It takes a special kind of person to like Phish for more than a few minutes.
Imagine an alternate reality where taste doesn't exist, the word "artisanal" is openly acknowledged to mean nothing, and guitars are not only still cool, but have retained their position as the apex of modern pop music. In this reality, no one has heard of the band Purity Ring. If you played them Purity Ring, they would probably punch you in the face. In this reality, Phish does not suck.
There is a thing, however, and the thing is this: Life is not a Radiohead album. Alternate reality is not a real thing. There is only the real reality, where Phish is one of the most popular touring bands of all time and could sell out any stadium in the country by promising to go onstage and make armpit farts for three hours. If any of the members of the band were a knitter, he could macramé the world's shittiest scarf and it would sell on Etsy for a million dollars. There is an official Phish iPhone app; 229 people have reviewed it and its users are either elated that it exists or disappointed in the app’s streaming capabilities. On the Fourth of July, I celebrated America's birthday by going to Long Island and watching Phish play jam-based rock and roll music for three hours. As far as experiences go, it was literally life-changing, or at least literally life-affirming. It was like taking the red pill in The Matrix, but instead of Morpheus and an actual red pill I had a girl that I'd met on a party bus and a bag of Molly that she and I bought from a stranger (hi Mom!). If you're going to get wet, you might as well go swimming. If you're going to eat shit, you might as well put your face up to a horse's asshole. And if you're going to a Phish show, you might as well do a fucking shit-ton of drugs.
Phish was formed in 1983 by a bunch of stoned college kids in Vermont who were super into the Grateful Dead. They jammed a bunch of jams, and after a few years toiling in the overcrowded underground that was rock music in the early 90s, found themselves signed to a major label and playing amphitheaters. This popularity was created through, much like the food that Phish fans buy at Whole Foods, a fairly organic process. Their main trick was that they could jam well enough to the point where they sounded vaguely like the Grateful Dead at a time when the position of the "Next Grateful Dead" was vacant. As the early 90s wore on, the Dead went into a steady decline. The super chilled-out throne was for the taking, and it was anyone's guess who was going to take it. There was Dave Matthews Band, whose legitimacy in the quest for The Next Dead was shored up by the fact that the band spent their early years actually, like, opening up for the Dead. Then there was Widespread Panic, who toured with Phish back in the day and were perhaps the only pretenders to the Jam Throne whose beards might have hoped to match Jerry Garcia. But ultimately, there were things that helped set these bands apart from the Grateful Dead in discrete ways: DMB got too commercially popular too quickly, and Panic was too rednecky for everyone's good except for Billy Bob Thornton's, who took it upon himself to direct one of the band's live videos. So, then, it became Phish who hoisted the mantle of Jerry and 'em. The parallels between the bands are myriad. Neither band scored much in the way of hit singles (the appropriate Phish analog for the Dead's "Touch of Grey" is probably their single "Farmhouse," which for whatever reason seemed ubiquitous amongst a certain sect of youth), made their names primarily off of touring, and the dude who's more or less the crux of each band is the singer/guitarist. While they don’t exactly sound like them, the cultiness and drugginess of Phish fans—“Phans,” if you must—definitely forge a kinship between the two groups.
If rebellion was aligned with the hippies at the Dawn of the Dead, then today, it somehow, in spite of all conceivable probabilities, rests with those affiliated with our nation’s fine Greek councils. America as a nation is back on its collective Alex P. Keaton shit, where sometimes it seems that every erudite young person is so goddamned progressive and culturally in tune that suddenly, rebellion has reached the other end of the bell curve, and it’s parabolically hip to be square and shit, as long as you know better. Which is to say that, to the best of my knowledge, the main people at the Phish show were frat dudes (former and current) and old hippies. These humans—as I was informed by my jam band Spiritual Advisor, aka my friend who used to be in a frat—are referred to as “Wookies.” This is because Wookies, over the course of their robust drug-taking careers, end up taking so much acid that they lose the power of speech by the end of the Phish show and are reduced to making Chewbaccaesque grunts. Despite the fact that to the layperson it appears that Wookies live a Star Wars Christmas Special of an existence, they are OK. These people are happy. They watch Phish concerts for a living. They are free.
