Phish Phans and Deadheads Prove That Not All Hippies Are Interchangeable Day-Glo Widgets
by Lee Abraham
Very few kids enjoy being compared to a big brother or sister going through school. The topic gets old quick. Like it or not, Phish has always been, and will forever be, entwined with the Grateful Dead. Even before Jerry Garcia's death in '95, the quirky quartet from Burlington, Vermont, were tagged as the heir apparent to the Dead. It's a label Phish and their legions of "phans" never asked for, and would just as soon do without.
In their very early years, Phish played a few Dead songs, the most notable being "Eyes of the World" and "Scarlet Begonias," two of the Dead's masterpiece compositions. At that time, Phish was a young band with limited original material. Like most new bands, they covered songs from alot of different groups, including the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic to name a few. The point is that Phish was -never- a Dead cover band. In truth, they don't even -sound- like the Dead.
Musically, both bands share an adventurous approach to the art of -making- music. Extended improvisational jams and fluid song structures make each show a -carpe diem- experience. Unique renditions of songs, rather than an arranged -performance- of the material gives each show the special energy of a never-to-be-repeated event. For Phish phans and Deadhead's alike, the relationship between the bands and their followers has a deep sense of community that is goes well beyond "liking" a band and its music. Both groups have helped define the "jam band" genre, with the Dead as the "first generation," and Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic as the second generation, some 15 years later.
Ardent followers of all these bands often take notes on each concert's set list, keeping track of the action much like a baseball fan keeping score. Both Phish and the Dead garner limited radio play and record sales, yet thrive on huge concert attendance revenue. Both bands also encourage the taping of their live shows and active tape trading communities continue to grow for both bands. Perhaps for more than any other reason, Phish has been painted onto the Dead's landscape because both band's attract eye-popping numbers of tie-dyed faithful that travel with the bands from town to town. All that color and music moving together makes the same impression on the casual observer, regardless of which band is at the head of the trail.
Although Phish phans and Deadheads may appear to be interchangeable day-glow widgets, the communities, like the bands and their music, are far from clones. "The Dead were more ballad oriented and graceful like a fine wine, where Phish can be spastic and more like a jolt cola," says Gary Backstrom of Jiggle the Handle, a top "3rd generation" jamband from Boston. "Musically, it's a different experience," agrees Dana Monteith of the Ominous Seapods, jamband supreme from upstate New York. "The Dead took a more laid-back approach, a certain West Coast attitude. And Phish represents a very East Coast attitude toward the music, which is more in-your-face. The similarity between the two is that they attempt to take you on a journey, take you out of your normal life experiences to a different place."
Stylistically, both Phish and the Dead incorporate a wide array of musical influences into their songs. Elements of bluegrass, jazz and free-form space are common to both. Phish is far funkier than the Dead ever were. Their overall pace is more frenetic and onstage their attack is relentless. In concert, the Dead had broader dynamics, with a greater ebb and flow covering a wider range of musical emotions and energy levels. Through Garcia's uniquely phrased stylings, Deadheads celebrated melodies that the human voice could only dream of, in the process transcending the typical boundaries between music and listener. Dancing to Garcia's lengthy guitar solos has been described by many Deadheads as something akin to "praying without words."
Lyrically, both bands use wordsmiths that aren't actual members of the band. Garcia's songs featured the words of Robert Hunter, while John Barlow penned the lyrics for Bob Weir. Most of Phish's lyrics have been written by Tom Marshall. "Phish lyrics have evolved as Tom Marshall and the band has matured," says Dean Budnick, author of "The Phishing Manual" and "Jam Bands" (see related article). "Robert Hunter always seemed to try to tap into sort of timeless truth and he told epic stories. He was much more into songs with a lesson, most of Tom Marshall's stuff is goofier with more humor."
"Phish has more straight-up fantasy lyrics," offers Monteith. "They don't necessarily contain that same element of history as the Dead. But, like the Dead, they take you away on a certain surrealistic journey." In concert, both bands perform two extended sets with song lists that change every night.
Another similarity is that both bands continued to play covers of songs from other groups, even after compiling album after album of original material. On tour, both bands frequently play multiple day runs without repeating a song and both experiences have the feel of a travelling psychedelic circus. With the Dead, the buzz had more of a mystical quality, whereas with Phish the vibe is more of a wink than a prayer.
