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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2001/07/17
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Why Boo Phish?

1. Nightswimming
I thought about you on the beach. It was really the light that did it. It
wasn’t just the moon. There were also streetlights hanging over the dunes
and the glow from living rooms in the cool modern houses strung along the
sand. The whole image, the moon over the ocean, slung itself like Anton
Corbijn’s photographs in the liner notes to "Automatic For The People" by
R.E.M., my own personal album that I listen to with no one but myself late
at night in my room, alone. Standing on the beach was, for a moment, being
in that particular music.
Exactly a week previous, I stood in the throng in the pit at Roseland
Ballroom, during the Jammys, and heard a savage bleating periodically roll
up out of the crowd. It began when Paul Shaffer announced nominees for the
Jam of the Year and read off the name "Phish". He spoke their name in the
same bright, slightly nasal Canadian drawl that has laughed at David
Letterman’s jokes for nearly 20 years and is used to such ridiculous fare.
After he read the word "Phish" and they were booed, he just kept on grinning
as if waiting for the punchline from Dave, attuned to strange reactions from
large crowds, waiting for someone to tell him that it was okay to break.
Below him, though, the booing had its equal and opposite reaction:
confusion. I was damn well flabbergasted. I hadn’t actually seen anybody boo
personally. Neither had anybody else that I talked to over the remainder of
the evening and the next few days, for that matter. No one owned up to
booing either. People offered theories, most of which seemed – and seem – utterly antithetical to the idea of a mob mentality which would result in
such booing. It’s a damn interesting question to ponder: why, at this
particular juncture, was Phish booed?
2. People Hate Phish
This is the most obvious cause-and-effect answer, but I don’t buy it. It’s
too simple. Phish has surely accrued their share of detractors in their 17
years as a band, but not the kind that usually attend events like the
Jammys. Phish, along with the Grateful Dead, are the godfathers of this
scene, and people acknowledge that.
The music being made by improvising rock musicians in this context cannot
helped be influenced by Phish, either through direct influence or through
simple awareness. Phish’s path to the top was long, but direct and obvious.
When their direction became unclear, the band stopped. It took the unity of
having thousands of people attend their shows to be able to gather enough
energy for a scene of these dimensions. Beginning in 1997 and 1998, it
exploded outwards and began to factionalize.
If the people booing at the Jammys truly hated Phish it was for a far more
complicated reason than simple opposition to Phish’s music or even their
aestethic. It something beyond hate. No matter what the causation, it was a
hip rejection: a posture, braced against winds and sands. For people, the
months since the beginning of the hiatus – or, let’s face it, the Hiatus – have been ungrounded in a way. Again, regardless of direct influence, this
is true, simply through chains of association. This is not because Phish is
missed as an artistic force but as a magnetic one.
3. People Love Phish
Near the beginning of their last tour, Phish covered Road Runner by
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Regardless of its connections to the
proto-punk scene of the early ’70s, the title – at the very least – conjures
up images of the Warner Brothers cartoon, of Wile E. Coyote. I have an image
of Phish charging defiantly up the side of a mountain and off the edge,
circa 1995, when they began to move into arenas around the country.
For the first few years, they defied gravity, pedaling furiously in the air.
Occasionally, they looked down and it was okay. Through 1997 and early 1998,
they seemed as if they were actually flying, accomplishing something that a
band of their size had never managed. Then, they looked down. "For the first
time ever, on the last couple of tours, I’d come off stage and go, ‘Was
that, you know, good?’" Trey Anastasio recently pondered in a Rolling Stone
interview. "I’d never asked myself that before. It always just seemed like a
forward motion."
Phish defied gravity and were deified for it. It was a precarious flying
act, some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption in action, whistling through the
air with pulleys and pumps. It was wonderful to watch. Even in the last few
years, when Phish were obviously struggling creatively, they could still be
exhilarating to watch. It was still inexplicable that they’d gotten as far
as they had.
That’s another obvious answer: people booed Phish because they love them and
because they are angry, pissed at the band for leaving. It is classic tough
love on both sides of the equation, each betraying the other. I hate it when
people live up to their stereotypes, but one can safely be invoked in
explanation: for the most part, though, Phishheads are not bitter people and
would not simply boo out of spite.
4. Traced With Salt Spittle
There is an old adage in comedy: two to create a pattern, three for the
We stood on the beach on a mound of massed sand, the packed remnant of a
pile at the foot of the vanished lifeguard stand, and watched the light.
Down the beach in either direction, an almost translucent mist hung
mysteriously. Off in one direction, in the distance, every seven-and-a-half
seconds, a needle’s eye of light shot out and illuminated shapes cut out in
the heavy air.
Occasionally, people would appear in the distance. Between flashes from the
lighthouse, our eyes filled in where we thought they would be. They moved
smoothly, gliding, as if they weren’t walking. Every time we saw the shape
of a person, I asked aloud "is that somebody on a bike?" It wasn’t, but the
illusion of their movement was so graceful that it almost had to be
mechanical — a bike, or men on horseback on the beach in fog.
