A Quest for Rapture Leads a 'Phish Head' Astray
December 16, 2002 - New York Times
by Chris Hedges
There was a point in Beth Senturia's life when all that mattered was the
band. She lived like a nomad, hitching rides from one Phish concert to the
next, living off what she could sell in the parking lot before a concert, and
taping performance after performance to capture each event for posterity. She
could not hold down a job, quitting each time the band went on tour. She
dropped out of Barnard College, never to go back. She became a "tour head."
She spent weeks on the road and saw 207 shows. And then she crashed.
"There are parts of their music that can be a spiritual experience," she
said, "but at the same time it can be very easy to make that experience
idolatrous. It can remove you from the real world. It can become a cult."
Yet on New Year's Eve, she intends to be in Madison Square Garden when Phish
returns after a two-year hiatus -- although she has yet to get a ticket to
the sold-out concert. Phish, a Vermont jam rock band that has a following
similar to what once belonged to the Grateful Dead, exudes a powerful pull on
her and thousands of others.
Some of these "Phish heads" have constructed a subculture, a way of life,
where the music and the concerts shut out the rest of the world. "Trey is
God" reads a bumper sticker sold at events, not completely in jest. Trey
Anastasio is the band's lead guitarist.
"I have to be careful that I do not drop everything and go out on the road
again," said Ms. Senturia, 35, who lives in Manhattan and works for a
financial services firm. "I do not need to run from my life anymore."
The concert experience often approaches something akin to worship; indeed,
many followers say it is the closest they have come to a spiritual encounter.
The emotions they describe resemble rapture and the communal intoxication
that comes when a crowd falls into ecstatic bliss.
The Second Commandment, which urges against idolatry, calls on believers to
worship the mystery of the divine. It cautions them against paying homage to
objects created by humankind. While modern society no longer worships clay
idols, many nevertheless are drawn to experiences and possessions that
promise to confer power and purpose. For those who place such faith in bands
like Phish, the obsession with the rapture that takes place in concerts sees
some followers sacrifice relationships, jobs and even their health.
"For us it is like going to synagogue or church," said Loren Bidner, 24, who
runs a dance company in New York. "It is cathartic. We are in touch with
ourselves, our thoughts and our experiences."
Mr. Anastasio, with the band softly playing in the background, frequently
relates mythological tales from Gamehenge, a fantasy world he created. The
stories are about the "Helping Friendly Book," which exists only in Mr.
The lessons from the book are intended to "help the people of Gamehenge live
in peace." Mr. Anastasio, who mixes in songs with the story, can spend 90
minutes telling the audience his elaborate tales about the destruction of a
peaceful culture by the evil tyrant Wilson and the revolution that eventually
overthrows him. The last song of the cycle sees the revolutionary leader
begin to evolve into another tyrant.
When the band stopped touring, bumper stickers appeared that read, "Trey is
The "Helping Friendly Book" is said to contain "the ancient secrets to
eternal joy and everlasting splendor," or so goes a line from the song
"Lizards," part of the cycle.
The song continues, "The trick was to surrender to the flow."
Yet within the music and the lyrics are wild contradictions. Songs about
maiming, violence and death are sung to happy, up-tempo beats. And the
message itself can often seem confusing.
"The attraction to Gamehenge is similar to the attraction to Star Trek," Ms.
Senturia said. "It is a world where everyone can live in peace in the future
if they get the book back from the evil King Wilson. Yet when you look at the
message it calls for different reactions to life. One must go with the flow
yet fight evil. It does not always make sense."
The lyrics provoke long debate among Phish followers. Many collect not only
amateur tapes of concerts, but also the set lists of each concert; they try
to decipher the order of songs for hidden messages. Many refer to fellow
concertgoers as their "Phish family." They say they find meaning in the
music, as well as in the fantasy stories spun out as part of the band's
mythology. They learn to speak in Phish code and shorthand known only to
those steeped in the music, the band's mythological stories and the nomadic
"If you look at what we might idolize it is not one of the guys in the band,"
Mr. Bidner said. "We are not going to see Trey or Mike. We are going for
something that is much bigger than the four of them. It is much bigger than
one instrument. It is a subculture. We become nomadic, traveling with packs
But the pull of the band and the members' lives can also bring a debilitating
self-destruction. Some of the followers, called "tour rats," were frequently
reduced to poverty. They begged for food or spare change in the parking
lots.They rarely bathed and often fell prey to drugs, always within easy
reach. They become swallowed up by the obsession, an obsession that
eventually saw crowds degenerate into unruly and hostile packs at some of the
"When you spend your teenage years living a life of lawless abandon, doing
only what you want, you develop a sense of entitlement," Ms. Senturia said.
"When you get enough of these people together, it can become dangerous."
Ms. Senturia said she had a difficult childhood. Like many, she found in the
band "security, what seemed like unconditional love and a caring and loving
Her concert experiences were, from the start, highly charged and
overpowering. "There are certain notes, certain moments in the music, where
that may be the only way my body knows how to interpret whatever incredible
feeling my mind is getting," she said.
Yet as she fell deeper into that life, trailing the band for weeks at a
stretch as it moved from city to city, she also fell into what she now
describes as an addiction.
"I was addicted to a life where I had no responsibility," she said, "where
everything was about the search for the next peak experience. It was
narcissistic and hedonistic and ultimately empty. I had nothing to show for
All experiences in life, for those caught up in the band experience, began to
pale. The highs of the concert could not be replicated. And the band would
often announce what kind of mood they intended to throw the listeners into on
any given night, saying that the show would be "dark" or "light." The mood of
those in each concert would vary with the music and lyrics played that night.
"The band takes over a crowd," said Megan Leff, 28, who works in advertising
in Manhattan. "They throw everyone into a fury. You cannot move or shake
quickly enough. Then, suddenly, they will have everyone fall and pretend they
But the slavish devotion to the band finally proved hollow to many who gave
their lives over to it. They finally had to look within themselves and cope
with the demons they once tried to escape.
"I would not be who I am today if I had not done this," Ms. Senturia said.
"But I know now I am not going to find what I am looking for in parking lots
in other cities. I will find what I am looking for only within myself. It is
easier to get in a car and think that the next show will give you
fulfillment. It is harder to sit in one place and confront life."
Article © 2002 New York Times