Phish (aka The White Column)
In some ways, I think it might be better to leave this space blank this month.
Last week at this time, it was sunny, and I was finishing up an article for the summer tour edition of the Phish lot ‘zine Surrender To The Flow. For some reason, the day before, I’d been bitten by whatever bug makes one want to listen to the radio station at LivePhish.com. I heard the Trey Band version of ‘Undermind’ and was floored. Suddenly, I was a Phishhead again — a full-time, listen-to-Phish-non-stop Phishhead. Suddenly, I was excited for the tour, for the album, for Phish’s future.
Now, it’s another Friday afternoon. It’s about to open up into some apocalyptic rainstorm, Phish-circa-1990 are playing The Who’s "Sparks" at a full-tilt rage on my stereo, and I’m no longer awaiting Undermind with quite the same exuberance as I was last week. I’m enormously psyched to hear it, of course, but this is The End. Three months from now, there will be no more Phish. Whatever reunions may come (as they surely will eventually) at weddings and idyllic Vermont barbecues, Undermind represents the last installment of Phish in their purest form: the state of newness. There will be no more new Phish music. I can wait a little while longer to hear it.
Just as Phish’s music had reached an internal Zen over the past year where it was nearly impossible to determine if it was good or bad, their decision to disband after their August performances is neither positive nor negative. Certainly, I’m bummed. As an old friend said, the world is certainly a far lamer place without Phish. But I’m also filled with a deep sense of relief. Their decline, as great as some of the shows would have undoubtedly been, was not prolonged. Listening to old Phish music will no longer inspire a sense of dread at what the band was turning into.
There has been a lot of self-reflection in the last week by band members and fans alike — both in public (Trey Anastasio’s emotional appearance on Charlie Rose, hundreds of postings on mailing lists and web-boards) and in private (late-night emails, phone conversations with old friends). All of this has been, in some way, inspiring and cathartic. More than one person has told me of his or her internal accountings of just how many important people in his/her life were brought there – in some manner – by Phish. And I’ve listened to a lot of Phish, mostly by setting my iTunes to shuffle.
It’s probably safe to say that, even of the most devoted fans, most people who listen to Phish do so primarily not at Phish concerts. We listen at home, in the car, at friends’ houses. We listen on tapes, we listen on CDs, we listen on computers in obscure file formats that promise top-quality compression with no loss. In that sense, nothing will really change when the members of Phish go their separate ways following their shows in Vermont later this summer. Assuming we choose to do so at all, we will listen in our own private ways, far from arenas and summer sheds. We will listen not to Phish themselves, but to their body of work. The only difference is that it has now been made finite. You can’t say they didn’t warn us.
In the past week, I’ve had several really nice experiences listening to Phish’s music. In the same way, they are little different from the countless pleasures I’ve had over the past 10 years of my life listening to Phish on my own, except – maybe – I’m more aware of their worth. They are, I think, the most basic currency of Phish fans. They are simultaneously the very thing that makes one happy (the music itself) and the recognition of them is what allows Phishheads to communicate with each other.
o At a friend’s house, the Junta recording of ‘Sanity’ came on the stereo. Midway through, drummer Jon Fishman launched into his demented trombone solo. I’d forgotten that he’d even ever played trombone. I was happy to remember.
o Falling asleep the other night, I put on Anastasio’s free jazz orchestra disc, Surrender To The Air. As I drifted, my ears unraveled the strands of melody and attack, followed individual voices through the mix, tried to separate Fishman from second drummer Bob Guilloti, and enjoyed the sensation of feeling my brain turn off as I assimilated the weird improvisations into my rapidly slurring thoughts (then snapping to, tweaking out for a second, throwing the headphones off in a fit, and peaceably falling asleep almost instantly).
o When the rainstorm mentioned above finally arrived, "Reba" came on. I stood at the sweet spot between speakers, watched the drops pound down torrentially on the basketball court outside my window, and listened to the absurdly shifting chord voicings created by the individual melody lines during the composed section of the song. It was a part I hadn’t paid attention to before. It felt new.
Phish built a catalogue of astounding breadth over the past 20 years. They made a lot of really fantastic music. It will continue to surprise for as long as one cares to listen. None of that will change. And soon, after 13 more shows, it will be complete. But as surely as one starts looking for clues of dark foreboding in the Las Vegas performances from April, the past is always in motion. It’s too big to comprehend all at once, and every time you reexamine a piece, it squirms differently under the new pressures of your present-day touch. Phish will change for a long time to come and in ways we can only dream of now. For many (for me, anyway), there will definitely be added emotion invested in each listen, at least through August, and probably for a good time afterwards. But isn’t that why one listens to music to begin with? To be moved somehow?
All we can do over the next months is go in with ours ears attune, our critical judgments unclouded by nostalgia (we’ll have plenty of time for that later, dank you vedy much), our antennae wide open and twitching.