Phish: Skipping Diamonds In The Big Time
It is appropriate that Phish’s 30th anniversary falls in the shadow of the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. I first heard Phish’s music in fall 1988 in a dorm room at Boston College. It immediately caught my attention, as it was more complex, and (to an extent) silly, than most rock music that I’d listened to up to that point. As a fan of The Grateful Dead, I was drawn to Phish’s improvisational skill. But their lyrics were largely weird, and my willingness to open my ears, and my imagination, to them was limited. It was not until roughly a year later, in fall 1989, that I thankfully listened to some college friends, who urged me to join them at the Paradise.
A Phish concert was quite unlike any concert that I had ever seen. The guitarist and bassist seemed nerdy, though their simultaneous jumping-up-and-down and head-bobbing and facial expressions were charming. The keyboardist looked more like a student of medicine or law, than Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. And the drummer? He wore nothing but a dress and giant aviator goggles, and “played” a vacuum, emitting a “Deranged-Homeless” vibe. If someone had suggested then that Phish would sell-out Madison Square Garden within five years or so, I would have laughed. But as memorably odd that Trey, Mike, Page and Fish were to me that night, their music together was unforgettably excellent. And I could not fairly compare them with anything in my previous musical experience.
While it took some time, eventually I got “IT” and collected all of the Phish tapes that I possibly could, exponentially expanding my “tape list” in 1992-1994 in particular. The genius of Tom Marshall, Paul Languedoc, Chris Kuroda and Steve Pollak similarly took time for me to appreciate, as I saw more and more shows and listened to more and more tapes. Indeed, Phish became such an obsession in the mid-1990’s that I poured a considerable amount of whatever free time that I had, daily, into: (a) acquiring the lowest-generation tapes I could find—from the generous tapers directly, if possible—of every show that Phish had ever performed, even lining-up possible sources in advance of shows, including sources from different sets of mics and locations in the venue; (b) dubbing tapes for people, both through “tape offers” to Rec.Music.Phish, or otherwise, such as by responding to random “grovels”; (c) revising my own Phish setlists file, that I had started to compile after copying and pasting the early 1994 Phish.Net version into a “.txt” file; (d) saving money to eventually spend it to attend as many Phish shows as I possibly could; and (e) listening to and thinking about the band’s music, and reading and writing about it ad nauseum on Rec.Music.Phish, while making friends worldwide in the process.
I became utterly devoted to the band and its music. I was a “True Believer.” I met many of those I love through Phish’s music, including my wife. I saw Phish on nearly every vacation. I even wrote the band a number of letters, because Mike graciously took the time to answer most of the questions that I had via postcards back then. I wanted to spread Phish’s music as far and wide as possible, because time and time again it had given me such awe-inspiring JOY that I had to SHARE IT WITH EVERYONE and anyone who would listen. And the best thing was, I wasn’t alone! There were thousands of other fans like me who zealously spread the music, sharing it with their friends, their families, their co-workers, and total strangers, even “miracling” tapes on people before, during, and after shows— EVERYWHERE.
And why? Because Phish is among the most spectacular rock bands in history. Even setting aside their legendarily-outstanding musicianship (which has justifiably placed them, together, as a group, among the best), they have performed an enormous number of sets of “must-hear” music, including a concert at the turn of the millennium that is among the greatest concerts in the history of recorded music. For three decades, Phish’s music (and generous pro-taping policy) has inspired their fans to spread and share their music and create new fans. Tickets are still a bargain as compared with other 30+ year old touring bands, with no elitist ticket levels. Phish was also supported over the years by dedicated and generous fans, and by loyal and brilliant staff whose work (often a labor of love) was invaluable to their success, and continues to be. Folks like Amy Skelton, John Paluska, Jason Colton, Kevin Shapiro, Shelly Culbertson, Pete Carini, Julia Mordaunt, Beth Montuori Rowles, John Langenstein, Brad Sands, and so on. We have so much to be thankful for, and are especially blessed that Phish came back to play, and to tour, not only on 12/31/2002, but again on 3/6/2009. Phish’s 30th anniversary is thus itself among the band’s most impressive achievements. Congratulations, Phish, and THANK YOU!
Charlie Dirksen is an antitrust lawyer who is an officer and board member of the all-volunteer 501©(3) Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbirg.org) that raises funds for music education programs nationwide, and whose volunteers run www.Phish.Net.