Tangled up in Trey
So, I’m not afraid to admit that I still like Phish. And, by “still like,” I mean “still love” and by “still love” I mean get squeamish in that Pharmer’s Almanac kind of way when somebody or something reminds me of the first time I found “Fee” (summer camp 92) or the one time I heard “Harpua” (7/29/03, dude!). I mean, I know nobody ever liked Phish and that 65,000 people just happened to make a wrong turn into Limestone, ME, en route to an Arcade Fire show in Montreal that one August, but I was there for the genuine jamband geek out. In fact, I love Phish so much that while I clearly wish they’d come back, I don’t think they should—-at least not know. And if seeing Trey Anastasio speak at the 92nd St. Y last weekend didn’t validate that opinion, I’m not sure what will. That’s not saying I didn’t have an absolute blast reminiscing about that one time in the lot (hell, I haven’t held a piss that long since Hampton ’03), but sometimes people just need to take a break and truly find themselves. Which reminds me, I haven’t updated this here column for a few months (though my nocturnal reflections seem to have crept into Relix’s Cold Turkey podcast and my typo-plagued Greenhaus Effect blog. So, for the two people who have been eagerly clicking on my column for the past six months waiting for an update (sorry mom and dad), there is my dog ate the homework excuse. But, along with a democratic congress, the Greenhaus Effect is back (at least until Relix’s monthly production schedule picks up in a few weeks).
Below is a review/mini-essay I wrote for Relix and our recently relaunched homepage. Though it is clearly about Trey, it is also a snapshot of my mind on this snowy February morning.
92nd Street Y, New York, NY
February 7, 2007
Though I wasn’t there at the time, I give Jerry Garcia credit for popularizing the character of the silent rock star; the rare arena-size artist who is silent between songs and speaks solely through his music. For most of the rock-loving world, it is a foreign concept and one more rooted in stage fright or pretension than intimacy. But for Garica and his disciples, it made perfect sense. After all, a Grateful Dead show is more about a collective musical experience than observing an entertainer on a pedestal and that basic principle has, almost exclusively, defined each and every jamband since the mid-1960s.
Phish clearly embraced this philosophy and meshed it with David Byrne’s theory that “singing is a trick to get people to listen to music longer than they would.” At the beginning, Phish’s lyrics didn’t make much sense and certainly didn’t shed much light on how any band member was feeling at any particular point. Since the group rarely talked onstage and, until the media found them in the wake of Billy Breathes, rarely gave interviews, a secret language was created and nonsensical ideas took on cultural significance (to the extent that riding around in a hotdog on New Year’s Eve could be considered a generation’s defining moment). But, somewhere along the way, the silence began to crack to the point where, now, I’m more interested in hearing what Trey Anastasio has to say than what he wants to play.
So it made as much sense as, well, anything in Jam Nation’s strange post-Phish state that veteran Rolling Stone/Relix scribe Anthony DeCurtis was asked to interview Anastasio at New York’s 92nd St. Y as part of the same lecture series which featured Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart (at the same time both a Yoga lesson and a Jewish cooking class were taking place elsewhere in the Y’s educational center). What began as another softball but still cerebral way for Anastasio to justify Phish’s breakup and explore his increasingly spotty solo work ended up blossoming into something of a self-confessional after Anastasio was arrested in Whitehall, NY last December (in case you’ve been under a rock or on Arcade Fire tour for the past few weeks). In a bold move, Anastasio decided to let DeCurtis conduct his interview anyway, persuading a few hundred Phish-heads to (temporally) stop posting his mugshot on each other’s MySpace pages and venture further above 14th Street than any self-respecting New York scenester would otherwise find appropriate.
Like many, I was initially skeptical whether Anastasio would even address his recent “incident” and, indeed, the mood fell squarely between a Narcotics Anonymous confession and a public trial. Dressed in a dapper but uncomfortable brown suit and nervously twitching his thumbs like a college student about to enter a job interview (or, better yet, interview a member of Phish), the frail character placed on display felt nothing like the mythic figure who once commanded 80,000 fans with a single pause during “Divided Sky.” His mood was eerily reminiscent of the first time I saw Anastasio post-Coventry, playing with the Vermont Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I remember hearing him sing the line “inside my flock of words something went wrong” how personal his songs had become and, in a scene driven almost exclusively by band-audience interaction, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. But, ever the hard-nosed journalist, DeCurtis held no punches back. After introducing Anastasio, DeCurtis joked that it was good to see him “without a series of numbers across his chest,” to which Anastasio responded, “I see you saw me watching the Super Bowl this weekend.” A Journalism 101 trick, likely approved by Anastasio’s management, his introduction simultaneously lightened the mood and assured those in attendance that, indeed, this interview was no joke. It also set the ball squarely in Anastasio’s court, allowing him to deal with his taboo issues on his own turf. While the former Phish guitarist was unable to go into specifics regarding his actual arrest due for legal reasons, he admitted that he is an addict and is currently seeking help. Confirming numerous online reports, Anastasio also mentioned that he “thanked the officer who arrested him.” The guitarist remarked that after Phish, he felt like he could confront his problems on his own and that his recent experience made him finally realize that he needs help.
