This new thing better sound just like the last one or I’m out.
Many well-loved Phish improvisations sound the same, damn it.
The following is kind of a rant.
This morning I was listening to the 8/19/12 Light, justly lauded for its explosive finale and effortless segue into Sally, and was reminded of something I read at phishthoughts.com this week, about the closing show from this summer’s San Francisco run (8/4/13):
While “Light” was the unanimous MVP of this summer’s east coast run, out west the band has reigned [sic] in their new age epic, playing two quasi-type I jams at the Gorge and Bill Graham. This one however, far outdid the Gorge version, moving into incredibly creative interplay anchored by some inhuman work by one of my tour co-MVPs, Jon Fishman. It felt as though the jam would pop from structure at any moment, but interestingly enough, the guys remained close to the song’s feel for almost its entirety. The mind-expanding portion of “Light,” however, came as a surprise tacked onto the end of the song. Dropping into Page’s house of clav, the band brought us into a crunchy come down…
I mention this not to pick on Dave (@mrminer), but to illustrate an ongoing problem in Phish fan discourse since time immemorial (i.e. the mid-90s).
What’s the big deal about ‘Type II’ improv?
‘Type II’ improv breaks song form; that’s really all the term means. It’s a useful distinction but the nomenclature is characteristically dopey taxonomy from the halfway-to-fantasy-football boys’ club that is online fandom…aah, you’ve probably heard me rant about this before.
The best-loved jams of Phish history, the heavyweights, the ‘all-time’ versions, have two things in common:
- They are long.
- They contain ‘Type II’ improvisation.
Take a look at the phish.net ‘March Madness’ bracket for evidence if you don’t believe me. The specific ranking may be idiosyncratic, but these are consensus picks — a safe representation of which jams Phish fans (who are, let us never ever forget, collectors) prize most from the band’s 30 years together. If you haven’t heard the ranked performances, by all means do so. Phish are a very good band.
Now, ‘breaking song form’ sounds wonderful — they’re exploring, I must be having a valuable experience right now, for once it’s not just dance music — but looking closely at the consensus-favourite jams, you begin to notice something a little awkward:
Our favourite improvisations tend to get pats on the head for sounding just like our other favourite improvisations.
Because we’re collectors.
What do we actually like, as a fandom?
Judging from the chart, we like:
- Listening to the same tune for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes
- Songs that start out in a minor hue and shift, during the jam, to an anthemic major key, ideally with blues posturing (12/9/95 YEM, 6/19/04 Piper, 9/1/12 Light, 12/14/95 Halley’s > etc., 8/13/97 Gumbo, 11/17/97 Ghost, ‘Tweezabella,’ many a well-loved Bowie or Stash, etc.)
- When loud, usually complex songs get quiet and simple (every ‘classic’ Light or Stash, 6/3/11 DWD, 7/22/97 DWD > Mike’s, and the beloved Bags from 9/14/99 and 11/21/97, etc.)
- When harmonic and rhythmic complexity boil away to reveal more danceable, hummable music beneath — this is where you hear ‘blissful’ and ‘majestic’ and other clichés, including from me (Tweezabella, 12/30/97 Bag, 11/17/97 Ghost, 11/28/09 Seven > Ghost, Went Gin, Radio City Ghost, 8/19/12 Light, etc.)
- Phish’s version of funk (too many to name)
- Trey going off grandly on guitar (too many to name, though look to 11/23/97 and 11/19/97 for ‘Trey gets dark’ moments)
- Repetitive sound effects and sonic sculpture (1999-2004)
- ‘Hose,’ which basically means ‘wailing away on a simple chord progression after a tense passage’ — many fans think of these as the holy grail of Phish collecting, though ‘collecting’ isn’t usually the word fans use. This is partly a fact of specific community history: a small group of influential fans value ‘hose’ jams above all others, and set the terms of fan discourse for years. (12/29/94 Bowie is the classic example, along with 11/14/95 Stash, 12/9/95 YEM, Dick’s Light, 7/6/98 Ghost, SPAC ‘04 Piper, and many a long long mid/late-90s rock jam)
- Twinkly/spacey/spare/repetitive/strange ‘psychedelia,’ a word whose complex implications have been shaved off (Fukuoka Twist, Nassau Roses, all of Big Cypress, many a late-94/summer 95 oddity, etc.)
What’s the matter with ‘Type I’ jams?
The painful but obvious answer is that most fans can’t tell them apart, and wouldn’t know which one to recommend. When you hear a fan mention ‘extra mustard,’ this is what’s happening: they know they like a specific version of a song, they recognize that there’s something Wonderful about it, but for one or another reason they can’t name it. This isn’t a strike against fans, except that it’s a little weird or sad to spend so much of your life listening to one kind of music and not have anything more to say than ‘extra mustard.’
