>From the "Arts" Section, Washington Post,
Sunday October 16, 1994
"The Hottest Band the World Has Never Heard"
by RICHARD LEIBY.
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
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."
BIG PINEY PILGRIM
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."
PHISH AND THE DEAD
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
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,
ON THE ROAD
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
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!!]
PRESENT AT THE CREATION
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
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