30 Musical, Literary and Cultural Reasons to Celebrate 30 More Years of Phish - Part Three
Far from just a quirky jam band, Phish pays tribute to the great legacy of mythology in culture.
In part three of these 30 reasons, ten cultural reasons are mused with respects to Phish as a catalyst for a communization of art. In this process, a demographic of America that -- albeit privileged -- is still missing an arts education instead receives a comparable initiation from the folds of rock 'n' roll.
21. The Musicians of Phish Are Active Masters of the Occasional Event
Not only can the entity of Phish foster self-authored narratives, but also the whole production does steward a larger calendrical relationship to narrative: that of the Occasion.
To be focused on the Occasional empowers native identity. To adhere to a calendar with purpose reintroduces a long lost consideration of the year, something we used to pay attention to as a way of goading fields into growth. Developed through revisiting tour seasons, specific places and dates, Phish ultimately cultivates a sensibility to sacred ritual.
Phish’s recent rendition of, or rather addition to, Walt Disney’s Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House, expresses the Occasional celebration at its highest order. Since it is a children’s album, listeners were immediately stimulated by childhood memories of ears being twisted, imaginations spooked. The stage is set for ghouls, and the band is masked in costume. Instrumentation and story reign supreme. The playground, however dangerous, is obvious onstage.
The plot? A mish-mosh hero’s journey: first we are told the you is courageous. Immediately we are implicated, only later to find out we are quite fearful. Though we enter the haunted house never to return, we don’t care because it is really more a portal. Rife with folklore, the motifs here are apparent but dislocated and non-sequential: there is a brave setting out, a door to worlds, a spark with a surprise, sudden far-off landscapes, and misplaced violence to survive in order to blast-off. Plus, there's a menagerie of familiars: dog to cat to bird attack into outer-space travel, all essential tropes of transformation insisting an initiation is being undergone.
We admire this spirited protagonist, this you that is us, a child becoming a hermetic and ultimately a cosmic guide. We happily accept the haunting and wish to stay there in the dome of familiar sounds made strange, complete with Grandmother Spider the Storyteller set in chandelier sacs dripping webs. With heightening senses, we have traversed to face our demons when the veil is thinnest. Replenished by the event of the Occasion, we seduce our garish endings in order to play-out a Pagan new year.
22. Phish Frolics With Time
Endowed with storied sensibilities, the Phish phenomena cannot avoid an evolving viewer-spectator relationship. This fosters the performative, necessitating as theater does a clipping, condensing, or coercing of Time.
Theater stems from ritual, as we are reminded by the work of the Cambridge Ritualists. Proceeding in similar liminal zones, we attend to Time to perform its shaping. How is this done? For starters, heads identify with rites of passage, a timeline customized by milestones, often stemming from the first recording heard or de-virginizing show, the moment of turning on. At that point, we have undone the ropes to drop our skin robes and cannot come back from tempting the edges of water. There is an attempt to create structure, thus outperforming oneself by topping one’s numbers, knowledge, and physicality.
Fans tackle Time by suspending its parameters: refusing norms of society, leaving a mainstream schedule, living on the road, seeing multiple shows, preferring, in fact, a Schvice or synchronistic clues over a system of order, heeding the group grope. To undergo this is uncomfortable work, as it can be seen as disparaging to outsiders, but the payoff from such agitation is high.
Meanwhile, the band thematically tackles Time: The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan", "Runaway", "Backwards Down the Number Line", and "Mound", among many others. Time signatures warp, becoming forays into unknown territory that define the jam. These time manipulations determine our best nights, for in the jam we all insist on loosening the shackles of Time.
In this joint recognition of Time’s confines as well as its slipperiness in the music of Phish, there is an attention to asserting the body to disrupt our ordinary acts, tendencies, and cerebral overload. This actually creates a serious exaltation of Presence; the activity is not unlike durational performance art, the kind performed by action painters such as Marina Abramovic and Ernesto Pujol.
Being submerged in each three-plus-hour show demands sustaining the use of the body to shake it, to show it off, and to shower oneself with sweat, pleasure, and elegance.
Yet many many more hours are withstood.
