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A Taste of Free: Phish’s Ball Square Jam

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

Photo by Dave Vann

The Ball Square Jam (BSJ) performed during the spiral hours of Superball IX created new dimensions. Like and unlike the Tower Jam, Headphones Jam, Soundcheck Jams, Ambient Jam, and sundry others, the BSJ was a “meta” jam. Free from the restraints of the genre they help define, Phish talked to itself, just as Arrested Development, which was generally-free from network exec “notes,” was able to self-referentially reference itself with brazen cleverness. Phish said to itself, and to my stone-cold-sober mind on that stately New York morning, “Here are the elements of the universe, or, in other words, everything is everything.”

When musicians abandon time signatures, keys, repeated chordal patterns and other restrictions, music moves closer to God. When philosophers realize dogma and theism are no longer useful on the path to enlightenment, thought erupts. Physics explodes when scientists understand no one equation (no matter how elegant) can explain the physical reality of the universe. Even the word “universe,” with its monistic constrictions, is no longer found very useful. Society still struggles within self/other black/white and gay/straight dichotomous prisons, but the irrelevance of such notions has been clear for years.

The great pattern of history is and always has been this: things come together, and then they fall apart. A typical Phish jam falls apart and comes together several times, spending most of its time inside a danceable beat. The BSJ discarded that pattern like a training bra. It stayed apart. It stayed free. Its brilliance was it kept hinting it was going to come together. When the drumbeat became regular about halfway through, I had the feeling the balls, lights, speaker towers, USA storage shed, Ferris Wheel, pyramid, race track, wiffle ball pitch, and manufacturing instillations were all going to unify in a glorious ascendancy to jam heaven. But it never happened. The beat simply provided a synapse from one polyverse to another—a plinko polyverse where Trey plays drums.

Not to say the jam had no shape or arc. It did, but its progression cannot be related to J.S. Bach’s infamous tempered clavier. This freedom enabled Phish to poise the ultimate questions: What is possible? What is real? What is perception? And Whaaaaaaaaat!!!??? The BSJ was post-form, post-genre, and post-existentialism. However, the BSJ would not have been possible without everything that came before.

With the Alive One “Tweezer” (or perhaps earlier) Phish joined the ranks of Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Soft Machine, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream. Later jams cemented their relationship to aformality and Fellini’s 8 ½, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane. The BSJ put them in with Miles Davis’s Pangea, Agharta, and Live Evil. The BSJ was not more experimental than the Alive One “Tweezer,” but it had more blood. What was different was a lump at the center of the jam. What was different was the years of pain and triumph. Instead of being up on a stage Phish was locked in a storage shed. Instead of reading music on the faces in the crowd, they read music on the face of God.

Our universe has been falling apart for 8 billion years. Scientists struggle with equations to discover when and if it will come back together. Theologians predict it will all end on this day or that, or every third Tuesday in June. The poets wrap their lines in barbed wire, and the politicians are still selling cake. Phish, on the other hand, figured it all out last summer, and they found the only way they could share: the Ball Square Jam.

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