The Eternal Joy of Never-Ending Splendor
Introduction to a Phish Talmud
The first time was like drowning. Dropped from innocence’s sunny nest of clouds and perfect understanding. Hurled against the cement face of Lake Infinity. Awake and crashing through snow and ice thousands of years thick. Plunging Godheadlong into the watery abyss. Mind not comprehending, gasping for meaning. Hands grasping for where to stand — someplace firm, not fluid — scouting for the familiar slide of land.
And all of a sudden, amid the dead-weight confusion and panic of sinking, a song.
Multiple voices. Out of sync. Off-key. An awkward, holy melody. A hit off the O2 tank just as my lungs scream to explode.
Come and drown: I’m sitting in a yeshiva in Jerusalem staring blankly at a page of ancient text while a bunch of people speed-read through the dense Aramaic legalese with utmost ease. The only thing keeping my eyes swimming (rather than rolling permanently backward) and my brain heaving and chugging along at the back of the pack (not caving in on itself, as many bells and sirens are warning it might do) is the cacophonous, improvised song: my anchor in this vast, rolling sea of logic, lore and sacred tradition.
This is the first time I — a Jewish 20-something whom friends, family and demographics researchers would consider reasonably knowledgeable about the history and teachings of Judaism — have ever learned Talmud, which is my paradoxical people’s written Oral Law.
This is not the first time I’ve felt like I was drowning, even as I sat with dry skin firmly planted on land. I had just become a man. Standing in front of hundreds of people at my synagogue in Jacksonville, Fla., I chanted from the Book of Exodus, sang a section of the writings of the biblical Prophets and led the congregation through several prayer services. I was as good as the best cracked-voiced cantors that side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Trembling before God, it might have seemed. The only thing that kept my stomach from fluttering out of my mouth and all over the Torah scroll was the image branded in my brain by the elderly man responsible for assigning every part of the three-hour liturgathon: “Just imagine all those people out there are naked,” he had whispered to me moments before I ascended the altar.
Like a dream, the scene in my memory fades to a verdant Appalachian valley in North Georgia. It is months later. Kids run and laugh and play all around. Summertime. This is my first time at a sleep-away camp. My first time away from home and family for more than a week or so. Strange, yet familiar music wafts through the air, and my ears follow the scent. At the sound’s source beneath the climbing tower, asked, “Who is this?” the beard of a burly, bandana’d counselor splits wide into a smile.
“The Grateful Dead, man.”
Fade back to Jax. At a CD store in the mall, I grab the Dead’s best-of compilation, Skeletons from the Closet, because I assume it will give me an overview of their greatest, most accessible tracks. Somehow, this logic doesn’t persist as I meander down the aisles to “P” and select the gleaming silver case of mystery whose musical prophecies would seal the fate of my adolescence, the consequences of which would veer well into adulthood.
“What is this shit?” was all I could think as Live Phish Volume 1 smacked my face with wave after wave of nonsense noise. A pristine recording of the Dec. 14, 1995 show at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton, N.Y., two sets from one of the band’s most hallowed months of touring, the first time I ever really listened to Phish with focus and intention was like doing a keg-stand of warm salt water. Keelhauled by the nearly two and a half hours of music, I pulled myself together long enough to slip the CDs back in their strange plastic sleeve and, exhausted, press play to let the easy-listening folkedelia of the Dead’s Skeletons wash over my wounds.
I wouldn’t listen to Phish again for a while. The Grateful Dead broke my heart and I’d spend the next few years in a lovesick haze of nostalgia for a time and place that I never personally experienced, yet whose melodies my soul instantly recognized. The Phish discs sat glistening on my shelf.
Part of me intuited that this music would change my life, but in order to really “get it,” I had to go back and study some history.
First, read and internalize the Five Books of Jerry, the Torah of the Dead. Master that, and Phish’s cryptic code will easily crack.
Sitting in a yeshiva in Jerusalem staring blankly at a page of Talmud, my quarter century of experience on this earth is not even a dandruff flake on the edge of a single whisker of the mustache of Jewish wisdom’s beard. To simply acknowledge the fact of this utter insignificance, to tread at the surface of the unfathomable depths of my own ignorance, is just the first on-ramp of a cross-country trip. Might as well stay home. Might as well keep my day job. Might as well shut this tome and go back to reading 140-character status updates all day. Might as well, might as well.
Jewish summer camp led me, simultaneously, to the Grateful Dead and Phish. Several semesters in the graveyard, studying among the crypts, tuned my ears to be able to hear the living magic of Phish, and seeing that band in concert, over and over, as much as possible, opened my heart and shone a light on the path. Listening to Phish became a spiritual practice, and this Tourah led me back to Torah, and now, as I wade into the sea of Judaism’s wisdom tradition, and as the waters reach up to my neck, that soundtrack continues to spin. As the sages say, “The music never stopped.”
“Words are not the way to talk to animals. They’d rather sing with us — if we learn their tunes without making them conform to ours. Music could be a model for learning to perceive the world by listening, not just by naming or explaining.”
— David Rothenberg, Sudden Music
Song is the language of the soul. Everyone knows. The final commandment in the Torah, found in the Book of Deuteronomy 31:19, hints at the central role music (and contemplation thereof) plays in Jewish history and life: “Now therefore write down for yourselves this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness within the people of Israel.” The “song” is the Torah, and this verse is interpreted to mean that every Person of the Book must, in his or her own life, actually write a Torah scroll (Talmud Sanhedrin 21b).
Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains:
The 613th command — to make the Torah new in every generation — symbolizes the fact that though the Torah was given once, it must be received many times, as each of us, through our study and practice, strives to recapture the pristine voice heard at Mount Sinai. That requires emotion, not just intellect. It means treating Torah not just as words read, but also as a melody sung. The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir, the performers of His choral symphony. And though, when Jews speak they often argue, when they sing, they sing in harmony, as the Israelites did at the Red Sea, because music is the language of the soul, and at the level of the soul Jews enter the unity of the Divine which transcends the oppositions of lower worlds. The Torah is God’s song, and we collectively are its singers.
The Torah is the song of the Jewish people, but every person in the world — in fact, each and every Divine creation in the cosmos — has its own song. Perek Shirah, or “Chapter of Song,” a Hebrew text of uncertain origin, attributes a sacred verse to everything from snails and rivers to figs and stars.
In his book, Nature’s Song, Rabbi Natan Slifkin offers an explanation of each creation and its designated line. “The Jewish people,” he writes, “are compared to many different things in mystical thought. But perhaps one of the more unusual symbolic representations are fish.”
The original literary source linking Jews to fish is the patriarch Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe that they should “increase fishlike in the midst of the land” (Genesis 48:16). What comes immediately to mind, besides the image of innumerable scaly fins and shiny tails flopping in the dirt, is the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters of the seas” (Genesis 1:22).
In the end there’s just a song, but in the beginning there is pure potential. The only way to make the music that is unique to your soul is to learn to sing. The only way to learn to swim is to fill the ocean and jump in.
“The song of the fish,” Slifkin concludes, “is the song of those who are fully immersed in the lifegiving waters, representing the word of God.”
Torah study. In Jewish tradition, being immersed in the word of God means devoting your life, as much as possible, to exploring sacred texts. Reading them alone, discussing them with a friend or in a group, reading them again — and again. Every day, every year, over and over and over. It’s a cycle that can last a lifetime, and has lasted thousands of years. The stories rarely change, but the sea of commentaries constantly rises and the debates about how to swim are ever-raging.
One of the defining characteristics of “learning,” as religious Jews call the back-and-forth textcapades of Torah study, is song. Says DovBer Pinson in Inner Rhythms: The Kabbalah of Music: “The Talmud speaks harsh words against one who studies Torah without song. Singing while studying shows that one truly appreciates and is inspired by the sweetness and beauty of the Torah, so much so, in fact, that they are moved to sing from this overwhelming joy.”
Hence, that strange sense of relief in the yeshiva in Jerusalem as the waves opened and swallowed me whole, and my mind was pulled down through the eerie green deep of the Oral Torah. Sure, the Talmud is 6,000 pages of coded legal commentary written largely in a dead language. So what that it takes seven and a half years to read all the way through at the lightning fast pace of one page per day. Every word has its own song!
One good thing about Aramaic: When it hits, you feel no pain.
“Blue are the life-giving waters taking for granted, they quietly understand.”
The song that pushed me to give Phish another listen after the disastrous first attempt at the ripe old age of 13 was “Bold As Love.” The band chose to encore with this classic Jimi Hendrix cut at the December ’95 show that initiated both the Live Phish archival series and the life of Phish that I have since led.
I pressed play and re-listened, and when it was all over, I listened again. And again. Slowly, slowly, my ears began to hear and my eyes began to see. Phish’s music has sustained and enriched my spiritual life ever since.
Take a walk in the woods beside a roaring river. Walk long enough, deep enough into the thicket, and the water’s Wall of Sound fades into silence. Not because the river is behind you or far away or dried up. The rushing simply merged with the rhythm of your heart, and you merged with its song. And then you forgot about the river, took for granted that the leaves are so green and the earth so lush, and meanwhile the river roared on in silence, quietly understanding.
Eventually, if you walk far enough, thirst hits, and you remember the river.
From tour to Torah, I have not left the life-giving waters. Without tour, without taking the time to explore the woods, would I even know that the water sings?
There is no difference between the tunes sung in a traditional house of Jewish study and the melodic adventures that unfold during the Phish’s shows. There was, is and will be music. Always. Eternally.
Song is the language of the soul. Everyone knows. But how is it that four goofy dudes who met in Vermont in the ‘80s are able to, playing a mix of intricate avant-garde compositions and classic rock covers while seriously singing lyrics whose level of silliness reach asinine proportions, speak so directly to my specifically Jewish soul?
And how is that I am not alone?
Dangerous Grapes tasted a lot better than Phish to Mike Gordon.
In early 1984, Trey Anastasio went MIA from UVM, suspended for pulling a practical joke that would land a current college freshman on both the FBI’s watch list and the front page of The Huffington Post, and Phish suffered its first hiatus just months after playing live for the first time. Mike and Jon “Fish” Fishman, who constituted the rhythm section of the floundering quartet, joined up with two guitar players to play covers of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band in the interim. Dangerous Grapes, it seemed to Gordon, was bashert, a band of soulmates who were “meant to be together.” Whereas Phish, which also featured two guitar players, had been forward thinking and willing to experiment, things truly and quickly clicked for the budding bass player every time the Grapes got together to practice. They had a certain chemistry that Phish lacked.
