MusicWeekend

Freedom, Walt Whitman, and Phish

Phish connects with a visionary tradition in America reaching back to the expansive Walt Whitman and the soulful Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Phish (photo by Patrick Jordan)

About 15 years ago, when I was just beginning to get really interested in the rock band Phish — often called the top jam band, although that term comes nowhere close to what the band actually does — I had one of those excruciating experiences which every impassioned fan will recognize. I was with artist friends and friends of friends in a Brooklyn bar and the subject of music came up. People were talking about what music they found enthralling, what really rocked their world.

Television and the Pixies were mentioned, among many others. My turn came and I initially demurred, sensing what was coming, if I were to be honest. My tablemates — all savvy, knowledgeable artists — persisted. Against my better instincts I decided to be truthful and announced that Phish was the band I was most listening to, even obsessively so, although I had not yet been to a concert. Bafflement ensued. Phish? What’s that? Never heard of them. A couple of people who knew just a bit about the band were amused, as if I had admitted an embarrassing foible. One woman was aghast, as if I had just confessed to a serious crime.

I’ve encountered something similar many times since, oftentimes from people with scant knowledge but strong convictions that Phish is atrocious, a laughingstock, a noodling Grateful Dead wannabe playing insipid music to weed-addled scenesters. The high schoolish message is: you can’t be in the cool crowd and like Phish. That band is for nerds, weirdos, and druggies, not for anyone seriously interested in music.

(photo by Rene Huemer)

Flash backwards, quite a number of years ago, to 1855, to be exact. Another atrocious, navel-gazing laughingstock — Walt Whitman — published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman was often derided (on the relatively few occasions when people actually paid attention to his poems, but also by many others who never read a word) as a noodling, egomaniacal amateur with weird ideas and a suspiciously populist streak. Writing in The Criterion, the acclaimed critic and anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold dismissed Whitman’s book — which would later be hailed as the most important book of poems ever written in America — as “a mass of stupid filth.”

I mention Whitman for a reason. There is no current band in America that connects more with an expansive, occasionally ecstatic, experimental, democratic, and indeed Whitmanesque vision than Phish. Whitman melded the Old Testament, Shakespeare, the raucous opera of his day, Romantic poetry, vernacular speech, and Emersonian transcendentalism, among others, into a unique and unprecedented poetic style; Phish melds classic rock, atmospheric prog rock, free jazz, atonal excursions, space jams, blues, country, bluegrass, Tin Pan Alley, barbershop quartet, reggae, and no doubt many other influences into their absolutely unique musical style.

Whitman basked in and extolled crowds of all stripes, and fantasized that his book of poems would generate a flourishing community of interest (this didn’t happen in his lifetime, or not nearly on the scale he imagined, but it has certainly happened since). Phish, a decidedly quirky, under-the-radar band has generated such a community, and their concerts go way beyond entertainment and art consumption. This band enjoys an extraordinary rapport with its audience and concerts are communal celebrations of a very particular kind of music, but also of eccentricity, idiosyncrasy, joy, pleasure and, essentially, freedom. In this desperate Trump time, such celebrations seem especially valuable and restorative.

Even Phish’s famous jamming has an antecedent in Whitman. The initial, and most radical, 1855 version of the poem that would later be titled “Song of Myself” features what may well be the first sustained jam in the American tradition. Whitman declares “I am afoot with my vision.” Then, in one elongated sentence stretching across several pages, he darts between city and country, the natural world and humanity, scenes that are peaceful and others that are harrowing as he traverses the continent observing log huts, lumbermen, a panther, an alligator “in his tough pimples,” a hot air balloon, a wrecked ship, a printing press, a shark fin, a copulating cock and hen, a Quaker woman, a moccasin print, and a “good game of base-ball,” among other things, before beatifically “walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle god by my side” and launching himself into outer space more than a hundred years before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin accomplished the feat for real: “Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars/Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring and the diameter of eighty thousand miles.”

(photo by Patrick Jordan)

As Phish fans well know, not only a concert but a single song can do something very similar. You can start out with an ocelot and several minutes later find yourself in the stratosphere (“Ocelot”). As you listen to the lyrics of “Tube” (and Phish is famed for its eccentric, at times seemingly nonsensical lyrics that oftentimes shade into sneaky profundity), you encounter a crashing asteroid, tigers, a paranoid doctor, a freeway in Los Angeles, gang wars, a mummy in the cabinet, and a rubber bottle, among others, while long instrumental passages take you to a gorgeous elsewhere, or rather to multiple elsewheres.

This beloved (by its legions of ardent fans) and often derided (by its many detractors) band, which formed in Vermont more than 30 years ago — with Trey Anastasio on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on keyboards, and Jon Fishman on percussion — recently concluded something of a miracle, billed as The Baker’s Dozen. In late July and early August they filled Madison Square Garden for 13 shows without benefit of a hit record, a hit single, much radio airplay, much publicity to speak of, and any of the trappings associated with a top act.

Each concert was entirely different, but that’s not surprising since all Phish concerts are entirely different. Phish didn’t repeat one song over the 13 shows. That’s a total of 237 songs in an era when top touring bands often repeat the same performance of the same set list over and over. Each night had a doughnut theme with an ascribed flavor — among them jam-filled, strawberry, red velvet, Boston cream, and jimmies — and gourmet doughnuts from Federal Donuts in Philadelphia were dispensed to lucky early arrivers. This might seem ridiculous but it worked and allowed the band to freely experiment and devise wildly diverse set lists including original songs and covers that — somehow — related to the flavor. I went to four of the concerts, sitting (and this is for the Phish crowd) Page-side in sections 116 and 117, although sitting was rarely involved. For me, these concerts were indeed enthralling and cathartic, among the best and most meaningful art experiences I’ve had during the past many months.

