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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2002/01/22
by John Zinkand

Flashback to an Epic New Year

As 2001 comes to a close, we begin a brand new journey into the unknown. Like many readers, Ive been checking out the many reviews of all the great New Years Eve shows that happened across the country just a few weeks ago. New Years Eve shows and runs of shows have been very important to music fans for a long time because they provide that chance for something special. During New Years Eve shows anything can happen. Maybe the band will cover an entire album, maybe theyll dress up in strange costumes, maybe there will be fireworks, floats, confetti or some other colorful display. Years end is when a live musical act usually pulls a rabbit from their hat in attempt to astonish, amaze, and entertain the fans that have helped them so much along the way. During this time of reflection, I find myself thinking back to great New Years shows past. One of the craziest musical adventures I have ever been on was during the Phish New Years run of 1993-1994.
The four shows that made up Phishs annual New Years run were some of the most promising shows of the year. They offered a concentration of shows that promised a wide song selection, few repeats, and something special. Phish shows always offered the chance that one would see or hear something totally outlandish or special, but the New Years run of shows virtually guaranteed it. If you saw all four shows, you WOULD see something very special. Little did we know just how special this run of shows would be for us.
I met up with all my friends at my girlfriends house in Washington, D.C. Her parents just happened to live in the city that would host Phishs first show of the run. We all got there, but we definitely grumbled about the difficulty. There was a massive cold front that swept over the east coast just as we were to start our mini-tour. When we got to Bender Arena at American University, there was quite a bit of snow on the ground and the temperature was very cold. It couldnt have been more than twenty degrees outside. Suddenly, what we thought would be a great chance to grab awesome seats turned into a struggle to maintain warmth and a space in line simultaneously. The first show of the run offered up the semi-rare opportunity to see a general admission Phish show and we were psyched. All we had to do was hang out in line all day and we would secure great spots on the floor right up near the front.
The hours sure do drag on when your feet are numb! We waited outside the venue in the long line that wrapped around the building and through what seemed to be a little wind tunnel. The biting cold drove itself right through the thin leather that made up my sneakers and made short work of my thin cotton socks. I might as well have been standing there in bare feet. All of my friends were whining and complaining as the time slowly crawled by. At one point we took turns going into a little Mail Center where the woman working was nice enough to let a few kids in at a time to thaw out a little. At the end of the multiple hour wait, though, we were all close to delirious with coldness. By the time the line was moving it was more about getting inside than grabbing a good seat. We just wanted to be someplace warm!
As we got to the front of the line and were close to entering the venue we noticed a pretty serious bottle neck. Whats going on? we thought. Weve waited so long, whats the big hold up at the actual gate? We found out what was taking so long, alright! There were cops doing thorough searches of each and every person that came into the venue. We were then told that smoking was not allowed and that all cigarettes had to be thrown away or put in your car – they would not be permitted inside – and if you returned to your car, you had to go to the end of the line. Of course we were all stupid kids so we all smoked and a pack of cigarettes was not something we just threw away in those days. They were worth a lot of money, goddamnit! We were pretty pissed off as we tossed our smokes into the trash can that was overflowing with cigarette packs. It just really angered me that they couldnt have walked up and down the line to tell us this before we were just about to go inside. No one in their right mind was going to go to their car to put their smokes away after nearly freezing to death waiting in line for all those hours. This was not unusual, though, as Phish fans were seen as sub-human dirty college kids that didnt deserve the same rights as other, better conforming, people.
We tried to leave the bad vibes at the gate as we walked into the venue. We were buzzing with anticipation as to whether or not the band would bust out Peaches En Regalia in honor of Frank Zappas recent passing. When we turned the corner and could see the stage we gasped. The whole thing was decked out like a giant Phish Tank. The four corners of the tank were clearly marked on the four corners of the stage. There were various seaweeds and other giant colorful plant life springing up here and there from the surface of the stage. There was one of those little sunken treasure chests one usually finds in a home aquarium and giant clam in the middle of the stage. The top of the tank was marked and there were day glow painted fish hanging on wires from the lights and scaffolding. The little fish were set up so they could swim back and forth while the band played.
The show started off with Peaches En Regalia and we all felt very knowledgeable for having called the tune so easily. We patted ourselves on the back quite profusely. The rest of the show was solid, but certainly nothing spectacular. The most notable other song being the second set closer of the AC/DC cover Highway to Hell. Did the band know something we didnt know? Most of the time I felt like I was just trying to cope with the presence of this incredible Phish Tank stage setup that had everyone in attendance buzzing. As we filed out of the venue at the end of the show, we were very excited for the next three nights of music. The return of Peaches En Regalia and this crazy stage setup were tantalizing treats and we hoped that we were only now scratching the surface. The serious music and adventure lay just ahead.