Much is entailed in preparing for the act: one must fast from certain aspects of culture while indulging others. Many take on alternate personas, become characters on the scene, even parodying themselves. At times it can exhibit elements of political theater, attracting the risk-takers and tricksters, at its highest akin to the pranksters or the artist Matthew Silver .
In such heightened environments, all parts of a person must tune to the senses: visual, tactile, phenomenal, sensorial, and spatial. A fan as performer endures a civic duty to bend and bounce and behoove conceptions of Time from daily numbness, giving completely of themselves.
23. Space Relations and Phish
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
-- Mark Twain
The traveling nature of rock 'n' roll tour life insists on continental zig-zagging. In it, people stitch together regions and friendships, quilting places and faces together. Ideally, this increases tolerance, moving toward a fair and shared space for catharsis. Three-dimensional space is cared for while roving, bedded together in hotels, parking lots, car-homes, when skirting around authorities, intruding venue layouts, seats, and stairs. Interlopers have to assess how to dance in limits.
One way to play with physical space is to decorate it. There is a constant need to dress up -- or in some cases, undress. Donning armor of the brand, as well as capes, wigs, sequins, balloons, LED lights, glow sticks also adorn the whole audience, often manipulated as mechanisms or props to deepen the experience. Fans rename themselves, dressing over their identity for a more common Phish-related reference. This masquerading mirrors the circus, mottles a Bacchanalia, and behooves the entirety of live Phish into a nightly installation, a Be-in sea-in, an ongoing live wire tableau vivant.
Space is an abstraction often considered in Phish songs, such as: "The Line", "Theme", "Divided Sky", "Rift", "Maze", "Bouncing", "Slave to the Traffic Light", and most brilliantly in "The Storage Jam".
Additionally, Phish excels at locating us on earth through its fenceposts like animals, characters, vehicles, food, and furniture. With so much to work out in three dimensions, plus the elusiveness of Time, it isn’t any wonder that there is an alertness toward the extra-terrestrial, to outer space. Metaphors exist in Phish's work as a blasting spaceship. Perhaps we’d prefer jaunts out-of-this world if not tethered by our common thread: a search for enlightenment, an apprehension of the inspiration-infused muse.
24. Phish and Populist Demographics; or, the Polity of Phish
Phish fans may agree that they share the search for something greater, for something more than their embarrassing demographics of overwhelmingly privileged white men. The subculture of the open road is a classic trope of American manifest destiny that percolates here still, because it provides a place and realm of ideas where seekers can gather, despite the grave absence of community in a militarized and over-individuated country like the United States.
Instead of such Enlightenment culture, Phish fans pursue membership into a chosen family. There is landscape of communal resources: knowledge, data, and dance space that accompanies an interest in civic rights of people and public problem-solving. Everyone involved in the Phish community is forced to think about the basics: food, shelter, showing up, staying safe, and ideally ensuring best peak experiences for those around. This means that the old school and new school must mingle their hierarchies.
Furthermore, Phish is an active agent in popular culture: in one year, its reach swiped the likes of the Seattle Seahawks, Biebermania, and Howard Stern. Unfurling out of the legacy of the Grateful Dead and art school bands, the new waves of the prized Clinton years, the east coast Bohemian scene within their own native Vermont, Phish expands populist notions, offering something for everyone.
Yet, at the same time, it’s complicated. Any subculture can also replicate aspects of culture that are undesirable. A grassroots disposition doesn’t necessitate specific stewardship of the scene. At a concert, one might find the best communization of art in Phish's music. One could discover a prominent New Folk aesthetic. There is also a desire to return to a giving commerce of barter and luck, handmade clothes and accoutrements, gemstone collecting, glass art, and graphic output prominent on t-shirts and pins that dot Phish events, showing off a deep subculture.
The unbridled impulsive nature of the jam scene offers creative permission to the untrained. Here, there is a prevalence of fan art made completely in mind of its audience, often wonderful in its obvious auto-didacticism. This is not to mention a continuation of the New Left hippie ideals like rock music as liberating and drug experimentation as a democratizing force, environmental ethics, organic agriculture, food safety, and alternative health.
