Control for Smilers Can't Be Bought
December 22, 1994 - San Diego Reader
by Steve Silberman
That's what guitarist Carlos Santana told Trey Anastasio he saw in his mind's eye, watching Anastasio's band, Phish, rip it up, when Phish played with Santana's band at a gig in 1992.
"When you guys were playing," Santana told the affable younger copper-haired guitarist from Vermont, "I was picturing the audience as this sea of flowers, the music was the water, and you guys were the hose." After seeing five shows of the band's recent swing through California, I bet that I know just what Anastasio's head was doing at the moment that vision appeared to the elder guitarist and mystic, no stranger to the Hose himself:
Bobbing up and down. Like an expert swimmer cresting the surface to draw a breath, and down again for the thrust forward. Or like a weekend air guitarist blissing out, doing the "Stairway to Heaven"-fu. Trey Anastasio, you could say, plays air guitar... with a guitar.
And in a roomful of very happy people, Anastasio grins like he's the happiest of them all.
What sort of band is this Phish, with their goo(ph)y name, their jams that plunge headlong into the woolly unexpected and sound nothing like the Grateful Dead (to whom they're inevitably compared, as if the Dead invented jamming), their drummer who busts loose with howling solos on an Electrolux vacuum cleaner for a cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" while cavorting in a batik sun dress, their Jabberwockian lyrics (what could "poke a double decker on llama, taboot, llama taboot taboot" mean anyway?), their epic song-cycle about a land called Gamehendge where a race of peaceable lizards has been driven nearly to extinction by a despot named Wilson, their extended family of "happy phisherpholk" on the Internet, their selling out of Madison Square Garden for the night before New Year's after ten years of playing clubs?
To paraphrase Grand Funk Railroad (those ubermenschen of '70s padded-crotch rock who Phish may get around to covering someday - hopefully with Electrolux and frock) - they're an American band.
If you were an American band, and it was Halloween, and you wanted to celebrate by "dressing" your music in musical costume, who would you "dress up" as? If you were Phish, you'd ask your fans - er, "phans" - to take a vote. And you'd go all the way, and play not just one tune, but an entire album - the Beatles' double "white album." And that was just the second set of three that Phish played that night.
You haven't lived until you've heard "Revolution 9" - no, not the one with the anti-Maoist lyrics, the other one collaged by John and Yoko, twirling tape snippets around pencils in the studio - with a vacuum-cleaner lead.
Does it help to explain that these four guys were subjected to their primal musical imprints during the American epoch when Gerald Ford was Commander-in-Chief, Marcia Brady was a sex symbol, Space Food Stix were a meal, and the words of the prophets were written on the disco ball?
Probably not. But when Trey's head is bobbing, and the Hose is cranked open to eleven, trust me: you don't care. The music, in wave after inspired wave, washes over you. And the trick to surfing it - as one of Phish's most comprehensible lyrics advises - is "to surrender to the flow."
"When I walk into a record store," said Mike Barrett, a strapping sprinter at La Jolla High School sporting a hand-inked t-shirt that reads I Phish, Therephor I Am, "I feel like the CDs should be organized into these bins: Rock and Roll, Jazz, Classical, Blues, Rap - and Phish. They take elements from lots of other kinds of music, but they have a sound that's their own."
Pigeonholing music is a thankless proposition, Player-esque folly. OK, so Phish is like Zappa meets Flatt and Scruggs under a heavy-metal moon. Start again. James Brown, Little Feat and Syd Barrett meet teenage Pat Metheny and funk up his hairdo in the back room of a vacuum repair shop.
Drummer Jon "Fish" Fishman put it another way at the after-show meet-and-greet following the band's two-night stand at the Spreckles Theater on December 7th and 8th. "I figured out awhile ago," confided Fishman modestly, "that I'd rather sound like myself, and suck, than sound like anybody else and be good."
Happily for the pholk who follow the band from venue to venue in vehicles decoupaged with the band's piscine logo, Fishman doesn't (except when he whips out the Electrolux) suck. In fact, the level of musical sophistication in this band, and the breadth of musical reference the four members of Phish can draw on in the heat of an inspired moment, is astounding.
When the band played Santa Fe Civic on the night of the lunar perigee in the spring of 1992, they jammed all night in and out of the jazz standard "How High the Moon," a musical witticism that probably few listeners in the mostly youthful audience picked up on. Even when playing their own songs, however, keyboardist Page McConnell is apt to insert a quote from, say, a TV theme song, or a Gershwin tune, or a Bach fugue, into the serpentine crevices of a jam like "Fluffhead."
