It's a few minutes after 7pm on a breezy Friday evening outside the Gorge Amphitheatre, and I'm standing amid thousands of Phish fans, all eagerly awaiting tonight's show, on the band's first tour since calling it quits in 2004.
Even in the parking lot, the energy is palpable. People yelp with joy as they parade past me on their way toward the entrance. There is so much tie-dye, the word "tie-dye" is not an adequate description. Like categories of pornography, there's tie-dye and then there's subcategories of tie-dye, all based on a variety of factors too numerous to mention here. No one is sober. Most of the drinkers have been going at it since early this morning. On his way to the entrance, I watch a bald man vomit with a degree of expertise that seems almost arrogant—in the midst of conversation, he leans his head over, vomits onto the ground, and then goes back to talking without once breaking stride.
"You can quote me as saying this show is going to be killer," a woman lugging a young child on her shoulder tells me, cheering as I record her words verbatim in my notebook. As I ask the woman where she's from, the kid burps and a little line of vomit falls from between his lips, dripping in a greenish line down his shirt. Rather than being a symbol of infirmity, however, the vomiting has a certain coalescence to it, as if, like a tribal rite of passage, the act of regurgitation has now made the boy officially part of the Phish community. He appears ready for the show.
In September of this year, Phish will release Joy, their 11th studio album and the first new studio recording in five years. According to the The Phish Book—originally published in 1998 and now very much outdated by the slew of encyclopedic companions that have come in its wake—Phish played their first show in Harris-Millis Cafeteria on campus at the University of Vermont in 1983. Billed as "Blackwood Convention," they played only a handful of covers before someone turned the PA music up to drown them out. In the 25 years that followed, Phish—thanks to a near-constant touring schedule, despotic rehearsal practices, and a musical sensibility in tune with the psychoactive effects of most Schedule I narcotics—have since become one of the biggest touring bands in the country, attracting a cult-like following in the process. They've put on seven major festivals (one of which took place in the Florida Everglades on the eve of the millennium), released countless live recordings, played with everyone from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen, and in a rare moment of mainstream publicity, were featured on a jaw-droppingly awful Rolling Stone magazine cover dressed as ice-skating birds beneath a headline proclaiming them "America's Greatest Jam Band."
Every article written on Phish devotes a significant amount of ink to the following three points: (a) the amount of fans who descend on the small towns where the band often plays, clogging up local infrastructures and causing much head-scratching among the local residents as they stare dumbfounded at the line of traffic from their front porches; (b) the music, which is always compared to the tripped-out doodling of the Grateful Dead and dismissed by many a Phish-hater just as quickly; and (c) the staggering amount of people arrested for drug possession or sale at each show—a number that normally hovers between 300 and 500, depending on the venue, date, and the mood of local law enforcement.
Serving as a kind of counter to the copious articles on "Phishheads" or "phans" or whatever they're called these days, is the overwhelming amount of fan-produced material, most of it online, revealing a subculture quite at odds with the band they profess to love. The comments left on livephish.com—where people can download soundboard recordings less than five minutes after the band leaves the stage—after a show at the Shoreline Amphitheatre on August 5 ranged from the glowing ("Epic show! Best of the tour!") to the mediocre ("Seen better, Trey wasn't on until that 20-minute version of 'Down with Disease.'") to the downright cruel ("This band hasn't played a decent show since '97. Fuck you Phish.").
Indeed, Phish fans, for all their perceived mellowness, are incredibly, and often impossibly, critical of the band they spend so much time following. Among some of the most ardent followers, there's a sense of almost existential disappointment with the group, as if hopelessly addicted to a band they could never really love. Case in point: Although Phish never plays the same setlist twice, anyone with a passing knowledge of the music will have a statistically remote, yet not completely impossible, chance of calling the opening song of a show. The morning after a four-night run at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, someone using the moniker "Harpua415" complained on livephish.com that they'd successfully called the last four openers, thereby proving the band had grown tired and predictable in this, their official "Reunion Tour." Requisite online sulking occurred.
Phish.net, the most impressive of the thousands of online pages devoted to the band, contains a wealth of information, including an archive of setlists for every show Phish has played, detailed articles on the individual history of each song, arcane lyric meanings, tape trading info, and a FAQ file which—in addition to answering thousands of Phish-related questions—includes a Frequently Unanswered Questions link, for those answers that are either unavailable ("Who lights the onstage candles?"), inappropriate ("Where is this 'rhombus'?") or impossible to verify (the meaning of the song "You Enjoy Myself," for instance).
By far the most migraine-inducing of fan websites, however, is ZZYZX's Phish Stats at ihoz.com/PhishStats.html, a disturbingly comprehensive reference site for those maniacal fans interested in the most esoteric and maddening details of the band's career. When I typed "Portland, OR" into something called "The Pattern Matcher," I learned the total number of times Phish has played in the City of Roses (11), the most common day of the week for a show (Thursday), the total number of songs that have been played within the city's limits (115), the average number of songs per show (21), the average amount of times each song was played (2), and the most-played tune in Portland's history ("Chalk Dust Torture" has been played seven times, or 63 percent of the time, giving it a slight edge over "Cavern," played six times, or 54 percent).
If you've ever wondered what happened to those really smart statistics majors who left school after dropping LSD, look no further.
