Three Decades of Phish: 30 Years Later (They’re Still Upside Down)
Today marks Phish’s 30th Anniversary. Well, well, well… congratulations, boys. We’ll get to all of that in a minute. But first…
Look, the first time I saw Phish perform, I was just a kid that didn’t know much about anything. It was supposed to be my senior year of high school, but the boarding school I was attending—the Hill School—didn’t invite me back, so I went straight into college instead. I remember my first night there, after my parents had waved goodbye. One minute, I was a high school kid on his summer break, hanging lazily by my swimming pool and cruising around the local amusement park looking for girls and cheap thrills. The next minute, I was a college student enrolled in classes for literature, sociology, music, art and… political science. I had no idea what I was doing. One minute, I was home in my parents house in Pennsylvania, listening to the Grateful Dead on my bedroom stereo while leaning out the window, sneaking a cigarette. The next, I was in a grassy field in western Massachusetts, lying on my back, looking up at the stars. Everything was about to change. It was my first night at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I was with some girl I had met in the cafeteria just a few hours earlier. Neither of us could believe we were there. Just like that, we were in college. Our bodies were hurling through space faster than the world was spinning around its axis. We had no axis. Not yet, anyway. Every time we blinked, a different scene. I remember looking up at the infinite parade of stars as they scattered themselves all along the Milky Way. The sky was incredibly clear that night and it felt like I could see more stars than I could possibly count in a lifetime (although I was willing to try). We started talking about our lives, but not the lives that had led us to that moment; the lives that were still in front of us, waiting to be discovered, breathed, unleashed, revealed. Every star in the sky that night represented a different possibility. Every constellation, a different outline, a different course, a different path, a different potential. The world was ours. And we fucking knew it.
A few weeks later, I heard the beginning of Junta while taking rips from a Graffix in some kid’s dorm room. During “You Enjoy Myself,” the earth came to a screeching halt. It was no longer in orbit around the sun. Or, at least, I wouldn’t have noticed, nor cared, if that’s what happened — I was preoccupied. That sound… that sound was different than anything I had heard before. It was MORE. It meant something greater than just a song being played on a stereo. I borrowed the album and, later that night, heard the rest in my room while having sex with my girlfriend. During “Union Federal,” I think, she had enough. She asked me to change the music and put on something else. But I couldn’t do it. It was either her or Phish. So I chose Phish.
Over the next however many years, that would be a familiar ultimatum and I would make the same decision again and again when it came to Phish versus some other distraction or commitment or, even, obligation. I was addicted to Phish. Clinically. I was hopelessly in deep with them. I mean, completely obsessed. I was more concerned with the latest setlist than with finding a job. I was more concerned with figuring out what they were going to play for Halloween than where I was going to live or how I was going to survive when I finally left home. I was more concerned with how I was going to finance two weeks of summer tour than how I was going to pay my credit card bills. Phish defined my 20s. And I wasn’t the only one. I had company. Lots of company. Friends I still keep in touch with today. Friends I still see—and sometimes even dance with—at shows. So when I say that seeing Phish for the first time changed my life, I mean it changed my life.
I first saw Phish play on a snowy New Year’s Eve in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had just finished my first semester and wasn’t quite sure what direction I wanted to go for my second. The friends I went with that night were no longer my friends by the time we piled back in the car to go home—they thought it was a pretty good show and all, but… the one kid said it just made him realize how psyched he was for the upcoming Rush concert. Bah. Not my people.
I had seen the Grateful Dead a few years earlier and was similarly transported and transformed by that experience, so I was beginning to understand that these two bands held some kind of key to the door that I wanted to step through—the identity that I had been searching for. And I was also beginning to understand that friendships could be defined by more than just geographical proximity to someone your same age. It’s way better when you find people with the same interests. And, for awhile, my only interest was Phish. First the Grateful Dead. Then Phish.
I would read Relix cover to cover in my dorm room, and I spent endless nights until dawn in the computer lab — the other geeks there were working on term papers. Meanwhile, I was researching the fuck out of this band, glued to every new post on rec.music.phish. Setting up tape trades, writing down lists of recommended versions of all my favorite songs, reading show reviews, and learning my history.
I was 18 years old. What the bleep did I know? Nothing. I knew nothing. Between then and now, I’ve done all the big things in life, except, perhaps, marriage and fatherhood—but I’ve fallen in and out of love, had my heart destroyed, broke a few hearts along the way, buried my parents and other loved ones, traveled across the country, moved to California, written for Rolling Stone, had dream jobs, lost dream jobs, found new dream jobs—all of these things, more than once. I think I’m still me… but how would you know?
Look, I think the point I was trying to make with all of this is that a LOT happens over time. Phish formed in 1983, the same year that the Internet was born. The same year that the first mobile cellular phone call was made. Ronald Reagan was in office. Return of the Jedi was in movie theaters. The D.A.R.E. program launched. The first McNugget was sold at a McDonalds. The Cold War was in full effect. Somewhere, a Mrs. Winehouse gave birth to her daughter, Amy. Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk — and, in a way, introduced Phish to the world, given that their very first gig (or one of their first, depending on which revisionist history you believe) was cut off early while the audience danced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
And while most people don’t mark the progress of their own lives based on the timeline of some rock and roll band, everyone has a timeline. The mountain there is now a hill. These rocks will fall away at last.