Phish: The Undefeated Season
Benjy Eisen- https://twitter.com/benjy_eisen | September 01, 2017
Photos by Dino Perrucci, Bill Kelly and Dean Budnick
IN 1997 PHISH DESTROYED AMERICA. IN 2017, THEY CAME BACK TO SAVE IT.
Like everybody else the past couple of weeks, I want to talk about Phish’s Baker’s Dozen residency at the world’s most famous arena. But first let’s go back to July 2, 2015.
The night before Fare Thee Well’s now-legendary three night stand at Soldier’s Field, I sat in the lobby bar of Chicago’s Ritz Carlton with Mike Gordon, casually discussing the arc of creativity and the life of an artist. The initial purpose of our rendezvous was a simple handoff — I was bringing him a set of tickets to Bill Kreutzmann’s private box for the shows. The irony of that exchange may not have been known to him…but it was certainly not lost on me.
After handing him the envelope, we ordered a round of drinks and segued into an unexpectedly philosophical conversation. Earlier that spring, I had worked with Gordon for a week or so, in “theoretical rehearsals” at Bob Weir’s studio in San Rafael, where he was enrolled in his own version of Dead Camp — separate from Trey Anastasio’s and separate from Fare Thee Well.
As it so happens, the two Phish bandmates were individually studying the Grateful Dead’s music — learning the nooks and exploring the crannies — at the same time, but in parallel universes.
One for Fare Thee Well. The other with a group that eventually morphed into what is now Dead & Company. Trey and Mike sent texts back and forth about their experiences in real time.
I don’t know what was said between them. I just remember that Mike grinned when his phone vibrated and he looked up and explained why, then redirected his attention back to his iPhone as he typed a response.
That evening in Chicago, on the eve of Fare Thee Well, I understood that Mike didn’t sit down with me to talk about Phish, and I didn’t particularly want to discuss the Dead. We were both on break.
But all around us, Deadheads were amassing, gathering, expanding exponentially. Pretty soon the entire city of Chicago would be consumed by what was being advertised as the final three shows featuring all four surviving members of the Grateful Dead. And while I don’t think there’s any doubt that Trey’s participation energized both fan bases, “Phish, the band” wasn’t really a part of that narrative, by itself.
To wit, nobody really noticed (or cared) that Gordon was sitting there, in plain sight, at the lobby bar. As the number of people standing around us grew, so did the excitement over the next day’s opening night. It’s precisely that energy — the same exact energy — that burns perceptible coronas around so many different circles of friends, mine included, melting their auras into a celestial ball of goo the night before a particularly anticipated Phish run. And from the waiting area at baggage claim to the peanut bars that line the neglected neighborhoods around America’s old hockey arenas, everyone’s little orbits starts to run together, overlap, symbiotically. You want a direct connection between Phish and the Grateful Dead? That’s it right there. Energy.
As dull, unimaginative journalists have pointed out for years, there’s endless parallels between the two bands…err…at least…the structures of their scenes. Despite the obvious musical differences, there are some real connections, of course. Runoff. It’s music, not sports.You can root for both teams.
A new arrival at the lobby bar shouted across the room: “MG!! MG!! MG, is that you!?” I looked up, expecting our cover to be blown. But no. They looked right past Mike Gordon, trying to get the attention of Mountain Girl, who was at a nearby table with her daughters. Jerry’s daughters.
Uninterrupted, Mike and I continued our conversation. I was trying to get his thoughts on whether or not the caliber of creative output over the span of an artist’s career was necessarily an arc versus an arrow. I knew what I was doing: I was talking Phish without actually talking about Phish. I pondered the erosive effects that both age and success can have on the cliffside face of a musician’s work. Why do artists tend to produce their most groundbreaking works — be it albums, books, movies, paintings, whatever — in the first third of their career? I pointed to Metallica, Prince, U2, The Who, Bruce Springsteen. But I was thinking about “You Enjoy Myself” versus, say, “Time Turns Elastic.” I’m a fan of both songs, mind you… but only one of them changed my life.
