Dawn Has Arrived…After a Six-Year Night of Phish: A Kitchen Sink File
Dawn has arrived. Looking out the window I see the steel track of the Manhattan Express roller coaster, and a castle that in the pre-dawn glow of Adonis becomes less and less enchanting with each ray of light. Vegas belongs to the night. Its tens of thousands of neon lights congregate like a wild motorcycle gang, revving and reveling, full of debauchery and debacle, and whose very sight can titillate, torture, or terrify.
The mountains are crisp in the distance. As the sun rises, their nuances will become more and more hazy with each passing moment. I once was convinced that if you lived fully in the moment, I mean truly and purely in the moment, then yours was an eternal existence and each second, forever. I no longer believe that. For one, dawn has come when, for the last 12 hours I was wrapped in the second, standing so fully in the count that there was no such thing as seconds, only firsts. Yet, dawn is surely here. For another thing, Phish is going on hiatus. Yet, for the last six years or so, I put my life on indefinite (but definite) hold, carefully weaving consciousness through tour dates, education through three-month windows, and advancement through downtime. Time has stood still and, if it’s true that Phish is taking a break, it’s also true that I’m about to start the clock again. Six years, gone in an instant. Six years that was like one sick set, whether it was dancing to You Enjoy Myself in a theater in Montreal, Canada in the summer of 1994, or dancing to You Enjoy Myself along the tip of the Columbia River Gorge in the fall of 1999. Six years, one show.
Imagine my surprise when I looked at the clock.
I’m now in New York, New York…in Las Vegas. And I’m looking out a window, and dawn is coming, and I’m no longer dancing to You Enjoy Myself. I blink twice, the sun comes over the backs of the mountains beyond this city of dreams, and I feel myself almost sort of snap out of the black magic spell that I had been in since seeing my first show, on New Year’s Eve, 1993.
It’s going to be a hot one, today is. I can tell already. I just saw the last Phish show that I’m going to see in over a year two maybe and in the next twelve hours I have a lot planned. For one, I want to make it to the North Strip. There are roller coasters and thrill rides that are actually inside some of those old casinos. I’d like to try my hand at the tables, hopefully see the artwork at Bellagio’s, and enjoy fine dining before catching the red-eye back to Philadelphia.
Last night, as I watched and danced, danced and watched from the very top row in the Thomas And Mack, I suddenly remembered the days I first discovered Phish. The first time I heard You Enjoy Myself I was in a dorm room in Great Barrington, MA, passing around a Graffix, with a towel under the door and incense burning. It got about 45 seconds in and for the first time in my entire life I laughed joyfully and sincerely at a piece of instrumental music. I didn’t exhale until Trey said, "Shit" and then only to agree with him, out loud. I knew my life was fucked. I also knew it was going to be extraordinary. I stared at the speakers, jaw dropped and pennysacked. I had gone applejack.
I borrowed the CD immediately and listened in my room spellbound. I refused to turn it off as I made love to a girl I had been seeing. She asked. I said no way. The song that played as we engaged was Union Federal. She was freaked out. So was I but for different reasons. I fell asleep to Junta that night. I bought my own copy the next day. I bought tickets for Phish’s New Years Eve show, which they had just announced would be in Worcester. When I returned to school in January, I learned how to get on the internet, so I could subscribe to the phish.net listserv and learn all I could about this…band. If, in fact, you could belittle it by calling it a band. I was, in every sense, a Phish kid, from the moment I first heard them. From selling veggie burritos, to trading 10 shows a week, to saving every magazine clipping or newspaper review. I wouldn’t do most of these things now, but for many lifetimes, I did.
In many a sense, I still am a Phish kid. I only saw five shows in 2000 (as opposed to 42 the year before). I haven’t traded a Phish show in a few years…I have just a couple tapes from 1998 on, and my CD-R collection is worse than a newbie’s. I’ve lost touch with most of my trading buddies who would hook me up with the DAUD1 goodies. Rec.music.phish a newsgroup I used to moderate I haven’t even glanced at in months. All the same, I’ve been listening to Phish this season more than any other band…once again. For about four years they were all I could listen to. I couldn’t stand anything else for more than fifteen minutes at a time, no matter how good. I’d pop in a side of Miles Davis or MMW or Frank Zappa and even at their most ingenious moments, it’d only make me salivate for Phish. And it just about squashed all other music. Now that I knew three chords wasn’t the whole truth.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the music, not the band, that I was excited about. That’s an important distinction. THROUGH this music, somehow, I had a vision of the future. I had new aspirations that seemed to be shaped by the notes Phish were able to hit. I had rapid revelation and pronounced inspiration. I suddenly knew certain truths that I instantly put into place. I was finding myself and it was through this music, much of which was without words.
