Featured Column: Brain TubaHippies Against the Current
San Francisco, CA
The day after getting back from Las Vegas, I drove the rental car across Los Angeles to the airport and listened to public radio. The DJ was talking about the recent series of games between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees that had taken place in New York. Fans in the Bronx, he said, had spent the weekend actually spitting on Alex Rodriguez. It struck me as kind of ridiculous. It seemed an odd way to critique a public figure, especially one whose job is, essentially, to entertain. Though, as a participatory gesture, even a cultural custom, it started to make a little bit more sense. Heckling is an age-old tradition, and certainly a totally ingrained part of professional sports.
In Las Vegas, I had seen three Phish shows. They were a blast, though I thought they weren't – on the whole – very good, the band under-rehearsed and kinda awkward. I didn't spit on them, though I did register my disgust on the cyberweb, and was pretty swiftly castigated for doing so (though also thanked by others) as if I had hocked gooey phlegm-balls at Trey Anastasio’s bobbing head. People got upset. Some because they thought the shows were great, which is fine, and others because they said that the band was above criticism. For being upset that I thought that they weren’t playing their songs with precision, I was told I was living in the past and that I should go see a symphony orchestra.
The whole debate is pretty absurd, actually. They're a goddamn rock and roll band. Bickering about whether or not they messed up "You Enjoy Myself" (they did) certainly doesn't rank in the higher levels of intellectual/cultural discourse. Even in the desensitized post-modern world of reality shows and collegiate treatises on pop culture it's just not that relevant, nor could it be made so without some serious smoke 'n' mirrors. But the fact that the debate is irrelevant is itself irrelevant precisely because the Grand Question of Whether Trey Got You Enjoy Myself Right is meaningful to some people, which is hard to take away. And it’s exactly the same reason that bad-mouthing bandmembers is considered sport in some quarters of Tent City, and utterly verboten in others. People take this shit personally. It’s why they’re comfortable being on a first-name basis with musicians they don’t actually know, except for their behavior on a concert stage.
It comes part and parcel with Phish. It was once written that one of the reasons for The Beatles success is that they were four distinct characters that audience members could latch onto, each one an archetype somehow. In a very real way, Phish tapped into this, and have stretched the increasingly soap opera-like plotline out over a 20-year career. Somewhere along the line, in the eyes of Phishheads, Phish turned from four normal dorky guys to Four Normal Dorky Guys, each of them a crystalline mirror to some portion of suburban life. And maybe somewhere along the way, they ceased being the people they were on stage (if they ever were to begin with) and started acting (or just being all-too-aware of) the roles of Trey, Fish, Mike, and Page.
Consider Jon Fishman's reluctance to sing absurd cover songs while accompanying himself on the vacuum. It was an act that Phish used as a hook for a while (and a great, unique one, at that). They put it on an album cover, and – for a while – it was a dependable part of nearly every Phish gig. But, gradually, Fishman himself grew out of it (or seemed to) or got bored with it and he stopped doing it as often. Phish’s desire to change is frequently at odds with the identity they’ve carved out for themselves. Because, here they are, on stage, picking up from the last place they left off — the next "Tweezer," the next festival, the next trip to Vegas, the next side project, the next subplot.
And maybe it comes down to the question of why one is watching the show at all. Is it because it's good or because he's been watching for so long that he doesn't know why he should stop? I think that Phish make extremely meaningful music, at least in the sense that a lot of people have invested a lot of their lives in them. If Phish broke up tomorrow for real, many of the connections made within their sphere would linger as strongly as blood families, dysfunctional and healthy, for a long time. And because I think the music Phish makes is meaningful – and not for any simple reasons like good lyrics or whatever – I think it is also meaningful to be a Phishhead (or a Deadhead or anything else). The way reggae music makes sense in Jamaica is the same way that Phish's semi-cheesy cover of Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown Party" in Las Vegas made tender emotional sense to Phishheads.
If it's meaningful to be a Phishhead, I also think it's important to be critical of the band, if only as a way to be critical of one's own self: to maybe ask himself why he's still listening to them after 10 years, if it's because they're still fantastic? Or is it because his friends do and he wants to hold onto that connection to them? Or a connection to who he was when he got into the band (who was he, anyway?)...? ...and spiraling on into all manners of fractalized personal reflection that really has very little to do with the music that Phish, as individual musicians, are making (except that, at times, they seem to be asking themselves those same questions, which really does make their music more emotional, though heartbreakingly so, when they can’t remember their old tunes, like fond memories forgotten). So we beat on, hippies against the current…