From my world-changing bestseller, the 33-1/3 volume on Phish’s A Live One
And maybe part of the appeal of pop music is that it doesn’t have a past: in three minutes you won’t go far enough to forget where you came from. Duration is a big part of the psych-rock experience; or maybe I mean scope. How much world fits inside.
Overfamiliar fans sometimes skip over the band’s “Type I” jams (like the ALO “Stash” and “Chalk Dust”: closed-circuit improvisations on fixed changes or modes which don’t abandon the songform) in favor of open-ended “psychedelic” journeys like the Bangor “Tweezer” on A Live One. But it’s the explicitly purpose-driven improvisations that form the bedrock of the band’s improvisatory method; the open-ended explorations take their power not least from the group’s tendency toward coherence, which develops in the “Type I” stuff.
Those contained improvisations function partly as teaching tools, as “zones of proximal development” which scaffold the listener’s learning, not to mention the musicians’. There’s a reason the self-dissolving jams like the ALO “Tweezer” only ever happen in second sets — or on second discs.
Many of us noticed early in the band’s ‘3.0’ era that, while the band’s improvisations were no longer distended half-hour brainmelts as they’d been a half-decade prior — while the multipart ‘Type II’ jams of yesteryear seemed curiously, worryingly absent — they were accomplishing more in five minutes than 2004 Phish could’ve done in fifteen. In 2009-10, at a time when many fans, especially younger ones, were complaining that the band ‘couldn’t jam anymore’ and so forth, the band’s enormous increase in improvisatory effectiveness was reason to hope that something new was coming.
It’s here, of course. Since 2011 they’ve been playing at career peak levels of fluidity, empathy, creative freedom. We’re hearing some killer music this summer; it’s ‘dad rock’ in a sense, but y’know what? your dad sure can’t play this shit. They don’t bat 1.000 anymore, but then it’s long past time to acknowledge that Phish’s mid/late-90s creative streak was a freak occurrence — and to ask seriously whether any other American bands have strung together a five-year run like Phish’s 1994-99 explosion. Meanwhile their 2011-16 streak covers a lot fewer shows, and a much less dramatic stylistic transformation. But their achievement — harmony, sustainability, total improvisatory openness — is every bit as thrilling, if you submit to its logic. In a sense, they’re a better band today than they’ve ever been.
Of course, if you don’t like Phish’s music, have a nice time with whatever you’re into. No sensible person would hold it against you.
But I’ll say this: you’re missing out…
Went to an interdisciplinary graduate conference on music at Harvard today, to root for Jake Cohen (@smoothatonalsnd), who was presenting on Mike Hamad’s @phishmaps project. Jake and Mike were my partners at our panel in NYC earlier this month. As the wise men say: we are everywhere!
Jake knocked it out of the park, of course. God willing, some of those soul-scorched affectless grey-sweatered academics will buy my book.
I gotta say, I was surprised by Jake’s talk — while his paper contained some nitty-gritty musicological material, it was largely concerned with fans’ relationships to Mike’s maps, and the question of why such dense infographics are so popular with an audience that, by its own account, has little idea what the maps themselves mean. In other words, Jake was veering toward fan studies — my old haunts, back when I was old — which are rough waters, and crowded these days.
I’d like to dilate on one point raised by the talk and Q&A.
I often joke about Phish fandom as a ‘mystery cult’ or initiatory secret society, but you should know that I’m more serious about that analogy then I seem. At the heart of Phish fandom is an essentially mysterious shared private ecstatic esoteric experience, which is bound tightly to a specific place and time but which lives on as exoteric historical record (‘the tapes’). Phish fans are very good at distinguishing between, say, improvisatory episodes — but very few of us are up on the analytical langauge with which musicologists, or even musicians, would characterize those episodes. So when a tight groove coalesces in the middle of an abstract ambient passage, folks in the crowd might go crazy, and can richly describe how the moment feels…but if later that night you asked them why, they’d likely have no idea. No language for capturing that content.
So why are the same fans who confess to not knowing what the hell Mike’s analytical schematics ‘mean’ so excited to buy prints for their wall?
