Structuring A LIVE ONE

(Or: A reader’s guide to my listener’s guide)

My (second) Phish book, PHISH’S ‘A LIVE ONE,’ is out now from Bloomsbury on the 33–1/3 label. It was written over the better part of a year, and is structured according to both (1) a deep plan and (2) spontaneous impulses I can’t name or indeed recall. In other words, its structure reflects its subject matter.

But the book isn’t really about A Live One.

Rather, it’s my best attempt, after years of writing about Phish (mostly) for other fans, at communicating to non-initiates the experience — intensely private and joyfully shared — of total immersion in Phish’s improvisatory art. ALO itself is the occasion for the work, and the book circles back to it every chapter, but a lot of those 32,000 words are about Phish in general, their inspirations and influences, the fandom, and above all, what I take to be their and our shared project: ecstatic transformation that centers on the music but ends up going far beyond it.

So here’s the track-by-track breakdown.

The epigraphs are quotes from writer David Milch and chaos magician Phil Hine, referring to the twin impulses, in (respectively) literary and magical endeavours, toward both logical analysis and ‘an emotional presentation … of what will ultimately contradict reason.’ Setting up the book’s repeated movement between celebration of Phish’s discipline and seriousness of purpose, on one hand, and their ‘exceptionally silly’ lyrics and culture and presentation and overall atmosphere of absurdism on the other.

Then a brief bit of biographical background, in a mini-chapter that takes its title from one of my favourite books.

Chapter 1, You Can Feel Good, starts with a ‘recap’ of the jam in the ALO version of ‘Harry Hood’ — this is a style of fan-writing that you find all over the and the archives. The book circles back to this ‘Hood’ jam several times, including an extended consideration in ‘The Method, Part 2.’ After the play-by-play, some devil’s-advocate stuff: the section called ‘(you can feel ambivalent too)’ presents the case against A Live One, then closes by announcing my intention, or at least willingness, to play ‘witness for the defense.’ (Funny little irony: when preparing to canonize the recently deceased, the Catholic Church actually does invite a ‘devil’s advocate’ to present the case against sainthood.)

Chapter 2, Quiet Rebels (the title is taken from Trey Anastasio’s speech inducting Genesis into the R&R Hall of Fame), is the book’s longest by far, and after the fannish presentation of ch.1, it’s also the least directly Phish-related — the ‘history chapter,’ my hidden reason for writing the book. After explaining why the Grateful Dead have only a couple of cameos in the book, ch.2 attempts to situate Phish in a couple of traditions: experimental collective improvisation (think Mingus, Ornette, electic Miles, etc.) and fusion, the latter understood not as a style or genre but as a permissive attitude toward musical boundary-crossing. There’s a section on postpunk, then a look at Phish’s early oddities, the ‘White Tape’ demo and their proper debut Junta.

And then there’s a bit about ‘High Weirdness’ and ‘the new weird America,’ analogizing Phish and the Dead to the SubGenius and Discordians, respectively. It’s a deep dive into several private fixations. It was the hardest chapter to write by a huge margin.

Whereas the third chapter, The Method, Part 1, was the easiest. It’s a minute-by-minute breakdown of the composed and improvised sections of ‘Stash’ (track 3 onALO). That track is the clearest example of Phish’s tension/release method of the time. This is the only ‘technical’ chapter in the book; I tried hard to keep it accessible while including enough analytical payload for music-literate readers. I’m sure it will put off some folks, but if nothing else it’ll establish the book as something other than fannish celebration.

Ch.3 also introduces the concept of ‘improvisatory stakes,’ by which I mean the degrees of freedom which the players are afforded by the performer/audience contract. The book argues that Phish play for freakishly high improvisatory stakes. This is one of the book’s primary claims, though most of its emotional energy is invested elsewhere.