We woke up tired and sore from our various sleeping spots on couches and floors. After some coffee, though, we felt refreshed and ready to embark on the longest driving segment of the tour. Upon making our way up and out of the basement that we had crashed in, we looked out the window to see the steady snow falling. There were already four to six inches on the ground, too. We knew that we had better get started on our trip right away, especially since it was almost 10:00am already. We had about a six hour drive in front of us if it were a sunny day with no traffic.which it wasnt. After fielding the requisite objections from my girlfriends mom about driving so far in the dangerous and snowy conditions just to see a couple concerts, we headed out.
Things didnt start well as we headed in the wrong direction in the confusingly snowbound city of D.C. When we finally figured out that we were going the wrong way, we had already added another forty minutes to the trip. By the time we got onto the highway it was pretty close to 11:30am. I felt bad for the carload of our friends that followed. Our car was supposed to know the way and here we were adding extra time to the trip. That was a long hard drive. The snow did taper off in between D.C. and New York City, but bad decisions were made which hurled us into some bad luck.
Somewhere along the way at some random convenience plaza, a counsel was held to determine the quickest route to New Haven. Some argued that going around the city would be the best route. This was countered by the argument that we may get lost in the multiple highway changes necessary to complete this little known route. In our stony, right on, simple view, we hastily decided that we should take the most direct route. We decided to drive right through New York City.
Dude. What a mistake. I thought I had seen traffic before. Ha! We hit the City right around 4pm as the snow storm rolled in. There were cars creeping, there were cars flying by in the shoulder. Traffic sped up then abruptly slowed down. Some cars slid lightly as the snow began to accumulate. At one point we looked over to the side of the six lane highway to see our friends parked with their hood open as they inspected their broken down car. We felt helpless as we tried to get over there in time to stop and help them out, but the many lanes, chaotic traffic, and bad weather made it impossible. By the time we could have pulled to the side there was no more shoulder We hoped for the best for them, but had to continue North if we wanted to make the show.
We later found out that one of the hoses in their car had ruptured. In a valiant effort, they had bound the hole initially with a tube sock and a rubber band, not glue and rubber bands. This was eventually replaced with a tin can and duct tape. It held together just long enough to get the car to the show and then to Worcester, where we had our apartment at college. I think Icculus must have been looking down on them and helped out just a little bit.
The traffic was slow and thick all the way to the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Our trip had been a very long and stressful one, so there was much elation as we spied the venue off to our right. All we had to do was get off at the next exit and wed be there, we thought. Thats not quite how it worked, however. As soon as we saw the venue we thought that we would be there in mere minutes and decided to celebrate by ingesting a hit or two of mescaline each. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake.
It took us another hour and a half to get to the actual venue. Everyone was apparently delayed by the weather and we were all arriving at the same time..late. We finally parked on the top level of the parking garage at about the scheduled show time. Next was the hustle down to the will-call line. When we got to the will-call area we saw that there were only two windows open. Since everyone got there at the same time and the show was just about to start, the scene was charged, to say the least. It was basically a mob scene as people struggled to get their tickets and make it inside before the start of the show. There was no real line, just a throbbing mass of waving, yelling, anxious people. They were packed in tightly and all squirming to get to the window. We sent my girlfriend into the foray since she was the smallest and could weasel into the cracks while using her gentle feminine wiles to get to the front of the line quickly and secure our tickets.
Keep in mind that the mescaline had kicked in full force by now. I spotted my girlfriends bugging eyes peaking out behind someones shoulder and she looked pretty tweaked. I cant imagine being in that mass of people under those circumstances. She had to deal with it all and then talk to the ticket lady. Yikes.
When she finally emerged with tickets in hand, she was visibly shaken from the experience. We all thanked her as we walked into the venue and then heard that the band had already started the first song of the set, Runaway Jim. I was so parched that I needed something to drink. It was very difficult dealing with people while the mescaline was taking hold of my brain. I labored to get the two singles from my pocket up onto the bright red counter. The colors were very vibrant everywhere and the intimidating woman who was helping me seemed to look though me. She slid my change, two quarters, across the deep red counter and they turned into two smeared silver lines. I gawked for a second and then slid the two quarters around a little more to watch the trails. Then I finally grabbed my Coke. Thanks, I said as I smiled strangely and walked back to my friends.