By the mound of sand, we stood coolly, Tommy and Margaret smoking
hand-rolled cigarettes. We talked about the theory of status, a theater
concept we’ve adapted for use in life analysis. I feel like a bit of a
bastard whenever we talk about it, simply because I think that the move into
that kind of discussion automatically puts us into some kind of superior
pose. "That," Tommy would say, "is because you are low status".
Yes, we stood coolly by the mound and a wave washed over us, or began to
wash over us. Somebody – Tommy or Margaret, not me – reacted first and we
scrambled for cover, running and diving into the dry sand just off in the
distance. This was the first in the pattern.
5. People Support The Scene
We’ve come a long way since 1998, since launched. When I say
"we", I mean the general coagulation of people who attend shows, not
necessarily the website — though the two ideas are connected, at least in
my mind. The collective movement has been pretty broad, though it has gone
in pieces: bands on the road by themselves drawing 50 people on a Wednesday
night in Iowa, if they’re lucky.
It’s sad when small bands break up, not because the world will necessarily
be a lesser place without their music (though it might be), but because the
people who were actually in the bands will somehow have to integrate
themselves into the world; a deflating process of socialization. It is a
miracle that so many bands can, in fact, sustain themselves. The last nine
months, since the Hiatus, have been an assurance of independence from Phish:
that all of this was about more than just the Grateful Dead or Phish.
It is more than a simple phenomenon of individual bands, it is actually
about something larger.
To have Phish referenced at this point in time, at least like that, is
disheartening because it is too easy. What is the point of honoring Phish at
this stage? What will that accomplish? A point that fewer have brought up is
how and why Phish won the awards they did, for that matter. If it was
surprising that Phish was booed when their name was read for Album of the
Year, then it was more surprising that they actually won the category.
To some, it surely seemed like a slap in the face to bands who produced far
more creative albums than "Farmhouse". While "Farmhouse" is an warm,
emotional, even cohesive, album of well-written songs, it is not an
interesting album in the sense that it delivers anything truly new, either
for Phish or for the rest of popular music. The reason Phish – and the Dead – won, perhaps, is because there were between seven and 19 nominees in each
category — something which I simply didn’t understand and never had
I haven’t seen the voting results, but I’d venture to guess that the
factionalization of the scene produced no consensus with diehards voting for
their favorites. And, since none of the other bands nominated have achieved
the success of Phish, that still left Phish as the band with the most common
listeners and, thus, the most votes. In a scene where popularity goes a long
way, they were the only common denominator.
But if people were booing because they were supporting the scene, then why
boo Phish? Why not boo Paul Shaffer? Or Jim Breuer? Or the Tom Tom Club? Or
the Del McCoury Band? Musically, the Jammys was interesting because it
tapped an array of talent that came from outside the subculture. Tom Tom
Club, for example, predate Phish. The Del McCoury Band exist in a parallel
subculture. Marky Ramone and Jerry Only from the Ramones and the Misfits,
respectively, come from the punk scene. If people were booing because they
thought the Jammys weren’t being true to the scene, why not boo a perceived – though wholly enjoyable – carpetbagger like Les Claypool?
The Jammys were a spectacle with substance. Lake Trout with Marky Ramone and
Jerry Only were incredible, though Lake Trout – left to their own devices – were far more compelling. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club
were powerful as ever. But where was the scene? Is there even one? Or is it
just a ridiculous fabrication propagated by promoters and website editors?
Would the show have been better if the Del McCoury Band had been replaced by
the Yonder Mountain String Band?
6. People Support Their Bands
The best theory I have heard about the booing, though one I still think is
incorrect, has to do with a demented brand of resent. For many, the last
nine months have involved a search for new kicks, for new bands to go see.
People have committed to these bands.
People who listen to bands in the scene tend to be severely monomaniacal.
The reason has always seemed somewhat obvious, but still worth stating. For
people to keep going back to see more shows, a band has to provide something
different each time, new improvisation or freshly minted arrangements of
songs. With taping, there will almost always be more shows to listen to and
study than the time with which to absorb to them.
It is easy to get wrapped up in the process of analysis. When sucked into a
situation like that, the outside world is easy to forget, or at least play
high status to. This is because when one develops a language by which to
discuss a certain band’s music it automatically excludes other groups who
have not developed along a nearly parallel course.
Most strive towards the idea of forward progress in life, holding out the
hope that whatever it is that he is engaged in at the moment is quantifiably
an improvement over what came before. If a person gets enthralled with a new
band, not only does the recently acquired vocabulary supersede the previous
group (in this case, Phish), it also seems superior to it — thus, resent.
This strikes me as wrong if only because of the same argument from above in
regards to bitterness. Phishheads and jamband listeners in general tend to
be dreamers, always looking forward. Improvised music emphasizes process
over product, preparatory sketches for the infinite. There is always the
potential for a piece of music yet to be played, a show yet to happen, a
song yet to be written; the hope that it will somehow change the world
entirely. If there is a widespread resent towards Phish because people have
gotten into new bands, it is not one that is part of an active anger. People
wouldn’t go out of their way to boo the band.
