[This article was published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1999, so is Copyright © 1994-99 San Francisco Bay Guardian. It is being re-printed here, and now, because it is hilarious and its author Summer Burkes is a great writer. Special thanks to Philip Zerbo (co-editor of the Third Edition of The Phish Companion) for posting the text of this article to Rec.Music.Phish in October 1999. Also want to thank Josh Martin, whose recap of Charleston1 reminded me of this article and how I'd wanted to try to locate it and post it to the blog. -charlie]
Hook, line, and stinker:
Staring in train-wreck horror at the cult of Phish
By Summer Burkes
THEY ARE PHISH, I am chum
I must admit, I'd been unfair. I'd hated Phish with a passion since the
moment they entered my consciousness, even though I couldn't ever recall
actually hearing one of their songs.
Not only is liking any sort of hippie music, to a music journalist like me,
about as high on the faux pas list as owning Ace of Base records, the whole
touchy-feely, herd-mentality surrounding the cult of Phish proves both a
turnoff and a scary prospect for the future of humanity. Why, I ask, did this
post-Grateful Dead tradition, equal parts frat and nomad, have to continue?
Why follow them around? Why not Polkacide or Crash Worship? Why, in fact,
follow any band around the country at all, as my cousin – my blood relation –
is doing right now?
Being the half-assed student of cultural anthropology that I must be when
dragged to events under duress, I accompanied my cousin to the Phish show at
the Shoreline when she (and they) breezed through town last weekend. And did
I renounce my former Phish-loathing and amend my snooty rock-critic ways?
I solidified. I solidified, I remained sober, and I suffered for my art. Here
is my mildly tragic tale.
Music rumbles awake from inside the tent as my cousin and I approach the
Shoreline. Spinners in patchwork pants make beelines for the turnstiles. We
enter and hurriedly navigate our way down to the tenth-or-so row. Clouds of
patchouli and cultivated body odor hit me like a punch in the face. The rows
and the aisles are packed with bodies, and they're all dancing the same
artless dance. Nobody is doing the Satan hands. Everyone is doing drugs.
Phish are on stage and standing virtually still as they play, they're
obviously a jam band: The crowd is older, almost all white, and the noodly
guitarist appears to be experiencing a perpetual orgasm.
The expensive stage lights flicker and whirl. I sit down (the only one in the
audience doing so) and take out my notepad. A malodorous woman with good
cheekbones tells me the names of the first three songs we missed – after my
quizzical stare she figures out I'm not keeping a written set-list record, as
many Phish-heads do.
"Is this your first time at a Phish show?," she asks me beatifically. I nod.
"Welcome," she says, friendly in a Stepford Wife kind of way. A woman who
looks like the mom from That '70s Show fires up a huge bowl next to me. I
survey the bobbing heads and reaffirm my hatred for nasty, white-people
dreadlocks. The music drones on and on ... it stinks ... the walls ...
they're closing in ...
Up on the amphitheater lawn, quickly, I still can't get away from the stench.
There's more room to dance, and people take it. The music is repetitive and
the songs are long. In fact, the music is what the audience is: naïve,
gentle, white, cynicism-free, and overly concerned with vaguely ethnic
accoutrements and patterns that clash. It could make the crossover to Sears
intercom soundtrack swiftly and easily. I do the
Reggae + mushrooms + the Dead + muzak + Yes + bluegrass = Phish.
For some reason, the music does seem to turn people's clocks back to kid-time
in the physical movement category. One short-hair even stares at the sky and
spins 'round and 'round until he falls down. As my cousin twirls, I stretch
out and try to shake the vague, smart-assed scenester notion that my entire
musical being is somehow superior to that of every Phish fan.
The band lights into a polyrhythmic, vaguely African number, and the
jerkiness of the graceless crowd increases exponentially. I smirk. I make
efforts to stop smirking. I try to play nice. I fail. I begin to doodle in my
pad. I make a top ten list of interpretive dances I see:
10. Oh No, I've Lost My Skeleton
9. Get It Off Me
8. My Blood Is Turning Into Cement
7. Elbow Tug-Of-War
6. The Woodpecker
5. Sexual Air Guitar
4. Rolling Paper Keep-Away
3. Four Turntables
2. Drying The Hands
1. Someone Put A Sandbag On The Back Of My Neck
Thankfully, after a mere three-and-a-half hours of genuinely invariable
noodling and covers of "Misty Mountain Hop" and the theme from 2001, it's
over. Though I'm aching to split and have a recuperative drink, cousin Phish
and her homies feel the need to cruise the parking lot scene.
Amid the dusty trails of thousands of cars exiting the lot, Trustafarians and
runaways mill around purposefully and a bit creepily. They're not getting
high together or spinning in wanky drum circles, they're moving product.
Falafel, glass pipes, organic juice, beer, and drugs drugs drugs. They don't
socialize except to sell things, and to tersely see what they can bum off
other people. Someone begs a swig from my Coke. Trapped, I just give him it.
The "kids" (as the hard-core nomadic Phish-heads are called) are supposedly
latter-day Deadheads, and I'm sure "original" hippies must engage in the same
what's-the-world-coming-to blather that the Baby Boom status quo does.
See, the Bay Area frat-children and lifetime hippies in the audience – who
are the majority, and way friendlier – have had their harmless,
rhythmically-challenged good time and then gone home. This small core group
of people, though – the ones who couch themselves in hippie rhetoric – strike
me as shifty, parasitic, and completely self-absorbed. I remember something a
traveling Deadhead told me once about his ilk: Most of them pack guns.
We finally (thank God) head for the city, and I insist on stopping in at
Stinky's Peepshow, "home of the large and lovely go-go girls" and some
kick-ass punk rock. I've never been happier to be there, but my Phish-head
cousin and her sweaty friends sit in the corner, bewildered and grimacing.
Neener, neener. Turnabout is fair play.
Copyright © 1994-99 San Francisco Bay Guardian.