Trey, who was Phish’s clear frontman and its most enthusiastic songwriter, wanted the band to play strictly original material, and when he returned to campus later in ’84 looking to regroup, Fishman instantly hopped aboard Red Beard’s technically superior vessel. Thus, Mike was faced with a dilemma: Take the golf cart on a paved, scenic loop around the lake or sail into its uncharted waters? His decision would ultimately alter the course of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Mike chose Phish.
“I personally don’t think we were meant for each other,” Mike said nearly a decade later. “It’s a good thing because over the years we had to work to get ourselves to blend together.”
In the moment that Phish reformed in ‘84, the hard work had already begun. Thirty years later, before the 2013 Fall Tour, Mike spoke at length about the state of Phish:
With some bands, or maybe other artistic groups, it gets to a point where someone wants to do something else, or people could say, ‘Well I’ve done this for long enough.’ And I think there’s always an opportunity — you can say that with a marriage, too — there’s always an opportunity to look at the other side, which is that you’re rewarded for continuing commitment and the deeper commitment that comes by sticking together for a longer and longer and longer period of time, because in a relationship you build all of these foundations. You build and build and build and so it keeps getting deeper in some ways. That’s what I honestly think. … You know, you can get divorced. You can find someone else, but you’re rewarded for commitment. You’re rewarded for taking risks and you’re rewarded for commitment, sticking to it — and commitment and love. And that’s what we feel. It’s sort of corny sounding, but there’s a lot of love between the band members right now. The fact that we’ve straightened out our lives — our personal lives and our creative lives — and that we feel so confident as individuals means that when we come together we have more to put on the table and to bounce off each other. I think probably more than anything, that’s what people get from our shows: a certain love that kind of has inspired the songs and the jamming and the everything. It’s the sort of commitment that — I sound like a self-help book or something — but that’s what people should look forward to on the fall tour. That there’s a lot of good thoughts in this relationship that are allowing us to relish in this 30-year-anniversary feeling.
And Gordo saw all that they had made, and behold it was very good.
Before this comfort and ease and utter goodness, however, there was hard work. In 1984, Mike abandoned Dangerous Grapes on the condition that Phish include covers in their live show. Trey acquiesced, and thus we see the roots of some of the quartet’s most defining and longstanding traditions: music for the love of music, democratic collaboration in the spirit of friendship and honoring the musical masters who came before.
I don’t use the word “tradition” lightly. Phish is firmly planted in the variegated farmland that is “Popular Music,” occupying its own sizable corner of American rock’s fertile plot.
Trey’s avowed influences, in particular, are diffuse. From Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa to King Crimson, Genesis and the Talking Heads, Anastasio’s palette is rounded out by the likes of Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt, Pat Metheny and Igor Stravinsky. To start.
The other guys tossed additional flavors into the mix. Mike is a bluegrass freak. Page brought barbershop to the band. Fishman is just an all around freak for much of the above.
Having absorbed and synthesized all of these influences, Phish has been dubbed, among other superlatives, the “Most American Band.”
But the most obvious influence on, if not the sound of the music itself, the band’s career path — specifically, the collective mindset regarding improvisation, as well as their touring trajectory, relationship with the audience and business sense — is the Grateful Dead.
The first and earliest Phish shows included covers of such Dead classics as “Scarlet Begonias,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Eyes of the World,” and some of the core members of band’s crew were turned on to Phish through a Grateful Dead connection, foremost among them archivist Kevin Shapiro and Chris Kuroda, the lighting director. The group soon banished these tunes from their setlists in an effort to both develop an independent style and avoid comparisons. But soon as the music press took notice of rising “jam-band” from Vermont in the early ‘90s, such comparisons became ubiquitous. After Jerry Garcia died in August 1995 and the Grateful Dead disbanded, much of this now 30-year-old tribe of nomads hopped on the Phish caravan to keep the circus moving. Though they had made every effort to avoid it, Phish would forever after, in the public consciousness, be considered the kings of latter-generation hippiedom. In 1998, after reaching so many musical peaks of their own, Phish encored with “Terrapin Station” on the anniversary of Garcia’s death, unabashedly embracing and honoring their forebears’ legacy.
So while Phish and the Dead are, arguably, miles apart musically, the bands’ souls, so to speak, are as close as brothers.
“I’m probably the only one in the band that still tries to go to Dead concerts from time to time,” Mike told biographer Parke Puterbaugh in 1995, just months before Jerry Garcia died. “The fact that they’re so tapped into American tradition, and mixing tradition with a real philosophy of the unknown, that’s what I like.”
Phish inherited the torch of tradition from the Grateful Dead, and they carry the same flame into caves of sonic mystery to this day. More than any other band, Phish is the Dead’s mystical progeny. As Trey once said:
Personally, I’ve always listened to a lot of different kinds of music. ... We draw on bluegrass and the harmonies of traditional American music. And there’s jazz. … As far as the Dead, I like the sort of spirituality and transcendence thing they get into when they write and improvise.
“In order for man, a physical being, to connect himself with Godliness, spirituality, he must first relinquish his attachment to the way he thinks life should be … and surrender to the spiritual.”
