Gamehendge: More Than Music

So many aspects of their career made Phish more than just a band.  A combination of playfulness, inside jokes, and connection to their fans created a community around Phish from early on.  One of the distinct factors contributing to this phenomenon was the myth of Gamehendge.  Written as Trey’s senior thesis at Goddard College in 1987, the songs comprising this story soon became the foundation for early Phish.  As the band emerged from their college days, playing less covers, Gamehendge became central to the Phish live experience.  As fans learned about Phish’s fantasy land of lizards and multibeasts, they felt like they were being let in on something different, something special.

phishplateBrewing with unlimited inspiration at such a young age, Trey scribed The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday without knowing it would soon define the acid rock of early Phish.  Gamehendge was not only significant for its brilliant music, but for the consecrated place it represented in the fan community.  As people began to see Phish regularly and picked up the story of Gamehendge, a common reference point in the Phish experience was born.  Creating a narrative for all fans to latch on to, this mythical place catapulted Phish into the realm of the sacred for their loyal followers.  The Phish community began to form around fans’ connection to this story- its characters, its songs, and most significantly, its literary themes woven throughout.

AC/DC Bag - The Character

AC/DC Bag - The Character

While the story of Colonel Forbin climbing a mountain to meet Icculus and re-capture the Helping Friendly Book may seem like a childhood fable, many implicit themes spoke to the left-leaning Phish audience.  Gamehendge was a communal utopia where the Lizards lived in peace and harmony with nature and each other.  These were fundamental values of the hippie counter-culture that populated the crowd.  The Lizards attained bliss through living by the code of Icculus’ book; by not over-complicating life with their own desires, they lived as one, free from corruption.  Freedom in simplicity, a cornerstone of the enlightened path, defined the life of Lizards, and represents what so many of us chase every day.  Yet, this Edenic society is taken over by a human traveler, the evil Wilson, who steals the book and locks it away from the Lizards, representing man’s conquest over the natural world.  Illustrating Trey’s personal ideals as a college student, fans felt a connectedness to these lessons in Gamehendge, that when combined with the live experience and Trey’s attention to the story’s every detail, Phish became more than just music.  The freedom from worry and focus on simplicity were the exact feelings we we had at shows, creating a magical congruency between what we felt and what we heard.  All of these aspects of Gamehendge helped create a sacred space for fans, both literally and figuratively.

liz1Similar to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunters use of Americana myth to inspire some of their most revered epochs, Trey used his own, far more playful perspective, to evoke Phish’s central values via Gamehendge.  Like the tribulations of August West in “Wharf Rat” and the glorified bygone era defined by Workingman’s Dead, Trey created a parallel reality with reptile inhabitants, a beautiful infiltrator, Tela, and the heroic knight, Rutherford the Brave.  As the Weir / Barlow songwriting team added the spice of the old West to the Dead with such tunes as “Mexicali Blues,” and “Black Throated Wind,” the mythology embraced by Dead culture grew deeper rooted in the country’s past.  Yet, the myth of Gamehendge remained purely allegorical and certainly more light-hearted . The overthrow of Wilson by Col. Forbin and the Lizards is followed by the traitorous actions of Errand Wolfe, who keeps the Book for himself, never returning it to the Lizards, becoming the next dictator of the Gamehendge.  Rife with political allusions, and human lessons, Gamehendge was Trey and Phish’s way to work meaning into their music.  While wholly different that the mythology of the Dead, the dynamic is parallel.

In the end, the moral of the story remain tucked in Icculus’ word’s to Forbin’s atop the mountain:

But I warn you that all knowledge seeming innocent and pure
Becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice
And greed

A lyric that seems incredibly appropriate in this day and age, the timelessness of Gamehendge’s lessons is ironic.  In the end humans corrupted the natural world of Gamehendge, upsetting the states of Llamas, Spotted Stripers, Multibeats and beyond.  One can take the comparison to our real world as far as they’d like.

lizardWritten as a psychedelic fairy tale, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday grew into something far larger than Trey could have imagined.  It became the ethos of a community; so far that seventeen years later, when Trey had to call it quits due to his personal battles, he was defamed as “Wilson” by many bitter fans.  What started out in a college dorm room, finished at Coventry, and is about to start again.  A door will appear in mid-air, and we will have the same choice that Colonel Forbin did- and I think we will all make the same decision.

