>From the "Arts" Section, Washington Post,
Sunday October 16, 1994 
"The Hottest Band the World Has Never Heard" 

  It all sort of came together in the little town of Bethlehem, Pa.  
There I found a gentle, longhaired wanderer named Nazzarine ("Nazz" 
for short), who is among the many followers of a group  whose symbol 
is a fish. Generaly I don't consult scripture, but that night after 
the concert I did.  The Gideon Bible on the hotel room dresser was 
already open and turned to Psalm 31, which was written "to the chief 
musician."  This I took to be a sign.  "Pull me out of the net that 
tehy have laud priviliy for me:  for thou art my strength," the 
psalmist wrote.  "Thou hast set my feet in a large room."  Yes, 
rock-and-roll works in mysterious ways.  Hear now the tale of a band 
called Phish.

  They've been together for 11 years, and touring the country for 
seven, but most of America has never heard of Phish.  The 
Vermont-based quartet has never had a hit single or a gold album.  
Radio deejays ignore them because their sound first no format;  it's 
capable of roaming from dissonant classical to mellow bluegrass, from 
screeching rock to syncopated funk, sometimes in the same song.  MTV 
shunned their one and only video, from the latest album, "Hoist." And 
yet:  On Saturday, Oct. 8, the night after the Bethlehem gig, Phish 
broke Patriot Center's all-time attendance record, selling 10,356 
tickets.  That's more tickets than Jimmy Buffett, who established the 
record in 1987;  more than such million-album-selling acts as the Spin 
Doctors, Kenny G., Pearl Jam and Mary Chapin Carpenter, all of whom 
have played Patriot Center in recent months. Why?  All Phish fans -- 
be they suburban teeny-boppers or erudite college students [or 
grads!], grimy homeless hippies or married-with-kids professionals -- 
talk about the uplifting "vibe" of the band's live performances, the 
inexplicable "connection" they feel with the musiciands, though they 
rarely address the crowd.  Some fans cite the spiritual charge they 
get from a Phish concert, although the band itself espouses no 
religious mission or message.

   At best, the members of Phish offer awkward explanations for their 
cultlike following.  "Its's an intangible energy," attempts Trey 
Anastasio, the shaggy red-haired guitarist. "This spiritual aspect," 
theorizes bassist Mike Gordon, "is that there's something universal 
that exists and can come through the musicians and the music, if we're 
not blocking. To put it all in words sounds kind of pretentious.  It 
sounds like a bunch of words, until it's actually an experience."

   Phish frequently has been compared to the Grateful Dead, another 
touring band blessed with a trailing caravan of seekers.  Jerry Garcia 
and Co., having been at it for more than a quarter-century, draw far 
larger audiences -- selling some 1.5 million tickets compared with 
Phish's 650,000 this year. But, says Dead researcher Rebecca Adams, 
"Phish is the heir apparent to the Dead.  It's quite clear that they 
are winning the lottery."

  An academic cottage industry and an Internet debating society have 
formed around both bands, allowing sages and neophytes to proselytize, 
soothsay and trade revelations.

  "It's a spiritual phenomenon, not just entertainment," argues 
professor Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina 
who's writing a book about Deadheads and discerns connections to 
Phish's fans. "But it's not a belief in musicians as deities.  It's a 
belief in the power of music to create community."

  "It is an experience unlike any other," insists Shira Koch, Wesleyan 
Class of '98, by e-mail message.  "For a few short hours or days, we 
can almost lose ourselves in music, fun youth."  (Though she deels 
compelled to add:  "Maybe I am just a spoiled college student who 
tries to give meaning to an activity which is senseless.")

  True belief requires going "on tour," committing oneself to an 
ascetic lifestyle of following the band's every stop.  But unlike 
hard-core Deadheads, some of whom survive on food stamps, Phish fans 
tend to arrange tours around their lives -- knocking off in the fall 
when school starts, working toward real-world careers.  The tour 
community, even if only temporarily joined, offers more than mere 
fellowship;  it is an example of how children of unstable modern 
households have reinvented the very concept of family.

