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Published: 2004/08/29
by Jurgen Fauth

COVENTRY CoveragePhish is Love (And Serendipity Rocks): Coventry Stories

It will take a while before I can make sense of the epic week that's behind us, but let me try summing it up like this: if Coventry was possible, anything is possible. Our convoluted and entirely unbelievable story will follow after a desperately necessary bath and a nap on fresh, clean sheets.

Coventry Stories, I: An Entirely Unpredictable Turn of Events
So, we’ve just arrived at the end of the line, I-91, Saturday morning, when Mike’s announcement comes on the radio: he has bad news. The hurricane. Everything’s muddy. They’ve been in meetings all day, but they have no options. They’ll have to turn people away. If you’re not past the exit to route 5, you will have to turn around. We’ll make it up to you. Please comply with the police’s instructions and turn around. Please don’t abandon your cars. If you walk, you will be turned around. We’re awfully sorry.

In the car, stashed to the roof with sleeping bags, tents, tarps, coolers of Newcastle and stacks of CDs to give away, our hearts are quietly breaking in disbelief. Dan has fallen silent, Jocelyn bangs her head on the dashboard. Jurgen, surprisingly angry: "They can’t do that." Stunned faces in the miles and miles of stickered cars. Joce intuits violence. She’s worried about rioting. We want to be at Coventry, not Altamont. All around us, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is verdant and endless and beautiful.

Coventry Stories, II: Who is the Spun-Out Shorter Man by the Soundboard?
Like a surreal running joke, we keep coming across highly suspicious Danny DeVito sightings. We finally talk to somebody backstage who confirms she just had lunch with him. Danny was rocking hard all weekend long.

Coventry Stories, III: Dave and Alan
Saturday morning, 10am. We’re pulled over in the center of a tiny Vermont town, trying to use the only payphone. As a backup plan, Dan wants to reserve tickets for the movie theater simulcast in Albany, four hours south. All cell phone service is down. Tears in passing cars. Waiting for the phone, we start chatting to a local septuginarian with his arm in a cast. Jocelyn meets a tanned guy with a lizard t-shirt who, when he realizes how destroyed we are by the news, invites us to follow him. "It’s a long shot," he says, "but maybe I can help you out." He introduces himself as Dave, and he’s got a professional camera with a huge lens. His friend wears a t-shirt that says "Alan and the Alligators" and an "Alan and the Alligators" cap. The friend’s name turns out to be Alan.

We follow Dave and Alan to a secluded country inn by a stunning lake, which, according to Dan, only needs two statues to look like the Argonath. Dave tells us to stay put while he disappears into the hotel to "suss it out." Alan smokes too much. An SUV packed with desperate heads pulls up. They pour over a map, and one of the kids has a plan: "If we take 16 all the way north, right up to the border, we can walk back down this railroad track, and it should lead right into the site." Dan gives them the Lemonwheel soundcheck, and we wish them luck. The Bunny keeps repeating Mike’s announcement. A local woman pulls up to tell us that farmers are four-wheeling people close enough to walk from Orleans—if you can make it into Orleans. Alan and Dave were turned around on I-91 by state troopers with shot guns.

Half an anxious hour later, Dave comes out of the Inn. With him is Marge Minkin, a small, dark-haired woman with a wry smile. She’s Mike Gordon’s mother. Dave’s a friend of the family, and Alan’s a high school friend of Mike’s.

Coventry Stories, IV: How the Japanese Girl got in
In Japan, Phish caught on in a way it never did in Europe, even though Europe got a few more tours. Maybe it’s all the fault of 6/14/00 Fukuoka, or maybe the Japanese live in the future and have a different ear for the space funk, what do I know. Fact is, there were lots of Japanese kids at Coventry. We saw the same two girls in Great Woods and Vermont. The story we heard was that one girl (picture her with a cute frog visor and pony tails) pulled up to the roadblocks on I-91 in her rented car, and when the state trooper told her he couldn’t let her into the venue, she burst into tears: "I fly all the way from Japan! I have nowhere to go!" What was John Q. Law going to do with the wailing foreigner? He put down his shotgun and let her pass.