Throughout the night, Anastasio touched on a number of sensitive subjects: He admitted to being in rehab and talked about feeling distant from his friends and family (and fans, as one loud audience member reminded him). He also discussed Phish (remember them?) and the great music they created until the very end. He apparently finds it difficult to communicate with Jon Fishman musically in Phish’s wake. At one particularly edgy moment, he discussed the roots of his addiction and, when asked why his friends didn’t confront him about his problems, Anastasio commented that he realized he “employed all [his] friends.” Like the Grateful Dead before them, Anastasio said that the enormity of the group’s organizationwhich at its peak employed almost 70 individualswas a huge burden to carry. He cited Big Cypress as Phish’s peak and, without referencing Coventry, joked that “everything went right it didn’t rain and there was no mud.” When pushed about the roots of his drug use, Anastasio laughed and said, “I just did whatever Page told me to do” (a joke McConnell will hopefully address in greater depth during his upcoming press junket).
Anastasio also touched on some other intriguing themes, including the possibility of a Phish reunion. Though he stated that McConnell is tied up working on his first solo album and that Mike Gordon is taking a year off from touring, Anastasio said “that if he ever found himself onstage with Phish again, he would be the happiest man in the room.” During one particularly edgy moment, Anastasio confessed that he felt Gordon, who is known for his interaction with his fans, felt distant from the rest of Phish near the end and that they are closer in the post-Phish era than in the band’s final days.
He also talked about the roots of the modern jamband scene, which he cited as a reaction to 1980s pop-culture. His comment felt akin to the thesis of an interdisciplinary seminar. If Phish had stayed around for a few short years longer, would the group be able to survive indie-rock, the direct descendent of those flashy, stylized 1980s sound? Would they embrace it or would they have prevented it? If new millennium music resembles 1980s MTV pop, is that because Bush’s policies are strangely reminiscent of Reagan’s? Does Phish flying around in a hot dog symbolize Clinton’s carefree 90s and, seriously, isn’t Cheney at least semi-responsible for Phish’s breakup?
When he wasn’t making cultural parallels, Anastasio dotted his responses with insider references only the Pharmer’s Almanac faithful truly understood: comments about his trip with Fishman to Europe in ’85 where he wrote “You Enjoy Myself” (apparently they slept naked on the beach, but nothing happened’), references to Tom Marshall and Marc Daubert, and, of course, Joe Russo. And, like any good Phish show, the crowd knew exactly when and how to react to each moment, unanimously cheering at the mention of Big Cypress and giggling when Anastasio stumbled over his thoughts (in the same lighthearted way we once smiled when he fumbled the words to “Cavern”). Indeed, “Phish-speak” is far from a dead language, but, by his own admission, Anastasio hasn’t always spent time honing his skills. During the course of his interview, he admitted that 70 Volt Parade failed because he tried too hard to chart its course and that Jeff Sipe, more than anyone, has helped make his new project a greater success.
DeCurtis held the evening together with artful precision, knowing when to lighten the mood and when to go for the gold (interviewing is much like giving a massage, first you have to gently relax the muscle before applying greater pressure). At times he read Anastasio’s selections from a Guitar World interview conducted during the group’s final tour (a more successful stab at the same technique Todd Phillips employed during Bittersweet Motel) and at times he rephrased fan questions in an attempt to tap into that secret language. The rock-scribe’s greatest skill has always been “the interview” and, over the years, he’s managed to pry some pretty revealing secrets out of some pretty secretive artists (see his interview with Jay Farrar in the September/October 2005 issue of Relix). His book, In Other Words, is a perfect example of why the Q and A article is the most direct way to communicate with a musician off the stage.
At times he respected his role as well and stayed away from Pandora’s Box, allowing Anastasio to opt by with the “I’m in rehab, so I’m all better route.” But, in general, his intentions were on track. The evening’s final question discussed playing with Phil Lesh, a collaboration Anastasio plans to revisit in the near future. He cited Lesh’s strong family ties as an inspiration, (a comment which drew a collective yawn), and discussed playing with him at Vegoose, remarking that “he played in the Grateful Dead they invented this type of music” (a comment which drew a collective hoot-and-holler).
The night also included a few acoustic songs, chosen for their revealing lyrics: Shine’s “Wherever You Find It,” Bar 17’s “Case of Ice and Snow” and Round Room’s “Pebbles and Marbles.” In the end these songs, especially “Wherever You Find It,” served as the evidence Anastasio needed to win his trial (he should seriously think about touring the country as a public speaker or acoustic act in the near future). Indeed, rock-star allusions aside, Trey Anastasio built his audience silently through music and ultimately that connection is what will bring back his fans.
Mike Greenhaus is Jambands.com’s senior editor and Relix Magazine’s staff editor. He stores his typos at www.greenhauseffect.com. If you have an extra Arcade Fire ticket for him he will gladly hook you up with a free subscription.