— Rabbi DovBer Pinson, Inner Rhythms
Deep resonances and strange coincidences appeared soon after I began thinking about the possible link between Phish and Judaism. Seemingly everywhere. Like on page 12 of Gershom Scholem’s book Origins of the Kabbalah, which states, “As an historical phenomenon in medieval Judaism, the Kabbalah was born in … Languedoc.” This bowled me over because of the name of Phish’s longtime soundman and luthier: Paul Languedoc. Or the fact that the Hebrew word for jam is ribah, pronounced the same way as the name of my favorite Phish jam, “Reba.” Or hey, isn’t it just a bit weird that my dad’s name (first and middle) is “Michael Gordon”?
Was I reaching for meaning where none lay?
The traditional mode of Jewish learning is with a partner, the idea being that reading ancient texts with no one but your wild imagination may lead to highly creative but deeply flawed (even heretical) conclusions. Reading the same text with a partner will keep both on the path to gleaning actual wisdom. In other words, a good study buddy can and will call you out on your intellectual bullshit. So I started point out the similarities to friends and strangers, and began doing “real” research, i.e., reading about music and religion and America in articles and anthologies by people qualified to write about such things or, in the very least, by people with no apparent interest in Phish.
Turns out, I was onto something.
A book, Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings, included a dissertation on the religious-like devotion of Jews to the Grateful Dead and singled out Phish as the next-generation outlet for secular Jewish fandom. For too many Members of the Tribe born in America around the same time as the members of that other tribe, the Grateful Dead, Judaism was a surface thing: a joke with a Yiddish punch line; a once-a-year income tax of the soul on Yom Kippur; Matzo ball soup; a dust-magnet photograph of a distant relative murdered in the Holocaust, framed, glanced at and as quickly stored away. Jewish Baby Boomers most likely lacked a strong Jewish community, and even if they did have a synagogue to call home, the so-called ancient wisdom they heard there was the sort of dust likely to emerge from a long-dead skull. A living, breathing, spiritual, transcendent, mystical tradition? Forget it, because mainstream American Judaism certainly had. “No wonder then,” the essay argues, “that many Jews sought joy and revelation in the Grateful Dead, unaware how close that experience really was to their own religious and cultural tradition.”
The history of American popular music is intertwined with the cultural assimilation of Jews into the fabric of American life starting in the early 1900s. Ragtime, jazz, blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis and even Christmas — just about every musical genre pioneered in the U.S. in the 20th century owes something to Jewish genius. But whereas many influential rock bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s were populated by secular Jews running from, or simply embarrassed by, their historical/religious roots (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Velvet Underground and The Ramones, to name a few), Jewish American musicians from the 1990s and on embraced their heritage as a fact of life.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency singled out Phish as the most explicitly Jewish band in mainstream American music, and Ben Sidran, who traces the origins and myriad manifestations of the inextricable Jewish-American musical connection in a wonderful book, There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, highlights Phish as a prime example of American Jews finally becoming comfortable in their own skin.
Michael Eliot Gordon and Jonathan “Fish” Fishman hold it down. As Phish’s rhythm section, they are responsible for keeping the groove tight or letting it loose in the wind when the moment calls. As Phish’s Jews, they are a light unto the nations.
This is no casual connection. Mike received a proper Jewish education at Solomon Schechter Day School as a kid, and he introduced Hebrew songs to the Phish repertoire early on, including “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” the Israeli folk song “Jerusalem of Gold” from 1967, which emerges at the end of the album Hoist as an eerie, a capella send-up of a man who just got into a car accident from listening to a too-wild Phish jam, and the group performed it a dozen times in the early ‘90s.
“The Jewish move in popular music is what, to this day, makes American popular music so identifiable; where and how the major meets the minor seems always to resonate in the American experience,” Sidran writes in There Was a Fire. “We have seen this ‘Jewish move’ before in the Jewish Talmudic tradition, where contrary positions can be held simultaneously.”
Phish makes its own Jewish move in “Avenu Malkeinu,” a funkified chunk of the traditional prayer “Our Father, Our King,” which began appearing in set lists in 1987 and was performed most recently at Long Island’s Jones Beach amphitheater on Independence Day, July 4, 2012. The original source of this prayer is, in fact, the Talmud, as it says on the official phan site, Phish.net:
At a time of drought, after another Rabbi has made a fruitless attempt to pray for rain, the great sage Rabbi Akiva (second half of 1st century, and first half of 2nd century) initiates a prayer in the “Avenu Malkenu” — “Our Father, Our King” — format. His prayer is successful.
The “Avenu Malkenu” that Phish performs is a later version of this efficacious prayer. It can be translated as, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, even though we have no [worthy] deeds; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.”
What contrary positions are held simultaneously in the example of Phish playing a funk version of an ancient Jewish prayer?
It all comes back to Mike and his professed disdain for Gamehendge, the mythical land that is the setting for many of Phish’s most beloved songs, immortalized in The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, a product of Trey Anastasio’s imagination.
