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Published: 2004/12/31
by Jesse Jarnow

Featured Column: Brain TubaWhatever Happened To The Band of Tomorrow?

In Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Alan Moore pens a hypothetical "last issue" of Superman. The universe goes weird, time travelers start arriving to bid the Man of Steel adieu, loose plots are tied up, enemies are vanquished, and – eventually – the son of Jor-El passes through a kryptonite chamber in his Fortress of Solitude, becoming mortal. "It was finally concluded that he’d walked out powerless into the subzero wastes to freeze," Lois Lane (now Lois Elliot) says. Moore’s sympathetic and literate writing creates a legimately heartbreaking ending to a great modern myth.

About 12 hours from now, when midnight turns the calandars to 2005, Dionysian Productions – Phish's full-time management company – will legally dissolve, a business entity melting away into the blipping info-grid of American commerce as accounts change names, numbers roll over, and the stewardship of the Phish empire reverts to a smaller, tighter ship.

It will be a quiet end, though only appropriate that it's happening on New Year's Eve, the holiday where Phish made their name to the rest of the world. And, as the new numbers race through the world's computer systems, the Flaming Lips will play Madison Square Garden with Wilco, a veritable coronation after 20 years of oddball Okie art-freakery. Frontman Wayne Coyne will likely bounce around the room in a giant plexiglass ball that has been the centerpiece of the Lips' live shows this year. [Postscript: Well, he didn't. But, oh well. That doesn't erase the damn thing from existence.]

As it happens, though it's probable that Coyne himself doesn't realize it, his giant ball is a near perfect combination of two decade-old Phish stunts: their Big Ball Jams, where they would play along to the movements of four balls being passed around the audience, and their tropical hot dog journey across Boston Garden… well, as it happens, 10 years ago tonight. Whaddya know?

"Ring out the old, ring in the old!" Lester Bangs chortled in his classic "New Year's Eve," published 25 years ago this week in the Village Voice. "And older and older… you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!"

Bangs could be a bit of a bummer when he put his mind to it, eh?

If Phish was playing tonight in Miami, it's hard to say what they'd be doing. Ticking off one more year with an array of gimcracks, marching bands, and/or pansexual stilt-walkers? Would it be fully meaningful? A marking stone in a progression? Or just party-line stasis? It's either that or decay, Bangs declares, and while that's probably true from the universe's point of view, it's also something that mortals (and Supermen) wage battle against through this devil notion of progression (a word that came up time and time again in Anastasio's break-up interviews).

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow shinning at the end of every day," promised the opening number from the Progressland exhibition at the Disney Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair (the year, maybe not coincidentally, of Anastasio's birth). How very American. And, lord knows, Phish were nothing if not American. So they willed to life hot dogs and Gamehendge Time Labs and a choir singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" and a performance crashing into the Florida dawn. Each was a notch above the last ("what comes is better than what came before," as Lou Reed put it, and as Phish themselves sung in musical costume as the Velvet Underground on Halloween 1998).

In a way, it was exactly this superpower that Phish created for themselves: to positively instill this feeling of progress in their audience — and exactly this which they seemed to surrender when they walked offstage at Coventry in August, the proverbial kryptonite (or hemlock) buried somewhere in the northern Vermont mud, as if carefully placed there some two decades before by a young Anastasio.

Progress or no, middle-aged men are inevitably destined to become caricatures of their younger selves. But equally as true is the fact that 20somethings are also undoubtedly cartoonish exaggerations of who they will someday become. And if you flipped any band's career, putting the end at the beginning, and the beginning at the end, those kinds of deep genetic changes would probably make just as much sense. .

But we continue to look for progress anyway, something newer, better, more wonderful. There are probably Flaming Lips fans who think that Wayne Coyne careening around Madison Square Garden in a bubble is a crock of shit, but fuck 'em. Those fans have probably found their own new arbiters of progress anyhoo — 'cause music is like that. If a band breaks up, music doesn't end. There's always another band, always more great albums coming next season, self-damned industry or no. And maybe there's not even progress, anyway, just listeners creating narrative constellations and creation myths outta the splattered blobs of pop stardust.

In the end of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Superman settles down to an anonymous suburban life as Jordan Elliot (a good Jew or just a stranded Kryptonian?), married to the always lovely Ms. Lane, their infant son crushing coal into diamonds on the living room carpet. Whatever happened to the band of tomorrow, huh? Well, they’re out there somewhere.

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