In the waning days of our previous millennium, an envelope arrived at the Dr. Dog Bungalow. Initially misplaced among credit card solicitations and clothing catalogs, it had no postage and smelled of a fusty funk, as if it had once been wet. The return address said simply “Phrases from the Psychedelic Swap.”
Inside was a cassette tape. “Play me,” it said. So they did, and they grew 10 feet tall — tall enough to reach the key but too big to fit through the door.
Phrases, they learned, was a man who had been neither happy nor sad, neither success nor failure, during his time on Earth. He just kind of was. Or wasn’t. Was or wasn’t, depending. In his quest for satisfaction, he found himself susceptible to hollow promises. He drank Coke, but it did not make him smile. He used Old Spice, but beautiful women did not whistle at him. He wore Air Jordans, but jumped no higher. And one day he awoke from a beautiful dream to find himself still lying next to the wife he neither loved nor hated. Lying still, still lying. Same gray room, same gray life. He knew he had to slip away. It took only a slight turn of the wheel.
Life in the Psychedelic Swamp, a refracted reflection of reality, gave Phrases all that he was looking for. Music took on new dimensions. Food tasted better. Love was sweeter. At least initially. The swamp was draped heavily with abstraction, where there was nothing too garbled, random or chaotic to be separated from the absolute need for meaning.
But soon the same old hollowness crept back into his soul. The romance of harvesting dry rot and herding acorn weevils under the swamp’s moon-sun had dulled into a humdrum kind of workaday existence. He began to regret his decision to leave Earth for the Psychedelic Swamp. Things were not really better there, only different. Remember what the old swamp folks say: The bladderwort is always yellower on the other side of the schist. This was his epiphany. Life, flawed as it is, is meant to embraced.
It was this message, more or less, that came through on that funky old cassette tape in the mail. And “Play Me,” didn’t mean simply “Listen to Me,” but literally “Play Me!” It was a call to action, urging Dr. Dog to record a great pop album, to give meaning to Phrases, backed by oohs and ahhs and layered harmonies, to top the charts, capture the imagination and bring joy to the people.
Why us, the band wondered. They were so young, mostly just a cover band, sort of lost in their own verdant vegetative environment, fiddling around in the basement with a loose assemblage of chords and riffs, on equipment held together with duct tape and rust. They were not ready. To do justice to “The Psychedelic Swamp,” they first had to find themselves as a band. They were flawed, reluctant messengers, like Spider-Man or Siddhartha, bestowed with a responsibility they did not yet accept. They needed to face the trials and tribulations of life on the road, to hone their skills as songwriters and performers.
Years went by, and the band became bogged down in life of a recording-touring rock’n’roll operation. The tape was often lost, only to be found in dusty corners or falling out of a seldom used guitar case. Someday, the band vowed, we will get back to “The Psychedelic Swamp.”
That day is now. Swamp is on. Phrases will be heard.