Then the chapter that friends cautioned me about writing, but which seemed necessary: the fourth, Average White Band. Phish are often dinged for being the ‘whitest band in the world.’ It begins with Anastasio’s defensive account of his own musical upbringing and his antagonistic relationship with his supposed forerunners (Garcia, Hendrix), then works changes on notions of whiteness, appropriation, syncretism, and authenticity — with a long passage that I didn’t expect to write, about the revelatory ‘Dave (Matthews) & Trey’ trip to Africa for VH1 in 2004. This chapter talks about ‘Montana’ and ‘Bouncing Around the Room.’ The title of one section is a line from Jurassic Park.

Chapter 5: Finally the Punks Are Taking Acid. (The title comes from a Flaming Lips album; the Lips feature in the ch.2 narrative.) The ‘weirdest’ in the book. It is a series of numbered paragraphs — not quite a ‘listicle,’ sorry — loosely grouped into three sections (‘Shock,’ ‘Persuade,’ and… fans, go ahead and guess the third). It’s about the 31-minute ‘Tweezer’ on disc two and ‘psychedelia’ and psychotropism more genearlly, and is (I’ve just realized, looking at the table of contents) the start of the book’s ‘second disc.’ It’s impressionistic writing, a jam rather than a composition, though the structure of the chapter is meant to mirror the structure of the ‘Tweezer’ jam. Also difficult to write. The last sentence, #36 (three choruses of twelve bars…), reflects my understanding, private and provisional, of the deep nature of (my) Phish fandom.

Now back to more straightforward prose in Chapter 6, Long Time. It’s about Anastasio’s extended compositions, and also the nature of time in improvisation; my plan was to situate Anastasio in a tradition of ambitious American vernacular longform composers, but the book’s center of gravity is improvisation, so I was pulled in that direction instead. I got to refer to my Masters thesis and borrow a joke from Rocky Horror. The last sentence of this chapter took me by surprise; I didn’t know I knew (or anyway thought) those words until I wrote them. I think I still think them.

Can’t This Wait ’til I’m Old (the seventh chapter) is about youth musiculture and Phish fandom, and spins out from the last words of chapter 6. It analogizes Phish’s ‘Gamehendge’ songs to the ‘mythology’ episodes of The X-Files — makes sense, right? — and includes a celebratory account of the ways fans get directly and indirectly involved in Phish’s onstage improvisations. The words ‘magic circle’ appear (attributed somewhat pedantically to Huizinga, its original source; I cut the footnote explaining that the term’s meaning for game studies, and so for me, comes from Salen and Zimmerman’s canonical Rules of Play). It ends on a sentimental note about ‘Phishheads,’ and its final footnote is a tribute to Mr Bob Weir.

Then there’s The Method, Part 2, the least shapely chapter in the book to my eyes, comparing the structures of ‘Hood’ and ‘Slave’ and returning finally to the climactic ‘Hood’ jam. The last line refers to a girl named Suzy we once knew.

Twenty Years Later, the penultimate chapter, brings the band’s story more or less up to the present in capsule form, and locates Phish’s late–90s transformation in experiments likeSurrender to the Air and the ‘Blob’ section of Billy Breathes (rather than their post-Remain in Light fun experiments, my usual focus in such discussions). It was originally going to end the book.

But I realized late in the first draft that I hadn’t written directly about the last song, ‘The Squirming Coil.’ I justified this to myself at the time as follows: ‘Hood’ and ‘Slave’ are the big set closers; ‘Coil’ is the encore. At the last minute I realized that the book wanted an encore too, to avoid going out on a heavy note (‘Twenty Years Later’ ends with another version of my old riff on the orthogonality of joy and pleasure).

So there’s a two-page coda called All of the Places and People Belong. The title is from Trey’s widely derided ‘piss break’ song, ‘Joy.’ The style of the chapter is meant to mirror the gentle lines of Page’s ‘Coil’ outro solo; its final words, as you’d hope, are one last Phish lyric, meant to function the same way as the musical raspberry that closes Lawn Boy. (That album’s opener and closer are the reverse of A Live One’s. Patterns everywhere, if you look for them.)

In closing I recommend some books, a video, and some officially released shows, and thank some people.

The word ‘dweeb’ appears four times in the final text.

And that’s that.