  "Definitely the scene is a surrogate family," says Nav Jiwan Khalsa, 
21, whose American parents (now divorced) adopted the Sikh religion in 
the '60s.  "Anywhere you go that the Dead and Phish are playing, you 
find people of like minds." 

  My journey to Bethlehem really began in July in 
the remote mountains near Big Piney, Wyo., where I camped along with 
13,000 other people in search of something transcendent, or at least 
something you'll never see on C-SPAN.  It was the Rainbow Gathering, 
an annual celebration of woolly-headed idealism and primitive 
collectivism that attempts to transplant the Good Samaritan spirit -- 
usually at loose in America only on Christmas Day -- to a national 
forest for an entire week.

  Incredibly, it works.  Everyone belongs, everyone pitches in, 
everyone gets fed -- for free.  "Where you headed?"  I asked a skinny, 
dirt-caked youth of 18 who was hiking down the two-mile trail from the 
Rainbow encampment.  he was struggling with his box of meager 
possessions, so I offered a hand.  "Vermont," he said. "Going to 
follow Phish."  Who?  "Brother, you should check them out.  When Jerry 
Garcia dies, they are gonna be it."  A chain of equally crusty teens, 
friends of his, soon filed alongside us, offering water and fruit.  
"Mmmm nomm me nommm," [sic] they loudly hummed. "Do do do do do." 
[sic, again; note, he means "Mah nah Mah nah, dew dew dew dew dew"] 
The tune sounded familiar. It made everyone smile against the drudgery 
of the hike.  "Is that Phish?" I asked.  No, they giggled.  "It's from 
'Sesame Street.'  The Muppet theme."

  Last week, many of those who journeyed to Fairfax for Phish's show 
moved on to the Dead's three-night stand at USAir Arena. The 
parking-lot  villages for both bands often feature the same characters 
and rituals:  tribal drum circles convened by dread-headed white 
kids;  the wandering, LSD-dosed bliss ninnies in seach of "miracle" 
free tickets;  the unmistakable musk of patchouli oil and BO; and the 
insistent hiss of nitrous oxide tanks, as kids suck $5 balloons full 
of laughing gas -- called "hippie crack" because the rush lasts about 
20 seconds.

 Though the bands' followings intersect, it's not because the music 
is the same.  Many years ago Phish  covered Dead songs, but any 
comparison today is wrongheaded;  the only similarity is that both are 
jam bands, offering hours-long sets and extended improvisations 
capable of sending listeners into a twirling dance of ecstasy.  ("If 
you need to find me later, I'll be spinning at Portal 4," Buckley 
Kuhn, 20, former debutante from McLean, told me at the Patriot Center 

  What Phish shares principally with the Dead is a marketing strategy 
that breaks down the barrier between artist and audience.  Both bands 
invite fans to record their live shows, and tapes are traded 
extensively (never sold).  Both use hot lines and mailing lists to 
enhance the word-of-mouth network. ALl of thios builds a more 
intimately connected, and loyal, fan base.  Today both the Dead and 
Phish generate their main income from touring rather than album sales, 
subverting the music industry wisdom that touring is something a band 
does to sell records.

  Several other young groups -- Blues Traveller, Widespread Panic, God 
Street Wine, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Leftover Salmon and the Dave 
Matthews Band -- are applying the Dead-Phish formula with varying 
degrees of success.  Matthews, a regional favorite based in 
Charlottesville, has caught on with Phish fans and last month sold out 
the 3400 seat Roseland Ballroom in New York.

  Many of these bands share something else:  a rejection of the 
voguish alienation and anger of so-called alternative groups, and a 
return to a celebratory spirit of rock's bare-foot-and-tie-dyed past.  
Phish in particular is a FUN band, as playful as children (though the 
members' average age is 29 and a half) and inventively wacky"  for 
example, when drummer Jon Fishman, dressed in a frock, sings Prince's 
"Purple Rain" while accompanying himself on an Electrolux vacuum 

  Add in expertly honed, unpredictable sets and onstage trampoline 
gymnastics, and the Dead start to look like what they are:  a bunch of 
old men.  "With the Dead, you're going to get an average to lame 
show," says Steve Logan, 27, a computer salesman from suburban 
Philadelphia who used to collect live Dead tapes but now concentrates 
on Phish.  he's seen them 73 times;  he has stockpiled nearly 500 
hours of digital audio tape.  "With Phish, for the most part, it's an 
excellent show," Logan asys after setting up his $600 Sony recorder.  
"The majority of the crowd is going to walk away saying, 'That's one 
of the best shows I've ever seen.'"