Come and see: Col. Forbin, retired, took his dog for a walk. They trudged along their usual route until a door appeared beside the road. Col. Forbin had noticed it some time before, but it wasn’t until this day, soon to be unlike any other day that’s ever been, that he decided to open the door and walk through. Forbin found himself in a foreign city, a place called Prussia, where he soon befriended an old knight, who mentioned something about going to see a king and then suggested that they take a walk into the forest. The colonel followed the knight through the trees and along a lagoon until they arrived at a spring, where the steel-clad swordsman stopped and became silent. And there, by the waters babbling on, the knight began to sing. And he sang of his people, the Lizards, and where they come from, Gamehendge, a land of darkness and doom. He explained that the he couldn’t go back to Gamehendge because the Lizards had died, but that he was on a mission to save them by rescuing their sacred scripture, the Helping Friendly Book, from the very hands of evil. The text “possessed the ancient secrets of eternal joy and never-ending splendor.” But only one copy existed, and Wilson had stolen and used it to enslave the Lizards. What once brought them peace and plenty, now kept the Lizards in chains of misery. The knight, who could only remember one bit of wisdom from the Book, “to surrender to the flow,” finished his song and led Forbin deeper into the forest, where they found a “raging river.” Forgetting that he was a knight in shining armor, the man declared his intent to swim and jumped in to the rapids. He promptly sunk and, presumably, died. And Forbin stood by the waters, and some say that for the first in a very long time the old soldier wept.
Thus begins The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, which Trey composed, then recorded with his Phish-mates and turned in as his senior thesis at Goddard College in 1987, where all the band members, sans Mike, were at this point studying. There’s much more to tell, but suffice it to say that the ending of the tale of Gamehendge was too hopeless for Mike, and he viewed the project as belonging to Trey rather than to the band.
Strange, then, that “Avenu Malkeinu,” which he brought to the band, is always and only played following Gamhendge’s instrumental theme song, “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” Phish has never played “TMWSIY,” as it is rendered on fan-written setlists, without playing the funky praises of that Hebrew prayer immediately after.
“Mike Gordon is the x factor in Phish,” writes Parke Puterbaugh in Phish: The Biography. “He is a maze of seeming contradictions. For everything you can think of to say about Gordon, virtually the opposite is true, too. He is introverted and outgoing. He is warm and congenial, wary and reserved. He is spontaneous and process-oriented. He is low-key and high-strung. He is an utterly unique individual who willingly submerges himself within a group dynamic.” Puterbaugh goes onto say that Mike was born to a family of observant Jews and had, quoting the bass player, a “very religious upbringing.” Wandering through fields and exploring streams took up most of his childhood, and perhaps this is why Mike felt detached from a story that begins with trekking through nature and ends in bombed-out hopelessness of a war-torn, dystopian reality.
Hasidic Judaism owes its existence to the Baal Shem Tov’s extensive walks through the forest. A story is told about the spiritual master when he was just 10 years old and known by his given name, Israel. As a teacher’s assistant in a small village, he was responsible for walking the young children to the schoolhouse in the mornings and back home in the afternoons. Instead of taking the direct route on the road, however, Israel walked the kids through fields and trees. Along the way, singing with forest critters and chanting sacred tunes, they “were carried to the heights of joy.” Their innocent song, it is told, sparked a rumor in heaven that the time of redemption had begun.
The Hasidic emphasis on song might, paradoxically, also be why Mike is so connected to the Gamehendge saga — through the inclusion of “Avenu Malkeinu” in the song cycle — despite his apparent aversion to performing the material. One thing in particular stands out: Many traditional Hasidic melodies were composed by, or learned from, shepherds, who required music to stay sane while working in such a solitary profession. As it says in Inner Rhythms, though the tunes were sung by secular, often non-Jewish herdsman, Hasidic rabbis adopted the melodies and justified their use in prayer and communal activity by claiming that the songs had an ancient, Jewish source. Having been in exile for millennia, the rebbe simply redeemed the tune and brought it to its rightful, vaulted place. At least one song in the Gamehendge canon, “McGrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters,” is sung from the perspective of a shepherd, and Trey Anastasio, the red-headed Gentile who wrote the story, has specifically mentioned that the practice of walking through woods of Vermont brought him to a mindset and allowed him to write some of Phish’s earliest songs that would become characteristic of the group’s unique musical style.
There are many secrets here — far too many to tell right now — and those who know, know, but at least one more thing must be pointed out: Mike’s devotion to Phish, and to music in general, stems from an experience he had playing with the group in 1985 when they were a five-piece (Page McConnell had joined on keys and Jeff Holdsworth was still in the group on guitar, though he would soon depart after being born again as a Christian and perceiving the devil within Phish’s music). In The Phish Book, he speaks at length about this turning point:
We turned off all the lights, and I started jumping up and down with the beat, not caring how I looked for perhaps the first time in my entire life. As we jammed, I felt more spiritually in tune than ever before. I felt at one with the buildings, wall outlets, chandeliers, and these people I loved. As we kept jamming, my ecstatic state didn’t diminish no matter how I played or what style we played in. … The whole experience was like viewing a huge well-lit room after having been blind. I felt completely illuminated. … I was more like myself that show than ever before, but I was also part of Phish, five people in a circle who seemed to hover above the forest and move slowly through the trees. I wandered into the woods after the second set and decided never to return. … I decided my goals in life were to live in the woods, travel around from city to city, and try to replicate the experience I’d just had as often as possible.
I think that that background gave me a way of thinking and pondering and existing that led to looking for a sense of spirituality in my adult life. And a lot of that has come from music, letting my ego get out of the way and letting my instrument be played for me, I guess, by God. I like to be in touch with the spiritual nature of what I do and I think my Jewish upbringing led to that sensitivity.
