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Featured Column: A Quarter Century With Phish

October of 1989 was a formative month for me. After blowing off the Warlocks shows in Hampton – still my biggest concert regret – I was lucky enough to have tickets to all five Grateful Dead shows at Brendan Byrne Arena; the Ticketmaster in Kingston, NY had a wristband system where the bands had numbers on them and they would draw a random number as a starting point. I had band number 37 and the start was 36. It was an amazing run of shows, with the second returned versions of “Help on the Way > Slipknot!” (in a show marred by the mysterious death of Adam Katz) and then two days later, the proof that “Dark Star” would be in rotation. On Bob Weir’s 42nd birthday, the Dead played an amazing concert, weaving in and out of “Playin’” and “Dark Star;” it would be one of the best concerts I would see.

Later that month and early the next was a moment that changed all of human history. Throughout the Cold War, Germany had been divided into two countries, with a giant wall in Berlin separating the Soviet dominated East Germany and the part of the city affiliated with the west. While the creation of the Wall was shocking for those living when it was created, for me it was always something that was there. Berlin would be a city divided in two, it would be impossible to escape from East Berlin, and that’s just how the world worked. Throughout October there were massive protests in East Berlin. A few days into November, the government gave in and allowed people to pass into Western Germany freely. The Wall became a tourist attraction, a place for people to chip off pieces as souvenirs. The world and what could be possible changed overnight, all without anyone dying.

Those were big events for me, one personal, one geopolitical. And yet, when I think of October 1989, I rarely remember that’s what led to the Berlin Wall becoming removed – in fact it took seeing the movie Goodbye Lenin where an adult had to enact an elaborate hoax so his East German mother who had been in a coma during the changes had no additional shocks to remember that it was the very same month – or even finally seeing the song I most wanted the Grateful Dead to play. Rather my mind turns to an event that maybe 150 people were in attendance and that no one documented. It was at a quarter full Chance in Poughkeepsie, NY on October 28, 1989 that I first saw Phish.

While attendance was largely based on some historical accidents – Bard trying to shut down the traditional Halloween blowout, a college band that I liked opening for Phish, a friend pushing me to go – this night would end up being one of the most important in my life. I’d like to claim that I got it immediately from the concert, but I spent a lot of it distracted, was occasionally confused (mainly by Trey explaining the Gamehendge story during “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent”), and few things stuck in my memory [1]. However, I definitely know that Phish closed their second set with a “Harpua,” and during the long lead into announcing Poster Nutbag’s name, back when the point of the song was to tell the story about dog and cat instead of having it centered around a cover song, Trey blurted out, “It’s not Fluff!” That led me to the merchandise table after the show. There was a cassette for sale and one of the songs was named “Fluffhead” and another was “Fluff’s Travels.” Surely one of those would be my missing song!

Actually no. I wouldn’t see “Harpua” again for over 3 years. I wouldn’t even find a recording that contained it until 1991. But Junta did have “Divided Sky” on the tape and I fell in love with the song. So much did I enjoy it that I went to see them in November in Northampton, MA. Then a group of friends decided to go see the New Years’ show together to celebrate the start of the 1990s. Since I was driving up to Boston from Baltimore already, I decided to take a stop on the way up to see the show at the Wetlands the night prior. It is on this night – another one with no recordings or setlists – that it all clicked and I fell in love with the band.

Small actions can have huge consequences. A causal request for a date could lead to life long partnership and the creation of new life. Deciding where to live can affect your friendships. For me it was the choice to drive 25 miles down NY 9G that turned out to define most of my adult life. My close friendships all came from people I met at shows or on online forums. I started dating my wife on Phish’s 2003 tours. Most of my vacations and my best stories, they all come from seeing this band. When I’m on my death bed remembering what I did with my life, so much of that time will be spent recalling Phish concerts, the drives to and from there, and the time spent hanging out around them.

Like any relationship lasting this long, it’s not all been incredible. The scene and music got too dark for my tastes in 1998 and I started flirting with other bands, before they brought me back by covering one of my favorite bands in Vegas that year. 2004 and the resulting aftermath was ugly all around. It doesn’t matter though. This band is dug way too deep into my life. Any chance of extracting them and having a clean break has long since passed. I might not enjoy every show or every song selection, but – after this long – even complaining about things I don’t like has a certain appropriateness to it, like a long married bickering couple who still fight but with an affection underneath it.

There are not many people who have the option of reliving an event a quarter century later. Especially long careered baseball players might come up at 18 and still be playing at 43, but those are rare. You can attend a 25th college reunion, but it’s not like that would make you have been a student for all these years. With the exception of married couples who could recreate a honeymoon on their silver anniversary, it’s hard to come up with examples of activities that people can keep pursuing for that long. This is why I am excited to get in my car in a few days and start driving. Sure a 15 hour drive on I-5 is a lot different than the 40 minutes on 9G, but 25 years to the life changing day at The Chance, I will be seeing Phish at the Bill Graham Civic Center. Sure the venues might be a 2930-mile drive apart, but the band is still the same. Moreover, the three time zone difference makes something possible. The Chance show – like most club concerts – didn’t start until well after 10 PM Eastern Daylight Time (one of my memories of the show was that it was the night Daylight Savings Time ended, as I was hoping the time shift would lead to the band playing for an extra hour), which means that the two concerts will have a lot of exact time overlap. It’s quite possible I might see the same song played at the same time. Three thousand miles and twenty-five years seem like large obstacles, but – with some setlist luck – just maybe I’ll be able to re-experience the event that recreated my entire adult life.

Known Setlist for 10/28/89 from my memory and the review:

Definitely opened the show:
I Didn’t Know, You Enjoy Myself

Definitely played in set II:

Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Harpua (closed set)

One of these closed Set I, the other encored:

Highway to Hell, Good Times Bad Times

Also played at random times:

Dinner and a Movie, Reba (original arrangement), Divided Sky

I – as always – am still looking for a recording of this night or a better setlist if you happen to have one for some reason.

[1] This is unfortunate as no one – not even the band – taped this show and what details I have about it come solely from my memory and a brief review in the Bard Observer.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.

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