30 Musical, Literary and Cultural Reasons to Celebrate 30 More Years of Phish: Part Two
From Romanticism to structuralism, the musical ingenuity of Phish pays tribute to a variety of cultural movements; they're more dada than dad rock.
Part two of these 30 reasons spans ten literary affiliations that reveal Phish to be a transducer for literary movement, creating an unconventional readership, inviting the curious to enter into its making. The band's literariness is various and often difficult, never underestimating the ability of the implied reader.
Part one of this feature can be found here.
11. The Spirit of Dionysius in Phish
Endemic to the rock 'n' roll zeitgeist is the Dionysian spirit, akin in rock to what mythographer Karl Kerenyi calls Zoe, the artistry of indestructible life. Phish emboldens this, sharing themes of youth, resistance, and a traveling band of worshippers.
Nietzsche famously establishes the Dionysian in the bipartite model of Dionysian/Apollonian art; in this case, Phish fans certainly side on the indulgent, unruly endeavors of the former that Nietzsche mentions, such as intoxication, excess, tribal unity/festival culture, and acceptance of a savage self. Philologist Walter Otto champions the Dionysian association with water, the primary Phish element, stating that the force "enlivens and invigorates", for it has "the power which maintains life and creates it", in accordance with the regenerative nature of moisture. Dionysius was, after all, called "You of the Sea", "Lake-born, and "From the Marshes".
The god’s multiple appellations illuminate further correlations between him and Phish: "God of Paradox", "God of Many Joys", "Delight of Mortals", "Deliverer from Sorrow", and "The Dancer & Ecstatic Lover" run the gamut of emotional states Phish fans undergo at any given concert. "The Thunderer", "Loud-Shouter", and "Roaring One" fit with Phish’s misunderstood sounds and touring storms through towns. "The God who Appears", "Light From the East", and "the Four-Eyed God" confirm Phish’s immediacy, region of origin, and physical make-up. Like the young Dionysius, called "Twice Born" for being birthed out of father Zeus’s thigh, as well as "Thrice Born" from being pieced together after a Titanic thrashing, the Phish eras after-their-hiatus and then break-up is referred to as Phish 2.0 and Phish 3.0.
Even spookier, Dionysius as Iacchus of the important Eleusinian Mysteries brings to mind Icculus, the benevolent god that can help save Phish's mythical Gamehendge, a land central to the group's mythos.
Finally, as a fertility god, Lover, and Liberator, Dionysius and Phish share the feature of wild woman -- the maenad -- shameless still in discarding patriarchy for sexuality and ecstatic dance.
12. Phish is a Romantic Endeavor
Waving the mad freak flag of a hippie subculture, to hold Phish as a simple, sterile jam band fails to consider the aesthetic roots of its deliverance, namely the great tradition of Romantic literature.
Enthused by the French Revolution, yet upset by encroaching industrialization, Romantic poets like mystic William Blake, both Wordsworths, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and John Keats were interested in the struggle against authority, against the taming wrought by the mainstream. Thus, the authors of that era paid attention to folk tales, ghosts, dreams, memories, and purity of nature as empirical sources for our poetic perception.
The Romantics were serious about knowing through experience via subjectivity and the sense. Sound familiar? For it is roused emotions that doorjamb ajar an inner landscape. Hearkening such sources could unlock an ability to access a loosening of perception, a sensorial expansion.
Thus, we declare the Imagination supreme! goes the Romantic credo, as it does for Phish.
13. Phish Promotes Riled Emotions
Phish is an emotional convector; it stimulates an outpouring of emotion, opinion, and exuberance. In the preface to 1798’s groundbreaking Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth put forth that "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."
This can be seen in excitement and exclamations shared with strangers in a culture of hugging, and the passionate cheers of Phish fans: Woooooooooooooo!
14. Phish Can Hold Utopian Vision
The Romantics rallied for the senses as key to knowing our internal selves and thus the wonders of the invisible. Paying attention in nature, walking, meditating, dreaming, remembering, and being as mutable and open as an Aeolian harp are sources for poetic perception, our senses transcending a state for vision or inspiration. Perhaps it is this endeavor that draws a concertgoer, that there exists a place encouraging the highly sensorial; within that, the Imagination can act out.