But the difficulty of telling ‘conventional’ versions of a song apart wouldn’t be a problem if Phish fans didn’t collect Phish’s music. This leads to pathological but totally understandable behaviour. If two versions sound more or less the same to you, why wouldn’t you just pick one and move on, dismissing the other as ‘average-great’ or somesuch? If every version of Chalkdust Torture sounds to you like a blast of upbeat rock’n’roll that builds to more or less the same wails of release at the end, why not seek out only the ‘Type II’ ones, which are few in number but at least readily identifiable?
The problem is this: in fan discourse, a song hasn’t ‘realized its potential’ until it’s ‘gone Type II’ (or more likely some dippy sports metaphor like ‘gone long’), and that’s…bullshit. This doesn’t go for all fans, just the ones who set the taste hierarchies for the community, i.e. the loudest fans online. That’s what bothers me about the @mrminer quote at the beginning of this essay: he distinguishes between a ‘quasi-Type I’(?) performance of Light and its ‘mind-expanding’ coda, as if the maddening harmonic tug-o’-war that is the Light jam were best honoured in the breach, by turning it into a ‘house of clav’ gag with nearly no musical content. But we should be judging this music in itself, not in terms of whether and how it differs from convention! Go ahead, listen to the BGCA ‘13 Light’s coda and tell me why that’s more compelling than the masterful construction of the ‘Type I’ Light jam that precedes it, if you can.
As young fans we loved all the Phish we could get our hands on.
We say we ‘know better’ now, are ‘more sophisticated,’ have ‘better ears,’ or something. But I don’t think that’s quite right.
For most of us, the difference is: our ears are tired.
‘Type II’ music makes listening easier.
There’s a set of brilliant Phish mixes by ‘Sho’Nuff’ floating around online: tastefully curated pieces of improv pulled from official SBD releases. He’s got pre- and post-hiatus mixes and a ‘3.0' mix, as well as a pre-hiatus grab bag (the ‘2001' mix). I recommend them all. The pre-hiatus mix is astounding; it’s easy to forget, listening to their new stuff, what a ferocious band Phish were in the mid-90s.
But it’s also a little unsettling. He kicks off with the 6/18/94 Peaches > Bowie, and when the band jumps into what’s quite reasonably known as a ‘Mind Left Body’ jam (with Trey keying smartly off Page’s transitional piano chords), you can’t be faulted for recognizing the type of thing happening, for knowing which moves are coming: Trey will wail away at the third while Fishman jogs along on the ride cymbal, etc., and…well, Sho’Nuff’s clever joke is to follow this famous passage with the climactic hose jam from the Orlando ‘95 Stash, which is almost identical to what precedes it…and the 12/8/94 Reba fragment that follows is their close cousin, then the climactic hose jam from the 12/29/94 Bowie is the same again — not an MLB-ish jam this time, but another four-chord ejaculation over common-time racing drums. It’s all one thing, basically, and even if Sho’Nuff means it as I joke (I bet he does), the joke is on the folks who consistently rank this music Phish’s Best Stuff Ever Because I Was Young Then.
I love all this music so, so, so much. It’s part of me. I can’t listen to any other Phish (maybe any other music) without hearing its echoes and being reminded of the lessons I’ve learned through this band. Loving it is fine with me!
But doesn’t it seem strange to you when a handful of ‘classic’ improvisations, loved for ‘breaking the mould’ and wandering far and wide across uncharted musical terrain (what we love about Phish, I think), are prized not least for starting out with very different raw materials — Bowie’s sneaky opening and rolling jam, Stash’s evil groove, the majestic Reba jam — and ending up in more or less the same place?
Is this really what we go to shows hoping to hear?
Hold on, hold on — aren’t these just their raw materials?
In other words: ‘You don’t complain that all of Dave McKean’s art looks the same, what’s your beef with “hose” anyway? What if this is what Phish does for heaven’s sake?’
My beef is that ‘Type II’ excursions represent a tiny fraction of Phish’s music, and that listening hard to the ‘conventional’ versions of songs will teach you a hell of a lot more about Phish and everything else than spending your showgoing and mp3-listening time ‘hunting’ for a I-VIIb-V rawkin’-out of a perfectly good Stash jam.
This is why ranking and rating shows and jams is a waste of time. It produces a completely skewed view of what’s good and powerful and joyful and difficult to believe about Phish’s music. (Seriously: your second-favourite jam band could never produce improvised music on the level of a ‘Type I’ Light.)
And when that skew gets applied to the entire network of fan discourse, you get…well, today’s Phish fandom. (Which is, admittedly, going through a generational turnover right now like every long-lived fan community periodically does; but it’s not gonna be enough.)
Among other things I’m saying you and I should pay more attention to ‘Type I’ Phish jams, and spend less energy fetishizing ‘Type II’ journeys into The Same Ethereal Realm We Went to Last Time, Only in D Major for a Change.
I’m going to try to write some things that will help us.
First I’m going to share the most adorable toddler picture I can find that isn’t of my own toddler:
That’s all for now.