But how does the rest of the band, especially its non-Jewish members (Trey and Page, I’m looking at you), feel about this?
On Dec. 4, 1991, in response to a question from fan-interviewer Myles Weissleder prior to the show that night in Plattsburgh, N.Y., about what style of music Phish plays, Trey said: “You can’t pigeon hole it ‘cause there’s too many influences, you know? Just in one song, there’s a whole lot of influences. Unless you want to call it ‘Jewgrass’ [laughs] because two people in the band are Jewish.” Weissleder took Trey’s answer in stride and immediately wished the guitar player a Happy Hanukkah.
Speaking of the Jewish Festival of Lights, though Phish’s first show ever was billed as a Christmas semi-formal, the Dec. 2, 1983 performance actually fell on the fourth night of Hanukkah. In 2013, the holiday coincided with Phish’s 30th anniversary, and a number of explicit Jewish crossovers were revealed:
- Phish.net, the “official” site of phandom, inserted a gleaming menorah into its banner to acknowledge the holiday.
- Kevin Shapiro, the band’s archivist, wished his Twitter followers a “happy thanksgivukkah” (for the first time ever, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving aligned) with a picture of his own menorah next to a Hebrew prayer book and a Phish lyric: “the light is growing brighter now.”
- Noted Phishhead Matisyahu posted a video of his candle lighting ritual, in which he sings the lyrics “Harry, Harry, where do you go when the lights go out?” and then recites the traditional Hebrew blessings while a recording of Phish’s “Harry Hood” plays in the background.
So, Trey’s “Jewgrass” comment is telling. Phish, almost from the beginning, incorporated a buffet of diverse flavors into its unique sound, so any attempt to pin down what particular kind of music they played was a futile exercise. Like describing the infinite in words. You can only accurately say what it is not. In this regard, Phish really does mirror a sort of Jewgrass: the klezmer tradition. What is “true” Jewish music anyway? Jewish klezmorim from the old country played an amalgam of surrounding styles. In The Essential Klezmer, Seth Rogovoy says modern attempts to understand or define a traditional Jewish music miss the mark: “Klezmer music has been variously described as Jewish jazz, Jewish blues, Jewish bluegrass, an Jewish soul music—all are catchy and somewhat revealing, but they are also ultimately anachronistic and dismissive attempts to place this centuries-old, Eastern European-derived musical genre into a late-twentieth century American context.”
In the last year of the 20th century, during a sound check for a show in New Mexico, Trey strengthened the association between Phish and klezmer. During an improvised song about the band’s tour manager, he reprised the term “Jewgrass” while singing about the Jewish and Gentile band members, who then launched into a frenetic rendition of “Hava Nagila” that would put many top-tier bar mitzvah bands out of business. This sound check, and the initial “Jewgrass” wisecrack from ’91, is also a window into the collective trust fund that is Phish, whose musical payouts have always drawn equally from the accounts of serious musical experimentation and grade-school humor.
If Mike is the stone-faced embodiment of Phish’s deep commitment to group exploration, then the group’s other Jewish member, Jon Fishman, is the comedic core. This dynamic is apparent in a promotional video for their album Rift, released by Elektra, where the following exchange is captured:
Mike: It’s the religious side of it, where there’s a force or a common consciousness or something, where that comes through you, into your instrument and out to the audience. I can tell when that’s happening if 10 minutes has gone by and I realize I haven’t swallowed…
Fish: …or breathed.
Trey: …drool is coming out of your mouth.
Fish: …or shit is running down your leg.
In fact, Fishman’s hilarious troll-like appearance (and, of course, his insane drumming) so enamored Trey in 1983 that the band they formed together would forever bear a slightly modified version of the drummer’s own nickname.
Every day is like Purim for Jon Fishman, who has always turned the group’s shows into circus-like affairs, where passages of inventive improv-rock could easily devolve into burlesque. He’s known as much, if not more, for blowing vacuum solos while wearing an ancient, hole-ridden dress as he is for his unparalleled rhythmic mastery, and he has often been the centerpiece of the band’s elaborate holiday concert gags. The insert for a A Live One, Phish’s first-ever live album, featured a nearly explicit photo of Fishman naked on stage at their ’94 Halloween show as well as a shot of the giant hot dog that the band flew over the Boston Garden on New Year’s Eve 1994. That stunt was an attempt to keep the lines of connection with the fans open even as the band graduated to larger, more impersonal arenas. Just before midnight, soon after the third set began (with “My Sweet One,” one of a handful of songs whose lyrics were written by Fishman), the playing was interrupted by a mysterious voice, asking, “Did somebody order a hot dog?” Mike, Page and Trey all pointed at Fish, and after an oversized happy meal was wheeled onstage, the whole band mounted the sausage and flew toward the back of the venue waving at fans as the seconds slipped closer and closer to 1995. Fishman later described the cut of meat as “kosher.”