By listening to You Enjoy Myself, Harry Hood, Fluffhead, David Bowie, Split Open And Melt, Tweezer, Maze, Stash…I was developing a philosophy on life. One based on happiness, spirituality, respect, and most of all, upon sucking the gravity out of life, tied to nothing but pushing through, breaking through, lollipop daydreams and fast colored nights. And it’s true there are black holes and other undesired phenomenon in space, but those, too, become part of the jam.
As I watched and danced, danced and laughed from the very top row in the Thomas and Mack, Trey started narrating Forbin’s -> Mock and he started to talk about Gamehendge and he seemed to be wrapping advice in a clandestine device, and he proclaimed that "Gamehendge is a state of mind." Right fucking on! Of course it’s a state of mind! I have the tapes to prove it.
Anyway, at the Thomas and Mack, suddenly it all came back to me somewhere along the way I had decided that Divided Sky’s and YEMs were not just pieces of music but sermons on how to live life. And I made the unspoken pact to myself that that was how I wanted to live my life. And so here I was in Nevada, 138 shows into the adventure, and I was still taking notes, still going to shows and dancing to the rhythm. Now that Phish was taking a break, it was time for my real adventure to begin. It was time for me to start dancing to my own rhythm, but always with the MOMA Dance in mind. It was time for me to stop following the notes of Harry Hood, and start living like them.
Music had always fulfilled the important functions in my life as an adolescent escape, a sense of belonging, a sense of hope, humor, and most importantly, inspiration. With heavy metal I had been able to express my angst as a teenager of the early 90s. But not until Phish had music been able to look forward. To live not just in the present, but in the future as well.
I have been a full-time Phish devotee since December 31, 1993. Today is September 30, 2000 and it is my first day off. I’m one of the last left standing at a party my friend threw in his suite at the New York, New York (hotel) and as I look out the window at the Manhattan Express roller coaster, I know that before I have time to get another drink, the coaster will be rolling again, with cars full of eager first-in-line thrill seekers. I’m a thrill seeker myself or I wouldn’t have followed this band through god knows how many states, or how many venues, or how many troubles and triumphs. But that is all a mute issue now. Not dead just not relevant at this moment. Today the break begins. My break begins. Dawn has arrived. There is no one pinpointed moment when Vegas shuts off all of her neon lights and calls it a morning. Rather the sun creeps up while everyone is busy rolling their own dice at whatever crap shoot it is they’re pulling, or writing room numbers on the back of their matchbooks, or dropping a king’s ransom in quarters down slots for a three cherry roll, and not once is it that some place has turned their lights off, for if it were up to Vegas the night would continue forever. Rather, though, it is a slow, unstoppable process that happens every morning when the sun just swallows those neon lights, one by one, so snail-like that nobody really knows it until they look out the window like I am doing now, on my first day off, and say, "God damn! What a day it is going to be!"
Tomorrow I’ll have to figure out what to do, now that I’ve got the rest of my life back.
The date is September 30, 2002. Exactly two years have passed since I started writing this piece, and I decided to interrupt in the middle. I am now the music editor of an alternative newsweekly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I write about music for a living. For the time being, anyway. Since leaving Las Vegas, 730 days ago, I have seen well over a hundred other bands, most of which are the exact opposite of Phish. From college through my early 20s, all I listened to was Phish, give or take a few exceptions. Since Phish’s hiatus my hiatus I’ve not only heard, but actually had one-on-one conversations with members of the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Green Day, Incubus, Eve 6, Cyndi Lauper, 3LW, The Indigo Girls, LFO, Earth Wind and Fire, They Might Be Giants, Randy Travis, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Skid Row, Tower of Power, Rusted Root, and countless others. Ted Nugent told me to fuck off. A guy from the Goo Goo Dolls told me that I’m not a dork. Eddie Money told me that I rule. I’ve gone into work, picked up the phone, and heard things like "Hi Benjy, it’s Melissa Etheridge calling." Yet something inside me tells me it’s almost time to move on. Phish is coming back and perhaps that’s a sign. Another circle completed.
I’m not going to see Phish on New Year’s Eve. It would be the ninth anniversary, to the day, of my first show. I’ve often wondered what I would do when Phish announced their first show back. The answer, it turns out, is "get shut out." I could turn this piece into an article on "how to rip my fucking heart out and stomp on it" but I’ll move on. That’s not what I want you to take from reading this.
I told you already about the first time I heard You Enjoy Myself. I was in a dorm room at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA, and although I had my head in the nugget jar, I remember those exact moments. The music freaked me out washed my uffizie and drove me to firenzie.
