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In Your Eyes: Phish and Rob

on April 10, 2012, 12:12pm
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 In Your Eyes: Phish and Rob

Rob is really excited to talk about Phish in the way that a stock broker would be really excited to talk about his latest D&D match. Like other marginalized groups, being a Phish fan carries a certain kind of guilt that transforms into a torrent of excitement when the environment is free of any kind of judgment. In Rob’s and my environment, this behavior is called “nerding out.” But outside the safe zone, Rob talked about “coming out” as a Phish fan as if liking the band was somehow shameful, a word Aaron Leitko chose for his 2010 article “For indie rockers, ‘jam band’ increasingly no longer a shameful term”.

“He only got the bassist from Real Estate and the drummer from Vampire Weekend to go on record,” says Rob, a freelance science and music writer who worked with Leitko on the piece. “He asked like 10 other bands if they want to talk about Phish and they all declined. Woods was one, Daniel Lopatin another. I’ve seen interviews where Lopatin said it was just a phase. Justin Vernon was in a jam band, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. It is like coming out of the closet.” Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin, said in an interview that he didn’t want to “throw [his former bandmates] under the bus” for liking Phish. Even the drummer from Vampire Weekend was hesitant about giving up other names of people who like jam bands in the Leitko article: “I don’t want to out anybody,” he said.

So it seems no one wants to be associated with Phish, the Vermont-bred jam band that essentially replaced the Grateful Dead in 1995 after Jerry Garcia’s death. I once had an opinion on Phish, and it was based on a very crunchy co-worker in college who used to get high in her car before work, out of a pipe with a Grateful Dead Bear on it, no less. And she had dreads. Before talking with Rob, Phish were a reliable punchline for my friends — a band that I could make the butt of any joke and not have to worry about a Phish fan making me seem uncool. In fact, save for that dreadlocked girl who waited tables with me, I didn’t even talk to a flesh-and-blood Phish fan until Rob.

“Everybody at some point knew a Phish fan,” says Rob, “or possibly was a Phish fan, and just thought of it as a college phase or something. I think people get caught up in the social aspects of it that they forget that there’s a band and making music that they actually might like. I’ve always thought about how to present the music free of the signifiers that say it is Phish.” If stripping away a band’s identity is essential to finding a way into Phish’s music, what makes them so unhip today?

The Problems

My hypocrisy knows no bounds. I scoff at and scold people who use the word “hipster” (“What does that word even mean anymore?”), yet I have no qualms with calling this pony-tailed ne’er-do-well in front of me wearing a baja hoodie and a Zig-Zag t-shirt who’s taking too long with his coffee order a “hippie.” The rotting corpse of the hippie movement of the ’60s and ’70s still stinks of sage and patchouli, a miasma made more pungent by a lingering mix of the wholly ineffective Tom’s deodorant and skanky weed. The gaudy tie-died shirts, the dreaded hair, the hacky sacks and devil sticks, the fucking beads, the toy djembes and bongos, the rope sandals– it’s all so irrelevant now, you know? Hippies used to have huge amounts of cultural capital like hipsters do today, but now hippies are just vestiges of a former movement, hangers-on to the druggy idealism of peace, love, and understanding. And they all love Phish.

This is, of course, a stereotype. Not all Phish fans are hippies, and not all hippies are Phish fans (nor are they all as outrageous as described above), but the awareness of a stereotype doesn’t change the the prevalence of a stigma. Phish are pariahs of both mainstream and indie culture and personae non gretae on most music websites and magazines. They’re the joke that most of us can agree on, a punchline that somehow has stayed fresh for over 20 years. Even against their orthographical wishes, they are a four-letter word among fans, writers, and musicians alike.

E.g. Deerhunter/Atlas Sound indie demi-god Bradford Cox, who in a moment of unbridled mediocrity sodomization, jammed on The Knack’s “My Sharona” for over 50 minutes at a gig in Minneapolis in March. It received some press, and when Cox wanted to clarify his intentions, he spoke with Pitchfork about the performance. Among many other bumper sticker quotes, this sentence stuck out to me: “I am terrified and horrified and shocked that anyone would mention Phish in any article related to me.”

E.g. in preparation for this piece, I had been listening to a lot of Phish on Spotify, which seamlessly posts to my Facebook profile. Three friends made snide remarks on those albums, with “Why?” or “Really?” To be fair, two other friends who I had no idea liked Phish left positive comments, with one recommending another live recording I should listen to.

Now I’m still thinking about why so many people straight-up hate Phish. Does the music empirically suck? Or is it the outmoded culture associated with it? If Phish focus more on “community capital” rather than “cultural capital,” then is any kind of artistic capital fungible, even if it doesn’t align with what is hip? And so then is examining and defining this abstract “capital” a way of defining the importance of sub- or extra-cultural pockets in the music landscape? Is it possible to convince you that Phish’s fan-based and live-show model is actually one of the best models to monetize a band and build a fan base? What if you came away just actually liking Phish?

I bet Rob can make you at least not hate them. It worked with me.

The Cassetes

Rob is 33 years old, married with child, and absolutely doesn’t match the mugshot of a stereotypical Phish fan. He’s just a well-groomed dude who writes excellently about science, sportsmusic, and of course, Phish, where Rob runs Tumblr and Twitter accounts with the goal of reviewing every Phish show since 1993. As of publishing, he’s all the way up to 7/21/1993 — well over 80 shows. He’s never smoked pot or done any psychedelics while listening to Phish, he openly admits Phish’s shortcomings (“I have no illusions about the fact that they have the worst band name” or “They’re not as good as they were in the late 90’s” or “They have horrrrrrible ballads.”) But his exuberance for Phish bubbled up often during our conversation. He’s an enthusiastic pragmatist, not an apologist, and I’d like to think that some of excitement echoed off me as I oscillated between a dyed in the denim skeptic and a new convert, indulging sycophantic trances of questioning like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t help it — Phish just began to make sense to me.

We talked at length about the macro-aspects of Phish and “what they mean” in the current cultural zeitgeist and whatever, but the first door that opened with Phish was understanding that Phish is about collecting and archiving — which is right in my nerdy wheelhouse.

“The first time I heard Phish was my sophomore year of high school, and it was a girl in my US History class who gave me a tape. I think I had a Grateful Dead shirt on, and I didn’t even like the Grateful Dead– it was just something you could get at Kohl’s. They were just selling tie-dye shirts in Fall of ‘95 because Jerry Garcia had just died. I probably bought a tie-dyed shirt because it was the cool thing to do. But she was a year older, she was really cute, and I was really excited that she was talking to me. And she said, ‘Have you ever heard of Phish?’ and so she recorded two or three shows on a tape.”

Like the Grateful Dead before them, Phish encouraged amateur taping at the show, and those tapes became fan currency in the mid to late ’90s as the internet started to invent itself. Strictly forbidden for sale, fans would trade tapes over UseNet groups in exchange for other shows or blank cassettes and postage.

“It would take a few weeks for a show to get to you, and I would check the mailbox every day to see if any tapes arrived. It was the community and the projects of wanting to collect all these shows. And then also getting sucked into the sort of cult atmosphere of it because it is — when you have that many shows and this very defined culture built up around a band, it is very addictive to start finding out some of the history of the band and the mythology of the band and the culture that goes around it. People will talk about this show from ‘94 that you gotta hear and it will come in the mail and you listen to it like crazy for the next week. And so you just get caught up in that.”

The message board is archived at rec.music.phish, and you can find Rob’s first post on there from Oct 20 1995. (n.b. in the post, Rob claimed he had tapes that he “borrowed from a friend” as opposed to them being gifted by a cute girl. I chose not to fact check this. Also there is Rob’s ideas for songs Phish should cover.”‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version, it’d be perfect!” Turns out that Phish teased it in 1998). Some of Rob’s first music writing could be found in these archives. Seventeen years ago, he was doing the same thing he was doing now: posting capsule reviews of Phish shows online for other fans in the news group since his first show in the summer of ‘96.

“People would come back from the shows and post the setlists and little capsule reviews, you know, ‘They went through this funky section, they went through this space-y section.’ It almost felt like your duty to come back and write a review. You couldn’t hear the shows right away — it would take months for the tapes to get distributed around the country. It was like a weird Internet oral history thing.”

Like a lot of kids, the first thing I collected were sports cards, specifically basketball. In our circle, it was about trading your cards to collect all the different types of cards for one player. My friend collected Jason Kidd. I collected — for some reason or another — Isaiah Rider (who incidentally had a really decent turn on the B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret comp with “Funk in the Trunk”). The thrill of opening a pack of Upper Deck cards and fanning them out on the floor still rings today.

I reconnected with that idea and started listening to all the versions of “Stash”, a relatively popular live jam, that I could find. Just at my Spotify fingertips, there are 15 versions of the songs, ranging from a little 0:55 “tease” to a 19:28 “jam.” Just like the difference between Fleer Ultra, Upper Deck, and the way shittier Topps, each “Stash” jam has its own image and worth. Maybe the ’98 Hampton Comes Alive version suits you because Trey keeps his guitar tone warm and jazzy and the band digs into the same groove the entire time. Or maybe you like the Winston/Salem version from 11/23/97 where the band skips off the planet into a space-psych jam full of looping effects, dissonant wah-wah pedal licks, and the cha-cha groove is tossed into an industrial German Can thing. No matter the version — and there are 372 of them — it seems like the audience can never decide whether to clap two times or three times during a call and response bit in the song.

In keeping with sports analogies, Rob likens the addiction to seeing Phish live to keeping up with a season of baseball: “It’s like, if you’re a big baseball fan, the rules of the game are the same, and it’s the same people and the same plays, but it’s all in a different order. You never know what’s going to happen — sometimes it really sucks. And the fact that it can be really bad makes the good games even better. You’ll watch a blowout and it’s terrible, but the next game they’ll come back from eight runs down and it’s the best game ever. And then you get hooked into it because you want to go to every show you can, because the one you don’t go to is going to be the best show ever.”

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