  Says Jonathan Epstein, 21, a Massachusetts correspondent on the 
Phishnet, a computer bulletin board:  "I lost my faith in the Grateful 
Dead.  I lost my faith in the Dead when I heard Phish." [et tu, 

   Stun the puppy!
   Burn the whale!
   Bark a scruff and go to jail!
   Forge the coin and lick the stamp!
   Little Jimmy's off to camp!
      --  from Phish's "The Squirming Coil"
  Nazz and his four friends were road-tripping from Cincinnati
in a red Bronco packed with sleeping bags, flannel shirts and
sustenance that included a case of Pete's Wicked Ale.  First
stop, Bethlehem, then on to Fairfax, then Louisville before
returning to reality at the University of Cincinnati.

   Many Phish fans attend college.  But some, like Scott Nazzarine, 
are taking a break.  He is 20, an architecture school dropout.  He 
follows both the Dead and Phish [JUDAS!], and tramped to Wyoming this 
summer for the Rainbow Gathering. He wrote his high school senior 
thesis on Jack Kerouac.

  "I try to avoid working as much as possible," he says, laughing.  He 
doesn't worry about surviving, he says, because "people are so 
friendly" on tour.

   But like the hippies of yore, today's self-seeking transients often 
have middle-class roots to return to.  "I've worked Phish into my 
master plan," says Todd Overbeck, 21, a ponytailed sociology major at 
the U of C.  That blueprint includes:  graduating withj a good GPA, 
mastering Swahili and enrolling in the Peace Corps (he hopes to work 
in Africa), then getting a graduate degree.  But for a year or two in 
between, starting in Fall '95, he will follow Phish.

  Why?  It's part of his religion, he says, but not the consevative 
Catholicism he was raised in.  "It's the spirituality of carpe diem -- 
of seizing life, being happy," he says [hedonism].  "It's the 
spirituality of having a good time."

  Do Phish's lyrics contain deeper meaning?  Of course, Overbeck and 
his friends say.  They cite the parable of "Possum":  "I was driving 
down the road one day and I hit a Possum.  Possum, possum, possum."

  Nazz smiles, as if revealing a secret.  "Sometimes whatever
they're saying doesn't matter," he says.  "They could be saying

  Before the Bethlehem show, the rabbi tends the cookstove,
stirring beans to make veggie nachos, a quick nosh for the
parking lot faithful.  How much?

  "By donation," he demurs.  He also offers Camel wides for a more 
worldly sum of $3 a pack, and a free glimpse at his set-list catalogue 
of Phish's live shows, back to '86.

  "This is part of my research and part of my occupation, because I'm 
clergy," says Yanni Cohen, 25, an assistant rabbi in Manhattan.  "I 
get a spiritual boost big-time from Phish shows.  An I'm here for 
advice if someone needs it."  It pleases Cohen that Phish sometimes 
breaks into the ancient chant "Aveinu Malkeinu"  ("Our father, our 
king") and other Hebrew songs in concert.  (Though no longer an 
oobservant jew, bassist Mike Gordon attended Hebrew day school.)  
"It's a right-on message," the young rabbi says.

  I offer Cohen my extra free ticket to attend the concert. Sorry, he 
says, but the sun has set, his observation of Sabbath has begun.  He 
cannot attend.

  So I offer it to his friend, Wanda D-Orta, 32, a former dental 
hygienist who now sells tie-dyed clothing, who was raised by strict 
Christian parents and still follows Jesus but rejects the 
institutional church.  D-Orta says she finds truly Christ-like 
"unconditional love" among Phish fans.  "There are a lot of disciples 
here," she says, gesturing to the assembled, "even if they don't know 

  She has never seen a Phish concert.  She marvels at the free ticket 
and seems on the verge of weeping with happiness.  "This is such a 
blessing," she says, "God bless you."  [not a bad first show!!]


