[Fan Keith Eaton, @Midcoaster, is contributing a piece to the blog for the first time. He first became obsessed with music when, in 1979, he sat in a darkened theater and watched Apocalypse Now. Nothing was ever quite the same after that opening sequence.]
After 30 years, I have to honestly ask myself, "Is this devotion?" That word, devotion, sort of goes against everything that I thought was irreverent in me all these years. Sort of. I mean, devotion is a weird thing. Many Americans marry but don't even want to acknowledge devotion, as it sort of conjures demeaning levels of servitude despite horrid conditions. (We opt for divorce rather than weathering the storm more often than not.)
30 years of fandom, though, whoa. But it's never that. It's never a straight line. There was no sense of devotion during my irreverent (or so I thought) late-1980s self. There was this cool band that I saw, Phish, and they were nice dudes. They were dudes with whom I could talk about music when their set was done, slathering on my love praises for the SST and Touch and Go labels, even though I looked every part the slavishly devoted Deadhead. Let me explain.
By the time I saw Phish in August of 1987, I had already been through some major league phases of devotion. From 1983 through 1985, I was rocketed through the bowels of the hardcore scene. All of a sudden, there were 500 band names to learn, scene reports to read, compilation albums to find, and people to meet. All of a sudden there were all ages shows at the Channel, the Paradise, the Rat and a variety of rented halls. Greyhound was cheap. Boston was accessible. Slam dance, stage dive, brown bag, hang out.
As hardcore faded, my fascination and love for the Grateful Dead scene took over in one life-shattering moment in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, I had seen them before, but this was "one of those moments." The stars aligned. Everything I thought about people over the age of 30 fell apart. This was now. This was real. This was happening. This mattered. I fell deep. It was like one of those relationships that your friends know is trouble but they can't hold you back. Deeper and deeper I went.
This does not mean that I had given up on seeing a wide array of bands: the Celibate Rifles, Rites of Spring, Embrace, Fugazi, fIREHOSE, X, Camper Van Beethoven, the list is too long to conjure. What it does mean, though, is that the Dead had captured something in my imagination which the others could not. Don't get me wrong. Seeing Sonic Youth at the 9:30 in 1988 blew my mind. Their NARAL benefit with Yo La Tengo in the spring of 1990 provided me with a kernel of hope for the future of America. The Butthole Surfers thrashing around the D.C. Mall made for good memories. However, something was missing.
My devotion to the Grateful Dead became significant at the point that hardcore and the indie scene had let me down. I wanted shows that were shows! The Dead delivered in spades. The only band who was comparable had been Talking Heads, but my sis and I only got to see them twice before they hung up their touring shoes. Had they been traveling, things might have been different. But they weren't, and the Dead scene had that weird dance party combined with an outlaw edge that was, well, the subject of another essay, entirely.
By the time I saw Phish in August of 1987, I had already been through some major league Dead devotion and was a bit "over it," frankly. That is, the Dead scene was just that, my scene. It was a scene I made, and it was a way to make money to keep the adventure going. It was a vehicle for travel, and I loved all the characters I met. Already, though, I was skeptical of this head-over-heels devotion thing. Imagine the complex pain and irony of touring when you know you are hitching your wagon to an already outmoded machine. True, in 1989 and 1990, I was rewarded with some great shows. For the rest of the 90s, though, this proved to be more an albatross than a blessing (except for some of Jerry's solo projects).
Seeing Phish in 1987, (the forgotten show somewhere in 1988?), 1989 and 1990 was something of a breath of fresh air. Initially, there was no scene. There was no crowding down front because "I had to be in front with the band." There was no "Oh my gosh that was the best 'Curtain With,' ever!" The only song titles I knew were "Golgi" and "YEM" and, ah, "David Bowie." I didn't even care about song titles. I was there to enjoy myself and stretch my bones. On more than one occasion, it was like a rock and roll comedy where both I and the band were the butt of the joke.
D.C.'s vegan Positive Force scene, New York's downtown hipper-than-thou scene, the Grateful Dead's "beauty" scene were all so stifling that it was refreshing to hear someone scream, "But can you have any fun, now, Wilson, whoah, whoah!" Head bang. Enjoy. Laugh at the Zeppelin covers because this is what we grew up listening to on cheap "record players." AC/DC? Fuck yeah, who cares? It was all that, but it was never devotion.
Phish during that time was fun. At every show I attended, I ran into people I knew, primarily from high school. A bunch of people from my high school went to UVM. Voila. An accident. However, the layers of serendipity included summer camp, towns that my family had long abandoned, and random people with whom I'd traveled in Europe. I cherished all of them, and all of the connections. Still, though, I felt conscious of eschewing devotion.
