Easier than picking on the paste-eating new kid in class, deriding Vermont’s uniquely successful rock quartet, perhaps America’s most enduringly relevant rock act, is an ardent pastime for those who stubbornly reject the musical sensation that is Phish. Stereotypes abound and make easy fodder for ridicule, as Phish-haters mock the hippies and the lovable, nerdy rock band they revere.
Phans, as we admirers of Phish are known, have all experienced the hate; the boiler plate put-downs and insults from friends and co-workers not in the know, the snarky remarks, the not so subtle nudging when they see you rocking your Phish t-shirt, and of course the atrociously unfair Phish-bashing articles that randomly surface and gut the band mercilessly. Most of us take the attacks in stride, though some respond with less self-restraint, accusing the critical outsiders of having small dicks or dormant sex-lives, occasionally offering suicide suggestions to the critical outsiders. KYS.
In truth, the act of Phish-hating is cliché. These killjoys, herein referred to as Icks, short for Icthyophobes (icthyophobia: fear of fish), have assumed a bandwagon mentality when disparaging the band. So simple to play the drug-band angle and grate on the musicians for their tendency to noodle; so obvious to jump on the band for their allegedly nonsensical lyrics and gimmickry. Even easier to pick on the phans for their “tendency” to flail about, sport dreads and eschew bathing in exchange for dousing themselves in copious amounts of patchouli. What a bunch of freaks we are, eh? Sorry you don’t get it. Some of us smell darn good.
Phish is America’s best kept secret. Right under your unsuspecting nose, they’re selling out four consecutive nights at New York City’s premier rock venue, Madison Square Garden, including New Year’s Eve, in minutes. They’ve been doing this for years. Granted, they’re not chart-toppers or the most popular band in America, but they are certainly the most loved, evidenced by the unwavering and decades-long devotion of their fan base. So there must be something special about this band that emits enough energy to inspire such passion, not only in their fans, but also in the Icks, sufficiently so as to make phish-hating an enthusiastic and full-time venture. And that really is the magic of Phish; it’s all about energy.
In my spare time, I am a science teacher in the Bronx (This spare time has now accumulated to twenty years of full-time meticulous molding of malleable minds.). The main thrust of my curriculum is energy, generally defined as the ability to cause change. Phish causes change. They reliably possess and emit energy like no other rock ensemble. They effect change, most notably in the lives of those of us who are devoted to them. They seize our emotions; they lift our spirits and create a place where we can go and be ourselves, flailing about with reckless abandon, seeing the unseen in music, living our lives in and through their songs. Providing the soundtrack to life’s strange design, Phish adds meaning to the lives of their devotees. The energy is potent, never ceasing when the band stops playing; it courses through the fan base, a monolith of zeal.
And it’s this meaning, this joy derived from the obsession, that the Icks envy most, because they don’t get it. The Phish obsession bestows something inestimably valuable upon the phan, something akin to everlasting youth. To be crazy about a band, a relevant band, long past adolescence, is life-giving. For God’s sake, I still doodle Phish logos on every piece of paper that’s put in front of me; now that’s devotion, and I confess, a little childish (case in point). Being a phan becomes an integral part of who you are; we are talking some powerful shit here. Though instead of crediting Phish for possessing this ethereal quality, the ability to embed in our DNA and color our conscience, the cynical Icks goes for the easy stuff.
Phishspeak: The Words of Phish
Phish lyrics are inane, they say. This may be true, to an extent. Many of the band’s lyrics are silly on the surface, and certainly cryptic. If you have ever sunk a boulder in the water, or tied a cable to a tree, you know what I mean. Indeed, no one has ever accused Phish of taking themselves too seriously. I mean seriously, take Jon Fishman, the band’s Mumu-wearing drummer who plays a vacuum on stage and has committed enough public acts of feigned lunacy and semi-harmless indecent exposure that no one would dare question his or his bandmates’ commitment to buffoonery. But on that kit, he’d drum your mother into Lake Champlain; and in real life, he is politically conscious, a gentle soul, a humanitarian and a father.
Mike Gordon follows suit. The band’s quirky and rock solid bass player is an odd chap indeed; affably awkward, uber-stylish as of late, and chock full of intrigue. He’s known to do strange things. He also delivers the bass, like mace in your face.
[Photo by Dave Vann]
So we get it, they’re goofballs, and we love them for that. The tongue-in-cheek absurdity of Phish, balanced by their Herculean prowess as musicians and composers, is the antidote to the overly-serious lyrical and artistic drudgery of too many other artists. “I’m not out to forge new ground necessarily, but I definitely am happy to be different from the herd”, explains Phish songwriter Tom Marshall, “How many songs do you hear; wow, you’re hot, I think about you so much, I wish I didn’t do you wrong, I hope we can get back together. Some lyrical styles work best when all they do is make sense; they don’t stand out, and that’s valid. I think mine tend to stand out; Trey and I like that our songs don’t spoon feed the listener, neither the music nor the lyrics.” Phish, runway models for nonconformity, stand boldly and proudly apart from the herd, perhaps making them easy targets, while definitely making them one of a kind.
