Wizards, Outdoor Drug Markets, and the Most Fervent Fans in the
World: Author Matthew Vollono Attends a Phish Concert.
by Matthew Vollono
September 10, 2009
It's a few minutes after 7pm on a breezy Friday evening outside the
Gorge Amphitheatre, and I'm standing amid thousands of Phish fans,
all eagerly awaiting tonight's show, on the band's first tour since
calling it quits in 2004.
Even in the parking lot, the energy is palpable. People yelp with joy
as they parade past me on their way toward the entrance. There is so
much tie-dye, the word "tie-dye" is not an adequate description. Like
categories of pornography, there's tie-dye and then there's
subcategories of tie-dye, all based on a variety of factors too
numerous to mention here. No one is sober. Most of the drinkers have
been going at it since early this morning. On his way to the
entrance, I watch a bald man vomit with a degree of expertise that
seems almost arrogantin the midst of conversation, he leans his head
over, vomits onto the ground, and then goes back to talking without
once breaking stride.
"You can quote me as saying this show is going to be killer," a woman
lugging a young child on her shoulder tells me, cheering as I record
her words verbatim in my notebook. As I ask the woman where she's
from, the kid burps and a little line of vomit falls from between his
lips, dripping in a greenish line down his shirt. Rather than being a
symbol of infirmity, however, the vomiting has a certain coalescence
to it, as if, like a tribal rite of passage, the act of regurgitation
has now made the boy officially part of the Phish community. He
appears ready for the show.
In September of this year, Phish will release Joy, their 11th studio
album and the first new studio recording in five years. According to
the The Phish Bookoriginally published in 1998 and now very much
outdated by the slew of encyclopedic companions that have come in its
wakePhish played their first show in Harris-Millis Cafeteria on
campus at the University of Vermont in 1983. Billed as "Blackwood
Convention," they played only a handful of covers before someone
turned the PA music up to drown them out. In the 25 years that
followed, Phishthanks to a near-constant touring schedule, despotic
rehearsal practices, and a musical sensibility in tune with the
psychoactive effects of most Schedule I narcoticshave since become
one of the biggest touring bands in the country, attracting a
cult-like following in the process. They've put on seven major
festivals (one of which took place in the Florida Everglades on the
eve of the millennium), released countless live recordings, played
with everyone from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen, and in a rare moment
of mainstream publicity, were featured on a jaw-droppingly awful
Rolling Stone magazine cover dressed as ice-skating birds beneath a
headline proclaiming them "America's Greatest Jam Band."
Every article written on Phish devotes a significant amount of ink to
the following three points: (a) the amount of fans who descend on the
small towns where the band often plays, clogging up local
infrastructures and causing much head-scratching among the local
residents as they stare dumbfounded at the line of traffic from their
front porches; (b) the music, which is always compared to the
tripped-out doodling of the Grateful Dead and dismissed by many a
Phish-hater just as quickly; and (c) the staggering amount of people
arrested for drug possession or sale at each showa number that
normally hovers between 300 and 500, depending on the venue, date,
and the mood of local law enforcement.
Serving as a kind of counter to the copious articles on "Phishheads"
or "phans" or whatever they're called these days, is the overwhelming
amount of fan-produced material, most of it online, revealing a
subculture quite at odds with the band they profess to love. The
comments left on livephish.comwhere people can download soundboard
recordings less than five minutes after the band leaves the
stageafter a show at the Shoreline Amphitheatre on August 5 ranged
from the glowing ("Epic show! Best of the tour!") to the mediocre
("Seen better, Trey wasn't on until that 20-minute version of 'Down
with Disease.'") to the downright cruel ("This band hasn't played a
decent show since '97. Fuck you Phish.").
Indeed, Phish fans, for all their perceived mellowness, are
incredibly, and often impossibly, critical of the band they spend so
much time following. Among some of the most ardent followers, there's
a sense of almost existential disappointment with the group, as if
hopelessly addicted to a band they could never really love. Case in
point: Although Phish never plays the same setlist twice, anyone with
a passing knowledge of the music will have a statistically remote,
yet not completely impossible, chance of calling the opening song of
a show. The morning after a four-night run at Red Rocks Amphitheatre
in Colorado, someone using the moniker "Harpua415" complained on
livephish.com that they'd successfully called the last four openers,
thereby proving the band had grown tired and predictable in this,
their official "Reunion Tour." Requisite online sulking occurred.
Phish.net, the most impressive of the thousands of online pages
devoted to the band, contains a wealth of information, including an
archive of setlists for every show Phish has played, detailed
articles on the individual history of each song, arcane lyric
meanings, tape trading info, and a FAQ file whichin addition to
answering thousands of Phish-related questionsincludes a Frequently
Unanswered Questions link, for those answers that are either
unavailable ("Who lights the onstage candles?"), inappropriate
("Where is this 'rhombus'?") or impossible to verify (the meaning of
the song "You Enjoy Myself," for instance).
By far the most migraine-inducing of fan websites, however, is
ZZYZX's Phish Stats at ihoz.com/PhishStats.html, a disturbingly
comprehensive reference site for those maniacal fans interested in
the most esoteric and maddening details of the band's career. When I
typed "Portland, OR" into something called "The Pattern Matcher," I
learned the total number of times Phish has played in the City of
Roses (11), the most common day of the week for a show (Thursday),
the total number of songs that have been played within the city's
limits (115), the average number of songs per show (21), the average
amount of times each song was played (2), and the most-played tune in
Portland's history ("Chalk Dust Torture" has been played seven times,
or 63 percent of the time, giving it a slight edge over "Cavern,"
played six times, or 54 percent).
If you've ever wondered what happened to those really smart
statistics majors who left school after dropping LSD, look no further.
What makes prolonged exposure to the Phish world feel vaguely
hermetic, as if no other type of music exists anywhere in the world,
is that, for better or worse, the band's music is completely
unaffected by outside trends. Whereas most groups who've achieved
similar levels of deistic success have at one time been of the
momenti.e., their music reflected the flow of modern trends and
styles to some degreePhish have never, ever been hip. In the early
'90s, when they toured alongside Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors
on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, their 20-minute improvisational jams proved
painfully out of place among the more radio-friendly groups that
followed. Twelve years later, while most of these groups have fallen
off the map, Phish gets more popular by the download. Why is this?
According to my friend Dave Lombardi, a longtime fan who went to his
first show at the age of 14, the chief reason people travel thousands
of miles to watch a three-hour set of Phish music is the overwhelming
energy of a live show.
"It's hard to find anywhere else," he said. "One-hundred-thousand
people all on the same emotional pageit's a rare musical experience,
whether you like them or not."
• • •
Walking through the parking lot at the Gorge, I see Harpua415's
online disappointment has not affected attendance. There are vehicles
as far as the eye can see, most with out-of-state license plates from
as far away as Virginia, and about 20 or so VW buses. The show is sold out.
Those who've arrived by VW bus are quick to relay stories of police
harassment. Talking with a group of Californians who've made the trip
in an ancient VW bus, I'm told detailed stories of police shakedowns,
conspiracies, secret arrests, and seizures, all aimed squarely at the
Phish community. A dreadlocked man with a beard so long the tip has
begun to connect with the storm of chest hair in the V of his shirt
tells me, without a hint of irony, that he believes the government is
more concerned with arresting Phish fans than they are with finding
Osama bin Laden.
"Just think about it," he says, raising an eyebrow.
