I first listened to Phish when my friend Paco visited me during our sophomore year of college in the spring of 1992. That year, the amalgam of classic rock, 80s alternative and hip hop that had formed my musical canon in high school was overwhelmed by a deep dive into the Grateful Dead, a band eloquently covered under this banner by Brandon Backhaus some weeks back. I had become interested not only in the Dead's jam-oriented music, but also by the nerd culture aspects of being an informed fan – the ever changing setlists, the iconography, the various line-ups over time, their place in late 60s lore, and on. Phish didn't make a big impression on me that first weekend, but I remembered the name.
Flash forward to the start of summer vacation 1992. This was really the last summer that all of my friends went back home and worked our various camp counselor and lifeguard jobs. Paco had starting seeing Phish shows, had amassed a nice collection of bootlegs, and played them non-stop as we cruised around in those early weeks. The music started to click with me, and we scouted opportunities to see them live. That summer they happened to be part of the inaugural H.O.R.D.E tour which was the coming out party for the new generation of post-Dead jam bands – Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and Aquarium Rescue Unit. We scored tickets and looked forward to the day-long event. Phish batted clean-up, but we were a little preoccupied as one of our party had swallowed 5 doses and disappeared. I recall that Phish sounded much harder and raw in concert then they had on record, but I was mostly worried about my friend. Just so you don't worry – he got kicked out of the show for trying to climb onstage and was escorted home by friends of his younger brother. Aside from hallucinating that he had traveled back in time, he was no worse for the wear.
My fandom grew slowly and I saw a handful of shows over the next year. Learning more about the band, I heard that their New Years Eve shows were grand 3-set events so when tickets went on sale for the 93/94 show, I hunkered down with my then-fairly-rare speed dial phone and went to work for an hour until I got through. After 30 minutes on hold, I somehow was able to secure 4 tickets. That night changed my relationship with the band and music in general. I later found out that Phish fans had a term for getting hit by the lightning bolt - *IT*. Over the course of 3-4 hours, I felt like I was finally indoctrinated into the cult, I got all the inside jokes, I felt like the band was producing a enormous orange ball of energy that they would scoop blobs off, throw them out to the audience in the form of songs, retreat back to the orb, scoop off another ball, lather, rinse, repeat. I stood slack jawed; the audience seemed to move in unison, there was some underlying logic and connection between the band and audience and the audience with each other. I am not a religious person, but that evening showed me that music is one of the ways that humans can transcend the terrestrial to approach something mystical and beyond consciousness. My friends felt it, too. We were hooked.
From that point, my fandom went down a very similar path to that described by Tom Dozois in his piece on the Dave Mathews Band. Up until that NYE show, I had seen the band 4 times in 2 years. From that show on, while I didn't become a full fledged touring wookie, I saw about 30 shows over the next 5 years and tracked their growth with the thoroughness of a Talmudic scholar. I heard they'd been on NPR's 'All Things Considered' and bought the audiotape via mail order so that I could hear the interview. I bought Mike Gordon's horrendous first film, 'Outside Out' which was unwatchable. I learned everything about the history of the band and collected tapes like a mad fiend. I attended their NYE show for 4 straight years and couldn't imagine myself every not being at one of their year end parties.
It was not an investment that I regret in the least. While I wasn't an early adopter, I had a front row seat for their meteoric rise and, over those years, attended many now historic shows including their first show at MSG, the NYE shows, their first Halloween show where they played the 'White Album' in its entirety, their first two big summer festivals where, as a single band, they drew 70,000 fans to old airports in the middle of nowhere. It's true, they never released a great studio album, and the scene expanded greatly when Jerry Garcia died and Phish assumed the Dead's mantle as leaders of rock's best traveling circus. But, the live shows always delivered. Even as I got married and started having children, I always made sure to get to 3-4 shows per year, which was easy living in New York.
The low point was their farewell festival in Northern Vermont known as 'Coventry'. Back then, Trey Anastasio announced that the band was breaking up for good because it had essentially, over close to 30 years, run its course. What we now know is that Trey had a raging drug problem and wanted out. I dutifully bought my ticket and sat in traffic for 30 hours trying to gain entry into a concert site that had been transformed into a quagmire by the worst fortnight of rain that Vermont's Northern Kingdom had experienced in decades (something tells me those 2004 ds may have fallen in recent years). The site was a mess, the fans were a mess, and the band was a complete mess. After enduring that trip, and seeing only 2 of the 3 sets on night one, my companions and I decided to get the hell out of there the next day, too depressed and defeated to stick around for the last day – which turned out to be a historic mess of a show. The band ushered in the modern jam band movement and became music giants without a whiff of radio airplay had crumbled under their own weight. It was sad, and a real sign that at 32, an important part of my young adult life had ended.
But, with the help of my friend Dr. Schneider, I started to expand my music palette. With internet music sharing having come of age, as well as indie musicians leveraging the power of laptop production, there was more and better music to discover than ever before. While I kept a casual eye on Phish's various side projects, I was more excited by the newer stuff I was listening to. The Phish projects, especially Trey's stuff, was really uninteresting…truly a case of the whole having been far greater than the sum of its parts. I felt bad for the guys in the band, another case of rock being a young man's game.
Flash forward to 2008. Turns out Trey sucked because he was a pill freak who, after being arrested with enough pharmaceuticals to tranquilize a stable of NYPD horses, cleaned up his hand. The band promptly got back together and I went from disinterested former fanatic to my late 90s obsession in the blink of an eye. In 2009 and 2010, I caught about 6 shows and was thrilled to have my band back. The more apt description is that I was proud of them for getting their band back. They shows sounded great, the fan demand was still strong, it seemed built to last, I was excited for the kids who had come of age while they were broken up and now had a chance to see them live. It was kind of a miracle.
That brings us to this year. Phish played over 6 shows within an hour drive of my house and I didn't even attempt to get tickets. While I had enjoyed the last few shows I had seen, it had all gotten to be a little much…going to work each day while going to multi-night runs, the spun out wookie jumping off the upper deck at Jones Beach, the nerd culture fans complaining about the setlists. I just couldn't take it anymore.
Phish is coming to MSG for a NYE run this December and I am going on the first night, 12/28. I am more excited about the fact that I want to go, then the fact that I am actually going. Still and all, I never find myself playing their music, watching any of the collection of live DVDs I own, or following the tours the way I used to. I will always love them, I treasure the fact that I witnessed their phenomenon first-hand for a seminal 8 years of their career as they reached their peak, and I will keep tabs on them in some form or another as long as they are playing. I may take Old Yeller to the back yard and shoot her – but I'll burn her on a pyre, scoop up the ashes, stuff them in a pillow, and lounge around with it every once in a while when the mood strikes.