Still upside down.

by waxbanks

I first used a Web browser at Johns Hopkins University in the summer of 1995. I’d played a tiny bit on Compuserve at my friend Jeremy’s house, and knew that something mysterious called ‘the Internet’ was waiting just beyond its borders. In anticipation of my trip to Baltimore for the Pre-College Program, I convinced my mom to buy me a copy of Harley Hahn’s Internet Yellow Pages, and for five weeks at JHU I spent hours a day in the computer lab across campus from my dorm, the Yellow Pages beside me, reading the entirety of Kibo’s .sig file and grabbing the full Principia Discordia from somebody’s Gopher site. I read, as you’d expect, along with its more upscale rec.arts cousin. I found out that people were still writing Infocom-style text adventures. And I spent a long, long time — sometimes twelve hours a day — chatting with strangers on LambdaMOO.

I did a lot of other things that summer: saw Species, got misty when ‘In Your Eyes’ played at a farewell dance, read the SubGenius Foundation’s Revelation X, pined after a girl named Orli, went outside with my boxers visible beneath my sweatshorts, sailed 50 yards on a homemade Slip’n’Slide, feared I would be mugged, bought and devoured the Millennium Whole Earth Catalogue, and didn’t call home nearly often enough. I took two classes, and attended one of them religiously.

And I read, hoping to hear more about the album I was then listening to all day every day, a double album called A Live One. I wore out my Discman and spent a fortune on AA batteries while walking around campus listening to ALO.

A few months later I somehow found out (from the Doniac Schvice newsletter, maybe?) that Phish were coming to Niagara Falls Convention Center in December, and I asked my mom for ticket money and a ride. She said yes, and a few of us hopped into the minivan for the couple-hour ride to the show. Mom decided to go to a nearby factory outlet mall while we were inside, and surprised me by buying me my first electric razor. I’m not sure how she filled the time, honestly — the two sets of music ran to three hours, plus a half-hour or longer setbreak, and however much time milling around beforehand.

None of us had cell phones back then, of course; after the show we came out, reeking of secondhand smoke and hoping for the best, and Mom was parked right out front. I don’t remember her being worried, even as I started growing sideburns and wearing check shirts.

I was sixteen then, and had never kissed a girl or tasted booze.

I remember everyone at the show seemed so free. The band opened with a bluegrass tune and immediately the crowd set to dancing as hard as they (we) could. I was nervous at first, not knowing quite how to dance, but I got over that quickly enough. My friend Fred, who had a band and therefore had taken drugs, made out with a stranger who had glitter all over her face. I don’t think they got married. I stared at the music in front of me and heard the room moving. The air was too thick to breathe. There were bleachers in the back of the general-admission space, and during the second set I sat down and took it all in; the venue was so small that we could split up and find one another no problem.

I saw Phish again in Buffalo in October 1996, and then twice in one week — miracle — in Summer 1997, which was a season of light for the band and the community around them. In a tent near Star Lake in mid-August I kissed my best friend, which in retrospect seems like both a a benign misjudgment and an inevitable climactic scene in the yearslong story of everything that she and I were to each other. It wasn’t our last kiss either, though it’s the one I’ll always remember. The next night at Darien Lake, the band played ‘Silent in the Morning’ and my dear friend Laurie wept like a newborn, dancing gingerly on a torn ACL. Ken Kesey came onstage to rap about ‘bozos’ later in the show, and the guitarist made fun of him for being an acid casualty.

We were young and overcome with love and saw no reason why either of those things would ever change. I was sure I’d discovered some skeleton key to everything that ever was or could be, and while I’m no longer so certain, I’m not certain I was wrong either.

Time passed. Sue and I lost touch. Laurie and I did the same, but found our way back — she’s part of my showgoing crew, for one thing — and I was blessed to be able to attend her wedding in our hometown last month. My five-year-old son came too, wearing a Yoda costume. When he discovers something new and lets loose with his trillion-watt smile he’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My brilliant wife flew in after the work week ended and joined us, and I felt whole and proud: of her, of us. My son and I walked up and down hills where I’d skied four or five nights a week in high school. I think he’s ready to go skiing this winter.

I realized, there on the hill, that I want him to know the village where I grew up. I want it to be somewhere he doesn’t just visit, but returns to. It’s that kind of place. The people there are that kind of people.

A month and a half ago my book about A Live One came out. I’d worked for a year and a half on it altogether, thanks to my wife’s infinite generosity and finite but extraordinary patience. In it I got to talk about Niagara Falls and Kesey and A Live One in my Discman in Baltimore, and to thank Laurie and my wife and son. I was able to dedicate that year and a half of work to my teacher, Professor Thorburn, and to my friend Sinclair, who passed away before I could tell him I would be able to write the book. It’s a short book, long in coming.

Phish and their music have been part of me, my idea of me, for so long that I can no longer imagine myself without their music colouring my experiences. Over the last few months I’ve hardly listened to any of their stuff, honest, but their music echoes through me always. (And as you might guess, I’ve been listening to Phish all morning. Somewhere you don’t just visit but return to: the Flatbed Jam, the Island Tour 2001.)

I remember we seemed so free. I sense that we still are.