Humor is not the only tool in Fish’s utility belt. Another is Hesed, compassionate loving-kindness, a trait he likely inherited from his mother, Mimi, who, of all the band members’ parents, was the “most likely to be spotted on tour.” Since 1999, her charitable organization, the Mimi Fishman Foundation, has collected more than $600,000 for various causes by partnering with Phish and other jam bands. Though she passed away in 2001, Mimi’s legacy lives on through the foundation’s efforts to help women, children, the visually impaired and beyond, and her’s is just one of many Tikkun Olam-oriented organizations in the larger Phish family that have raised millions of dollars through, among other things, ticket sales. Fish himself is seriously (and hilariously) devoted to good works. In 2012, for example, he led the “world’s largest cowbell ensemble,” the proceeds of which were given to flood recovery in Vermont and to The WaterWheel Foundation, the organization that oversees all of Phish’s charitable causes.
And the professional cymbal-smasher hasn’t forgotten the little guys and girls out there. One fan related the following story, entitled “Fishman’s Rabbi,” on the fan-curated PholkTales website:
It was November 2002 and Phish was in NJ. I didn’t have a single cent in my pocket, but something was drawing me to that show. My traveling companions and I arrived on lot around 3 o’clock. And from the very first second we got there I walked around with my finger up.
I walked around for the following 4 hours with my finger up praying for a miracle, and it was cold, snowing in fact, but I had a feeling that my ticket was just on the horizon, so I pressed on.
Ten minutes before the show started, a little middle fifties-aged man walked up to me and said that he had seen me walking for the last few hours and that such dedication in the snow deserved a ticket to the show. I was excited, karma had looked fondly upon me that night and I had found my miracle.
On our way into the show, I asked the man why he had an extra ticket. He said that he was a close friend of Fishman’s from way back, and Fishman sends him 2 tickets for every show, and told him if he didn’t use one that he should help a phan out.
That night was one of the best show’s I have ever seen. B.B. King came out and played with the boys and they were all so on point. The man who miracled me was equally as cool, buying me beers and food and even a shirt.
As the show was ending and we were shuffling out, I was trying to express my gratitude to him for showing me a great night, and he said, “well don’t you want to know how I know Fishman so well?” Of course I was curious, so he told me. “I have been Fishman’s Rabbi for his entire life. I’ve known him since he was young and wouldn’t stop playing the drums to leave the house.” I was blown away, my first miracle was just that a true divine miracle!
“The common thread that binds all Phish fans together is a desire for the transcendence of self and a communion with the collective unconscious. For when we attend Phish concerts, our own sense of importance shrinks as we join a force far greater than ourselves. And though people may scoff at the word ‘religion,’ if understood to mean simply the spiritual journey that like-minded brethren seek, our devotion to Phish approaches that of the pilgrim.”
To say excitement had reached a fever pitch would be a misdiagnosis. Fans suffered a pandemic of expectations in the days leading up to Oct. 31, 2013.
Halloween. A rare opportunity for pilgrimage. A religious obligation. Tickets for the show at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall sold out instantly, and the 10,000 or so lucky kids who made it inside on that sacred night were greeted by a drastic break from tradition.
For some, the move was a grievous, possibly criminal, violation of the law. For others, it was an indication that the High Court wanted to strengthen a precedent that had fallen out of fashion in recent years: Unexpect the Expected.
It began in 1994 with The Beatles’ White Album, followed by The Who’s Quadrophenia in ‘95. Two years later, they dressed as The Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and in 1998 they went underground as Loaded by The Velvets. After years of radio silence, an elaborate gag in 2009 produced The Rolling Stones’ get-up Exile on Main Street, and two years of patiently standing around was rewarded with Waiting for Columbus by Little Feat.
Six epic albums captured the present with cameras from the past, revealing core influences and charting the course toward future revelation.
What costume would Phish don for their seventh Halloween show in 30 years?
The answer shocked most, and persuaded more than a few souls to ignite.
Contrasted with the trough of the Aughts — which included an 815-day hiatus (late 2000 to ‘02), 63 shows in two years of musically spotty touring (‘03-‘04), followed by 1,664 days of ego death during a band-wide breakup (mid-2004 to early ‘09) — 2013 was a peak year for Phish. The various tours, festivals and holiday runs from 2009 and on were a steady period of controlled reconstruction. Summer tour all but solidified 2013’s golden reputation, and the nine dates preceding Halloween proved, undeniably, that the glory days were taking place here and now.
This was clear even from across the world. One fan and blogger in Korea identified the turning point of tour — and possibly of the band’s whole history. For Brian Brinkman, the jam out of “Drowned,” which opened the second set on Oct. 26 and is a track from the 1995 Halloween album, Quadrophenia, signaled the return of one Trey Anastasio, the guitar player and presumed bandleader who was both the driving force behind Phish’s ascent in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the wayward addict who pushed them over the cliff in the 2000s. About that passage of improvisational redemption, Brinkman writes:
After building a foundation based around rhythmic groove with the rest of the band — thanks in large part to his renewed drive to playing rhythmically throughout the entire year — Trey discovers one of the simplest and most beautiful passages of music he’s ever uncovered. His playing is elementary, it’s initially coy, but soon it becomes clear that he’s playing without thought. Trey’s always spoken about the musician being little more than a filter for capturing an elevated sense of music and delivering it to the audience, to that point, he sounds less like a musician during this segment, and more as a spiritual channel. Devoid of any need to distort or camouflage his intentions, he plays one of the most naked passages of music he’s played all year, a testament to deliberate musical decisions. [Emphasis added.]