"Phish has always been a silly band," says Marcie Vogal, a longtime Phish phan and Deadhead who currently works with the Home Grown Music Network. "They get on trampolines and bounce around, you'd never see Jerry doing something like that!" Another thing you'd never see Garcia do, or any of the Dead for that matter, is wear a dress and play a vacuum cleaner hose onstage like an industrial age dijiridoo. For Jon Fishman, Phish's wildman drummer, antics of that sort are standard fare.
While neither band has a great singer, Phish is much more adventurous with their vocals. At times the members of Phish will step away from their instruments to perform an unamplified accapella barbershop quartet medley, forcing the crowd into silence. Occasionally, they'll engage in really weird, odd-sounding vocal improvisational jams that tap into a very trippy, sort of tribal, pre-human-speech stream of consciousness. If Phish were trying to run a religion, this stuff might be known as "speaking in tongues."
At various points in time, Phish has used a "secret language" between themselves and the most devoted phans. Depending on which of several musical signals the band give, those "in the know" might respond with a sudden fit of loud laughter, by turning abruptly as a group to face the rear of the auditorium, or by falling to the floor at the same time. After just one dose of the secret language, everybody knows who's on the "inside," and who's not. "Phish is one of the few bands in the history of American music with so many supporters obsessed with limiting the size of the group's audience," says Budnick in -The Phishing Manual-.
While most Deadheads that have seen Phish in concert feel a kindred vibe in the Phish community, almost without exception, they sense a definite difference as well. Most of the time it's due to age group differences. While the Deadheads span three generations, the Phish phans are just starting to see the emergence of their 2nd generation, the young kids that never had a chance to cross paths with the Dead. "I feel that the Phish scene is more aggressive and the main difference is that with the Dead I always felt like there would be somebody watching out for me, and with Phish you're more on your own" says Vogel. "There's alot of kids out there that really dig the music, but they didn't get the opportunity to experience the feeling of community that the Grateful Dead was built on. It was a very special thing, and there's all these kids who missed out on that stuff."
For those Phish phans that -are- old enough to have experienced the Dead first hand, not all the memories are pleasant. Although the Dead had an occasional run-in with various towns and venues throughout their three decade run, an ugly trend of being banned from some of their favorite venues became increasingly problematic in the late '80's and early 90's. "The biggest problem in both communities in general is people coming to shows without tickets, just thinking they're going to have a good time and not be respectful to the communities they happen to be traveling through," explains Budnick.
Even before the Dead's tour scene got hairy, some Phish phans that have been around since the beginning feel resentment toward the Deadheads that have come on board over the years, increasing the popularity of Phish, and in effect closing the door on the era of intimate venues. "Traditionally Deadheads were also very dismissive of Phish phans on a number of levels," explains Budnick. "First of the band itself from a musical standpoint, but also sort of making fun of the whole Phish thing, even way they pronounced it, 'ffffff-ish. The fact that Phish were always big on the internet, which was nowhere near as common then as it is today, also made Deadheads leery of Phish. Plus alot of the younger people into Phish don't feel like they fit into the stereotype of a grunged out hippie from the sixties, which is part of the Deadhead baggage."
In spite of the differences between Phish phans and Deadheads, the similarities and ties between the two communities are very strong. As for the members of Phish, the Dead's influence has never been a question. Mike Gordon (Phish's bass player) has often displayed a photograph of Phil Lesh (the Dead's bass player) on his amp. Upon returning to the West Coast for the first time after Garcia's death in '95, Trey Anastasia (Phish's guitarist) dedicated a song to Jerry at the Shoreline Amphitheater, the last place all of the members of Phish went to a Dead show -as a band-.
Most recently, Phish played played "Terrapin Station," a Dead masterpiece at an 8/9/98 show to commemorate the 3rd anniversary of Garcia's passing. It was the first time Phish had played a Dead song in a long, long time, and in many ways it brought Phish's legacy with the Grateful Dead full circle, in the process, putting it into a non-threatening perspective.
"I think they knew they were making a big statement when they did that," says Budnick. "I think they knew that they would make a lot of people happy by finally sort of acknowledging, coming out of the closet if you will. I think it's finally gotten to the point where people understand that -ultimately- both Phish and the Dead are about the music."