A Guide To the Whole Grateful Dead/Phish Thing — Notes From an Obsessivep

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It was 2009 and Kit was scheduled to give a keynote at Cornell on “The New American Consumer” as part of a large conference on economic disruption. I tagged along to see upstate New York, where she spent the first 8 or so years of her life, and to meet some of her extended family. It was a splendid trip. Ithaca is indeed “gorges” and it was fun to meet the family at Brooks Barbecue for a big mid-afternoon lunch. It was also the site of an epiphany that would reshape my musical cosmos in a deep way.

While Kit was working, I snuck away to walk around downtown Ithaca, ending up, not surprisingly, at a big bookstore. Downstairs, they had a used record section. I’d started playing vinyl again in the early 2000s and was always on the prowl for new stuff. This little shop actually had a couple of turntables set up with head phones, so customers could sample the wares (how civilized!). Thumbing through the stacks I came across a copy of “Live Dead,” the Grateful Dead’s first live album from 1969 and a touchstone of their catalog. I put it on for a spin and the opening notes of “Dark Star” split open my head like a thunderclap. I’d been a big fan of the Dead from 1968 to 1974.[1]After I got out of school, my interest in the band dropped like the petals from a spent tulip; I focused on starting a career, then the shift in musical tastes from the hippie school to the punk school kicked in, then marriage and a kid, and frankly I didn’t give the Dead another thought until that day in Ithaca. After that, I had all the time in the world for them.

Recovering the Dead was a journey that would go on for years, and in fact is still going on today. I began playing the little Dead I had left on vinyl and then got serious. My collection now includes every commercial release they’ve made in CD and vinyl, more than 400 soundboard-quality shows downloaded from archive.org, most of the Dead-related books that have been published, and a small but interesting collection of paraphernalia. For a period of 6 years, I probably logged about 15 hours of listening time per week exclusively on the Dead. I remembered the story about Duane Allman developing his playing style by listening to nothing but “Kind of Blue” for two years. There was probably at least a 6-month block in there where I was all Dead, all the time.

Eventually I did surface and started listening to other stuff. Despite the deep Dead dive, I have always been, and remain, very eclectic in my musical tastes. I adhere to Duke Ellington’s “good/bad” approach to favorite musical genres. My tastes span the Moody Blues, Capt. Beefheart, the Eagles, Kendrick Lamar, Niki Minaj, Bach, Beck, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Cecilia Bartoli, Monk, Trane, etc. But by picking up the Dead again, I had become, I realized, a fan of the “jam band” genre, an ungainly, ill-defined category that generates all kinds of stereotypes. And in that space, Phish looms large. So, I listened. Out of curiosity at first, then out of obligation (“a lot of people like these guys, I should too, keep listening . . . “). But I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t get them. They sounded too prickly, silly, exhibitionist and loud – nothing really appealed to me. Finally, I gave up on them.

We saw Trey at the Dead’s farewell show at Soldier Field in 2015 and he was spectacular. But I viewed him as a bolt-on to the Dead, like Bruce Hornsby, more than I did as an artist in his own right.

In early 2018, we were in Charleston and having a wonderful meal downtown. Somehow the young waiter and I got into a discussion about music, which led to him bringing up Phish.[2]I said I’d tried, but they didn’t work for me. With the patience of an experienced evangelist, he said, wait a minute, here’s why they’re so great, and here’s 5 shows you should listen to, one of which was “A Live One.” And when I did finally play “Bouncing Around the Room” and “Stash” and “YEM” and all the other brilliant, bubbly, beautiful songs on that record, I was all in. Just like that. I guess I needed the right portal into Phish world and that young man (whose business card I still have), provided it to me. For that I am ever grateful.

Phish’s ecosystem is complex! It took many months for me to get a sense of their catalog, their evolution, their approach, the tone and tenor of their phanatical phan base, the inside jokes (hey, Bob Weaver!) and the meaning of Gamehendge. But I persevered, using a lot of patience and the right resources. Soon, I turned the corner and went from listener to evangelist. Inevitably, when I told someone I was now a fan of the band, they would respond with, “Oh, they’re like the Dead, right?”

My first response was no, they’re nothing like the Dead, except perhaps their proclivity toward long improvisational pieces. But because that judgment never felt right, I started thinking about it. Were they like each other? The more I thought about the idea, the more interesting it became. In fact, they are alike in several fundamental ways and in many marginal areas as well. I came to think of them not as two separate worlds, but as a Venn diagram with a very large overlap, maybe up to 80 percent.

(Here is where the reader is given the opportunity to bail out and not continue this journey into the arcania of my particular obsession; there will be scattered thoughts, questionable imagery, and several opinions that may not be fully supported by a close reading of the text. Be forewarned!)[3]

So, since I’ve invested some time looking into this topic, and I because think these are two of the most compelling, important and vital bands of the late 20thcentury (and early 21stin Phish’s case), I’ll share a quick review with y’all (as I’m starting to say more after 3 years in the Carolinas) on the commonalities of the Dead and Phish.

They both have enigmatic names. Phish’s was a play on the name of their drummer, John Fishman, and because Trey said if there’s anybody in the band he would want to watch, it’s the drummer. The Dead, of course, famously saw the phrase “Grateful Dead” pop out of Britannica World Language Dictionary. Both names are memorable, unique, and, like the bands, sui generis.

They both share the same strategic ethos, summed up roughly here on the back of a napkin:

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Both bands were actively engaged– with each other, the audience, the culture, their evolution, and the vibrations of the space-time continuum.[4]They both employed a tremendous shared imagination that enabled sustained, improvisational creativity. And both of these characteristics were employed with great intention; the approach of both bands may have been spontaneous, but it was never random. They were intensely focused on what they wanted to achieve and how they would go about achieving it. As Phish would say, “Our intent is all for your delight.” All of this – engagement, imagination and intention – would ultimately serve as a portal to sacred space for the bands and audience alike. Both bands were intent on lifting their audiences to states of joy and ecstasy, from the Greek, ekstasis, or “standing outside oneself.” Or, as Mickey Hart would say, “We’re not in the music business, we’re in the transportation business.”