Whether tuned in via the Internet from thousands of miles away or getting down right there in the field, fans spoke about Fall 2013 in blatantly religious terms. Dave Calarco, revered (and occasionally reviled) for his blog and 680-page book “Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts,” was no exception. In “Course Correction,” Miner pointed to Oct. 20 at the Hampton Coliseum as the moment when Phish moved beyond their past and entered the limitless present. He described this night as “a ritual that will resonate for eternity” and used religiously inflected words (“transcendent,” “vessels,” “nirvana”) and phrases (“cosmic fallout,” “spiritual explosion,” “collective catharsis,” “communal bolt of lightning”) to say that the “prodigal band had returned.” About “Tweezer,” the improvisational centerpiece of the show, he later wrote that it was “As if God pressed play and the band simply allowed the music to flow through them.”
Phish fans are a talkative, opinionated bunch, and there are many schools of thought in this Beit Midrash. Just like Hillel and Shamai, the debates about Phish’s music carry on for generations. Bitter rivals vying for their favorite iteration of “Ghost” (really, who can decide between Denver ’97 or Prague ’98?) are likely to be best friends. All the obsessive analysis can sound like some coded foreign language to both the outside observer and the casual fan, and yet the flood of this “vast and persistent conversation” isn’t letting up. New people are pulled out by the tide every day. On “Analyze Phish,” Harris Wittels, a comedian who infuses subtle Phish references into Parks and Recreation, where he’s a writer, tries to convince co-host Scott Auckerman to love the jams as much as he does. One recent guest on the podcast, Nathan Rabin, used to be a skeptic and his conversion to the faith is documented in a book, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, where religious language about the band’s music is ubiquitous.
Though the discussion swirling around Phish is often heated, it’s almost entirely lishma, for the sake of heaven. Zachary Cohen and Andy Greenberg, two of the modern giants of Phish commentary, sum up the essential reason why Phishheads are so impassioned:
Before they became storytellers from the “Land of Darkness,” before they became group improvisers on par with jazz’s finest quartets, before they became the biggest rock and roll act in America, and before they became a hollow cliché of themselves, there was the music. The rich, lively, dense, difficult and sublime music. Music that recalled something in their fans, ancient melodies and sacred lines. Incantations to the soul and the sole. Knowledge and enjoyment. Bliss and sophistication. Innocence and experience.
Fans debate because they love the music, and they ultimately put aside their differences because of that same love. The extent of this unconditional devotion was brought into relief on Halloween this year, when Phish laughed in the face of expectations. The pamphlet fans received upon entering Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall left mouths agape. Instead of covering some classic collection of rock, Phish would play Wingsuit, a previously unheard album written by none other than Phish.
“This year we are breaking from tradition a bit and are thrilled to be playing an album from the future. One that doesn’t even exist yet,” they wrote in the handout. “We had such a great time writing and hanging out together creating this new material. But nothing could make us happier than having your energy and imprint on our new album. Music is a spiritual language. Your energy is obviously embedded in everything we’ve ever done, but what’s happening tonight is more of a tangible thing.”
It was well past 3 a.m. in Jerusalem when the Wingsuit set finally began and I could feel that energy just from watching the live webcast of the show. About 30 of us had gathered to celebrate Halloween with Phish in the Holy City (only a handful made it through to the encore somewhere around 6:30 a.m., Israel time) and many exchanged celebratory calls, texts or tweets with friends back home also sharing in this very new groove. None of us knew the songs — only those four guys on stage did — but the music was clearly just the latest chapter in the Book of Phish.
American Songwriter called it the “beginning of a new era of tradition” and the weeks following Fall Tour saw hordes of ‘Heads storming the Internet’s gates. Social media streams were overrun with analysis, and aside from a few dissenting opinions, praise for Wingsuit, in particular, and the current state of Phish, in general, was near-unanimously ecstatic. The debate in 2013 was not about which year was better than this one or how the improvisations could have been longer. Rather, everyone scrambled to highlight the top 10 best moments or make claims about their favorite “Tweezer” jam. Everyone had won the lottery, and the main task at hand was finding a way to share the wealth. Even as the afterglow of tour wore off, fans were in awe of the present moment.
On Dec. 2, their 30th anniversary, a slew of laudatory columns in music magazines across the Web failed to contain the collective excitement about Phish. The Dead’s 30 years as a band had ended on a sour note with the death of Jerry Garcia. Now, 30 years into Phishtory, the future is infinite and fans exult in an abundance of blessings.
“Here’s to thirty years of Phish, thirty years of arguing over their direction, debating which shows (and tours and years) were the best, and finding yet another tease buried in a song somewhere,” David Steinberg wrote on Jambands.com. “Phish sometimes feels like less of a band and more of a discussion among fans. Let’s hope the conversation continues for decades to come.”
Gaze upon a wall of leather-bound, gold-inked books in a hall of Jewish study. Scroll through a website hosting every known recording of Phish’s concerts. Pull something off the shelf. Press play. Come and hear: the effect is the same.
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Josh Fleet is a Jerusalem-based writer who served previously as an editor for religion at The Huffington Post. Connect with this project on Twitter (@PhishTalmud) and help make the book a reality by donating to the Phish Talmud Indiegogo page. To contribute stories, wisdom, art, opinion or expertise, please contact [email protected] This is a Friends & Friends production.