The word utopia, meaning "No Place", was coined by Thomas More in his 16th century fiction of the same name. He was one letter off (E) from it meaning Good Place.
The concept winks at us forever, from Sumer, Plato’s republic, Virgil, Eden, the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau’s Walden, Robert Owen, the Alcotts’ Fruitlands, to today’s non-violent and permaculture movements. Any imaginings of Arcady gain luminosity just by us applying our thought-viewing to possibility. In this way, music initiates a space for Hope.
Waterwheel, Green Crew, and any kindness extended or stewardship of the scene shown are physical attempts to sustain it.
See you in Gamehendge when I shut my eyes.
15. Phish is a Suspension of Disbelief
Alongside active deployment of the imagination, there is a willingness to suspend disbelief when undergoing a show. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Literaria Biographia writes, "Willing suspension of disbelief… constitutes poetic faith out of a concern that advances in Science had weakened creative potency of the unknown."
So: surrender to the flow!
It is this state that allows us to believe in tricks of film, the pop of stars, and that the New Year is the birth of beginnings. Henceforth, we are more water-like, forgoing the confines of time.
16. Carpe Diem Abounds in Phish's Aesthetic
Long may this happy heaven tied band exercise its most holy art.
-- Richard Crenshaw
Carpe diem, meaning "Pluck the Day", is a phrase inherently embedded in the nature of Phish, one that asks us to agree to seize the moment as in capture to captain the selfship, to see with eyes opened to an extension of animism of enthusiasmos: the presence or arrival of a god felt bodily.
Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to keep intuitive sensors alive by advocating for a stasis of transparent eye-ball Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself has this super spirit, that far-reaching consciousness of being awake could transcend a nation. The Surrealists then added their sexy insistence on existing as if one's skin was eyes, huge as orange donuts open to the world, our antennae crackling.
For Phish, carpe diem is not just relative to the central question in "Chalk Dust Torture", or the sentiment in "Down with Disease"; it's also in the rondeau of "Limb by Limb", in the promise of the rhythmic "Divided Sky", the anthem of "Guyute", and that defiance we feel in "Wilson" or "Punch": it’s a cosmogony.
17. Phish is More Dada than Dad Rock
The Dadaists snuffed out out a lineage and substance conducive to experimental behavior in the same way that Phish’s absurdist impulse permits a grand creativity of nonsense.
Phish iconography and stage gags often create serious dislocation and disruption of everyday. Their songs frequently seam-rip the hems of our meaning-making machine. Tracks like "Mango", "YEM", and "Scent of a Mule", even when more narrative in their lyrical content, resist normalcy.
Mike Gordon participates within and profligates the best use of this Dadaist-indebted approach, what with his writing of "the Corner View" in the old newsletter Doniac Schvice, his ventures into film, and tech forays exalting experimental instrumentation. Have we moved sufficiently from Frank Zappa's bicycle to Gordo’s use of the Power Drill on his bass?
Yes, we have. For once we abduct reason for a logic of the marvelous, then we can dream.
18. Phish Exemplifies Experimentalism
When composing, Phish employs Surrealist and Dadaist techniques, ensuring longevity and vibrancy in their creative act. The band, along with lyricist Tom Marshall, displays a willingness to experiment seen through the prisms of collaboration, improvisation, and accident. This craft prioritizes intuition, nonsense, and chance.
Such dedication to a natural mind unfettered by constraints of orthodoxy results in art that seizes spontaneity, collage, generative games, and Ekphrasis (writing in response to art). Most recently, these methods were made evident in "Feugo", a song co-written by band members staring at an image from the internet.
Yet even from the earliest era, circa The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, Anastasio's infamous Gamehendge thesis has its origins in such off-kilter methods. In its Preface, Anastasio explains that what started as a set of found poems, received from an old friend with no introduction or sense of backstory, were used "to build a story that was utterly deliberate out of two poems" that were previously unrelated to each other. He developed The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday "by taking small bits and pieces that fail to stand on their own and designing a context in which they become purposeful." Such a chance-induced operation reminds us of Tristan Tzara’s cut-ups, resulting in a legend bundled by possibility.
