Voting in the final matchup of the phish.net forum “Jam of the Era” tournament is open until tomorrow at 9 am EDT. Vote here.
In celebration of the two finalists the bracket organizing committee is pleased to welcome guest contributor, @philospliphy.
In the Long May They Run podcast, Trey reveals that an obscure book of urban planning theory became the band’s "bible" when they first began planning their independent, infamous, and shockingly successfully festivals. A Pattern Language (APL), by C. Alexander, et al., proposes and defends a mode of communal living wherein all social functions − from the privacy of the marital bed to the sharing of collective meals to the labor of workers in diverse fields to the pedestrians passing them all on the street − are creatively weaved into an organic, but open whole, designed to balance basic, yet contrasting, human needs like solitude and communality, productivity and rest, self-expression and family and community responsibility, darkness and light.
The discovery of this book, of course, corresponds with the time after which Phish had firmly and permanently become an arena-level draw, and during which the group achieved heights of musical performance, economic success, and cultural impact that no one at Nectar’s, or even on the farms of Ian or Amy could have anticipated. The interconnected community they had always sought to build through music was not only actualized, but seemed poised to become a substantial and permanent fixture on the American cultural landscape. A band that had tailored their career so that they needed to prove themselves and win over audiences every night could now not only write its own ticket, but freely set its own benchmarks. The shift to more collective, less guitar-centred improv in ’96, the hard turn towards funk and darkness in ’97, the surprise covers and more spacious sound of ’98, eventually giving way to the ambient bliss from ’99-'00 reveal a band always reaching for a new height, or finding a new way of integrating their catalog and hard-won connection with what was, for them, most interesting or challenging at the moment. It’s no wonder that, after "The Show," Fish thought they should stop; by the new millennium, a band built around having to earn its keep night after night had literally nothing left to prove. And if the band’s 2004 performances aren’t proof enough, Trey’s Charlie Rose interview makes clear that he knew the Phish that he founded and that did, indeed, "conquer America" wasn’t built to last; playing music so diverse, complex, and risky demanded 100% commitment to the project and, once it ceased to become the primary – and virtually sole – focus of the lives of all of the members, it was destined to get "sloppy around the edges" and become something else. Trey, Mike, Fish, and Page are, after all, human beings, rather than musical machines (even if they occasionally sound that way), and APL is grounded in the idea that being fully human requires us all to balance our work – independent, creative work of passion, though it may be – with the other vital facets of our lives, lest any one of them become all consuming, and thus damaging to ourselves, others, or both.
Increasingly, 3.0 sounds to me like a band that knows it can never replicate either the astonishingly precise playing and constantly surprising expansion of the live concert format during (what many, myself included, think of as) their '92-'94 peak, or (as many others prefer) the slowly evolving sonic worlds and lengthier explorations of '95-'04, precisely because time and age had taught them that Phish could no longer be the only or maybe even central focus of their lives (given parental and family responsibilities, health concerns, other creative pursuits, repairs to make in their personal lives, the re-emergence of political concerns, etc.), and that their road-weary bodies could no longer take the practice or touring demands to accomplish either. Trying to live up to the almost mythical expectations placed on their return would inevitably lead to the resurgence of the very ego problems they fought so hard to eliminate through music in their early years, making equally inevitable another, probably final disbanding not only of the band, but perhaps their families and communities as well.
Towards the end of APL, the authors speak about the need for all of us to eventually strive towards what they call “settled work.” “As people grow older”, they write, “simple, satisfying work which nourishes, becomes more and more important” to us, because such work “is a prerequisite for peace of mind in old age. Yet our society undermines this experience by making a rift between working life and retirement, and between workplace and home.” While there remain those in the phanbase who see 3.0 as a downward turn from one or another of the band’s astonishing peaks, in order for the members of Phish to play together with joy and investment again, their music was necessarily going to have to sound markedly different, and these two era-defining jams – the Tahoe "Tweezer" and Alpine Valley "Ruby Waves" – mark early and late high watermarks in the development of their new and evolving style.
