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Category: phishbook

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 
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The Goodreads problem synopsized.

You must have a sense of how people respond to your work, but you mustn’t fixate on any one response — learning to manage variation in tastes is an important skill for anyone doing creative work.

It’s harder than ever to escape people’s responses to your writing; to ‘be online’ (to live online) is to be constantly, destructively aware of the ultimately irrelevant. Yet you should never get drawn into a lengthy exchange with a reviewer of your work, paid or volunteer, except to clarify errors of fact.

There is no good solution, other (I suppose) than doing good enough work that you can confidently ignore reviews altogether.

mpfree.

Oh nuthin’, just leaving this here for myself…

(RIP Lanquidity.)

Just look down.

The 9/3 show at Dick’s was the first 2016 Phish show I’d listened to at any length, and the only one I attended this year. I’d heard bad things about the summer tour — not ‘they’re not equalling the heights of 2015’ stuff but ‘they are playing bad shows,’ which is nearly unthinkable for this most generous of bands — so while their headlining sets at the Lock’n festival had gotten decent reviews, I wasn’t expecting anything special from the Dick’s shows. Hey, we all have off years.

Well.

If you follow the band enough to be reading this, you already know what happened that night: they opened with Slave, played one of the best first sets since Coventry — including an extended Disease in the two-slot — then dove deep for an exploratory Blaze On(!) > Simple(!) > etc. > Hood(!!) sequence complete with what I’m reliably informed is one of the first actually interesting Marimba Lumina jams. Then there was the encore, a first-ever walkoff bass solo in Coil. And of course, on Sunday night they arguably topped that performance with a spectacular run of extended jams. There is, in other words, nothing to worry about — and I’m actually looking forward to checking out the rest of Summer 2016.

My experience of the show was the polar opposite of my usual concert-night arc: up by the Mike’s-side rail I was totally dialed in to the opening set, bursting out laughing dozens of times (I was sober) and undergoing the kind of gentle transformation that’s the reason I go see Phish. Afterward, wide-eyed surprise and grateful hugs and a needed breather amongst new friends and acquaintances. But after relaxed chatter and the last of my one drink at setbreak, I found myself a little disconnected from the second set, slipping back into analytical mode, suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. It happens — it just hasn’t happened to me in years.

But there was a moment in the second set, during the gradual crescendo out of the Simple/marimba jam, when all my senses seemed to focus, and (pardon me if this langauge seems hippie-ish) I tuned in to the ‘fifth voice’ which is the ensemble’s gestalt effect, the emergent ‘groupmind.’ And I think I said aloud at that point: ‘This is new music.’ Page and Trey had developed this rich textural bed with Rhodes, marimba, and subtle guitar loops (listen closely to the soundboard for these), Fish was getting into some unexpected sounds on his kit, and Mike was playing in a lead-from-within style that reminded me, in a way, of Trey’s guitar whorls. And for a couple of minutes it was just magical. On tape it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime improvisation or anything, just a moment of easy intimacy and effortless mastery.

And I’m reminded that while we have no right to demand new music from four musicians who’ve been playing these songs for more than thirty years, we still get the privilege night after night of hearing them discover things — about their art, themselves, the family we and they have made over the decades. And those discoveries, those experiences of real newness which can’t be planned or scheduled and which I’d distinguish from mere ‘novelty’ (which was Phish’s early specialty), are the secret of both Phish’s success and their creative rebirth these last few years. And the best part, from my perspective, is that they’re opening these new musical vistas not by manically pursuing every new impulse, but by accepting the evolving moment of improvisation, performance, fellowship…and letting the ‘groupmind’ dictate the content of each jam. After getting famous for responding instantaneously to All the Ideas, they now use their carefully honed collective-improvisatory tools to respond with extraordinary sympathy, extraordinary emotional intelligence, to the Deepest Feelings arising from the creative moment.

On the surface this is less impressive — feelings, every teenage moron has those — yet we see time and time again that the kind of emotional copresence and empathy which older musicians (and other collaborative artists) model for us tends to be inaccessible to younger musicians. Rockers tend to mellow, yes, and mellow rock has no cachet in a culture which fetishizes youth’s frantic unsustainability. But the ones who find their way to a sustainable creative life gain access to perspectives which rock traditionally doesn’t make room for. Of course, you see this all the time in jazz and blues: older players stop showing off and start straightforwardly playing what they feel, speaking truly out of their experiences. This then gets derided as ‘conservatism’ by critics and young musicians peacocking for their peers. What these anxious status-seekers don’t yet see (though in the end they always do) is that the enforced simplicity and honesty of mature artistic expression takes just as much work, just as much courage, as the various modes of engagement beloved of younger artists.

We’re just not trained to recognize that purity of expression as a pop virtue — though we do go on about the ‘purity’ of art from well outside our mainstream experiences; hence the ‘world music’ craze during a period of authenticity-fetishism amongst cosmopolitan Westerners.

