Three Decades of Phish: 30 Years Later (They’re Still Upside Down)
I’m more than halfway through my 30s now. Most people my age wake up on Monday morning and do the same thing they do every Monday morning. They drink their two cups of coffee, check Facebook on their smart phone, and drive to work. They listen to Howard Stern on the way there and maybe respond to a few text messages that they received after their bedtime the night before. Maybe they’re responding to my late-night texts. It wasn’t like this back in 1983, when Phish first formed, but those people had their own routines.
Most people my age come home from work — not just on Monday but Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday too, and do the same thing. They kiss their wife, play with the kids, and turn on ESPN. There’s nothing wrong with this. At least, not in and of itself. I’m not knocking routine. That’s fine. Desired by most, in fact. I’m knocking going through life on autopilot. I’m knocking the ones who have forgotten how to have fun. How to be in love with life. How to rage an “Antelope” and enjoy a “Divided Sky.” How to stay up all night, unplanned, because you’re so caught up in a great moment that everything else has been temporarily washed away. When I said Phish changed my life, I also meant that, in some ways, they showed me how to live. Because you can’t get stuck playing yesterday’s jam.
Although, of course, at points, they’ve been guilty of just such a crime. It’s such a human thing to do. We all get stuck along the way. It’s getting unstuck that matters.
Sure, there were some nights when Phish—on stage—felt to me, out in the audience, like they were just getting home from work, about to kiss their wives, play with their kids, and turn on ESPN. Metaphorically, I mean. It felt like routine. The band was approaching three decades together. What else did they have left to do? And why did I still need to be there, inside an arena, watching a rock concert that I’ve seen more than two hundred and fifty times? What could they possibly give me that’s new? Where could they go from here? What else could they prove? There’s a surprise ending here.
When Phish reunited a few years ago, it sure was great to have the band back. I still loved going to shows and I still loved dancing to those songs, after all. And I was still having new experiences, going with new friends, doing new things before and after the shows. It’s a revolving cast but it’s the same old game. Reinvented, redefined.
It wasn’t exactly like it used to be, but nothing ever is. And you don’t want it to be. I don’t go to see Phish these days because I hope to catch another 12/31/95. Nor do I go see them because I want to relive some of my favorite days alive from a decade past. I lived those days already. And they were great. But I go to see Phish because I want to break on through with them. Because I want them to be the soundtrack to another favorite day of my life. A new one. Because I want to hear them jam like they’ve never jammed before. Otherwise, I may as well eat the same old breakfast, pat the dog twice, and automatically turn on Howard Stern as I start the car and head to the cubicle.
And then Phish 2013 happened. Phish’s 30th Anniversary Year.
Led Zeppelin was a band for 12 years. The Beatles for 13. The Talking Heads had longevity—they were around for 17 years. The Doors only lasted 8 years. The Velvet Underground officially disbanded after 9 years. As did The Band. Blind Faith lasted less than a year.
Most bands that make it past the first decade are unrecognizable by the time they make it through their second. Unrecognizable because the very musicians in the band have changed. Some bands are really just bands in name alone—Guns ‘N’ Roses, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, the Smashing Pumpkins and so on. The Allman Brothers Band have had at least a dozen musicians step through their rotating door, so if you think you’re seeing the same band that recorded Eat a Peach, think again.
As for the music, most bands that have made it past their second decade focus on music from their first. In other words, most of them have become irrelevant. When was the last time The Who did anything new that will be remembered? Metallica recently hit their 30th anniversary but what was the last, truly great Metallica album? And even though fans can argue this, the same could be asked about the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. It’s rhetorical, you guys.
Despite popular culture’s obvious ageism, growing old gracefully in rock and oll can be done. Look at Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and um….um…..well, David Byrne hasn’t lost any of his creative spark.
But, after three decades, Phish just might be on the verge of a new creative peak. And, frankly, that’s pretty much unheard of.
From one perspective, it might seem as though, somewhere above, I called anybody with families and responsibilities and a solid home life a muggle. That’s not what I meant to do. Many of those people are my heroes. All I meant is that it’s easy to get stuck on autopilot, to sleepwalk, to stroll through our adult years with our eyes closed. To let contentment breed stagnation. And what I’m saying is, don’t do it. And that doesn’t come from me — I’ve been there and done that, too.
It comes from a band who, 30 years deep, has just unveiled a whole batch of new songs that are unlike anything they’ve written before and which will no doubt become highlights of shows and tours to come. It comes from a band who, this past year, played a 36+ minute version of a song that they played live 323 times before — but this one was remarkably different than any they’ve ever done before. It comes from a band that, just a few months ago, opened a second set with a song that most people have written off as a standard ho-hum-along (“Chalk Dust Torture”), and then proceeded to rip it into a 23+ minute, nothing-else-matters jam. I’m talking about a band that, at age 30, has reinvented themselves yet again. I’m talking about Phish at age 30.
Almost every band that age has broken up or taken years off before reuniting. Almost every band that age has gone through at least one major, mid-career lineup change. Most of these bands have just two options at that point: they can either do the same old song and dance routine (some, admittedly, for a rather hefty profit), or else take a final bow. Phish, meanwhile, just renewed their vows. Which means that they’re still a new band almost every night. Which means that they’re still the same band they used to be.
I don’t really know why I’m still compelled to fly across the country to see this band any chance I get, but I can guess that it has something to do with that sense of renewal and redemption. And the underlying knowledge that this crazy adventure, wherever it may go, is still far from arriving at the destination. So it’s onward we go. Chug-a-lug-a-lug.
Happy 30th anniversary, fellas.