Those who chastise 3.0 for its overly happy, intensely crowd-pleasing, major-key peak-heavy style of improv (as perfectly captured in the Tahoe "Tweezer"), I think, can become insensitive to the way these jams reflect the sheer joy the band feels at still − this deep into their careers, this long after the near-collapse of the band as a whole, and some of their personal lives in particular – still connect with each other and with their community at this deep a level. While Tahoe lacks the legendary dissonance and almost unbearable tension characteristic of the monster Tweezers of, say, ’94 or ‘97, the obsession with darkness, in a way, is a young man’s game; while it usually remains my personal preference, it also better captures a period in life when you’ve yet to actually come to grips with how quickly the light really does slip away, how precious those moments of pure bliss are, and how special organic connections like those that brought about this early, still highly controversial "Woo" fest truly are. As Fish says about "Soul Planet" in Between Me and My Mind, riding the waves of music blown by the wind of the audience “is what [they've] been doing for 34 years”, and this early peak in 3.0 is as much the payoff of maintaining that connection, as it is a sonic celebration of it; its organic peak emerging from a song no one in their right mind would have thought would still contain surprises and elicit passionate debate nearly 30 years after its debut.
While there could hardly be a starker shift in lyrics, melody, or arrangement between these the songs that built their rep in the early 90s and those that make up Trey’s Ghosts of the Forest project, according to APL, settled work “unifies all the threads of a person's life into one activity: the activity becomes a complete and wholehearted extension of the person behind it. It is the kind of work that one cannot come to overnight; but only by gradual development. [...] It may be the kind of work that a man has been doing all his life - but as settled work it becomes more profound, more concrete, and more unique. For example, there is the bureaucrat who finally breaks through all the paperwork and finds the underlying organic function in his work. Then he begins to let this function into the world. This is the theme of Kurosawa's most beautiful film, Ikiru”, which is about a civil servant who learns he's dying, and tries everything from bordellos to dance clubs to drunken binges to feel what it means to live, but ends up finally finding solace in the fact he can use his skills to turn a toxic dump into a safe and welcoming park for poor children.
This sentiment seems to resonate with not only the band’s turn towards (much!) more directly self-expressive lyrics, but their newfound concern with fleeting nature of peace, bliss, and life, the healing joys of family and community, the way they help us cope with the loss and struggle that inevitably besets us. Trey’s recent solo songwriting − and the Ghosts of the Forest project, in particular − seems to exemplify the “kind of work that is so thoroughly a part of one's way of life that it most naturally develops within or very near the home: when it is free to develop, the workplace and home gradually fuse and become one thing.” And while the Alpine "Ruby Waves" arguably sustains longer periods of tension, or more precisely uncertainty, than the Tahoe "Tweezer," its varied peaks – in particular its triumphant ending – sound less like the final stations that the blissful peaks do than the chugging, forward-moving pulse of the train riding between them. The jam, much like the song itself, seems not only to embody the refusal of the band to either rest on its laurels or seek to attain old glories; by the end, it almost serves as proof that “the crisis of old age, life integrity versus despair and cynicism, can only be solved by a person engaged in some sort of settled work […] people who have the opportunity to develop such work and to relate it in some appropriate way to the world about them, will find their way to a successful resolution of this crisis as they grow old; others will sink into despair.”
These shifts in lyrical theme and musical style, of course, go back at least to Billy Breathes, and thus around the time Trey picked APL up; the gradual, now seemingly permanent shift away from the earnest, methodical goofiness and disparate, fluid identity of the little-band-from-Vermont-that-could may, I would suggest, have emerged at least in part from its suggestion that “we must first of all create a working environment, where a person, from say middle age, has the opportunity of slowly developing a kind of settled work that is right for him.” Tahoe "Tweezer" and Alpine "Ruby Waves," then, are very much "jams of the era," not just because they rank among the finest accomplishments of the band since the Hampton return, but because they – one by carving out a refreshing new lane for an old warhorse, and the other by forcefully demonstrating the band’s "We’re done" commitment to refuse nostalgia for lost youth as an aesthetic or personal value – show that Phish are neither gradually retiring, nor merely toiling at their old jobs; they are “becoming a complete, productive, and comfortable workshop” for aesthetic creation by fully rounded human beings.
Fish once expressed hope that the band’s “music provides something people don’t get elsewhere [such that it] hits some kind of communal nerve with people that makes them want to live a life that parallels what we do musically.” While every phan will have a favourite era of his or her own, it may be that we phans can learn more now from the band’s aesthetic practices for creating individually and collectively rewarding paths in our own lives than we ever could before.
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