[This is the second essay that Phish.Net user @thephunkydrb has published on Phish.net. He previously published a meditation on time and experience tied to the Baker’s Dozen “Tube,” which you can read here. -Ed.]
By Jnan A. Blau
I’ve just come back from one of the coolest, most stimulating and invigorating, and definitely one of the most “far out” (to quote Mr. Bill Kreutzman, via Mr. Benjy Eisen) experiences of my life. Late last Monday night, I got back home to San Luis Obispo, California from Corvallis, Oregon. I had to rise and shine the next day, no time at all to transition from Phishiness to so-called real life—a direct, rather abrupt segue (a rip cord if there ever was one!) into a full day of teaching in university classrooms. I was, and still am, kind of exhausted. But, I’ve had a secret smile the size of Mt. Icculus plastered across my face and tattooed on my heart ever since. This because I am back from Phish Studies, the first-ever academic conference dedicated to our favorite topic/subject/phenomenon.
This, unlikely as it may seem, is my conference review for all you dot-netters, you denizens of the Phishverse, you members of one of the most lovely and inspiring communities going.
(Could this be the world’s first conference review?!)
First, though, I must digress. And I promise this isn’t self-indulgent, thought it may initially appear to be . . .
Almost exactly 26 years ago, I discovered Phish. My phirst: Laguna Seca Daze Festival, May 29, 1993, in Monterey, California. I lived in Phoenix, Arizona at the time, and had traveled from the desert to this festival, nestled in the Central California hills, to see the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, 10,000 Maniacs, and Shawn Colvin. Playing only one set, in the middle of the afternoon, in the light of the warm California sun, was this band called “Phish.” I had never even heard of them—let alone heard a single note of their music. I was going to meet up with a friend of mine from Chile (where I grew up and graduated high school) who lived in Santa Cruz, but who couldn’t make it to the fest till a little later that afternoon.
So, I was rolling solo for a while.
This, then, is the summarized version of the conditions underlying my first encounter with the Phish from Vermont: I was alone, had never even heard of them, and it was one set, under the sun.
And I had an absolute blast of a time.
The music spoke to me, infected me, fully and immediately hooked me. Quirky and joyous and upbeat as hell, I’d never heard anything like it. I danced my skinny little butt off. I was in, I got it.
To make things even more sweet and fun, there was this crew of phans there that warmly welcomed me into their fold. I was, it turned out, not at all alone for my phirst experience. These wonderful human beings (how I wish I knew who they were now) shared goods with me, offered some tidbits of insight and knowledge, and fully encouraged and abetted my boogie-ing down, all of us giddily dancing and hanging together.
Instant love for the music, and an instant, lovely communal experience.
Thinking back on it now, something strikes me—the force of realization and insight hitting me rather powerfully—that I’d not quite grokked until just now. The two things that I’ve come to fully adore and appreciate about Phish, that make it such a deep experience, were there from the outset. The Phish phenomenon is, and always has been, this wonderful amalgam of music and people. Of course those two things were there from the start!
Again, far out. And, whoa.
See, what happened for me—and to me—that phateful day with Phish is as true and as powerful now as it was then, 26 years ago. Phish is, and always has been, not only an amazing, richly fascinating band, but an amazing, richly fascinating community. And the two are of a whole—are a glorious and gestaltic mess of fun and joy and relationality and embodied commitments and shared experience—that is most undeniably, well, amazing.
As I was traveling back from the conference on Monday of last week, I could feel in me an emergent desire to write about it. What I’d just experienced, what I’d just witnessed unfold, was nothing short of a dream come true—a sentiment that was explicitly expressed by pretty much everyone present at Phish Studies (and around 200 people were there!).
I could write so much about this.
Qua show review, I could closely work through what in many ways felt like, basically, the equivalent of an amazing three-show run. I could comment my way through the setlists of each day, give the play by play of the incredible array of delightful and insightful presentations which gave me so many new ways of thinking about so many things (I have 17 pages of notes!).