—— Phish Food, Pre-Donuts —-
I was around 12 years old when my life was saved by rock ’n’ roll. With all the spitfire typical of an American boy of that age, I could feel wings starting to grow on my back but instead of teaching me how to fly, they just made me aware, perhaps for the first time, that I was trapped like a caged bird in the Pennsylvania suburbs. Wings or no wings, before I could even attempt flight, I was going to have to be paraded around middle school like a circus elephant for a few years only to be herded with the rest of the show stock into an institution known as high school.
I found comfort and company in heavy metal, relating to the angst of bands like Judas Priest (“So much for the golden future, I can’t even start / I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart.”) and the zero-fucks-given rebellion of Sunset Strip misfits like Guns ’n’ Roses as they welcomed me to the jungle. Their music felt like an initiation rite.
And then, sometimes, all I could do to keep sane was to rage against the machine with Rage Against the Machine — “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
But by the time I got to college, all those growing pains had subsided and my piss and vinegar had been replaced by the promise of milk and honey. I got out of that cage and went from the restrictions of boarding school to the emancipation of a liberal arts college. I subconsciously started sporting a goofy grin to accompany my ever-lifted mood. I couldn’t hold it in. I couldn’t hold it back. I was unshackled and on the loose. I borrowed liberally from previous generations, stole Kerouac’s complexion, went down Robert Hunter’s backroads, and reliably always had a notepad of my own and several pens on my person every step, skip and hop I took — I was starting to get ideas. All kinds of ideas, really. About everything from love and sex to recreational chemistry. Politics. Community. Fashion. Morality. Mortality. And, in the meantime, everything that wasn’t fun could at least be turned into something funny.
So it made sense that my world would be rocked by a rock band that would pause their euphoric rock concerts so their dress-wearing drummer could take a vacuum solo — yes, that’s right, a vacuum solo — in the middle of a showtune from the Jungle Book. Musically, they were beyond description, beyond compare. Aesthetically, they were almost as dorky as my own dorky family.
And even while they set about to radically redefine the boundaries of “dance rock,” they did so with intention on the one hand and abandon on the other. They were perfect. And thus they became the most incredible score to my 20s, from my registration and enrollment through my full-on membership into adulthood.
The torture of trudging across teenage wastelands had shape-shifted into effortlessly joyful outings with college friends, burning down bowls in the woods behind the dorm and occasionally trespassing into the nearby cornfields and logging trails with electric third-eyes wide open, staring off into other dimensions while watching the snowfall blanket the Berkshires, as if for the very first time. “I see them through a crystal haze.” It was that time in life when all you really wanted to do, and all you really needed to do, was to get your rocks off, any way you could. Everything was important. Everything was enormous. Everything was rapturous. And yet, everything was also, somehow…ridiculous. In the most delightful way. “Yeah, our children are old enough to Read Icculus.”
It felt natural that the band we all listened to, then, would sometimes navigate their way through visionary but complicated compositions with incredible speed and accuracy, then casually unstrap their instruments and jump around on trampolines in synchronized routines before ending up in an improvised vocal jam in which one guy sounded like he might be repeating the word “tequila” while another might be quoting “We Will Rock You,” but, then again, who’s to say? It was all giberish-ish and all in the name of fun. It was just fun. They would even crack each other up; that was more than half the point.
After jamming out a four minute song for ten minutes, they were likely to take a left turn and play an old-timey bluegrass rag earnestly and without amplification, only to launch into an original fugue. Halfway through any given set, but not just any night, their lead singer might insist that the band start vamping the middle of a song so he could ad lib a story, improvising a narrative about how the venue that everybody thought they were standing in was actually breaking apart and falling through space and the audience along with it, falling, floating, flying, and eventually landing in a mysterious land called Gamehendge. The band would actually improvise to the words, creating a soundtrack for a made-up movie, some kind of psychedelic vehicle, revving its engines at the intersection of art-rock and merry prankster. A brief pause while they collected themselves and shwoosh, right into a Led Zeppelin cover. “Good times, bad times / you know I’ve had my share.” I could relate. I was sold. You didn’t just become a fan of this band, you became a player on its team. So be it. Give me a jersey, a number, and put me in, coach.
