The thing about clichés is that they are mostly true.
It’s obvious after watching the Waxbanks-Wolfson-Gans cage match here on Phish.net and on Facebook over the past week that a lot of you feel very passionately about the Grateful Dead and Phish. More than a few of you feel very passionately about both and, like Waxbanks, I number myself among you. And more than a few of you favor one over the other with a generous measure of – let’s say – passion. It seems bafflingly necessary for some to litigate the merits or superiority of one over the other.
I find these arguments insipid and masturbatory, but I do understand the emotions from which they sprung. Phish blossomed as a live draw when – and perhaps because – the Grateful Dead were corkscrewing, and ultimately dying. It was, without exaggeration, an indescribably painful time. Ironically, though Phish was growing its fan base exponentially, the Phish show experience was not exactly hospitable in 1994 and 1995; many of us know naïve Deadheads who parachuted into the scene expecting a younger and more vital Grateful Dead II, but were treated instead to 30-minute improvisational mindfucks, secret language, narration, and throngs of diehard fans who had invested enough time to be in on the joke. Hardly a fur-lined safety net for the bereaved.
[And let’s be honest: if Phish was for everybody, it wouldn’t be special. It is music from the island of misfit toys and only kids with just exactly the right screw loose can come to love it unconditionally.]
The converse is true. Phish and many of their fans deeply resented interminable comparisons to the Grateful Dead, not because the Grateful Dead wasn’t influential or because the comparisons were never accurate – they often were. They resented the comparisons because they were just as often lazy and clichéd. They were also a ball and chain around the band’s collective ankle. Phish was brand savvy enough to know that they had to escape the Grateful Dead’s gravity before they could enter their own orbit and attain the artistic credibility they so richly deserved. And it would take them years of conscious effort to achieve it. Yes, there were some early-to-the-party phans who thought Jerry’s death laid out the welcome mat for throngs of malodorous noobs destined to never get Phish, but there weren’t that many of them, and fuck them anyhow.
Which brings me to my point: It’s 2011, and it’s time to grow up and get over it.
By “it” I don’t mean carefully constructed compare-and-contrast exercises designed to stir up blog traffic and provoke some academic discussion. Those will endure and probably should. By “it” I mean the parochial instincts and behaviors so many of us default to when the topic is raised.
Recognize and appreciate that music is not the NFL. I dig pro sports just fine, but I rejoice in a life unburdened by the need to stand nose to nose with some gin-blossomed blowhard in a mildewed bar and argue the relative merits of Cake and Sonic Youth. What a waste of precious oxygen, if for no other reason than Cake and Sonic Youth do not care. Artists who deserve your attention do not seek your loyalty, nor do they seek to ascend on another’s back. They are far too busy trying to keep a creative fire burning to keep score in some imagined tournament. So why do we insist on doing precisely that?
To be fair to Waxbanks, his essay wasn’t the least bit parochial. He had a thesis he felt had merit which spoke to a defining difference between the Grateful Dead and Phish. While some of his supporting arguments may have been less benign than his thesis, it’s sad to see Grateful Dead academicians I admire so unnecessarily on tilt about the whole affair. The musicians and lyricists and crew members and back office staffs of both of these bands have toiled for decades, collectively, to suggest to you a host of higher thoughts and sentiments.
So here are mine.
The Grateful Dead and Phish changed my life forever. They are binary stars in my musical sky, and I will be warmed by each in different ways, on different cycles, for as long as I live. And while I am quite capable of musing about their differences, it is their similarities that once again intrigue and move me.
The primary reason both of these bands have captivated people – and the reason why tens of thousands of people never went on Bobby and the Midnites tour or Pork Tornado tour or even Jerry Garcia Band tour – is because they were and are alchemical. The personal and musical relationships of the players generated more light and heat than they were capable of individually, or with any other collaborators. The songs of each band’s maturing repertoire referenced and informed each other, and built toward a meta-narrative that defined each band more than any other single attribute. And they achieved nearly all of this not sequestered away in a studio, but on a stage, within spitting distance, inviting us all to participate in their great creation in as many different ways as we could conjure.
If you must share an orbit, you could do far worse.
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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