back to the Black Table

I like to think that, when it comes to music, I’m pretty open-minded. My favorite artists range from Bob Dylan to the Wu-Tang Clan to Nirvana to Lauryn Hill to Radiohead to the Beatles to R.E.M. to Liz Phair to Miles Davis to the Flaming Lips to Meat Loaf. Pretty much the only genre of music I can’t tolerate is country music, and that’s probably because of a subconscious rebellion against my small-town Midwestern roots, or maybe I just heard “If the South Would Have Won, We’d Have It Made” one too many times.

It takes quite a bit for me to openly reject a new artist. My friend Tim introduced me to Son Volt, and next thing you knew, I not only had all their CDs, but Uncle Tupelo’s and Wilco’s as well. My friend Mark mentioned how cool that new Limp Bizkit song was, and whammo, I had the entire Limp Bizkit oeuvre on my shelf. I even accompanied my friend Matt to an Elton John concert, knowing full well the crap I would take for it.

But there is one band, and one band only, that all my friends appear to love, and I just don’t get it. I’ve fought lovers, family, colleagues, even pets about it, but I’ve yet to find one positive aspect of the music of Phish.

Two of the most prominent women in my life have been Phish-heads. My sister Jill has a boyfriend named J. - just J. Not Jay or Jaye, but J. Period. - who is as passionate about the band as she is. Jill and J are students at the University of Illinois, but that’s just their part-time job. Mainly they go to Phish shows and say things like, “You don’t see Phish. You experience Phish.” When I asked Jill how she liked the last show she’d been to, she said it was, “the bomb shit,” which I guess means it was adequately pleasant.

The much more problematic Phish fan in my life was my fiancee, who was, as you have probably gathered, a much more loose and fun person than I. She simply could not understand why I didn’t realize that Phish was the closest thing to orgasm one could experience without being alone - well, let’s not get into that - and she considered me quite the fuddy-duddy for not enjoying their “music.” We even once had a fight that ended with her telling me that I could take Kurt Cobain and shove him up my ass.

I actually once attempted to attend a show with her, but her Phish friends couldn’t help but notice the glowing NERD sign imprinted on my forehead. After three songs, I sighed and accepted that I couldn’t have looked more out of place if I was wearing a bow tie and praying toward Mecca, and I was banished to the parking lot to wait for her.

I guess I didn’t understand how important Phish was to my fiancee - I mean, she did move to Burlington, Vermont, after inheriting millions - but once she left me, I figured my days of pretending to be able to stand Phish were over

Then I moved to St. Louis and made new friends, many of whom were Phish fanatics (I’m sorry: Phish phanatics). They attempted to turn me on to the band, but, without getting into too much detail with them - I save that for these columns - I explained that my history with the band was probably too much to overcome.

My friends trudged on, undaunted. A couple months ago, my friend Jen invited me to a Phish concert at some place called Alpine Valley in Wisconsin, with the hope I might be converted. Now, I like Jen quite a bit, but I couldn’t imagine any situation where I could possibly enjoy hanging out with 65,000 people just like my fiancee, except younger, poorer and more stoned.

That said, I decided it was time to move on with my life, quit sitting around the apartment and lamenting what had once been, and, goddammit, go to the friggin’ concert. Many people I respected were Phish fans, and because I had yet to experience Phish, perhaps this could be just the thing to pull me out of my three-year-plus doldrums. OK, Jen, I’ll go.

Since the concert wasn’t until two weekends ago - I guess with Phish, you have to plan plenty far enough ahead of time in case the cops catch on - I had a good two months to learn more about the band, listen to my friends rave about them and find new women to leave me so I could obsess about them. Five of us (Jen, her husband, a soon-to-be-married couple and me) packed into a rented minivan - there’s something very un-hippie, I think, about taking a soccer-mom-mobile, complete with automatic doors, temperature gauges and child seats, to a Phish show; that said, it was quite a comfortable ride - to head off on our savage journey to the heart of the American Dream. Or something.

Not only was my accompanying quartet big Phish fans, they were also married, or close to it, so it was fun to play the crazy single guy throughout the trip.

(sample conversation:

Husband: Should we have gotten off at that exit?

Wife: Listen, do you want to drive?

Husband: Hey, I was just trying to help. Don’t jump all over me. Maybe if you did the dishes more often ...

Wife: You want to help? Sit back there and shut the hell up.

Will: Does anybody have the Doritos?)

I sat in the very back for the six-hour trip, trying not to be noticed and wondering what the odds were that I would run into the fiancee at the concert (conclusion: About 1-in-112,500,000, accounting for the 75,000+ crowd and for the fact she lived 1,500 miles away).

But this concert was not about meeting long-lost loves or getting over current ones. It was about exorcising old demons, about showing that Ghost of Fiancees Past that, doggone it, Will could relax and have a fun time at a Phish show. I could hop around and look at the dancing bears - there were dancing bears, right? Or is that something else? - and be loose and one with nature too. All I needed was the means.