At the talk I asked Jake if there was an analogy to be made between Mike’s maps and religious artworks — which can be understood by scholars of religion as theological arguments but which have value for normal human beings as evocations of something ineffable, something maybe only loosely connected to those artworks’ ostensible ‘content.’ Think of a Bosch painting, which ‘articulates a worldview’ that no one gives a shit about and which is popular (and valuable) because it’s a grotesque ‘visionary’ fantasia. Think of Dante’s Commedia, nearly unreadable when burdened with Historical Significance but everlasting in its depiction of, among other things, one of the all-time great dungeon crawls. Think of Milton’s Satan, once the subject of theological speculation but remembered and valued for poetic reasons.
Think too of Lost or Star Wars fan speculation — pseudoanalysis most valuable for the parallel world it creates, which touches on the original filmic texts but stands or falls as imaginative creation. (Don’t be fooled by the gendered baggage these terms carry: most fan ‘analysis’ is fanfic patterned after actual analysis.)
Think, for that matter, of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Auerbach’s Mimesis, or Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: critical works which are widely read not because of their relationships to their subject texts but because they create their own imaginative worlds, so that Campbell becomes a tool for screenwriters, Frye is advice to roleplaying gamers, Auerbach’s formal analysis becomes an autobiographical paean to the resilience of the human imagination within the great wave of history.
These are hugely information-dense critical/analytical texts in their way(s), but the audiences that treasure them do so because of their powers of imaginative evocation. Not Italian politics of the 14th century but a vision of Heaven; not a formal analysis of myth but an exhortation to imaginative independence; not a timeline of a nonsensical TV ‘mythology’ but a story in its own time.
Mike’s maps are plenty informative — listen as you look and their depth is revealed. They’re really impressive work. But as Jake suggested, their deeper value is in the way they evoke the (let’s say) energetic content of Phish’s improvisation. The improvisatory character of the maps, the way they jumble space and time…
My hypothesis here, coming back to the topic of fan studies again, is that cultural formations which center on a mystery — as trivial as ‘What will happen next on this TV show?’ or as consequential as ‘What does it mean that Jesus died “and was resurrected?”‘ — will tend to generate these info-rich peripheral/derivative fan-texts, which emerge from a desire to engage with content (Milton’s desire to explain the ways of God to man) but which attain poetic autonomy and end up circulating among fans/initiates for the latter reason. They remain dense with information, they serve an enormously valuable purpose down the line for historians of their moment, but their lossy transmission directly to fans, that purely affective link, is where the real action is.
Scholars/critics — and cynics — tend to fixate myopically on Churches as something like embodied arguments, and so miss the real story, which is Faiths as cultural motive forces. Faith can only be realized in action, in transit. It is not a destination, it’s a pathway, a segue (see, we’re getting back to Phish now). From the outside, on the map, the middle of the path is no place at all…
…but for the initiate, the seeker, the opposite is true. The path itself, the inquiry, the act of transformation, the logic by which experiences generate one another, the arc of desire rather than its satisfaction — c’mon, I wrote a whole book about this! — these are the Deep Places. For us, they are the Thing Itself. Between tension and release is a state of blissful anticipation. (Here we go again: the erotics of listening.)
And so you miss the show and get the tapes the next morning instead, listen to the music, argue (insanely) about its comparative value; but fundamentally, what happened on the night is a mystery, and if that mystery comes out of an experience’s ambivalence rather than ambiguity (i.e. if its implications are open-ended, instead of being closed off like a multiple-choice question; this is the difference between complexity and complication, between The X-Files and Lost) then the culture that coalesces around it will tend to throw off commentaries that take the shape of analysis but which are meant, at their deepest level, to generate a parallel mystery. To provoke us to wonder.
I suspect that’s the answer to the big question I asked above. We value Mike’s work because something in it resonates with our sense of the beauty of the music that the maps are maps of. It gives us the feeling of what Lovecraft called ‘adventurous expectancy.’
It recalls for us, in its own language, with its own music, the mystery itself.
