After all, we only get to share these experiences for such a brief time. Based on that truth alone, I value Trey's attempt to record his vision, grieving and dreaming. This is genuine work.
Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind. Penguin, 2018.
Smith, Craig S. "Albert Hofmann, the Father of LSD, Dies at 102." The New York Times. April 30, 2008. www.nytimes.com, 20 March 2020.
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