Phish Week – Day 2: On the Phish/Dead connection


(Please forgive the verb-tense confusion in this one. Writing about one active and one defunct rock band creates difficulties which I’ve addressed, here, by basically throwing my hands up in the air and switching tenses haphazardly like a big jerk. –wgh.)

For reasons of both concision and personal pique, not to mention a certain polemical agenda, the 33-1/3 book deals only glancingly with the great improvisatory fusion band The Grateful Dead. Since Phish’s reputation has (stupidly) been ‘Grateful Dead 2.0’ since the early 90s, and the Dead are required listening for Phish fans, this might seem like an odd approach. But it made sense to me to situate Phish in a couple of other traditions – media-saturated ironic pranksterism, neoclassical/rock fusion, self-consciously experimental improvisation, and the odd syncretic stew known as ‘kozmigroov’ – and use the sharply limited 33-1/3 wordcount on forerunners like Frank Zappa and Pat Metheny instead.

That said, the Phish/Dead link is in the news lately: guitarist Trey Anastasio stepped in to play lead guitar with the remaining original members of the Grateful Dead this summer, marking both the Dead’s 50th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death. (The biggest news for Phish fans is that Anastasio spent six months woodshedding to prepare for the shows – he was playing out of his mind from the very first note in Santa Clara. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ shows were a lovely sendoff for the Dead and Deadheads, but for all the good feelings created by the shows, they won’t stand as musical landmarks for any of the players involved, nor for fans.)

The Dead were a major influence on Phish – the earliest Phish tapes include the band’s much-loved Scarlet Begonias > Fire (Hendrix) > Fire on the Mountain sandwich, which Anastasio and his bandmates eventually threw out as they went through their early ‘kill mommy’ phase – but Phish’s debt to the older band has long been observed mostly in the breach. Both bands specialized in ensemble improvisations with a lead guitar voice, and their concerts combined jukebox-Americana first sets with second sets full of open-ended spontaneous exploration. The format was the same, and the crowds were similar, give or take a few decades. But the two bands worked with very different style/genre materials (no death-march ballads about flea-ridden motels at a Phish show) and had wildly different personalities (individual and collective). The Dead were more or less outlaws, hippies, junkies; Phish were (and at age 50, still are) nerds. Half the members of the Dead were self taught, and sounded it; Phish’s one self-taught member, the drummer Jon Fishman, was a practice-room obsessive and freak of nature with gorgeous technique – the entire band has chops.

Most importantly, Phish and the Dead have always meant very different things by ‘jamming.’ Where the Dead’s basic approach to jamming was embodied in their maxim, ‘The downbeat is wherever you think it is,’ Phish have always emphasized coherence, fine-tuning emergent structure, over the amoeboid wandering and ‘noodling’ of your average college jam band. From the 33-1/3 book:

You can blind someone with a tiny little two-dollar laser pointer, y’know – because its waves of light are completely in sync with one another. A big enough light bulb blinds like the sun, but sufficiently coherent light becomes a blade.

At the time of A Live One, Phish were able to collapse to a well-formed microstructure in the middle of a free improvisation as quickly as any band around. Maybe ever – after all, that was the point of their improvisations in those days, to generate high-energy musical events that drew their power from coherence, from perfect synchronization, rather than from the messy outpouring of energy that dull purists insist is the ‘meaning’ (meaning basically the respectability-limit) of rock’n’roll. The Dead’s most powerful improvisations could achieve a singlemindedness that was all the more miraculous for having emerged from onstage chaos, but their method of unfettered improvisatory discovery precluded the methodical training that underpins Phish’s jamming. The famous Barton Hall ‘Morning Dew’ from 8 May 1977, one of the Dead’s mightiest improvisations and one of my favourite pieces of music ever, reaches a climax fit to crack the vault of heaven – but the band can’t actually bring the jam in together, and they end up unexpectedly sputtering a little. The first time I heard it I was confused: how does a band capable of channeling the voice of God for eleven minutes no know how to end an improvisation? Where was the discipline?