The Phish bookshelf is nowhere near as bloated as, say, your Grateful Dead library, but there’s now a healthy number of books on the band, including my two. I can’t be ‘impartial’ on this subject; I wrote my Phish books because I wasn’t satisfied with the existing ones. Still, I’ve treasured several of these volumes. Maybe you know another Phish fan who’d do so as well.
An early appreciation of the band written right at the moment when they broke through to national visibility, released in 1996. Useful for its Skeleton Key-style fan glossary, thumbnail history of the band’s early days in Vermont, and section on the Phish’s contemporaries back in the 80s. A song-by-song look at the band’s catalogue was meant primarily as an aid to tape collectors.
An early resource for touring fans and tape collectors, akin to DeadBase, with a complete setlist file and some show/venue reviews. I read the hell out of mine, back in the day. Out of print, and at any rate superseded by…
The Mockingbird Foundation’s paper companion to the phish.net site, full of song histories, show reviews, short essays, and — the book’s real focus — a massive trove of charts, statistics, and canonical setlist data. This was the essential hardcore fan resource in the early 2000s, though cheap ubiquitous Internet connectivity has diminished its utility. Still an excellent gift for the collector in your family.
Thick as a brick, beautifully illustrated. Essentially an omnibus collection of edited phishthoughts.com blog posts with a focus on the band’s 2009 renaissance, split (like the site) between breathlessly hyperbolic morning-after show reviews and much more readable tour-by-tour historical overviews — the latter reflecting the intensity of Calarco’s 20+ year fandom.
The best Phish book not written by me — a coffeetable collection of band interviews skillfully and puckishly woven into a virtual roundtable discussion. The band comes off as generous, authentic, and productively self-conscious. The book’s greatest virtue might be timing: its focus is on the band’s annus mirabilis of 1997, though the interviews go deep on subjects from Garcia and Zappa to fame, funk, and the festival business. Essential.
Just what it looks like: an authorized band biography, long on behind-the-music stuff, largely superseding the Phishing Manual. Puterbaugh’s backstage access is the attraction: every fan will pick up new facts about the band here.
An idiosyncratic fan diary of Phish’s Summer 1994 tour. No wild’n’crazy drug stories here, just one math grad student’s easygoing narrative of following a good strange band around while carrying, for reasons only zzyzx himself can explain, a clipboard.
A self-published collection of essays, each orbiting eccentrically around one show from the band’s Fall 1997 tour, with occasional prose-poetic interregna and a listicle about girls. Highly variable in focus, looks hard at the music itself for a moment, then tangents away about China Mieville, or DJ Shadow, or playing the Hampton 97 Tweezer for my sleepy toddler. Emphatically not a tour diary, it was the first book on Phish with what might be called ‘literary aspirations.’
140ish just-published pages on the band’s double-LP platinum album. As much a belletristic oddity as my other book; much more tightly written, though, and aimed at a general (noninitiate) audience. The most detailed look so far at the band’s musical dynamics, as well as an extended meditation on ‘improvisatory consciousness’ and the experience of immersion in Phish’s musiculture.
Phish books I don’t know: Nathan Rabin’s You Don’t Know Me But You Hate Me, a well received look at the author’s experiences in two oddball fan cultures (Phish’s and Insane Clown Posse’s); Run Like an Antelope by Sean Gibbons, a tour diary which no one seems to like; and a reviled band bio called Go Phish.
Been listening to a new discovery, the Over the Edge radio show — a Negativland ‘side project’ of sorts, though it predates host Don Joyce’s involvement with the band — which ran for decades(!) on Bay Area radio. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, the closest I got to weird late-night radio was Loveline, so Over the Edge has hit me with the force of revelation: a freeform improvisatory collage of musical fragments, movie dialogue, borrowed radio clips, the sonic bric-a-brac favoured by weirdo DJs and audiophiles everywhere, and the show’s most distinctive feature, a wide-open phone line policy which allowed unscreened callers unprecedented freedom and influence over the show’s direction. The effect is a powerful aural psychotropic — listening late at night can produce lingering auditory hallucinations. Trust me.