I could tell you about the illuminating listening session we enjoyed with three musicologists fully breaking down three different “Chalk Dust Torture” jams for us (5/17/1992, the famous Camden ’99 one, and the epic Randall’s 2014 one)—which happened on Friday morning, right before the official launch of the show—I mean, conference. I could tell you about the intriguing links between neuroscience brain wave research and what it seems to reveal about what happens in the literal heads of improvising musicians. Or, I could elaborate for you how the notion of atopos is an excellent way to understand how placelessness, unpredictability, uncommonness, and the strange are not just true of the Phish experience, but are precisely what makes it such a productive, unique, and generative space for us to inhabit, even if on a temporary and contingent basis. Or, you might dig hearing about the provocative analogy that Phish is the good breast; that the band’s music and the scene surrounding it functions, psychologically, in a truly nurturing way, that it is a place where we are really cared for physically, emotionally, intellectually. And, boy man god shit, would I like to tell you about the exceedingly well handled panel from Phans for Racial Equity folks, and how it acted as a sort of tuning fork for us all, helping us check our privilege, and grounding our understanding of racial and other identity-marker issues in the wider (Whiter?) Phish scene in a way that was all at once compassion-filled, careful, super important, and unflinching. And that’s just on the first day!
Day One was indeed special. There was a buzz in the air that you could practically touch. There might have been a few of us actually pinching ourselves. All of these (our) dreams, in a very real way, were coming true in that spiffy wood-paneled conference room in Oregon State University’s Memorial Union. There was a vibe to it, really. And the flow of the setlist—I mean, conference program—was absolutely on point.
Day Two got underway at 9 am sharp on Saturday. A bit of a wonder in and of itself, since the on-the-ground conference organizers had outdone themselves by getting Eugene’s own spiffy and splendid jamband Left On Wilson to play a free after-show (shit, sorry, after-conference) gig for conference attendees at sweet local watering hole DeMaggio’s, which might have kept some of us up past our bedtime.
There was, again, just so much to enjoy and sink one’s intellectual teeth into on this second day of Phish Studies. I want to quickly tell you right now, for example, that an economist, working with amazing statistical analyses of Phish’s setlists and reviews along a multitude of testable variables, has now given me the useful terms flow segue (->) and pace segue (>) to describe the band’s closely-watched and ever-debated segueway work. Or, I can tell you about the notion of chronal displacement, which an expert archivist gave us so that we might better appreciate that things like Phish bootlegs and Phish memorabilia are something that we enjoy in the present even as they necessarily put us into a relationship with, and absolutely involve, the past at the same time—a sort rich personal and collective memory/number line being worked out in the process.
Speaking of Phishy material culture, I simply must make mention of two events that were taking place as perfect companions on this (academic conference) ride. There was a beautifully curated, museum-quality, history-rich exhibit which detailed and showcased Phish’s appearances in the Pacific Northwest area dating back to the early 1990’s. You know, flyers, ticket stubs, ads, posters, art, phan memorabilia, and the like—the kind of stuff we’re so good at retaining because we on some level know that it isn’t just physical stuff but memory-laden and story-ridden stuff too. Along with the museum exhibit, there was a Poster Session and Exhibition Fair taking place for most the weekend too. Packed into this space were various scholars presenting and discussing their research/findings in big poster format, along with some Phishy vendors, local businesses, and booths supporting important scene organizations such as Phans for Racial Equity (promoting racial awareness and allyship) and GrooveSafe (promoting live music experiences free of unwanted touch and sexual assault).
Back to conference setlist, though. I definitely want to tell you that you might want to go backwards down the number line to re-listen to the Drum Logos Fukuouka Twist jam, this time thinking about it as evidencing an anti-peak or non-peak; a powerful instantiation of celestial ambiance that feels and works differently than the usual big peaks or climaxes Phish is so good at throwing our way. This notion then definitely segued nicely into a look at what philosopher William James and others offer by way of considering mysticism or mystical experiences—the sort of experience, I suspect, with which many of us phans are fully acquainted, even if we haven’t pondered them in terms such as ineffability, noetic quality, and/or ephemeral transiency. I can also tell you all about the intriguing notion that, within the Phish world, we see ample evidence of a commitment to memory, to re-membering—a phenomenon by which we not only do the memory thing but, also, the membership (in the scene) thing. Speaking of membership in/and the scene, we learned to appreciate and more fully understand the place and value of the Phish Chicks social media space, where female phans can and do engage in communicational practices that are both important and instructive to us all. Also relating to the theme of Phish community, I encourage you to now think about phandom as an experience that is very much embedded, embodied, and em-placed—that “places [such as Phish lot or a Phish show] not only are, they happen.”
