The Roots of Phish: A Psychedelic Pedigree
Phish was a tiny college band in Bernie Sanders’ Vermont woods when their music spiraled into an intricate countercultural narrative
By Jesse Jarnow
Phish’s Acid Test fails during the song “Fluffhead.” When it comes time for the vocals, one of their guitarists, Jeff, steps back from the microphone. “I can’t sing this, this is a stupid song,” he announces, and the music falls apart.
It’s the first time the young band has played at Goddard College for any appreciable audience. The non-tripping bassist tries to conduct. “Jeff, just play a G chord,” he suggests. It doesn’t happen.
“What’s a G chord?” the other guitarist asks.
The non-tripping bassist takes over one of the guitars and jams with the unfazed drummer while the other musicians wander to the campus sweat lodge, where a strange man shoves burning hot coals blindly into the room’s narrow opening.
A few weeks after their failed Halloween Acid Test, Phish make the hour drive from Burlington to Goddard for a makeup gig in a circular, hippie-designed cafeteria where whispers can be heard across the room. Some Goddard students get the band exquisitely stoned, and bassist Mike Gordon has an ecstatic experience, jumping up and down with the music, “at one with the buildings, wall outlets, chandeliers, and these people I loved,” he says.
After the last set, Gordon accidentally stumbles into the militant feminist separatist dorm, a brief surrealist escapade to punctuate the most important night of his life. It is guitarist Trey Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman who transfer to Goddard from the University of Vermont, though, jumping full-bore into self-directed studies.
“Goddard was an insane asylum,” Anastasio would tell Richard Gehr, and the experimental college becomes the band’s home. New Phish keyboardist Page McConnell receives fifty dollars a head for the recruitments. It is the perfect solution for all, motivated musicians with little tolerance for anything else. Anastasio connects with local composer Ernie Stires, but his skills are already prodigious, a developed guitar hero with original compositional and solo voices that radiate from some of the dreamy fragments of music he’s been writing and sewing into suites.
Phish take over the campus music building on the edge of the woods and hole up for the winter. Then another. Time keeps on passing just ever so slowly up in Vermont.
Though the band’s roots in the Dead and the Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa and classic rock are clearly audible, the music transforms into something else with an intricate internal language. In the same way that the Grateful Dead’s music no longer sounds like rock ’n’ roll to conventional ears, neither does Phish’s. Their ambitions are big, especially Anastasio’s, but mostly they’re just obsessive. It is not a repertoire that any expect to take on the mantle of psychedelic America, except for the fact that it is precisely Prankster logic that holds it together and the music of the Grateful Dead that bonds the musicians and the audiences. As they assemble their repertoire in the Vermont stillness, Phish’s music is a new kind of psychedelic, one for individuals raised in suburban captivity and set loose in the New Earth.
Phish is a tiny little college band up in the woods. No one expects them to do anything. They’re just a group of students, after all. And, yet, some weeknights when they play in Burlington, they draw 250 or more listeners. Oftentimes, the infamous Goddard musician known as Nancy (aka Richard Wright) is one of them, forgoing his personal rule about big crowds and loud music to see his new favorite band.
They’ve picked a good time to make their way to Burlington. Besides Ben & Jerry’s extraordinary iced concoctions oozing their way creamily around the country from the company’s downtown Burlington headquarters, the city’s new mayor, Bernie Sanders, is one of the very few elected socialists in the country. The same week Mike Gordon has his epiphany at Goddard, the band plays a rare acoustic show at a new spot in the basement of the Memorial Auditorium sponsored by the mayor’s office, soon to become Vermont’s first punk outpost. Known as 242 Main Street, it will become a stable home for hardcore punk even as crackdowns begin elsewhere and last into the next century, the longest-running all-ages substance-free venue in the country. Phish return for a benefit with a Dead cover band in the spring of ‘86 but are far from substance-free and leave the place for the hardcore kids.
Another way to look at the beginning of Phish’s professional career in Burlington, at the far rim of psychedelic America: the members of Phish are making the most of the finest $5,400-a-year DIY education a loving parent can purchase for his or her curious, open-minded, self-motivated child. All four band members are decidedly upper middle class. Gordon’s father had founded Store-24, the New England convenience market chain. McConnell’s dad is a doctor who’d helped invent (and patent) Tylenol. Plenty of well-to-do children have made music for the masses.
But rock ’n’ roll doesn’t often reward bands that exploit the freedom to just feel the slower, slower lessness the way that Phish do. The rest of the world can wait while Phish practice for eight hours a day.
But the rest of the world isn’t waiting.
The rest of the world doesn’t care.
The rest of the world has other things to think about.
The rest of the world has MTV.
The rest of the world has college rock.
The rest of the world has heavy metal.