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DOWNLOADS OF THE DAY:

THE MAN WHO STEPPED INTO YESTERDAY < LINK

This is the original recording of Trey’s senior thesis from Goddard in 1987.  Complete with the full story narration that is woven in pieces into live shows, this will take you on an hour long journey through Gamehendge. If you ever had any questions about the story, this will answer them

images73.12.88 Nectar’s, Burlington, VT SBD < LINK

The first-ever live performance of Gamehendge at the place where it all started.  Below is a cast of characters, thanks to Wikipedeia.

  1. The Lizards (the race of people who inhabit Gamehendge and are dependent on the writings of the Helping Friendly Book for their survival)
  2. Wilson (a traveller who arrives in Gamehendge and eventually captures the Helping Friendly Book from the Lizards and locks it in the top of his castle, thus becoming the sole ruler of Gamehendge)
  3. Colonel Forbin (a retired colonel who embarks on a mission to rescue the Helping Friendly Book from the tower of Wilson’s castle)
  4. McGrupp (Colonel Forbin’s dog)
  5. Rutherford the Brave (head knight of the Lizards who leads a team of allies to help overthrow Wilson)
  6. Tela (member of the allies and Colonel Forbin’s object of desire who is eventually revealed as a spy for Wilson)
  7. Errand Wolfe (member of the allies who keeps the book for himself after overthrowing Wilson instead of returning it to the Lizards, thus declaring himself ruler)
  8. Roger Wolfe (member of the allies, Errand’s son)
  9. Mr. Palmer (Wilson’s accountant who is hanged by the AC/DC Bag in the town square after he is caught embezzling money to fund the allies)
  10. The AC/DC Bag (a robotic hangman with a bag on its head used to hang traitors and enemies of Wilson)
  11. The Unit Monster (a giant monster who is a member of the allies and is killed along with Tela for spying)
  12. Spotted Stripers (Three legged messenger birds sent by Tela the spy to reveal information to Wilson about the activities of the allies)
  13. Multibeasts (giant four-legged creatures that are used as transportation by the people of Gamehendge, much like horses or camels. They have long curly hair and splotches of brown and white color.)
  14. The Famous Mockingbird (a bird who is sent by Icculus to fly to the very top of Wilson’s castle and retrieve the Helping Friendly Book for Colonel Forbin)
  15. The Sloth (a hitman who is hired to murder Wilson after the Helping Friendly Book is rescued)
  16. Icculus (the Supreme God of the Sky and author of the Helping Friendly Book)
  17. Llamas (giant animals used by the Lizards in combat; complete with huge guns on each side)
  18. Jimmy (young resident of Gamehendge)
  19. Poster Nutbag (The cat owned by Jimmy; always dies some form of death towards the end of the song ‘Harpua’, an ever-changing narration sometimes taking place in Gamehenge)
  20. Harpua (A mean bulldog owned by an old man who was banished from Jimmy’s village; invariably ends up in a terrible fight with Poster Nutbag, usually resulting in Poster’s death, sometimes set in Gamehenge.)
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29 Responses to “Gamehendge: More Than Music”

  1. Great post and reading of the story alongside the Dead’s mythology. Even though the Gamehendge sets were few and far between (and absent after Summer 1994), the myth subtly filtered out through nearly every show whenever one of the songs was played.

    Indeed, after Summer 1994, a Gamehendge set became a bit of a holy grail – I remember the rumours at 12/17/95 and 8/8/98 in particular (and of course every big festival), usually propagated by some wook, that the band would bust it out. It obviously never happened, but it usually indicated that the upcoming show was considered to have special promise in the context of a tour.

    I know you haven’t tried to list all the songs above, but isn’t Axilla also part of the story? I can’t remember how it fits in, but I seem to remember Trey mentioning it in a radio interview around 1994, but that it takes place in a different part or time of Gamehendge (I think it’s that interview with Trey and Tom, where they also talk about writing “Guy Forget”, which of course they didn’t play until that show in 2000 during the Piper jam). Like Llama, Axilla would have been written after the original TMWSIY.