Devotion was something I had spent on punk rock and was spending on the Dead. Phish? They seemed like roommates, old friends, people who I would have poured a beer for around the keg or with whom I'd taken a tequila shot. (Um, did I do that?) It wasn't meant to be devotion. The first time I saw people spinning like "the Spinners" in 1991, I laughed in their faces. I couldn't get over myself. My experience. The first time I was shut out of a show was in Portland, Oregon, outside the Roseland Ballroom (3/31/1993). I was insulted. Call it arrogance. Call it entitlement. Heck, call it youth. I was "done."
But I wasn't done. Around 1995, I began volunteering for the college station of Portland State University, once piggybacking on the good graces of a local NPR affiliate, KPSU, 1450AM. No one ever wanted the free tickets to Phish shows, and I was not shy about taking them. In 1995 and 1996, I acquiesced to attending arena shows, sneering a little. On NYE 1996 (another set of free passes through other channels), I was transformed into a believer. At the Gorge in 1997, I reached a whole new level of understanding Phish. A new day had begun.
The summer of 1998 might actually be my peak Phish moment. It was natural, unencumbered, loose. I made very few plans and stuck to even fewer. The Oregon Country Fair was in there somewhere prior to the Meadows> Gorge run, Ziggy Marley, too, but this was the freest I had felt in a while. Jerry's death in '95 left this heaviness in the air that I had needed to clear. This little run of shows, culminating in 7/17/1998, cleared that air. That final show at the Gorge cleared all the cobwebs I needed clearing, and it was a new day. I could feel the draw.
During a time of indecision, I was working my way back East, lucky enough to catch 12/29/1998. While it was easy to score a ticket, I found the personal connection to the scene to be more difficult. I had been living out West for the better part of six years, and the scene East felt different. I was cajoled and pushed in ways I had never felt at a show. People 12 or more years my junior were saying, "Sir, uh, sir, get out of here, these are OUR seats." When they called security, they were kicked out of the section. Based on my past and history, I would have sparked up with them and shared the space, but they weren't sharing. I went dark.
It was time for me to reinvent myself. It was time to settle into a job of some sort. It was time to hang up the road and itinerant lifestyle. And I "forgot" about Phish for a while. I turned down tickets to Big Cypress because I was "in a relationship." Like the early-90s, I wanted those small Mudhoney, Luna, and Hot Tuna shows to scratch that itch. Luckily for me, I was able to ignore the symptoms. Other Ones and the Dead shows seemed to be missing a leg. Festivals of cover bands, earnest emo and DJs made me want to be on the Appalachian Trail.
Had it been amazing to see Phish in a sweaty nightclub on the lower west side of Manhattan (3/3/1990)? I guess. At the time, it had seemed normal. In fact, it seemed annoying when clubs like the Wetlands became crowded. What was maybe more amazing than club gigs, though, was that I was able to have a second wave of "discovery" half a decade later. What's still more amazing is that I was able to have a third discovery in 2009 and '10. It is in the recognition where I find amazement. It is in the rediscovery where I find discovery.
Yeah, I'm one of those "3.0 fluffers" because I hadn't had the hours to become jaded. I hung up those grungy touring shoes with the Dead (they were Vans, and believe me, you wouldn't even want them in your house). I'm a 3.0 fluffer because, when was the last time you were given a second chance? Seriously. As with most things in my 20s, by the time I realized what was happening, it was gone. And yet, shows from the past five or six years have felt like they were layered with rediscovery.
What was it like to be there in 1987? Next time you're at a show, ask the long haired sweaty blown-out-pupil head banger who has had too much of something what it's like. He or she could probably give you a more accurate rendition. They have that discovery in them. Also, in the middle of what we might now consider a seminal 1989 jam, remember, a 20-something-year-old brain might think, Need shot of tequila now!, and then crowd into the bar.
30 years is a long time. Several of my favorite musicians never lived that long. One of my all time favorite bands lived exactly that long. Phish has made themselves a steady stream of music the entire time–either with their primary outfit or through the solo band configurations, which filled both the hiatus and the break up eras between 2000 and 2008. Very few bands can claim that. Very few fans can process what it really means in the big picture.
In my mind, Phish fills an enormous room (a cavern?), a place someone like me has been able to return to again and again to "feel the feeling[s] I forgot." For me, it has nothing in common with the "older" bands who continue to tour, in that Phish remains an original line-up who continue to create a unique environment. As much as it is a connection to my past experience, it is now and alive. I genuinely dig a lot of the new material, and find myself surprised and swept away, repeatedly.
If it has been anything akin to devotion at all, it has been "devotion to a dream." Like all dreams, it is exquisitely vivid when happening, charged and imbued with complex and very personal meaning. Again, as with dreams, it is a coming together of internally referenced milestones and landscapes almost too difficult to explain. But we try. Oh yes, we try.
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