I had to special order Billy Breathes from Tower Records. They had every live and studio Phish album but. It was the one I wanted because it was the only one I knew. After a European trip abroad with a touring high school choir, my older sister brought home a lot of stories, treats, and new friends, one of whom she had a crush on. When I asked him about music, Phish is what he told me. “Billy Breathes,” he said.
Aside from Blink-182 and The Donnas, I was clueless to modern music. My repertoire was the music my dad pumped into me from the start — The Beatles, The Who, Billy Joel, Elton John — and the Joni Mitchell my mother and sisters sang along to.
Phish was a different animal, unlike anything that crossed into the threshold of our home.
The cover is a grainy photo, a fisheye lens of a cropped face. When I look at it I see two crescents — smile lines. It’s all lips, hardly teeth. The eyes are looking right, away from the camera, bold and menacing. What was this?
I had never seen a song title like “Cars Trucks Buses” before.
A deep keyboard pulses before another, a few octaves higher, joins in. Simple bass and a steady high-hat follow suit keeping the pace. I kept waiting for lyrics but they never showed up. An electric guitar slithers in through the cracks and just like that, it’s over. Two minutes and twenty-five seconds of jam. I didn’t have to see the music to feel that it is cars, trucks, and buses. I pictured the free-for-all after a toll booth and the green highway signs pointing cars one way and trucks and buses another. Everyone has to swerve and mingle as they find their lane. The piano comes in, riffs a bit, and it lands right back where it started on heavy organ. Cars, trucks, and buses moved in my imagination like a sonic time lapse.
I started working my way through the track listing and focused on a few favorites. I marveled at “Theme From The Bottom” and its looped, rounded chorus. It put me in a trance. I saw a goldfish in orange crayon navigating wavy lines drawn on blue construction paper.
On the back were four photos, one of each band member. Perhaps because he’s the only one I’ve ever been conscious of, I only see Trey. He was bearded, mouth open, eyes rolled up behind his glasses. The track listing was written in handwriting matching the Billy Breathes on the front.
The only splash of color in the black and white portraits is Trey’s yellow patterned something around his shoulders. And the only color on the front was the band’s name in red in the top left hand corner instructing me where to start. I was drawn more to the images than the music as a whole.
The piano fascinated me. I pounded my hands across the top of my dresser pressing on the keys, mimicking the melodies.
I brought it on long car rides between South Jersey and Albany to see my grandmother — cars, trucks, and buses — and played it on my Discman. A tiny window showed the disc spinning faster than I thought it could. The songs simultaneously made time stop and move faster . I’d lay down across the backseat and watch the ceiling, putting my feet on the glass. I floated freely with the music, one with the minivan.
The ocean was implied and real. The image of “swimming weightless in the womb” on “Free” where he’ll soon be “splashing in the sea” made it easy to love, made it easy to see myself below the surface pushing water aside.