    I also think Divided Sky and Possum are part of it (although I never understood how Possum was supposed to fit in – esp. since it was written by Jeff – but it’s on the senior thesis tape).

    Finally, I always thought that Guyute – with its Dungeons & Dragons vibe – would neatly fit into this story as well, but so far I don’t think Trey has made any suggestion that it does.

  2. I remember being 15 years old, camping out at a friends house and being huddled around a tiny cassette player listening to tape of Gamhendge. There was something that felt new and old at the same time. Modern folklore is the best way I can describe it. I once read that the best compliment Robert Hunter ever got was when a man who did not realize he had written the song “Cumberland Blues” chasitized him and the dead for performing what he thought was an old time miner’s protest song. Im guessing the same could easiliy happen to Gamehendge. There are aspects of the story that are timeless and give you a sense that Trey didn’t even write it, more like he and the band were passing down these life lessons from one generation to the next. Thanks again Mr.Minor for feeding my phish jones. Isn’t there a show from 94 thats been dubbed Hoist-Hendge? Do you have it? I’ve never heard it but it sounds pretty rowdy

  3. Very well written piece on Gamehendge. I think it deserves to be said that the Llama based future of that mythological place is grim but at the same time hopeful. In the notes of Nectar it says that the future of Gamehendge is “war-torn”, but there is a rebellion looking to overthrow the newest leader there. A parallel to the first Star Wars is how I look at it- an evil empire that is faced with a resistance of heroes. McGrupp also looks back at Gamehendge from a distant future, but the introduction of Dave(friend of the band) crosses Gamehendge back over into our world, as Wilson once went to theirs. Interesting stuff, and again Mr. Miner- nice work…

  4. Of course, PYITE is another ‘Henge cousin.

    Like Llama, I like those songs taking place in Gamehenge but away from the original narrative.

  5. After election day last week sometime, political analysts were reviewing the ballots in Minnesota for the Franken (D) vs. Whateverguysnameis (R) and one of the contested ballots was a vote for Franken (D) with a fill in the blank for “THE LIZARD PEOPLE”

    The contested ballot was thrown out.

    I wonder what that person was listening to while waiting in line to vote?

  6. Thank you, Mr. Miner!

  7. Powder Lips Says:

    Tela was framed!!!

  8. As a Goddard Grad you can only imagine the joy I had ready Trey’s Actual senior study, it’s on reserve at Goddard’s Eliot Pratt library. Gamehendge is one of those great stories, one that I wish was dusted off more often, but in its rare playing drives the hope that on that rare night the guys might just break it out in full one more time.

  9. Gamehendge is what drew me into Phish when I was handed my first tape in 1993. I love it,a nd all the songs that go with it. I hope the boys can still treat us to this one day, or at least still give us fun little moments in the Gamehendge universe. Remeber when they were thinking of releasing a Gamehendge CD-ROM?

    I thought for sure we were going to get a Gamehendge at 10/31/95.

    Icculus, The Divided Sky, Wilson, Ya Mar, Sparkle, Free, Guyute, Run Like an Antelope, Harpua

    That Icculus>Divided Sky opener had a feeling about it…

  10. The addtional Gamehendge songs are as follows:

    1. The Divided Sky (a chant performed by the Lizards as they stand on the edge of a rhombus and shout to the sky, praising Icculus)

    2. Llama (a tale from the later years of Wilson’s reign in Gamehendge during a violent war)

    3. McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters (the story of a shepherd who lives in Gamehendge, whose flock is watched over by Colonel Forbin’s dog, McGrupp)

    4. Punch You In The Eye (tells the story of a traveller who passes through Gamehendge during Wilson’s reign and his subsequent escape from Wilson’s jail)

    5. Icculus (introduces Icculus, the Supreme God of the Sky and author of the Helping Friendly Book)

    6. Harpua (tells the story of a mean bulldog who sometimes lives in Gamehendge, however not all Harpua narration sequences include Gamehenge)

    7. Axilla (a tale of monsters, witches, and battles in old time Gamehendge)

    8. Axilla, Part 2 (told years later during peacetime in Gamehendge as the narrator reflects on the land’s past turmoil)

  11. no door appeared Says:

    Colonel forbin slit his wrists to get to gamehenge. Cmon Mr. Miner I thought you’d be more savy and realize this….. He’s shaving and suddenly sees a door that had been there the whole whole time, but never had realized before. The door was death………..

