It’s July 1995 and “[t]he spirit of the Grateful Dead is at stake . . . .” This existential threat wasn’t drugs. Nor was the threat a decline in musical quality. It was these damn kids. Frat boys, burnouts, geeks, freaks, skaters, and miscellaneous ruffians. With MTV’s Day of the Dead, the band’s fanbase received an unexpected, youthful injection. And with their open letter, the Dead itself acknowledged the growing fissures.
But this threat wouldn’t be a concern for much longer. A month later, on August 9th, 1995, Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s true spirit, was dead. And after his death came the band’s afterlife. Whether that afterlife is celestial or desecrated depends on your age. And after death came progeny. “That Was A Crazy Game of Poker.” Live From The Fall. “Ain’t Life Grand.” Crash. If you must know who got the inheritance, I point to one later event.
It’s early July of 2015. The remaining members of the Dead have reformed in celebration of their fiftieth anniversary. They invited previous collaborators, including Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby. But who stood in at lead guitar, in for Jerry? One Trey Anastasio of the band Phish.
I arrived at Chaifetz Arena about an hour before I wanted to. I expected much more traffic than I encountered getting into St. Louis at 5 pm. I pulled into the first gated lot I saw. After paying and parking, I decided to wait in my car. I messaged my parents that I had made it. I then packed up the things around me. My Yeti cup, speaker and phone cord all went into my backpack. My backpack was then going into the trunk. But there were people tailgating beside me, at the opposite trunk.
I didn’t want to get out. Getting tickets to this show was an impulse buy. I now had disposable income again since starting my summer clerkship. St. Louis was also the closest stop on Phish’s summer tour. And I had a college friend in St. Louis, Hailey (not Halley), that offered her place to crash after. But now that I was here, I was starting to regret my retail therapy, my taste in music, my coaxing of myself.
When I was a kid, I thought the Grateful Dead were a metal band. I would walk past cars in parking lots with Deadhead stickers on their bumpers. I would think, A skull must mean they are a metal band. And the line from “The Boys of Summer” only confirmed my suspicion.
My assumption wasn’t challenged until I heard “Touch of Grey.” I was riding with my dad, listening to The Point 94.1 out of Little Rock. The station had not played this song before. I knew this because I listened to the station for most hours of the day while I was in the car with my dad.
The unfamiliar song started up. I looked at the dial and saw the name of the band. It wasn’t a metal song, like the Black Sabbath the station would play sometimes. It sounded like bright, jangling car keys.
I said to my dad, “I thought they were a metal band.”
“Who?” my dad asked.
“The Grateful Dead,” I said pointing to the dial.
“They aren’t,” he responded.
The light turned green and I had more questions.
I decided to listen on my own. The A.V. Club had an article series called Gateways to Geekery, one of which covered the Grateful Dead. The article recommended starting at Europe ‘72. I listened to the album off of my iPad as I studied for Calculus. This was early Spotify so there were still ads between songs for everyone.
I remember hearing “Brown-Eyed Woman” for the first time. “Gone are the days when the ox fall down/Take up the yoke and plow the fields around.” Where are we? I thought. Jerry sang of 1920, 1930, red grenadine, turning bad, Bigfoot County, God and Daddy. And his voice was high and sweet. I listen on repeat. I started picking out each instrument, focusing on one per listen. How is this live? I thought.
In middle and high school, I mostly listened to indie rock. Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Arcade Fire. It felt like I was developing my taste, but these artists were still in the very white lineage of classic rock. And I was also digging into artists at the frayed edges of classic rock radio. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Byrds, The Doors, etc. I wanted to expand my ears at both ends of the timeline.
Compared to what I was listening to at the time, the Grateful Dead was an anomaly. It was a “classic rock” band that hardly ever got played on classic rock radio. It was a band from the Sixties that seemed to extend into the mid-Nineties when I was born. And the band’s discography consisted of more live releases than actual albums. I, a late Touchhead, decided to dive in.
I later built up the courage to get out of my car and wait in line. I could’ve followed a few groups to the lot, but I was somehow nervous about losing a reserved seat. It was bright and cool, a comfortable warm for mid-June. Not too warm for my light flannel and casual khakis. Not even a hundred yards from my gate a little league softball game was in full swing. Smoke hung above a group watching the game from the foul pole. There was the occasional wheezy release of a balloon. Obvious concertgoers, but they weren’t hurting anyone. The rest were waiting near the street for the floor gate or walking down toward the lot.
In line for the upper level, I started to note the people I would be in this arena with. The variety surprised me. A majority were, like me, white guys in their mid-to-late twenties. But there were older folks and young couples. There were also teenagers with moms. And little, little kids wearing headphones like Drew Brees’ kid at the Super Bowl. I suspected an audience of college kids, but this event looked like a family affair.
