Everyone Knew Him as Nancy: Richard Wright and the Old, Weird Phish
Inside Richard Wright, there was a demon and there was Nancy. He’d sort of known he was Nancy all along, but the demon was different. In September 1982, when Wright was 18, he arrived in Vermont from Maryland, where he’d grown up, and enrolled at Goddard College, a tiny experimental institution outside Montpelier.
“Over a period of time, I began to feel that my legal name was not my real name,” he recalled recently. “I was starting to feel that I had a natural name, a name that my soul actually has, and I decided after a while that that my name was Nancy. By wearing that name proudly, it was also like being blatant about my feminine side.” He wore dresses. He convinced his peers at Goddard to address him by his new name.
Until the demon came, there was little in to fit into. The on-campus enrollment had dwindled to around three dozen, each pursuing his or her own self-evaluated course of study. “My first semester there, I was just sort of lost, not really sure what to do,” Wright says. He wrote papers about King Crimson and Yes albums and hosted an all-night radio show on WGDR, midnight to 7 a.m. But name change notwithstanding, he was still looking for his own particular path in early 1985 when the radio station acquired its own Fostex four-track.
“You could always find some place to play and not be obnoxious and annoy people,” remembers Jim Pollock, a graphic artist who signed out the Fostex on occasion and ogled Nancy’s massive LP collection. “There was barely anyone on campus.” One evening in the spring, Pollock played some of his recordings for Nancy, and everything clicked.
Nancy had taken acid that night. “After I left Jim’s room and went back to my own dorm, that’s when I started freaking out,” he recalled of his bad trip. “That’s when this spirit invaded my system.”
And soon thereafter, he borrowed the Fostex for himself. The first song came almost miraculously in seven-part barbershop harmony, which Nancy recorded by slowing down and speeding up his voice over a skeletal rhythmic click. His father had sung barbershop. Nancy knew a little piano, and had sung in church choirs, too, during a teenage dalliance with born-again Christianity. He loved The Beach Boys.
“It felt like I had this incredible resource attached to me that I could draw from, but I felt like it was drawing something out of me,” he says of the demon. For a little while, though, he drew from it, as well as all-night stream-of-consciousness journal sessions, inspired by Patti Smith. “Kool-Aid silver tooth broke my sunny shoe-shine and all my plastic melon dreams are waitin’ for their new shine,” he sang on the barbershop song he made up, which he called “I Didn’t Know.”
The next tune came a few months later with an incessant hand-drum groove but was likewise a cappella and even more complex. There was a mutated doo-wop bassline, but other than that, it didn’t belong to any particular musical tradition, both ambitious and natural in its arrangement of bridges, mini-choruses, and hook after hook. “What is the central theme to this everlasting spoof?” he asked in one of the song’s many vocal parts. He thought of Motown and Brian Eno and called the song “Halley’s Comet.”
He played the songs for his friends around campus, and they got occasional spins on WGDR where they became local hits, in a way. “There was no entertainment!” Jim Pollock remembers of life at Goddard. “Because of the way the mountains are there, you don’t get many radio stations, and so you are broadcasting to a bunch of people. There was no cable in Vermont. Unless you’re in a certain place, you’re only receiving a handful of television or radio stations, so you become the only game in town.” The tapes got passed around campus, too. “Those were very well-known songs, even around Plainfield,” Pollock says of the college town.
One person who heard them was an affable guy who’d recently transferred in from Southern Methodist University in Texas. Nancy had seen him playing Traffic covers on the piano in the Haybarn, where people hung out. Page McConnell played with the R&B group Love Goat and hosted a WGDR show with Pollock. He’d just joined Phish, too, a UVM band that played at Goddard’s spring fling. Nancy skipped the show. He didn’t like loud music or crowds. McConnell played him a tape. Nancy was impressed. He thought it sounded like Yes.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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