  12. another great one. im thankful for mr. miner.

  13. also, “Kung” is related to Gamehendge, as Trey mentioned on multiple occasions, as a chant requisite to get to Gamehendge (12.31.92, 3.25.93, 6.26.94).

    …also, I think the afterlife is a plausible theory, but it is just that, a theory…multiple theories abound as to the symbolism of the story, and for some reason, this “afterlife” theory doesn’t seem congruent to the story IMO…..

  14. Powder Lips Says:

    I can’t believe I actually drove to Wilson Court in King of Prussia, PA after a show to look for the rhombus. Turned out it was in Princeton, before the MoMA got it. Not sure where it is now.

  15. The Rhombus used to be in Princeton, never heard Moma got it. It is located at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) which is related to Princeton University. Einstien used to work there, some of the design for th A-Bomb/Manhattan project went on at IAS. The rhombus used to be by the pond right near trail head for some of the walking trails. Cool place.

  16. Col. Forbin also found his way into Gamehendge during a visit to the dentist

    N20>Gamehendge

    the afterlife theory is interesting, but i don’t think that was the intention.

  17. Great post and great discussion of some of the theories and characters. This is like Gamehenge Cliff Notes…

  18. ^^ Exactly Jeff. I agree with you.

  19. I think, if anything, Gamehendge is a metaphor for the life / mundane existence humans have created on this world, as evidenced by Forbin’s malaise as he is shaving. Stepping outside the confines of everyday reality is what brings him to an ultimately meaningful existence, and shows the potential of humanity. But the cycle of humanity then continues as he is again imprisoned, this time literally, by Errand Wolf.

  20. I think part of the reason Gamehendge remains interesting and engaging for fans is that the entire story isn’t sketched out for us. There’s a lot of room for our imaginations to conjure up the context of Llama, Axilla or McGrupp. It’s the tantilising hints more than the detail that makes us eager to embrace it.

    It’s a bit like the original Star Wars trilogy, where the Clone Wars sounded so cool (“You fought with my father in the Clone Wars?”) compared to the second trilogy, when the Clone Wars were shown (they literally involved clones, which for some reason, I always thought was a bit of a let down.)

    “Sunrise over the turquoise mountains, messanger birds in sight, they came up from the valley both sides at a time”

  21. ^^ definitely Star Wars parallels all over the story

  22. Well Miner the synchronicity continues…… I woke up this morning with the “avarice and greed” line already repeating in my head, only to find you had highlighted in on your site. Thanks again, I have been waiting for Gamehendge day. See you there tonight everybody!

  23. another reason that disproves the afterlife theory is that McGrupp is in the story. The loyal hound certainly didn’t die, but merely walked through the portal with the Cololnel

  24. What well written comments Mr. Miner! You do a great job of showing how the Gamehenge story serves to communicate many political and social values that may even begin to touch upon the spiritual realm of thought and experience.

    However, I take issue with your comment that the mythological characteristics of the Gamehenge story make it “parallel” to the ARCHETYPAL characteristics that were at the heart of the “myths” and stories that Hunter chose to emphasize in the context of “Americana” musical roots in such works as “Working Man’s Dead” and “American Beauty”.

    It seems to me that the Gamehenge story reflects political and social philosophy more than it attempts to enlighten, comfort and confirm the trials of spiritual growth. While the story of Gamehenge READS like a fairy tale or “myth”, it does not contain the necessary elements that would indicate that it is intended to be symbolic of the path to spiritual enlightenment as much as it seems to be a cautionary tale about hubris and greed mixed with a bit of comic book action and youthful hope.