Whether Mike Barrett and his buddies - like 16-year-old Sutton Papanikolas, learning to play bluegrass banjo after hearing Bela Fleck's guest spot on Phish's "Poor Heart" - get every reference is not the point. Someday Mike and his peers may stumble onto the primal Art Tatum sessions with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes - a laboratory where much of modern jazz piano vocabulary was coined, studded, Phish-like, with quips from musical sources "high" and "low" - and when they get there, they'll be prepared to dig the treasures there, by the acute level of listening they're being exposed to, now, in Phish.
Listening is what Phish is about. Each musical signpost - whether it's the notes of a rehearsed cue that directs the bandmembers (and the clued-in portion of the audience) to flop down on the floor, or an impromptu pause in mid-measure that hangs off a musical cliff for a full two minutes, or the ghost of a melody that causes the jam to veer in a certain direction - is like a little alarm clock saying, "Pay attention!"
And one of the things that the members of Phish are paying attention to now is their roots.
The four members of Phish - guitarist Anastasio, keyboardist McConnell, drummer Fishman, and bassist Mike Gordon - are crossing the threshhold into their 30s, and they are children of their age. The gods of '70s rock, from Led Zeppelin to Genesis to Parliament-Funkadelic, loom large in their histories, and it is to their credit that they turn all of the music they heard as they came of age to their own purposes. They are, as one song puts it, "voraciously alternate."
When Anastasio moved from New Jersey to Connecticut to enroll at Taft, a tony prep school, he found himself a Zeppelin-head surrounded by Deadheads. Another band that made an impression on the burgeoning guitarist and hockey jock was King Crimson, then a monster unit boasting the twin-axe shred-o-rama of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Pat Metheny was also out on the road with his first Group in those days, a lean, straight-ahead outfit compared to the lambada-lounge extravaganza he presently languishes in, and Anastasio saw him play ten times. Anastasio also, finally, gave in to the urgings of his schoolmates, and went to a Grateful Dead show.
"I was bored to tears. I thought it was the most boring thing I'd ever seen in my life," Anastasio recalls. "But then I went again, and I thought it was really good. That year, I saw the Dead probably five or six times, and there was this one night that I went, and it was just surreal, awesome - tight, hooked up, direction, going places."
Another band that touched a deep place in the young guitarist was the South African vocal troupe Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who became a household word after their silken, multi-layeredharmonies and percussive mouth-music elevated Paul Simon's wistful self-analysis on Graceland to the sublime. All of these groups, in one way or another, sowed seeds in Anastasio for the band that would be Phish.
Meanwhile, the young Jon Fishman was running from his bedroom, where his stereo was blasting Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," to the basement, where his first drumkit was. Fishman credits his having to keep the beat in his mind as he ran up and down the stairs with the birth of his musical imagination, the ability to "carry the whole band in my head."
As for Mike Gordon, he claims the only two bass players he ever tried to sound like were the Dead's Phil Lesh, and Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic. They may seem like an unlikely pairing of ancestors, but Gordon's articulate thunder reminds you that both the Dead and Funkadelic have always been about getting down - or as one of the Dead's drummers once put it, the collaborative creation of "a monstrous groove that would eat the audience."
The roots of the band's formation go back to the University of Vermont in the early '80s, where, like so many young musicians hungry to play, Anastasio was frustrated by the uninspired academic emphasis of the music program.
"The department was geared towards creating music teachers rather than musicians," he recalls. Anastasio eventually found a suitable mentor in Ernie Stires, a neo-classical composer who instructed him in composition, and opened his ears to jazz. Anastasio also hosted a radio show at UVM called the Ambient Alarm Clock, which ran from 5 until 9 AM on Monday mornings, inspired in part by his friend Ann LaBruciano, who had her own show, and would get three turntables spinning simultaneously, superimposing spoken-word recordings offering clashing viewpoints on the same subject. Anastasio did similar things, with music. "It was," says Anastasio, "like a band playing, a jam."
Anastasio tacked signs on the walls at school soliciting players interested in forming a band, and Gordon, Fishman, and another guitar player answered the call. The first gig they drew was an ROTC formal dance. "They hated us," Anastasio admits. Their jams were jeered, and eventually one girl made a run to her room to get her Michael Jackson tapes. But they got paid.
McConnell was then at Goddard College, which was an estimable earthy-crunchy liberal arts outpost withering under the sunlamp of the Reagan Revolution. When the student body shrunk to 35, the trustees came up with a pragmatic solution: pay the students to recruit other students. McConnell earned $100 for lassooing Anastasio and Fishman into Goddard, where Anastasio was given all the time he needed to work on his fugues.
Then McConnell wanted into the band. Though Anastasio didn't think the addition of keyboards was a good idea at first, he relented after realizing that McConnell could actually play this atonal stuff he was writing, and found that McConnell had brought in with him a wonderful gift beyond his chops: jazz. Soon, the band had added a bunch of standards to their songbook.