Still, upon closer inspection, Phish’s lyrics, many of them penned by bandleader and guitarist Trey Anastasio‘s writing partners, the aforementioned Tom Marshall and Steve Pollak, at times reveal themselves to be deeply meaningful and poignant, if not enigmatic. “Your friends confine you in their worlds, one by one, a string of pearls“, we are reminded in “Sparkle”. In this country-flavored Phish staple, Tom Marshall takes on friendship, its limits and limiting power, its rare beauty akin to a pearl. “Sparkle was really just a reaction to a specific time and occurrence. I definitely felt that some advice I was getting from my closest pals wasn’t the right advice. The advice was influenced by their world views,” Marshall candidly explained to me. “But that’s why you go to friends for advice in the first place; you trust them. So it was an unfair portrayal perhaps, and they may have been right after all.” Marshall, who likes to keep the circle tight, asks in Strange Design, “Can I bring a few companions on this ride?” Friendship is a common theme in phishspeak, for going it alone through this strange design we call life is indeed anathema to the human condition.
In “Joy,” a gorgeous Anastasio/Marshall ballad and title track of 2009’s album Joy, a father seemingly experiences his daughter’s slow departure, something they all do eventually; “I was doing the best that I can I suppose, but that little girl dancer eventually grows, she grows”. As the father of a little girl dancer; that one gets me every damn time. Of course, who really knows what it all means? It’s personal. Take the summer 2015 tour debut Blaze On, which sagely reminds us not to get bogged down with fruitless rumination, “You got your nice shades on, and the worst days are gone, so now the band plays on, you got one life, blaze on “. Predictably, many cannabis-friendly fans have ascribed their own meaning to these existential lyrics, declaring them a statement of support for pot legalization and a cue to light up. Marshall doesn’t seem to mind the creative license taken with his words; “I personally am happy to hear that the song Blaze On has been interpreted by some as a pro-marijuana legalization statement. Though not the primary intent behind the song, I’m all for that; High Times magazine, this one is for you!”
And then you have perhaps Phish’s most iconic lyrics, Steve Pollak’s concentrated and undying testament, his lyrical legacy, a command to live life to its fullest and “set the gear shift into the high gear of your soul, and run like an antelope out of control”. Pollak, an adept raconteur and close chum of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio since boarding school, has penned the lyrics to several Phish classics. He is known for laying down some powerful pills, archetypal lines that hit hard, resonate and imprint on your psyche; I know I will never look at an antelope the same. The boys from Burlington set the gearshift into high gear thirtysomething years ago, and though the transmission has been rebuilt a few times, this vehicle we call Phish is still very much on the move. If you know and love Phish, you know that the words are as they should be; phishy.
“No one faulted Ella Fitzgerald for her nonsensical lyrics; it was understood that the words were like notes in the song, her voice an instrument capable of improvisation like no other”, offers Joey Wall, a devout fan and overall purveyor of good vibes on the heavily trafficked online Phish groups on Facebook. Similarly, to many aphishionados of the frenetic foursome, the plucked, pounded and caressed notes played on the instruments of Phish render like words, where spoken lyrics come second to lyrical instrumentation. The band’s intricate orchestral arrangements and dynamic solos speak for themselves.
Keyboardist Page McConnell‘s piano and Anastasio’s guitar communicate to the listener in ways that spoken words could never convey with their limited scope, and they do so in highly personal ways, in language solely interpreted by the listener, but hold great meaning nonetheless. Page’s piano in the intricately scripted segments of “You Enjoy Myself” speaks to me of the absolute, albeit temporary beauty of our time here; with each tickle of the ivory, scenes play before me, tears well up often. Yes, we are a sappy bunch too.
In “The Lizards” and “Divided Sky,” two of the band’s most enduring and masterfully crafted compositions, Trey’s yearning guitar stirs up summers past, gone now to memory, dreams held for a moment, the faces of loved ones lost, fading with the years. In “Horn,” with his inimitable tone, Trey’s honey-drip-fuzz guitar weeps, returning me to a carefree childhood in the seventies, when all a boy knew were backyard barbecues, family ski trips to Vermont and the warm stubble-faced embrace of my father. In the trance-like “Waiting All Night,” a highly evolved composition from the band’s recent release Fuego, both instrumentally and vocally, the listener is swept far away, hypnotized by Anastasio’s exquisite refrain on guitar and haunting dreamlike vocals. These moments in song, vessels for thought, take us to highly personal places. In these ways, we find meaning in the meaninglessness.