(photo by Rene Huemer)

With Whitman’s jam in mind, consider “Lawn Boy” from the night of July 25th, a concert (jam-filled was the flavor of the evening), that has quickly achieved legendary status in the Phish world. This song normally tops out at a bit more than three minutes. On this night, McConnell stepped from behind his keyboards to come center stage, clutch a microphone, and start singing his synesthetic song about smelling colors “outside on my lawn,” including “the black oleander surrounded by blues.” He resembled a cheesy crooner in a Daytona Beach bar or on a meandering cruise ship, not a rocker, one of many times when Phish band members gleefully satirize their status as rock stars.

After the vocal part McConnell grabbed a keytar, and then suddenly everything started shifting and morphing. This little, familiar song dating to 1990 became strange and elastic, full of sonic and emotional swerves and adventures, stretching to almost half an hour. Fishman and Gordon laid down a hard-charging funk groove. That would change many times, growing softer and louder, slower and speedier. At times Anastasio’s guitar evoked shining water or ethereal mist; at other times it was guttural and fierce. McConnell’s keyboards were first pillowy, then brazen, staccato, and insistent. Gordon’s bass murmured, but then thudded and whomped. This was Phish at their absolute, unpredictable best, not so much performing a song as using a song to launch a complex conversation and inquiry, an investigation (with the very real possibility of failure) into what might be possible, and it was thrilling. Late in his life the risk-taking Whitman provided a hint into his origins as a poet. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” he declared. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” That’s transcendentalist philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in his 1844 essay “The Poet” — for me a marvelous and visionary meditation on writing and art-making — wrote, “Art is the path of the creator to his work,” at a time when just about everyone would have understood art to be the finished sculpture, painting, poem or song. That’s Phish in a nutshell: not a band performing its songs but instead an adventurous and explorative band on a path to those songs.

Trey Anastasio (photo by Rene Huemer)

I am not a music critic, and I won’t attempt to provide a synopsis of each show. Instead I’ll write as a fan. For those so inclined (like me), this was nutritive music, sometimes raucous and driving, sometimes atmospheric, meditative, and beatific, and all shades in between; sometimes brooding and sometimes jubilant. On, July 23rd (the doughnut of the night was red velvet), Phish opened with a lovely, yet hilarious rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.” Guitarist Anastasio was on drums; drummer Fishman was the singer. Dressed in full bishop’s garb (this was a Sunday) he also blessed the crowd and band with incense and “holy water.” The encore, three plus hours later, was a rousing version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” On July 28th, “Chalk Dust Torture,” among the most well-known and cherished Phish songs of all, became a 24-plus minute foray that took band and crowd through arena-rock exultation, quiet introspection, whimsy, turmoil, bewilderment, and elation.

Phish songs are never topical; the lyrics are way too elliptical and odd to advance any didactic message. Still, sometimes things hit home with utmost clarity. “More,” which concluded the first set on July 23rd, was one of those times, with its refrain: “We’re vibrating with love and light/Pulsating with love and light/In a world gone mad, a world gone mad/There must be something more than this.” Out there: Trump, the ever-grim Mitch McConnell, resurgent white supremacists, climate change deniers, and violent ISIS nitwits. In here, in this arena reconstituted as a decidedly alternative zone: a thousand (or more like 20,000) barefoot children (of many ages) joyfully dancing on the lawn.

While the members of Phish are serious, virtuosic musicians, free-spirited play, antics, fun, and a carnivalesque air of freedom and excitation are big parts of the concert experience. If Phish connects with a visionary tradition in America reaching way back to the expansive Whitman and the soulful and sublime Emerson, they equally connect with a Barnumesque tradition of showmanship, spectacle, costumes, outlandish escapades (like Fishman in his bishop’s garb), and razzle-dazzle surprises. Lighting Director Chris Kuroda’s extraordinary lights — he is often called the fifth member of the band — add a great deal to the carnival atmosphere. He responds to and anticipates the songs with all their shifts and surprises, and bathes both band and audience in multicolored beams as he “paints” and “sculpts” the music.

(photo by Rene Huemer)

Here is what Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the carnival in his 1929 book Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics: “Carnival brings together, unifies, weds, and combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.” That, to me, seems like a pretty good description of Phish’s music altogether. Here is what Bakhtin wrote about “carnivalistic life” (which he called “life drawn out of its usual rut”): “All distance between people is suspended, and a special carnival category goes into effect: free and familiar contact among people.” That, to me, seems like a good description of the Phish concert experience. Acceptance is the norm: everyone is welcome. Aggression is largely unfamiliar. Freedom is greatly valued. Pleasure and delight abound, generosity too.

I went to three of the shows with my friend Will O’Neill, who is intensely knowledgeable about the music, and also a generous and engaging spirit connecting with everyone around him, and on one night with painter and videomaker Ati Maier too. We’re all better friends now. You can easily meet strangers as well, sometimes with just a glance and a smile, and you understand one another instantly. You’re linked by a love of this quirky music, and you share, via art, what Whitman memorably termed “a knit of identity.” We’re all in this together, both band and audience (and Phish fans know what comes next).

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