PHEATURE
Photo courtesy of Pete Sitzman

THE MOMENT ENDS?
By Jonathan Kiefer


Years ago, that was us, the nascent Phish Nation, honking audience participation into "Stash" on the horns of our Saabs, snowboards roofracked; haunting head shops, you know...as if; hauling out the dusty four-track recorders, making trouble for the other members of our INXS cover-bands; loping, lacrosse sticks in our hands, through the halls of prep school dorms, having sought music that could be ours but couldn't be ruined, music impervious to overplay on the radio or at the prom, having scoured the college radio stations for some kind of awakening. We had found it.

We'd been told we had to hear this. Vermont-spawned quartet, unlike anything: frontman Trey Anastasio, lead vocals and guitar; Page McConnell, keyboards; John Fishman, drums; Mike Gordon, bass. At first, we might have hated it. Or started off skeptical. Listened impatiently, wondering, What the hell? Or thought it was just weird and probably took some getting used to. Word was, they were fluent in various styles. Okay, we said, sure, it sounds like bluegrass because you don't really listen to bluegrass. Yes, tell me about Latin funk, white boy. I mean, fluent? We'd always felt sorry for the kid who played seven instruments half-competently, instead of playing one well. But we caught two or three live shows and came back thinking it could have been two or three different bands.

We hadn't known how to categorize them and eventually got the idea that it couldn't be done. We liked the idea. It was cool and exclusive to be uncategorizable. We almost got polemical about it. "Hardening of the categories promotes art disease," we quipped, quoting whoever said that. Gradually, we relaxed—we didn't want to be fetishists, after all. No, they weren't virtuosos, but they were aficionados—real music lovers—and they were willing to try anything, even if they screwed it up. They were goofballs, these Phish, and good examples for us.

Of course, some of us had our minds blown from day one. The incidence of blown minds, we should say, was not directly proportional to our ability to recognize a few bars of Gershwin tucked into "Bathtub Gin," like a tongue in a cheek, or the melodic palindrome within "The Divided Sky" or other unannounced, too-clever and surprising musical structures, quotations and allusions. If we'd expected three chords and the truth, we got five chords, sometimes with substitutions, two meters at once, and a riddle. We liked it.

So we made it familiar. Whistling, humming, mastering even those mathematically mind-numbing syncopations, if only to prove that we could, that tapping along was doable, even through the sustained anticipation. We finally learned all those cryptic words and wondered what they meant, hatched our own theories. In any event, we could sense what the band was getting at, and we liked it. We loved it. We had to know what they'd do next.

More shows. Calling them "concerts" just didn't seem right. They opened it up. Jammed. Gliding and riding and weaving those songs out into space somewhere. Twisting around. We'd been treating these 20-minute improvised, exploratory ditties like background music before, scoring chores and homework and drives to the movies and sometimes getting high. The shows changed that. Being there made all the difference.

It was comfortable inside the joke. The more we learned, the more immersed and conversant we became about this phenomenon—which we were helping to create—the cozier we felt. We saw more shows, and more. We knew, because outsider friends told us, that we talked about Phish too much. They also told us that, hell, we'd have been Bruce Springsteen fans if Phish were to cover one of his songs. It was a fair point: as if hundreds of originals weren't enough, our boys added music by more than 200 other artists to their live rotation, including one by the Boss himself...but only once, on July 16, 1999, with longtime Phish lyricist Tom Marshall on vocals. Yeah, try and stump us.

These tricksters were willing to cover just about anybody. The Allman Brothers, sure, sure, makes sense. Willie Dixon? Nice. Whoa, that's a Van Halen tune, remember that? And...um...ZZ Top? Ellington, Coltrane, Mingus, Monk, Miles—dig it. Wow, Neil Diamond, huh? Frank Zappa, yeah, he's...yeah. Oh, the Beatles wrote that? Seriously, I didn't know. What? Shut up.

Sometimes they played entire albums of other people's music, by request. They kept us guessing. And listening. We went out and bought more music. Theirs, yes, but also caught up on the pop and rock we hadn't gotten around to, the jazz or rhythm and blues we hadn't known about, the other stuff we'd stayed away from. If we had instruments, we practiced playing them, hoping to improve by osmosis. With Phish for guidance, we experimented more with writing music of our own. We became active listeners.

