A New Variety of Flower Child Sprouts From Music and Internet
From The New York Times (7/21/99 - Reprinted w/o Permission)
"I don't know what a hippie was," said Benjy Eisen as he stood near a sink filled with dishes in a Winnebago parked at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., last Thursday. "I'm a kid of the '90s. In our generation, we don't have Vietnam stories; we have Lollapalooza tales. Our war stories are about the car breaking down on the way to a show."

Eisen and 10 friends, none older than 26, had rented the camper to follow the band Phish on its six-week summer tour, stopping in Holmdel that evening and the next. Most of the friends were from New York or Pennsylvania, although one had come all the way from Bakersfield, Calif. They had driven hundreds of miles to see shows from Kansas to Georgia, sleeping alongside one another on increasingly dingy foam beds, selling fruit smoothies to earn spending money, taking time off to play music in state parks, and meeting fellow travelers at every turn.

"There's kids in these parking lots who have seen more of the country than their parents or their grandparents," said Kevin Schoenecker, who is from Rochester. "Some people find religion in it, and other people find just a good time and a new city every night."

Such countercultural scenes are springing up like weedy flower beds all over the country, and not just in the wake of Phish. The "jam band" community is a major underground force in pop, with thousands of fans meeting over the Internet, teaming up to tour with Phish or other bands like Moe or like the Disco Biscuits, disseminating hundreds of bootleg tapes and supporting myriad local scenes.

"Seems like every city in America has at least one band to represent," said Chris Zahn, who books the Wetlands Preserve, New York's premier jam-band club, when asked about the scene. Phish shows can attract up to 70,000. Festivals staged by smaller bands draw thousands. This community seems similar to the one being commemorated at this weekend's 30th-anniversary celebration of the Woodstock festival in Rome, N.Y. Many of its adherents appear to have stepped from photographs of that historic event, in their calico clothes and tangled hair, with their stashes of glass pipes for smoking marijuana and their fondness for group hugs. But they insist they're not trying to get back to the garden.

"The term hippie is such a convoluted stereotype," said Matthew Rudnicki, a 20-year-old student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "It's an explosive cliche. You jump on tour and you think there will be people massaging you and feeding you and it's this bubble of love, and things are a lot grittier than that."

In the parking lot last Thursday, the mood of celebration was underpinned by one of practicality. A "green crew" of volunteers organized by Phish employees met to discuss how it would clean the lot and recycle cans and bottles after the show. A women's group called the "Phunky Bitches," which formed through an Internet mailing list, distributed bags containing condoms, tampons, antacids, sanitizing gel and other necessities, and made themselves available to answer the needs of female fans.

"It's used as a safe haven for women if they go on tour," said 24-year-old Randy Schwartz. "They know they can come to us for supplies or a safe ride to the next show. We felt like women were a minority on tour, and that it was a male-dominated scene." These inheritors of counterculture chic strongly resist romanticizing their lifestyle choices. They don't want to be social dropouts; most refer to the Phish tour as merely a vacation. "I work hard, three jobs," said Brad Kluttz, a 22-year-old from Atlanta who was about to drop off the tour because he was fighting a bronchial infection. "This is fun for me, and I love it. They put on a great show for me every night . . . but I've got responsibilities at home."

There are divisions in this subculture between the young professionals who take time off to join the tour for a while and fans who scramble to survive. "Kids with coolers full of beer, they have the money," said 24-year-old Matt Iarrobino, a television cameraman by day and the lighting director at the Wetlands by night. "And there are kids who sell grilled cheeses after the show just to get to the next one." Even as they revel in the Phish tour's open and loving atmosphere, these enthusiasts know that its security is not guaranteed and its pleasures are ephemeral. But they take its lessons with them after the tour ends.

"This microcosm -- the lot economy, the relationships here, the social dynamics, the travel dynamics, everything -- carries over into a real-world application," said John Frattalone, a 19-year-old Long Island native and another of the Winnebago renters. "You see businessmen who were involved with the Grateful Dead scene who have completely different ways of approaching business, where no one gets hurt. That's what I want to carry out for myself."

With their natural-fiber clothing, vegetarian diets and predilection for trippy music, the members of the jam-bands scene seem to be carrying on the legacy of their hippie forebears. But they are not dreaming of a new Woodstock nation. They belong to one subculture among many thriving today, and as the saying goes, they may think globally, but they act locally.

They learned their methods from the Grateful Dead, a band that embodied the hippie stereotype. The ritual of the road trip originated with Deadheads, the group's patchouli-wearing camp followers. The custom of trading tapes and communicating over the Internet, key to sustaining a scene that thrives largely without the help of the mainstream music industry, also originated with them. And the band pioneered the diverse, improvisational approach to rock that keeps fans so deeply engaged.