What makes prolonged exposure to the Phish world feel vaguely hermetic, as if no other type of music exists anywhere in the world, is that, for better or worse, the band's music is completely unaffected by outside trends. Whereas most groups who've achieved similar levels of deistic success have at one time been of the moment—i.e., their music reflected the flow of modern trends and styles to some degree—Phish have never, ever been hip. In the early '90s, when they toured alongside Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, their 20-minute improvisational jams proved painfully out of place among the more radio-friendly groups that followed. Twelve years later, while most of these groups have fallen off the map, Phish gets more popular by the download. Why is this?
According to my friend Dave Lombardi, a longtime fan who went to his first show at the age of 14, the chief reason people travel thousands of miles to watch a three-hour set of Phish music is the overwhelming energy of a live show.
"It's hard to find anywhere else," he said. "One-hundred-thousand people all on the same emotional page—it's a rare musical experience, whether you like them or not."
• • •
Walking through the parking lot at the Gorge, I see Harpua415's online disappointment has not affected attendance. There are vehicles as far as the eye can see, most with out-of-state license plates from as far away as Virginia, and about 20 or so VW buses. The show is sold out.
Those who've arrived by VW bus are quick to relay stories of police harassment. Talking with a group of Californians who've made the trip in an ancient VW bus, I'm told detailed stories of police shakedowns, conspiracies, secret arrests, and seizures, all aimed squarely at the Phish community. A dreadlocked man with a beard so long the tip has begun to connect with the storm of chest hair in the V of his shirt tells me, without a hint of irony, that he believes the government is more concerned with arresting Phish fans than they are with finding Osama bin Laden.
"Just think about it," he says, raising an eyebrow.
The really paranoid among the group refuse to even leave the confines of the bus. Periodically the curtain in the van's rear window will pull back, and two bloodshot eyes will make contact with me before they drop back into hiding. One of these VW bus passengers—a shirtless Canadian man with a thick bandage on his elbow that he refuses to explain—wrings his hands nervously as he tells me how he got here today:
"See, I originally came from Saskatchewan," he says. "I went south over to Colorado to meet this kid who was supposed to hook me up with a ride to the Red Rocks show but that got fucked up because his girlfriend went to jail and he wasn't even like answering his cell phone so I had to hitchhike over to Portland to meet up with my buddy, Nosh, but that didn't work out either. I spent, like, my last 90 dollars taking a Greyhound up to Yakima and from Yakima I hitched a ride with these kids in the bus. Now here I am."
When I ask how he plans to get back to Saskatchewan, he looks down at the ground rather sheepishly. I realize then, with a bit of embarrassment, there is no plan to get back to Saskatchewan.
Drugs are everywhere. Some of the dealers here are so good I can't help but feel sorry for them (imagine if the one thing in the world you were really, really good at carried a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years). Once I convince people I'm no undercover cop (I'm told my notebook has everyone bugged out), the wounded Canadian's colleague—a thin guy in a backward hat and sunglasses that make him look like an insect—offers me a choice of three different bags of psychedelic mushrooms, dropping each onto the grass as if he were a jeweler setting rings on the counter for my consideration. A few cars down, in an impressive feat of multitasking, a bearded guy is selling sugar cubes laced with hits of LSD while simultaneously cooking sausage on a tiny Coleman grill and lecturing a tattooed girl about the best way to "catch on" an open boxcar.
"If you can't keep pace with the train when running with your own two feet," he says, while nonchalantly passing two cubes into her palm, "then the train's moving too fast for you to get on safely."
Farther up the lot, on a 500-yard stretch of grass known as "Shakedown Street," I walk among groups of picaresque fans all shuffling past a dozen or so vendors selling every matter of illicit chemical, sort of like a farmers market, just without cash registers. Most of the people who hang out here don't have tickets but they've come anyway—feral-looking adolescents, middle-aged guys in designer jeans peddling bunk acid, rainbow children, stoned undergrads, glass dealers, vegan burrito sellers, hula-hoop twirlers covered in glitter, stray dogs, and some with no discernible purpose at all.
It is now almost 10 after 8 pm. The late afternoon sky is a reddish-orange color like the inside of a very ripe peach. With most ticketholders inside, there's desperation among the flock. A pair of boys no older than 15 asks if I have an extra ticket. When I tell them I don't, they shout the word "fuck" in unison and march in the other direction. Meanwhile, a guy in a wizard outfit who earlier I saw selling tie-dye handkerchiefs with childlike glee and merriment, is in a panic, yelling at some woman seated in the front seat of his Hyundai, presumably his wife.
"Hurry up and grab your shit!" he screams monstrously. "They're going to be onstage any minute! Don't say nothing—just grab your shit!"
Inside the amphitheater, a breeze comes off the Gorge, carrying with it a scent of body odor the strength and complexity of which defies written description.
By the time the band takes the stage, the lawn is nearly full. In these moments before the first note is played, there is a sense of almost religious communion in the minds of the faithful. Thousands of individuals, each with their own Byzantine stories of escape and adventure, of vehicles barely making the parking lot, of drugs consumed and liquor regurgitated, of lost friends magically reconnecting—all is swept into one cohesive gaze aimed squarely at the four guys onstage. Neurologically, 60,000 brains are essentially doing the same thing right now. The air is rife with anticipation.
Although tonight's show is the first of two nights at the Gorge, and there are still six shows in the summer tour remaining, including a recently announced three-night Halloween festival in southern California, the crowd cheers as if the band were just hours away from extinction. Listening to the roar of voices and watching the multitudes still streaming into the amphitheater behind me, you would think these people will never get another opportunity to see Phish again.
Perhaps that's true. But probably not.