We were hooked.

***

It isn't so hard to have groupies these days. Politicians, business leaders, fraudulent religious figures and legitimate ones, athletes, painters, writers, actors and musicians all have them. Teachers, public radio personalities have them, and death row defendants. Institutions have groupies, thanks mostly to advertisers, and advertisers do, too. Nor is it hard to be a groupie. Who doesn't want to get behind something, get inside? Who isn't a collector of something, and who isn't entitled? America's great plurality is a plurality of scenes. And Phish has one of the big ones.

Of the available musical subcultures, the school of Phish is rather benign, even earnest. It tends to avoid, or at least not dwell on, the angrier, more punishing and reactionary aspects of rock. To enjoy and participate in their scene, Phish fans do many things, but rarely do they seethe. When the band "really rocks" or "has a serious edge," as they sometimes do, some fans still express surprise.

Then again, expressing surprise, and inducing it, is the band's modus operandi. This has earned them a devoted and constant audience. Groupies. Devotion here isn't defined by knowing all the minutiae, seeing all the shows or collecting all the recordings. It's more about how Phish can do no wrong. They've cultivated an atmosphere of curiosity and experimentation and gambled that fans would find it breathable. They chose hard work and word of mouth over posturing and hype and extensive public relations, and they succeeded famously. Here is the band that played the world's largest New Year's Eve concert in 1999 (estimates of attendance range from 75,000 to 100,000). Here is the band that had to be forgiven for making a music video (only one). And they were.

Attention came, eventually, from the elite press because how could it not? This was a fairy tale band, having come up on its own, beholden to no one. Not even the fans. Predictably, the attention didn't spoil them. For the most part, they ignored it.

The Phish subculture is democratic, at least in spirit, alleging a sense of community and, in one way or another, palpably creating one. A community doesn't mean a utopia, of course, and a mobile, makeshift commune doesn't mean a community. But the Phish subculture is more than its scene. For one thing, Phish usually codify their music—and make it familiar to fans—in concert, long before recording it in a studio and releasing it on an album (they sold out two national tours before ever signing a record contract). This offers a rare perspective in pop or rock, more common to the quiet-seeming, steadily creeping influence of genuine folk or the loud, public ceremony of gospel. Some hard-line Phish Heads, having grown accustomed to live dynamics, find the crisp, contained studio versions chafing and difficult. But they can forgive that, too.

Really, the worst thing Phish could do to the fans would be to stop making music together. And last October, at the peak of their popularity, that's what they did. Wrapping up a typical fall tour, they thanked the fans, explained it was time for an "extended hiatus" and dutifully pressed on to the two final shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. Then they went home to their families. They told the press "no comment" and never really said goodbye.

***

We are the Phish Nation. How do you like the sound of that? The Phish Nation, we are. We are your phriends and phamily. The true, blue phans of Vermont's phinest. What's it all phor? Some hippie band? Some smart person's band? Some good-humored, avant-garde rock band? Some experimental, nouveau-folk, electric jam band? The most important band in America?

It's this: Phish is where we go for solace and release. Phish is where we go to not be alone. To rest our minds and expand them. It's as spiritual as we want it to be, and the rules are pretty easy to swallow, the grooves are easy to follow. For some of us, this is the holiest thing we have.

Look, we're not going to hang around the airport, trying to convert you...though now that we think about it, that's not such a bad idea. Come with us. Pheel the phlow. You know you want to.

Okay, okay.