Or maybe they would. Perhaps saying that Phishheads (present or former) are
not capable of resent is giving them either too much or too little credit
(depending on one’s perspective). Sketchy things happens, sketchy
people happen, Surely these people are not all innocents so divorced
from morals and scruples that they know not what they do or believe. Reports have trickled in from the west that "Trey is Wilson" shirts
have been spotted on Phil Lesh tour. What that means, in the context
of the mythology of Gamehendge and Phish tour involves far more than anyone
should have to deal with, up to and including Trey Anastasio… which is
precisely why Phish stopped playing. If people are in a state where they
will produce and purchase these shirts then – probably – it is possible for
them to harbor hatred towards Phish.
That is the unhappy and realistic ending. Please now proceed forward to the
sappy and unrealistic ending.
7. Waiting For Something To Explode
The second event in the pattern was an explosion. Tommy, Margaret, and I
stood on another sandy heap, again playing high status by discussing the
intricacies of the distinction when, suddenly, about 50 feet from us, there
was a massive crackling noise and a great flashing of light. Again, we dove
— this time to the seaward side of the mound.
I poked my head over the edge and watched. Someone had detonated a small
battery of fireworks leftover from the 4th of July. Instead of shooting up,
as one might expect, they stayed mostly on terra firma, spinning
around from their own explosive force and discharging into the sand, never
getting more than 10 feet or so from the blast site. We hadn’t even known
that there was anyone else on the beach.
It is not often, Tommy pointed out, that the body freaks out, truly freaks
out, in an impulsive physical reaction to something. It had happened to us
twice within an hour. All we could do was laugh, wiping sand from our
clothing and spitting it from our mouths. In the light, we could now see a
small group of people sitting against the fence by the dunes. They seemed to
be non-plussed by the activity. The experience was ours.
Tommy, Margaret, and I have all recently been obsessed with a band called
Neutral Milk Hotel. Genre-wise, they would probably be filed somewhere
between psychedelic and indie rock. They make gorgeously melodic pop music:
the kind of stuff that makes me want to write songs. It has struck me that
there are numerous similarities between D.I.Y. independent rock bands and
jambands (including, often, a penchant for improvisation), but there is also
an essential difference in the listening experience.
Jamband music is designed to be received and appreciated in groups. While
the experience itself is obviously highly subjective, it is also one that is
automatically shared, by sheer physical proximity, with the rest of the
crowd in the room. Indie rock exists primarily on record and the listening
experience is designed to be an intimate or even solitary one. The logical
end is my melodramatic relationship with "Automatic For The People": an
album I will not listen to with anybody else in the room on sheer principle.
The jamband scene is getting smaller. In terms of sheer numbers – groups
operating, people attending shows – it is getting larger, but the ratio of
bands to people is getting tinier by the month. Beyond issues of talent and
growth, every band out there likely has a core handful of fans. Even if this
group is just made up of a band’s immediate friends, the band is still
providing an ecstatic, transcendent experience for them. Subjectively,
that’s all that counts. In theory, if the present direction continues, it
will result in a band with but one fan: one experience.
In "Within The Context of No Context", social critic George W.S. Trow wrote
"That movement, from wonder to the wonder that a country should be so
big, to the wonder that a building could be so big, to the last, small
wonder, that a marketplace cold be so big — that was the movement of
history. Then there was a change. The direction of he movement paused, sat
silent for a moment, and reversed. From that moment, vastness was the start,
not the finish. The movement now began with the fact of two hundred million,
and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone" (43-4).
Though he was writing in 1980 about the cultural climate of the United
States, Trow might’ve been writing about the jambands scene in 2001. Until
October, things accumulated: a national history in the form of Phish (the
Clifford Ball, Big Cypress, the Halloween shows, summer tours, and other
events). With a common past, things could – and did – begin to move inwards,
towards more personal things like explosions and dreams.
The people booing at Roseland was the sound of several hundred people being
abruptly woken from a dream by an ice cream truck ringing through the
streets. People really truly like ice cream, just as they really like Phish,
but if one were to come circling through the neighborhood at six in the
morning, continuously circling, most reasonable people would go to
their window and yell for them to shut up.
People are beginning new dreams, either with new bands or off in other
directions and they’re not ready to be woken up. But dreaming is ultimately
something that people do alone, which is why the act of two people
physically sleeping together – no sex involved – is beautiful: two people
sleeping in tandem, dreaming together and entirely separately.
A whole building of people simultaneously woken up creates a kind of instant
bond. I’ve seen it in the eyes of hallmates on various mornings in college
when we were shot outside at some ungodly hour due to a malfunctioning fire
alarm. And so there was kind of a communal moaning at the Jammys.
We spent the rest of the evening waiting for something to explode or for
something else to occur, something to create the payoff after the two
previous experiences. It strikes me now, reconstructing the events on paper,
that the payoff might well have happened a week earlier, at the Jammys — a
non-linear arrangement, a dyslexic set-up. The explosion was easily the
payoff, the dreaming for which would not have been possible without the
Jesse Jarnow is pickin’ up good vibrations.

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