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Phish Week – Day 3: On ‘Phans’ and Other Distasteful Topics

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 109TH 33/13 ON  A LIVE ONE, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF PHISH WEEK BY AUTHOR WALLY HOLLAND !

My book deals more with the private experience of Phish listening than with the fascinating subculture that surrounds it. There were several reasons for that choice. First off, I’m not a tour kid; when I’m at the shows lost in bliss I can easily imagine myself vanishing from civilization to travel the country and see 20 shows in a month, but over two decades of fandom I’ve never yet gotten up the energy (time, money, etc.) to see more than a handful of shows on a single tour. Yet touring is essential to Phish nation – in some ways, the extended tour gives the fullest representation of the band’s improvisatory art, as the narrative arc of several consecutive shows invests each song choice or spontaneous maneuver with deep significance, reveals patterns, allows the work to echo over time in new ways…

More importantly, A Live One is largely meant for fans, but not solely – a generation of today’s fans, myself included, had our first Phish-related initiatory experience listening to ALO, often alone or at a friend’s house/dorm room. It wasn’t my first live Phish recording, as I recall – my best friend gave me a tape of 8/20/93 Red Rocks, just the first set with the magnificent ‘Harpua’ – but the ALO ‘Harry Hood’ was the song where I ‘got IT,’ as fans say. I know that I have something to say about such immersive private listening experiences.

But to be frank, there’s another reason I stayed away from ‘phan’ culture while writing the 33-1/3 volume: ambivalence.

As everyone knows, ‘phans’ (Phishheads?) are annoying.

I’ve already written one book about the band specifically for fans: the ‘essay collection’ A Tiny Space to Move and Breathe (pick up your copy at Amazon today!), a belletristic oddity which works its way through a single Phish tour show by show and turns out to be about falling in and out of love with music and other things. (It also contains an utterly humiliating error in a footnote: a nonsensical definition of the generation-labeling scheme for analog tapes, e.g. ‘DAUD-2,’ explained below.) I’ve been touched by the kind words that other fans have had for the book, but rereading it nowadays I gotta admit that the whole volume is shot through with distaste and frustration about the way ‘the fandom’ understands the sacred/profane experiences we share.

So I didn’t want to poison a book meant as outreach with my petty internecine squabbling.

Instead I’ll poison this blog post. Yay!

The tapes

Up until about Y2K, Phish fandom was bound together the tapes: our sacred texts. (In exile, far from the temple, we become ‘people of the book.’) Taking after their forerunners the Grateful Dead, Phish encouraged tapers to record their live shows, which we’d all trade on cassette, two or four or ten at a time. Aided by fans’ prescient adoption of the Internet – rec.music.phish was one of the first and busiest fan communities on Usenet – the tape-trading network stretched across the country, building lasting connections between tourgoers who’d meet regularly at shows and fans who could only see the occasional show here or there. (I was one of the latter.) Back in the day you’d post your tapelist to the newsgroup and ask around for a low-gen (i.e. not too lossy) tape copy. If you didn’t have a DAT deck, you wanted a DAUD-1 – digital audience recording, first analog copy – though you’d settle for a nice DAUD-2 in a pinch.

Of course, new listeners had nothing to trade, so we’d wait for B+P offers: some generous head would offer to spin a handful of copies (NO HIGH-SPEED DUBBING!) in exchange for blank tapes and postage, always in a bubble mailer (NO CRAPPY RIPPED-UP PAPER STUFFING!), always with a clearly labeled SASE. Always say thanks. Always include a charming note.

The best traders would throw in ‘filler’ to occupy the empty space at the end of a tape – that’s how I first head Medeski Martin & Wood, Zero, and (incidentally) The Dead. And you’d often get a printed ‘J-card’ listing the songs; if the trader used the Windows program ‘WinTaper,’ you’d see a little finger-pointing dingbat to indicate an improvised segue between songs, like this:

Bathtub Gin ☞ The Real Me ☞ Bathtub Gin

Finding a tape in the mail full of that kind of stuff was the best feeling. The connection I felt as I looked over my growing tape collection – full of crispy DAUD-2s from Dirk420’s ridiculously generous B+P offers, or the 12/30/97 tapes we made at a party at Dave’s house in Porter Square where we daisy-chained five tape decks and I saw grownups with jobs smoke weed for the first time, or the precious DAUD-1s of the July 97 Amsterdam shows with the 30-minute ‘Stash’ that seemed then, and in sentimental moments still seems, to have come from the mouth of God hisownself – that feeling helped me get through, in Joss Whedon’s words, a perfectly happy adolescence in which I was perfectly unhappy.

Freshman year, my then-girlfriend bought me a tape case and painted my name on it, beautifully, in the style of Phish’s groovy/goofy fish logo. We lost each other along the way but I still treasure the tape case.

Still got the tapes too, come to think of it. I wonder why I can’t just throw them away. I don’t even have a cassette player anymore.

The digitals, the onlines

And we’d argue endlessly on the newsgroup, with its handy-dandy email gateway at phish.net, about whether Trey was a better guitarist than Jerry (who cares?), or whether the key-changing funk jam in the 11/22/97 ‘Tweezer’ was the new instrumental tune ‘Black-Eyed Katy’ (it was), or which album they’d play for Halloween 1998 (surprise! it was Loaded – and then two nights later they played Dark Side of the Moon, but you skipped the show because the cops in Utah are huge assholes about weed and you blew your remaining cash in Vegas) (more fool you). And Rosemary Dean Mackintosh started Rosemary’s Digest, where she’d read every single substantive post on r.m.p. and send out a curated single email at day’s end to subscribers, which became necessary after a while, the Internet being what it is; Benjy Eisen took over the job later, but that was past nightfall already, the newsgroup had gotten all but unusable.