We enjoyed the second consecutive performance of Peaches En Regalia after missing almost all of the first tune. The rest of the first set was very average. The second set, however, brought some pretty sick stuff. An intensely jammed Maze opened the set and established a dark and ominous tone. The band then worked the set into something big with Fluffhead, Antelope, Contact, BBFCFM>Walk Away. After that Fishman talked about his haircut and sang If I Only Had a Brain from The Wizard of Oz. The set was definitely a twisted affair that left us reeling and still zooming pretty hard on mescaline as it ended. Now for the next leg of the journey- A two and a half hour drive to Worcester and our warm safe apartment. Unfortunately, the drive from New Haven to Worcester never seemed so far.
We trudged back to our car, along with the rest of the cattle being led out, then made our way up the stairs and finally got to the very top floor of the garage where we had parked our car. We were greeted by whiteness. Not flurries, not light snow, these were white out conditions. Serious snow. As college schlubs, we didnt have any money or credit cards, either, so staying at a motel in New Haven never even crossed our feeble minds. As we sat in our car for a few minutes, it became apparent that we werent going to be going anywhere for quite some time. I walked down the stairs a few floors and saw that the entire parking garage was in a state of confusion. A bunch of kids with heads full of psychedelics trying to drive out of a garage into a blizzard at night is not a very organized thing.
We hung out and tried to play it cool. Puffing a bowl with a neighbor or talking about the show with a friend. I made the rounds to check on the traffic flow progress and returned regularly to warm up in the car and listen to tunes. All the while the snow fell and fell. There was at least a foot of new snow on the ground by the end of the show and now we had been waiting for another hour or two. It was getting very deep and things started to seem hopeless. How would we ever be able make it safely to Worcester in this weather at this time of night? Our discussions turned to the danger involved in being on the roads in conditions like these. Just then we noticed that we were in line behind a hearse. The driver had just opened his door and gotten out. He was all bundled up in a hat, scarf, and a coat as he trudged his way through the snow and winds to the back of his hearse, a grimace on his face. He seemed to be writing something in the snow on the window with his gloved finger. As he walked slowly back to the drivers seat of his dark vehicle, we saw that he had plainly written Death. Nope, things werent looking so good.
Just as almost all hope had slipped away, the traffic began to move. As we descended we discovered what part of the hold up had been. The only way out of the garage was to drive down what we lovingly dubbed the spiral of death. It was a very tight spiral exit ramp that had a steep grade. It was outside, however, so it was packed with snow and ice making it very treacherous. We skidded and slid all the way down barely missing slamming into the concrete sides several times. When we finally drove out onto the streets of New Haven, we could see that much more than a foot of snow had fallen since we arrived there so long ago. It was 1:00am and we had a long way to go.
The drive north was a psychedelic terror filled blur, for the most part. I remember stopping to get gas and barely being able to drive in and out of the gas station without getting stuck in the snow. Once back on the road, the highways had about a foot of compacted snow on them and absolutely no traction. I was veering widely back and forth across the whole road as there were no visible lines to guide us. If another car came up from behind or we approached another car we just moved to one side to let the other pass. I had thoughts about how it would be hard to stay warm after we crashed into the woods on the side of the road, which I had determined was pretty much a sure thing. It was painstakingly slow and scary work, and I was the lucky Cowboy Neal at the wheel the entire way.
Suddenly I saw something bizarre up ahead. There were rows of yellow and red blinking lights that covered the entire space of the road. Was this a spaceship? Whatever it was it was big! The entire road was covered by these blinking yellow and red lights. I quickly alerted all the passengers in the back since I had a sleeper next to me (yes, somehow the guy in the passenger seat slept through all of this!). Everyone exclaimed at how strange and bizarre the lights and presence of this unknown entity were. What the hell was going on? Were we in the Twilight Zone? No, it seems we were all just still firmly planted in the mescaline zone. We eventually recognized that we were slowly approaching a line of plows and salt trucks that were attempting to clean the roads. They were lined up in a long row and had bright flashing safety lights mounted on their vehicles.
Around 4:30am we rolled into Worcester. The snow had finally stopped and we could see the hefty accumulations on the roads. As we approached my apartment, we saw that the plows had been by and had worked up a three or four foot mound of crusty snow in front of our driveway. Obviously we were exhausted, so I decided to pick up some speed and just ram my car as far through the pile of snow and into our driveway as we could and then deal with it all later. It worked well enough as the end of the car was now just barely completely off the street and sitting safely in our driveway. I welled up with tears in the wake of such a harrowing experience and also with the sheer joy of having made it alive and relatively unscathed. I walked upstairs to my room and kissed the floor. Then we all crashed out in an attempt to rally some energy for the drive up to Portland, ME. We had to go in just a few short hours.