Something that is not particularly free, unfortunately, is seeing Phish, especially if they are playing on Long Island, and you would like to indulge in a conveyance that allows you to drink alcohol on the way (one does not, as that stupid Boromir meme on Reddit might say, simply walk into a Phish concert sober). Sixty dollars later, my Phish Swami and I were en route to Long Beach, me on a date with destiny, and he on an actual date with a girl (whose name was not Destiny). Not Destiny had brought a friend on her own journey, and that friend, who shall heretofore be referred to as Nargus, was charged with the task of becoming my best friend while she and Phishmaster did Date Stuff like hold hands during “Susskind” or whatever. The problem with arrangements like these, however, is they’re tipped heavily in favor of certain parties, and those parties were not Nargus and I—if you get two people together who don’t know each other at all, as anyone who has ever been on an Okay Cupid date knows, there’s not the greatest chance they’re going to get along without some sort of chemical plying. The only things Nargus and I definitively had in common were that we both enjoyed drinking and were not particularly familiar with Phish. Approximately six tequila shots each later, Narg asked me if I’d ever done MDMA.
“No,” I said.
“Me neither. Do you want to?”
One does not simply walk into a Phish concert = not on drugs. To reiterate: One does not simply walk into a Phish concert not on drugs. There is only one destination that one can head towards once one is deposited from a party bus into an unfamiliar parking lot on Long Island, and that place is Shakedown Street.
As with the Grateful Dead, there’s a weird little economy that operates within the context of Phish. People follow the band around, and then other people follow those people around selling stuff to the people following Phish around. It’s magical in its own way, and more than a little exploitative. One of these streets, and by far the most interesting one is called Shakedown Street, which if you’ve ever been to a Phish show (or Bonnaroo) before, is the “street” (read: row of cars) that you can buy drugs and other stuff on. This was a particularly bumping Shakedown Street, because the particular venue we were at did not sell alcohol indoors. It is a proven fact that smaller stuff is easier to sneak inside a venue than bigger stuff, and drugs are way smaller than alcohol, and way more potent. This is why when, after a person who was not holding hot dogs in his hands offered to sell our party hot dogs, Phishmaster asked him if he had any MDMA. He did. He took us to his car, where he proceeded to sell Nargus and I a small, crystal-y substance that for all we knew could have been fucking bath salts. There are few moments when I, ostensibly a grown, vaguely responsible adult, pause to consider my actions and my choices. There is something about buying hard drugs for the first time, from a complete stranger at that, that made me wonder whether the path I’d taken since graduating college was objectively “correct.”
Of course, the answer to this question is a resounding “Eh,” especially as you and someone you’ve known for two hours dip your fingers into a bag of possible bath salts, then lick them, then repeat this process perhaps four times, making terrible faces each time the Molly hits your tongue. MDMA, it turns out, is easily one of the five least tasty substances known to man. From there, our party was literally facing a race against the clock as we tried to book it into the stadium before the drugs kicked in. Heads relatively clear, Phishmaster and Not Destiny led Nargus and I to what very well could have been our doom, or at least an uncomfortable interaction with a security person. As luck would of course have it, the drugs kicked in just in time to talk to the security dudes, so me and Nargs suffered a weird couple minutes there. We got in without a hitch, because security people at concerts do not care if you bring drugs into a show, especially if you’re already hiding them in your body.
There is something about the moment that Molly fully hits you that’s kind of amazing. Suddenly, you’re struck with the overwhelming sense that literally everything is going to be OK. I started intensely feeling this as we sat down to wait for Phish to go on. The water flanking the stage started looking like a moat of rainbows; there were probably dolphins in it, and those dolphins were probably fucking. The humidity’s stuffiness no longer felt like an inconvenience; it just felt like pillows. The music of Lil B finally made complete sense. If Phishmaster hadn’t kept buying me water, I probably would have died.
