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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2011/06/24
by David Steinberg

Removing Context

Every year there’s a wacky parade in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle for the coming of the summer solstice. It starts with a naked bicycle race and then continues with a barrage of surreal floats. While Seattle has been getting tamer over the years, and the weirdness moves out to the exurbs, it’s nice to have a reminder of the spirit that put a troll under the Aurora Bridge.

Ever since I first discovered the parade, I always thought it would be cool to walk in it. I only had one minor problem; I didn’t have a float to join. This is the year that it changed. A group called Phish-y decided to create a lip sync float. They’d play Phish over their speakers and pretend to play and sing. What they needed was people who would dance around and act like they were actually seeing Phish. How could I resist?

Well there’s one way that I could. Seattle’s June Gloom was kicking in. On the walk down Phinney Ridge to the float area, the soaking rain was getting to me. Only in Seattle [1] do you have to worry about hypothermia at a summer solstice parade.

Fortunately the rain did eventually die down and we were able to gather. About a dozen people hovered around the float, ready to start dancing. I brought my clipboard to keep a setlist of course, and we even had a guy with a fake taping rig. It was fun, albeit a bit in jokey. The music started – “Chalk Dust” to open of course – and we started dancing our way down N 36th Street.

One thing I did learn quickly from this is that it’s a lot harder to dance as part of a parade than to do so at a show. I bought into the role – I was seeing Phish and they were playing well – but there were so many more things to worry about. For one thing we all were walking backwards while facing the band. Jumping up and down in the middle of a street with floats being pushed and lots of other people also playing along is a lot more difficult than it looks, especially if you’re trying to do the “Meatstick” dance the whole time.

It was during “Meatstick” where I first saw it. A man on the side of the road was excited and doing the dance himself. Then a man on the other side, also obviously a fan, ran out into the crowd and started dancing with us for a few blocks before going back to his group. The energy of the hot Phish clips along with the sheer silliness of what we were doing was irresistible to any fan.

We continued to walk and dance and jump around. We made a right onto Fremont Ave N and then a left onto N 34th Street. I looked around again and then I noticed it. Our once tiny group had swelled. The first people to join us were fans but we suddenly had a large number who were potentially hearing Phish for the first time in their lives. They had no idea who this band was; for all I knew, they could have thought the fake band was playing. What they did know was that they were having a blast.

As early as the late 80s, Phish have always lived in contextual bubbles. First they were the band that Deadheads saw during breaks in tour. Then they developed their own reputation but we came along as part of the package. Sure they encouraged the development of a fan base with the secret language and setlist games, but those of us who obsessed over the band and their development and the stats and the timings couldn’t be removed from the experience. Especially in 3.0 when new fans are much rarer, it seems like the whole thing is getting incestuous. How much of the appeal of Phish comes from being part of this group, of knowing the rules and the in jokes and the stupid issues that bother us? When we’re all so deeply involved in this world, is this something real or are we just analyzing something because it happens to be in front of us?

That’s what excited me so much about seeing the reaction through fresh eyes. Without knowing the history behind the selections or the names of the songs or even that this was the band Phish that had the cult fans following them around, a group of people spontaneously decided that the best use of their afternoon was to continually move in order to make sure that they could keep hearing it, dancing not because they’re playing a game or acting in a role or being happy to hear their cult band being played but because they were moved to do so. We might obsess about this music and live way too deep in this world, but ultimately there is a there there. Thank you Phish-y for letting me be reminded of that. Let’s do this float again next year. There’s still plenty of people who need to discover this music and there’s still plenty of Phish fans who need to be reminded that the music is actually worth being discovered.

[1] OK, fine or SF, Portland, or Alaska…

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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