I remember, as well, the first time I heard You Enjoy Myself live. It was at my first show, on New Years Eve, at the Worcester Centrum. I was in the fifth row, on five blotters and happily spun. It was the greatest thing I had ever heard. The previous few weeks I had spent in love with this masterpiece, listening to it time and time again, track two on Junta, Disc One. Nine minutes and 47 seconds of eternity. Live, however, eternity was revisited, expanded, revised. Each note held in it an infinite possibility. Each bar of music leading to an undetermined place, until finally the band erupted into a vocal jam that changed and morphed and shape-shifted so many times, you weren’t sure if you were hearing an overture or a complete suite. And it didn’t matter. It was eternal, and every time they played it, eternity was once again opened up, possibility reexamined, a groundhogs day but a good one, one where Bill Murray could be stuck in a wet dream as opposed to a nightmare. I saw YEM five more times that year, six times the next, and 39 times total, as it stands today. At each time, the first note, to me, was always the best, for that’s when I knew that we were in for a journey and that the journey could go anywhere, visit any place, stop by any landscape, before ending in any number of ways (tragedy and triumph). Never was the future so wide open. What excited me most, about YEM, about Phish, about being at a concert, was that repeated demonstration that life is about THIS MOMENT. Whenever Phish played a song, it wasn’t about performing something they had written, it was about catching a sonic wave that was space/time dependant. It was about being right there, right then. It propelled me forward, giving me inspiration as I drove to classes, as I traveled to shows on weekends and holidays, as I climbed a grassy ski slope in Vermont in July of ’94 and as I stepped over alligators on an Indian Reservation in Florida, December ’99.
But, if possibility and future potentials are encoded in music, so is the past. You see, when Phish returns to the stage on New Years Eve, and when they play the beginning of You Enjoy Myself, they will not only be delving into an adventure that can go any of an infinite number of ways…they will also be revisiting a place that has seen an infinite number of ways. They will be playing notes and melodies I first heard in a dorm room in ’93, music that was the soundtrack to my life and which was played in Pittsburgh in ’94 when my life was still magical, and in the Rocky Mountains in 96 a week after my father died. It’s music I played while making love, making a sandwich, making my bed, making my life a wonderball of laughter and excitement and adventure.
Although I won’t be seeing Phish at MSG on this New Years Eve, unless I run across a pair of tickets, I hope they play You Enjoy Myself that night. I, myself, have seen them play it at MSG, on New Year’s Eve, in 1995 as I held my first love’s hand, feeling for the first time that she was drifting away from me. She’s a part of my history now, although YEM continues to rage, undaunted.
And I saw YEM at the old Omni in Atlanta, Georgia, minutes before the band played a Talking Heads album in its entirety. And I saw YEM at the Spectrum in Philadelphia where I used to see Barnum and Bailey with my mom and dad. Turns out, that wasn’t the Greatest Show on Earth. But I know what is.
And I saw YEM at Deer Creek in Noblesville, Indiana, the night I took off all my clothes at the campground for late-night tandem mud-sliding. And I saw YEM on an abandoned airstrip in Maine, and I saw it in Providence, Rhode Island, and I saw it in Mountain View, California, and I played it in the living room the day I moved into my first apartment, and I played it in the car when I moved back home, and I played it on a walkman as I overlooked the valleys, and I played it in my soul as I climbed up Mt. Icculus. That song has history. And every time they play it, every thing that has happened to me over the past nine years while that song is playing, whether it was in my home or at a live concert, is embedded in each note. And when they launch into it, all of those memories are opened up again, and along with them, there’s still room for more. It’s only when there’s not, that I’ll have to worry.
What will happen when Phish return, I do not know. Will they return? Where will I be when they return? Will I be back in school, with a backpack full of love letters and a notebook full of doodle? Will I have kids? A mortgage? An SUV? Will I have a picket fence or will I still be free? Will I have a kitchen counter sprawled with bills and a note that says I should stop by the dry cleaners? Will the people I know now be the people I knew then? Will I have arrived at where I’m headed, or will there be a change of plans? Will I be on my way out the door when that Schvice arrives, or will someone call me with the news? Will I be in an office on a computer looking at spreadsheets when I get the e-mail from Phish News? I don’t know. For now, I’m in a hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada, listening to YEM again, hours after seeing my last Phish show before the band goes on hiatus. And dawn has arrived.
Check out some of Benjy Eisen’s other Kitchen Sink Files, essays on being a Phish fanboy. The author would like you to know that he'll gladly pay cash for your New Year's extra: firstname.lastname@example.org.