Stuck In Normal
Late one night a few weeks ago, just before bed, the phone rang a funny ring. One of those rings that says either something really bad or something truly wonderful has happened. You know the kind. It brings pause. Do I feel lucky? Or should I let the machine pick it up, and save the moment for morning?
This particular evening, I rolled the dice. The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as my friend, Eric, then promptly asked if I was sitting down. I was, and so replied as such. Eric then proceeded to tell me that Phish had encored their Virginia Beach outing earlier that night with “Terrapin Station.”
Now, normally, I would’ve chuckled, hung up the phone, and turned off the ringer (in case Eric was drunk enough to call again). But I knew that Phish had been pulling strange covers from their collective rectum all summer (from Jane’s Addiction to Marvin Gaye)…and it was the third anniversary of Garcia’s death, after all. Then, when Eric told me who the source of his information was, I knew for sure. It was strange, but it was true.
The stranger thing was that if you’d asked me at that moment to decide how I felt about it, I couldn’t have told you.
I was born a Deadhead on March 26, 1988, on a foggy night at Hampton Coliseum. I suppose I’m not the first moon-eyed neophyte who caught the whammy when Jerry testified about being “a headlight on a northbound train.” But I still hold the moment – and the clarity of the image – sacred. Until 1993, that was my most powerful experience, musically or otherwise. Then, at one of those glorious summer sauna shows at RFK, the whammy hit again.
I was preparing to move across the country for grad school. Abandoning a comfortably vanilla career in banking, I was ready to subject myself to relative poverty in hopes of doing something I was passionate about some day. I was surrounded by naysayers…what in God’s name was I thinking? Of course, I was appropriately defiant on the outside. On the inside, I was terrified.
The RFK show was my last hurrah, my last chance to play Dead with the friends that had become my second family. Naturally, we partied like you read about, and as the second set barreled on, I caught myself wondering why the hell I’d ever leave this. After all, things weren’t so bad. I was leading a normal life. I could be happy right here for the rest of my days. Right?
Then, like a bolt from the blue, came a “Terrapin” the likes of which I’d never heard. Crystalline and pure, with not one misstep to break the silken trance. Finally, when Jerry sang the Lady’s plea to her suitors – “I will not forgive you if you will not take the chance” – it all became clear. The song unfolded for me in that moment like the epiphany it had always been, as Garcia’s graceful composition painted colors on Hunter’s urgent words to craft the mightiest elegy to the brave I could imagine. As I wept, I made a promise to myself.
I’ve been listening to Phish since 1992, and seeing them live since 1994. As a Deadhead looking for that same spark, it took me awhile to understand that I’d no right to look for it there. In the end, I learned, Phish’s real lyrics are the notes they play, and their voices are just one more instrument in a voluminous bag of tricks.
The heart in Phish’s music, if you’re willing to look, can be found in the band’s ethic. They’re as eager to please and as loyal to the source of sound as any band I’ve ever known, and they treat their fans as equals. They play with their audience rather than to them. They take risks. Big ones.
Speaking of big risks, I talked myself into listening to Phish’s version of “Terrapin” a few days after Eric’s call. And while it may fall as it climbs, and while it may overlook some of the detail in the original composition, it shines. Beautifully. I can’t imagine even the most hard-core Dead loyalist finding it anything but a fitting and heartfelt tribute to their hero. I’m glad they played it, because they meant every word.
In the end, I suppose only Hunter knows what Terrapin Station means as an idea, or where one can find it. I’ve got my own theory, though. I think Terrapin Station is the heaven of the brave. I think it’s a place of comfort, an oasis we reach when we try just a little bit harder. I think it’s the reward for the people who take the chance, for the people who laugh in the face of the odds. For the people who refuse to be stuck in normal. I know Jerry’s there now. Make no mistake – Phish has one eye on Terrapin Station.
And one day I know we’ll be there, too, if we keep on taking the chance.
Chris Bertolet is a professional writer. He lives in Los Angeles with wife Jenn and cat Tom.