There isnt much to say about the two hour drive up to Maine. It went by quickly, although we were all pretty tired. There was no snow at all and the sun was shining brightly as we began the short trip. When we got to Portland it was cold. Very, very cold. It made the cold we had dealt with for hours while in D.C. seem warm in comparison. After literally chilling out in line, we marched into the Civic Arena and grabbed a seat above the floor. The seats we found were perfect. We were up on the side pretty close to Fishman and from our vantage point we thoroughly enjoyed what some people believe to be one of the best shows ever performed. The Phish Tank stage setup was there yet again as a backdrop for a nearly flawless show that included a ripping David Bowie first set opener, a classic Col. Forbin, and a killer second set with tunes like McGrupp, Punch You in the Eye, and Slave. If you dont have a copy of this epic show, try to get your hands on one. There are some nice soundboards of it out there.
I have no memory of our return, but the final night of the run was happening at our home base of Worcester, MA and we were totally psyched. We had all scored tickets in either the first or second row by skipping classes to wait in line and get bracelets. I had stashed away an eighth of mushrooms that I had promised a friend I would split with him. We had enjoyed quite an adventure already and it was all culminating in our own town. This provided us with the convenient opportunity to rage and party in our apartment with lots of friends before and after the show. We had friends and friends of friends staying with us. My sister was there and some people I vaguely recognized from tour. There were also some old acquaintances from high school there. It was just a crazy scene with lots of random folks. We started partying early and someone cracked open some homebrew stout which sprayed all over the wall. No one seemed to mind, however, and everyone just kept on with the imbibing and wackiness. We were truly having a great time!
When it was finally time to go to the show, I quickly ingested my half of the mushrooms since I knew I had given the other half to my friend already. It turns out that I only thought I had given him his half and, in fact, that I had taken the entire bag myself. It was looking like I would be having another crazy evening. There was a weird feeling from the start because I knew that I had taken quite a lot. I also felt badly that I had promised my friend half and then accidentally taken them all, leaving him with nothing.
We struggled into the venue after a wait that took much too long and came in about half way through the first set. By the time we got to our seats directly in front of Fishman in the second row, things were getting pretty crazy for me. The waves of freaky feelings were lapping over me in cooperation with the intense and extremely loud music. We were only a few feet from some of the speakers and were getting insanely loud sound. The I Didnt Know in the first set felt like it was sung for me specifically as I felt that far gone and then some on this night. They ended up the set with Antelope and I got pretty lost in the sick jam. During the second set things became a struggle for me. I felt as if my sanity was slipping away with each new song the band delved into. When the set ended up with the crazy vocal jam that punctuates You Enjoy Myself, I was pretty wigged out.
Thats when the band took it up a notch on the bizarre scale. Trey said that they would be back and that he hoped we would be back when they returned. Then the band all put on scuba suits which seemed strangely fitting since they were performing from inside a giant aquarium. Then the speakers started pulsing out repetitive low sounds that swelled slowly and built up more and more. From my space on the floor in the second row, I could see the band members in their scuba gear climbing up through the scaffolding and eventually climbing up to the rafters and ceiling of the building. I thought I was losing all my shit. Was Phish really climbing around the ceiling of the Centrum in scuba suits?? The pulsing bass over the speakers intensified my amazement and confusion. What the Hell was happening? I felt like I might pass out when my girlfriend returned with a refreshing beverage. Then I could hear the band talking as they slowly descended from the ceiling. There was a splashing sound as they were lowered back into the giant Phish Tank stage setup. The giant clam began to smoke and light poured out the edges of its mouth as it began the countdown. It opened up at the stroke of the New Year and shot confetti all over the place. Giant smoke-filled balloons fell down from the ceiling and people swung them around and tried to pop them. As the balloons popped, trippy slivers of smoke hung and oozed in the air for a few seconds.
The next thing I knew the band had started a sick little jam that I would later learn was the instrumental section to the tune Down With Disease. It rocked and everyone in attendance was cheering and bouncing with energy after the release of tension the band had just built up with their mind-fucking trick. The band had body doubles that did the actual climbing in the rafters, but I was totally fooled at the time. A guy dressed up as Frank Zappa came out on stage and ran around which seemed very fitting considering the Peaches theme that ran through this little tour. The third set was solid but not spectacular and we all winced at the Golgi encore. We were hoping for an encore with a little more substance and we all kind of groaned as the opening chord rang out. Page laughed at our reaction and you can hear it on the tape.
When the dust settled we found ourselves back at our apartment that was now even more packed with people. Friends of friends had invited new friends they had just met to stay and party with us through the night. People were sleeping on every inch of floor space by the time the morning came around. When it was all over I knew I had just experienced one of the best times of my life. New Years Eve is always a special time, but this youthful adventure will always stick out in my mind. Set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul, indeed!

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