   Amy Skelton is the legendary Phirst Phan.  She alone was there to 
applaud Phish during its debut live show 10 years ago on a winter 
night in Burlington, Vt., at Nectar's -- a tavern that is now a sacred 
site, drawing pilgrims by the carload. "The second week there were two 
people, literally," recalls guitarist Trey Anastasio.  From there the 
affinity circle kept expanding, as Skelton used her pickup truck to 
hail loads of ten fans to bar gigs.  "And we met all of them," says 

  He and other band members still wander into the parking lot after 
shows, but nobody treats them like gurus or even rock stars.  They 
dress like perpetual grad students.  Their idea of a wicked good time 
on the bus is a chess match (keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer 
Fishman ended the spring tour tied 11-11).

   "The guys have never taken themselves too seriously," says Skelton, 
29, who now handles the band's merchandising on tour. That's her 
horse, Maggie, dangling on the cover of "Hoist," which has sold about 
250,000 copies.

   Phish's third album for Elektra, "Hoist" was an exercise in, well, 
fishing for radio and MTC exposure.  Elektra hoped for a breakthrough 
after earlier releases flopped commercially.

  "So we made a conscious decision," Anastasio recalls.  "They want a 
couple of radio songs, they want a video, let's just do it and see how 
it feels.  And we did it, and I didn't like it."  Why?  "It's too 

  Anastasio realizes the irony of this.  Most bands, no matter how 
loudly they bray about the evils of selling out, actually are willing 
to enter pacts with Lucifer to get a record on the Billboard chart.  
Phish is genuinely fearful of becoming too popular, of losing the 
intimate relationship with its fans (up until last year, band members 
even answered all mail personally).  Many Phish Heads denounced the 
making of a video for the song "Down with Disease."

  "We don't think we'll make any more," says Gordon, who directed it.

   So far, the band has played to no audience larger than 18,000;  New 
York's Madison Square Garden, an upcoming stop, holds 20,000.  
Anastasio says that's the limit.

  "We won't be hitting RFK Stadium,"  he vows.  "It's too big; it's 
just a stupid place to have a concert.  The only reason to play in a 
room like that is because you make a whole lot of money."  It is a 
very large room, indeed.  But perhaps the Great Tour Manager in the 
Sky will decide the size of the room into which this man sets his feet.


   Within minutes of asking Phish to pose for photos, we are 
surrounded by a frenzied swarm of pre-pubescent girls demanding 
autographs.  The girls play for a 13-and-under soccor team in Cold 
Spring Harbor, on Long Island.  They are in Fairfax for a tournament, 
and not only have they heard of Phish, they have CDs right here for 
them to sign!  Albums their 15 year old sisters told them to buy!  
They looooovvve Phish!

  The band is ecstatic, yet surprised, that their fame has reached 
this level.  "This is new for us,"  Anastasio says, shaking his mane.

  But it's no wonder:  Phish's music has built-in kid-appeal. 
Anastasio used to write songs with his mom, once the editor of Sesame 
Street Magazine.  One of Phish's songs, "The Divided Sky," takes its 
melody from a family musical, "Gus: The Christmas Dog."

  It turns out the soccer team has no idea Phish is playing that very 
night, right down the street.  Instantly, Anastasio invites all 15 
girls to the concert.  A few hours later, in the middle of "Cymbol" 
[Sic; id est, Simple], the Cold Spring Harbor Muppets file in front of 
10,356 spinners, seekers and just plain astonished music-lovers, and 
  "Everywhere we go, people wanna know!
   Who we are, where we come from!
   So we tell them:  North, South, East, West --
   Muppets are the best."  [NOTE TO SELF: find them and kill them]

  It's too perfect.  The lesser deities that watch over feature 
journalists are clearly working overtime.  And in the end, the story 
of Phish becomes a simple lesson:   To find happiness, be as if a 
child.  Play and share.  Love one another. Dance and sing.  Somewhere 
in there you may even find God."

Andy's Phish Page