The Helping, Friendly Phish From Vermont
A brief introduction to the greatest band in the multiverse
Did you know Down the Pipes was a Phish blog when you first clicked on it? Well it is and it was, and it will be, love. For those of you who are new, all weekly posts are published privately to keep the feds out. Just kidding, feds! I know at least two of my readers already have top secret security clearances, so all are welcome.
Like I was saying, how many of you realized when you started reading this blog that the name Down the Pipes was a reference to a Phish song? Show of hands? If you did notice, this post might appear a little simple.
But if you didn’t then congratulations…you’re the target that I shoot for. Most of you weren’t ever supposed to find out, but after the band’s performance at MSG on Earth Day went semi-viral this week, I figured now would be a good time to remind you that this is most definitely still a rock and roll blog, even if you didn’t realize it when you first got here.
But first, a note regarding the claims that the concert was a superspreader event: It was.
Of course it was.
The whole world is a superspreader event right now. I’ve been to a birthday party, an outdoor crypto conference, and a community bake sale, I know people who have picked up COVID at each of these things. I told you about BA.2 a few weeks ago, and well…here it is. The good news from all accounts is that it does seem pretty mild and not the public health disaster it was 2 years ago. Most people I know from the show report a scratchy throat and sleeping for days afterwards, which is pretty standard as far as these kinds of things go anyway. Anyway…
ANYWAYS. “Down the pipes” is a lyric from one of Phish’s more nonsensical-sounding compositional masterpieces, Reba.
Mutter "nature" to the nag
With the lipstick perfume
Reba flush a fleshfarm leftover
Thunder in a circle
Down the pipes
Despite the word soup that may have you going “huh,” if you’ve never listened to or heard of Phish, Reba is about as good a spot to start as anywhere in their nearly 40 year, 300+ song catalog. It gets more sensical (and dare I say, even childish at times), but you’re not here to sing along yet, Jimmy. Here’s a particularly clean sounding version of Reba from Glens Falls in 1994, though heed some pre-emptive words of wisdom if this will be your first swim with the Phish from Vermont:
Clear your mind and listen. Relax. Whatever you’ve heard or assumed about jam bands or Phish, just forget that for a little bit. It’s my favorite band, I generally have good taste, how bad can they be? Try to think of it like a meditation and just listen to the sounds, don’t even worry about the video too much (it drops at one point anyway, resist the temptation to skip ahead to when the video picks back up and just keep listening). Close your eyes if you have to. Let your mind wander if it wants, but don’t stop listening (you’ll probably get bored at points, sit with the boredom and keep listening)!
Give yourself a full 15 minutes, and no talking. This is a long time to do anything uninterrupted these days, come back to it if you don’t have time right now. If you turn off the song because you can’t make sense of the lyrics or you “don’t like this kind of music,” or because you remembered you needed to switch the wash or the phone rings, then you’re missing the point and I can’t help you, just skip this post I guess. For those who do manage to listen for 15 uninterrupted minutes, parts of it will absolutely sound a little uncomfortable and even dissonant, don’t run away because the payoff is worth it. Make it to the very end of the video, you can do it!
Feel the music. Do not resist the urge to stand up and sway, dance, spin, tap your feet, drum on your mug, play air guitar, play real guitar, or whistle along. Probably best to do this alone, in the morning or at night when someone you live with is not likely to burst in and ask why you’re bouncing around the room. If you have good headphones, even better. If all else fails, go for a run. Or a drive (take the highway). The more you feel the music, the more the payoff will hit though.
Ok that’s it, now go ahead and give it a listen, feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. A lot of you know good music, how does this stack up?
I suspect most of you are thinking that it’s not what you expected, but probably also “not for you.” This was my first response to hearing Phish as well. I’m a little bit younger on the spectrum of Phish fans (which is a kind of gentle sloping caste system with “1.0” fans from the 80s/90s sitting at the top and newer, “4.0” fans sunk to the bottom), so by the time I was old enough to discover music that wasn’t on the radio, it was 2004 and the band was breaking up after two decades of near non-stop touring. I didn’t go to my first show until they came back to MSG in 2009.
I did have some early exposure to Phish as a child of the 20th century, with a healthy bedrock of prog rock legends like Yes!, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Traffic, Clapton, and Winwood making up a large percentage of the family CD collection (thank you, mom and dad, for your eccentric tastes). I also recall a summer in elementary or middle school when Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food was my favorite ice cream, and on Napster I downloaded an early Trey Anastasio Band bootleg of “Push on ‘til the Day” but only listened to it on accident if the iPod played on random (I didn’t think it was for me, either).
If you’re one of the Seaford people who reads this, your first exposure was maybe the patch on our middle school art teacher’s bag. I tried to meet up with him at Nassau Coliseum a few years ago, I believe he’s seen 100+ shows. This past weekend—on earth day no less—I went to my 50th.
The question that always comes after I say that is “How is it possible to see any band that many times?”
Well I could send you song after song, video after video, and link after link, but the truth is that you really can’t “get” Phish unless and until you go to a live show.
And going to a live show can be a little daunting, especially if you’ve heard any kind of rumors like “it’s a different set of songs every night” or “you need to get fucked up to enjoy that kind of music,” or “they play two full 90 minute sets,” or “the drummer wears a mumu and plays the vacuum with his mouth” (true, not true, often true, always sometimes true). The image of large, smelly dreadlocked white boys scarfing down hallucinogens and huffing nitrous balloons on the sidewalk is certainly a stereotype for a reason, and reason enough for most passersby to declare that Phish is simply a dirty hippy band that is also “not for you” (as Variety recently learned, we call those unkempt monsters of humanity “wooks,” short for “Wookies,” and they make up a relatively small percentage of the total crowd. They’re mostly harmless, if not stinky).