Coventry Stories, V: Mercury in Retrograde
Let me back up here for a second. All week, things had been slightly harder than they needed to be. In fact, over my summer travels, I’d been constantly leaving, losing, and forgetting crucial items. A partial list includes:

My Keys The Cell Phone Charger A USB Drive with Marcy’s Novel The Plug for my Air Mattress A Huge Bottle of Vitamin C My Pocket Knife My Green Card My Driver’s License My iPod Headphones

When we took off for the Great Woods shows last week, I managed to leave my tickets behind, and this added a good two hours to our trip. Jocelyn had a possible explanation: Mercury, the planet responsible for communication and travel, was in retrograde. Things wouldn’t be impossible, but they would be more difficult. Dan worried that astrology only worked as self-fulfilling prohpecy, but we witnessed accidents, traffic jams, and mishaps all the way from Astoria to Flushing to Harlem to Camden to Harlem, Flushing, Astoria, and Harlem again, to Englewood and Astoria to Cape Cod to Great Woods to Cape Cod to Great Woods to Astoria to Harlem to Camden to Hillsdale to Coventry. In Camden, in the slums behind the venue, we were pulled over by a cop who was worried we’d be killed. It was generous of him, and perhaps he knew more than we did, but although we told him we knew where we were going, he made us follow him back to the turnpike the long way around. Everywhere we went, we had to take the long way around. Yesterday, I realized that the final lost item of the summer was my sleeping bag, which is still in Dave’s van. Mercurcy was retrograding all over our asses-until we met Marge Minkin. The VIP stickers and laminated passes in her handbag would prove more powerful than the stars.

Coventry Stories, VI: Best Line Overheard During Setbreak
"...and then I became one with the corn."

Coventry Stories, VII: We Can Stage A Runaway Golfcart Marathon
Marjorie Minkin was hungry. Her partner Rich, a quiet, softspoken man who attended closely to her needs, invited us along, and with Alan, Dave, and Jenna, a lost college freshman who’d been taken in by Marge, we formed a caravan to a country club. There was frenzied cell phone activity. Marge didn’t know how to get in either; she had passes, but would she be able to get around the state troopers? She needed to get a hold of Mike. At the end of the table, we were exchanging nervous glances, trying to taste our food, and calculating the probabilities. We were hangers-on. Would Dave and Marge leave good enough alone and ditch us at the roadblocks? Could they take us in even if they wanted to? It was getting to be noon. The band was supposed to go on at five thirty. Dave said something about the show getting cancelled. How could this last thing go so wrong?

Crouching in the far corner of the dining room for better reception, Alan retrieved a voice message from Mike: he hadn’t slept all night, sounded tired, and thought Alan and Dave should go and find Marge. They were way ahead of him. The waitress, a spunky, long-legged blonde, started to chat. All the locals said the same thing: "this kinda thing never happens here." She told us the cook lived right down by the venue, and knew all the back roads. Oh really? The cook came out, winking: "If you want to get in, you’ll get in." She drew us a map of forking dirt roads. X marks the spot. "I wish I’d bought a ticket," the waitress said. "Then I could go, or sell it." Outside the panorama windows, people with white visors were teeing off. This was supposed to be Phish tour. What the fuck were we doing at a country club?

Coventry Stories, VIII: Never Thought I Would Make It This Far
Back at the Inn, we regroup. There’s no new message from Mike. While Marge and Rich get ready, Dan confesses that his stomach has been getting worse. He’s been sick since Camden, a show he enjoyed mostly from the flooded bathroom stalls, and it’s possible he has a virus, or perhaps the impending end of Phish has left him physically unstable. Either way, he doesn’t think he’s up for two days in the mud, portajohns, and the second hurricane that’s crawling up the coast and supposed to hit on Sunday. Now that we have a possible way in, he’s not sure he can do it. We try our best to convince him to come—there’s a med tent, and if things go bad, there has to be a way out—but Dan has that far-gone sick look: nothing else matters. He wants to drive down to Albany for the simulcast, where he can at least sit and where the bathrooms aren’t open sewage pits.