Wish I’d known about this show a year ago! It’d have been an ideal topic for chapter 2 of the Phish book, which touches on the antirationalist cultural strain(s) known as ‘High Weirdness,’ but which, being an analogical digression in an overlong introductory chapter of a 32,000-word book, can’t exactly go into much detail.
Over the last two or three days I’ve listened to seven and a half hours of this extraordinarily dense show: the 1988 ‘Psychedelia’ episode, which trades in both ‘psychedelic’ 60s music and a more loose-limbed cable-era take on its subject (‘I have a feeling your drivers have not been installed; check your configuration and get back to us,’ apropos of nothing); the 90-minute ‘UFO Show’ from April 1982, which weaves Art Bell snippets and a fantastic LP (from Disney?) based on von Daniken’s ancient-astronauts books into a wittily creepy short (‘short’!) subject; and best of all, the November 1994 ‘Blade Runner Remix,’, which runs Vangelis’s then newly released and long-awaited complete score under most or all of the dialogue from the film to haunting effect. Characters speak to one another — and to themselves — across scenes, the sonic texture of the of the film grows more and more dense, and somehow this most visually rich science fiction text comes fully alive through pure sound, acquiring (through repetition and recontextualization) the verse/chorus/bridge rhythms of an old song and drifting finally into dream and dissolution.
Fellow Blade Runner fans absolutely must seek out the Remix episode — but I’ve yet to hear a bad or boring hour of the show, and I look forward to sampling widely from the 900+ episodes(!!!!) available at archive.org. Indeed, 1994’s likely illegal ‘The Sample Show’ is weirding me out right this instant.
If you’re looking for the perfect audio accompaniment to your next trip — inner or outer — look no further. Highly, passionately recommended.
(I wrote this back in September 2014 — in the middle of the first draft — to help me find my way in to the chapter on ‘whiteness,’ which @mikehamad told me might be something of a third rail for the book but which I’d committed to early enough in my mind that I couldn’t imagine the book without it. –wgh.)
Ch4: Average White Band: freewrite
phish come up in the megachurch era, pre-internet renaissance of regional culture when tech of media reproduction enabled any local weirdo to put out hundreds of copies of his rant/mixtape/sermon — High Weirdness, of course.
High Weirdness by Mail comes out in 1988. another country inside this one, and its communications capability is increasing along with everyone else’s, so the kooks can talk to one another — and to the norms — with utter ease. it was before the rise of full-time online life, ubiquitous connectivity, but after email and usenet and easy access to xerox machines made zine culture and peer-to-peer mechanical reproduction accessible to the mainstream. rise of an interesting disaffected strain in the culture.
stang was very much chronicling the world phish came from — that oddball realm where Nancy could be making avant tape collages and trey could be writing rock operas about multibeasts and though there’s no context for it now, there was one at the time — weirdos who found one another in a weird place. goddard college doesn’t really exist anymore, does it?
Remain in Light comes out in late 1980, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981. part of a moment. tribal/machinic. proto-cyberpunk. Blade Runner in 1982. Neuromancer and Ghostbusters in 1984. The cassette Walkman hit the US in 1980. MTV debuts in 1981 with ‘video killed the radio star.’
virtuosic (‘progressive’) music of the 70s + SF/weirdo culture of the 70s/80s + collagist fragmentation of early 80s (early MTV era, proto-cyberpunk) + strange east-coast take on bay area psychedelia, tinged w/british ironic experimentation — crimson/soft machine/genesis are more forerunners for phish’s overall vibe than the dead, in some way, though phish’s musical language draws a lot on various ‘americanas’
but look, this is very much a white subcultural mix. the black folks who pop up in phish’s history are exceptions — michael ray, p-funk(!), jah roy (late-80s), marshall allen (on SttA)…and of course secondhand influences like the Meters, James Brown, Sly Stone, Funkadelic again, Sun Ra (improv/composition mix w/a Weird vibe)…
initiatory rites — there’s deep suspicion on each side of the black/white cultural divide about the two (broadly, ill-defined) groups’ esoteric codes. ‘black codes from the underground’ and all that. exoteric mixing and sharing is fine, it’s expected, but wanting to preserve esoteric cultural strains is understandable and a little dangerous/complicated…