At the same time, one may find innovative technology in the Phish subculture: generous amounts of audio and tech geekery reign from bootleg and taper networks influencing the rise of the internet to the presence of the Live Phish stream, making it possible to watch from anywhere, creating greater access to the band's music..
The social fabric of Phish consists of a weft: those fans with astute self-consciousness around cultural responsibility and its concurrent chafing by those bent on an active lack of self-care, a laissez-faire attitude, and ego-driven drivel that results from substance use in its detriment. There are, however, possible commonalities between these two factions: they often are societal rejects, idealizing the outlaw, turning the world upside down so there can then be free interaction between people. In this space, truths are endlessly tested and questioned. The results are textured. There is a range of dedication, IQ’s, careers, curiosities, and investment toward a socially constructed family.
25. Communication Codes in Phish
Phish contains a rare shared speech community, a concept defined by sociologists as taking shape when a language is shared through a set of linguistic elements that create membership, identification, and bonding. Context must be considered; speech and its contingencies are socially driven use as a sign of cohesion or belonging to the Phish world.
Natalie Dollar's work provides expert study into Grateful Dead communications codes, which is applicable here. Dollar writes in Songs of Our Own that heads use language in specific ways "to render the particular situations culturally meaningful[;] they engage in cultural speech events within the speech situations… further displaying their shared identity."
There are several types of events. Emotional expression is evident here, in opposition to studies that show Euro-Americans are conservative in their expression relative to other ethnic groups. Recognition of "how smokin' the set was" can be shared with friends or leaked to passerbys as a point of joint exclamation. Communication acts take places with ushers, authorities, parents, co-workers. Crews generously tell their "Remember when?" road adventures, close calls, miracles, and moments of magic.
Eavesdropping on others or chiming in an overheard conversation occurs, as does dipping into printed materials or online reviews common in the culture. In these forums, there always is a willingness to converse. Stories unfold inside and in line before the doors open at a concert, promoting dialogue, connecting members through autobiography, regionalism, friendship networks, and the comparing of notes: Where are you from? What was your first show? How do you know so-and-so? How many shows have you seen?
Negative emotions appear as well, in the form of disappointment or critique. Some formats offer more insight than others; for example, the self-publishing of fan thoughts on Phishnet as opposed to Hoodstream, whose vocal members disgust with grandiosity and sexism.
To add to it, often song lyrics become referential. Idioms are replaced with lyrical phrasing — a colloquial Who knows? becomes a lyric, Maybe so maybe not, hearkening to a short hand known by those in the Phish community. People, pets, cars, and social media handles are named accordingly to the language landscape of Phish.
Language becomes supernal in live shows or in listening events as people join together in song. We hone vocal chords, singing along, pushing slouched sounds to spout from our throats, tricked by ambiguity to emote as vowels come out. When we sing together compassion amplifies, mirror neurons firing as we relate to, then fuse with, each others' mouths moving in a shared motion.
Dollar continues, "Speech situations are classified by members as falling in one of two categories -- places for speaking in place is marked by the absence of speech." Audience silence during a long-awaited bust-out or jam is a speech habit that shows dedication. Dance is an ultimate expression of personal silence, its glory residing in new bonds formed with friends or fellow dancers from speechlessness. Along these lines might come worshipful attention, a greater conversation with the unsayable.
26. A Phish Religion is Not One
Prioritizing a poetics of silence varies by ethos and esoteric interest. A curious mix of philosophical beliefs and a hodge-podge of self-made shamanism are sampled by the Phish audience. A swath of religiousideas are interrogated: Christianity, Judaism, Neoplatonism, Sacred Geometry, and Theosophy. But past the smorgasbord of religious dabbling, above all else Phish is a music guild. However recumbent in ritual, Phish bequeaths a secular approach to spirit by communal knowledge of their body of work.
Accordingly, the Phish aesthetic prioritizes myth, a power subdued enough to be internalized and investigated. Myths aggregate what kind of people we are; their powers are subdued enough to be internalized and investigated.