The other guitarist left soon afterward to get religion with Jimmy Swaggart, and for the next decade, Phish worked the clubs in and around Burlington - notably a springboard for many local bands called Nectar's, its owner immortalized by the title of their first album after signing with Elektra, A Picture of Nectar. Phish began building an out-of-town following in places like the Wetlands in New York City, where Deadheads between tours found Phish's improvisatory gusto, and sense of adventure, worthy of making Phish their second-favorite band - as at Dead shows or jazz performances, every show's setlist was different, the jams making each night as unique as a Vermont snowflake.
In 1992, the band was signed by Elektra. Though their popularity is mushrooming at a rate that alarms some of the phans who've been with Phish for the long haul, the band's mission is still nearly as much about community-building as it is about playing. The lighting and sound crews have been with the band for "tons of years," and their guitars and basses are custom-designed by soundman Paul Languedoc.
One key factor in their growing popularity is that Phish allow taping of their concerts, and tapes - both DAT and analog - are traded widely. (The success of both Phish and the Dead in building fanatically loyal audiences by allowing tapers to set up their rigs at shows should lay forever to rest the recording industry's conventional un-wisdom that concert taping cuts into album sales - at least for groups whose concerts are not glorified lip-synch of the albums.)
Phish has also benefited by cruising the infobahn. Shelly Culbertson, who staffs the band's management office, reads and responds to postings on the phans' own Usenet newsgroup rec.music.phish on her own time - as well as being a participant in the Phish-related "horde" conference on the WELL, a particularly hip and erudite online community based in Sausalito. There is an online Phish FAQ, containing the answer to the oft-asked question, "What are they singing in 'You Enjoy Myself'?" as well as many interviews and lyric files available by ftp from archive.phish.net. (The answer is, by the way, "Wash-a Uffizi, drive me to Firenze," a punning reference to an incident in Italy involving a cab driver with stinky feet.) The band also publishes a newsletter, and answers many of the letters sent to them personally.
Thus far, their success has not driven them into isolation: After the first night at Spreckles, the bandmembers were hanging out with tourheads at the Doubletree Bar - where the bearded, diminuitive Fishman, who had left his ID in his hotel room, got carded by an ultra-scrupulous waitress and was not served. Many of the tourheads are on a first-name basis with the band, and the band's organization has even been known to "kick down" after-show passes to phans who pitch in with recycling duties on tour, to help keep the scene clean.
This contact with the phans is mutually beneficial. The phans get to meet the musicians, which keeps things in perspective. It's hard to think of Jon Fishman as anything but a very goofy human being when he's sitting in front of you in a t-shirt talking about the time in high school when he got really baked and listened to Fripp and Eno's "Swastika Girls" - "I got physically ill. I had to go out into the hall and sit on a stack of recycled newspapers. Then, I bought the record at a garage sale, and every now and then I would look at the cover and get scared - 'Ooooooh!' - and never play it. One day, years later, I played it. You know what? It's really cool!"
And the band also benefits by getting the phans' input directly, a fact driven home to Anastasio in San Diego on this tour which will affect the band's bookings on the next tour. "I'm the chooser of what we're going to play," says Anastasio. "To me, it's like composing, and I really like composing, and I don't get to do it when I'm on the road, so it's my little way of making little suites every night."
"You know what helps me? I really like doing two-nighters," he continues, "because hanging out with people in San Diego after the first show wrote the second night's songlist for me. I felt that I knew who was in the audience, and what they were going through. I had been hanging out on the same street that they had been hanging out on all day, and going to the same bars the night before."
There was one arresting moment in the Spreckles Theater, during a hyperactive electrified bluegrass workout called "Possum," when Anastasio took a solo unplugged - the only sounds audible in the theater were the guitarist's fingers sliding along the strings, and the buzzing of the amps. It's a tribute to the seriousness of this band that even when Anastasio is playing air guitar with a guitar, he's really playing, and the pulse of the music is unbroken.
The abrupt pauses, and the a capella and acoustic bluegrass interludes featured in many Phish shows, Anastasio explains, "developed from a general desire to merge with the audience as much as possible. A lot of times, if a set's been going on for awhile, I might suddenly feel that we've got to make some really organic connection, get the bearings straight. When I'm standing out there [singing a capella], I can really make eye contact with the audience, see who's out there."