Perhaps due in part to their association with the Grateful Dead, and definitely because of some real life drug issues involving the band’s now steadfastly sober leader and some of their fans; Phish has been stigmatized as a drug band for druggies. Still, such a sweeping statement is patently unfair. Are there drugs at Phish shows? Yes there are; booze, hard drugs, and of course, the lighter and more increasingly legal variety. And yes, there is abuse. But the drug use is an entity unto itself, separate from the music and by no means compulsory. Dangerous use is certainly not condoned by the band. Drugs, including alcohol, are a choice, a sustainable one for some, but for many, they are not.
Sobriety is on the rise at shows, albeit it at a sloth’s pace, spearheaded by Trey’s remarkable and very public recovery via New York State’s drug court program, and the Phellowship, a group who “choose to remain drug and alcohol free” and conduct meetings at shows during set-break “to provide phellowship, support and information to those who seek the comfort and camaraderie of other clean and sober people at shows.”
An admin from the Phellowship named Roger P. commented to me that “…in the beginning, only a few members would be found hanging around the table at the show during set break. Now, it is uncommon to see less than a hundred folks attending meetings. Recovery, in general, across the world, is becoming a sustainable alternative to drinking and drugs, and it shows up in the music world. The message we carry is that we can still live very fun and full lives that involve live music and do it in a responsible manner with respect to the environment and our personal situations”. People go. It’s real. It’s reality. I am proud of Trey and his sobriety, and of all the fans that are making changes for their own betterment.
I will not judge here, and those who party responsibly are entitled to, though the law often disagrees and some have paid a heavy price for their indulgence, with felony arrests and much worse. And yes, there are many who successfully practice moderation, know their limits and will safely blaze on. Again, are there drugs and the associated problems? Yes. Is there awareness of the issue and forces in place to address it? Yes. Is this the essence of Phish and are they a drug band? Please.
As one of the greatest American bands, Phish has never received the recognition they deserve from mainstream media. Granted, most fans prefer it that way, in that they remain underground, our special thing, though even that fades with each passing year, as the band continues to grow, the exposure widens, pop culture permeates and more noobs (rookies) are absorbed into the fold. And though denied their fair share considering their relevance, coverage has warmed somewhat. They’ve gotten some attention, whether it be a late night talk-show appearance, where though we pull so hard for them, they often fail to capture the magic in such a canned performance environment, or in an article in a national music magazine that tries to serve up the essence of Phish for you in a concise sound bite, almost always from an outsiders point of view, missing the mark more often than not. And then there are those articles, brimming with vitriol and contempt, which trash Phish.
In February 2013, to honor Phish’s 30 year anniversary, a writer named Benjamin Shapiro penned a widely circulated piece for Noisey entitled “Phish Has Been a Band for Thirty Years Now and Have Sucked the Whole Time”. The article elicited a quick and brutal response from offended fans, understandably so as the tone was nasty. The facts were skewed and stereotypes littered this dirge, the effluence of a writer whose voice could only be described as sniveling. He singled out the worst of the Phish scene and soiled the band’s name, even going as far as to make fun of their iconic logo and the band name, Phish, a moniker as clever as those four lovable mensches, who upon entering their fourth decade together as a band, still regularly conquer from the stage in new and impressive ways. I wouldn’t even quote the guy here, but let’s just say it seems ole Benji may have had his little EMO heart trampled on in the past by a Phish beauty, or perhaps a girlfriend stolen by a man-phan…
Another recent piece, a write-up of a Summer 2015 show in Grand Prairie, Texas in The Dallas Observer, had reviewer Brian Peterson pigeonholing Phish some more. In addition to abasing the music, Peterson also ruthlessly lampooned the fans, knocking their dance moves, actually blaming them for creating the demand for Phish’s supply. No doubt a fine Texas line dancer himself, Peterson laments, “Phish inspired some of the worst dancing I have ever seen. Limbs flailing everywhere, arrhythmic hops and gesticulations, strangely aggressive at times…” Listen here partner; dancing at a Phish show is like skydiving with your eyes open; it’s the only way to fully experience the experience. To sit, observe and listen is to watch the bullet train pass in a blur, a remarkable sight for sure, but to hop the train for the ride of your life, ya gotta dance. As far as dancing prowess, some flail, but many get down like Travolta. And who’s to judge anyway, Tex?