In-line I eavesdropped on a conversation in front of me. Two guys, like me, white guys in their mid-to-late twenties, were discussing the tour. Both were making every stop except Bonnaroo. Canada, Ohio, and North Carolina. Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, and New York. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Both expressed regret for not splurging for Bonnaroo. Both couldn’t make the floor every stop, but they could’ve splurged on Bonnaroo.
I wanted to interrupt this conversation. I wanted to interview these two. How do y’all save up to make these stops? Do y’all drive RVs? Have y’all ever met a band member? But I didn’t ask these questions. The same fear that kept me from the lot kept me from asking. And plus, I thought, an amateur concert reviewer must keep an erudite distance.
My first real exposure to Phish was Analyze Phish. Analyze Phish was a staple of ensuing “What Podcasts To Listen To After Serial” listicles. I didn’t love the insular improv of Comedy Bang Bang, but I decided to give the pod a shot anyway. I had a four-and-a-half-hour drive between Oxford and Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Listening, I shared Aukerman’s flabbergasted reactions to poor vocals and poorer transitions. In retrospect, co-host Harris Wittels fails in every respect at evangelizing. But, again, the show isn’t designed as an introduction but as a comedy of musical errors. I let the show stand-in as my opinion of the band for some time.
One lasting hang-up from this first exposure was Phish’s lyrics. At their best, John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter’s lyrics invoke both Zane Grey and Walt Whitman. But Tom Marshall’s lyrics for Phish invoke the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and the puns of Piers Anthony. Even the titles of certain Phish songs are embarrassing (Yikes, “Harry Hood”). “The tires are the things on your car.” “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” “It’s Cadillac rainbows and lots of spaghetti.” These were like a poppy field between me and the Emerald City’s lights and Mixolydian mode. Like the singsong equal of an airbrushed Alice smoking a hookah.
The interest in the Dead that I developed in my room, online, I began to share. When I worked at Square Books, there were many music conversations with coworkers. Maggie and I talked about the official release of Cornell 1977-05-08. Ted and I discussed the disappointment of Dylan & The Dead. Noted Deadhead Olivia tried to convince me to give Phish another shot. But I regurgitated the lukewarm “silly” takes. Instead of listening to the radio, asking questions, I turned the dial back.
I did give Phish that second shot last summer after reading Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods. To my surprise, the book had an entire chapter dedicated to Phish. Hyden championed Phish as something more than the Dead’s redheaded stepchildren. Hyden’s chapter placed the band into the larger canon of classic rock.
In general, the Dead integrated then-disparate elements of late-Sixties rock, country, and RnB. Phish, Hyden argues, performed a similar synthesis with the elements present in 1983. And the band chose the least cool elements possible. Progressive rock, Plastic Soul, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” jazz fusion, and, of course, jamming.
At its worst, as Analyze Phish highlights, these flavors don’t work together. But when they do, Hyden promised transcendence equal to, if not exceeding, the Dead at their best. I remained skeptical, but one point Hyden sold me on was the mythology. Many of Phish’s early favorites come from guitarist Trey Anastasio’s senior thesis. Having completed my own thesis that spring, this story intrigued me. And I’m a sucker for a good concept album.
I read about Gamehenge on Phish.net, and I listened to the 1994-07-08 show where Phish played the saga in full. When in service of a story, the lyrics were less prohibitive. And I thought of the embarrassing Dead songs I had learned to skip. “Throwing Stones,” “Never Trust A Woman,” “Little Red Rooster.” Nobody’s perfect, and Trey Anastasio is a fantastic guitarist. What if I let the hot takes take the place of my own opinion? I thought. I started working my way through the live releases on Spotify. A Live One, New Year’s Eve ‘95, Vegas ‘96, Hampton/Winston-Salem ‘97.
With the start of law school, I dove even deeper into jam bands. As Reese Witherspoon warned, the first semester entails a lot of reading. I always preferred music as I studied, but my brain couldn’t handle both reading and lyrics at the same time. Jazz was often stressful, and Eno’s ambient works made me want to sleep. I decided to work my way through Dick’s Picks.
Listening, I began favoring more of the disco-era Dead. 1978, in particular, was a well I kept returning to. With these trips to “Shakedown Street,” I remembered the funk inclinations of Phish. I looked back to my journal for shows Hyden recommended. 1996-10-31 saw Phish covering Talking Heads’ Remain In Light in full. With this, I found myself in Gamehendge more often. First as an alternate for Dead shows, then as the sole soundtrack for casebooks and briefing. A soundtrack for studying alone in my room.
Everyone was cool except for this one guy.