Time has passed. Years. Let’s have a look at the Phish Nation now. Mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper-middle class. Must we apologize? We are the crunchies, the wookies, the tapers, the taper-wookies, the tourists, the yuppies, the yuppies who don't think they're yuppies, the stoners, the stoners who don't think they're stoners, the yuppie-stoners and you get the idea, the clean-and-sobers, the Deadheads, the anti-Deadheads, the posers, the neo-slackers, the college-towners, the UVM'ers, the all-American Yalie quarterbacks, the California Berkeleys, the Boston Berklees, the community college tryers, the mousepad Mafia, the assistant service consultant-PR manager-programmer-implementation coordinator-client services executive-web designer-dot commers, the lot commers, the kid brothers and sometimes sisters, the music snobs, the music snob snobs, the bike messengers, the outdoorsies, the need-to-get-out-moresies, the nomads, the miracle seekers, the miracle workers, the proto-hippies, neo-hippies, prep school hippies, nobody's hippies, nobody's fools, the occasional ravers, the accidental hip hoppers, the one-in-a-million ganstas, the others.

We are the Phish Nation.

By now, it's evolved into—we don't know if it's fortunate or not—an obsession. An addiction? Gosh, we say, we've spent more than a decade on this band, and who knows how many dollars? Saved our wages and salaries, planned our vacations around them. We've done hundreds of shows, seen the country. Descended in hordes on supermarkets and rest stops in the heartland, hearing: So where are you guys from? And answering: Everywhere. Those Mom and Pops must have loved the looks of us. If we could camp, and were into that, we would. We'd earn what we could in the parking lots, selling arts, crafts, T-shirts, food, dope. It really became a lifestyle. We tried not to romanticize it, but that was silly. It is romantic.

Or it was. Evolution means change, and we've seen it, all right. The shows are one thing, but nowadays that scene in the parking lots is something else. We've got that younger generation now, and with it a generation gap. The youngsters are suspicious. So are the oldsters. We have factions. Our opinions differ. Why do the yuppies have to ruin everything? Why do the hippies have to ruin everything? Hugs? Drugs? We're losing our phamily values. We were brothers and sisters once. Now we're far removed. Are these trying times for the Phish Nation? Yeah, no question, the scene is pretty wack.

***

Breakups and breakdowns are common enough in popular American music. Plain old breaks, "extended hiatuses," though not unheard of, are less common and less successful. The touring life, however attractive, however rewarding and necessary, is a strained one. Sometimes a loss of momentum becomes, a point after which things won't be the same, becomes necessary. Staying the same, of course, is anathema to Phish. Improvisation includes the risks of lost momentum. And exhaustion is counterproductive.

For seventeen years, Phish spent most of their shared life on the road. They shared themselves, stayed together, stayed out of trouble and tried to stay open, innocent. Meanwhile, they practiced as determinedly as conservatory students and wrote music prolifically. Together or not, they're probably doing something musical right now. As Phish, though, they may have arrived at a point where the dismissal of preconceived notions itself became a preconceived notion. They may have reached a critical mass. Few people think they don't deserve a break.

If Phish wanted a West Coast "home town," they could have San Francisco. The Bay Area, with a rich but not yet daunting history, still enjoys some version of youth, some vivacity. It's as good a place as any for the Phish scene. A place for possibilities and paths not taken, a haven for the otherwise marginal, where the spirit of bohemianism, of creative self-invention, will be nurtured—and tested—daily. This is a natural destination for personal pilgrimages. Or musical ones. True, according to volume 5 of "The Pharmer's Almanac," Shoreline Amphitheatre isn't among the fans' top ten favorite venues for witnessing live Phish. But, then, "Anywhere" is number three.

The blessing or curse of Phish's current success, the relative wack-ness of the scene, neatly reflects that of the Bay Area, whose cultural identity, after a few seismic shocks, might seem on shaky ground. In both cases, a debt is owed to the legacy of the Grateful Dead—the band that took free flowing, electrified communal music on shared, ritualized road trips from under to aboveground decades ago and recast San Francisco's cultural reputation. Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 blanketed the area, like a persistent fog, with the devastated sense that a real movement had ended, a scene was lost. From another perspective, it was wide open.

Phish is not "the next" Grateful Dead, but the Phish scene is to the Grateful Dead's something of what Volkswagen's new Beetle is to the old: obedient but hardly servile; bigger; bolder; with more horsepower; slicker seeming, yet goofier when you think about it; a good idea to some, a bad one to others; an idea whose time has gone, or come.