The rest of the world has hip-hop.
The rest of the world has old-guard networks.
The rest of the world has bands that can do their thing in forty-five minutes.
The rest of the world has U2.
The rest of the world can look at its watch.
The rest of the world can wait.
In Vermont, Phish make perfect sense, their music spiraling into the deepest, most intricate detail, hashed out over endless practice sessions, a collaboration between Anastasio’s voice and his band-mates’ idiosyncratic musical personalities. Barely five feet, drummer Jon Fishman is all beard and tangled hair. If the LSD chromosome scare had any validity, which it thankfully doesn’t, Fish (as everyone calls him) is in trouble.
“For me, from a pretty young age up until about 21 years old hallucinogenics had a huge place in my life,” Fish will tell a journalist later. “There was a year where pretty much I woke up at 5am, you know, set my alarm for 5am, dropped a couple of tabs of acid and went back to sleep. It would wake me up at 7:30 and I’d go to school. I got my best grades that year and I had a good time. For me, it was like a sense of humor kinda thing. When Phish started, for the first two years that we were together, I pretty much tripped for all our gigs. We didn’t have that many gigs, granted. We mostly spent our time practicing. I was never high for band practice. I never really did smoke much pot.”
Just as Anastasio lays off the Dead, the rigorous drummer lays off the LSD as the band clicks into gear. But, he insists some twenty years later, “I still play with the feeling I got from those experiences, trying to generate wind and fire.” He loves heroic doses but doesn’t hear Terence McKenna’s name until Anastasio brings it up.
“I loved learning multiple rhythms that moved my body in abnormal ways that quickly became normal,” he says. It is Fishman that makes Phish’s music sound weird from the ground up.
Almost immediately after transferring to Goddard in 1986, they stop playing Grateful Dead tunes altogether. The band absorb their lessons, though, as well as everything around them, including covers of songs by fellow Goddard students, like Jim Pollock’s “Dear Mrs. Reagan” and Nancy’s “Halley’s Comet,” and nonsense poetry borrowed from Anastasio’s high school friends and even the band’s recently departed second guitarist. Though Anastasio’s scored-out songs and the band’s fondness for play have far more to do with Frank Zappa than Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s culture is as much a part of Phish as country music is to a young musician growing up in Nashville.
The lyrics to “Fluffhead” that had triggered the Acid Test meltdown came from a poem by a friend of Anastasio’s about seeing a cancer patient at a Dead show, dancing down on the venue floor, bald head covered in cotton balls. They do have an instrumental called “Jerry’s Beard,” an odd bit of composed atonality, but the Dead’s influence will emerge in dozens of ways. Around Goddard, they quickly become stars.
On the earliest known Phish recording of Nancy’s “Halley’s Comet,” taped at an early October 1986 show in the Haybarn, there is an audible cheer as the song begins: already a hit. They’d debuted it a few months earlier and usually Nancy himself joins in, coming onstage to hand-deliver all the couplets about “Cadillac rainbows and lots of spaghetti and I love meatballs so you better get ready.”
But, on this night, Nancy isn’t there. The band arrange Nancy’s layered vocals for themselves, Gordon singing and playing two separate bass lines. Phish absorb new skills as they learn to play it, and the song’s inherent strangeness — a perfect musical expression of its author — re-enforces the band’s growing identity as a product of deepest, weirdest Vermont.
“When I was looking at colleges, I visited 12 of them with my dad, and none of them were like [Goddard],” bassist Mike Gordon remembers, the only member of Phish who doesn’t transfer in, though he commutes to Plainfield a few times a week. “It was like being part of a secret society or something, culturally off the grid. Everyone there was self-structuring their educations, and into unique stuff. There was Bruce Burgess, who was doing poetry, and who could only speak in poetry and not in English, as far as I was concerned.”
Fishman befriends a metalhead named J. Willis Pratt, another divergent personality with a singular musical voice that might sound grinding and odd to many. The numbers on the campus start to swell. There is something happening out there in the woods, something born of the New Earth, and Phish tap into it.
And there’s Nancy. By that time, Nancy Bitterbug Voodoo Coleslaw is no longer a Goddard student. “I’d gotten to a point where I didn’t trust any of the faculty or staff at Goddard, so I wouldn’t talk to any of them. I didn’t care if I got college credit or not, I just wanted to be there and use the resources they had there. And they were like, ‘you can’t be here if you don’t care about college credit.’” He pretty much sticks around anyway.
Nancy sees Phish whenever he can around Goddard and Burlington, which is plenty, and keeps recording whenever he can, too. He remains a figure around campus, his influence fully accepted into Phish’s music alongside Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia and others.