In Phish fandom we like bickering about the usual inanities: They Suck Now, This Version of Song XYZ Is Ranked #4 at Best, Trey vs. Jerry, Umphrey’s Is Only a Jam Band, Jukebox Sets Are Boring, They Don’t Jam Anymore, They’re Back, They Weren’t Back Until I Said So, etc. I don’t get as amped about online Phishmoaning as I used to; writing those two books drained almost all of that impulse from my system. One of our fannish commonplaces is this old saw:

Long jams are better, and long jams that go ‘out of the box’ are best.

I’ve long believed this uncritically, and have at times justified it to myself with what I’ve insisted, and maybe even believed, were aesthetic principles. Like a lot of fans (maybe most) I’m most excited about long exploratory improvisations. But we should stop fooling ourselves: thirty-minute open-ended improvisations aren’t the point of Phish’s projects, they’re a means — only one of several — to the end which Trey and the other guys have explicitly identified over and over throughout their time together:

Some of the grand ideas are mellowing, in exchange for the grandest idea, which is communication. (Trey, Specimens of Beauty)

[During the silent part of ‘Divided Sky’]…at that moment, we were in the middle of it, and I started to see these colours — I’m not kidding…as soon as I could see them, I started improvising — but I didn’t play anything. I did everything in the course of improvisation except play the actual notes. And as soon as I did it, the whole place erupted. Tears started rolling down my face. It was at that moment that I knew that it was truly bigger than me. “It,” you know what I mean?’ (Trey on Charlie Rose)

Sometimes the deepest point in the evening is…silence. When every channel of communication has opened wide and the entire moment is welcomed in — when musicians allow themselves to respond to every aspect of the moment unself-consciously, and we grant ourselves the same freedom — that’s the point, the peak, the theme. The intensity of communication is often most obvious to listeners at ‘peak’ moments, which recognize because they’re loud and musically straightforward and involve the release of tension which has built up during the actual communicative linking which has been going on uncommented-upon for hours already, duh — but to see that expressive means as the only possible form the ‘spiritual’ project can take is to make a familiar error. (I wrote about this at length in 2013, in the midst of one or another tiresome fannish spat.)

I listened all morning to the glacial late-70s Urban Sax albums — droning minimalist-ambient compositions for 40ish saxophones(!!) which present a kind of immersive static soundworld devoid of the usual virtues of concert-hall music. Heartily recommended as accompaniment to brainwork. But I’ve just turned on the Orlando Stash, good ol’ 11/14/95, and it’s so…demanding! Has any rock band so insistently demanded total attention to abstruse spontaneously developed forms? You kinda get that with some jazz groups, but how often has any band in any genre offered such an intensity of both genre-conventional catharsis and absurdist interrogation of those conventions? At least with the Dead you can put on a tape and just float, at least until Drums > Space — this Stash > Manteca > Stash > Dog-Faced Boy > Stash is 40 minutes of nonstop perversity, and the band’s good nature doesn’t actually make its civil disobedience against musical rationality any easier for the first-time listener, never mind this ‘jaded vet’…

I bring up this symphony of weaponized mathematics (which you have a moral obligation to listen to today) just to make the point that early Phish, at their mid-90s experimental-improvisatory peak, generated and elaborated more ideas per second than anyone else in rock — Yet another reason not to stress the Phish/Dead connection. But the ideas aren’t the meaning of the work, which is found, I believe, in the posture of readiness adopted by band and fans alike. Submission to Benign Stochasm, offered in (and sanctified by) a spirit of generosity which marks callow early Phish, for all their embrace of childishness, as already wiser than their years. I get it, some folks just come to hear a handful of specific songs and are bored by the rest. But most of us, more and more of us as time has gone on, we’re there not to hear peaks upon peaks but to be radically open to one another’s shared experience of what a hell of a lot of us insist on calling the ‘divine’ — whether or not the music itself ‘peaks’ with loud major chords or not. More and more I believe that the music is one outward manifestation of the transformation we gather to undergo.

Just so’s you know, this is the closest I come to ‘spiritual’ talk. As far as I’m concerned, there are almost certainly no deities, no ‘souls,’ no afterlives, no ghosts, and no cosmic musical ‘source’ to draw on. But there’s the obvious to reckon with: the universe hums, minds sense one another beyond the named senses, and music is one way our hearts learn to beat in shared time. So lately my writing about art gets this way sometimes because, um, it seems to me the universe is this way.

And when I say that Phish’s ‘cow funk’ makes sense not as a style but as an ordering principle, and that ‘peaks upon peaks’ function the same way, I’m trying to encourage you both to listen very very closely to the musical details which make up this extraordinarily detailed improvisatory music, and to recognize that as long as you’re listening closely with truly open ears (and a shake of the hips), it doesn’t really matter what you hear. Some of you will never believe that, some of you already do. I’m hoping to reach someone else.