A little later, pholks, we got to hear—played out in/as a super savvy close lyrical analysis and comparison—a rather mind-blowing breakdown of how Ghosts of the Forest and Kasvot Växt absolutely need to be considered together, as part of a larger interconnecting trajectory of musical creation and thematic exploration. I also definitely want to tell you about the special panel with five key members of the executive board of The Mockingbird Foundation—and how it was a lovely moment for us all, to be able to hear from these stalwart early phans, as they recounted some of their experiences with Phish and the history of this very website we all find so valuable and intrinsic to our being phans. Rounding Day Two out as a sort of sweet encore, the day’s proceedings were brought to a close with the debut public appearance of a rough cut of an upcoming film, We’ve Got It Simple.
What a day.
I actually didn’t miss a note (I mean, word) of the whole thing, taking in all the presentations and panels. I mention this only to remark upon the fact that it was absolutely noteworthy to me that I was not only not tired or taxed by such a nonstop stretch, but I was positively giddy with excitement, my mind and my heart absolutely filled to the brim with all manner of good stuff to think through, feel out, and put into play in my life (as both a phan and a scholar).
We know, by now, about the lore about Never Miss A Sunday Show, right? Day Three was Never Miss A Sunday Conference, to be sure.
Things started off with a panel that, I’ll readily admit, touched me deeply and had a tear or two showing up in the corner of my eyes. Centered around dis/ability issues in our community, we heard poignant and moving presentations on issues such as substance abuse and addiction, accessibility issues for Deaf or hard-of-hearing phans, and chronic illness and phandom. As a whole, the panel made it abundantly clear that, with a combination of compassion, support, activism, and the healing properties that are in place in both Phish’s music and the phan scene, it of course is (or should be) possible to live in a world that is more inclusive, more open, and, ultimately, more just. This panel perfectly flow-segued into the next, which gave new meaning to that term we use so much among us: “heady.” This was, we might say, the philosophy panel. In which we learned about how we might think through ethical matters (drawing, specifically, from a line of thinking known as exemplarist virtue ethics) by, say, asking ourselves “What would Wilson do?”—as a way to know what not to do, how not to behave in this shared world of ours.
I have deliberately chosen to not mention names so far in this review. The music (I mean, the scholarship) speaks for itself—and in this writing I am only giving thumbnail sketches, sharing mere quick takes and cursory impressions, of what went down and what it all meant. But I purposely want to mention one of the scholars from the philosophy panel, Dr. Stephanie Jenkins—who some of you may have heard of because she regularly teaches the country’s (for now) one and only university course centered around Phish, aka Philosophy School of Phish. She was our Phearless Leader in all of this. She was sent, clearly, by Icculus herself to take on the Herculean task of making this whole Phish Studies thing happen at all. She talked her academic home at Oregon State University, into agreeing to host this unique, first-of-its-kind, historic event. There was a Phish Studies Program Committee involved (doing things like reviewing the 120+ submitted proposals, of which only about 30% were accepted, due to time and space limitations), but Dr. Jenkins played by far the biggest role in producing this event. No detail was overlooked. To whit: as people arrived on Friday, there were two trampolines in the lobby for us to hop on, alongside Benny the Beaver (OSU’s mascot). There was an official Phish Studies logo (designed by Ryan Kerrigan), an official conference print (by Jamie Lee Meyer). There were special Phishy brews concocted by local brewery Block 15 served to accompany the official reception for the museum art exhibit. And so on.
Dr. Jenkins was effusively and explicitly and most earnestly thanked by everyone who took to the mic to present over the course of the conference’s three days. And rightly so. We were all in this (dream) together, and she filled our bathtub with the most wonderful cocktail of Phishy goodness.
In any case, when it came time for Dr. Jenkins to present her own work, we were most certainly ready to listen. And what a stimulating treat, to mash up the work and insights of French philosopher Michel Foucault with Phish. Let me just lay this food for thought on you, from Dr. Jenkins (paraphrasing): "… We should, all of us, always, question the self-evidence of the self-evident. We should also think of the Phish phenomenon as a collective practice of freedom, should appreciate that Phish are curators of experiences, and that attending their concerts is a technology of the self."
These philosophical vibes fit nicely with another scholar’s heady theorizing of, yes indeed, The Vibe in/at Phish. Simply know this: that you, me, all of us are nothing more and nothing less than bodily emanations that variously meet up and coalesce. Also, following the lead of another presenter, know, and do take stock in, the fact that Phish and phandom are a veritable therapeutic alliance with great powers of healing and catharsis, that Phish really is a form of self-care.
The last official panel of the conference was a lovely note on which to end. Four Jewish scholars helped us all dig the why and the how of the fact that Phish is so meaningful to all those who seek a deeper meaning to it all, to those who may struggle to find places and spaces of belonging, to those who seek identification with a group, who seek rich and meaningful experiences, that not only make us feel welcome but which, in a very real way, sustain and inspire us.
The unofficial close to Phish Studies was provided by a bonus encore: a Q&A session with the one and only Benjy Eisen, who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, and who has worked closely with Bill Kreutzman (including on the book Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead). It was, well, it was far out to hear Mr. Eisen’s stories about hanging with Mr. Kreutzman, and, more importantly, to get a sense of all the thought and care and deliberations and delicate handling of the dynamics of helping a venerable rock and roller write his memoir. Mr. Eisen, though, is of course a huge Phish nut as well.
For “nuts” is what we are, us phans of Phish. In the best possible way. For an utterly phantastic mix of reasons, and with a truly delightful array of effects and outcomes. Phish Studies 2019 made it all too clear that there absolutely is something special going on with this band and in this community. All those naysayers out there (in our community, to some extent, and certainly beyond it in mainstream, “regular” society), might be inclined to dismiss Phish as being “just” band, and phans as being “just” fans, and a thing like Phish Studies as being “just” a conference. Nothing could be further from the truth. That “just” merely reveals its own starting-point biases, not anything true or useful about Phish, or about us. Remove that unfair and unhelpful “just” from in front of these things; for these are very real places and spaces where groups of people—fellow human beings being human—express themselves, find themselves, and have experiences which, intrinsically and inherently, matter.
One could put it in terms that administrators in academia tend to love using, say that this conference was an excellent model of the value of inter-disciplinary scholarship (though it was, technically, multi-disciplinary), that it was a very worthy leveraging of institutional support toward the goal of increasing collaboration and connection between traditionally siloed fields of study, and of linking scholars in the academy and the general public.
Rather, this is what I’d say (and close this writing with) instead…
The inaugural Phish Studies conference was a truly stupendous experience. There was much love in the room. There was a very exciting and humbling sense of history-in-the-making to it all.
There were wide open minds and wide open hearts involved; which, I believe, is the ultimate embodiment of the Phish ethos, of Phish as a whole-phenomenon paradigm.
Think about it this way: The very nature of attending a Phish show basically requires us to be both open-minded and open-hearted. It is how and why we are able to enjoy experiences—with Phish’s music and with and in the phan scene—that are, at their core, open-ended. Phish shows and Phish lots are places where extended and sometimes challenging jamming, each time, take us on journeys whose end goal, whose destination, is always uncertain, new territory. At its best, Phish and the phan scene and Phish Studies are a roadmap of growth and learning, of Flow states, of nerdy appreciation, and of joyous inquiry.
Concepts we’ll ponder, buckets full of thoughts, and such.
Again, it strikes me how full-circle all of this feels for me. I’m writing these words mere days away from my own Phish Anniversary. Back on that oh so phateful day in May of 1993, I could not have possibly imagined what lay ahead for me—as a Phish phan and as an eventual Phish scholar. But, it was all there: the excellent, rich, engaging, varied, wide-open music, and the excellent, rich, engaging, varied, wide-open phan community. All of which was part and parcel of the conference last weekend in Oregon.
This has all been so darn wonderful.
Phish Studies 2019 (and May 29, 1993) was a remarkable experience for me. It was a complete success, a great show.
And I can’t wait for the next one.
The only rule is it begins…
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