Reflections From A Lifelong Phish Fan Who Can’t Quit The Band No Matter How Hard They Try
I don’t remember the first time I heard Pearl Jam. Nor do I remember the first time I heard Bob Marley or The Beatles. Led Zeppelin, The Roots, and The Police all belong on that same list.
They all have something else in common too: they are all bands and musicians I have listened to for over twenty years and will probably listen to for at least another twenty years.
It’s the music I will bring along with me for my entire life. Yet I couldn’t tell you when our time together actually began—certainly not with any traces of specificity. The closest I could get would be “Eh, sometime in high school.”
But Phish, though, Phish is different, because with Phish—unlike with those other bands—I can tell you when my relationship began (albeit with as much certainty as a man with a memory that is definitely getting worse by the day can muster).
I can give you a time, a place, and even the song whereas I can’t give you the same for any of the other bands I’ve listened to for as long of a time.
Yet while the length of my Phish fandom is comparable to that of those other bands, there is another thing that separates Phish from them: I just can’t quit no matter how hard I try (and I have tried).
For the past decade or so, I’ve tried a handful of times to move on from Phish, and each time I’ve tried, I think I’ve been successful. I think l have finally put the band behind me and moved on. But then, without fail, they eventually come creeping back in my life with the subtle sounds of a noodle-shredding ninja.
The bottom line is simple: I. Just. Can’t. Quit. Phish.
Why is this, though? I have kicked other bands to the curb. Back in the day, I routinely found ways to get rid of four or five CDs from a musical group only to replace them with another’s discography, one that also might get flipped at some point.
I went through a huge Barenaked Ladies phase in high school but was able to bail on that with relative ease. Now the only time I think about them is in the context of questioning ill-advised past decisions.
I have routinely proven throughout my life that I am fully capable of moving on from bands. Yet for some reason, I can’t move on from Phish.
I also can’t move on from this hard truth I’m now faced with and I’ve reached the point where I’m both resigned to this boomerang effect and wondering why I can’t do to Phish what I did to Barenaked Ladies, Incubus, and The Doors (among others).
I think it’s best if we start from the beginning.
Once Upon A Time…In A Maine Walmart
It was the summer of 1995. I was at a local Walmart with my parents. If I wasn’t living the dream, I was oh so damn close.
While my parents shopped, I kicked around the music section. Back then, Walmart had a few new albums on display and those albums were hooked up to headphones, allowing you to listen to portions of them. For a teenager looking to kill time while their parents were shopping, it was fantastic.
During this specific trip, one of the albums being showcased was A Live One. I was aware of Phish but had yet to actually listen to them. I was too busy sifting through the various grunge bands that were washing up on our shores in the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s sudden popularity to give anything else very much thought.
But sometimes the moment presents itself perfectly, which is what happened at that Walmart as I put on the headphones and listened to the album’s first track, “Bouncing Around the Room.”
I wasn’t hooked. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
But I was interested.
The interest continued, and as time went on, the interest gave way to straight-up fandom. Phish became firmly entrenched in my regular rotation, placed in the queue alongside Green Day, Primus, A Tribe Called Quest, Sublime, and 311.
As was my tendency to do back then, I very quickly started accumulating Phish albums by hocking old CDs to buy new ones. Record stores that bought used CDs were an essential tool in my ability to experience new music and for that I will forever be grateful.
Hoist was the easiest to embrace, whereas Junta and Lawn Boy were the hardest. Rift was somewhere in the middle and then Billy Breathes came along and made complete sense.
The band’s second live album, Slip Stitch and Pass, was an instant favorite, and (more importantly) provided me with another glimpse of what the band was like live. Seeing them in person was becoming something that needed to happen if I were to ever truly become a fan of Phish. I understood this very clearly.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to admit all these years later that one time in high school, I was at a friend’s girlfriend’s apartment one night drinking and I stole a tape that had a set from Phish’s first festival, The Clifford Ball, on it.
I’ve never told anyone this before but I feel like enough time has passed that it’s okay to finally cop to this minor act of thievery.
Man, I feel so much better now.
Once Upon A Time…In A Suburb Of Baltimore
I never got to see Phish in high school, but for what it’s worth, I did have a Phish sticker on my car.
Beyond the sticker, I had tickets to one of the Phish festivals in northern Maine that took place in the late ’90s (either The Great Went or Lemonwheel) but I did something dumb in the months leading up to it and was forced by my parents to sell my ticket.
I think it had something to do with having a party at the house when they were out of town but we’re not here to point fingers (although if we are pointing fingers, someone left a beer in the downstairs freezer, which my Dad found. It all went to shit after that. But again, not pointing fingers).