A group of bros and their significant others had sat down in the row behind me. As I watched the floor fill, I eavesdropped on his story, another story, behind me. The Lead Bro, let’s call him, was explaining to the group his encounter in the lot. He started a few years earlier. Lead Bro was posting on a Phish forum and had expressed his opinion on a particular show. Someone, let’s call him Poster, replied to Lead Bro’s post. Poster said that, from his avatar, Lead Bro looked like a discount Dave Grohl. After he said this, a little later to be safe, I looked back to look at Lead Bro. He did, in fact, have the teeth but not the hair. His hair might have been longer back then.
Anyways, Lead Bro found Poster on Facebook. Lead Bro said he messaged Poster about his reply. Lead Bro told Poster, in no uncertain terms, that Poster’s made an uncalled for comment. And if Lead Bro ever saw Poster at a Phish show, Lead Bro was going to kick Poster’s ass.
Well, Lead Bro went to a lot of Phish shows, even Trey solo shows. Lead Bro said he saw neither sight nor shadow of Poster at a show after. Cut to a few years later, at this very show, in the lot, guess who Lead Bro sees across the way. None other than Poster. So, Lead Bro walks up to Poster and said, verbatim, “Hey motherfucker, remember me from the forum?”
Lead Bro’s friends knew the story from that point onward. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t ask for the third act.
This was the kind of Phish fan I feared I would encounter. Less there for the music, more for the adjacent debauchery in the lot scene. I had a recent close encounter with someone like this. There’s this guy in my law class. I won’t give a cute name like Lead Bro. He’s not in my section, but we often found ourselves in the same study groups. I noticed one day during a study group that he had a Deadhead sticker on his laptop. We started talking about the Dead, and he mentioned he was big into Phish. I noted that in my head.
Cut to the end of our first year and I’m hosting an end-of-the-year party. I’m not much of a partier but I love to host at my apartment. The guy shows up, uninvited. Not a huge deal, but I’d heard rumors he got weird when he drinks.
And he did. After a stealth vomit in my bathroom, he started arguing with me about my favorite Dead member. I found a different conversation to join, and he returned to his bottle of rosé. After finishing said bottle, he walked up to me again in the kitchen. As I was talking to a different friend, he pulled back his arm like he was going to give me a genial arm punch. Instead, he hit me with full force in the chest. The sound was so loud people in the living room turned to look.
It hurt. I wasn’t happy. I told another guest to take him home. After he left, I sat on the couch for a while to cool off. The friend that brought him asked me, “Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?”
By 8 pm people filled the floor and were moving, like a living Terracotta Army. My seat, bought a few days before, was better than expected. I’m positioned to the direct right of the stage. From my seat, I can see Page McConnell’s full set-up, as well as Jon Fishman’s. I’m also thankful there’s no one sitting to my immediate left or right. A quiet couple was down a few seats, but it looks like I will get to experience my first show with elbow room.
Then the lights are down, leaving the stage in a blue glow. The band is about to come out. The tension beneath the chatter before is now audible as the four members walk out. I clap, telling myself that Phish is there and I’m not watching a livestream. A group of three guys walk up the stairs and sit down together next to me. So much for elbow room, but the music is about to begin. I thought about the friends I wished were there with me.
The first set opened with “Cool Amber and Mercury.” This song is a recent addition I first heard during last year’s December 30th show. It begins slow, a nice opener. There are two sets and an encore ahead of us, best to begin with something gentle. Around me, people are swaying, moving to the beat. Surrounded by awkward white dancing I’m comfortable enough to tap my foot, enjoying the start.
Next came “46 Days,” increasing the pace. Here, the guy right next to me asked me to move over a seat. “My friend is getting freaked out by the lights.” He pointed over to the friend, who looked like BBQ Becky, sunglasses and all. I moved over a seat closer to the couple as Trey began to solo. He thanked me by shaking my hand. He said his name was Joseph. Back to the music. But a few moments later Joseph nudged me again. I turn. He offered a hit of his pen.
In the car, before putting up my backpack, I practiced for this moment. As silly as it sounds, I practiced. I thought it unlikely anyone would offer me anything. I’d heard that Phish shows were welcoming, but I remembered the old pain in my chest.
I implemented my practice. I raised my hand, put on a smile. The hand said, “You’re too kind. But I’m going to take a rain check, Joseph.” The smile said, “I promise it’s not because I don’t want to swap saliva with you, your friend and BBQ Becky. Trust me, I’m pro-legalization.” At least I hope they said that.
I made brief eye contact, as well, but it was too dark to read Joseph’s face. He nodded and turned back. And I nodded and turned back. Good.