The really paranoid among the group refuse to even leave the confines
of the bus. Periodically the curtain in the van's rear window will
pull back, and two bloodshot eyes will make contact with me before
they drop back into hiding. One of these VW bus passengersa
shirtless Canadian man with a thick bandage on his elbow that he
refuses to explainwrings his hands nervously as he tells me how he
got here today:
"See, I originally came from Saskatchewan," he says. "I went south
over to Colorado to meet this kid who was supposed to hook me up with
a ride to the Red Rocks show but that got fucked up because his
girlfriend went to jail and he wasn't even like answering his cell
phone so I had to hitchhike over to Portland to meet up with my
buddy, Nosh, but that didn't work out either. I spent, like, my last
90 dollars taking a Greyhound up to Yakima and from Yakima I hitched
a ride with these kids in the bus. Now here I am."
When I ask how he plans to get back to Saskatchewan, he looks down at
the ground rather sheepishly. I realize then, with a bit of
embarrassment, there is no plan to get back to Saskatchewan.
Drugs are everywhere. Some of the dealers here are so good I can't
help but feel sorry for them (imagine if the one thing in the world
you were really, really good at carried a mandatory minimum sentence
of seven years). Once I convince people I'm no undercover cop (I'm
told my notebook has everyone bugged out), the wounded Canadian's
colleaguea thin guy in a backward hat and sunglasses that make him
look like an insectoffers me a choice of three different bags of
psychedelic mushrooms, dropping each onto the grass as if he were a
jeweler setting rings on the counter for my consideration. A few cars
down, in an impressive feat of multitasking, a bearded guy is selling
sugar cubes laced with hits of LSD while simultaneously cooking
sausage on a tiny Coleman grill and lecturing a tattooed girl about
the best way to "catch on" an open boxcar.
"If you can't keep pace with the train when running with your own two
feet," he says, while nonchalantly passing two cubes into her palm,
"then the train's moving too fast for you to get on safely."
Farther up the lot, on a 500-yard stretch of grass known as
"Shakedown Street," I walk among groups of picaresque fans all
shuffling past a dozen or so vendors selling every matter of illicit
chemical, sort of like a farmers market, just without cash registers.
Most of the people who hang out here don't have tickets but they've
come anywayferal-looking adolescents, middle-aged guys in designer
jeans peddling bunk acid, rainbow children, stoned undergrads, glass
dealers, vegan burrito sellers, hula-hoop twirlers covered in
glitter, stray dogs, and some with no discernible purpose at all.
It is now almost 10 after 8 pm. The late afternoon sky is a
reddish-orange color like the inside of a very ripe peach. With most
ticketholders inside, there's desperation among the flock. A pair of
boys no older than 15 asks if I have an extra ticket. When I tell
them I don't, they shout the word "fuck" in unison and march in the
other direction. Meanwhile, a guy in a wizard outfit who earlier I
saw selling tie-dye handkerchiefs with childlike glee and merriment,
is in a panic, yelling at some woman seated in the front seat of his
Hyundai, presumably his wife.
"Hurry up and grab your shit!" he screams monstrously. "They're going
to be onstage any minute! Don't say nothingjust grab your shit!"
Inside the amphitheater, a breeze comes off the Gorge, carrying with
it a scent of body odor the strength and complexity of which defies
By the time the band takes the stage, the lawn is nearly full. In
these moments before the first note is played, there is a sense of
almost religious communion in the minds of the faithful. Thousands of
individuals, each with their own Byzantine stories of escape and
adventure, of vehicles barely making the parking lot, of drugs
consumed and liquor regurgitated, of lost friends magically
reconnectingall is swept into one cohesive gaze aimed squarely at
the four guys onstage. Neurologically, 60,000 brains are essentially
doing the same thing right now. The air is rife with anticipation.
Although tonight's show is the first of two nights at the Gorge, and
there are still six shows in the summer tour remaining, including a
recently announced three-night Halloween festival in southern
California, the crowd cheers as if the band were just hours away from
extinction. Listening to the roar of voices and watching the
multitudes still streaming into the amphitheater behind me, you would
think these people will never get another opportunity to see Phish again.
Perhaps that's true. But probably not.