Phish Week – Day 4: Sex with Phish. Wait, lemme rephrase…



‘Sexy’ and ‘erotic’ seem to me to be almost unrelated, though certainly not disjoint, categories of experience – eroticism is a quality of imagination, sexiness a character of perception. Doing the dishes while drinking a glass of wine, anticipating a lover’s return from a weeklong business trip, can be an unbearably intense erotic experience, but you’d hardly expect someone to call it ‘sexy’ (whatever sensual pleasures a sink full of dishwater might hold). And grinding up on your date at the club might well be sexy – let’s hope for your date and not just for you – but there generally isn’t room for erotic imagination of any kind in such circumstances. On the other hand, replaying the experience in your mind afterward would push it into the realm of the erotic. Or not; it’s just grinding, after all. Weird Science sure seemed sexy when I was a kid, but Blade Runner of all things wields a surprising late-hours erotic power. The Matrix is sexy; 12 Monkeys (as unsexy as it gets) is nonetheless weirdly erotic. Boogie Nights sexy, Punch Drunk Love unspeakably erotic, not to mention ‘romantic,’ which is sort of the Fisher-Price version of eroticism.

In broad terms, I think of eroticism as consisting in no small measure of deferral or denial – which the imagination reaches out to overcome, and in so doing, creates a world of its own: a fiction. Peripheral, accidental, forbidden. The erotic intoxication of tango, say, has a lot to do with distance and formality. The dance is something more than sexy because ‘sex’ as such is supposed to be kept out, though it’s obviously everywhere; crucially, though, sex as such isn’t what’s on everyone’s mind. At the milonga, the dance itself is the imaginative focus; it’s allowed to be invested with all the secret power of the Very Act. Magic, you might say.

Phish have never been a sexy band. (Comedy generally isn’t sexy.) In very broad terms, we can say that their pre-1997 (pre-funk) music was way too intellectual, too self-consciously geeky, to give sex a chance: they would often intrude on jams with new ideas, refusing to pause and breathe, tearing the delicate tissue of the moment (i.e. ‘ripping it up and starting again’). The ‘libidinal economy’ of the band’s unique tension/release jamming – the Hood/Chalkdust/Bag/Mike’s/YEM/Stash approach (amply documented on A Live One) which was their first big innovation – was still adolescent-male: start low and slow, build up relatively quickly to a fast loud climax with a gigantic BANG at the end, the louder and harder the better.

And y’know, the fans ate that up. Still do! There’s always been a hidden meaning to Phish fans’ use of the term ‘hose’ (explained in the book)…

Phish’s 97-99 funk was sexier, to be sure: more visceral, more patient, rhythmically steadier, with less carefully controlled (but more continuous/intuitive) dynamics and atmospherics. But you (I) couldn’t listen to Miles or Marvin or even The Meters and then put on Phish without giggling. The rhythms are better, deeper, more lived in, yet subtly off.

Still, what’s developing in that music, combining with the elaborate associative logic of early Phish to produce something unprecedented, is a certain erotic energy: a new imaginative capacity, beginning with mere patience but involving something more. Listen to 11/14/97 II, or the slowly unfurling Denver ‘Ghost’ and MSG AC/DC ‘Bag’ from that year, to hear an emergent contour then new to their music – an organically evolving protean form moving on a much longer wavelength. Suddenly they were making music that was the ideal soundtrack to an evening for two (or marvelously more), and they didn’t sound so much like the ‘whitest band in America,’ though they were still playing a form of ‘cow funk’ that was probably less funky than what a strong bar band gets going in the wee hours. They didn’t have the hellfire-sermon quality of live James Brown, but they were finding their by improvisatory means to the hypnagogic insinuations of, say, Let’s Get It On – its album-length undulations if not necessarily the skin-on-skin character which inheres in its style.

Phish’s mid-career peak, their huge midnight-to-sunrise millennium concert at Big Cypress in the Everglades, is all but sexless – the funk tunes are a little bedraggled, the rock stuff manic-dissociative, the twinkly ambient psychedelia maybe a little too plentiful – yet the band’s 1999-2000 improvisatory ideal of layered sonic sediment and accretive implication has an undeniable erotic charge. Instead of moving at the speed of thought, as they did when velocity was their most impressive (easy) media hook, they move like breath or touch: firmly forward, gently back, here circling, there gathering and holding still, now speeding, now spent. The individual gestures (phrases) lose their attention-grabbing charge but take on a new signficance, as part of the fever dream that stretches and steals time.

Which is maybe a roundabout way of saying that Phish fandom has had to deal, over the last 30 years, with the transformation of the essential libidinal arc of Phish’s jamming from the more(faster/louder)-is-better eagerness of the young male to the richer but less immediately accessible (you might say ‘poetic’) language of desire which is the prerogative of the grownup. And they are those; in 1999 they were in their mid-30s, now they’re 50ish and playing (in some ways) better than they ever have.

So if you’re discinlined to give Phish a listen on the ground that they’re dorks, which of course they are, I’d suggest giving one of their dreamlike late-90s shows a try and listening to the whole thing, letting the full shape of the music reveal itself in its own time, one second per second. It’s hard to believe that a famously awkward group of virtuosic tricksters could gain/grant access through their music to the carnal-cosmic, and admittedly A Live One isn’t about this at all (that ‘Hood’ though…), but there’s got to be a reason why so many of us believe so passionately in this music. And sex – or no, not that; not just that at all; rather, as I put it in the 33-1/3 book, intimations of something beyond pleasure or its absence – well, that’s part of what brings us back.

– Wally Holland

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