But not merely a replacement. Such things, to the people who hold them dear, the true groupies, are irreplaceable.

***

We've got Widespread Panic here. And String Cheese Incident and moe. And Galactic and Karl Denson and Sector Nine and Medeski, Martin & Wood and others as yet unheard of. We've got Phish solo projects, Anastasio’s new band and tapes to trade, CDs to burn, the old stuff to hear, again and again. We've got websites to check, just for the hell of it. But for how long, how long? We'll need our phix.

We've been good to them, and God, they've been good to us. Swum us through the highlights and traumas and transitions of our comings-up: left nests, invented independences, beginnings of academic and professional careers, the finding of peers or friends or lovers and the losing, the deep, dark, uncharted waters of adulthood, of life.

At that very last show, we told ourselves to ignore the rumors, good and bad. Never call it a breakup, we said. It's a break. No reason not to believe that, right? Hadn't Trey said something about 17 more years? No, not a breakup. A setbreak, of sorts, between two great jamming epochs! That's it, that's it. We'll be back in 15 minutes, folks! Or months, whatever.

They played "You Enjoy Myself" for an encore, and we sure did. We showered them with applause. They looked at us, we at them. They left, saying nothing.

We passed a wave of shock between us. The house lights rose, and we didn't move. Okay, maybe not all of us, maybe half or fewer, but we stayed. The soundman played the Beatles' "Let it Be," and the crew came out to strike the set. We showered them with applause, too. Clapping and cheering and whistling and shouting. We hugged and cried our tears of joy, of melancholy, and you can't take that away from us. It was beautiful, we agreed. We recognized the solidarity.

And, as instructed, we let it be. Evolution means change, and change means growth, right? Let's remember what we have. We are the Phish Nation.

Maybe it had been an escape. Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe so, maybe not. Yes. We admit it, we concede. An escape from all the irony, the edge, the useless rage that permeates our really pretty good lives. We love these guys, because they aren't rock stars, and they aren't anti-rock stars, either. They aren't dumb, and they aren't affected. They're just not wrapped up in all that knowingness (How about not knowing? Expecting? Hoping?), the self-consciousness—which is not to say self-awareness. They're aware, and so are we. More than an escape: an impulse, for all its progressiveness and moving forward, of nostalgia. To find a childhood, yes, that's what we said, a childhood. Of ideas that would take us all around the world, of curiosity and precociousness, sure, of course, but the good kind, the hungry kind, pre-competitive precociousness, the kind in which we played, the kind we displayed before the Saabs and snowboards and lacrosse sticks and seeking out a new sound. Before finally settling in to our low-slung, former-warehouse offices with exposed bricks and ducts, free Cokes and casual Monday-through-Fridays. Before finally settling in to the commitment of second-hand chic or fleeces embroidered with dancing bears, emblematic Birkenstocks and poser dreadlocks, or even authentic ones, whatever that means. Yes, is it so far-fetched to think that ours is a backward reach, a relaxation or an exhalation—sometimes smoky, okay—and that sure we want to be kids or kid-like and you know you do, too, right? It is possible that you know exactly what we're saying, and it's not so far off, come on, it's what you'd expect from the inheritors, the babies of boomer-hippie pairings, with more privilege than perspective but admittedly, admittedly...and isn't that a prerogative of youth that's been earned for us, however ungrateful we are? Ours is a nostalgia not for the cause, the "day," the original scene, but for ourselves. Look, we want to believe in karma, we really are a can't-we-all-just-get-along crowd, and we're learning, hard, that it's not working, that love isn't really free, but jeez, we're trying to keep the cost down, and what if there is such a thing as a collective groove, and it's not so complicated after all? Can't we live while we're young? Can't we get off on that vibe, the community, the anticipation, the familiarity, the deviation, the sense-making-nonsense, the seeming spirituality, the music, the expanding vamps that build and build and Oh my God where are we now? And keep building, is it possible?! Outwards, onwards, becoming something so far away from where we started that it just seems—it is possible, and return, just as we've almost forgotten how it began, to where we always were, to a phriendly, remembered refrain.

Sure, we can. We are the Phish Nation. Sure, we can.