But my expectations had been set by Phish, which distorted my listening. Seeking after ‘discipline’ in the Dead’s second-set explorations, even in a Spring 1977 show (as they tightened up into a hippie dance band), is a mistake. After all, this is the group that made a totally open-ended half-hour improvisatory segment – Drums > Space – the literal centerpiece of their second sets in the late-70s so that every musician who wanted to would have a little time to nip out back and take some necessary hard drugs. When they cohered, it was about egos and selves and personalities and energy, much moreso than deliberate technique.

Meanwhile, Phish have long been derided for their virtuosity – mostly by resentful idiots, admittedly, some of them writing for easy money, but sometimes by critics who should know better. The specific charge is often ‘virtuosity for its own sake,’ and I address it at length in the book, though attentive listening gives the lie to that charge just as well. Compare the studio ‘Reba,’ say, to the ending of the aforementioned astonishing 5/8/77 ‘Morning Dew’: Fishman is licensed to stop the ‘Reba’ jam on a dime whenever he wants by playing a specific tom-tom fill – that’s part of the song’s structure, a carefully designed contrast effect – but the implicit bargain is that he’ll only do so when he detects that everyone in the band also wants it to end…and his bandmates count on him to figure out that timing without verbal or visual cues, based on signals sent within the music. In other words, the music is built specifically to mitigate any impulse toward self-indulgence or ostentation, and timing the climax and finish of the jam requires a degree of virtuosity from all involved. That critics have difficulty identifying the varieties and uses of virtuosity in Phish’s music is partly due to the exact ‘Phish == Dead 2.0’ myth that set this post off in the first place.

Mere style

Phish formed in 1983. They grew up listening to Black Sabbath, The Who, Genesis, Zappa, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Van Halen, The Dead – and yeah, jazz and bluegrass and classical music and Broadway soundtracks too, but the other stuff, the mainstream rock stuff (especially in its ‘70s excess’ form), dominated their musical world. In terms of primary inspirations, the Dead and Phish had almost nothing in common. The first set of a Dead show was all country-blues and complexly integrated ‘Americana,’ shuffle beats and slow 6/8 grooves, while their second sets would delve deeper into their private language, which finds fullest expression in the mock-epic stateliness of ‘Terrapin Station,’ the cosmic expanses of ‘Dark Star’ and its welcoming modal jam, or the gorgeous theatricality of the ‘Weather Report Suite.’ They favoured slower tempos, ad hoc vocal arrangements, and a declamatory story-singer approach out of folk. Ornette Coleman and Branford Marsalis came onstage with them, and (to the extent that Coleman’s glossolalia made sense at all when combined with normal human music) the collaborations brought out the best in all involved. The profundity of the Dead experience flows in no small part from the Dead’s conception of their purpose – ‘psychopomps’ in Mickey Hart’s word, a Sturgeon-style ‘groupmind’ says Phil Lesh.

Phish were and still are manic intellectuals who rock. They modulate dynamics expertly, as the Dead did, but where the Dead ambled and shuffled, Phish pump their fists and wail; where the Dead slowed way down to sing about lost loves and death, Phish turn on the FX pedals and generate worldless nightmarish soundscapes – or slide sideways into one of their metaphorically overdetermined, at times outright clumsy slow tunes, playing expertly but singing awkwardly. (Garcia’s guitar centered the Dead’s jams, but his voice and Robert Hunter’s lyrics were the band’s secret weapons.) The Dead played well with visitors, and Garcia collaborated powerfully a few times outside of the Dead. When guests come onstage with Phish, even masters like Béla Fleck, it tends not to make much sense, because the band’s power comes from their four-way telepathy; without their unique improvisatory method they’re just a good rock band, and who’d pay $60 to hear a ‘good rock band’ anyway? So they hardly bother anymore. They’re there to have a good time, but always at a weirdly – at times unnecessarily – high level of difficulty. (I’d kill to hear Nels Cline gig with Phish, though; his quartet shows with occasional Phish guests Medeski Martin & Wood are amazing.)

Phish don’t apologize for their goofiness, nor for their disreputable forerunners and inspirations. Part of the reason ‘critics’ have long given Phish a hard time is that the surface features of their music – comic arena rock, fastidious covers, weird reggae beats giving way to clockwork fugues, absurd nonsense lyrics, received bluegrass and jazz elements, a rock opera that sounds like an actual play report of Trey’s home D&D campaign – are held in contempt by cultural gatekeepers. Covers should be bold reimaginings…or high-energy slopfests! Whites shouldn’t play reggae! Lyrics should confess deep feelings about parents and capitalism! Rock operas are for theater geeks! Fugues are commmmplicated!