"I had a really incredible experience once, when we were playing in Chicago," recounts Anastasio. "We did one of those pauses, and it was a really special night, and I was envisioning the music flying around the room. You know the concept of being the hose, and the music is flowing through you. We were doing 'Divided Sky,' and I felt like the music was these sheets that were zinging across the air in front of my face, and all I had to do to play was to jump on one, and let it do the playing. I got to that section where we usually do the pause, and I realized that just because I wasn't playing notes with my hands didn't mean I couldn't still be a vehicle for this music. I suddenly decided I was going to have the same feeling as when I feel the music going through me and coming out through the guitar, but without making any noticeable sound, so I started imagining it zipping out through the middle of my chest into the audience. And right when I started doing that, the place erupted. It was the wildest thing. We were just standing up there doing nothing for 45 seconds, motionless, with no sound, and I suddenly realized that I could continue jamming in silence. And when I did it, the place went, 'RAHHH.' I was writing in my journal about it for a week."
There was another arresting moment outside the Theater, before the second night's show. I was interviewing phans out on Broadway, when suddenly the sidewalk was swarming with SDPD's phinest. And not only the sidewalk - there was a helicopter beaming a high-intensity searchlight down on the little groups of Phishheads, suddenly scattering before a pack of very unmellow looking German Shepherds.
I was told by several phans that one young tourhead, Dan, had been crossing the street against the light, when an officer decided to make an example of him and handcuff him for jaywalking, telling him that if he didn't resist, there would be no problem - this following an afternoon of random pocket searches of phans gathered out front, yielding several citations for possession of marijuana. When one of the other phans asked the officer to let Dan go, Dan, and several other phans, were roughed up - including a pregnant 16-year-old girl who was thrown to the pavement and arrested, and another young woman who was shoved into a newspaper rack. Apparently the specter of a dozen rowdy vegan jaywalkers struck fear into the hearts of the officers, who called for enough reinforcements to quell a prison riot.
That night, the band opened the show with "Makisupa Policeman," a dub-style jaunt with the repeating phrase, "policeman came to my house," which made clear that the band was aware of what had gone down on the doorstep of "their" house. When Anastasio did a slow dance at the edge of the stage, it was an elegant gesture of defiance.
This incident points to larger problems that Phish may face in the phuture. Thus far, the happy phisherpholk have been able to maintain a level of peaceable relations with the communities the band plays in, but as the crowds grow, and the disjunction between the libertarian mores of the touring community and conservative local laws (especially involving casual use of marijuana) becomes more apparent, Phish may face many of the same problems that the Dead have faced since their own MTV-steroided success in the late-'80s.
Phish ticket sales have been swelled by an influx of especially younger Deadheads who felt increasingly alienated from a scene that simply became too big, too much of an institution, and were grateful to find a band closer to their own age, and more accessible as people, who could still jam with an intensity that approached the spiritual.
Time will tell if the same intricate webs of social conditioning of young Heads by seasoned Heads - extended-family values - which have kept the Dead scene humane will be operative on new turf.
Phish has come a long way.
I saw them three years ago at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and was charmed by this scruffy group of young musicians with chops to spare and a fun bunch of songs, so tight that they were able to execute on-a-dime transitions and elaborate counterpoint while bouncing on trampolines in a hyperbole of stage moves. Posited against the marvelous control of their music, their lyrics were an invitation to abandon - "set the gearshift to the high gear of your soul, you've got to run like an antelope out of control!" - and in the middle of the show, between the guitar meltdowns and piano cascades, the foursome came together as a barbershop quartet for a tender, earnest reading of "Sweet Adeline."
But now something is different. The good news is, it's better.
During "Reba," the second night at Spreckles, Anastasio began plucking a little figure that sounded like the fluttering of bird's wings, quickly picked up on and embellished by McConnell, and an exquisitely subtle jam drifted on currents of its own choosing for the next few minutes that not only didn't sound like any "Reba" that had ever been played, it didn't even sound like Phish. Anastasio's head began rocking gently up and down, complemented by the swaying of the phisherpholk in that wonderful melding together of honed musicianship and spontaneous invention that gives birth - in moments of grace - to what Santana called the Hose.
The last year of touring, which will be documented on a live album, has been a breakthrough year for Phish, not only at the level of ticket sales, but at the level of ensemble telepathy - the mission, night after night, to go where no phisherman has gone before, guided by currents from deep, unnameable places.
"The way I look at it," says Anastasio, "the music exists in the universe, and if you're lucky enough, or strong enough, to get your ego out of the way, the music comes through you. The audience that we have is open to that, and they understand that conversational transfer of energy. If you had an audience screaming for the hit song, it's never going to happen. You got to have people who are there for that spontaneous moment where you rise above normal limits.
"The best shows, you really are not in control. I've been reading a lot of interviews of great musicians - Marvin Gaye, Art Farmer, Sun Ra - and they all agree on this philosophy. Even if you're a pop songwriter, the greatest songs that they wrote, it wasn't hard.
"It was just this moment when they woke up, and the sun was shining, and this song just poured out of them."