It was always music first, it had to be if it was going to work, but Phish didn’t JUST shred harder, jam better, risk more, and take their fans to higher and more transcendental places — musically — than their contemporaries, but they also somehow crossed that finish line with so much ease and confidence that they were able to enjoy themselves and taste the moment, unwilling to mask their amusement when the audience would unwittingly sing along to one of the band’s many inside jokes. “Thank you, Mr. Miner.” “Wash Uffize drive me to Firenze!”
We were laughing too, though, because as powerful as their music was, it was all framed as a sort of prank that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. There were plenty of spots for catharsis and deeper meaning, if you knew where to look, but if you walked in off the street and weren’t initiated, you were likely to witness the lead singer running around the stage making weird sounds with a megaphone while the bassist yelled something about a big, black, furry creature from Mars. Minutes later, everyone on stage and many of the people in the audience would fall down, on cue, in the middle of a jam. Or the band would crowd around a microphone to croon an a cappella barbershop quartet tune, non-ironically, then sing in jest about roadkill, with a musical wink-wink and a theatrical smirk. I loved all of that. I was in college then and needed a spoonful of sugar with my medicine. It was fun. It was psychedelic. Musically, it was head over heels above what most other rock bands were doing at the time, and stylistically, it was entire galaxies away from anything I had ever seen in the entire Milky Way. It was captivating entertainment served with relief, release, and epiphany as mere side-dishes to the main course.
Also — and many people forget this — even though Santana, Frank Zappa, the Meters, Queen, the Allman Brothers, King Crimson and, of course, the Grateful Dead all came before them, nobody sounded anything quite like Phish when they first came onto the scene. They were the bastardized love-child of all those bands.
But, these days, when the uninitiated find themselves at a Phish show, they’re much more likely to hear the band singing a fairly straightforward arena-rocker wishing someone a happy birthday than they are likely to witness Fishman take centerstage for a half-baked rendition of a Neil Diamond hit, in which you can’t tell if they're making fun of the song, the audience, or themselves. But probably themselves.
As the band transitioned from a grassroots sensation to an arena institution, the players slowly transformed from being college kids with nothing to lose and everything to prove, to being middle-aged dads with nothing left to prove but everything to lose. And that’s fine because it’s honest.
So maybe that means that they tend to play less songs about the imaginary Lizard people of Gamehendge and more tunes about family, connections, mortality, and meaning. And that’s also fine.
Because that’s also honest. It’s who they are versus who they were. But who I am is also different from who I was and so I seem to have made that transition with them. I imagine the same can be said for the majority of their aging fanbase.
I can certainly feel it in my own life. I never lost that child-like spark or that adolescent enthusiasm, that zeitgeist, that drive, that crush not just on the girl sitting next to me on the bus but on everything that crosses my gaze outside the window as well, as the bus careens down life’s highway. I never lost that… but, even now, days will go by when my eyes are too focused on my little iPhone screen to even notice the girl sitting next to me, much less to steal a glance outside the window. It’s just not always practical.
And while Phish has never really had a creative drought in terms of their special blend of zany (“Wombat,” “Waking Up Dead,” and “Ass Handed” all come to mind), for more than thirty years, when Trey and Mike jump on trampolines during “You Enjoy Myself,” you literally know every turn they’re going to make, including the dismount. Punch lines tend to lose a little impact when the joke becomes standard procedure.
Phish has never stopped being my favorite band on the planet, but I wonder if there was ever a time when they stopped being theirs.