I feel like I’m in a war movie, and it’s the scene where I have to leave my wounded buddy behind. It’s as if Dan asked us to shoot him so the enemy won’t get him alive. We’re here with Mike’s mom, and he wants to drive four hours to see the simulcast? In the meantime, Jenna, the lost fan who was staying at the Inn, is freaking out: the boys who ditched her took her stuff, and she can’t find her ticket. Dan’s Zen about it: "Obviously, this is how it’s supposed to work out." He pulls out his ticket to give to Jenna. I feel like crying. Then Alan emerges from Jenna’s car, with her ticket in hand. Nothing’s decided after all, but Dan’s mind is made up: he’s going to Albany.

Marge and Rich are back, and with them is a pregnant woman with a husband and toddler in Phish shirt: Page’s sister. We have two VIP stickers, one for Marge’s car and one for Dave’s van, so Jocelyn and I move a tent, sleeping bags, and backpacks with bare-bones equipment from our trunk. We’ll have to leave the Newcastle and the chairs and the air mattresses and the coolers full of food behind with Dan. We’ve got the cook’s map. Marge offers Dan some homeopathic drugs for his stomach: "Don’t touch the pills." She’s a mother, and all the Phish kids are her children. Dan is going to wait at the Inn to see if we make it, and if we don’t return soon, he’ll take off for Albany. "He’s going to regret that," Dave says to me. Hugs, and we’re off.

We follow Marge’s car down country roads. We see dreadlocked guys with rubber boots on bicycles, trying to get closer. Farm houses with pitched tents in the yard. Joce shows me her crossed fingers. It looks good, but we’re obviously the two kids in the backseat, entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. Over a hill crest, we get the first glimpse of the site, off to our left. Unlike Limestone or Big Cypress, the area is a natural amphitheater, sloping upwards from the stage, which towers over tents and cornfields. Coventry was going to be the biggest city in Vermont for the weekend—but things didn’t go as planned. As we get closer, we pass increasingly dense flocks of heads carrying their gear and soldering toward the site. We don’t have room to give anybody a ride.

At the first checkpoint, Dave tries to stay close to Marge. Security waves her on, and we follow. We make it to the VIP entrance, where we’re asked to get out of the vehicles and check in.

This is where it all comes down: Jenna, Jocelyn and I wait while Marge is in line at the check-in tent, trying to get clinic bracelets for us, the lowest kind of backstage pass. Hell yes, we want clinic bracelets! A woman on a golf cart radios "Brad and Amy" to tell them Marge is here. We’re tense. Then: thumbs up. She comes with the bracelets. Because she’s worried about how far the bracelets will get us, Marge digs in her purse and pulls out two more laminates, all access for the summer tour. Minutes later, we’re in the production/backstage area, on the far side of the campgrounds, behind a fence from the main stage area. We pass the VIP camping, which is muddy and has cars stuck in it, and we’re directed to Band Family Camping. A golf cart comes our way, driven by Mike. Marge honks, he jumps off, and exchanges a few words through the window. Another golf cart passes; it’s Fishman. We turn our heads and realize that behind us, Trey’s stopped in his cart. Our anxiety gives way to thrills. There’s no doubt about it: we’re in.

At least, two of us are.

Coventry Stories, IX: I Am Glad To Be Here With You, At the End of All Things
I suspect I’m trying to be meticulous about the events leading up to Coventry because I still have no idea what actually happened there. The final chapter will remain vague.

Jocelyn and I watched the first set from behind the second relay tower, where the mud wasn’t too bad, the crowd not too dense, and the sound good. (Anybody who thought the mud was bad clearly hadn’t been to Bonnaroo.) To see Trey give away the tramps after YEM was touching, the echo of his "won’t be needing this anymore" joke at Great Woods, when he pretended to throw his guitar in the audience and got booed (which led to Fish flipping us off: "Fuck you! Just kidding…") They’re probably already up on eBay, but there was a great moment two songs later, when the tramps had made their way to the back of the audience and people were lifting them up so pretty girls could jump and dance.

Dan saw the show at the movie theater in Albany, where the usher had to remind the crowd not to throw glowsticks and assure them that he couldn’t turn it up any louder. Although we’d initially planned to give his ticket to the waitress at the country club, Rich and Marge thought better of it: Dan could get a refund, and the waitress had said something about selling the ticket. When we finally got through to Dan, his stomach was feeling better. Jocelyn convinced him to come back to Coventry. Marge, who was spending the night at the Inn, waited for him and gave another ride past the check points and his own clinic bracelet. For me, there will always be Marjorie Minkin and Mother Theresa.

