I am just now old enough to know what, and how, to give myself the things I’ve grown to need.
This Summer I gave myself a very great gift, one that, now that it has been bequeathed, seems completely foreordained. This Summer with Phish was more than just a month on the road with a rock band. More than just a tour across parts of America I was unfamiliar with. More than a spiritual journey. More than a shit ton of incredible music. More than a drug-addled escapade of sex, debauchery, pranksterism and misanthropy.
This Summer was the first Summer of the rest of my life.
It was a time to bond with my closest friend and and escape the obligations, responsibilities, stresses and anxieties of my life in Manhattan. To realize that my time in New York City, my home, is quite limited. It was a time to solidify the friendships I’ve made this year and finalize the promise of Please Me Have No Regrets, the creative project I initiated alongside Andy last year. It was a time to break free of the luxurious nest I’ve built for myself over the past several years. It was a time to re-calibrate my priorities, to look upon them with new eyes. And to redirect where I should direct the considerable stores of energy and power at my disposal. Phish showed me all that, and so much more.
What is remarkable is that despite knowing that I would one day allow myself this, I sat last night aboard American Airlines flight 160 from LAX to JFK on a random Thursday in August, eyes red from crying all afternoon, in total and complete awe of how it all happened. Of how much grander and fulfilling this success is now that is has come to fruition. How this Summer came together. And how far beyond even my wildest expectations the reward would be. I got what I came for. I got what I signed up for. It is exactly what I wanted it to be, and at a certain point, needed it to be.
But I got so more than I expected and received it so very differently than I thought possible. That is the biggest present. Receiving it in such a far different manner than I thought I would. The outcome is approximately the same but the method of delivery, like the rain at Jones Beach, came sideways, came from the bottom up, showered me when I wasn’t looking for it, came through the cracks and crevices of consciousness, in the off-hours, when I slept, when I woke, when I ran and did Yoga, when I gambled, doubled-down or stood pat, when I fucked, when I snorted and inhaled, crushed, gobbled and licked, when I ate, when I showered, when I was high and when I was dry.
Phish has been together for 30 years, a number that runs antithetical to just about every story we’ve ever been told about rock and roll. As American fans of American music, we know the narrative arcs and story lines of rock history: about the dying young and the fading away—into obsolescence. We know about the wasted talent and other follies of youth, the tales of addiction, premature death, unpaid taxes, accidents and run-ins with the law. About the greed of executives and the corporations they serve and its deleterious effect on creativity, and the sacrifices artists make to the cultural arbiters.
And not just only in rock and roll. Stretching back through all of human society, art history is a history of promise and loss, betrayal and compromise, of lies and deceptions, of success against odds and the failures due to them.
In our current socio-cultural environment, Phish continues to defy everything we know to be true about art and commerce, about the spectacle of modern life, about religion, politics and class; About movement, dance, music, light and “energy;” About romance and travel and meaning. About purpose and faith and the search for authentic experience in a world increasingly devoid of any.
Our “Empire of Illusion,” to use journalist Chris Hedges’ phrase, is one that snuffs out any and all authentic experiences.
For 30 years, that is, an entire generation, Phish has been creating some of the most vivid, sophisticated, difficult, and misunderstood art. They’ve been making their art in direct opposition to our culture’s dominant modes of creation: quick, easy, cheap, scalable, palatable. War, sex, love, art. As Steely Dan sang just a decade ago, “Everything must go.”
The artist creates primarily because he or she must. And they do so in order reveal something to themselves that they cannot see or feel on their own. The artist also creates for the viewer/ consumer of their art to take something from, a message/ reflection/ feeling or momentary “thing,” that cannot be replicated elsewhere or in any other fashion. The artist, whether intentional or not, speaks to, and on behalf of the society in which that art is created.
This is what defies the commodity aspect of any true art. It exists only there. A poster of “Starry Night” cannot and will never have the same effect as viewing the actual artwork hanging on the fourth floor of the MOMA in Midtown Manhattan. (I’m there often but usually move past Van Gogh in favor of Cezanne)
Phish’s art exists only in the moment, at the show. You have to get up and go, if you want the full ride. Most don’t. Most don’t want to let the music fill them up and instruct them how to live. Most music doesn’t even have that power, or want it.
Phish’s message, ultimately, is to be our own Phish. Be the Phish of ourselves. For a generation at least, and hopefully for the rest of our lives, we have to defy the odds against us, we have to communicate purely and honestly, we have to find our families, our true families. We have to convince others to come along. We must evangelize.
We have to fight against the so many who say we can’t have IT, who deny us because they refuse to give it to themselves, are trapped or too scared and helpless to get it for themselves. If they can’t have it…
We have to break open the doors we’ve spent our lives closing and sail, like pirates, the seas of our own possibilities. Phish taught me to realize that the energy that I put out is always returned to me in various forms. I never know how, and I never know from who or why. But it is ALWAYS returned to me, therefore, I must make sure that my output is pure and good and honest. That is evacuated from me with the best intentions and the purest ideals in mind.
