Song of the day: Phish’s “Waste”

A post for my birthday (today!), about an album that was released on my birthday.

Phish’s Trey Anastasio has never been the world’s best rock singer, though he’s improved. It’s hard to go anywhere but up when raspy atonality was the starting point. Still, his voice is thin, raspy, a little flat when it needs to swoop. Honestly, he’s not even the best singer in his own band. I’ve always wished Page McConnell (the keyboardist) sang most of the leads; his voice is a clean, delightful tenor that kicks with a bit of soul and wryness in the delivery. That being said, Trey works well, ironically, when he’s required to be fragile and humble. In “Waste,” one of my favorite Phish songs, Trey gets world-weary and heartbreaking as he declares all of the things he doesn’t want to be but doesn’t yet know what he wants to do with himself. His vocal fragility is key to the song’s power, and it’s here—after only, oh, fourteen years as a working band—that the lyrics lose their archness, cuteness, book learnin’, and D&D references. Instead, “Waste” is simple, emotive, and yearning. When Billy Breathes appeared in 1996 (on my birthday), I thought “Waste” was sappy. Now that I’m old enough to have some big dreams die and to realize that adulthood doesn’t mean I’ve figured out who I’m meant to be or even who I want to be, Trey’s negative declarations ring true. The folky sonic undertones also stand out for their crispness and emotional clarity. The banjo/mandolin/acoustic guitar outro—probably done mostly by Mike Gordon, the bassist and resident bluegrass aficionado—cuts through what could’ve been just bombast. Anastasio provides a pretty electric guitar slur at the end that defiantly counters the folksiness while remaining true to the overall sound. Page’s piano, as always, astonishes with its subtlety. For years, I wondered if Jon  Fishman’s drums were too muscular, too insistent, but I now think that’s the point here—resilience amidst timidity, boldness despite fear. Oddly, the band seems scared of playing this one live, and it’s never really been part of the concert rotation. That makes sense—it’s one of the few Phish tracks that works better in the studio than onstage—but I wish they’d use its downtempo and melancholy in concerts a bit more. Lyrically, “Waste” can also be seen as a good defense of the band’s ethos against its (many) critics. The chorus amplifies what I mean: “So, if I’m inside your head / Don’t believe what you might have read / You’ll see what I might have said / To hear it, come waste your time with me.” Even there, there’s self-deprecation, the sense that even speaking this aloud is a waste of his listener’s time. I’ve spent sixteen years listening to, growing up with, and learning from this marvelous band, and “waste” is the last word I would use.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to Song of the day: Phish’s “Waste”

  1. Brian says:

    Happy belated B-Day, Walter! Waste has always been a favorite of mine and especially so back in my halcyon Phish days from ’97 to about ’01. I had finished the BA degree, wasn’t sure on a real job yet, or exactly how I wanted to direct my life, so spending a few years with the lotus eaters at Phish shows was a natural fit. But I don’t think it was just to me and the audience they were playing to when they would break it out at a show, seeing as how they were all pretty much up to the same thing as well at that point in their lives.

  2. Pingback: Song of the day: Phish’s “Waiting All Night” | Quiet Bubble

  3. Pingback: 3 nights, 6 sets, 900 miles: More notes on seeing Phish live | Quiet Bubble

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