Torn and Frayed

Originally Performed ByThe Rolling Stones
Original AlbumExile on Main St (1972)
VocalsPage, Trey
Phish Debut2009-10-31
Last Played2023-10-06
Current Gap22
Historianlumpblockclod, Brian Crossen (TypeIIIJPD)
Last Update2023-11-03


“Torn and Frayed,” the Gram Parsons-influenced second song off of the so-called “acoustic side” of Exile on Main St, appears to be a semi-autobiographical tale of The Rolling Stones in 1972 and, in particular, of Keith Richards. While the lyrics seem to be rather pointedly about the Stones in the early ‘70s, spinning the tale of a debauched tour, flawed onstage performances and a backstage scene full of hangers-on, it’s a well-worn story familiar to many rock bands and one that, no doubt, struck a nerve with the members of Phish when they performed the song as part of their musical costume on at Festival 8. Despite it all, when he’s on, he’s on and the guitar is able to “steal your heart away.”

Sound familiar? While the names and faces are different, the differences between the Rolling Stones in 1972 and Phish in 2004 are likely of degree rather than kind. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t differences. For example, personal responsibility having never been a hallmark of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, there’s a second verse essentially pinning the protagonist’s heroin habit on a cough syrup prescription. And, that’s also not to say the differences of degree aren’t important. 

The stories of excess from the recording of Exile are infamous in rock history. Recorded at Keith Richards’ rented villa Nellcôte in the south of France (the Stones were tax exiles from England at the time), the sessions have often been characterized as the rest of the band waiting for Keith to be willing or able to play (and, in fact, studio guitarist Al Perkins recorded the final overdubs on “Torn and Frayed” while Keith was in detox). 

Still, it’s hard to deny the greatness of the finished product, even if one doesn’t necessarily approve of how the proverbial sausage was made. Or, as rock critic Barney Hoskyns put it, “All rock records should be made in dank basements of old Nazi strongholds on the Cote d’Azur, with reliable heroin connections in Marseille and Gram Parsons hovering in the paneled hallways. That way they might sound half as good as Exile on Main St.”

Phish’s Halloween rendition of “Torn and Frayed” was notable for two reasons. First, it was the only song from Exile performed without horns or backup singers. Second, it was the longest song performed during the Halloween set, clocking in at nearly nine minutes. Because the song was performed without guests and the band found some musical space to explore, many fans predicted "Torn and Frayed" would remain in the Phish repertoire.  

Phish “Torn and Frayed” - 10/31/09, Indio, CA. Video by runme69.

Happily, they were proven right on 11/21/09, when the song returned on the second night of a two night run at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati. Though it seemed the song was forgotten after that lone post-Halloween appearance, it thankfully resurfaced for several versions between 2010 and 2012. 

So how does the Phish rendition compare with the Stones’ live versions? Hard to say, as the Stones only performed the tune once, on the opening night of the Exile tour before shelving it for over thirty years (it returned for two subsequent performances in 2002 when they were well into their “Nostalgia Act” years), though it seems to have stolen the hearts of many a fan at the Empire Polo Club and beyond. 

Phish “Torn and Frayed” - 6/7/12, Worcester, MA. Video by notmkdevo

Following the debut version “Torn and Frayed” was performed exclusively as an early first set number, filling this role sporadically over the next few years until being shelved after three performances on the First Leg of the Summer 2012 Tour. The bustout performance for the song came 285 shows later as the surprise opener of the 2020 Mexico Run, opening the Thursday night “welcome set” on 2/20/20 and setting the tone of a night where two other large bustouts occurred for “Shipwreck” (185 shows) and “Shake Your Coconuts” (100 shows). Since then the song has become an almost-once-per-year visitor to Phish setlists including most recently as a second set breather tune on 10/6/23.

On 8/27/21 “Torn and Frayed” again opened the show but this time for a more somber reason. Three days earlier on 8/24/21 Charlie Watts, the drummer for The Rolling Stones, died at the age of 80, following a legendary career as the backbone to The Stones’ sound since their early years. While Phish made no specific reference to this being the reason for “Torn and Frayed” opening the show, there is a track record for this sort of subtle homage stretching back over the years. Interestingly, this performance likely would have never occurred had this show not been rescheduled from 2020 due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

Last significant update: 11/3/23

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