Ringing even hollower were Peterson’s attempts to discredit Phish’s songwriting ability; reducing them to just another jam band, heavy on the noodling but lacking substance, song structure, catchiness and identifiable riffs. Ok, I’ll concede that there is some indulgence in the improvisation, but that’s a big part of what fans pay to see. The band has earned the right to indulge, and the product of that exploration is strong, salient and affirming. Trey’s riffs are phenomenal, on par with the greatest guitarists of all time. Countless songs are played in an ever changing rotation, many anchored around infectious vocal choruses, each song evolving along with its players. The songs are not only there, they have taken on lives of their own. The variety and breadth of the Phish catalogue is astounding. They are a powerhouse of creativity and productivity. Thirty years in, they remain staunchly relevant. Alas, Mr. Peterson, perhaps too busy roping steer, cleaning his AR-15 and oppressing liberals (I digress), did not do his homework; Phish is by no means a quick study.
And perhaps the greatest irony of all is the sad fact that a good portion of Icks are a select group of jaded, mostly older Deadheads, very harsh is their assessment of Phish, wary of any band taking the Dead’s place in their hearts, still resisting the freshness Phish brings. This cohort’s rage is sharply pronounced, for they covet most our fan/band love affair, having struggled to hold on to theirs with the absence of Jerry Garcia. Happily, many old heads, myself herein included, have warmly embraced the Phish from Vermont and there is little doubt that a connection exists between these two often compared bands, with music that couldn’t be more different, while kindred in spirit and vibe.
In the end, for the Icks, it all comes down to what I will call Phish Envy. They covet what we have, the perfect relationship; we love Phish; they love us; we respect them, and they keep putting out (music, that is). It’s a fruitful relationship. Somewhere along the line, these wet blankets somehow surmised that it was the thing to do, that merely passing on something that wasn’t your taste was not enough. There surfaced a need to make sport of it. The disdain and acrimony of the extreme critic, the Phish-hater, derives from envy, anger and bitterness, pissed that they just don’t get it; why have these people gone gaga for a band, they pine. They blindly cut down Phish, imagining some obligation to dis them, just to be that guy. Is it pretension? Why must they begrudge us our joy? Did somebody tell you that it was cool to hate Phish, and does that make you a rebel?
Hey, it’s ok to not like Phish. Please, its fine, stay away. It’s hard enough these days to score tickets and an XL Phish hoodie from Dry Goods. We know we have something special and would like to keep it that way. Steve Pollak, aka The Dude of Life, put it to me this way; “People who are into Phish have essentially gone through the phish-strainer, and that’s why the Phish crowd is the best in the world. If you want to go to a place where you will find everybody, then go to Grand Central Station. Conversely, if you want to go to a place where you will find amazing souls replete with incredible intellect, seeking fun and adventure, then go to a Phish show”.
Pollak, always with ideas spinnin’ round, has recently been working on new material with Trey. Among the new progeny a recently minted gem named Cartwheels, gracefully debuted in a raw and poignant acoustic performance by Anastasio at The New Yorker Festival in October and appearing on the Trey Anastasio Band’s recent release Paper Wheels. The Dude of Life, an indispensable aspect of Phish’s extended core, cherishes Phish’s apartness and holds that their wonderful peculiarity is what keeps the secret stealthily and healthily separate and apart from the diluted, and deluded, masses.
“In life, you can focus upon a steaming pile of dog feces on the sidewalk, or you can take in the beautiful pollution sunset in the sky; I choose the pollution sunset”, further opined The Dude of Life, a contemplative soul if ever there was one, epitomizing even here the voice of Phish, juxtaposing silly and prophetic to great effect. In writing this piece, my intention is not to shine a light on the pile of dog feces that is Phish-hate; rather I’m attempting to illuminate its futility. In life, some choose to focus on the negative, while others simply embrace what tickles their fancy and kindly pass on what does not. I say push back against hate before it festers, unchecked and unchallenged, and always stand by your band.
A Worthy Craze
Something that is cliché betrays a lack of original thought, and the act of hating Phish does just that. For every Phish fan, there’s a naysayer with a fragile ego, whose knee jerk reaction to discredit anything that could be labeled a craze, is as predictable as it is cliché. Indeed, Phish is a craze; a 30 year craze and a worthy one at that.
Phish delivers. You cannot put a price on the energy and emotion one takes in at a Phish show, and I’ll always call it a show, because it’s so much more than a concert. “The perfect show is one that makes you feel every emotion, even unpleasant ones. You laugh, you cry, you get introspective, you celebrate loudly, you might even get a little scared,” continues Joey Wall, one of many whose life experience has been enriched by Phish.
The band’s grassroots success alone speaks to their genuine appeal and value. They have succeeded and triumphed on their own merits and their staying power and relevance is evidenced by their zealous fans, their longevity and impressive market share. The visceral phan reactions to staunchly defend their band affirm Phish’s greatness.
Phish, the band that keeps on giving, produces music that is a perfect mix of dark and light energy. There is nothing ordinary here. They tap into something that is beyond sacred, something universal. Remember, whatever you do, it’s all about energy; it’s everywhere; it’s plain to see.