And when I say that this post isn’t really about Phish but rather the thing that Trey says they’re trying to channel, I hope you hear that not as ‘hippy-dippy’ New Age talk but as an exhortation to look beyond the local noise of ‘style’ to the great curve which that noise obscures.

You don’t need to climb the highest peak to set foot upon a topological miracle. Just look down. I’m joking and I’m serious.

Quick thought about Summer 2016 Phish.

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.

…and…

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…

On fans, phans, mystery, and informational density.

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.

The mystery at the center of everything

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.

On Phish books.

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.

Dean Budnick, The Phishing Manual

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.

The Pharmer’s Almanac

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 Phish Companion

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.

Mr Miner’s Phish Thoughts (Dave Calarco)

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 Phish Book (Phish & Richard Gehr)

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.

Phish: The Biography (Parke Puterbaugh)

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.

This Has All Been Wonderful (David ‘zzyzx’ Steinberg)

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 tiny space to move and breathe (yours truly)

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.’

Phish’s A LIVE ONE (me again, for the 33-1/3 series)

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.

(the others)

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.

Still upside down.

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 alt.sex.stories, 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 rec.music.phish, 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.

New (to) me.

In mid-October I resolved to listen to lots of music that I knew nothing about. Having overdosed on Phish during the writing of the 33-1/3 book, I’d already begun pushing deeper than usual into my iTunes library, which is full of albums and artists I’ve only dipped into, never dug. But even that felt like too small a change. So here we are.

I’ve already written about a bushel of albums (and a radio show), mostly in the prog/psych/ambient region of musical N-space.

The ‘weirdest’ chapter (not to me!) of the 33-1/3 book is a meditation on ‘psychedelia,’ which I treat as a broad umbrella under which you can fit everything from the enveloping weirdness of They Might Be Giants to Teresa of Avila’s spiritual-erotic vision, the Dead doing ‘Dark Star,’ the Legendary Pink Dots’ antagonistic ambient gloomscapes, David Lynch’s films, Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid sign-seeing… (And Phish, of course.) I’m not particularly interested in early garage/psych; gimme art that ramifies deliberately, that touches on a complex symbol-system, in addition to whatever spur-of-the-moment stochasms open up in its making.


I was never much for illegal drugs, but because I don’t take any drugs at all nowadays (modulo an occasional glass of wine or splash of bourbon at our Wednesday game nights, or antibiotics), I get my dissipative psychedelic transformations experientially, in particular musically. But I don’t require mimetic representation of altered states to alter my state; weird echo effects are nice at the right time, but you don’t need your music to sound like drugs in order to feel like drugs. Global Communication’s 76:14, Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus, Bernard Xolotl’s Return of the Golden Mean, Keith Jarrett’s Spheres: all over the map stylistically, but when I approach my listening with the right mood of unself-conscious acceptance, they all send me out/in along the spaceways.

My musical sense has a huge effect on my understanding of writing — my own and others’: what I want from my extended listening experiences is to experience a purity of focus and intention, an openness to accident, generative complexity (not complication for its own sake but a sense of possibility). In Lovecraft’s phrase, I’m after a sense of ‘adventurous expectancy,’ which I get most often from certain kinds of ensemble improvisation. I used to think that the objective of any improvisation was to generate a ‘well wrought’ piece of music, but I’ve put that aside now; I’ll settle for a purity of expression, which by my private definition will always be collective, empathetic, filled with longing (openness) rather than certainty.

My teacher Professor Thorburn, who like me adores David Milch’s art, suggested to me in an email that part of my sympathy for Milch’s excesses, his sometime inscrutability and narrative malformation, comes from a willingness to value ‘rich, ramifying beginnings that, alas, never arrive anywhere’ (like the theater plot in Deadwood Season Three). I think he has it, and God knows my own writing veers plenty often toward ramification and free-associativity, not to mention tiresome self-ironizing, when it should be getting on with the story. But then, if art is a means by which individuals separated by space and time are able to effect psychotropism at a distance, even in the mind of a stranger, then ‘adventurous expectancy’ as such might be a perfectly sensible end for that work; and God knows, too, it’s strongest at the beginning…

Given the choice today between the Iowa-approved artfully clenched sphincter of the ‘well wrought’ realistic sad-academic-experiences-minor-revelation novel, on one hand, and the delirious ellipsis-spawning excess of Pynchon at his most paranoid (or Philip K Dick’s ham-fisted psychedelic ambivalence, or the doofy fuckery of Phish’s mid-90s prog comedy routine, or the hilarious nonsense of The X-Files‘s ‘mythology,’ or the impenetrable thicket of Charles Fort’s redoubling ironies, or Ornette Coleman’s ) on the other, well, there’s no contest. Give me a universe in motion, a restless (group)mind, and let me find serenity through my openness to it.

Airless art speaks to people who live airless lives.

You and I don’t have time for that, do we?

Any edge will do for over.

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.