Towards the end of tour I found myself discussing the lessons of the road with friends who were unable to make it out West. For those who don’t know Phish’s tours usually start in the East and end out West, for important reasons too. Keeping in touch with friends, fans and phans throughout the country has been one of the most important aspects of my work in the Phish community. I have met my true family over this past year. From North Carolina to St. Louis, to Frisco, Colorado, Santa Cruz and beyond, I know that anywhere I go, I have family to call upon.
Phish has played for 30 years. And I’ve been aware of them for 15 of those years. It took me this long, THIS LONG, to realize why I was so drawn to the band, their art, and the community they sustain. Phish is not just a rock band. And they are not just spiritualists or shamans, they are not just communicators. They are men, humans, Americans, musicians, friends, lovers. They are artists, individuals, companions, fellow travelers. Phish are pirates in a world that has pushed such miscreants off the edge of the map.
I’ve decoded this message and reformulated it for myself as: what will I do with the next 30 years of MY life? Where will I go? Where will I live and more importantly, how will I live my life? Who will I be with? What compromises am I willing to make? Are they even necessary? (answer: No!)
What are my goals and who can I bring along to help me achieve them? Who can I build my life alongside and who am I supposed to help? Who will be in my family? Who won’t?
Once I became acclimatized to life on tour, to the rhythms of the days, shows most nights, days full of travel or relaxation, or days that simply went on and never ended, the gains began to accrue faster and faster. Once I tapped into what it was I was looking for, and how it was being proffered by the band, the tour became easier. I first had to attune myself to their frequency, not only musically, but emotionally, physically, creatively, functionally, psychologically even. Once we survived Chicago, which given the circumstances is really saying something, we were tapped in. We were reading from the book, nightly. We knew what was going on, why and how.
As Phish toured some of the West Coast’s most beautiful outdoor arenas, pockets opened up in their music, in their stage performance, in their onstage demeanor, moods, and peculiarities, that I could read them instantly. I could read their energy levels, their frustrations, their moods and most importantly their connections to one another and us. Once I had this firmly in my mind bank, the tour began to take on a different level of importance. And I simply let it happen. I was able to surrender and be carried by a thick musical force, a life force, like some giant cruise ship that must be tugged into port. This is how I felt. As if some imaginary tether had been fixed onto the very center of my being and I had simply to give into it and let it take me where I was supposed to go.
Phish began to narrate my life. By the time the Gorge rolled around, Phish’s music became more than just the music I was listening to every night. It wasn’t the “soundtrack” of my life. The music was my life. All the questions and answers, all the mini dramas and daily decisions, the blown opportunities, the momentary successes, the peaks and valleys. The futures I could imagine, and the pasts that I had forgotten.
It was all there, in every show, good or bad, night after night. Everything that my life was made up of I found again at the concerts, through the concerts, in the concerts, and with them.
And what’s more? Phish was showing me how to live my life, day to day. All I ever had to do was listen to the music. If they wanted me to celebrate on a given evening, they would emphasize the celebratory songs of their catalog. If they wanted me to party, if they wanted me to strut my stuff, to rock out, they would send me off to the night with an incendiary “Character Zero” encore. If they wanted me to be spiritual with them, they would perform magic, onstage, for me and with me. One night Trey asked me to howl at the moon like a raving lunatic. Along with 14,000 other people, I obliged, and without a hint of irony, I turned the fuck around and howled at the moon.
And guess what? That howling? It did something to me. Looking up at yellow moon, and back at the stage, my eyes and neck pivoting between this lunar object that seemed to emerge from total blackness, back towards a group of four musicians directing their energy at the moon. And in between us? A great crowd, an army, a people, a nation; being asked to howl, howl, howl at the moon, like some ancient ceremony. It was that. It was ancient. It was human. It was a communion.
On the last night of Tour, my family joined us for a beautiful evening at the Hollywood Bowl. My father came to his first Phish show, came to see this thing his son has so forcefully and unabashedly clung to. He had the time of his life, faking a good time for the first few songs until “Scent of a Mule” and then “Ocelot” gripped him for real. He started to dance. He started to engage his limbic system. He started to cease worrying about his children (my sister who lives out in LA was also with us) and just enjoy himself, and enjoy the fact that his kids would be OK, that his son knew what he was doing, was on his own course, and plotting it strategically.
I thought Phish might “phone in” their last show of tour, after San Fran, after Gorge, after Tahoe, no one would have blamed them. But they didn’t. They played a beautiful concert, in the perfect setting and they let Chris Kuroda work his magic on the Hollywood Bowl bandshell.The music was fresh and tight. And then they bookended their tour by playing “Harry Hood,” the same song they played in Bangor, Maine just over a month ago to close out their opening night. And “Harry” went places man. It just went and went and went. I went.
And it didn’t rain once.