Both played legendary, epic events during their career: The Dead had the Acid Tests, Fillmore 69, Europe 72, Egypt, Veneta, etc. Phish had The Clifford Ball, Big Cypress, the Great Went, the Bakers Dozen and more. These all became centers of great energy and gravity in the mythologies of both bands. Both bands were big-picture thinkers. The Dead had the audacity to carry a couple tons of equipment over to Egypt in the late 70s to play in front of the Pyramids. Phish had the audacity to play 13 nights at Madison Square Garden without repeating a song.[5]

Neither band took itself too seriously. I mean, just look at Fishman! Or give a listen to Bob Weir’s on-stage banter, especially the “Yellow Dog” story. While both bands had a collective IQ that was far above the norm, they never lorded it over their audience – they shared it. The Dead even went so far as to articulate a pact never to take advantage of their “otherness” from the audience to proselytize or bloviate or otherwise take a superior position.

They both turned New Year’s Eves into epic parties.

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They both reached performance peaks roughly 12 years into their careers: the Dead in 1977 and Phish in 1997. Both bands, of course, had many peaks stylistically, but the 77-97 peaks were alike in that they showcased the far-reaching, breathtaking power of each band, in all its protean glory. Both peaks also pointed at a long runway for each band; they played like they would be around for the next 100 years.

Both had a hard-core work work ethic.  Counter to the stereotype of a bunch of pot-addled, lazy hippies who would noodle away the evening in front of an equally pot-addled, lazy audience, both Phish and the Dead were consummate musical students and disciplinarians, far exceeding Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. Jerry rarely had a guitar out of his hand and Trey famously said that his favorite place in the world is the practice room. The woodshedding showed through their command of the idiom, their fluency, and their ability to think on their feet. The audience for both bands shared this level of intellectual curiosity, cultivating an understanding of each band’s musical styles and evolution so that each performance could be put within a rich context of history and improvisation.

They’re both great cover artists. Each band, of course, has a robust and deep catalog of original songs which are at the core of their oeuvre. But when they chose cover songs, they made them their own, for example, “Dancing in the Streets” or “Bobby McGee” by the Dead, or “Jesus Just Left Chicago” or “Cities” by Phish. Of course, Phish took covers to a conceptual extreme (or high point) by covering entire albums (the “White Album” or “Dark Side of the Moon”) at several of their Halloween gigs. The way they synchronized cover songs with the theme of each night during the Bakers Dozen run was brilliant. Phish covering the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” on Strawberry night? Are you kidding me?

All of the foregoing are examples of the 80 percent of the Venn diagram that the bands share. The 20 percent is significant too. The Dead, for instance, were obsessed with their equipment, almost to the point of self-destruction (the Wall of Sound was a big reason for taking the hiatus in 1975[6]); Phish obviously invested in great gear, but not to the point of obsession. Both bands came from distinctly different milieu: the Dead grew out of the petri dish of Beatnik bohemia on the West Coast, helping to build a sonic and cultural bridge between the Beats and the Hippies. Phish, on the other hand, came out of suburban mall-rat culture. The Dead had an array of cast members throughout their 30-year history; the Phish lineup has remained rock-steady. And no one in the Dead ever performed in a dress.

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These differences seem marginal, though. The cores of both bands resonate at nearly the same frequency, always reaching for heaven (ekstasis) and often getting there. Somewhere, very faintly, I can hear the strains of “Transitive Nightfall of Lawn Boy.”

[1]My first Dead show was April 1970 at Fillmore West, where they opened for Miles Davis. I saw them maybe 15 times after that, all on the West Coast, including every NYE show, as well as the 1974 Winterland show that was the basis of “The Grateful Dead Movie.” I’m pretty sure I remember being in the bar while those two dudes were being filmed having a spirited discussion about whether it was appropriate for so many cameras to be disrupting the show.

[2]Actually, the conversation began like this: I asked him for a wine suggestion with dinner and he poured a glass of a white blend called Abraxas from Robert Sinskey. I wondered out loud if the name had anything to do with the Santana album and he replied that he was familiar with, and fond of, all that old 60s and 70s music from his parents. I asked him what he listened to now, which led to the Phish discussion. Serendipity. The wine, by the way, was delicious. We still buy it every chance we get.

[3]Also, a compositional note: I will sometimes refer to the characteristics of the bands in the past tense. Phish, obviously, is still a very robust working concern; the Grateful Dead not so much. For the sake of convenience, the past tense will be occasionally employed but is not intended in any way to ignore the ongoing, and quite intense, creative evolution of Phish.

[4]Examples of engagement are numerous since each band treated the relationship with their audience with near-religious reverence. But, for instance, the Dead had the Acid Tests (where the wall between performer and audience was a joke) and the ESP experiments; Phish has the audience chess game, the “cheesecake” joke during the Big Cypress broadcast on ABC and, of course, any rendition of “Wilson.”

[5]That event created what I call the Bakers Dozen Paradox: We are stunned by the sheer ability to play 13 nights at MSG without repeating a song! But then that takes a lot of songs (237!) and not every one can be great, or even very good. Yes, there are some clunkers. And yet, the overall effect is sublime, almost Wagnerian. It’s a commitment to an idea or a promise. It creates a multidimensional relationship with the audience.

[6]Ironically, as we’re describing a point of difference, we come across another commonality: each band took intentional hiatuses during their long careers and came back stronger because of them.

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