The Relentless Communicator: Phish Splits The Atom

So, why Phish?

It’s a question we all find ourselves getting asked at one time or another. If we’re not too spun to care, we’ve probably asked ourselves that same question. And why not? I mean here I sit, by all accounts an adult, and I wait patiently for tourdates to be released for a band I’ve seen 76 times. I’m planning the rest of my work-year around making sure I can see them 6 times in a week sometime this summer. That’s not normal, right?

So I thought about it a little. Why do I love Phish so much? Why does it never cease to get boring? Why is this so worth obsessing over?

To get there, I guess you’ve got to start with music.

I love music. About ten years ago, I was assessing my own personal values, as all of us must do as we come of age from adolescence to adulthood. I decided that it was music that I value most. I got to that point by realizing that in this awe-inspiring life we lead, it’s our emotions that separate us from the beasts and the machines. Music and, to some degree, other art are human emotion distilled, which is why I think it’s as precious as life itself. A song can make you laugh, cry or think, and since those are three things at the heart of what makes us human, music is it. Music is the best because life is the best, and music is the only thing we’ve created as the human race that seems so intrinsically connected to life itself.

While I could just leave it at that–music is the best and Phish is the best music, so Phish is the best–that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

While there might have been a time in my life where the music I listened to was strictly confined to Phish and a small handful of other bands, that’s not the case now. I love all types of music. Moving back to West Virginia from the city at the start of the decade stirred a relationship with bluegrass and Appalachian roots music, which I feel deeply connected to. That said, it’s still not Phish. Same goes for the Bob Dylan and other folk records I was raised on, the indie rock I came to love working in college radio, the hip-hop I listened to when I lived in DC, or the local music that surrounds me in Morgantown. All great, all important, but none of them can touch Phish.

It’s a truth I’d known for awhile, but it wasn’t until this summer, standing knee-deep in a Piper jam with CK5’s lights all emanating out from the stage, that I was able to crystallize my feelings.

Phish is music at an elemental level. It is, in some ways, all music. Which is why, this summer at Merriweather, I suddenly had this feeling that I was staring directly into the heart of an atom.

And why not? If you strip down all the trapping of life on this planet, you end up with carbon. In many ways, to me, if you strip away all the other qualifiers of all other music, you have Phish. Phish needs no qualifiers; Phish is music. They aren’t a jam band, though they jam. They’re not indie rock, though they’re as independent a band as you’ll find. They aren’t folk music, but in a lot of ways their music has spread along the same lines as an oral folk tradition.

While there are limitations due to Phish’s limited instrumentation, it doesn’t matter they can topple whatever barriers that might present. Blazing rock n’ roll? Check. Soulful ballads? Check. Long exciting improvisation? Check. Bluegrass? Check. Funk? Check.

Phish is the band that taught me how to listen to music. Phish taught me that a song isn’t just a song. A song is a conversation between all the instruments. It is both the notes it contains and the notes it doesn’t. A song is more than a melody, it’s a living breathing thing that you can have a lifelong relationship with. Through my life with Phish I’ve heard the same song played angrily and playfully, passionately and sloppily; I’ve heard smooth transitions and sloppy train-wrecks. It’s symbolic of life itself. The songs I visit when I visit Phish have their good days and their bad days, like any of my friends.

When I go see any other band, the experience I have is a shared experience between myself and that band. When I go see Phish, it’s like I’m going to the altar of music itself. I’m able to stare down the rabbit hole and view music on an elemental level. To me, the album cover for Joy sums this up perfectly. If you had an electron microscope that could look at music up close, could get close enough to Phish that you no longer saw the red beard, the ratty dress, the knee-high neon pants or Page’s bald spot, you’d see what’s on the cover of Joy. You’d feel that way too.

That’s the relationship I have with Phish. I could keep prattling on about it, but then I couldn’t tell you the real reason I keep going to shows: I’ve never seen a Forbin’s.