This will be my first Phish song analysis. I am aware of the rabbit hole that I am about to go down, and that is why I’ve decided to start with “Dirt.”
“Dirt” is lesser-played, but widely revered Phish song that has been in the live rotation since the summer of 1997. The first time Phish played it was 6/14/97 in Dublin, Ireland, though guitarist Trey Anastasio debuted the track with the one-off side project New York! during a Wednesday night show at Club Toast in Burlington, VT on 5/21/97.
Written by Trey Anastasio, Tom Marshall, and Scott Herman, “Dirt” features themes of sought-out isolation and a desire to hide from the world, perhaps as a reaction to feeling un-loved or unappreciated. It was released on the 2000 album Farmhouse, and is near-universally beloved among the fanbase.
“Dirt” is straightforward and melodic, and focuses on drawing out emotions through introspective lyrics and a slow, but rising tension. This, of course, bursts into a blissful guitar solo that allows for a release of the moody sentiment that builds throughout the song.
Phish – “Dirt” (Farmhouse, 2000)
“Dirt” Lyrics Meaning
With our historic bases covered, let’s dive into a lyrical analysis of “Dirt.”
Opening with whimsical whistling accompanied by chanted harmonies, “Dirt” immediately introduces a sense of dissonance. Is it going to be a happy song, or a sad song?
“Washed up on shore”
Repeated twice via background harmonies in the intro, clear in the studio but often more of a sonic embellishment in the live setting, we are given the image of a “fish out of water.” A creature that belongs in the sea wound up on the beach, and not by choice.
It is not meant to be interpreted literally, but rather as a metaphor for feeling out of place and misunderstood, which becomes central to the song’s meaning.
Note that some live versions omit this line in favor of “shout your name into the wind,” or “I’ll never hear your voice again,” or some combination of the three.
“I’d like to live beneath the dirt”
In most cases, the image of being underground brings to mind the idea of being dead and buried. In the case of “Dirt” by Phish, it is more of wanting to find a literal home underground, where nobody can find you or bother you.
“A tiny space to move and breathe is all that I would ever need”
Our narrator doesn’t need much, just enough room to move and some air to breathe.
“I want to live beneath the dirt”
It sounds great to him, living down there.
“Where I’d be free from push and shove / like all those swarming up above”
The daily bustle of life could never reach him beneath the dirt. He would be cozy and safe from the troubles of the world.
“Beneath your heels I’ll spend my time”
People walking around on the surface wouldn’t even know he was down there.
“Shout your name into the wind”
This line is repeated throughout the bridge, and into the outro, giving emphasis to it. It’s key to understanding the motive behind our narrator wanting to go underground.
It seems that he is feeling unheard, as he has been reaching out with no response. His voice blows off into the wind, as if his message was never sent in the first place.
Mike, Page, and Fishman repeating this line while Trey sings of a blissful life beneath the dirt contributes to the sense of dissonance that is the crux of the song.
“I’ll wiggle in the earth and dew”
Trey sounds like a happy little worm, just grooving along underground.
“And sometimes I will think of you”
Sometimes, he’ll remember the person, or the people up there that he is looking to escape from.
“And if you ever think of me / Kneel down and kiss the earth”
If they ever remember him, he encourages them to send him a message by kissing the ground. This represents a feeling of longing, but also a sense of doubt, as if he knows that this is never going to happen.
“And show me what this thought is worth”
Perhaps, though, with a genuine feeling behind the thought and the kissing of the earth, the message of love will reach our narrator, and encourage him to come out of hiding. We get a sense of a profound loneliness, a sad, isolated being needing warmth and encouragement.
“I’ll never hear your voice again”
The closing thought again harps on the acknowledgement that this love will never reach them, before Trey launches into the (often-wonderful) solo that breaks the tension.
“Shout your name into the wind”
As Trey lets the emotions flow from his guitar, this line is repeated over and over again. This is the best part of the song, as when it’s done just right, we can feel the loneliness evaporate into the air. We feel comfortable, because in that moment, we’re all beneath the dirt together.
Notable Live Versions of “Dirt”
Honestly, the first version in Dublin is a bit of a clunker, but it’s worth checking out just to hear the debut. They were debuting a bunch of new music on their 1997 Europe tour, “Dirt” included. Nothing embeddable to be found on the web but here’s an AUD tape via Relisten: “Dirt” (6/14/97)
Just over a week later, in Koblenz, Germany, Phish nailed “Dirt.” This whole one-set show is available on Youtube. Here’s just the “Dirt.” Note that Trey is feeling it heavily.
The night before one of the most famous Phish shows of all time, 12/30/97, Phish also played a heater at Madison Square Garden. This version of “Dirt” comes out of “Fluffhead” and leads into “Run Like An Antelope.” It is awash with the loose, silly magic of this NYE run that is seen as one of their greatest, if not the single greatest.
Radio City Music Hall. Great, historic theatre and a nice audience tape: “Dirt” (5/21/00)
This is my favorite sounding recording of “Dirt” that I have been able to find. It’s so crispy and wonderful, and served as my introduction to this particular rabbit hole.
Played during the Magnaball Festival in 2015.
From the famous Baker’s Dozen Run at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2017. Great vibe in the room. Aud tape via Relisten: “Dirt” (7/29/17)
I like this one because I was there. Three night run in Charleston, 2019. My first Phish shows other than Bonnaroo earlier that year. Features a “Little Drummer Boy” tease in the whistled intro. Audience tape via Jam Buzz on Soundcloud below, who also has the night before, 12/6/19.
From Nashville 2023. Included because it’s the most recent rendition at the time of writing. Audience tape on Relisten: “Dirt” (10/07/23)
Bonus: Early Demo from Trey Anastasio & Tom Marshall
Released on the 2010 compilation of demos and acoustic tracks, Trampled By Lambs And Pecked By The Dove. Early, stripped-down version of the song that shows its development.