In the fall of 1998, I headed south for college and it was there that I fully embraced Phish and the lifestyle that came with it (cue all the stereotypes.) My friends and I listened to a lot of Phish. Like, so much Phish. If it wasn’t Phish, it was bands like moe. or String Cheese Incident or Strangefolk.
But if we’re being real, it was mostly Phish.
When we returned to school for our sophomore year, my roommate came armed with something like thirty or so bootlegs, the result of a summer spent learning the ins and outs of trading tapes with folks online. This blew my mind. It still does.
We not only listened to Phish; we talked about Phish and devotedly read about the latest Phish news on Andy Gadiel’s Phish Page. We deep-dived into Gamehedge and other mythical aspects of the band and its history. We listened to “Cavern” from a 1998 Hampton, Virginia show endlessly.
It started out our days, was the soundtrack to our afternoon and the musical accompaniment to nighttime shenanigans.
Over winter break, we headed down to Florida for Big Cypress, the band’s New Year’s Eve blowout. It was my first Phish show and the whole thing was beautiful madness. The memories are understandably a little unreliable around this time but I feel pretty strongly that it was within a few days or weeks of getting home I was 100% certain that I would listen to Phish for the rest of my life.
They were my Grateful Dead, and while I didn’t know I was looking for a Grateful Dead, I had found one and it felt fantastic.
A few months later, we did a quick little weekend run with the band, hitting up shows in Pennsylvania and Maryland. While I can’t say for sure that my experience at their show at Merriweather had any lasting effects on me, the sight of a young boy telling his dad to “fuck him up” in regards to someone his father was jawing wat stuck with me.
Things had started to get a little weird.
By the time senior year rolled around, I wasn’t listening to Phish as much, let alone really any jam bands. Instead I was listening to Tool and had gotten back into Weezer and Outkast.
At one point while working on a paper in the computer lab, I emailed the entire school asking if anyone had the Nelly CD I could borrow, something that says all you need to know about A) the size of my school B) my abuse of the campus-wide email system and C) the state of my musical tastes.
Perhaps Phish wasn’t going to be my Grateful Dead after all.
For the record, I didn’t think Nelly was going to be either.
Once Upon A Time…In Sunny Portland, Maine
When you graduate college, that first year is a delicate dance between what you’ve left behind and what you have in front of you. You stay in touch with your college friends, but as you enter the workforce, you start to make new friends. If you move back home you can add reconnecting with friends to the mix.
Don’t sleep on the complexities of that first year in the real world, kids. It can be a lot.
For me, I moved back home and started to settle into new routines. Part of that entailed shedding old routines, and in some respects, Phish was part of that. I just didn’t listen to them as much.
I reunited with my favorite band in high school, Rustic Overtones, got really into the Foo Fighters, and fell back in love with Green Day as they barn-stormed the country on the back of American Idiot.
At this point, louder was better, and for the most part, Phish, as well as the other jam bands (with the one exception being Widespread Panic) I had loved so much a few years before just didn’t cut it anymore.
The following summer, my college friends scooped me up on the way north for Phish’s latest festival, It. I was very much out of practice and out of the loop.
Although only a year or so removed from the trenches of jam band warfare, the whole experience now felt foreign to me. I also almost lost a flip flop. For some reason, that has always stuck with me.
And if you’re wondering, yes I slept through the late-night tower jam and did so with zero regrets.
Fast forward a year later and the band had announced that the Coventry festival was going to be the end of the road for them. I am nothing if not a sucker for goodbyes, and thanks to a few connections, I finagled tickets for one of the shows.
It was a night of dueling emotions. In one corner was an even more enhanced feeling of being out of touch and removed. In the other corner was the heavy-handed pull of nostalgia.
Again, I love goodbyes.
That show was the last time I’d see Phish for a while. In the years that followed, they were largely absent from my life. I’d maybe listen to them every once in a while but this was still before streaming services and there was only so much room in the CD book I kept in my car.
A Phish CD rarely made the cut (if at all).
Once Upon A Time…In Good Ol’ Philly
After Maine, I moved to Philadelphia and Phish was largely M.I.A. in my life. Although to be fair, it’s during this time that Phish was broken up or on hiatus. One of the two.
Of course, they weren’t just M.I.A. in my life—they were M.I.A. in everyone’s life. So, in hindsight, Phish fading into the distance made sense. Out of sight, out of mind.
Yet in early 2009, the band announced that they had gotten back together, and that fall, they released a new album, Joy.
It wasn’t much more than a blip on my radar and I only heard it because I went back down to Baltimore for a fantasy football draft with old friends from college, most of whom were still Phish devotees. Joy was the draft’s backing track, and in between trying to figure out which player to take, I made attempts to listen to the new record.
“Ocelot” stood out to me but I wasn’t about to download the album on iTunes.
And that’s about it for this period of my life.
Well, unless you want to talk about The Roots. I was big into The Roots during this time.