Dominating the mythos is a classical idea of a Golden Age, from which arises the relevance of Phish's fictional land known as the Gamehendge and its sacred text, the Helping Friendly Book. But luckily, the Book is a non-book; it is glorious white-space waiting to be written, an axiom with the Gnostic tendency gnothi sato: "Know thyself". In doing so, to quote the Phish song "Colonel Forbin's Ascent", "The tree of knowledge in your soul will grow". This appeals to our best selves, for myths aggregate what kind of people we are, revealing truths about ourselves either as we are or as we would like to be.
Recumbent in ritual, Phish culture has the potential to enact what Joseph Campbell nods to: "The function of myth is to bring people together." But much like Phish’s personality, myth is provocative of multiple, often contradictory interpretations. Like any of the Mystery Cults of ancient times, there are worshippers on the surface alongside more invested initiates committed to core. Once popular, Phish fervor attracts followers both bobbing at surface in jockdom and those submerged into the depths through intention and initiation.
27. Time for the Meatstick Time! Meatstick as Ultra Phallophoria!
Just over 15 years ago, Phish launched their most ridiculous piece yet, "Meatstick", birthing a spectacular song event. "Meatstick" is a bull-roarer of a song, memorable as hell, a primitive chant, and especially a hilarious fertility ritual. Accompanying the track are specific dance moves to mimic, cajoling participation in the modern primitive: an unconscious yet nevertheless highly generative phallic-centered reverie.
The song’s U.S debut was 4 July 1999, showcasing Phish’s crew demonstrating the short but confusing choreography. But since then it has become more than a song: "Meatstick" was part of an attempt for the Guinness Book of World Records, for the "Largest Group Dance" title, which had the song appear in Europe, Japan, and at Big Cypress Millennium New Year’s all-night concert. Recently, the tune has reared its head via a flash mob in Penn Station, not to mention annual tongue-in-cheek versions at the fan-favorite venue, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado.
Culminating into a brilliant spectacle at Phish's Madison Square Garden New Year’s 2010 surprise -- in cahoots with famed set designer David Gallo -- "Meatstick" reigns supreme as an act of phallic worship. At least on the night of New Year's Eve 2010 it enacted a successful Eternal Return, a term used by mythographer Mircea Eliade in reference to an effective spell against the confines of linear Time in favor of the sacred Mythic Time.
Of course, the very title "Meatstick" is so profane it conjures mockery. However euphemistic, its meaning lives beyond its initial meat product. As such, brilliantly, what we have in the song is a satyrs’ sex ruckus. So do we, effectively reminisce with fertility cults enacting penis parades to goad the fields into growth.
28. Phish Forges a New Masculinity
We need more fertility-friendly festivals in the exploding festival culture re-invigorated by Phish, and certainly more dedicated tribal grounds like Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Popular culture loves dicks. Of note here is the increased launching of sacred objects as balloons and costumes too, with each year bringing more penis-themed things to fill the athletic compound. This has become a full-fledged stomping ground for "fuck dances", hearkening back to spring rites of a past with a profound relationship to sexuality and dance. But in a society severely struggling with respecting the female and male bodies, without a re-energized masculinity, the power of the meatstick wanes.
Fortunately, a new masculinity rears its head on the Phish scene, somewhere one can witness men hugging and expressing a love for one another. To those worn out on tropes of masculinity, it is refreshing to see men dancing with abandon, torsos swinging, embracing a feminine fluidity.
A new masculinity makes itself known in Phish's most recent album, Fuego. Its title track, "Fuego", means "fire", the male sexual force flaring, one that will morph and humbly admit the muse’s power. What follows that song addresses a slew of masculine archetypes: an iconic sportsman made vulnerable by public failure in "The Line"; the apologetic but desirous lover in "Waiting All Night"; the outlaw-survivor in "555"; and of course, the wiseman-fool complex found in the wonky funk of "Wombat".
The remaining songs are indicative of the search for understanding aspects of the divine feminine. For here, this femininity appears archetypically; the band's tone is one of reverence. Cushioning the album, then, we have a failed relationship in "Devotion to a Dream", an attempt to reach the great feminine signifier (rhymed conveniently with with "truth") in "Halfway to the Moon", and a nod to the difficulties of sirensong in "Sing Monica". In "Winterqueen" we find the bewildered (Magna Mater ) -- the all-knowing earth mom -- the refurbisher or destroyer of life. "Wingsuit" is the real genius number of the album, for it combines the male and female, imperative towards flight, to the ecstasy of pleasure that is our birthright.