Phish came on at the astonishingly early hour of 8:30. Phish opens for Phish, always. Their music, which I’d never really heard beyond isolated smatherings, sounds like the term “dad rock,” teased out to the furthest extent of human logic. Trey Anastasio’s singing voice resembles an enthusiastic father trying to lure his progeny into a vehicle so he can take them to a zoo or something. The band—made up of Anastasio on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on keys (and other stuff as needed) and Jon Fishman on drums—has been playing together for like a million years and operates in a manner that’s conversely completely fluid, yet more in lockstep than any band I’ve ever seen. Watching Phish play is like watching four people power a car using their feet in The Flintstones, each intuitively knowing where the car ought to be steered despite the fact that they don’t have a map and they’re not trying to recreate the same route twice. Anastasio can play the shit out of the guitar and McConnell is a total Richard Manuel type, filling in wherever he’s needed as per the song’s whims. Their songs skewed proggier than the Dead’s did, the jams seemingly fueled both by the Dead’s “let’s see where we can take this shit” whimsy and Yes’s “the longest song is always the best song” mentality. Much to my surprise, Phish covered Velvet Underground’s “Head Held High” and capped off the first set with “Purple Rain,” which is a favorite of mine and yours and practically everyone we know. They then sang the National Anthem—the actual one, not the Radiohead song—and everyone chanted “USA! USA!” for about five minutes after they were done. The American Revolution was brought on in part because of our Founding Fathers’ aversion to the Sugar Act, which taxed the sugar we used to make rum in New England. I was thinking about this as Nargus and I took our second and final doses of Molly for the evening, but for whatever reason when I tried to explain this to Phishmaster all I could say was, “America was founded upon the precept of altered states.” He gave me a high-five.
One of the characteristic staples of a Phish show is that the band will deliver a relatively straightforward first set and follow that up with a more meandering, jammy one. While I felt like the second set was perfectly jammish, many—including those lurking on the myriad Phish blogs and message board throughout the internet—felt the second set to be perfunctory at best, mainly full of covers. Still, I’d prefer Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on, Reggae Woman,” Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s “Quinn the Eskimo,” and The Stones’ “Shine a Light” to what happened at Jones Beach in 2010, when a Phan (shirtless) fell 25 feet and had to be rushed to the hospital. No one around us fell, but lot of them were on acid. "This is sick. Isn't it sick? It's sick!" the dude standing next to me said. He wasn’t lying. Still, at some point it felt like the show was dragging on. Song after song concluded with a pause, and then the band would pick back up. Even to a person on drugs, the shit felt like it had more fake endings than the third Lord of the Rings movie. Still, by the time the last note of the nearly three-hour show had been struck, the last noodle noodled, the last jam jammed, I was fucking devout, ready to trade in all of my regular shirts for exclusively tie-dye stuff. Tie-dye shirts. Tie-dye pants. Tie-dye suits. You get the point. On the party bus ride back into the city, the Party Bus people showed a DVD of a Phish show from 1997 or something. It seemed like the exact same show we had just watched. The dudes in the band even looked the same. This should have been the first sign.
The next day, I woke up feeling like I’d gotten hit by a truck. It turns out an MDMA hangover feels like someone’s siphoning your soul out of your body. One of the reasons Molly feels so awesome in the first place is that it temporarily jacks up your serotonin levels, which basically means that however good you feel while you’re on it, a Molly hangover will give you the inverse feeling the next day. I thought back to the show. Maybe Phish had played legitimately astoundingly, good enough to rearrange the stars and my entire sense of taste. Maybe they would have been insanely boring had I not been on drugs. As I felt my conventional notions of what’s enjoyable and what’s stupid come rushing back to me along with the shock of sobriety, I was struck with the sneaking, terrifying suspicion was that they’d been objectively terrible. I had no way of gauging this, and that realization was fucking depressing. It was like I’d finally figured out who shot JR, only to find out the entire thing had all been a goddamn dream. I might be conflating multiple seasons of Dallas, but I’m not conflating multiple truths. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing that one of the greatest times of your life might have just been brought on because you were high. Does it devalue the inherent worth of an experience just because you have to use drugs to get there? Is it all a lie? Or is seeing Phish like driving to the Grand Canyon? The Canyon might be the destination, but you still need a car to get there, and in this case, the car may very well be drugs. I guess what I’m trying to ask is this: Would the entire crowd have had an equally good time if we’d all had to stay sober?
I just don’t know, man. I just don’t phucking know.
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