    While some may have a spiritual experience while listening to the story, I don’t believe that was the main intention of Trey when he wrote it.

    In contrast, Hunter’s lyrics intentionally contain key images and symbols that directly reflect the experiences of an individual on a spiritual journey. While he uses the context of Western folklore to provide structure, the key elements are the same as they have been for thousands of years.

    As Phil notes in his book, “Searching for the Sound”, the Grateful Dead “experience” was ALWAYS about creating a bubble of energy that allowed EVERYbody (even those that didn’t consciously know what was happening) to TRANSCEND and transport themselves into a higher level of awareness – a new reality. This is why the experience was more like going to church than going to a concert.

    The mythology used in Grateful Dead lyrics was intentional, just like the mythology used in Star Wars. In fact, Joseph Campbell, the archetypal mythologist that Lucus consulted to ensure that the Star Wars series was true to the archetypes of the hero myth (see Campbell’s “Hero with a thousand faces” for more info), actually hung out with the GD in the later years and commented that GD shows were examples of “living ritual”, akin to the passion of the Dyonisian rituals of old, and in contrast to the “dead rituals” he saw most people performing when they went to church every Sunday out of a sense of duty and guilt.

    The Phish experience was TOTALLY different, as it should have been. Phish was playful, entertaining, surprising, and thought provoking, but let’s be real here… they were not really SPIRITUAL, at least not intentionally….

    For me, I LOVED the fact that Phish had a different purpose and intention than the Dead. I loved that they were playful, I loved that they were tight and professional when they performed, I loved that they didn’t get too deep. I loved that they weren’t trying to BE the Grateful Dead, but, intead, trying to be themselves.

    I hate it when people compare the Grateful Dead to Phish. While Phish may have been inspired by the history of the GD, they came out of a TOTALLY different historical context and had a TOTALLY different intention regarding what experience they wanted to create at their shows.

    What Trey and Phish have done is NOT “parallel” to the Grateful Dead, it is complimentary to, and inspired by the Grateful Dead, but very different. Even Trey says he has too much respect for the Dead to try to copy their “dynamic”. The Phish experience is TOTALLY different from the Dead experience. People CRY when they hear the story of August West or Black Peter (deep emotions are triggered), but when they hear Gamehendge they are inspired by intellect and thought.

  25. Musical Stew Daily Says:

    I personally only saw Gamehenge performed once. At the GameHoist show in West Virginia, way the hell back in June of ’94. I love every one of the songs on Gamehenge, but don’t think that it translates well to the larger venues and for people coming to the show “to party”. I honestly doubt I’ll ever see another performance of the song because it represents a very young, very different Trey. Thanks for the piece.

  26. Where is the AC/DC Bag sketch from?

  27. Trpnstn – “The Phish experience was TOTALLY different, as it should have been. Phish was playful, entertaining, surprising, and thought provoking, but let’s be real here… they were not really SPIRITUAL, at least not intentionally….

    For me, I LOVED the fact that Phish had a different purpose and intention than the Dead. I loved that they were playful, I loved that they were tight and professional when they performed, I loved that they didn’t get too deep. I loved that they weren’t trying to BE the Grateful Dead, but, intead, trying to be themselves.

    I hate it when people compare the Grateful Dead to Phish. While Phish may have been inspired by the history of the GD, they came out of a TOTALLY different historical context and had a TOTALLY different intention regarding what experience they wanted to create at their shows.

    What Trey and Phish have done is NOT “parallel” to the Grateful Dead, it is complimentary to, and inspired by the Grateful Dead, but very different. Even Trey says he has too much respect for the Dead to try to copy their “dynamic”. The Phish experience is TOTALLY different from the Dead experience. People CRY when they hear the story of August West or Black Peter (deep emotions are triggered), but when they hear Gamehendge they are inspired by intellect and thought.”

    AMEN!

  28. Re: Trpnstn
    Perhaps neither the myths nor their intentions were congruous (Dead and Phish) but the purpose they served for the audience, which for some reason has attracted similar types of people–as Miner said, those searching for “communal utopia.”

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