29. Phish Cops a Proper Feel for the Feminine
Safety in sexuality is a right, and wonderfully Phish has the potential to hold this space, even though it's often muddled by bro culture. In creating a self-made sensual society, there is a facing of each other: there has to be an agreed upon atmosphere. Respectful Phish fans know that the music benefits when women are given power and space.
Whenever in dialogue with the divine feminine, connectivity and a heightened environment abound via her life-giving force. Muse and music stem from the same etymology, meaning to have wonder. Musicians (the majority male) must reach for this as a supply source, seeking stimulus. Rock 'n' roll also reeks of Orpheus reaching for Eurydice.
As we know from the myth, she cannot be controlled, and pulsates with too much inspiration to be grasped. The Phish female mimics the openness of the music, seeking freedom from patriarchal constructs. She is ecofeminist, exploratory, advocating for wilds everywhere, inclusive of a sexual expression freed from being in motion. In a role reversal, at Phish shows women can engage in the male gaze: not just toward the stage but an intense staring at her spiritual husband. Here, it matters not her looks or her body dysmorphia, but that she's moving and producing oxytocin. With that permission, we are all reaching for a hormonal cocktail and sonorous jam that can indeed overtake the confines of the material plane.
Phish adheres to this model in numerous cases: "Weekapaug Groove", "Wading in the Velvet Sea", and "Black-Eyed Katy" are but a few of their songs that appeal to the muse or glory of finding the groove. When Phish covers "Funky Bitch", "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley", "Amoreena", of "Sexual Healing", the crowd gets feely. They are feeling her.
Additionally, no other band has a song that could be read as juicy with dedication to the divine feminine. Though the mundane origins of the song "Harry Hood" are well known, and though it starts out boy-clunky like an awkward make-out, it relents into a softness and sensual lover. Tickling with invitation to flick and thank the minor note -- we’re nudged toward miracle fingers meandering when the lights go out, evolved men honing third base in search for the Milky Way's succulence. Such is the sex-ed of Phish, and the gorgeous reverie of "Harry Hood".
30. Phish's Primary Ritual Is Dance
First the god, then the dance, then the story.
-- Robert Palmer
Phish is a strange workout, and there is often much to work out. Dance derives its necessity from appealing to the gods, exploring limits of the body, pantomiming animals. Think how we feel contorting and squirming, making strange alphabets. We feel glorious, and we feel ridiculous. We feel the groove out, opting for something primal.
Dance displays and triggers sexual selection; well-coordinated movement is attractive because it demonstrates privilege, excellent health, and genetics. Accompanied by oxygen, adrenaline, and the love-drug oxytocin, pimped by swaying hips makes peacocking sexy, no doubt. As if we were adolescents, we grab hands to leave the school dance, and out of the gym we jet to the concrete playground into the forest for make-out sessions.
We are certainly wanton, but to shape a life with dance as a priority is more than pleasure. It is entrance out the frenetic monkey-mind and into the heart, to function from a loving rehabilitation from our bullying self-talk. However powerful individually, to attend a show to dance effectively moves us into community, the chorus around us creating unity and great pause.
Together we to tap cultural rituals: there is a gathering, a mask/makeup, a special occasion and location where speech, song, and dance is abstracted from normal everyday use. In the ancient era of ritual, dance was the primary dromena, doing the thing. The dance-drama fosters communication -- procuring favor from the gods while one where there is a transition of identity through catharsis.
With Phish, dance is therapeutic. Group issues like a crisis of experience or partnerships are confronted. Many shake and sway or fist-pump, but vulnerability reigns.
For music, movement, and mirror neurons activate the cerebellum, bathing the center of learned feedback with the motor cortex to then to construct a dynamic fabric of neural pathways. Add in memory strength, and music and dance’s full-brain orchestra increases profundity. This ripens experience into transcendence, formulating our highest manifestation of art.
With that, we drown any drone of self-loathing, root out trolls, and exile bullies far from our playground.
Splash image: photo of Phish concert on 17 October 2014 in Eugene, Oregon, 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.