One man's journey through liking, and then sort of not liking, Phish.
If there was a Family Feud category called “Name something about Phish,” I’m 99 percent sure the number one answer would be “stoner.” Phish, a four-person jam band that’s been around, off and on, since the mid-80s, has basically cornered the market on the kind of transient concert-hopping and psychedelic weed-smokery not seen since The Grateful Dead; people seem to really like chilling the fuck out and listening to Trey Anastasio noodle around on guitar for an uninterrupted 38 minutes. Hell, when Phish played Fenway Park in 2009, Boston police decided not to arrest anyone for marijuana use, and “could not say how many citations were issued” likely because there weren’t many. Even the cops know pot and Phish are forever entwined, like the letters Q and U.
When I was younger, though, I was like that word Qi that people always play in Words With Friends. I was a huge Phish fan, but as far from a stoner as they came. I wasn’t merely anti-drug; drugs terrified me. In fact, I once turned down the advances of a really cute and popular girl because she did drugs. And I told her it was because she did drugs! And I even called them “drugs!"
While I was doing everything I could to isolate myself from my peers, I was finding myself drawn to Phish, a band that fostered its own community. Songs had been listened to so often that when I’d mention a favorite minute-long section of “Divided Sky” to a friend, he’d know exactly what I was talking about. Yes, that’s true for almost all music, but Phish begged listeners to search for nuance. Its songs include improvisational solos longer than the entirety of The Beatles’ debut Please Please Me, which morph each time they’re played at live shows.
But there came a point when the nuances seemed too nuanced. No matter how many versions of “You Enjoy Myself” I found, Phish’s epic multipart concerto that contains sparse lyrics like, “Boy, man, washyofecesdrymetofirenze," I just couldn’t spot enough of the differences. I really tried. For almost two years. My Phish-loving friends could, though, and every time I fell short, it drove more of a wedge between myself and the music. No longer would I be taking any jobs at a Borders solely so I could buy the Hampton Comes Alive box set at a discount.
Still, when I finally went to upload all my old CDs to my computer, I found multiple Phish albums, more than any other band. And that was when I was terrified of pot, a drug I now regularly partake in and have no problem with. If I liked Phish that much when I was sober, would I like Phish a whole lot more under the influence of a drug that makes all music seem particularly awesome? After many rounds of “testing,” the answer’s, “Yes for a really short time, then no, no, no…”
At first pot makes Phish’s music feel like it did when I first heard it. Pumping their studio albums into my headphones, Junta, Billy Breathes and Hoist, I remember how unintimidating the songs can be. Tracks like “Fee” and “Julius” kick off their respective albums with a little harmony, a few hooks, and restrained solos that make me think I’d overblown how indulgent Phish can be. These songs were my gateway drugs back in the day, and now, knowing what else is out there, they seem hollow and premature. Years of soberly listening to these sterile versions have hardwired their progressions into my brain. There are no surprises to be found listening to mediocre attempts at pop songs, and my pot-addled brain demands I immediately move on to the next song, then the next, and so on.
“Live recordings: Now that’s the stuff,” is a real thought I have, baked out of my mind. I immediately fire up “The Mango Song” off Hampton Comes Alive, which has a guitar solo at the end that I remember thinking was pretty rad, way better than the produced version (spoken like a true Phish fan). Under the influence, it’s sublime. Without the confines of a studio, this and other songs are allowed to breathe. The pot melts the music with the crowd, creating the sensation I’d imagine a baby feels when listening to a white noise machine.
I spend a ton of time laying on my couch letting it wash over me, really hearing every note. I start to see the math of which notes go where so the music swells and shifts just when I’m getting bored. Well, not so much “bored” as my mind’s wandering around, as it’s wont to do when baked. During a particularly long stretch of “Taste,” I’m thinking about how dumb text messages are when some staccato electric guitar warbling, a descriptor I thought of while stoned, brings the song to its conclusion. Suddenly, it seems, I’m having the most profound thought about text messages in the history of thoughts about text messages.
It’s as if Phish writes their songs as stoner Mad Libs for your brain. Whatever mood you’re in, there’s a song for that, or at least one that your malleable mind can bend to fit. I find that, despite my skepticism, I’m enjoying my place in the Phish headspace, my life now scored with a pleasing backing track. It’s easy to get into a groove, and the smallest interruptions feel huge. I queue up a few live albums on Spotify, and even the commercials are enough to piss me off. I want to simply be, and any distraction, however fleeting, is THE BIGGEST DISTRACTION EVER!
There comes a point where I start making demands. If a song’s not doing it for me, and I see there’s 18 minutes left, I’ll skip it. Then skip another one, and so on. After a few days I give up on unfamiliar songs entirely, my less than patient stoner brain sticking to what I already know is going to be a hit. “Bouncing Around The Room” from A Live One comes into heavy rotation because it’s a) live, and b) four minutes long. Sometimes I’ll dip into the proceeding “Stash," at 12 minutes, only because I know I’m going to like it before it starts. Otherwise, I have reached the point where really long songs are intimidating. What the hell makes “Tweezer” so important that it has to be half-an-hour long, and include a reprise?
I’m reminded of why I gave up on Phish in the first place, and it’s like I’m living that whole two-year process in one week of fast forward. Their music is inoffensive and inviting, sometimes meaningful in a way I can’t quite qualify, like the TV show Modern Family. But after enough time, Phish’s repetition and self-seriousness (sample lyrics: “Take the highway…through the great…DIVIDE!”) leaves me feeling empty, like the TV show Modern Family.
Pot creates the illusion of profundity, though, and I can imagine if THC had wired my brain to Phish, I’d have far more nostalgia for my hemp necklace heyday. But introducing pot so late into the Phish game is like trying to teach a robot how to love when it was built merely to maim. I’m not saying it’s impossible for there to be some stone-cold sober Phish-heads out there; I’m just saying, even with pot, what’s done is done. We’re not talking about mushrooms, after all.
Carrie Brownstein spent some time dealing with her feelings towards Phish as well. Look: