The Phishbowl, Then and Now
Listening to Phish on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden, I realized the music hasn’t
really changed that much since the hiatus. But we have.
Amidst the joy, I detected a palpable tinge of sadness and worldliness in the big Manhattan room, one that I didn’t recall from before. I thought about what the city of New York had endured; I remembered the cancelled Oysterhead show that was scheduled for September 14, 2001 and the slain fan whose New York Times eulogy spoke of how he was a Phish "weekend warrior" (Round Room was dedicated to him). I remembered Trey making a statement sometime after 9/11 about how the answer to terrorism was not more war. "Time Loves a Hero" made me think not just of the year passing, but about the idea of heroes. I felt an
undercurrent of frustration and an edge of anger in the song. Walls of The Cave, with its epic references to graves, falling rocks, and the names of those we couldn’t save, underscored the gravity of the occasion.
Later that week in Hampton, the area, a military and naval stronghold, was bustling with preparations for war. The celebrations taking place at the Coliseum and at the after-parties seemed to reflect a jubilant and peaceful celebration of peace and love, ironically just miles away from dead-serious preparations for a foreign invasion. It seemed to me that both New York and Hampton seemed fitting places for a cosmic punch of love and music (as if the two were separable) against a recent backdrop of so much grief, hand-wringing and war-mongering.
The aftermath of the Holiday Run and the preamble to the February shows highlighted other ways in which we’ve changed: digital technology has altered the landscape of our fan culture – gone are the trips to the post office and the fat mail order packages stuffed with little notes and pictures to sweeten your luck in scoring tickets. Instead, friends and family are invited to share in your gamble by "lending" you their credit card numbers to help your odds against a random Web lottery. Tapers, once the vanguards and enablers
of the Phish Home Listener, have now been challenged in their supremacy by the wide availability of LivePhish soundboards. Mail "blank and postage" trades are being replaced by FTP sites and peer-to-peer file transfers.
During the shows, Phish’s security staff, once keen to catch the illegal FOB "front-of-board" audience tapers, are now diligently going after video cameras instead of mikes, as bootleg VCD and DVD show production starts to roll into high gear. Meanwhile, at home, kids are watching boards and
websites during the show as each song title is posted from the show via Palm and SMS messaging.
Imminent war and a drastically changed economy have made us more sober about how we spend our money. Thank God, because if we were all still high-rolling, the scalpers would probably have had their way with us, as fans would have not thought as deeply about spending much more than face-value for a ticket. As it is, I think we may have them beat. But even so, I found that I was relieved to be able to make use of ride boards and haven-sharing on this tour, whereas pre-hiatus I hired limos and had suites.
In these economic hard times the lot has emerged as a completely full-on marketplace. The "wookie" and the "custie" have emerged as clear-cut stereotypes, describing fan archetypes on either end of the spectrum; the former, a dreadlocked dog-dragging vagrant, pulling shady deals, and the latter, a spoiled smug young professional or college kid with an open wallet and a closed mind. The truth is that most of us probably fall somewhere in between.
I noticed Phish couples everywhere. Kids have grown up, graduated from college, married, had children. I heard of at least a half dozen baby girls born with the name "Piper." Other fans have lost their jobs or stopped looking for employment and become drug dealers.
Traipsing though the venues in Cincinnati and Vegas, I saw more people wasted into oblivion
than I remember pre-hiatus. Ecstasy, already big before the hiatus, guarantees that a good part of the room is not listening critically to the music, but rather is "e-tarded" in indifferent bliss. Heroin and pharmaceuticals now number more frequently among the tour drugs. Cocaine in particular is proliferating for after-show hotel parties, and now even kids and wooks are doing blow. At times the excess brings the era of Roman decadence to mind as one thinks of a nation on the precipice of far-flung imperialism, denying the consequences by stuffing its face with downers and analgesics. I think of the coliseums, the Round Rooms of old, with their vomitoria (which actually means "exits" – to "disgorge" the people after the event); I think sometimes of an excessive populace, gathering for massive events, rotting the empire from within with self-indulgence and a complete lack of interest or involvement in the military and political process. Which is just as well, as the survival rate for all empires falls to zero on a long enough timeline. Whereas the music, I think, floats eternally in a parallel universe, if only our collective memory.
Maybe the music will keep getting righter and better, and the recordings clearer and sharper, as the country continues to spread its interests far and wide, as the crowds in the aisles and the lots grow thicker, and the excess relentlessly develops. I think Phish might make a fine house band for the Apocalypse. If so I’ll take rinkside seats, thank you very much, and I’ll have Freedom Fries Super Size with that.