Yet observers agree that not until the Grateful Dead disbanded after the death in 1995 of its leader, Jerry Garcia, did the jam-band scene solidify. "People started to look to the clubs, where you could have that immediacy with the bands and with one another," said Dean Budnick, author of the book "Jam Bands" (ECW Press) and editor of the Web site www.jambands.com. "The older people didn't care, and all of a sudden these young people saw themselves."

Members of popular bands like Moe, the Slip, Galactic and the Disco Biscuits are in their 20s. "You've got a generation of parents listening to their Woodstock CDs, and kids are like, yuck," said Zahn, of the Wetlands. "The kids are looking to groove to great music, indulge in drinking and partying -- that hasn't changed. But the fashions have changed. Kids are realizing that rave and hip-hop fashion and music is way cooler than this tired, boring classic rock." At the same time, some find the source of their rebellion in reviving the values of the counterculture. "Kids wanting to be more like hippies is definitely counterculture now," said Chuck Garvey, a guitarist in Moe. "After hard-core yuppiedom, kids think this is the alternative."

Some taking this road make the step into street politics. Larry Bloch opened the Wetlands in 1989 as a center for activism as well as a nightclub. He sold the club in 1997, but its Environmental and Social Justice Center is still open, now coordinated by Adam Weissman, who is 21. Every Tuesday evening at 7, the couch-filled basement lounge of the Wetlands is the site of informal political forums. Last week, about 30 people gathered as Bre Reiber, a 22-year-old executive assistant at the peace group Physicians for Social Responsibility discussed the effects of the United States' policies toward Iraq. The issues that most inspire the young people at such gatherings are different from the ones their parents embraced. Environmentalism is their main cause and they support animal rights, a nascent movement in the 1960s. According to them, their approach also differs. "We're going to do this and get it done," Karen Benezra said. "We're not going to just commune. A lot of it is finding yourself through ethics and direct action and not wastes of time and peyote."

Ms. Benezra's flippant put-down of psychedelic drugs reflected a certain defensiveness among these young activists. Although casual drug use is commonplace, many young people disassociate themselves from the image of the stoned hippie living in a hazy fantasy. They also rejected the idea, so important in the 1960s, of generational unity.

"I don't think we're trying to build a generational movement," Weissman said. "Less than a generation gap, there's a cultural gap between people who feel that going along with a society bent on self-destruction through massive overconsumption and global exploitation and fundamental injustice is an acceptable thing, and those of us who don't."

Clara Kramer-Wheeler, 17, gave a personal spin to Weissman's rhetoric. "If I was the only young person in a group of activists, I'd feel left out," she said. "But I go to demos with my parents all the time. Me and my sister got them back into activism." Rather than dreaming of a mass movement, these countercultural kids take a do-it-yourself approach to relatively small corners of the culture, whether that means staging guerrilla protests or trading tapes of their favorite shows.

"It's beyond the music-industry hype, beyond the machine," Garvey said. "Now people go to dance, to meet these other folks. Tapers support that because they're disseminating the music and getting people interested in becoming part of a community."

Few of the jam bands are on major labels, and those who are, like Phish (and, briefly, Moe, before it parted ways with Sony), stay credible by maintaining some distance from the mainstream pop world. Phish has never had a hit single; most of its songs are too long and complicated for the radio. Although the band plays standard concert venues, it sells most tickets through a self-maintained mail-order service and holds some special events, like last weekend's festival in Oswego County in upstate New York, at unusual sites where the band, not a promoter, makes the rules.

Their fans make such activities possible. The presence of the jam bands on the Internet is extraordinary. The most popular bands have elaborate networks of Web sites and mailing lists, and there is even a database, www.jambase.com, that tracks concert dates throughout the country. Well-equipped insiders bring laptop computers and cellular modems to shows, transmitting instant set lists and reviews on the Internet.

Fans and artists also organize their own festivals, reasonably priced alternatives to corporate events like Woodstock, throughout the summer. The Finger Lakes Grass-Roots Festival, running Thursday through Sunday at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds in upstate New York, is one example. Founded by the jam band Donna the Buffalo in 1991, the charity event has expanded to embrace a world of music -- this year's performers include the venerable African singer Thomas Mapfumo, the reggae veteran Justin Hinds and the Irish-American supergroup Solas. Moe can't make it to this weekend's Grass-Roots Festival partly because the band is playing on Friday afternoon at the Woodstock concert. Garvey is happy to perform for the 250,000 people expected at the Rome blowout, but he hopes to make it over to Trumansburg afterward to hang out among 10,000 more like-minded folks.

At the Woodstock festival he does not expect to run into many "moe.rons," as his band's devotees are called. The gathering is too expensive, too big, and besides, the Grass-Roots Festival and three Midwestern Phish shows are that weekend. The children of the counterculture will be scattered as usual, pursuing their subcultural way of life.

Andy's Phish Page