Meanwhile, ‘tape trading’ was replaced first (briefly) by CD-R trading, which was rubbish – CD-Rs were too small to accommodate entire shows – and then by downloads, which were unbelievably slow because mp3s hadn’t yet caught on and (remember, kids?) the consumer Internet was still pokey at the turn of the century. Then Bittorrent happened, which made things better, but then Phish came back from their 2000-2002 hiatus and announced that every single show of the 2003 winter tour would be available for download after a brief processing period, and they’ve kept it up – LivePhish was profitable on day one and is still one of the models for how to make money selling unrestricted digital recordings online.

And eventually hard drives were big enough and mp3 bitrates high enough and transfer speeds high enough that it was worth it to switch over from raw WAVs (or losslessly compressed FLACs) to direct mp3 downloads, praise the lord, and the iPod happened, so that’s where things stand today tapewise: the tapes are gone, and every Phish show that was ever taped (what, 1,500 or so?) is there on some download service, free of charge, waiting for you.

The tapes are gone. The ‘library’ exists only in theory, on a drive, or in a cloud. Much has been gained! Something small but priceless has been lost. Well, time is a slide you can only go down once, no point crying about it.

And none of this is the main event anyway. Because as important as the tapes are – I collected 100ish of them, if memory serves, and have hundreds of gigabytes of Phish in my iTunes – they’re only a pale imitation of the Thing Itself.

The show, the show, the show, and the other shit

A Live One gives some sense of the energy level of a Phish show, and points to some of the unique qualities of a Phish crowd – unlike typical rock crowds, we cheer for moments of improvisatory connection, the new rather than the familiar; unlike typical jazz crowds, we scream in the middle of songs and spend the whole show dancing our asses off. I won’t dignify the ‘Phish fans don’t know how to dance’ stuff with comment here; anyway I said what I wanted to about dance in the book.

What ALO can’t capture is…well, everything else about the show: the choking cloud of cigarette and weed smoke that rises up the instant the lights go down, Chris Kuroda’s extraordinary improvised light show, the way the band members are mostly still except for Trey’s excited bobbing up and down between songs, the startling number of tearful hugs exchanged between total strangers after an especially deep jam, the racial/cultural homogeneity of the crowd, the groovy black-market economy on ‘Shakedown Street’ in the lot before and after the show, the hiss of the nitrous tanks as a load of predatory cunts peddle their brain-killing wares, the hundreds and hundreds of glowsticks that shoot up into the air on climactic downbeats perfectly synchronized with the music, the way the crowd audibly deflates when Trey calls for one of his sentimental late ballads, the way 10,000 hearts swell to bursting as ‘Hood’ reaches its climax, the 20,000 fists in the air at the climax of Tweeprise, the outlandish costumes (often Phish-themed), the older folks with young kids dancing in the open space behind the soundboard, dervishes spinning seemingly for hours on 500ug of acid, deeply tanned wooks in homemade patchwork pants, wide-eyed high school girls in brand new (definitely not homemade) patchwork skirts, bikers, ravers, preppies, trustafarians, rastafarians, yoga instructors freshfaced after a midafternoon hike through the mountains, zzyzx with his clipboard writing down the exact length of every jam, Bertolet and his infernal tarp, Antelope Greg and his unpleasantly aggressive posse clinging to the same Page-side rail spot since the 90s, the Waterwheel Foundation table, the pins and posters and patches, the spilled beer, the useless beauty, the tiny coincidences and lucky meetings and long invisible waveforms cohering. And at the center, the music, which is both our obsessive focus and in a sense just the premise. You might not believe me but I swear, when the rite begins we’re so beautiful for one another.

And then the show ends and some of us go online to argue angrily about whether n00bs’ opinions about 2015 jams count, or whether anyone has a right to a rail spot, or whether intellection has any place in fan talk, or whether or not the MagnaBall ‘Prince Caspian’ should be notated in the setlist file with a full segue back into ‘Tweezer,’ or did they in fact tease ‘Fire on the Mountain’ that one time, or is Trey washed up, or is Trey ‘peaking,’ or is Umphrey’s McGee at all worthwhile, is the fandom sexist, can Phish actually play funk, should you sing along with quiet pretty songs, does the band’s decision to play on a beach in Mexico suck or rock, does the best of ‘Phish 3.0’ (oh god don’t ask) hold a candle to the band’s pre-hiatus best, do the inevitability of death and the inescapable second law of thermodynamics (which are maybe two translations of the same sentence?) not render all of this irrelevant, should Fishman endorse Bernie Sanders, is all this ever ‘jazz,’ can someone who didn’t attend the show review it, are we OK, will you be my friend, why is ecstasy resistant to analysis, why is this so hard, who’s got my New Year’s ticket, am I a real fan, is it safe to love strangely and irresponsibly, is my tape collection big enough to speak, is Phish ‘art,’ do they have a ‘project,’ what about Zappa, what about drugs, should I do the entire midwestern leg of tour, how will I pay for that, do I skip Alpine this year, why so many big words you pretentious jerk, did we come to this too late, what would we do without these pointless arguments…

…?

It is, in short, a community within which some of us are able to make our own families (or not), built around an ecstatic ritual that’s both unusually intellectual in content and unusually (forgive me) hippie-ish and permissive in atmosphere, whose goal is radical transformation that’s ‘paradoxically’ both intensely private and joyfully shared. The shows go on about three to four hours over two sets and an encore, with most of the long jams in the second set; tickets are around $60, maybe? Honestly I never look at the price anymore. Either I have to go or I don’t go. It’s all about the music for me but not really. It’s church: a place to feel a spirit move within you, to be humbled. It’s a circus. Honestly it’s all a bit silly. See you when the lights go down.

– Wally Holland

 

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