“46 Days” led into “Stash,” another familiar favorite, even faster than the last. This song provided a first set jam, clocking in around fourteen minutes total. Long enough to distract me with audience participation and sing-along. Then “Nellie Kane,” a quick Mike Gordon-sung bluegrass tune. A nice, up-tempo choice after an early jam.
Then right into “Free.” This is one of my all-time favorites. I listened to every version on the Jam Chart and became obsessed. “Free” has genuine tension, where any open slot could bring us a Trey solo or a creative bassline from Mike. And the lyrics, sparse and reserved, hint at the same possibilities in the music itself. It’s a straight-forward version on relisten but played live it was the peak of the first set.
“Theme From The Bottom,” another staple, was a nice thematic tie to “Free.” Trey’s soloing towards the conclusion was dessert for the clear high of “Free.” “Tube” and then “Drift While You’re Sleeping” were both earned comedowns. Some in my section left during “Tube” to get a head start for the bathroom and/or concessions. “Drift,” a song from Trey’s side project Ghost of the Forest, was a welcomed debut for Phish. The lyrics, touching on escape and love in the face of adversity, felt very much of the moment.
With “Drift,” the lights came up and the band left the stage. I took my seat for the first time since the show began and gathered my thoughts.
I wish I could give you a song-by-song breakdown of the second set. But I cannot. At a certain point, my critical, writer brain turned off. I surrender myself to the promise of “The Second Set.”
I’d been to a lot of shows since I started college. Most shows I spent not thinking about the show itself. I worried about standing in front of people, blocking views. I worried about my outfit, who was there with me. It was rare when I went to a show that I felt, though entertained, a break. I could reach a certain distance when writing, but never at a concert.
I felt that during the second set. I didn’t care about my phone, my outfit, my neighbor, my car, my anything. I bought into the expansion and growth of the musical structures I’d learned from Phish. This music, the music I’d had on low volume while reading Brennan dissents, was now at full volume. Lights accompanied it. It had me.
I was a marionette on a guitar string, moving my hips and bobbing my head and tapping my toes. I realized the distance between the tape and the real sound in person. Even listening back as I write this, I do not think the audio does justice to the in-person experience.
All this to say if I had doubted, I no longer doubted.
And I was in the crowd, not watching it. But was I a part of it? At the time I felt I was there as a dilettante, not as a parishioner. I wasn’t taking of the sacrament, only high off fasting. This didn’t make me feel better or smarter than those around me. Yet I kept on Othering myself in previous drafts of this essay (as Olivia noted in her edits). My critical brain might have been off, but was my critical attitude still on?
With a week’s distance, writing this, I now see why. I had completed my rotation toward the band during that second set. But I was still a rogue Soul Planet. Still too far from the gravitational pull of the other fans facing the band in their shared system. No man should be an Island (Tour). And it was because the kitsch I’d misapplied to Phish, I was still projecting onto its Phans.
The Dead have thrived under contemporary reassessment. But Phish has yet to win in cultural appellate court. With Phish, I worried I’d sink too far into the Serbonian Bog of dirty hippiedom. To step into such sincere muck goes against the literary motto “take care of your shoes.” And I can’t help but think of the not-PC phrase: “don’t go native.” It’s not “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s “love the songs, hate the scene.” Invest too much skin and you’ll get burned, like Hunter S. Thompson for McGovern.
In short, I didn’t want to be a Touchhead (Fluffhead?), and I didn’t want to risk encountering a Touchhead.
And speaking of PC. I can’t help, in the year of our Lord 2019, but think of the socio-political implications of my implicit bias. Next year, most of us will find ourselves under the Big Tent again for an internal cock-fight. That night, my own prejudices kept me from engaging with those that share a love (I daresay love) of the same band. Would I do the same within a party? Within a belief system? Within a family?
I’ve come to see the fault in my initial approach: a performative, long distance runaround around of a niche. In cliché fashion, I’d learned a little something about wrong with myself.
I French exited before the encore. I woke up at 6 am that morning, and I had worked a half-day before hitting the road. And my brain could only stand so much. As I exited the audience chanted for the Blues. They would win their first Stanley Cup in the middle of tomorrow night’s second show. That show may be most remembered out of this St. Louis run.
I left St. Louis the following morning. Leaving the limits of town, I hit rain, as was forecast. Unable to cruise control, I tried to maintain 75 mph. My ears were still ringing from last night. Somewhere outside of St. Louis, a trucker tailgated me and laid into his horn before I could get over. Driving away from the trucker as fast as I could, I thought about making a uey for Tennessee and trying this again.
RECOMMENDED PHISH SHOWS
Dalton Huerkamp is a writer from Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2018 after successfully defending his thesis in creative writing. His work has been published in Scope and Populi Magazine. Dalton is current a rising 2L at the University of Arkansas School of Law.