And, unlike the Dead songs, Nancy’s music will stay in Phish’s repertoire more or less permanently. When Phish leave Vermont and grow in popularity, as they will, it is Nancy’s songs that most communicate the place they come from.
“I sang [‘I Didn’t Know’] with them once, while tripping on mushrooms,” Nancy says. “It didn’t work out so well, so from then on they either did without me or with me on drums.” He never gets totally comfortable on stage. He’d sung in choirs in high school, as well as with his friend’s cover band. But that was it for his live performances. He wouldn’t make a compelling live performer, anyway, he thought. How could he possibly recreate his multi part vocals? Or synth-feedback epics like “The Formidable Poseur?”
Not long after Phish debuts “Halley’s Comet,” Nancy — somewhat audaciously, no doubt — composes and records a new song for Phish to perform titled “Snootable Snunshine.” Over twelve minutes of woozy keyboards, complex drum fills, and nonsense lyrics, the song contains a surprisingly innate sense of the Trey Anastasio’s compositional whimsy. Anastasio and Fishman break into hysterics upon hearing it, Nancy’s most epic creation yet.
One of Phish’s new songs, the mushroom-inspired “Divided Sky,” includes a long palindrome with the band playing in odd times backward and then forward (or is it the other way around?) culminating in Gordon and Anastasio jumping up and down in 4/4 counter to the band. But with its hyperspeed time and section changes, Nancy’s “Snootable Snunshine” is even more unlearnable, let alone playable.
Still, not long thereafter, Phish add Nancy’s “I Didn’t Know” to the repertoire, too, their first foray into barbershop.
“I always thought the interesting cast of characters — there in Plainfield and others in Burlington — gave [Phish] its flavor,” Mike Gordon says. At early shows in Burlington, their friends from the UVM radio station bring six giant speakers and mix sound effects throughout the basement of the environmentalist dorm. Vermont seeps into Phish’s music in every way, their oddness as much as the majestic sweep Anastasio conjures with his guitar, a soaring jam-happy variation on Robert Fripp’s sunshine bursts from Brian Eno’s Another Green World.
The gigs keep coming, and Anastasio makes sure the band is always on to something new. They play house parties and Burlington bars (especially Nectar’s) and the occasional commune. One night, they load up Gordon’s hatchback with mini-amps and show up unannounced at University of Vermont frats and perform in their kitchens.
Nancy accompanies the group on a road trip for a show that will go down in band lore as the “Sex Farm” gig, in reference to the Spinal Tap song, though Nancy remembers only the room’s “dry acoustics.”
“Sex farm” is probably not how the members of the Quarry Hill Creative Center, founded in 1946, would describe their life, but it’s another place that Phish pass through. The band’s Deadheadness, in some ways, allows them access to this other Vermont.
Before the band break for the summer of ‘87, they celebrate Mike Gordon’s graduation from UVM with a party at their friends’ place in Shelburne. They set up in the backyard underneath a tent, in front of tie-dye tapestries while their friends sprawl out on the lawn. Others watch from the roof. Dogs wander about. Mike Gordon’s parents had financed a PA for one of his high school bands, and he puts it to good use with Phish. There are monitors. Even the drums have microphones.
With their own PA and light show and soundman (who doubles as a luthier and guitar repair guy) and audience of Vermont hippies and Deadheads — plus families to fall back on if their career fails — Phish are fully independent. Their situation and particular crossroads in American culture are unique. Because of so many unrepeatable factors, they begin to carry forward various threads of the countercultural narrative, half accidentally and perhaps without understanding it entirely.
There are some people dancing at this backyard party, not a lot. It could be the vibe of the afternoon, but probably Anastasio wishes there were more. Those who dance do so like they might be at a Dead show. They boogie. Phish don’t look like the kind of guys who might go out dancing. Or even throw down too hard to the Dead. But dance music is what they’re after, it seems. That’s Anastasio’s goal, and it seems no less audacious or surreal than his fugues and atonality and charted compositions and mushroom tea jam sessions.
He rents a cabin up in the Northeast Kingdom for the summer, moving in with his golden retriever, Marley, and sets a goal of writing music that is both harmonically and rhythmically strange but still danceable. Trey Anastasio has a very specific idea about what makes audiences dance. He already has an audience. Though he’s sworn off listening to his one time hero, Jerry Garcia, Phish find themselves with a completely natural fanbase of Deadheads in Vermont. It’s not only Deadheads who see Phish, but they’re the ones that tend to dance the most and bring their friends.
Anastasio isn’t thinking about these Deadheads figuratively or abstractly when writing the next wave of dance music that will carry Phish and the Northeast Kingdom itself into unimagined territory. He is thinking about them practically and literally. He can’t help it.
Excerpted from Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow, published by Da Capo Press. Available now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.
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