By Jeremy D. Goodwin
The Ball had been a coming of age thing for me, my first real multi-day adventure in which my only implements were a borrowed car filled with camping gear, a good friend, and a future to invent. While I was busy experiencing palpable wonder for several days straight, the thing was simultaneously a coming of age for Phish and all its orbiting planets. It was quite a fortuitous intersection of personal growth and the growth of a community.
The Clifford Ball felt to me like a mass projection of all our playful fantasies about what Phish could be; parts of the mainstream press adopted the term "Phish theme park," and that seems pretty accurate. A theme park or a fantasy camp. A few years later, I would affix a term that I had picked up in a different region of the cultural web that considers itself important enough to coin and assign phrases: Temporary Autonomous Zone.
As if all the fans' and the band's "what if?" daydreams had somehow been projected into reality, the Ball was a capstone Phish experience, the creation of an entire functioning civilization where the landscape (both mental and physical) seemed as improvisational and creative as the most liberating of onstage jams.
A plane circling around trailing a banner reading "A dime from here would penetrate"? Sure. Snowboarders doing flips on trampolines during Tweezer? Why not. An orchestra playing Claire de Lune while a stuntplane does loop-de-loops? Of course.
The overwhelming factor, that there were sixty thousand people at a Phish show, hovered constantly in the ether to ensure ‘round-the-clock surreality. And all night, the fires burned, the drums beat, and the people danced. The Clifford Ball was something deeply special to me personally due purely to the logistical and social circumstances. At that time I wasn't used to befriending an endless circle of strangers, chasing adventures for days on end, or seeking transcendence through blaring 4am funk under a tent.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, it really wasn't that hard to have your life change in Plattsburgh that weekend. What choice did my young psyche have in the face of a swarming mass of unregulated people who stubbornly insisted on *being nice to each other*? The effects of a countless procession of benevolent personal encounters and experiences accumulated during the second day's "Antelope," when I felt a sudden jolt of wisdom shake my consciousness and unveil my second-ever epiphany. Due to the nature of epiphanies, my moment of clarity is ineffable, but suffice to say it provided me an entirely new outlook towards general human interaction. After the second night of shows, some of us turned one of the Ball Square houses into a giant drum, and celebrated our bond through dance. It was profoundly moving, and I'm not sure I've experienced anything quite like it since.
Serendipitously, this was also one of those points along the line of Phish's history where both the band and the audience simultaneously *got* something, and realized that things were changing at that very moment. Sometimes this happens through the music, on a night like 5/7/94. Sometimes it happens through the event, as at the early New Year's shows, or the first show at MSG. The Great Went "Gin" was a time when both of these paths to transcendence collided. On these occasions we all grow up a little, as a community, and for a clear moment achieve a shared consciousness. There are moments sometimes on tour when the room *knows*…knows that we're all moving forward, in a way, entering ground that neither band nor audience had ever been to before. At least not together.
The Clifford Ball was the most obvious of these occasions. It felt like the summation of everything that had happened in the Phish world until then…an enormously exuberant birthday party for the Phish phenomenon as a historical whole. It exploded all concepts of limitation, and brought both band and fans to the profound and crucial conclusion that we just didn't know what this thing might become. There was a constant feeling of “Is this really happening?” that began somewhere around the time you picked up the Clifford Ball radio station on the drive up, and lasted until sometime after your return home.
Future summer festivals were inherently less spontaneous, more like an appointed pilgrimage to a spiritual artifact. Yet we trekked back again, in search of something that had already happened…a holy journey to a shooting star.