These are all reasonable barriers to entry, and in some ways the fanbase consciously puts some of those barriers there on purpose. I’ll get to that more in a moment.
Most of the audience though is much more boring than you’d expect. Lots and lots of dads; 30 to 50-something men with receding hairlines, pullovers from LL Bean, a refined palate for craft beers, too many keys, a monthly MetroNorth pass, and a faded Ween tee from the 90’s. There are women too, but so relatively few that there’s an Instagram account dedicated to cataloging them (I’ll write a whole other essay on this, it isn’t as macho or gross as you might think). Throw in some college kids and 20-somethings who never fit in at oontz-y EDM nightclubs, a LOT of K-12 teachers, and a surprising number of high profile writers, directors, actors, musicians, journalists, politicians, and business executives hiding in the VIP suites (a scene, let me tell you).
But everyone, almost without exception, is a good, thoughtful person. The people I’ve met at or through Phish are some of the most kind, creative, supportive people I’ve ever come across. I know couples who have met through Phish, I’ve heard of children who have been born and named after Phish, and I know mega-businesses that have spun out of the Phish community (for example, did you know the guys who put on Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and a bunch of other music festivals started out working on Phish shows in the 90’s?). And Phish’s innovative livestream platform is now being used by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Metallica.
It’s easy for someone phanatical like me to start going down the pipes about how the band uses a secret language to communicate with the fans or how there’s a deep mythology around a place called Gamehendge or how you should “never miss a Sunday show”…it’s usually at this point that Phish starts sounding less like a band and more like a weird sonic cult that, again, is probably “not for you.”
To my earlier point, that’s partially by design…how do you create an inclusive community but keep the knuckleheads who could ruin it out? It’s been a question for as long as we’ve had forums, communities, and tribes, and Phish answers that question with unending complexity and nonsense, enmeshed in such a way that mimics the serendipity of life. As above, so below…in every meaningless song about comets or worms or light or meatsticks or love or loss or actual nothingness, there’s a universe of meaning for each listener to decode and make sense of for themselves. Like life…it’s either “a series of random things happen and then you die” or you find meaning in something greater: Your faith, your family, your work, your art, your experience.
Your will, whatever.
Phish too, like the toroid, ever expanding universe we live in, hides its magic in plain sight. A song played to pump up the Super Bowl, a string of jibberish at the end of a news broadcast, a red donut that says you’re in the right place. The very title of this here blog you’re looking at. All these bits of nonsense swimming in and out of your day; if someone doesn’t first point them out to you, you’d never even know to look up.
This approach doesn’t always work. The kind of “we welcome everyone…if you know someone” attitude is what turned me off to Burning Man after 3 years in the desert (don’t misread, I love my burner family too, but unlimited tech money and the men who wield it can do downright reptilian things to anti-capitalist experiments in community building). There’s a neat parallel here to Musk buying Twitter of course, I’ll refrain from going down that tube this week, but let’s keep that idea on ice.
Unlike a ticket stub for Burning Man, the Phish scene is infinitely easier to split open. For one thing: Phish tours, a lot. They often play large arenas and outdoor amphitheaters, meaning you should never have to pay more than $75-100 to get into a show (don’t go on StubHub, the Phish community has built an entire platform to circumvent the ticketing fees on Ticketmaster and Stubhub).
Another thing that makes it easy? Taking someone to their first Phish show is FUN, and most of us who go a bunch enjoy seeing your face when this happens with the lights for the first time (the lighting guy in that video is Chris Kuroda, Phish’s lighting guy since 1.0 and 5th member of the band…Ariana and Bieber use him now too). If you have a friend, co-worker, or family member who sometimes spends their New Year’s Eve at MSG, ask them to take you to an upcoming show. They’ll likely be thrilled you asked (unless it’s like, your boss and they secretly go with all their college buddies…don’t ask them).
Now here’s my standing offer if you don’t happen to know someone like that. There’s only a few hundred of you on this list, and a bunch of you have already seen Phish before (likely because you took me, or I took you at some point, or maybe you got there totally independently and you had no idea I was a fan either…that’s a thing that happens EVERYWHERE. I met a flight attendant once who saw my donut shirt and gave me a free drink).
But if you’re on this list that means I either know you, knew you, or know someone that you know who brought you here. My maxim has always been “good people know good people;” that makes all of you reading this good people in my helping friendly book.
So! If you like what you’ve heard, made it this far, and were always waiting for someone to give you an easy on-ramp to a good time, tasty tunes, and maybe some nonsense that resonates even to an avowed agnostic absurdist like me, consider this a standing invitation to boogie on.
Pick any show, I’ll pay for your ticket if you don’t like it. New friends, old friends, people I barely know and people I don’t know yet. Come on down, the water is warm and the time is later than you think.
And as always, whatever you do, take care of your shoes. Until next week!
Oh sorry, one last thing if you’re still reading. I would never hear the end of it if I didn’t acknowledge that this is all MKatz’s fault for taking me to Phish’s first show back at the Garden in 2009, she receives 100% credit/blame for introducing me to these scoundrels and the associated cast of characters in this particular cube. Thank you MK, I’ll never forget the look on your face when I told you The Lizards was “my song.”
Or was it Awesome?
Let’s plan on a phish primer poolside in a few weeks. You bring the playlist. We’ll connect the rock speakers. Perhaps some phish fans (phans) will wander over.