In sight, in mind, I guess.
Once Upon a Time…In These Past Few Years
As you get older, nostalgia pulls and tugs at you a little bit harder with each passing year. You’re moving forward in life but your head keeps drifting backward, especially in those pesky quieter moments. The further removed you get from your memories, the rosier they seem.
Get far away from something and it doesn’t take much to convince yourself that, yes, they were the best of times you ever had in your life.
Nostalgia sometimes only needs the gentlest of pushes to take command of your head, though. Something like a band you used to love (but currently don’t listen to as much anymore) celebrating their thirtieth anniversary could very well be one of those soft nudges.
After a handful of Phish-free years, I learned that the band was celebrating thirty years together in 2013. I appreciate a good anniversary as much as the next person and felt compelled to check back in with them.
I consulted with Kenny (who was still on board with the band) and he recommended a show to check out. It was fine. I enjoyed it but did so at arm’s length. The crowd sang along with songs more than I remembered, something Kenny chalked up to the younger fans who had recently latched onto the band.
About a year later, Phish released Fuego, and if I’m going to be honest, I listened to the first single from the album, “Waiting All Night,” roughly ten or twenty times in a row.
It was the first time in I don’t even know how long that a song by Phish made me stop everything I was doing and give it the attention it deserved. It was beautiful and simple and lovely and tranquil.
If anything was going to get me back into Phish, it was that song.
However, I did not get back into Phish.
Fuego came and went and I did add “555” to a few playlists.
However, for the most part, Phish and I had not started texting back and forth on a regular basis again. At best, we had become Facebook friends.
Yet here’s the thing about being Facebook friends with someone: you kind of start to get involved in their lives whether you like it or not.
You get clued into what they’ve been up to and are up to. You know if they’re married and if they have kids or a dog. In some cases, you know what music they are listening to, where they went to dinner last night, and what TV shows they are watching.
Being Facebook friends with someone means you are simultaneously detached and attached to that person, which is how I started to feel about Phish.
Slowly—very slowly—I started listening to Phish again.
In the age of streaming services and the like, it was incredibly easy to act on a random impulse and relieve a memory of a certain show or dive back into an old album.
I made a Phish playlist, sought out live shows to watch on YouTube, and found myself checking in on them more on social media to see what they were getting into these days. Tour dates would be released and I’d take a gander to see if they were coming through my corner of the country, and if they were, would even briefly consider going to check it out.
They released Big Boat in 2016, and to this day, I still haven’t listened to it the whole way through. I just have never really felt compelled too, which I admit is kind of strange.
It’d be so easy to do, but still, no dice. I’ve heard one or two songs when listening to live shows from recent years but I feel perfectly comfortable living my life without having ever listened to that album.
Again, we’re Facebook friends at this point, not real friends. If I’m in town, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to reach out and we can hang out. Occasional texts may be the extent of our relationship going forward. Perhaps we stay in touch through fantasy football or March Madness brackets. We’re still connected but that connection is not nearly as rock-solid as it was.
And that’s fine.
Just because we were close once doesn’t mean we need to be close again. Some things just can’t be replicated. The thing about the good old days is that they’re more than likely best suited to always be referred to in the past tense.
It can get dicey to try and switch it up and talk about those days in the present. The good old days should remain untouched; stored away like the old photo albums that contain pictures of them.
The bottom line is that while I’ll never like Phish as much as I used to, I’ll never be able to fully distance myself from them no matter how hard I may try.
They’re too intertwined in my life, having come along when I was most susceptible to the allure of a band like them and right smack in the middle of my formative years when my pop culture tastes were coming into their own. I have too many memories and milestones connected with the band to ever completely move on from them.
I think that’s why certain bands stick with us for so long. Obviously the music matters, but the personal connections that come with liking a band for so long play a big part.
If I go through the list of bands I’ve liked for more than twenty years, each one comes with an anecdote or memory attached to it that only makes that relationship between the band and myself even stronger. As time goes on, I’ll sometimes choose to listen to a certain band less because I want to hear the songs and more so because I want to set up shop in the nostalgia camp that comes with them.
Phish has become a prime example of this and probably explains why I’ve never given something like Big Boat a spin. I’m not really interested in creating new attachments to Phish because I’m only interested in the ones I’ve already formed. So it should then not be a matter of trying to quit Phish because the truth is that I don’t really want to quit Phish.
In actuality, I just need to redefine my relationship with Phish; to come to terms with the fact that I’ll always listen to them but I won’t necessarily always be a fan.
I don’t need to do something definitive like straight-up quit Phish but instead acknowledge that my long-term relationship with them is just different than the relationship I have with some of the other bands I’ve been involved with for as long as I’ve been involved with Phish.
Some days I will like Phish and some days I won’t.
It’s actually pretty simple.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Nelly.