The final Phish show was unbelievably intimate. All along, Trey had been trying to demystify the music, and by the time they reached Coventry, he was deconstructing the experience. In Massachusetts, they had a vote whether or not a Fish routine ruins the show. Now, they were explaining decades-old in jokes, inventing songs onstage, giving away hidden meanings in the lyrics, changing the chorus of "Wilson" ("You CAN still have fun!"), starting songs over because they’d gotten off in the wrong key, and sobbing through "Velvet Sea." They were botching tunes left and right. This was not a "show" in any meaningful sense of the word. Phish was destroying itself before our eyes—they disassembled the band, with a bunch of friends in attendance. This was no Last Waltz, this was Grderung indeed: "Flames engulf Valhalla, leaving a human world redeemed by love." Listen to the Promethean jam out of "Drowned." Listen to the "Ghost" that ends the second set: they’re subduing demons, but the final sounds are pitiful, like strangling a puppy, firmly wringing its tender neck until the legs stop kicking. Listen to the "Piper" in the third set: that’s Machine Gun Trey firing his last rounds, like a soldier going over the top, knowing he’s doomed. Or maybe that’s all bullshit, but whatever it is, it’s not a song.

In the end, the crowd’s silence was shattering. In fact, for the entire final set, there was not much dancing and hardly any cheering at all. Everybody had done their crying during the second set, when Trey cracked up, and now we just stood and watched, trying to be as much in the now as we knew how. Or maybe we just wanted them to be done already—because you can’t possibly begin to understand a thing until it’s over.

Coventry Stories, X: Goodbye, Hood
There’s so much more I haven’t told you, about Andy in his overalls and Bonita’s story of getting hit on by Timothy Leary, about the double rainbow during "Walls of the Cave," Hawking’s benevolent universe, the traveling medicine show, the disco tent and the gargoyles. About pouring Dave some absinthe, the glowstick war during "Down with Disease," the locals lined up in their trucks after the show, braving hours of concert traffic to offer kids rides back to their cars that we saw scattered on the Interstate for miles as we blasted out of there before most of them were even back to their tents.

The last thing I do want to tell you about is Saturday night: 18 hours after I woke up in Dan’s house in Hillsdale, New York, and a little more than twelve since Mike’s announcement came on the Bunny, asking us to turn around and go home, I am standing on the back of a speeding golf cart, zipping through the mud behind the fence where the crowd is waiting for the third set, buzzing with anticipation. Behind them, two hot air balloons fire and rise, and the neon lights of a Ferris wheel blink in pre-programmed patterns. Dave’s in the shotgun seat, chatting up the driver. I learn that Dave’s cousin was Abbie Hoffman, but it doesn’t really register. I’m wearing Alan’s backstage pass, the highest-ranking kind, the orange Coventry Guest laminate with the piano sticker that means access to the Page side on-stage platform.

The festival stage is looming ahead, at giant metal structure rigged with speaker banks that billow like sails. We pass a few more checkpoints, and when we get off the cart and ascend the metal staircase at the back of the stage, I feel like an astronaut on his way up the launch pad. There is the same kind of meticulous attention: energy is about to be unleashed, and if you’re in the way, you’ll get hurt. Friends of the band are on my side of the stage; family on the other. I have just enough time to take in the fact that the crowd is facing me, all the way up the slope, when the lights go down. Ascending their set of stairs, the band takes the stage. I’m still an observer; I’m in the cockpit. Trey and Mike pick up their instruments, Kuroda hits the green washes, and Phish busts into "Twist."

Most people are watching too closely, or are too intimidated by the audience to dance, but the platform is shaking anyway. I use New York subway-fu to make my way to the front edge, facing both the band and the crowd. I wonder if Dan can see me from the movie theater in Albany. A hippie chick, two shoulders shorter than me, pushes in front, dancing. She smiles and hands me something: it’s a stone, flat and sort of shaped like Vermont. Her name is Sasha, and she tells me the stone will absorb all negative energies, forever. Trey and Mike climb the rocks in front of the stage to play the last "Harry Hood." Dave is sitting on the edge of the platform, taking pictures. Sasha’s stone feels warm in my hand. The lights swirl over the crowd, and I dance.

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