"I Didn’t Know": A Look Back at Phish New Year’s Runs Past with David Steinberg
The “Down With Disease” video recorded in part on 12/31/93
Phish returns to the road for a five-night New Year’s Run on Monday, December 27 at Worcester’s Centrum, now known as the DCU Center. The itinerary includes three nights at Madison Square Garden, featuring their first New Year’s Eve at the venue since their return from their first hiatus on December 31, 2002. Jambands.com celebrates yet another NYE run, which can be viewed via webcast for the first time in Phishtory, with a two-part conversation with David “ZZYZX” Steinberg. The Mockingbird Foundation board member (a charitable organization setup by fans to distribute funds generated from the Phish community) was on hand at the very first Phish New Year’s Eve event (12/31/89) and has been back ever since.
David Steinberg is the original unofficial Phish statistician (aka The Timer) who created the web-based resource PhishStats, which compiles numerous variations of data for each individual fan to generate their own personal song and show statistical database. His work also found an important home in The Phish Companion tomes, when he wasn’t writing a column for over twelve years at Jambands.com, offering poignant, sharp, humorous and, occasionally, controversial opinions as his latest stand criticizing Phish’s Halloween costume attests.
Steinberg earned his Master’s degree in Mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994, and is currently a computer programmer in Seattle. Part I of our discussion features his introduction into the world of Phish, and concludes with a look at the Vermont Quartet’s first gig at Madison Square Garden on December 30, 1994. Part II includes Steinberg’s commentary about the next night of that 1994 NYE run, while tracking the rest of the legendary dates along the New Year’s Eve trail and beyond through the years as we venture back with a celebratory nod towards the rich and memorable history of our beloved Phish from a legendary longtime fan’s perspective.
RR: Let’s go back to the beginning. I believe your first Phish show was October 28, 1989. Appropriately, your first song was “I Didn’t Know,” right?
DS: “I Didn’t Know” and “You Enjoy Myself” were the first two songs I saw Phish do.
RR: What was your knowledge of Phish at that point in time?
DS: I went to Bard College [Annandale-on-Hudson, New York]. At the time, they had this massive Halloween blowout party. But the school didn’t like having this big thing; Bard was a hippie school, and a lot of people were doing stuff that the school didn’t want associated with them, so they were trying to crack down on it. Phish were playing a pre-Halloween show the weekend before, and so a friend of mine was promoting that thing: “Hey, if you don’t want to go to the lame and new version of the party, here is something else you can do.” And I went mainly because of that, and mainly because I liked the opening band, which was a Bard band. I went in knowing nothing. I hadn’t heard a song. I heard people say that I would like them, and the description that “[Phish] sounded like Steely Dan covering Camper Van Beethoven.”
The entire show didn’t do that much for me. I remember during the “[Colonel] Forbin’s” just taking note of a normal song and Trey saying, “Hey, some of you might be confused right now,” and then, he started to tell the story, and then, I got confused; I was like, “Wait. What? ” because I couldn’t understand or follow the story. They closed the second set with “Harpua,” and there’s all this wackiness like Trey saying that “Poster Nutbag had jumped off the white corduroy shelf.” I thought, “What?” The whole big build up to Poster Nutbag’s name—“Poster Nutbag?! You’re going to build up for ten minutes to Poster Nutbag?” I was just blown away by that. During that whole big build up, one of the things he said was that Poster Nutbag’s name “is not fluff.” So I went to the merch booth and bought Junta because I saw “Fluffhead” was on it and thought, “It must be that song—otherwise, he wouldn’t have said it was about fluff—“Fluffhead.” And then I fell in love with “The Divided Sky” off that tape, and that’s where it all happened.
RR: And your first New Year’s Eve show was in Boston in 1989?
DS: Yes, that was the first New Year’s Eve show Phish had done.
RR: Right. A couple members of Phish [Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell] had played on New Year’s Eve as the Phones in 1986, but not Phish, per se. Did you wear formal wear to that 1989 gig? I know it was encouraged on that night.
DS: I did wear some creative formal wear. I was in this weird band when I was at Bard. Part of my performing outfit was a suit jacket with art on the back of it, and I wore that.
RR: Phish had a gradual ascent to the plateau that they would reach in the 1990s. What was it like to see them on New Year’s Eve after your first show in October?
DS: I had a bunch of new friends and we were all like “Hey, it’s a new decade; we’re going to have new bands.” At the time, it was just something fun to do because the Grateful Dead played on the other coast, and no one wanted to go all the way to California. New Year’s Eve wasn’t that big for Phish. It wasn’t that big of a deal back then. It was pretty much another show. It was a two-set show. There wasn’t any big spectacle. There were no antics or anything; it was just another show.
RR: And Trey and Page came out in formal wear, and, then, of course, Fish came out in non formal gear [top hat, g-string with tuxedo tails].
DS: Yes, some things you don’t forget [Site editor’s note: No matter how hard you might try].
RR: 12/31/90. Same venue—Boston World Trade Center Exhibition Hall. It’s a year later. You were still in college. What were you doing as a fan? Trading tapes? Going to more shows? What was the vibe like on New Year’s Eve that year?
DS: Ahhh… the 1990 New Year’s Eve. The infamous one. I know I can rant about this one.
RR: I want you to rant about this one.
DS: Chucklehead. I was trading tapes by then. The first time I remember actually hearing something outside of Bard—because Bard was right near Vermont, so there was a core group of ten, fifteen people who would go. They played at Chance [in Poughkeepsie] a lot, so tapes were starting to circulate a little bit—I do remember at a Dead show in Raleigh hearing someone playing a Phish tape, and thinking, “Oh, wow! Someone’s playing Phish!” And that was kind of exciting because it felt like an underground club, and not something that people knew about very well. It was a secret society.
New Year’s 1990. Yeah, that was the year where they didn’t announce an opening band, and suddenly Chucklehead opened and played at least as long, if not longer, than Phish. They just wouldn’t stop. They were doing these long call-and-responses like “What’s my name? Chucklehead. What’s my name? Chucklehead.” (laughter) And, oh my God…I had just seen Phish in Providence two nights before, and that show was amazing. The other thing I remember is that they go out and play a lot of the same songs, and, also, they’re huddled behind stage for the encore and the venue turns the light on them.
RR: No encore because of Chucklehead.
DS: Yeah, I’m still bitter about that. Actually, there’s a little funny story about that. I found that Chucklehead show on archive.org. Some of the things I remembered them doing, they didn’t actually do. Some of them, they actually did. I don’t remember which anymore. I wrote some rant about it on my Live Journal back when I used to have my Live Journal, and, suddenly, a year later, I got discovered, and all of these people started commenting on that—these Chucklehead fans started commenting on that Chucklehead post. It was really bizarre. There are still people that are upset that I was unhappy about Chucklehead opening for Phish. It was an interesting experience re-hearing that tape, nine or ten years after it destroyed my New Year’s Eve.
RR: When did you start taking notes and jotting down stats? Obviously, that evolved into a much larger entity onto itself in later years.
DS: It started around ’90, ’91—I was still in Bard—when I realized that this band had potential and no one was doing it. No one was being careful about taking down notes at
these early shows, and I figured I better start because this is information that people might want later. So I started keeping setlists in a notebook. I went back and found my old setlists and started transcribing them in as much detail as I could remember because I figured it was something people would want. I started timing shows and the whole sets—when the set starts; when the set ends. If you are wondering, that actually started as a joke. I got a new watch for Hanukkah in 1991 right before the New Year’s Run: “Oh, this watch has a stopwatch on it. Why don’t I time the songs?” That’s how that all started.