Because Phish’s style has never been ‘in style,’ they get no respect. The Dead’s mainstream reputation is less about their extraordinary improvisations than about their status as venerable torchbearers for some dimly remembered or imagined fantasy of The Sixties. (Look up a recording of the awkward first appearance of Garcia and Weir on David Letterman’s show – and watch how they transform into something ‘authentic’ and purely personal, extraordinary in their way, when they can stop answering questions and start playing and singing.) The Dead were much, much better and far deeper than their reputation – and so are Phish, a different way. Both bands extend visionary traditions of improvisation and ecstatic ritual celebration, and frankly, rock’n’roll magazines don’t have time for that shit. (Though they do like a rags-to-riches-to-drugs story, especially if Altamont can be worked in there somehow.)

Acknowledgment, resolution…

Garcia died shortly after A Live One came out in summer 1995; there’d been a steady flow of folks from Dead tour to Phish tour for a couple of years, but after Jerry’s death, Phish inherited the Dead’s cultural niche, for better and worse; you might say that the inflow of late-Deadhead traveling party culture was good for Phish at first, certainly in terms of exposure and momentum, but in the long run led directly to their all too conventional drugs/partying-related breakup in 2004. (One huge difference between Phish and the Dead: Phish figured out how to live as healthy adults before rock’n’roll bullshit killed anyone in the band.)

Phish’s longstanding resistance to the ‘next Grateful Dead’ label began to soften a bit as the anxiety of influence began to recede. On Jerry’s birthday in 1997 at Shoreline Amphiteater, Anastasio took an important step in that regard, acknowledging Jerry’s influence and promising to keep ‘the spirit of the Dead’ alive. A little more than a year later, Phish covered one of the deepest and most beloved Dead tunes, ‘Terrapin Station,’ in a gently celebratory performance that many of those present remember as a peak experience, aesthetic or otherwise. And in April 1999, Page and Trey joined Dead bassist Phil Lesh onstage in San Francisco for the first ‘Phil and Friends’ shows, playing three nights’ worth of the Dead’s music and improvising splendidly.

And to my ears, Phish’s music has converged with the Dead’s in a number of interesting ways these last few years. But that topic is, I’m sure, a little too inside-baseball for this venue.

Hippies? Not quite

The strongest link between the Dead and Phish – and between the many disparate groups filed under the distasteful name ‘jambands’ – is the (‘counter’)culture that surrounds them. In the pre-mp3 era, Phish fans and Deadheads formed nationwide cassette-trading networks which formed the root of a complex gift economy. Both groups abhorred the practice of selling ‘bootlegs’ of live music which (to borrow a phrase from the sillier precincts of hacker culture) ‘wants to be free’; both both fandoms followed seasonal patterns of migration, with thousands of young folks following their bands around for a week or two, or an entire month(s)-long tour, living off the profits from parking-lot glassware sales or just the generosity of strangers; both cultures had/have vocal tastemaker minorities engaged in ongoing shoving matches about what constitutes the ‘canon’ of Great Shows. In short: Phish’s fan culture started up in an odd isolated region (the college town of Burlington in the great Northern Kingdom of Vermont), but it’s very much a genetic descendant of Deadhead culture, and those genes have been passed on to the fan cultures of those other ‘jambands’ (Umphrey’s McGee, the Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident, etc.) which sprang up in the 90s as the Dead wound down.

Phish fandom is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

– Wally Holland

4 thoughts on “Phish Week – Day 2: On the Phish/Dead connection”

  1. “And to my ears, Phish’s music has converged with the Dead’s in a number of interesting ways these last few years. But that topic is, I’m sure, a little too inside-baseball for this venue.”… no, bring it on.

  2. Very nice insight, I was one of those migrants, first saw Phish in ATL, after a Dead show at the Omni. And I was hooked. My wife at the time, and I were on tour at VA Beach , where we witnessed a near riot in the lot pre show due to overzealous mounted police, for the Terrapin Encore. I thought the band was speaking to the amped up crowd, I seem to remember, a Birds of Feather (nod to the cops outside), as well.

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