To allow randomness is to dismantle the suffocation of standardized testing and turn the classroom into a space for games, the method of investigation more natural to our mind.
For the Surrealists, rallying against the rational by avoiding pre-deliberation is political act against a world that demands a determined outcome. Phish’s creative approach honors the role of the subconscious. We find this spirit also nodding to Andre Breton’s free psychic automatism, Yeats’s automatic writing, James Merrill’s Ouija-dictated poems, Allen Ginsberg’s First thought, best thought, as well as the procedural work of Schoenberg, Satie, Cage, and Ono.
Phish’s ability leases yet another, ancillary kind of composition, actively shared when live with their audience. At shows, we enter a literary salon and commit to a group production as a higher means of artistic output. The co-creative nature of a fan-band relationship means the concert goers are willing to experiment, to live experientially, move intuitively, as Emerson hoped. Thus, everyone participates in a sort of botched exquisite corpse, responding to first notes played, adding in their bodies and cheers as propulsion, and so on, back and forth. A show is a living folding accordion, one that is constantly blown into, every night, thus bringing the body out of corpse status and more into an afflatus of a breathing multibeast.
19. The Literary Pulses of Phish
In the literature of Phish, there is a phrasal insistence on READ THE BOOK, or say, by the acronym M.O.S.T S.H.O.W.S S.P.E.L.L S.O.M.E.T.H.I.N.G (listed out by the songs of the Phish's setlist on 30 August 2013), confirming both the playfulness wrought by the need to investigate connections coursing through the world.
Other than obvious acrostic poems put forth by set order or titling, shows spell-speak to the weather, the elements, the venue, the audience that evening, and to an interrogation of Phish’s own history.
For 30 years of indirectly nurturing thousands of readers ensures reading is happening despite this time of intellectual downsizing. Reading activities ride the obvious manifestations of fandom: lyrics, teases, trivia, media and reviews, but also in the world around them: geographies and logistics, onstage gags, boats of bodies always in motion, favorited milestones, and other subtle texts that pepper the bigger picture.
Due to the highly interactive nature of a Phish concert, there is an encouragement for the individual to read shows and song choice as if in direct dialogue with the unknown self. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the awareness of vital invisible connections (often invisible but made manifest in the act of poem-making) as inscape. This concept is no doubt an aspect of Hopkins' poem "God’s Grandeur".
To close one's eyes in a prolonged state of paying attention, to learn to listen within the noise of post-modernity all the while basing physical and narrative movement, results in a reified meditation. Amidst our current disheveled collective state of attention, the ramifications of such rare self-authorship from a fan base that actively seeks releasing suppression of their inner lives is surely a richness.
20. Phish is an Extraordinary Cover Band
Phish’s status as a superior cover band draws criticism, but such criticism should be seen as an homage to memorization and shared lineage.
The poet Alice Notley has said the crux of the Folk is is to pass something on. Musicians cover because they are communicating with their ancestors, reincarnating from song to song. To memorize and re-tell is apprenticeship; it is ghost-proof of predecessors.
Phish inspires respect for their older and contemporary poets of influence. They are inter-literary in their covers, spanning eras, genres, often opening caches of lesser-known music to individuals who may not otherwise encounter it, adding to music education in America in a time before the Spotification of the airwaves.
Diversity and flexibility reign supreme in their covering, creating group wonderment for origins and discovery of lineage and new music. In each fan, this stimulates a personal collection of prized discographies, subtly encouraged to search soundscapes, to read histories and lyrics, to recall them separately from its playing. This creates enormous walking archives: humans fluent in discographies moving around, coughing up songs. Phish’s attention to Little Feat, the Who, Frank Zappa, the Beatles, Talking Heads, Ween, TV on the Radio, Edgar Winter, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie creates a shared referential framework. The scope of those fresh signifiers of meaning, whether outwardly as in a Halloween album costume or inwardly as adoration for music new or reinvigorated, is surely a feat in itself.
Splash image: photo of Phish concert on Halloween 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish. Taken from artist's website. Thumbnail image also by Rene Huemer © Phish.
Katherine Factor is a writer, educator, and the assistant editor at inter|rupture. She has her MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of grants from the Iowa Arts Council and Arts Enterprise Lab.