I needed to get inside the Phish mindset, understand what it was that was holding me back, what made my various associates so cool for liking them and me so lame for not. I had to find that ideal Phish fan, in its own environment, and study its habits.

The parking lot of Alpine Valley was an obscenely overpacked venue that featured enough lawn seating to hold the population of Rhode Island, Delaware and Guam. To our immediate left, I witnessed a gaggle of kids who appeared to have swiped Dad’s Pathfinder for the weekend and thereby reached the heaven of having a place to light up without worrying if Mom was coming down the stairs. If they were a day over 16, I’d be shocked. I quickly remembered how I looked at people my age when I was 16, and I realized that I didn’t like the way those punks were looking at me.

“Hey, nice van, dudes!” one acne-ravaged youngster spat at me to a random smattering of giggles and grunts from his cohorts. I’m only 23, but I’m in constant awareness of my own mortality, so it was important for me to bond with them. “So guys, you pumped for the concert? Motherfuckin’ PHISH, yeah!” I was reaching, but I wasn’t sure they’d be able to tell the difference. They couldn’t. “Fuck no, dude, we’re just here to smoke some dope and grill some brats, yeah!” Well, we were in Wisconsin. “Oh, you guys aren’t Phish fans?” “Oh, some of their shit’s OK, but their solos go too long, like forever. We don’t even have tickets. We’ll just be out here, gettin’ fucked up!” The Pathfinder inhabitants cheered.

It’s difficult to be certain, but I think I heard some of my cohorts curse These Damned Kids Today under their breath. But I was unfazed. Surely, not everyone here was around only to have a safe place to smoke pot away from Mom and Dad. I was aware of a crazed Phish contingent, people willing to follow them around the world, and I was determined to find it.

Once we got settled on the lawn, I found a most peculiar man who not only dressed like Hunter S. Thompson, but also seemed to be trying to channel Dr. Gonzo. He had the whole package: doofy fisherman’s cap, crazy Hawaiian shirt, cigarette holder jutting out his mouth from a dangerous angle. He even talked in the sporadic, between-clinched-teeth manner of Thompson, so much so that I wondered whether this wasn’t something he brought out just for the concert. I was preparing to ask him why exactly he decided that his muse would be an ether-swilling madman who hadn’t written anything worthwhile in 20 years, but I couldn’t get my own damned cigarette lit and was interrupted by a pleasant-looking goateed gentleman who mercifully offered me a light.

“You don’t quite look like you belong,” he said. He was right. Unlike the sarong-clad, dirty-haired, bead-adorned average Phish-goer, I was wearing a black Old Navy T-shirt and a pair of almost ridiculously yuppie slacks, and my hair had a Pat Riley-esque amount of gel in it.

My new friend was from New Hampshire: “This is my first time in Wisconsin.” Pause. “Of course, why the hell do I go anywhere? I’ve been to Vermont, New York, Hawaii, they all look the same. The only reason I’ve been anywhere is to see Phish. So, yep, here I am, in Wisconsin. I’ll be in Illinois tomorrow, I think.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, what is it about Phish that makes you willing to sacrifice everything in your life just to follow them around? Is it their music? Is it the atmosphere? Is it the pot?”

“Listen, society wants you to get a job, have a family, get a credit card. I don’t want any part of that. I just want to be free, ride the music, man.”

“OK, but can’t you ‘ride the music’ at home? Can’t you ‘ride the music’ to, say, Nirvana? What is it specifically about Phish that has changed your life?”

“Man, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”

I obviously was butting my head against a wall, but I was willing to dig deeper. Unfortunately, the conversation ceased because the band took the stage. They launched into some song I didn’t know, and I prepared myself for the apparent mind-altering sound that I was about to experience for the first time.

What can I say? I’ll try to be nice about it, since I’m sure my Phish friends will read this column, but, jeez, I still don’t get it. That kid was right; their solos did go on too long. It was just a bunch of shiny, happy music, a bunch of forget-life-and-just-hop-around-like-an-idiot gibberish that I tuned out about halfway through. The music was nice enough, I guess, but I kept waiting for Pete Townshend to show up, smashing guitars and rocking, for chrissakes.

Alas, ‘twas not to be. The band took an intermission, during which I tried in vain to find my sister, the fiancee or, at the very least, God, and then they played a few more interminable songs. I understand that they played a song they hadn’t played in years because guy with the lighter all of a sudden started jumping up and down, screaming, knocking over his companion and making us all giggle. All in all, however, it was a relatively underwhelming experience.

Eventually, the show ended, and I had found neither a reason to pursue Phish further nor an understanding of why seemingly intelligent people, like, uh, the fiancee, were willing to slavishly follow them anywhere. We got back to the van, where our underage friends were still hanging out, smoking, grilling and philosophizing.

“You know what’s so awesome about Phish concerts?” What’s that, Paco? “It’s all about gettin’ fucked up, hangin’ out with my boys and scopin’ out the hippie bitches.”

“Actually, it’s mainly about the bitches.”

Trust me, kid, it’s not worth the effort.



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